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Friday 10 January 2014

In conversation with Steve Conte.

With Horns and Halos now bedded in, and picking up some well deserved plaudits, are you now in a position to sit back and take a fans eye view and consider that it's a damn impressive body of work?

Aw shucks, thanks man! Now I know you’re gonna ask me a bunch of questions about the writing of the Horns And Halos album but the last thing I want to do is to come off sounding self-important  because I wrote the lion’s share of it…I will just speak the honest truth on what took place and what my thoughts were during the process.

Personally, I tried to not let any of the “success” of our 2011 Sensory Overdrive album put pressure on the writing of the new album. I knew it would be a big change from the pop-metal sound of the last one and hoped that the fans would take that leap with us. It’s like a whole new band now with different players & writers so I knew it would be great in it’s own (completely different) way.

That being said, I hoped it would be considered as you said, an “impressive body of work”. I find that when I set out to write an album’s worth of songs I get in a pretty serious zone. I’m proud of how it turned out…not to mention that this band fucking ROCKS!! A really great bunch of talented, creative dudes…

Those who are aware of your song-writing from your own projects, bands, and past associations with others will be able to hear your influence across the breadth of the album. You must be proud of the part you played in bringing this release together. Do you consider it a job well done?

Absolutely…and I appreciated the opportunity to write for such a rock icon as Michael. To hear him singing my lyrics and melodies was quite a thrill.

When Ginger left the band someone had to step up to the plate and become the main songwriter. Sami, Dregen and I had been stockpiling song ideas but Michael had a couple of busy years with his Finnish TV show and in fact, he told me that he was “blank and out of ideas” for songwriting. So I took it upon myself to be the one who made the riffs & chord sequences into actual songs by giving them subject matter, lyrics, melodies & hooks.

Stylistically, I think what I brought to the Horns And Halos album was a more “power pop” sense of melody and a soul thing that comes with being an American blues/R&B based player and singer. Ya know, what went in is what comes out…my childhood record collection & listening 70’s soul music on the radio everyday is what shaped me.

On Sensory Overdrive I think that Michael welcomed Ginger’s guiding hand because of his 20 year career as a successful songwriter but at the start of the Horns And Halos writing sessions, Steve Conte The Songwriter was still sort of a “best kept secret”….so I had to win everybody over. There was talk of bringing in different writers but once I wrote “Ballad Of The Lower East Side”, zeroing in on Michael’s days in New York and making it fit him as if it were his own song - I was in.

A lot of people know me as either a guitar player or a singer but I’m equally adept as a songwriter and have been writing & recording my music as long as I’ve been playing & singing - since the age of 10. I’ve just never had the kind of success in any of my bands that earned me that huge following. I was on my way with Company Of Wolves (Mercury Records, 1990) but when we left the label in 1992 and I didn’t get re-signed with my next band, Crown Jewels I had to think of some way to make a living. So I went off to play guitar with other artists like Willy DeVille, Eric Burdon, Billy Squier and eventually New York Dolls - but I was constantly making my own records independently.

If you listen to those independent albums of mine; Crown Jewels - Spitshine (1996) & Linoleum (1998), The Contes – Bleed Together (2003) and  Steve Conte & The Crazy Truth - Steve Conte & The Crazy Truth (2009) you can hear the wide range of styles that have served me well for creating music for people like Michael and David Johansen.

What was the actual writing process like? Did it flow easily, and are the band as a whole comfortable in how you all provide ideas and then shape them? Does everyone have their voice heard, as it sounds as if it has that inclusive gang mentality of all for one and one for all to it?

We would get in the rehearsal room and jam on people’s ideas. Someone would start playing a riff or chord sequence and we’d all join in, or not - if we weren’t feeling it. Dregen & Sami brought in a lot of stuff like that; single riffs, grooves & chord progressions whereas I was the one to bring in completed songs with melodies, lyrics, chords and riffs, all in place. There were also a few songs that Michael contributed some lyric and melody ideas to.

As far as “music” goes, everybody in this band comes up with great ideas for their own parts but for lyrics, since English is my mother tongue and Michael sings in English, I was the man to write most of the words. I’m pretty adamant about leaving out clich├ęs and “slogans” (unless there’s a damn good reason for it). In fact a lot of this lyric writing was stream of consciousness around a subject, more like painting with words. Initially, I was hoping for some more input on lyrics & subject matter but once the band saw me deep in “writer mode” they just backed off and let me go to it. In the end I was happy about that because it all turned out fine…I even surprised myself at times!

While the album is of course a group effort with everyone contributing how much percentage wise of Horns and Halos would you accept credit for?

Percentage-wise, I wrote 2/3 of the album. Musically speaking, everyone performed their butts off on this album and all of our individual personalities came through, making it a group effort. But as far as the actual “writing” goes, some contributed more than others. When it comes to songwriting I have quite the memory for details. Here’s a breakdown:

Ballad Of The Lower East Side
Music/Melody/Lyrics by SC

Saturday Night Special
Music/Melody/Lyrics by SC

Don’t Block The Sun
Music/Melody/Lyrics by SC

Child Of The Revolution
Melody & Lyrics by SC
Music by SC (verse/chorus/bridge) & Dregen (pre-chorus & intro guitar riff)

Stained Glass Heart
Melody & Lyrics by SC
Music by SC (pre-chorus & chorus) & Dregen (opening guitar riff/verse)

Eighteen Angels
Lyrics & Melody by SC
Music by SC (chorus & horn part/ arrangement), Dregen (opening guitar riff/verse) & Sami (pre-chorus)

Soul Surrender
Lyrics by SC, Melody by SC & MM
Music by Sami **MM got credit for coming up w/ the Reggae groove

Lyrics by SC,
Melody by SC (verse) & SC/MM (chorus)
Music by Sami

Half The Way
Lyrics by SC
Melody by SC (verse/pre-chorus) & SC/MM (chorus)
Music by SC (opening harp/guitar riff, verse/pre-chorus) & Sami (chorus)

Hands Are Tied
Melody & Lyrics by SC
Music by SC (Chorus & horn part/ arrangement) & Dregen (opening guitar riff /verse) **Karl & Sami got credit for the great “groove”

TNT Diet
Lyrics by SC/MM (mostly MM)
Melody by MM
Music by Dregen/Sami/MM

Horns And Halos
Lyrics by SC (verses/bridge) & MM (chorus + a couple of verse lines)
Melody by SC (verse/bridge) & MM (chorus)
Music mostly by Dregen & Sami (some of bridge by SC)
Title by Dregen

Happy Neverafter
Lyrics by SC/MM,
Melody by SC (chorus/pre-chorus) & MM (verse)
Music by SC (bridge/solo) but mainly by Sami (intro/verse/pre-chorus/chorus)

Rock And Roll Bounty
Lyrics by SC
Melody by SC (verse/pre-chorus) & SC/MM (chorus)
Music by Dregen & Sami

How long did the recording take?

About 5 weeks to record, and then a long time to mix (it was done via the internet with 5 guys in different parts of the world…)

Were you all in the studio together for the majority of it, or as with many modern albums was there points when you had to record guitar parts and vocals separately and then weave them into the over all sound of a track?

We were all in the studio recording together to get the real live feeling of the band. After we nailed each song we kept the bass & drums and over dubbed guitar parts (for better sounds), solos, vocals and any other stuff like piano, horns, percussion.

How difficult was it to time manage the recording, as apart from other members having their own projects you have been working on your own album that is being released as part of a pledge campaign haven't you?

I’ve been juggling schedules my whole life so it’s not a big deal to me. We all just blocked out the time to be there in Stockholm for over a month, so we couldn’t do anything else. By contrast, I recorded and mixed my solo project “The Steve Conte NYC Album” over the course of 2 years, stealing time whenever & wherever I could to get it done.

(FYI - until January 18th people can still order the digital download of it here:

You pulled in an impressive list of fellow musicians to assist you with this one. Members of Foo Fighters, The Wildhearts, New York Dolls, Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, Hanoi Rocks, Georgia Satellites, Alice Cooper, Mink DeVille, Hellacopters, The Urban Voodoo Machine, Mott The Hoople, Backyard Babies, The Wallflowers, Company Of Wolves, Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, Ian Hunter, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith. It's like a roll call of honour spanning the decades. Can you let us in on how that has went?

At the time that I decided to make this album I was living in The Netherlands but since I have my own studio in NYC of course I wanted to record it there. That meant that I had to pick the songs and the players that would work well together doing NO PRE-PRODUCTION REHEARSALS and send out quick guitar/voice song demos to the guys. Then I booked two days to record the basic tracks.

It was good because the songs were simple and since no one knew them very well when we got into the studio it kept things raw and on the edge. We’d run through it once or twice and then start recording!

I recorded the basics with drummer Rich Pagano and whichever bass player was slated to play on that particular track. On the first day we had bassists Sami Yaffa, Dennis Dunaway and Keith Christopher come in to record one song each. On the second day my brother John came in and laid down bass on four songs.  A third tracking session was done a few months later for  the song “Anytime At All Times”. I did that one with just Rich on drums and me on acoustic guitar (later, I overdubbed the bass myself).

After getting the basics down, the next step was to record semi-final takes of all my electric & acoustic guitars, mandolin, dobro, slide, etc. and then make good rough mixes for the guest players to play & sing to.

Some of the guests “sent in” their tracks via the internet (we all use Pro Tools); Rami Jaffee sent me B3 organ & piano tracks, Ginger sent me a guitar solo, Kyf Brewer sent me a piano track and his daughter Coco’s BG vocals, Paul-Ronny Angel sent me a harmonica solo and Crystal Taliefero sent some beautiful vocal tracks. Everyone else, I recorded while in the room with them; Sylvain Sylvain, Michael Monroe, Tracie Hunter & Phoebe White, Boris Kinberg & Kenny Margolis, Dregen, and Paul-Ronny (vocals).

It was like “casting”. I’d think of a part that the song needed and cast it - who is right for this role? or - where can I use this person’s talents? Some times I got stuff that I wasn’t expecting but instead of staying married to an idea of my own, I would “go with the flow” and figure out how to make what was given to me work.

For the true guitar/recording geeks: The basics were recorded with guitar amps in my own studio’s live room while drums & bass (DI & amp) were recorded in Pagano’s studio next door. I recorded many of the basic guitar tracks on my Gibson J-160E acoustic, both direct and through my Vox AC-30. If I tracked on electric, it was either on my ’68 Tele, ’59 Les Paul Junior or ’70 Les Paul through my ’67 Marshall Plexi.

In fact how did you manage to get everyone on board for the project?

Incredibly, I just told everyone that I was doing a solo record and would love them be on it…and they all said YES without blinking an eye. Either I have some really sweet friends or I must be respected in some way…

How was it being in charge? In all projects there has to be some give and take, but when you are the guy sitting at the head of the table the final say has to be yours. Do you relish that role?

Most of the time, yes. But when it came time to sing the songs, which was more than a year after recording the music, I was losing a bit of perspective so I called in some of my producer friends to just record my vocals on 4 of the songs and to be that extra “ear”.

Would you describe yourself as a workaholic, or is it simply that creating music is something that defines you and as important as breathing? I guess what I am meaning is does it feel like work because apart from the Michael Monroe album and the NYC release you got together with the Crazy Truth guys and also recorded a covers ep? That's some solid song-writing and recording hours right there an a very short space of time.

Nah, it’s not like you think. Compared to others I really do take a long
time to do things…but that’s because I’m also trying to live a full life as well; raising my son, learning a new language (Dutch), maintaining many non-music relationships, and doing freelance music work (live gigs, sessions for film & tv soundtracks, commercials, other artist’s albums, etc.)

For example, that Covers EP took more than a year to record - and it was only 6 songs, recorded practically LIVE. But when you are stealing time between tours and real life (plus dealing with studios and other people’s availability) it narrows down the chances you get to chip away at a project. We cut the basics in one day and then I went back to the studio once a month (sometimes once every two months) to do overdubs, sing and then mix and master.

And to close this interview. What do you do to relax Steve? I mean seriously. Do you even know what down time is? ‘

Relaxing…hmm…well, I do listen to music, usually old jazz, blues or world music…and read; poetry, fiction, biographies, etc.  I like to attend arty events; Flamenco and Tango performances, theater, opera, ballet, museums, galleries, etc. Cooking is also good…I make a modified version of my Grandma’s red sauce recipe (with lots of red wine!) I used to SCUBA dive but it’s been a good 10 years since I’ve been on a trip. And then sometimes I just end up on the couch after a day’s work with a quality TV series like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos…

Thanks Mainy! And thank you folks out there for reading.
I hope this sheds some light on who I am and what I do…


Steve Conte

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