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Steven Van Zandt on Netflix show ‘Lilyhammer’ and the Springsteen tour

Steven Van Zandt plays Frank "The Fixer" in the Witness Protection Program and living in Norway on Netflix's first original drama "Lilyhammer." CREDIT: Netflix

Steven Van Zandt plays Frank "The Fixer" in the Witness Protection Program and living in Norway on Netflix's first original drama "Lilyhammer." CREDIT: Netflix

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.”

Join my Facebook fan page and Twitter.

By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk

20 comments Add your comment

GeorgiaBorn

March 16th, 2012
4:56 pm

First? For once? I just had to say it

3d

March 16th, 2012
5:22 pm

I wish Bruce would chill a little on his political positions.

Dave

March 16th, 2012
5:50 pm

Then he wouldn’t be Bruce … sounds like a good show.

My Two Cents

March 16th, 2012
6:06 pm

Loved “Lillyhammer”. Looking forward to the second season and glad Netflix took a chance on it.

Fred ™

March 16th, 2012
6:29 pm

Is Brucie gonna play music or do a political commentary? I quit going to see him years ago when concerts got shorter and he wasted half his time going all political. If he wants to run for office then run for office, if not then shut the hell up and play.

He’s like the monkey in the old fashioned organ grinders. I pop a nickel in I want to hear a tune. I don’t give a fat rat’s ass what he thinks about p[politics. He’s a singer. SING and shut the hell up about the rest of it. You Natalie Maines and Toby Keith need to get over yourselves Brucie, you ain’t got the brain power to direct public opinion just because you can sing. When I want to pay in excess of 100 bucks for political commentary I will do so. I haven’t not yet however seen fit to do so. I look at it as a rip off when he he preaches his BS.

Ethel (TM pending)

March 16th, 2012
6:55 pm

Fred you’re so old you can’t even remember what a Bruce concert is like. He could talk for an hour and he would still play an hour more music than most other performers. 2.5-3 hours is average for his shows.There isn’t a better value in the concert world.

“Brucie, you ain’t got the brain power to direct public opinion just because you can sing.” No, but he knows about what he talks about because he is informed and cares-sounds like just the opposite of you Fred!

Honest Ingine

March 16th, 2012
7:13 pm

I wish all of the Holywood and Music Stars would just not push their political agenda’s. It does take away from their persona.

Jeff

March 16th, 2012
7:29 pm

You don’t like the politicizing? Ignore it, the tunes will start a couple minutes later. You hear more drivel and dangerous rhetoric from the media (substitute “fox news” here). His concerts are longer and more entertaining than anything else out there and have been from the beginning. The only complainers are those that disagree with his politics. Again I say…go buy a beer or use the bathroom, but be back for the songs. Stop whining and enjoy the show! Jeez, some people will complain if Jesus himself came back and said something they didn’t like.

A

March 16th, 2012
8:28 pm

Good interview, Rodney. I’ve enjoyed Little Steven’s work (and of course Springsteen) since the ’80s, so it’s great to hear his side of things. “Lilyhammer” is very enjoyable, and so is his radio show. I love how so many members of the E Street Band have their own thing going on when they aren’t touring with the Boss.

David

March 16th, 2012
9:16 pm

Enjoyed the interview! If I stopped listening to musicians over politics I’d probably have to toss 80% of my collection in the garbage. Lighten up, people.

mojo

March 16th, 2012
10:21 pm

Love this show,,the people in it are really good and has a good storyline.

Frank Furter

March 16th, 2012
11:30 pm

ash

March 17th, 2012
9:47 am

robert

March 17th, 2012
11:35 am

Yeah Bruce a man of the people, advocate of the underdog, one 90 dollar ticket at a time

Fred ™

March 17th, 2012
11:58 am

Yeah Ethel, I AM old. I remember general admission to concerts. I remember Brucie when he was playing bars. He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer but he can make some good music.

@Jeff: Get over yourself. I don’t care WHAT his politics are, I don’t want to hear about them at a concert, lefty or righty. I pay to hear MUSIC. If he wants to SING politics, that’s a different thing, American Skin,(41 shots) for instance. He wasn’t bad about it in ‘81 but by the time he was finishing up the Born in the USA tour he was out of control thinking he was doing a political rally instead of a concert. He’s really gotten full of himself.

LOL I was ABOUT to say I don’t want to hear Barack Obama sing but then I remembered this clip……… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7×4ZS7ZZWc

Gary

March 17th, 2012
12:20 pm

I second Ethel’s thoughts. I’ve went to every tour for 34 years and I never remember Bruce going on incessantly about politics during a concert. I think Bruce is pretty aware not all concertgoers agree with his political views. I think Bruce just gets the fact bankers and politicians have sold out the middle class. Oh Fred thats Democrats and Republicans alike. I think questioning his intelligence is beyond ludicrous..

Grasshopper

March 17th, 2012
12:53 pm

What is a Springsteen?

Fred ™

March 17th, 2012
5:26 pm

Gee Gary, and you’ve held conversations with Brucie how many times? None? So what do you base your “facts” on his intelligence on? Good vibes? ESP?

[...] Steven Van Zandt on Netflix show ‘Lilyhammer’ and the Springsteen tour (pre-show) The return of Bruce Springsteen (pre-show) [...]

Dylan

March 19th, 2012
2:20 pm

What I don’t get about all these whiners is why they would ever have listened to Bruce to begin with – his music has been infused with his beliefs, political and otherwise, for his entire career. Are you just too stupid to understand what you’re listening to? Listen, it’s tough enough to get a ticket to his shows – if you don’t appreciate his genius, then SHUT UP and stay home and free up the good seats for the folks with brains…