Steven Van Zandt has been attached to two pop culture icons with roots in New Jersey: Bruce Springsteen and “The Sopranos.”
And now he’s latching himself onto Netflix, the beloved (but recently battered) DVD/streaming service, which has jumped into the original scripted programming game with the new drama “Lilyhammer” starring Van Zandt.
I just spent 40 minutes talking to the guitarist and actor, who landed in Atlanta early this morning from a special concert at South by Southwest in Austin and woke up to talk to me.
He didn’t sound groggy. Instead he sounded psyched to start the tour, which officially begins Sunday, March 18, at Phillips Arena.
“We just had two of the wildest, most public warm-up shows in history,” he said. “First, we did the Apollo [in New York City.” That’s absolutely sacred ground to those of us who follow music… Then we celebrated Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday at South by Southwest. People didn’t think we were that versatile!”
He said even after all these years, Springsteen’s energy is unstoppable. “He inspires us every tour by the record he’s just written,” Van Zandt said. “That keeps us from ever getting complacent. He’s never complacent. He’s never satisfied. He continues to search for the truth. He keeps us from becoming a nostalgia band. Every tour is based on new material.”
And as any Springsteen fan knows, his shows change around more than most. Van Zandt said any given night, one-third of the playlist will differ from the previous concert.
The biggest change this time around is the absence of sax player Clarence Clemons, who died last year from complications from a stroke at age 69. The E Street Band brought in a five-piece horn section, which includes Clemons’ nephew Jake.
“We didn’t want to place the pressure on any one person,” Van Zandt said. “We have two sax players switching off solos. It’s nice because it gives us a chance to explore our soul roots a little bit more. Jake provides that emotional connection to Clarence. Clarence would get a kick out of that.”
As for playing Frank “The Fixer” on “Lilyhammer,” Van Zandt doesn’t stray too far from his acting roots as Silvio Dante on “The Sopranos.” He plays yet another Mafia guy, this time more of a leader who decides to testify against some fellow wiseguys and is forced into Witness Protection. Instead of picking the Bahamas or Mexico, he opts for Lillehammer, Norway, only because he liked the Winter Olympics there in 1994. Far fetched? Sure.
But shows have been successful with far weaker premises. The concept, Van Zandt noted, was created by two Norwegians who tracked him down while he was in Norway working with a band Cocktail Slippers on his record label. He himself became an executive producer as well as the star.”I wasn’t planning on playing a gangster again so soon, but I couldn’t resist this. It’s too good.”
Frank is more outgoing than Silvio, more a wheeler dealer, not as uptight. Theoretically, he’s supposed to stay out of trouble while in Lillehammer but he can’t help himself. He pulls a few strings to buy a bar, meets a girl and draws the unwanted attention of the local cops. The country has almost no crime yet Frank taps into its seamy underbelly. He learns to understand Norwegian but doesn’t bother to speak it much since most Norwegians know English. So we as viewers have to read some subtitles.
“With everything going on with Netflix this past year, they are making a bold statement,” Van Zandt said, referencing the PR debacle they had last year when they raised prices and then tried to separate the digital streaming operation from the DVD rental portion.
“Lilyhammer” is only available to its streaming subscribers. (I”m not sure how many people have access to the program out of the 24 million total subscribers since some are DVD-only subscribers.) And Netflix released all eight episodes at once, something a TV network would never ever do.
How does Netflix measuring success for an original series? Van Zandt has no idea. Reviews have been generally positive.
(Netflix has two more original shows coming, including the return of “Arrested Development.”)
In Norway, he said, up to 20 percent of the 5 million Norwegians watched the show as a regular series on a network, which would be equal to 60 million-plus in the United States.
“This is a Norwegian TV show that happens to have an American star,” he said. He himself is known in Norway. “There are big Springsteen fans there,” he said. “And they know ‘The Sopranos.’ It’s a funny place. They love Americana. They know everything about us. They like us more than we do.”
Though “Lilyhammer” has some violence, it’s far lighter than “The Sopranos.” “I’d call it more of a dramedy,” he said. “That way, we can have a serious moment now and then.” And in Europe, he noted, “you can be naked and have sex in primetime but they aren’t crazy about the violence. The opposite of us.”
He spent six months last year shooting the eight episodes. But he said he couldn’t stay in Norway for three consecutive months so instead, he flew into Oslo every other week. “I had so many other things to do,” he said, including his ten-year-old “Underground Garage” syndicated radio show on Sunday nights (on Sirius/XM, but not on any local FM station.)
And though he isn’t exactly a cold-weather person, he adapted. “You adapt, or you die,” he said. “It was so cold, the whole landscape would glisten.”
Given the massive number of dates Springsteen does when he tours, Van Zandt isn’t sure how he’s going to squeeze in a second season of “Lilyhammer,” which Netflix would like.
Budgetarily, he admitted the show was a bit of a struggle (especially compared to the dollars HBO was able to lavish on “The Sopranos.”)
“I certainly would want a little more going into a second season,” he said. “There were some days were could have used more people and had more time. We worked very hard. They have a great work ethic. Whatever, I do, it has to have a certain level of quality.”
In the end, he noted, “you have less cars blowing up!” Then he laughed. “Big stunts are written out. You make up with clever dialogue. Sometimes, that’s a good challenge.”
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk