Whether serving as a musical foil to the Boss or right-hand man to a crime boss, Steven Van Zandt, aka Little Steven, has proven himself one of the most reliable consiglieres in both real and fictional New Jersey pop culture history. But the veteran musician and actor confidently retakes center stage with his band the Disciples of Soul on the splendid new record Summer of Sorcery, out now. The 68-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-r celebrates the album’s release with a show Saturday at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills with a world tour to follow in short order.
Summer of Sorcery largely eschews the fiery political overtones of his ’80s work in favor of an exultant blast of classic rock, its 12 tracks surveying the disparate sounds that made him want to be a musician in the first place, from stomping garage rock to Wall of Sound pop splendor to Latin-flavored party music.
It’s Van Zandt’s second album with the Disciples in less than three years and first of all new material in 20, following on the heels of 2017’s Soulfire,. He certainly kept busy in the interim, touring and recording with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, starring on The Sopranos and the Netflix dramedy Lilyhammer, hosting his radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage and formulating his Teachrock.org curriculum. (Every headline date on his upcoming tour will benefit that education initiative, which seeks to inspire students through music. Van Zandt offers free tickets to his show to teachers who are also invited to attend workshops prior to his set.)
EW recently chatted with the singer-songwriter-guitarist-actor-dj-activist from an Australian tour stop about every one of those hyphenated titles.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Summer of Sorcery has a real sense of joy and lightness to it, both sweetly nostalgic and deeply present. Some fans who followed your solo work in the ’80s might be surprised at how little you dabble in political commentary.
STEVEN VAN ZANDT: I just felt like that’s what was needed right now. Things are so weird and so depressing and so divided. There’s so much angst and hatred, I mean, I’ve never seen anything like what we’re experiencing right now. I felt like we needed something a little uplifting and some kind of hope. I wanted to capture some of that romantic fantasy of summer where you have the thrill of unlimited possibilities, that feeling of youthful innocence and optimism.
You kick things off with “Communion” which is a real windows-down-radio-cranked-up tune with that insistent Motown backbeat that feels a little like a manifesto for the record itself.
Starting off as a live performer for so long, rock and roll for me is always about the live show first. I can sum up what the whole album is about in the three words of that chorus: “harmony, unity, communion.” That’s really what it’s all about and just variations on that theme. I tried opening the album with a show opener that’s going to just sort of just sum up what you’re about to experience.
Even though you’ve said the album is not autobiographical, there are some images and allusions that feel like they are rooted in your experience, like the lyric about praying to a picture of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys in the dreamy “Love Again.”
Oh yeah, stuff sneaks in of course, you’re going to have some touches of autobiography in there and some subtle touches of politics as well, but mostly not. It’s mostly fiction. I wanted to do twelve little movies and be a different character in each movie and have that kind of fun. Every singer is an actor to begin with, the song is like a script and you’re selling that song, you’re convincing the audience that you are that character, whether it’s autobiographical or not.
Another prominent feature on the album are these terrific female backing vocals on the soul and funk-flavored songs like “Gravity” and “Vortex.” Do you arrange those yourself or does someone assist you?
I arrange it myself I just love it. I’ve always loved it but I never really used it until I did the  Darlene Love album [Introducing Darlene Love]. She has three great background vocalists and I had so much fun arranging the parts on that album. So having that third element to interweave with my usual horns and strings was just so much fun. As an arranger that’s what I really get off on the most is having those parts complement each other. I added the three background vocalists because I thought that’s the one thing I’ve never done before and it’ll be a new element to my thing. I just grew up loving The Shirelles and The Chiffons and Darlene Love herself. It’s a genre unto itself.
You updated your song “Education” for this album and it seems like the one place that a little bit of political talk comes up and fits into your current mission with TeachRock.
Politics literally feels redundant now for the first time, I mean, it’s just right in your face twenty-four seven. I’ve been taking this non-partisan sort of position now for quite a while. Once I started writing our music history curriculum– which is now twelve years in the making, and we just went public with it this past year– I didn’t want to be accused of being partisan and have it interfere with people using the curriculum. It’s been a very exciting year just seeing it now being used and going into pilot programs. Seeing how the teachers have embraced it has been extremely satisfying after working on it so long. We’ve literally only been public with it about six months and we have twenty five thousand teachers already registered using it.
You’ve been inviting teachers to your shows. Have there been any who maybe weren’t familiar with your music but were interested in the program?
Oh yeah, that is what’s happening. A lot of people know me from various things, but I think I’m introducing myself really to most people as an artist these past two years, honestly. I mean, it’s been so long since I was actually doing my own thing. But I think they’re coming to the show out of curiosity or they may be paying [to see the guy from] The Sopranos or Lilyhammer or the E Street Band or Underground Garage. Because I never really had a hit, they’re mostly coming out of curiosity so we have to win them over song by song, which we’re actually doing because of this fantastic band I have. Literally, you can see the [audience members], they’re not familiar with the stuff at all and by the end of the song they’re cheering wildly and that’s also very satisfying. But a lot of the teachers are coming because of the curriculum and then they stay for the show and then they leave as fans so, it’s been very satisfying to see the connections being made now in a whole new way.
What kind of student were you?
I was absolutely terrible. I just couldn’t care less. I was completely obsessed with rock and roll and I couldn’t wait for school to be over so I could go to band rehearsal. I’ve taken some of that feeling into our curriculum as well because I think this generation, in a funny way, is similar to the way I felt. I’ve made a point to adjust the old way of thinking which is teachers telling you “learn this now and someday you’ll use it,” which didn’t really work with me and certainly is not going to work with this millennial generation when you’re getting every answer you need in thirty seconds on your device. We find that music is the way to get their attention because every kid is into music. So we go to them, we’re not dragging them to our sort of archaic education format or program. We come to them: “Who’s your favorite artist?” The nice thing about the arts is there’s no wrong answer.
So if they say Beyoncé, there’s a way to tie Beyoncé to music history, drawing a line through the various artists of different generations that helped shape her sound?
Precisely. “Beyoncé? Okay, well Beyoncé comes from this one and that one and Aretha Franklin and, by the way, Aretha Franklin is from Detroit. Here’s what’s going on in Detroit and she comes from the gospel church, let’s talk about that. And she got involved with civil rights, let’s talk about that.” And the kids who are into Beyoncé and maybe never heard of Aretha Franklin are completely captivated and they stay with you because they want to know where Beyoncé came from. That direct line is keeping them interested.
How do you choose your set list for the live shows? Are there ever people who show up shouting out Springsteen songs?
I don’t ever get that. They may not show up for me, I get a lot of that. (Laughs) But it’s really been quite respectful in that way. The new show will be a whole new show. We’re rehearsing it now and it’s a whole ‘nother trip. The [previous Disciples] show frankly is hard to beat because it was my whole life’s story and coincidentally the history of rock and roll. But it was time to evolve. This new show is the next step. It’s a little wilder in some ways. It’s a little more intense in some ways. It’s a little more fun in some ways. It’s just more of everything.
It’s the only two records in a row that I’ve ever done with the same band. Keeping the same sound, keeping the same genre, the same musicians and having them on the road for two years really, really helped me evolve. I’ll always be grateful to them for being so loyal. They’re popular session guys in New York and everybody wants them and they’ve hung with me now for a couple of years. The fact that it’s a major, major artistic breakthrough to happen for me at this stage of the game, it’s really quite satisfying.
Finally, it’s been reported that some of the characters from the series will appear in the Sopranos prequel. Do you know if Silvio is one of them?
Well, I’m not sure. (Laughs) But if he does show up, it’ll be 30 or 40 years younger.
Do you have any casting suggestions?
Well, check and see if Johnny Depp is busy. (Laughs)
He might skew a little, um, old for the part?
I still think of him as a kid!
Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul play two album release shows for Summer of Sorcery, May 4 in Beverly Hills and May 8 in Asbury Park. The world tour comes to the U.S. and Canada beginning June 29 in Syracuse.