Billy Idol has become rock royalty. His very presence evokes a reaction and because of that we have seen Billy in movies and featured on VH Classic. His trademark sneer and shadow boxing punch have become part of rock �n roll's colorful folklore. But Billy didn�t do it alone. Next to Billy on all the songs that matter is his faithful guitar player Steve Stevens. In fact, Stevens has as much to do with the classic sound and image of Billy Idol as the singer�s upper lip. Unlike Idol, however, Stevens chooses to lay back and let the music do the talking. Instead of fighting the vocalist for the spotlight, Stevens simply plugs in and rocks out. He is quietly responsible for creating some of the most recognizable and loved songs of the 1980�s including �Rebel Yell,� �White Wedding� and �Flesh for Fantasy.�
Steve hung on as Billy�s version of Keith Richards until 1989. Drugs and booze eventually tore at the very fibers of the duos success. In this interview, Steven�s recounts how he used chemicals to soften the demands of the road and how they eventually led to his demise. He left the spotlight and developed his skills for one of his first loves � flamenco music. Along the way, he joined a band called BLS (Bozzio, Levin, Stevens) and released two highly progressive and improvisational albums. With a clear head and improved musical vision, his path eventually led back to Billy Idol.
Fast forward to 2005 and Billy Idol has released a new album on Sanctuary Records titled Devil�s Playground that fuses their classic rebel rock sound with new layers of musicality. Songs like �Rat Race� and �Scream� show that Stevens and Idol still make an incredible team. The album is one of Idol�s best and while they struggle to move units, the band is reaching out to new audiences hoping to bring the album to its deserved level of Gold and Platinum. In the meantime, they will stay on the road and slog it out just like they did in the old days.
- Jeb Wright, July 2005
photo from Classic Rock
Jeb: My favorite album of the year is Devil�s Playground. It is great to see you back with Billy Idol and rocking hard. Tell me about the new band line up and how it all came about.
Steve: Our drummer, Mark Schulman bailed on us for a Stevie Nicks gig. We had dates planned and we were basically stuck. We went looking for a new drummer and we found Brian Tichy. As luck would have it, that became the beginning of putting this new band together. Brian suggested Derek Sherinian on keyboards. We ended up with this amazing band. John Kolodner actually got a hold us when he moved from Sony to Sanctuary and he said, �Let�s make a record.�
When I moved out to LA to work with Billy, Chrysalis had folded and we ended up moving over to Capital. We did a record with Glen Ballard � Alanis Morissette�s producer. It was like the Starbucks Coffee version of Billy Idol � it was very lightweight. Consequentially, the record ended up not being �the� record.
Jeb: Was it a team writing effort or did one person take the bull by the horns?
Steve: Billy and I had been writing a bunch of stuff but, to be honest, we were pretty burned out. We needed some new ideas, so I put my ego aside. Brian had some pretty good ideas. It ended up being a good thing as it took the heat off of me. Billy played me some of Brian�s ideas and I knew it was good. I said let�s run with this.
Jeb: There is a very classic Billy Idol feel to this record but there is also a very modern energy going on.
Steve: We really wanted to start from ground up so there is not a lot of modern technology or studio wizardry on the album. It is pretty much a guitar/bass/drum Billy Idol record. I think it is a lot closer to a modern version of a Generation X record in some respects.
Jeb: �Scream� should go down as one of the Billy Idol�s best. However, the band does not just do classic sounding songs. For instance, �Plastic Jesus� is not what one would expect out of Billy.
Steve: That is a cover song � it is an old country song. The song is on the soundtrack to the movie Cool Hand Luke. Billy and I were working away and he had these chords. I told him, �That reminds me of an old song called �Plastic Jesus.�� I got on the internet and I downloaded the lyrics. I hummed the melody to Billy and we ended up doing a demo of it. Billy had never heard the song in his life and I really don�t think he has still heard the original to this day.
Jeb: At this stage of your career do you go into the studio thinking, �This one is going to be a hit song.�?
Steve: You do a record and you hope that you have enough material that you can pick and choose what ends up on the record. All the rocket scientists from the record company will tell you what song is going to be a single. I never knew �Eyes Without a Face� was going to be a hit single. I just always write from the heart.
Jeb: How was it working with Kolodner?
Steve: I owe John a lot. He has a history of being able to work with singers and guitar players � he understands the dichotomy and the balance. John makes that work. Financially, John could have retired years ago but he still does it because he loves the music. There is a fair amount of ego because it is John Kolodner but that is not why he does it. I had a blast working with him. There was never any point where we disagreed. A perfect example is the song �Rat Race.� It was almost a ballad to begin with. John wanted to heavy it up a little bit. He could not tell me what chords to play but he would say things like, �You need to put more of that classic Steve Stevens guitar in there.� I was like, �John, what guitar is that? Are we talking about the �Flesh for Fantasy� Steve Stevens guitar or the �Rebel Yell� Steve Stevens guitar?� I kind of understood what he was talking about. He lit a little fire under my ass.
Jeb: Was Devil�s Playground an easy album for you to make?
Steve: It was easy musically and it was easy to record. To be brutally honest, the hardest aspect of making the album for me was putting my ego aside and accepting another songwriter into the fold; it had always been Billy and me. When Brian came in, I had to be honest and look at things from the perspective of what is best for the record. I am really glad I was able to do that because it really worked out well. Billy realized that I was truly a team player.
As a guitar player, I realized that Jeff Beck didn�t write anything on Blow By Blow. Robert Fripp didn�t write �In the Court of the Crimson King� which is his defining song over the course of his 35-year career. In the words of Frank Zappa I just had to, �shut up and play my guitar.� That was not necessarily a bad thing.
Jeb: You were getting burned out with rock music --
Steve: Hence why I did a flamenco guitar record.
Jeb: On the tour, you do a solo piece where you show off your flamenco skills. I don�t mean to be rude with this observation, Steve, but a lot of the of rock fans don�t know how good of a guitar player you are.
Steve: I keep hearing that.
Jeb: In the inner sanctum of the guitar community there is no doubt you are awesome but Billy Idol tends to get the spotlight 99% of the time.
Steve: I have always been alright with that. There is a certain amount of anonymity that I do enjoy.
Jeb: If people want to check out Steve Stevens� chops then they need to get Situation Dangerous from Bozzio, Levin, Stevens. I own both albums you did with that line up but that one opened my eyes.
Steve: The 2nd one is better. I have been making records for 24 years now. I learn from working with people that challenge me musically and that I respect. I have never been afraid to do things like that. Albums like that one are not things that are going to pay the mortgage but they are going to make me a better musician. Hell, when I was a seven year old kid and first picked up the guitar I wasn�t worried about paying my mortgage.
Jeb: How did you get interested in playing the flamenco guitar?
Steve: As I mentioned, I stared playing when I was seven. I started on the acoustic guitar and didn�t get an electric until much later. One year, I went to a guitar camp and one of the teachers was a flamenco player. He had an incredible story about escaping the Nazi�s during second World War � he was a Romanian Gypsy. It really made an impression on me as a kid. Flamenco music is not the type of music that you can sit down and learn from notation. I started listening to guys like Carlos Montoya. Later on, a buddy of mine turned me on to the album by Al DiMeolo and John McLaughlin with Paco De Lucia. Flamenco is the speed metal of the acoustic guitar.
Jeb: Did you play this type of music all along or did you develop this talent in later years?
Steve: I always had a flamenco guitar with me. When I got my first major royalty check from Rebel Yell I went to Chicago and bought a really collectable flamenco guitar. I used it on my record.
Jeb: When you play the flamenco piece in your live solo, do you see the jaws dropping on the fans faces?
Steve: I don�t see them but I hear them.
Jeb: Tell me the difference in touring with Billy Idol in 2005 compared to 1985.
Steve: It is entirely different. The first tour Billy and I did after we got back together, he brought his son out on the road with us. Billy was looking for a rollaway bed at the hotel and I remember thinking, �Wow, this is different.�
Jeb: Better or worse?
Steve: A lot better, certainly healthier. We could not exist doing it the way we used to do it. We lit the candle at both ends and that is really the reason I took a break from working with Billy back in 1989. I stayed in New York and he moved to LA. That sort of lifestyle � he would be the first to tell you -- really got out of hand.
Jeb: The rock star lifestyle tends to glorify drugs --
Steve: I don�t know if it glorifies it but it is certainly a part of it. It is just the classic case that you see on every VH1 Behind the Music episode. For us, we went from playing these shitty little clubs to selling out areas, basically overnight after the release of Rebel Yell. The adrenalin rush from playing in front of 18,000 people is something no one is prepared for � there is no school you can go to that will teach you how to handle that. The crash happens right after the gig when you are immediately thrown onto a tour bus for a 7-8 hour drive. It is unbearable. How do you avoid the crash? You keep the party going. That is truly how drugs and alcohol became part of our touring existence. Unless you have the tools to deal with that then it will get to you. You play onstage in a euphoric state then a half an hour later you are on the tour bus crawling into a little bunk � it ain�t easy, psychologically.
Jeb: While it is not the glorified life some think it is, I would have to imagine that some of it is great. Money and fame can�t be all bad.
Steve: I�m not complaining about it. The intense highs and lows are really like a nightly case of postpartum depression � that is the only way that I can describe it. Maturity and finding other outlets help a lot. I don�t know exactly how, why or what happens but you find healthier alternatives to deal with it. I also have an incredible amount of support from my fellow musicians. When I am in LA, I play in a punk rock cover band called Camp Freddy with Billy Morrison of The Cult, Dave Navarro and Jerry Cantrell. We are all sober and having fun. If you want to continue to make music then you can�t do it the old way. The guys who are still drinking and doing drugs are not making records � that is the bottom line. It is a boring thing to say and I don�t want to get on a whole kick about it but those who are still doing it well are not doing it loaded.
Jeb: Was there ever a time that the drugs and booze became more important than the music?
Steve: For me, it never became more important. It was just a way for me to deal with things. The music was always more important to me and always will be. There are people that are not able to keep their priorities straight. I think it is really boring hearing about that shit. I really find it boring to hear people talking about the chicks and shit. I am not here to say what works for me works for everybody but the fact is that I have a hot girlfriend, am in a killer band and have a great lead singer � it does not get any better than that.
Jeb: Billy Idol is different than many punk/rock bands of the early to mid 1980�s in that he is put up on a pedestal. A lot of bands from your era don�t get the classic rock royalty treatment like Deep Purple or Aerosmith get.
Steve: Billy is really rock royalty at this point. I can honestly say that after making records with many different singers, no one has more charisma and integrity than Billy.
Jeb: How did you and Billy first hook up?
Steve: I was in a band called The Fine Malibu�s. We recorded a record that was never released for Island Records. We were managed by Bill Aucoin. Things were not going well with the band. Bill said, �I am bringing over this guy named Billy Idol from Generation X. I want you to meet him.� When I met Billy � we came from pretty different musical backgrounds. I was raised on the whole British rock guitar hero thing and was into Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. Billy came from the whole punk thing that was really tearing those guys down. I was also in a cover band at the time and we played a whole bunch of Lou Reed songs. Billy asked me if I knew any Lou Reed and that became the common ground between us. I told him that I new �Vicious� and �Coney Island Baby.� I said, �Not only that but I can play those solos note-for-note.� That was the beginning of finding a musical language that we both spoke.
Jeb: What was your first impression of Billy Idol?
Steve: He scared the shit out of me but he was the most charismatic person that I had ever met. Within the first half an hour of meeting him, he played me a song by Siouxsie & the Banshies that had some of the most brilliant guitar playing I had ever heard. He really opened me up to many different styles of guitar player. He showed me that there was a whole other thing going on in England that I didn�t even know about.
Jeb: Did MTV help you guys as much as you helped them?
Steve: I think they did help us out a lot. I remember a time before I even met Billy that I went to an MTV launch party. I didn�t even know what MTV was � I didn�t even know what Cable TV was, either. I think the first video I ever saw on MTV was �Breaking the Law� by Judas Priest. I also remember seeing �Dream Police� by Cheap Trick.
Jeb: I remember seeing �White Wedding� by Billy Idol. I was a hard rock fan but this song kicked ass. I think the mixing of the hard rock sound with the punk rock style really made you unique. I think it has also led to your longevity.
Steve: We had to work at that. How do you fit those two styles together? Think about how incredibly boring it would have been for Billy Idol to have a punk rock guitar player? I respected the whole punk rock thing. As a guitar player from New York I was well aware of the Ramones and Johnny Thunders. I had that kind of energy and attitude but I also had the technical ability of Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
Jeb: You can tell me if you think I am full of shit but I think a great example of mixing genres is �Flesh for Fantasy.� That guitar does not belong in that song.
Steve: [laughing] I was a huge Police fan and I really loved Andy Summers guitar playing. �Flesh for Fantasy� really is my take on that. One of the most amazing shows I ever saw was the Police. I went to see them at the Hotel Diplomat in New York before they released their 2nd album. It was one of the most amazing live shows I have ever seen.
Jeb: What is left for you to strive for, musically?
Steve: There is still a thing that happens when I pick up a guitar � it still doesn�t bore me. I don�t know if I am striving for something but I know when I play something that turns me on. I know when I play something that is kicking my own ass. If it ain�t then I don�t expect anyone else to listen to it. I have never done a guitar shred record because I don�t listen to those kinds of records. All due respect to guys who do that, but how can I expect someone to listen to me do that if I don�t listen to that style of music? To me, it would be a total exercise of having people hold up score cards and grade me on my shredding. I don�t do those that because it is not my thing.
Jeb: Have you ever gone into a project with good intentions but came out having to play things you did not believe in?
Steve: There are things that I listen to now and go, �What the hell was I thinking?� But at the time, it seemed like a good idea. So, I would have to say no.
Jeb: How different, emotionally, is playing acoustic guitar than electric guitar?
Steve: It is totally different. I played acoustic for six years before I even had an electric. Because of that foundation, I think that everything I do is rooted in the acoustic style. I don�t think that holds true for a lot of guitar players. I think it holds true for Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page. There are not too many rock guitar players who have an acoustic ground base. I think it comes from a love of rhythm guitar.
Jeb: A lot of guys say that lead is more important.
Steve: Not me. I approach rhythm guitar more like a drummer than a guitarist. A great rhythm part can only have three chords but if it grooves then it is cool. The first record producer I worked with was Keith Forsee, who is a drummer. That sense of understanding about groove has been hammered into me.
Jeb: You don�t hear cover bands playing a lot of Billy Idol in the clubs. One reason for that is the many guitar textures you provide. You take an easy song and add many complex parts just underneath the radar.
Steve: There is a lot of arrangement which I think is a key thing. I love many different styles of music. I can appreciate Pet Sounds as well as Jimi Hendrix as well as the Sex Pistols. If it is well arranged � no matter what musical style it is in � then it is interesting. When you have music where every instrument is doing the same part then it is not as interesting. It is kind of like looking at a non-digital watch. You have all these gears working together but the little gears move twice as fast as the big gears. I look at musical arrangement much like that. I feel the essence of a band like Led Zeppelin is that they have amazing arrangements. They have great musicianship and great production but the actual parts those guys are playing, by musical standards, is not that difficult. I remember being able to play the Led Zeppelin IV record when I was 13 years old. Being able to write, produce, arrange and conceptualize it is the real brilliance of Led Zeppelin.
Jeb: Do you write on the acoustic?
Steve: It is always different. On Devil�s Playground �Summer Running� and �Plastic Jesus� were me and Billy on acoustic guitars. It all depends on the song.
Jeb: When you are home alone and no one can hear you play which do you reach for more often; the acoustic or the electric?
Steve: It is usually a Les Paul.
Jeb: You are very influenced by guys like Page and Beck, however, there is one thing about you that is very different: The way you dress. I don�t think Jeff Beck would wear your stage cloths.
Steve: [laughing] Jeff Beck did at one point. He was one of the first to have the rooster hair cut. Everyone thinks I have the Ron Wood thing going on with my hair but I am pretty sure they are looking at my nose and not my hair! When I think about what looks cool as a guitar player, I am thinking about early Jeff Beck and Keith Richards.
Jeb: Let�s talk about the clothes. You have worn some pretty wild stuff.
Steve: Don�t remind me. I wanted to be a rock �n roll star instead of a banker or a plumber. My guitar hero was Jimi Hendrix, who always looked amazing. In the 80�s, to be honest, I was a big Prince fan. Man, that motherfucker could dress. The first time I saw Prince was on the Dirty Mind tour. It was scary and it was shocking. It was really obvious that things were about to change because this motherfucker was coming. I dug him; I thought he was the shit. I guess I really dug him because he was short � Prince is my short hero!
Jeb: I want to plug a great guitar oriented record you are on. Derek Sherinian�s new album Mythology.
Steve: When Derek joined our band he played me all these instrumental CDs that he had done with guys like Yngwie, Steve Lukather and Zakk Wylde. I told him that he had worked with all of these great players but he had not really done anything that was like Jeff Beck�s Blow by Blow. He thought that would be really cool and told me that if I wanted to write some stuff then we would do it. I came up with a couple of pieces and made my contributions to his album.
Jeb: Back to Devil�s Playground, I wanted to tell you that I think this album is one of the best Billy Idol albums ever. In fact, start to finish, it may be the best. The whole album really flows and is very easy to listen to. Now, I find out you didn�t write it and I feel bad about saying those things!
Steve: I think that is a very valid thing. Other people have said the same thing. It is a rock �n roll record and it is the first Billy Idol album that has very little keyboards on it � sorry Derek! I think the album really appeals to rock guitar fans.
Jeb: If this was released in 1988 it would have sold two million but since you released it in 2005, you will be hard pressed to sell 200,000.
Steve: We are bitching and moaning about the record sales so we are doing out best.
Jeb: Are you saying it does not bother you?
Steve: Yeah it bothers us, absolutely. Believe me, we are fighting it. We are trying to sell records and we believe the best way to do that is to go out and play the songs live. We are going to be out on the road well into next year still promoting this record. There are other outlets to promote the album and we are going to take advantage of them. Billy is going to be on Viva La Bam. We look at these things like tools. You have to build friendships with people who believe in your music and think you are valid. We are not played on MTV and we don�t expect to be played on MTV. We are not played on the KROC station and we are really pissed off about that. But, it is what it is. It is better to know what you are dealing with then to not know what you are dealing with.
Jeb: Last one: Is Billy�s sneer natural or did he have to work to develop it?
Steve: He had it the day I met him; I don�t know where it came from. Secretly, do I think he watched a lot of Elvis? Maybe.
Visit Steve online at SteveStevens.net or