I spoke with Steve Stevens, who is responsible for the guitar work in Bozzio Levin Stevens (BLS), a group consisting of Steve, Terry Bozzio (of Frank Zappa fame) and Tony Levin (of King Crimson). Steve has been a part of mainstream music for a long time, performing on Billy Idol records, Michael Jackson's Bad, and even winning a Grammy for the Top Gun Anthem. Yet somehow, he has managed to lurk in the background and I think that BLS, which showcases his work, will also place him in the ranks of the more experimental/adventurous musicians. I spoke with Steve about BLS, his guitar work, and future plans. Here are some excerpts.
What are you up to currently?
I'm producing a Japanese artist by the name of Himuro. He's sort of like the Billy Idol of Japan. I'm playing just about everything on it. On a majority of the records I've done, I've played the bass guitar, done some sequencing/programming, and played the guitar of course, and so it's basically the same thing.
For those of us without access to the PR info about this project, how did you guys get together to record this?
Basically Terry was looking for other musicians to put together a spontaneous jazz-influenced project. His manager at this point pulled out names of a few guitarists. These were the usual famous guitarists. I was the only one there who was not a instrumentalist. I think that intrigued Terry. He was in LA doing a one-man drum clinic and I went over there. I was really impressed by it and found it entertaining. So we sat and talked and he came by my place and I played some of my stuff for him. I was putting together this weird combination of third world rhythms and flamenco guitar at that time. He seemed to really like it and so once we decided to work together there was only one bass player we wanted and it turned out Tony [Levin] did have some time available.
How does this differ from previous work you've done?
I think it's an entirely different kind of project. The emphasis is in a different area compared to what I've done before. There's less rhythm guitar and more free form improvisational guitar. It's different way for me to approach playing the guitar.
Other situations I've been on were on major labels. Record companies are like a bank and in those releases you have to consider the commercial aspect. Instrumental music has a very defined market and doing a record like this freed me up. There wasn't a huge budget and there wasn't a record company telling me what to do which was a kind of a liberating experience for me. I am used to working on records where you don't play spontaneously and this record represents a side of my playing that people haven't heard before. It wasn't a record that took me 8 months to do; it's very fresh and I can listen to it again and again.
So how were the songs actually recorded?
I had gotten together with Terry earlier. I went out to Austin where he lives and spent a bit of time getting some ideas together. Pretty much the way this came together is that one of us had a idea for some sort of structure/song and we'd roll a tape. Then we'd listen to the tape a few times and decide which parts to play and repeat and go from there. So a majority of the stuff is live and spontaneous in the studio. We made a feeble attempt at editing some stuff, but it really didn't work. That's the kind of nature of this sort of record.
I later played it for Dweezil Zappa and he really felt that people got to hear what I'm truly capable of playing.
Are there any plans for a tour of the U.S. in support of BLS?
I believe so. We plan to go to Japan at the end of August and play some dates there. We're oping to come over here [the U.S.] after that.
How was it working with Michael Jackson? Was he even in the studio when you recorded [Smooth Criminal]?
I got a call from Quincy Jones to do that. I had had an experience where I had worked with Diana Ross where she wasn't in the studio. My prerequisite to him [Jones] was that Michael had to be present when I was recording. He [Jackson] was very receptive, and he made some sensible suggestions.
How was it winning the Grammy with Harold Faltermeyer?
Harold was scoring the film [Top Gun] and he called me up and said he'd send me some footage. I saw the aircraft and I was thought it was really cool and played his composition. The song won for best instrumental performance, going against musicians like Stanley Clarke. It was pretty incredible. When I won the Grammy I was also performing on the show, so it was an amazing experience.
What about working with Billy Idol?
It was totally exciting. I was there from the beginning of his American career. Billy was an extremely charismatic and exciting guy to work with. I still speak with him and we're still on very good terms. Maybe I'll be involved in his next record, but not to the degree I was previously. I have to fulfil things for myself as a musician.
Who are your favourite guitarists and who would you cite influences?
Growing up, it's all the obvious choices. It was such a great time for guitar: Hendrix, Page, Beck. A lot of progressive guitar players were influential: Alan Holdsworth and Robert Fripp. Modern guitar players haven't influenced me in any way, though I really have a great love for acoustic guitar.
I like instrumental acoustic guitar music, like Michael Hedges and John McLaughlin. I don't listen to a lot of electric guitar music today. What's happening for guitar music in the 70s is what is happening for synths today. The technology side is taking over.
What kind of gear do you use?
I'm am an endorser of Logic audio. I essentially use the Mac for sequencing. As far as guitars, I've been using these Ernie Ball Musicman guitars, the Eddie Van Halen model. When I was on the road with Van Halen, Ed gave me a bunch of them. As far as amps go, I use the same old marshalls. In the studio, I'm still partial to Lexicon gear (pcm80s). I don't use much processing. I don't use effects like harmonising and chorusing since I'm not comfortable with that. If I want that kind of sound, I'd just double track. I also like using guitar synthesisers. The title track on Black Light Syndrome was done using a Roland controller.
Do you make that "ray gun" sound that is literally a trademark signature sound of yours (it appears in BLS, Dirty Diana) using the guitar?
Up till this time, I opened up ray guns and tweaked the potentiometers to get the sound I wanted. I then played it through the guitar pick up. My brother is helping me design an instrument that will produce that sound straight from the guitar.
What advice would you give to young aspiring guitarists?
I can't imagine being a kid now and picking up a guitar. It's probably more interesting in some ways now. I think that a few bands like the Foo Fighters are great for rhythm guitar music. Spacehog really good guitar players. A majority of guitarists out there are playing... I am not saying you have to be good technically. I just think the overall sounds of record sucks right now. The record industry is suffering because of it. I don't find people as excited about it. In the past, the only way you could see a band was a concert. I remember seeing Emerson Lake and Palmer and thinking I had died and gone to heaven, but today you have MTV.
It's very cool is not to be a good guitar player today. In the 80s the technical side became more important and we may be seeing some sort of a backlash against that.
What are your future plans?
I hope to be doing projects which are musically viable. Projects such as this have opened up a lot of different opportunities for me and I hope to do more Flamenco guitar work. And I'm working on a sound track for an independent film called Dogtown by John Sabro which is being shot for distribution right now. It's a really enjoyable situation. I hope to continue to do projects like that. You've got to want to challenge yourself. It's nice to do high profile things like Billy Idol or Michael Jackson but it's also nice to have a career. That's why I respect people like Robert Fripp or Adrian Belew. But being with people like Billy Idol, you are in danger of being remembered only as long as the song stays a hit.
The last three years I've devoted the majority of the time to playing acoustic guitar and I'm most proud of the acoustic pieces. If there's any indication of where I am going as a musician that's where it is. I think what I do is on the acoustic guitar is uniquely my own.