Interview:Frolicking in the Devil’s Playground
Steve Stevens carved a name for himself in the early '80s as guitarist for Billy Idol. Through the decade, Stevens worked with Idol and contributed to his first three albums, before setting off on other ventures. As a highly-demanded guest player, Stevens recorded with major artists such as Michael Jackson on Bad, Robert Palmer, Thompson Twins, Ric Ocasek, Vince Neil, and went on to form his own groups, including the Atomic Playboys, and Bozzio Levin Stevens (with drummer Terry Bozzio and bassist Tony Levin). In 1999, Steven released a well-received solo album, Flamenco A Go-Go,. which spotlights his Flamenco and classical chops and gives fans a chance to hear another side of his artistry.
Early in the new millennium, Stevens reunited with Idol and appeared with him on VH1's Storytellers in 2002. Most recently, Stevens and Idol connected on their first album together since Whiplash Smile in 1986. Listening to the new material, it sounds as if little time has passed and things picked up right where they left off, sporting the same trademark sound. For Stevens, certain things have changed in terms of his equipment and his focus as a player, but the music and the sentiment remain the same.
We caught Stevens shortly before a gig in Oklahoma City. As a transplanted New Yorker talking to a fellow New Yorker, we began our conversation with Stevens confessing his undying passion for the local pizza and his dissatisfaction with most others. From our own experience and pizza expertise, we both agreed that there truly is no other acceptable substitute! Once we settled down from our cuisine snobbery rant, we then went on to discuss his work on the new Idol disc, Devil's Playground, and what fun it's been to be touring alongside his longtime comrade once again.
Hey Steve, next time you're in New York the pizza's on me!
Guitar.com: Tell us about making this album with Billy. Was it a familiar process, where things just fall together instantly? And was there anything different this time around from working together in the past?
Steve Stevens: I would say that there were things that were obviously familiar in that we did have the same team with us as before in Keith Forsey and Brian Reeves - producer and engineer. The one big difference is that Brian Tichy, our drummer of about four years, started to contribute some songwriting ideas. Obviously for me, that was a readjustment, and I had to evaluate my own ego, and really think about what is required of me. It was actually really liberating because for some songs, all I had to think about was the classic Frank Zappa saying, "Shut up and play your guitar!" Sometimes when you write stuff, you're not so concerned with the guitar parts, and you start to get concerned with all these other things. And it was kind of liberating in a way because there were things that I had written that I was more involved in from a production and arrangement standpoint. But there were also things where I could just play guitar and really get off on that. When I realized that Jeff Beck didn't write anything on Blow By Blow, and Robert Fripp didn't write In The Court Of The Crimson King, then I realized it was cool to just focus on playing guitar. So it was kind of cool, and it took the heat off. It also enabled Billy and I to have someone as a springboard and bounce ideas off of. So it was different in some respects, and it's also different because there's no bull**** between Billy and I. We're older and wiser, and you just cut through that stuff when you don't really have any pretense. We've been through all that. We've been through the war, we don't need to be cordial.
Guitar.com: In what ways have your preferences for tone changed?
Steve Stevens: One big factor is that primarily every guitar part on the record was recorded with either a Les Paul or a Tele. There were absolutely no whammy bar guitars or any of that kind of silliness. The Tele I used was custom built by John Suhr. I used about five different Les Pauls on the record, and my Les Paul Junior. I think all the acoustics I played were Billy's. He's got a Martin Eric Clapton model that I used which is just stunning. I brought in a couple of my acoustics, and that thing just kicked the **** out of my guitars! In addition, we miked it for a realistic acoustic sound, but I'm not sure exactly which mic we used.
One of the great things for me now is that I can link up multiple amplifiers, which is an idea I always wanted to try, but you'd always have problems with phase cancellation, and impedance mismatching. Radial Engineering had given me this unit that's basically a splitter box, where you have one guitar in and seven outputs that are totally isolated and transformer isolated. So I got in every amp I could imagine I was interested in, from my old Plexi Marshalls to one of the John Suhr OD100s, a Bogner Uberschall, a hand-built combo amp that I use made by a guy named Doug Roccaforte, a Vox AC30, and a few other amps. We just had them all running at all times. Depending on the track, we chose combinations of amps and it was really cool for me. It allowed us not to have to use as many keyboards on the record!
And for playing live, I finally got a master guitar switching system that I'm happy with. I tried to do that in the early '80s with the whole Bradshaw thing and I remember having to fly Bob Bradshaw out to gigs because this thing would go down. God bless him, he was the only one who could fix it back then. So now this guy Dave Friedman from Rack Systems, he put together this system for me. I use a lot of components that hadn't been used before. The switcher is built by a company in Denmark named Skrydstrup. I was the first person to get the Axess Electronics rackmounted switcher. So we tried a lot of things that hadn't been used before. My one demand was that if any of this stuff didn't make my rig sound as good as me plugging straight into the front end of my amp, then I'm not interested in it. And any time there was anything that added coloration in my sound, I just eliminated it.
Guitar.com: What type of effects did you have in the switching system?
Steve Stevens: I had a **** load of effects and a lot of them are boutique pedals. I had a hard time finding a wah that I liked. Then after searching and searching, I ended up settling on the Dunlop Dimebag wah. I thought that was the best-sounding wah. It had the right sound I was looking for. I've also got a Moog Ring Modulator because I always loved the sounds that Jeff Beck got with a ring modulator, and I never knew how he did it until I plugged into that pedal. I've got a Sweet Sound version of the Uni-Vibe made in Florida by a guy named Bob Sweet. There are two Line 6 rack units - a modulation unit and the delay unit. I use a fuzz box made by a company out of Brooklyn called Frantone. I also have a clean booster made by a Japanese company. I need a clean booster because I play with enough front-end gain. And with this switching system, if I want to switch to a lead sound, I'll just switch to a different amplifier because it's got effects switching and amp switching.
So for playing live, I'm using a John Suhr OD100 for my clean lead sounds, and I'm using a modded Peavey 5150 for my basic rhythm sound. So rather than kick in distortion pedals for lead sounds, I just change amps. Then the next step is to sync everything up through midi. Our lights and some of our cue changes are on midi, so on the next leg of our tour, I'm going to do all my program changes on midi so that I don't have to change anything with my feet. That should be pretty liberating! Then all I have to worry about is playing my guitar.
Guitar.com: How different is your stage rig from the gear you used in the studio?
Steve Stevens: Basically, it's the same stuff, although in the studio, sometimes we would combine three different amps. I'm using some of the same amps, but I'm switching between them. I'm not using them all at the same time as I did on the recording. On the road, I have a couple of 5150s and the John Suhr OD100. We've got some backups, but I have four that are main amps, and I use an H&H power amp in a wet/dry kind of system. The wet/dry set up just always worked for me and I've been using that for the last 12 years or so. I've tried to get away from it, but I just really like having control over when I switch to a solo, having effects on the left and right, and echoes and things happening. It makes my soundman's job a lot easier. I play through Marshall 4x12 cabinets with Celestion Vintage 30s in them.
We've been experimenting with different mics on the speakers. We tried some Sennheisers, and I keep going to Shure 57sA. During every soundcheck, I'll go out into the house and listen to my guitar. We'll try a new mic up there, and then we'll switch to the 57, and invariably, I always end up with the 57. I tend to mic the speaker slightly off axis of the cone, but pretty close to the cone. I don't have an incredible amount of treble in my sound. I like to keep it set with more high-mids and lower-bottom. In the '80s, I used Plexis which were just bright as hell, and it was always very hard to try to get any kind of mids and lower bottom. They're very clanky and bright, and onstage that stuff just goes right through you.
Guitar.com: Which guitars do you have out on tour?
Steve Stevens: I've got three late-'80s Les Paul Standards - one black and one white. Both have been fitted with Seymour Duncan Custom Customs, which is now my favorite pickup. I used to use JBs, but I've gravitated towards the Custom Customs because of the Alnico magnets on them. I also have a Les Paul TV Junior that has a Duncan P-90 in it. I do a bit of Flamenco guitar solo during the show, so I have a Godin nylon-string acoustic/electric which also has the synth capabilities, and I'm using a Roland guitar synth with that. I also have Godin LGXT. That guitar does everything. It has two humbuckers in it, and it has a piezo pickup in the bridge which also drives the Roland synth. For me, in things like "Flesh For Fantasy," I'm able to do all the horn parts on it at the same time. It's pretty cool.
Guitar.com: Do you cover a lot of the keyboard parts live?
Steve Stevens: Just that aspect. During my solo, I do some synth stuff behind my solo when I'm playing unaccompanied. I'm sure the audience thinks it's keyboards behind me! I just like having the control over it.
Guitar.com: Which guitar did you use to record all the country riffs on "Lady Do Or Die"?
Steve Stevens: That's all the John Suhr Tele. I'm not taking that guitar on the road because we're not doing that song in the set.
Guitar.com: How are your guitars set up?
Steve Stevens: I use Ernie Ball .010-.052 strings, which is a hybrid set. I've had jumbo frets put on most of my guitars, so I like the action set kind of high. A lot of people that have played my guitars are really uncomfortable with them. I play occasionally with an all-star cover band called Camp Freddy, which is Dave Navarro, Billy Morrison, Jerry Cantrell and Billy Duffy from the Cult. And Dave Navarro went to use one of my guitars and when he picked it up, he said, "I'm not playing on this thing!" I kind of felt good about that!
Guitar.com: What type of picks do you prefer?
Steve Stevens: I use the green Dunlop .88 mm Tortex picks. It's not a medium and it's just kind of below a heavy. It's a great pick.
Guitar.com: Do you tune to standard pitch or tune down at all?
Steve Stevens: Most everything we play is in standard tuning, but there are couple of songs that we do where the low E is dropped down to a D. Two sings off the record, "Body Snatcher" and "Rat Race," both use dropped-D tuning. I wish we could tune down a half-step because I really like the way that it sounds, but we have so much older material that just wouldn't sound right with that tuning. I've tried doing stuff with Billy in the lower tuning, and it just doesn't sound right. It's not a Billy Idol thing.
Guitar.com: Did you experiment with any new or unusual gear while recording?
Steve Stevens: The one amazingly cool box that I got is the TZF flanger built by Dave Fox at Foxrox Electronics, the guy who makes the Captain Coconut pedal. This flanger is unbelievable! The thing about it is that you can't put it in front of an amp. It has to be in the effects loop. But it seriously sounds like tape flanging. It's totally got that Robin Trower, Brian May "Keep Yourself Alive" kind of sound., I got the majority of pedals through an online store called Music Toys. They have a policy where you can try stuff and if you're not happy with it, you can send it back. So for the last year and a half, I just ordered stuff. That's a dangerous weapon! I'd go on there at night, read up on stuff and listen to their sounds files, and just order things. That flanger is just amazing! I think they ended up using it in the studio on more than just my guitar. They used it on some drum stuff. I also got the Moog Murf pedal, which is the sequenced filter pedal, and that's pretty amazing on guitar. Certain effects, you know you can't put in front of the amp, and it's one of those that you have to put in the effects loop on your amp.
Guitar.com: Out of everything you've recently acquired, which piece is the coolest?
Steve Stevens: To be honest, I was pretty knocked out with that Bogner Uberschall for certain things. I haven't taken it on the road with me, but all those heavy guitars in "Rat Race" were done with the Uberschall. That thing has got so much bottom, and it's very clear bottom. It's not muddy at all. I was really knocked out with that amp and also the John Suhr OD100. It absolutely has the best clean guitar sound I've ever heard, with gobs of headroom. And being able to switch to that kind of clean sound live, it's what I always wanted. I always imagined that I'd have an amp that would replicate things like "Flesh For Fantasy" live, with that super clean, beautiful sound. It makes my Les Paul sound like a Strat. It's chimey and really amazing.
Guitar.com: Since you're using so many different amps while tracking, do you need to work in the control room?
Steve Stevens: I would say that 90 percent of the guitar stuff was recorded in the control room, but I did start missing some of that feedback. So what we did was we set up a little amp in the control room with a volume pedal on it. I think it was a Fender Champ that belongs to our producer, Keith Forsey. Any time I needed to have some feedback, it as literally aimed right at my guitar pickup. I used it for things like the beginning of "Scream," or anything with feedback. I would just step on the volume pedal and get feedback going. I think I read something about how Slash did that because you definitely do have a different feeling playing in the control room. There's something to be said about that direct connection between your pickup and your speaker cabinet. But at the same time, having to play to a track through headphones is not great. You feel more connected to the music when you're in the control room, but you feel more connected to your amp when you're next to it, so there was that trade off.
Guitar.com: Which track on the record stands out as a favorite? Which one best illustrates your playing?
Steve Stevens: On this record, I would say "Rat Race," even though there's not a guitar solo on it. But as a piece of music, and as a progression of what Billy and I are capable of doing, I would say that. I was just really happy with the way that turned out. At one point we were thinking of putting a solo on it, but I just thought the song stood on its own. It doesn't need a guitar solo. My two favorite tracks are "Rat Race," which I co-wrote, and "Body Snatcher," which I didn't write, but I love. It's great to play. Our drummer, Brian Tichy, wrote it with Billy. Brian has his own band and he plays guitar and sings in it, and he's a great guitar player. When I heard the demo for that I thought, "Man, I can't wait to play this!"
Guitar.com: How does working in the studio compare to playing live? What is it that you like and dislike about each situation?
Steve Stevens: Playing live is just a pure adrenaline rush. It's a totally different thing. And being onstage with Billy, it's such a different feeling working with someone you have a history with and can tell the audience knows that. Our relationship as a team has probably outlasted most peoples' marriages and they really look to us as a little piece of their life. It's a comfort thing for them to see us up there together. Another thing is that we genuinely like each other! We stayed in contact when I had left after Whiplash Smile, and there really wasn't any animosity. I was surprised whenever anyone would write that there was, because it just wasn't true. But being onstage and playing some of these songs together, like every time we play "Eyes Without A Face," the hair on my neck stands up. I've played with a number of artists, and I just don't get that feeling with them. So that's what it's about live. In the studio, it's a tough process, and I used to feel really guilty because I wouldn't listen to records after I had finished recording them. With all the attention to detail that I go through when doing a record, by the time I'm done with it, I have to take like a six-month break from it. I once read an interview with Robert DeNiro and he was saying that he can't watch his films. I understood why and I know that I'm not so weird.
Guitar.com: What do you listen to for enjoyment and inspiration? What would we find in your CD player this week?
Steve Stevens: Well, it would be an iPod now! Let's see... With so many remastered records being available, I find that I go and buy back catalogs. I've been going through a real Robin Trower phase, and I'll listen to anything by Jeff Beck, new or old. I like Beck's You Had It Coming, particularly a song on there he did called "Nadia." It's an Indian piece and it's just breathtaking. I had gone to England about two and a half years ago to go work with Juno Reactor, which is a friend of mine named Ben Watkins, and he turned me onto a lot of big beat stuff like Propellerheads and Chemical Brothers. It was not so much Fatboy Slim, but all this kind of - I hate to say - "techno electronica." But at the time it was being called "big beat." I just really got into playing guitar stuff over that, and it's exactly what Jeff Beck has been doing. I think maybe it's the spontaneity factor. I love the kind of repetition loops that that Jeff has going on in his newer stuff. I just wish that when he got to a solo, he would make that the one real thing and make it really stand out. People don't want to be fooled into thinking things were manipulated too much. There's so much fakeness in music, and I think that's a valid reason why fans would kind of be turned off to some of his newer, more techno stuff. I'm not in any way knocking Jeff Beck. I mean, you go see him live and he's so amazingly brilliant. It's great that he can play with all those loops under him, but on the album, they really should keep his main guitar track as a very live element.
I recently got into this Icelandic band Sigur Rós. A friend of mine turned me onto them and I went to see them live and they were just incredible. I thought they were absolutely amazing. The guitar player plays almost the entire show with a violin bow on his guitar, but I guarantee you, it's nothing like Jimmy Page. I had read recently a biography of King Crimson, so I wanted to go back to all the King Crimson stuff and listen to that after having read these stories about how these songs came about, and different incarnations of the band. I've always loved Robert Fripp, and he was the one kind of prog-rock guitar player that wasn't afraid to move to New York and kind of embrace the New York new wave scene, and not see it as a total threat to his career, where all so many other bands, punk rock was really the nail in the coffin for them, and rightly so.
Guitar.com: What advice would you offer to other players on developing their own style?
Steve Stevens: Listen to instruments outside of the one you play. If you're a guitarist, listen to Miles David and John Coltrane. For me, a lot of learning my own guitar style came from listening to a band that Billy had turned me onto called Suicide - Alan Vega and Marty Rev, which was a duo from New York of just keyboard and voice. And through listening to them, that's how I stumbled upon those kind of guitar figures in "White Wedding" and "Rebel Yell," which kind of go across the bass line and the chord changes. That was something I got directly from Suicide - the moving bass on those songs. Marty Rev moved the bass lines around on the keyboard while he had a stagnant chord figure on his right hand. Then I also listened to people like Allan Holdsworth. Phrasing-wise, he sounded more like sax players than guitar players. Phrasing is so important. One aspect for me that's become a lot more important and something that I practice a lot now is really wide vibrato and making the most out of the least amount of notes.
Guitar.com: Which artists have been most influential to you as a player?
Steve Stevens: I go through so many. At one point or another I would just immerse myself into different players for a couple of months at a time, either someone really rudimentary, like Chuck Berry, or someone like Albert King, John McLaughlin or Paco de Lucia. I wouldn't really try to play like those people, I would just get into what they were doing. I also went through an Adrian Belew phase and really got into his stuff. I've been playing guitar for a long time, so I just go through phases of listening to different people. But obviously for me, from the standpoint of writing, production, and guitar playing, the monument is still a Led Zeppelin record. You can't get away from the fact that Jimmy Page wrote every great guitar riff in the book. Those records are so well produced and their use of color was just awesome. I really love that Zeppelin DVD that came out last year. It's amazing to watch, especially all the really early stuff he played on his Tele.