Steve Stevens Talks New Billy Idol Album ‘Kings and Queens of the Underground: Veteran guitarist discusses duo’s new 2014 album, their long-standing creative partnership, his signature guitar line and more in our exclusive interview.
Rebel Yell, White Wedding, Eyes Without A Face. Hearing any of these tracks, takes one back to the 1980’s, when Billy Idol became a staple of MTV and rock radio. And there by his side was Steve Stevens, a dynamic guitarist whose skilled chops and creative spirit made him every bit Idol’s equal. The duo’s chemistry created an alchemy that blended various genres to create hook-filled tracks that have stood the test of time.
Stevens and Idol reconvened for their latest album Kings and Queens of The Underground (due out October 21st), a collection of autobiographical songs chronicling Idol’s path of success and excess, which serves as a companion piece to his recent autobiography Dancing With Myself.
I recently had a chance to interview Stevens, who discussed the new album, their creative legacy, his new signature guitar for Knaggs, as well as his work with other collaborators. Enjoy the full Q&A that follows.
SLIS: So Kings and Queens of the Underground is the fifth album that you’ve made with Billy. After all these years together, has the dynamic changed in your musical relationship at all?
SS: It’s actually a lot better. We’re older, we’re wiser, and with 32 years of history together we’re able to laugh at a lot of shit more now. And anytime when were writing something about something in his life, chances are I’m going to know about or have been there, so that gives us perspective as songwriters that maybe other people wouldn’t have working with him…and we still have fun doing it, and that’s the most important thing.
SLIS: Since the new album is so autobiographical in nature, I wondered if that affected the songwriting process. How did the new material fall into place?
SS: Well we knew that the book would coincide with the album, so it did affect it. We did actually approach this record very differently than our other records, which was almost like directing a film. We’d come up with a theme and an idea first, or a time frame, and we’d say okay, well let’s work on something that relates to when he first moved to NYC in 1982: some of the characters that were around us then. So a lot of the ideas came lyrically first which is different for us. Usually we just have a series of chords that we start with and write lyrics around so it was quite different.
SLIS: I read you wrote the lyrics and music to The Ghosts In My Guitar. Was that a fun one to bring to the table?
SS: Well I didn’t write all of the lyrics…we collaborated on it, but I kind of got the concept for the song up and running and I said why don’t we write about some of these people that were around us in New York that no longer are there. We lost a lot of people to drugs and illness and this and that…but their spirit is still with us, we still talk about them, we still tell funny stories about them, and it was paying homage to the fallen heroes of New York rock and roll.
SLIS: In the past you both worked with producer Keith Forsey, but Trevor Horn produced this album. Did you enjoy that process, and how was he to work with?
SS: The similarities between Keith Forsey and Trevor Horn were uncanny. They’re both very similar in many respects…you know being English rock producers…but we’ve always wanted to work with Trevor and he’s one of those producers that’s on my bucket list you know, so when the opportunity came around to work with him, we were like great! We started to send him tracks and he responded favorably. And he’s got a legendary studio in England called SARM…that actually we’re one of the last artists to record at it…it’s being torn down.
That studio was originally the home for Island Records; Bob Marley, Blind Faith, Traffic, early Genesis, Stairway to Heaven was recorded there…so it was just great to be with an amazing producer at an amazing studio.
SLIS: I was curious if you’d read Billy’s book already, and what were your thoughts on the passages that concerned you?
SS: I haven’t yet…we have a copy of it and my wife snagged it straight away
[amazon_image id=”1451628501″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Dancing with Myself[/amazon_image]
SLIS: When you look back on the 80’s, with your exposure on MTV and onset of fame, do you have fond memories of that era?
SS: When things were happening so quickly for us…from 1982-87 was kind of a whirlwind of activity…so that aspect of it is a bit of a blur you know? (Both laugh) But yeah, we just had a great time with it. A lot of people think Billy was this massive success the moment he arrived in the states, but we started out playing shitty little clubs doing grueling van tours in the middle of the winter.
When we finished the Rebel Yell album, we knew we’d made as good record but we didn’t really anticipate that we would become an arena rock band. We started out that tour playing small venues, then little by little the venues got bigger and then one day we were booked into an arena somewhere and we showed up at sound check and went what the hell? Because musicians back then you weren’t as aware of the business side of it you know? We’re not the kind of guys that checked Billboard charts and things like that, we were too busy playing rock and roll. So it was all really exciting.
And I got to work with anybody who was anybody in the 80s. That was one of the brilliant things about being the guitar player…you have a successful record and then you start getting phone calls from people. I’ll never forget I got a phone message on my machine at home from Mick Jagger in the Caribbean (laughs) and it was everything you’d ever hope a Mick Jagger phone message would be!
SLIS: Speaking of that, you’ve worked with a variety of other musicians as well– everyone from Michael Jackson to Joni Mitchell. Does your creative approach change when working with other artists, or do you always work at it from a similar angle?
SS: Well obviously working with Billy for so many years and having that strong collaborative team you can almost second guess that person…but if I called someone who I’m not that familiar with…I try to do as much research…but I’m fortunate in that most of the people I’ve worked with I’ve been fans of…so you get a call from Michael Jackson and the premise was that his follow-up record to Thriller they had another rock track, and this was going to be the Beat It track for this album so you go okay great! There’s going to be a guitar solo and it’ll be this funk-rock track…But that said, when I got into the studio it was very similar to working with Idol in that it was just 4 guys in the studio. It was Michael, Quincy Jones, an engineer and myself. There was no entourage, and it felt very much the same in the way I work with Billy.
SLIS: When I listen to the work you’ve done together, I’m struck by what a unique sound you created. There were elements of punk, new wave, metal, glam, etc. How did that sound evolve?
SS: Yeah, that was kind of by design. We had a producer Keith Forsey who came from a dance music background… he had worked on all those Giorgio Moroder records. He had worked with Donna Summer, and did Flashdance and dance-oriented things. Which was something we wanted. In the 80’s people were just discovering how you could do remixes on rock records. And extended versions. And so we had that element with Keith. And then with Billy he had already done 3 records with Generation X, and he had the punk thing as his kind of spine.
But the things that we talked about were a lot of Marc Bolan and T Rex, and Creedence and The Doors, and all these other things. And then you had myself who was raised on early English blues-rock guitar players and a bit of progressive. So we said under the banner of Billy Idol we could combine all these elements and we would sometimes combine them in one song, so it was just this kind of gumbo of different musical styles. But really all our favorite records were different mixes. You think of all those classic Beatles records where one song to the next they’re charting different musical terrain and I think that’s what makes records interesting.
SLIS: I always loved your style of playing because in addition to your skill, you were very experimental. What gave you the idea of using the toy ray gun in Rebel Yell?
SS: Yeah, we had worked on the song and we were in the studio and we had done two versions of it, and finally when we got Thommy Price as our drummer we cut the definitive version of Rebel Yell…and the idea always with Billy Idol was not to do a guitar solo just for the sake of doing a guitar solo. ‘Cause that was kind of a punk rock idea, if there’s going to be a guitar solo it’s got to have a melody and there has to be a reason for it more than just a bunch of notes. So I brought in a Billy Cobham record and there was song called Quadrant 4 with a solo on it by Tommy Bolin where he does this crazy flipped out sound thing with his Echoplex. And I played that for Keith and I said, I have to do an updated version of that.
So we tried to do it delay pedals and things like that and it was kind of ok…but then I’m sitting at home and one of the things I was collecting at that time was toy robots and tin toys…and I had this toy ray gun. So I’m sitting and watching TV with my guitar in my hands and a little tiny practice amp and I started playing the ray gun and I hear it come through the amp…and I went wait a minute, I can play this through the pickups of my guitar.
So I opened up the ray gun and started tinkering around with it and I changed some resistors into a variable potentiometer and I brought in the ray gun and I said Punch me in on bar so-and-so, and we did, and everyone in the studio went that’s incredible!
And now 30 some odd years later I pride myself on being a proficient guitar player and the thing I’m known for is this toy ray gun! I go What about the other stuff? And they go we love the ray gun!
SLIS: I always wondered about the Eyes Without A Face guitar solo where you made a sound reminiscent of a European police siren. Was that something you came up with on the fly or was that intentional?
SS: Yeah, what we would always do is we knew we had certain songs where we wanted to have some space to do remixes. So we’d leave 16 bars or 32 bars in the middle of the song no matter what the song was and then do an edit on it later and that left us room to experiment for a dance remix. And with Eyes we did the same thing, and I said You know, this is a great song, but it can’t just be a ballad its gotta still be a Billy Idol song, so I came up with the rhythm guitar part and overdubbed that first and everyone went oh yeah that’s gonna be good. Then we did a guitar solo and I flipped the tape backwards which is an old Hendrix/Jimmy Page trick and basically it’s a backwards guitar solo, so that’s I guess why it sounds like a police siren or something.
SLIS: You’re also a very accomplished flamenco and classical guitarist. Were you able to incorporate those styles into the new album?
SS: I was! I always have a flamenco guitar in the studio and I’m always like hey what about some flamenco in here! And everybody else is going yeah, save it for your own record. (laughs) But the cool thing about Trevor Horn is that he’s worked very closely with Yes and he was actually their singer at one point, and produced two of their records. So when I was sitting there I was just playing some Yes pieces on my flamenco guitar, and showing Trevor that I was a Yes fan, and anytime I said flamenco guitar or nylon string guitar, he was the first to go absolutely, let’s try it, because he’s coming from a similar musical place…which is sometimes you want an instrument which is really pure, and a nylon string guitar can sound so beautiful and emotional if its in the right context, so yeah I was able to get that on a couple of songs.
SLIS: I know you’ve developed your Knaggs signature guitar. Was that your primary instrument you used on the new album, and how did the design for your guitar come about?
SS: Well we went to England to work with Trevor and all my guitar recordings were done in two weeks and I couldn’t ship a bucket load of gear, so I picked four guitars and one amp, which is my signature amp that I have with Friedman amplifiers. So the four guitars I picked so I could cover as much musical ground as possible. So one was my signature Knaggs which we’re introducing a new version at the next NAMM show, so I have a prototype of that.
And that’s very much a traditional rock guitar…another guitar was a Music Man Armada which is a really great guitar they build now…the tuning and stability on that guitar is really great and I thought if I’m going to a different country sometimes tuning can be a little wobbly so better have a solid guitar. And then I have a John Suhr Strat guitar for all the clean stuff, and then one Les Paul, not a vintage one or anything, just a new one that I particularly liked, and one flamenco guitar. So those were the primary guitars but the majority of the record…at least I would start most songs with my Knaggs and maybe double track it with another electric or something but obviously if I design a guitar I’m going to get out of it what I’m looking for so I’m really comfortable with that guitar now.
SLIS: What are the changes with the new model?
SS: We came out with the first one almost two years ago now, and it was based on an existing Knaggs model, but I changed the neck dimensions and body width, and changed the curve of the body a little bit. On this one, I felt I’m going to go out on a limb a bit more cause I played it live and I just started to realize the way I wanted it to sit on my body when I took the hands off the neck. Because when guitarists stand up, different guitars can fall differently, or hug their body differently so I contoured it exactly the way I wanted.
I went back to using a traditional bridge which is like a Gibson style bridge…I work with a company called TonePros that does a really great bridge for us, changed the pickups slightly and did a different headstock angle. I’m fighting with them now because the headstock on my guitar is quite severe and they’re afraid that if we put that on the market, people are going to break the guitar if they drop it. Cause everyone that owns a Les Paul knows that if you drop it the headstock is going to crack off and so Knaggs want to avoid that. But there’s a reason why a Les Paul sounds that way and has that string tension, so were’ going back and forth on that. But the guitars that I play have a 17-degree angle, which is pretty severe.
SLIS: I’m also curious as to what your thoughts are on new music. Are there any new artists that interest you these days?
SS: Yeah, for me, I started my career in 1982 so when you mention a new artist I’ll go oh yeah: Muse! But now they’re not a new artist anymore (laughing) But there’s a number of newer guitar players that I like. Guthrie Govan is just incredible. You know I should probably look at my iPod and see what I have. But I’m always listening to new things. There’s an electronic band called Big Data that has a single out right now and I like. I love the Black Keys. Of the heavier rock stuff I love Mastodon, but I don’t know if they’re exactly a newer band. So yeah, I’m always listening to stuff. I find myself liking things that maybe people wouldn’t ordinarily think that I like. I mean I’m a married guy now with a wife and she’ll put on Adelle, and I’ll go yeah, she’s fucking great! (laughs)
But there’s still all the great artists out there are still making records. I mean anything that Slash puts out I’m still going to listen to, same goes for if there’s a new Judas Priest record. I’m going to listen to it, ’cause I love those artists.
SLIS And I know you’ve got a big tour coming up. Are you excited about getting back on the road and playing the new material live? Have you come up with a set list already?
SS: Yeah, we were actually in Europe and we finished there four months ago so we’ve already put like five new songs in our set. And a lot of these things we’ve been playing. Billy has toured consistently every year, and a lot of it has been concentrated in Europe, so songs like Postcards From The Past we’ve had in our set for like 3 years now and Kings and Queens of the Underground almost 3 and a 1/2 years now, so I think we’re fortunate in that we’re a classic rock band now (laughs), but our audience is really willing to accept new music from us, and I know with a lot of classic rock audiences, they just want to hear the hits, and get bored when they hear new material but honesty that’s not the case with Billy Idol audience. And I thank our lucky stars for that, because we’d get really bored just playing the same old shit you know?
SLIS: So after the tour wraps up, do you have any other projects in the works?
SS: I’m going to be doing another solo project but it won’t be instrumental, I’ll be doing it with a number of musicians I want to work with, and a certain singer that’s kind of an undiscovered gem…I can’t say who it is, but he and I have written some things together and I really want to do a band project with him.
Many thanks to Steve for taking the time out for this interview. You can pre-order Kings and Queens of the Underground from iTunes or Amazon below. Click here for Idol tour dates and click here for info on Steven’s Knaggs guitar. And you keep track of all things Steve Stevens by clicking here.
[amazon_image id=”B00MXIV7YU” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Kings & Queens of the Underground[/amazon_image]