Steven Van Zandt

In Steven Van Zandt’s varied career, he’s known almost equally for being part of two New Jersey institutions: He’s one of the more visible members of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, and he played Silvio on The Sopranos for its entire run. But “Little Steven” is also a songwriter and producer, and he gives new bands exposure via his Underground Garage label and SiriusXM satellite radio stations. His latest project is Lilyhammer, which debuts on February 6 on Netflix, when all eight produced episodes will be made available at the same time. The service’s first original series, Lilyhammer examines how New York mobster Frank Tagliano adjusts to life in Norway after going into the witness-protection program. The show, which is mainly a Norwegian production, debuted in January to record-high ratings on that country’s largest network, NRK1. Van Zandt spoke with The A.V. Club about the show, the interesting arrangement that he made to shoot it, why he loves Norway so much, and why he keeps following Bruce on tour every time he asks.

The A.V. Club: Because you’re listed as one of the producers and one of the writers for Lilyhammer, it looks like it was a collaborative effort. How did this idea get its start?

Steven Van Zandt: They started it, a husband and wife team, Eilif Skodvin and Anne Bjørnstad. Eilif and Anne found me in Norway—in Bergin, Norway actually—mixing one of my bands on my label, and it was their idea. They just said, “Listen, we’ve got an idea for a show,” and they just pitched it in one sentence: “Gangster goes to witness-protection program and chooses Lillehammer, Norway.” I thought it was very unexpected. I did not plan on playing a gangster again, obviously, and I didn’t know if I would ever act again, actually. But the idea just struck me as quite a good one. Also, it seemed like a fun sort of adventure to work in a different country, and just to see what that’s like. So we talked, and I said, “Listen, I don’t mind taking a chance, to some extent, and jumping into this thing. But I gotta have control to some extent.” Frankly, I don’t do that much, so my standards are just very high and I keep them high. And the reason why my name’s on something, people can trust it. Whatever I’m doing, I try and keep the quality very high. And yes, that does mean I don’t do very much, because I just believe in quality over quantity. But in this case, I’d have to have some control. They said, “Well, you know what? We want you to be involved. We want you to be one of the writers with us.” 

AVC: What part did you want to control?

SVZ: Well, the whole thing. I mean, you want to control as much as you can. Obviously the nature of the character, you know, you want to control that, but also... everything. The plot lines, the other characters in the show—I wanted to make sure this thing not only would work for Norway, but maybe would find a way to work internationally as well. Believe it or not, in order to accomplish that, once I got involved creatively, my thing was making sure that this thing stayed as Norwegian as possible and we did not dilute it just to be internationally accepted. I thought that was the way to go. Let’s make it as eccentric, and particular, and detailed as we could about Norway, which remains one of the great mysteries of the world. I mean, nobody knows a thing about Norway, really. 

AVC: What was a way to make it as Norwegian as possible?

SVZ: Well, I just told them, I said, “Look, you guys grew up here. I want the most Norwegian sort of situations possible.” So we can not just contrast the cultures, which is of course entertaining, but also to just reveal to the world what happens in Norway. I mean, people know a little about Sweden, and they know a little bit about Denmark, but they don’t know anything about Norway. So I wanted to make sure we focused on that stuff and just the day-to-day living-type stuff that my character, Frank, would have to encounter, and have to deal with to some extent, even though he’s used to making his own rules. You know, in America, every rule we make, we break. We don’t really have that many rules. But over there, they make the rules, and they follow the rules. It’s very much a monoculture. It’s 5 million people. They don’t lock the doors outside of Oslo. They all go skiing on the weekend. So to walk into that world is so fascinating, I think, for Americans who see this other world. I thought, “Let’s make it as particular as we can.” 

AVC: You said were in Norway mixing an album. How much time had you spent in Norway to that point?

SVZ: I went there a little bit more often than most people. I like the country, first of all. I was one of the very first people to play there. It wasn’t on the rock ’n’ roll circuit, believe it or not. By the ’80s, if you went to Europe... first of all, not that many people were going to Europe. It wasn’t a regular thing in the ’60s and ’70s. So we had just done our first big European tour and did not play Norway with the E Street Band. Then when I started making my solo records, I decided to go there. So I was one of the first to go, and I just thought it was a wonderful place. It’s a very, very different and cool place, and so I started telling everybody to go. I told Bruce to go, I told Bon Jovi to go, I told everybody just, “You gotta start including this country on the circuit. There’s cool things happening here.” 

So I kind of felt, in a funny way, I’d almost, not discovered it, but encouraged people. I just felt attached to it. So I would go through the years, and I got friendly with the cultural minister, and he was always trying to find ways of exporting Norwegian culture, because we both felt that there was just an enormous amount of talented people there, first of all, in music. I literally signed three bands to my label. I could have signed 10. And now, meeting the actors there, they’re incredible. They have wonderful support from the government, which we’ll never have. Not this kind, where they have national theater in six different cities. I mean, the actors are on the government payroll, and they’re really good. You’ll see, as the episodes unfold, episodes two and three, you’ll start to see more of these Norwegian actors, and they’re just very, very impressive. I was friendly with the cultural minister for five, six, seven years, and they weren’t having a whole lot of success exporting Norwegian culture, I mean, to this day. You can’t name a Norwegian celebrity. You can’t name a Norwegian product. It’s just one of those strange things. 

AVC: People confuse it with Sweden most of the time.

SVZ: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Maybe Denmark. But Norway, nobody knows a thing about. So all of a sudden, this thing pops up and I’m like, “You know what? This is the show that could travel. This is the one that could actually solve those problems about how to export Norwegian culture.” So all of these factors kind of came together, and I said, “You know what? I’m just going to jump in and give it a shot.”

AVC: How tough is it for the characters to go back and forth between Norwegian and English and still be believable? Also, how tough is it to show how much Norwegian Frank understands in order to make it look like it makes sense?

SVZ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well you put your finger on the biggest question. I’m telling you, we spent a year on the script, and a good part of that year was trying to figure that exact question out, how much English. I’m very proud of how it ended up. Because we really went back and forth on this, and even on the set sometimes, “Let’s do one with a little more English, let’s do one with a little bit less English.” The fact is that there are people over there who do understand the language and don’t speak it. It just happens to be one of those things. Of course, the entire Scandinavia all speak very, very well, because they grew up with subtitles. They don’t dub. And when you go to the dub countries—Spain, Italy, France, Germany—they dub everything, and they don’t speak English as well. It’s a simple fact. 

So the premise was, okay, I’ll be one of those guys, and my character will be one of those people who go over there, loves the country, learns the language, understands it, but just doesn’t speak it. I throw a word in here or there, but actually, this turned out to be, I think, the key to this. We’ll see how America accepts it, but I think it’s going to be very, very interesting. Because as I watch it, as objectively as I can, and obviously I can’t be completely objective, but as I watch it, to me, it flows very nicely. And the fact that one character speaks English has a different effect than a typically subtitled show. You just get drawn in. You get drawn in a little bit quicker and a little bit deeper, because you’re experiencing things as the character does, because he’s speaking English. I mean, I guess it’s just a natural thing, when you think about it. But I haven’t ever seen anybody do it before. So I’m very proud of how that turned out. It’s working very well. 

AVC: How do you think an American audience will see this show? It’s kind of like a Norwegian version of Fargo. What is the biggest surprise about the country that American audiences are going to see?

SVZ: Well first of all, I think there’s an element of Fargo, that little bit of surreal... and we did this intentionally. We worked hard to make it a little bit odd in a lot of ways. It’s got a little David Lynch quality in there. You know, David Lynch meets David Chase in a funny way. Again, as I watch it, I think to myself, a lot of shows follow templates these days. There’s a lot of procedurals on and blah, blah, blah. But when you’re watching this show, I don’t think you can actually really predict where it’s going. I mean, it really is, I think, completely surprising in the plotlines and everything else. It’s just not something you’ve seen before where you can really predict where it’s going to go. And I think that’s kind of exciting. The various details of the culture will be interesting. But the plotlines, I think, are just unpredictable. They’re not like a typical thing you’re going to see in American television, I don’t think. 

AVC: Frank integrates himself into the town, but he affects them as well.  It goes both ways. 

SVZ: It is both ways. Exactly right. It’s not just, “Let me get over on these innocent, naïve Norwegians.” What he finds out is they’re not so innocent, and they’re not so naïve, actually. I mean, these people are another species. They’re on another planet, these people. They have medical womb to tomb, they have free education womb to tomb right through college. A woman has a baby, they get 10 months of full pay, and then the husband gets two or three months full pay to then go home and be a father. It’s a real different place. I think they’re going to be surprised by just those simple things. And then all of a sudden, this country, which on the surface has no crime, you start to see well, there are little shady things that can go on underneath. So in the end, the two cultures learn from each other and maybe share a little corruption with each other, and all that. 

AVC: You were saying you were reluctant to play another gangster after Silvio. How did you make Frank different so it’s not a continuation of what you did in The Sopranos

SVZ: Well, I think the easy part of that was the circumstance was so different. I mean, you start off with Silvio who, as consigliore and a long-time relationship with Tony Soprano, they had established their relationship very young. The backstory was that they had been best friends their whole lives and had that relationship their whole lives, and Silvio very happy to be the consigliore, the advisor—the only guy on the show who didn’t want to be the boss. Because of the job, and a few other factors, was quite limited and narrow in what he was able to do every week in the show. Some of those factors, not the least of which being, starting with the second season, I was on tour the whole time. So they were nice enough to put my scenes on days off of the tour. So my involvement in plot lines in general was limited anyway, but the job was solid and it was an important role—he was there every week. You saw him at the club, you saw him dealing with Tony, and in a couple of shows through the years, there’d be some variation on that. But a bit more limited. 

Now you go to this guy, he really is a boss. I mean, he’s much more outgoing. I think Silvio was much more circumspect. He had to watch for the whole family. He had to watch, trying to keep Tony Soprano alive, there’s a lot of pressure on him to do that. This guy, just a lot more open. Not as concerned—he gets along with everybody. He’s very shocked that they tried to assassinate him, but then almost immediately goes into denial about it, and it’s almost like it never happened. Because he just can’t even relate to life as threat. He enjoys it too much, and he’s just more of an outgoing guy. And then the circumstances, of course, being in Norway changes everything. You can explore a whole lot more with the character. Having a girlfriend, and the girlfriend has a son, and he mentors the son a little bit, and that’s a whole other range of things to do. So it’s a combination of the guy’s personality and the circumstance that makes it much, much different, really. 

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AVC: Will we see his old life creeping back into Norway somehow?

SVZ: Well, I don’t want to give too much away, but maybe. [Laughs.]  Maybe. 

AVC: How is it different for you to have to carry a show?

SVZ: Oh man, let me tell you something: I had total respect for Jimmy Gandolfini already—now I’ve got twice as much. It really is different. And the one thing that kind of saved the day for me was a very bizarre thing that I demanded, in order to go. I mean, it wasn’t a demand; it was just a necessity. I told them, I said, “Listen, I can’t go to Norway for three, four months straight.” I got a whole life going on here. I’ve got a business, I’ve got a record label, I’ve got a management company, I’ve got a website, I’ve got a huge radio show and two channels of Sirius XM. I said, “The only way I could possibly do this is if I come—and I don’t expect you to say yes to this, I said to them—but I’m sorry, but if we could work it out, I can come every other week. Then I could consider coming.” I expected them to say no, and they said yes! 

Now, the effect of this was very interesting, because you work really hard the week you go. Every Saturday, I flew there or I flew home for six months. And the effect was, you work really hard that week you’re there, I mean, literally, 12, 14, 16 hours a day, and then you’re fried on Friday night. You get on the plane on Saturday, you come home to a whole new world here, and you deal with this stuff. By the time you go back a week later, it’s fresh again. That turned out to be a terrific way to work, actually. You wouldn’t have thought it. I mean, you wouldn’t have planned it that way, but that was the only way I could do it. So that turned out to be good. Because I think no matter how much you love something, if you’re doing it every day and you’re doing it 12, 14 hours a day, you burn out on it. You have to, you know what I mean? It eventually gets tiring, it gets boring, whatever. It never happened with this. Every week I go back totally fresh and hit it again. 

AVC: What did you have to shuffle around with your other stuff to go to Norway every other week?

SVZ: Well these days, nothing got missed, really. I mean, there were some sacrifices. One thing that got sacrificed along the way was, we had spent a long time trying to start a new website for up-and-coming bands, which required funding. Those funding meetings basically were interrupted to the point where I had to walk away from it. That was one thing that got lost. It was a very important website; it could have been a huge, huge, huge website, having to do with up-and-coming bands, which to this day, there’s nothing for them. So we had a very, very big, ambitious website planned, that we worked on for a number of years, and that got sacrificed, I must say, because I couldn’t be at those meetings and all that. But a lot of what I do could be done on the phone or email. So I would just do a radio show ahead. Instead of doing once a week, you do two every other week, things like that. So not everything got sacrificed, but a few things did get affected by it. 

AVC: If you get picked up for a second season, would you do it differently or the same schedule?

SVZ: I don’t know. We’re going to have to see. If that happens, the tour is going to be a bit of a complication here I must say. I could get away with it a little bit on Sopranos, but when you’re the lead, you can’t show up one day a week or two days a week. So that remains to be seen. We’ll have to see, you know, if it’s that popular, people maybe they’ll wait a little bit longer time to see the second season. Things are a little bit looser these days. I mean, what blew my mind, between me and you, I’m like, I’m talking to Ted [Sarandos, chief content officer] from Netflix, who’s just an absolute visionary. I don’t care what anybody says. This guy, to have his first original programming be something that’s subtitled, you know, the guy’s unbelievable, right? And I’m talking to him, and I’m like, “Ted, let me get this straight. I worked a year and a half on this, and all the episodes are going up the same day?” It’s like, wait a minute, a year and a half, and then one day it all just goes spilling out into the world. You know, it’s a little shocking. You have to get used to that concept. But that’s the modern world, you know? 

AVC: When you first heard about the Netflix deal, did you have any concerns?

SVZ: Well, I made the deal myself. My agent set up a bunch of meetings with different people, and Netflix was one of them. A lot of people wanted the show, actually, which surprised me because of the subtitles. But Netflix was really, really enthusiastic about it. And yeah, there was a little concern about the first thing and how’s that going to go. Are we going to be the guinea pigs here? There’s a lot having to do with marketing and publicity and things like that, that come from experience. There’s going to be a little bit of learning on the job here, but I felt it was worth a shot, because of the amount of respect they had for the show and enthusiasm. I thought that will carry the day. There may be a little bump or two in the road here, which there haven’t been, by the way, so far, which is very cool, but we’ll see. Because it’s not easy to market a new TV show and all that. But so far they’ve been doing a good job, and they’re just good people. 

AVC: Now that it’s about to happen, how comfortable are you about them going up at once, and people can watch them at whatever speed they want to?

SVZ: We had to keep in mind that we’re used to a society where that opening weekend is everything, you know what I mean? Like a movie opening, or a record first is released—these days there’s a whole lot of pressure on that first weekend. I think this is not that. I’m going to be talking about the thing all year on the road. I’m going to be on the road for a year. I’m going to be talking about this. It’s probably going to be the main thing I release this year, is this show. So I’ll be talking about it all year, it’ll be available all year, and the word of mouth will spread all year. So it’s not that much pressure on the opening weekend to make sure everybody tunes in and breaks the record like we just did in Norway, by the way, which was a nice surprise. That matters to them because that’s a network show, so you have all that network pressure. I don’t know. I’m just not feeling that kind of pressure with everybody must tune in February 6th. They could tune in six months from now. It doesn’t matter. So as long as it becomes an additional value, and a significant value to the subscriber of Netflix, which I believe it will be, obviously so today. Then it becomes a total success. 

AVC: What surprised you about the ratings in Norway, when it turned out to be a blockbuster hit there? What kind of feedback are you getting from Norway about how the show has connected with people? 

SVZ: Well it’s a little bit early for that kind of information. But I felt it would be a success. It’s probably the biggest show in NRK’s history, and they’re the biggest station. So there was the expectation that it was going to be a success. But I don’t think anybody quite expected it to be the biggest success in history, or the biggest viewing audience literally in history. That’s a nice surprise, I think, to everybody. So I think we’ll see how the details of the reviews start to come out over the next couple weeks, and see exactly what they’re liking about it. But what’s not to like? [Laughs.]  It’s different for Norway. I don’t think Norwegian TV is all that ambitious, from the people I’ve spoken to. When I talk to them about what’s a typical thing over there, the shows seem a little bit mundane, and not that adventurous. So I think this is going to stand out in that way. 

AVC: Is the style different from other Norwegian TV?

SVZ: Yeah. I think we’ll be pushing the envelope a little bit with the violence, even though compared to America, it’s nothing for us. But over there, keep in mind, you can have sex in primetime, but violence, they don’t like it. So I think in that regard, we will be pushing the envelope a little bit and make it a little bit more edgy than they’re used to—which they’ll probably like. 

AVC: Is the comedic sensibility a little bit different there too? Because Lilyhammer is very much a comedy in many ways.

SVZ: Well yeah, I mean, it’s not a comedy per se. We wanted it to stay on the other side of keeping it at least in a dramedy sort of genre, where the humor comes from the circumstance and the characters, rather than jokes and out-and-out comedy, sitcom type of thing. There’s some dramatic moments in it as well. But they have a wonderful sense of humor about themselves, you know? They really do, and so I think they’ll be enjoying the interaction part. They’re also very rebellious. It’s a very odd combination over there. They’re very unique people in that they’re very conservative, very much a monoculture, very unified from the outside, but yet individually, they’re very individualist. They’re very rebellious. They’re very sort of “We don’t need anybody” type of... a very insular and very independent spirit. So I think while they’re so civilized that they maintain this sort of conservative-looking culture, I think inside they’re going to enjoy this crazy guy Frank shaking things up a bit. They can probably relate to my character as the character they’re not allowed to be, you know what I mean? [Chuckles.]  A little bit of that. 

AVC: You mentioned the tour you’re going on with Bruce this year. How tough was it to record the album and mount the tour without Clarence Clemons? It was done after he passed, right?

SVZ: Yeah, yeah, and this was more of a solo record. Bruce goes back and forth between solo records and E Street Band records. I know it’s a little bit unclear. But this was more a solo record anyway, so it wasn’t like the band was in a studio every day, all at the same time, and you look over and Clarence isn’t there. It wasn’t that type of thing. I think it’s going to hit us most emotionally when we hit the stage for the first time live. That’s going to be, I think, quite emotional. And it was quite emotional with Danny [Federici, the E Street Band organist who died in 2008]. I mean, to this day, I look over there and I’m still surprised when Danny’s not there on the organ. He was the first member we lost. So I don’t think that stuff will ever change. It’s going to be there forever, and that’s just how it is. 

AVC: Because Clarence’s sound was such a signature part of the band, what makes Bruce and you guys decide to push on and see how it goes? Does the sound change without him, and how?

SVZ: Well, those are all very important and interesting questions that we’re going to find out. We just started rehearsing, so all this stuff’s going to be discussed and figured out over the next couple weeks, and we’ll see. We’ll see exactly what those answers are. Does the essential sound change? How does it change? How do you compensate for that, and all those kind of questions, I think, will be explored over the next couple of weeks. 

AVC: Have you guys found someone to play sax or are you still trying people out?

SVZ: No, not yet. We’re still sort of in the discussion stages about what to do. There’s really been no decision about anything. It’s a bit early. Another couple weeks and it will start to take shape, I think. 

AVC: With everything you and the rest of the band have going on, when Bruce decides to do a new album and go out on tour, what makes you guys decide to say, “Okay, we’re going to leave this year open to do a tour with Bruce,” and keep making time for it? 

SVZ: I think as you get older, and you get into other things, that question becomes more and more complex. Let me answer for myself. I think that part of your identity remains special, because it’s your first public identity, the first time you were accepted by an audience for what you did as your work, was as a rock ’n’ roll guy. So that remains, I think, your essential sort of identity. I think it’s nice that there’s something consistent in this world, where not only for yourself, but for the audience as well, to actually have something you can depend on in this very uncertain world and confused world, and a world that has no standards anymore, just drowning in mediocrity. It’s nice to have something you can depend on, high quality. It’s a relationship that’s high quality, and the same thing for yourself. You feel, hey, how many great things are you going to be associated with in one’s life? I mean, I’ve been luckier than most, between The Sopranos, and the radio show, and even some of my political successes when I was into politics, South Africa and all that. I’ve been luckier than most, but at the same time, when all is said and done, are you going to have five accomplishments in your life? That would be a lot. 

So the rock ’n’ roll success is one of those accomplishments, and the first. I think it remains a special part of one’s identity, that I think you hold onto and you want to keep. By the way, not in a nostalgic way; I mean, the one nice thing about what we do is there’s always a new record. This guy, I’ve known him my whole life, and he still impresses me. I mean, to write a record this good at this stage of his life, at this stage of his success, it’s inspiring! I mean, he doesn’t have to do this, you know what I mean? He’s still writing just terrific songs; people would kill for these songs when they’re starting a career, never mind how many years later. So it’s not like we’re going out there and playing a bunch of hits, and going through the motions. Then I would think twice. But we’re not doing that. We’re going out there as vital as ever, same enthusiasm as ever, with a terrific relationship with the most exciting audience in the world. So that motivates you. That keeps you going. 

But you do have to make the time. You’re right about that. I do have to make the time, and other things suffer. I could be parlaying this TV show into something bigger, or a second season, as you said, or whatever. Now that’s gotta wait. So you do have to make decisions about that. That’s a conscious decision. Other things will suffer because of the sacrifice I’m making to do this, and that’s just my decision. That’s what I want to do. 

AVC: For a guy in his 60s, Bruce is still putting out stuff that gets played on radio and is very popular. There aren’t many guys putting out new material well into their 60s like that. 

SVZ: No, no, very few, especially this good, know what I mean? So that is something to be honored, and to be encouraged, and to be supported, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not going to abandon him now, when he’s still working this hard to still try and inspire people, and motivate people. I’m going to support that. I’m going to help this as much as I can. 

AVC: Despite everything you do, the top line of your bio is always going to be about the E Street Band. Are you okay with that?

SVZ: Yeah, I am. And we’ll see how things go. You know, who knows. It’s a crazy world. I mean, Sopranos was as big, and in many ways, bigger, while it was on. That was unexpected. But you never know what people are going to like, the things you do, you never know what’s going to be the top line in a bio. But if it remains E Street Band, that’s fine with me. I have no problem with that whatsoever.