Musician-actor Steven Van Zandt

The musician-actor and writer, exec producer and star of Lilyhammer shares how his series became the first original show on Netflix.

Many of his fans know Steven Van Zandt from his turn on HBO's hit series The Sopranos. Others recognize him as a founding member of his longtime friend Bruce Springsteen's iconic E Street Band. The multi-talented rocker, who grew up in the Jersey Shore music scene, has also written, arranged and produced songs for numerous other artists and fronted his own band. Van Zandt founded the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation and has been honored by the U.N. for his human rights work. He’s again flexing his acting chops in the new TV series, Lilyhammer, which he co-produces and is the first original series to air exclusively on Netflix.


Tavis: I am pleased to welcome Steven Van Zandt to this program. Since the mid-1970s he of course has been a member of one of music’s all-time great bands – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. This past weekend he and the band opened the Grammy Awards with an appropriate new song for our times.

In 1999 he made the move into acting with a memorable role on one of the most acclaimed TV series, “The Sopranos.” He’s back this year with a new TV series for Netflix. It’s called “Lilyhammer,” and so here now a scene from “Lilyhammer.”


Tavis: (Laughs) You’re not such a nice guy.

Steven Van Zandt: Well, that’s true. (Laughter) That’s what acting’s all about, right?

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs)

Van Zandt: You get to do things that, you know, they’re not socially acceptable. (Laughter)

Tavis: So as I said earlier, this is the first original series for Netflix.

Van Zandt: Yeah.

Tavis: I’m going to ask about “Lilyhammer,” of course, the project, in just a second, but how did that come to be on Netflix? Pretty cool, though, to be the first one out the gate.

Van Zandt: It’s quite a compliment, actually, and impresses me very much about Netflix, because it’s got subtitles and it’s a little bit quirky, to say the least. To come with that first is amazing.

We did it for Norwegian TV, first of all. This Norwegian couple came to me and said, “We have an idea, gangster, witness protection, Lillehammer.” I’m like, “All right, I can’t resist.” I wasn’t planning on playing a gangster again so soon, but I had to do it.

So we did it for Norwegian TV and the odd little premise is that we weren’t sure it was going to work, but we said, “Let’s try it,” was the character understands Norwegian but doesn’t speak it.

Now, there are people over there that are like that, right, that just because the language is a little bit tough. So it was an experiment that I think worked out very well, because for the American audiences now, the fact that the lead guy’s speaking English and the subtitles show, right, kind of draws you in a little bit quicker. So it worked out nice.

Tavis: I’m still stuck on the fact that you did this originally for Norwegian TV. (Laughter) I’m not trying to hate on the Norwegians, but – (laughter).

Van Zandt: Are you saying that that’s –

Tavis: No, no, I’m saying –

Van Zandt: What are you trying to say here, Tavis, exactly? (Laughter)

Tavis: I’m saying you’re Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, you were on “The Sopranos,” and now you’re on Norwegian TV? Dude.

Van Zandt: Now let me ask you this.

Tavis: Okay.

Van Zandt: How much do you know about Norway?

Tavis: Not a whole lot.

Van Zandt: Mm-hmm, well –

Tavis: Brothers from the hood don’t know much about Norway. Yeah, I don’t know. (Laughter)

Van Zandt: Well, it’s not just you. Nobody knows anything about Norway. For instance, they’re the richest country in the world, okay?

Tavis: Yeah. That’s why I know nothing about it.

Van Zandt: Right there with Saudi Arabia, among other things. (Laughter) But they’re actually a very interesting place, because honestly, nobody knows much about them. You can’t name a product; you can’t name a celebrity, right? It’s a very kind of –

Tavis: Nobel Peace Prize.

Van Zandt: Well, all right.

Tavis: That’s all I know.

Van Zandt: That’s more than most people know. (Laughter) But it’s a very insular kind of odd country, and they have a philosophy that no one’s supposed to be better than anybody else. So even though they are very wealthy, you would never know it by being there. They don’t export much. This is going to be really the biggest, probably, export ever from Norway. We did it for NRK, which is like their BBC, the national station, and who expected Netflix to be so cool as to say, “We’re going to put it on in America.”

Tavis: Did they know anything about you as an actor or as an artist?

Van Zandt: Well, yeah, “The Sopranos,” was very big there.

Tavis: Yeah, I figured, yeah.

Van Zandt: And Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are very big there. So there happens to be I had two things going for me over there. So that was part of the reason I’m sure they came to me.

But then they said that we want you to be very involved and they wanted me to become one of the writers, which I did, and one of the producers, so I felt it was a risk, in a way, because of all the reasons you’re suggesting. (Laughter) But at the same time, it was an adventure, man. I love doing things like that.

Tavis: So you tripped me up yet again, Steven, because I’m trying to juxtapose Norway, wonderfully rich culture, wealthy people, Nobel Peace Prize, “Sopranos.”

Van Zandt: Well, you see?

Tavis: How can “The Sopranos” be big in the country that gives out the Nobel Peace Prize?

Van Zandt: Because all that stuff is suppressed, that’s why. (Laughter) s

Tavis: Just trying to put it together here, man.

Van Zandt: They are just as mean and nasty and violent as we are. But they just keep it together, because they’re civilized. (Laughter)

Tavis: They seem so civilized to be “The Sopranos” fans.

Van Zandt: (Laughs) That’s true.

Tavis: I don’t quite get that.

Van Zandt: But it’s interesting, actually, because I think there is some of that vicarious living through the arts, which is, I think, why “Lilyhammer” is so popular. We broke the record for viewership the first week, right, biggest show in Norwegian history.

Everybody said, “Well, it’s curiosity.” Second week was bigger, and the third week just played and it was bigger.

Tavis: Wow. And you’ve done eight episodes now, and it’s all on – you can see the whole thing on Netflix.

Van Zandt: Yeah, that’s the new thing, put them all out at once, which is how people – even for network, they’re recording a whole season and then they watch two or three at a time. That’s what people do now, so Netflix is just a little bit ahead of everybody else, but that’s the thing.

Tavis: I’ve had so much fun talking to you already, and we haven’t even gotten to what “Lilyhammer” is all about. We know it’s about a Mafioso who’s basically a fish out of water, but tell me more about this character you play.

Van Zandt: Well, (laughs) that’s about it. He’s called Frank the Fixer Tagliano, right, so he’s an underboss in New York, and just gets along with everybody, everybody loves him. He always takes care of whatever needs to be taken care of.

You need a parking ticket taken care of, or speeding ticket, or whatever, tickets to something, all that kind of stuff.

Tavis: Frank the Fixer.

Van Zandt: Frank the Fixer, right? (Laughter) So everybody loves him. So the boss suddenly dies and the commission puts in the boss’s brother, this accountant, which was just not a really cool thing to do. Based a little bit on reality here in the John Gotti situation, but that aside for the moment.

So okay, so this other guy gets in and he gets very intimidated by the fact that everybody loves Frank and expected Frank to be the boss, and tries to kill him. He tries to kill him.

The character is so shocked by someone trying to kill him that he overreacts a little bit. When he’s asked where to go, he says, “I’m not even staying in this country. I want to get out of the country.” So he chooses Lillehammer.

But he’s a boss type. It’s a very different character than Silvio in “Sopranos.” Silvio was very narrow in his sort of job to keep Tony Soprano, watch Tony Soprano’s back and kind of protect him, and that was his main job.

This guy, so it’s a little more inside, where this guy’s a little more outgoing and he’s really a boss type of guy, so he gets into more situations. Then once you put him into Norway, where there’s no crime – like, none – he has to not only figure out how to work out how to make a living but he has to try and integrate into that society.

They are a monoculture. The opposite of what America is. We have, like, no culture, okay? (Laughter) You can take that on every level.

Tavis: Yeah, I don’t disagree with that.

Van Zandt: But they are a monoculture in the sense that they are one ethnic group, pretty much, five million people in a very big country, actually. So they all go skiing on the weekend, they don’t lock their doors outside of Oslo. They’re very much a singular people and they make rules and they keep them and they follow them.

The exact opposite of America, in other words, especially an Italian American mob guy. He’s going to break every rule possible just out of instinct. So it’s a fun kind of clash of the two cultures and not a comedy exactly. It’s what we call “dramady” now, but the humor comes from the situations and from the characters.

Tavis: Somebody’s laughing because Frank the Fixer is in Norway, where nothing needs fixing. (Laughter) So I don’t know what – they’re all rich. Nobody has any problems. What do you fix in Norway? (Laughter)

Van Zandt: You got it. That’s exactly his problem.

Tavis: I don’t quite get it. So since you’ve been part of a band for years that’s been on the cutting edge and Netflix is on the cutting edge, give me just your own – I don’t want to get too technical here, but give me your own assessment of where you think TV viewing is going, where TV consumers are going and how important Netflix is in original programming in that way, what importance that’s going to play in the future.

I just read an article yesterday about the fact that young people – it blew me away. No, I shouldn’t say – it didn’t surprise me, actually. It was shocking, but not surprising, if that makes sense. The headline says that young people watching more television than ever before, but not on television.

Van Zandt: Right, right, that’s the thing.

Tavis: Watching more, but not on TV.

Van Zandt: Yeah, yeah. It’s an on-demand world we are moving into here. We’re there already. They’re watching on the phones and iPads and they’re going to be watching on their watches eventually and earrings. (Laughter) Netflix is a little bit ahead on all that, just getting the content to all these other devices.

But it’s more than that. This move they made with this show could turn out to be quite significant. First of all, they’re starting to expand overseas so they’re going to be probably in every territory within five years or so.

Tavis: You’re in 46 countries now, Netflix is.

Van Zandt: Yeah, and that’s just our hemisphere. That’s pretty much Canada through South America, right? Social Security now they’re going to move on, which means the whole talk about a global sort of communication is starting to become real. It’s not just a phrase anymore.

So eventually there could be one-stop shopping. You go to Netflix and now you’re on worldwide, which is already interesting, okay, but now you combine that with this concept of buying foreign shows, and maybe because you have a foreign person in a local show, in a domestic show, that creates this new communication of content that I think could be very exciting, actually.

Now, I don’t know if the lead guy speaking English who works outside of Scandinavia or not – that remains to be seen. But mixing up actors from different countries and then knowing that there’s a Netflix in the world who will put that on for America and worldwide all of a sudden makes this whole global thing start to seem real.

Cultural exchange, content exchange, technological, if you will, exchange, getting it on everywhere, all that is all Netflix. There’s going to be four, five or six other players coming into this market, I’m sure.

Tavis: Space.

Van Zandt: Yeah, because it has to, but they’ve got a jump on everybody because I feel within a few years all content will be on all devices. I think the concept of exclusive content is going to go away, except for those that you create.

In other words, the original programming will define the technology and define the network, as opposed to who gets the deal on the catalogue. I think the catalogue will be everywhere, because kids aren’t going to know the difference. They’re not going to know what’s HBO, what’s Showtime, what’s this, what’s that.

They want access to everything. But if you create your own programming, that will be your exclusive content, and that’s how people will be defined, I believe.

Tavis: To your point about content now, Prince, another great artist, told me 20 years ago, “Tavis, content is king.” Every time I think about that – that’s 20 years ago he said this, and I see, to your point now, how right he was, that if you control the content these days, the delivery vehicles are everywhere now.

Van Zandt: That’s it.

Tavis: It’s all about content – who controls the content.

Van Zandt: Yes, and not enough is discussed about the content. We end up with many discussions about the delivery system, especially in the music business. Nine out of 10 music discussions are all about the delivery system. Nobody ever talks about the craft.

I really appreciated Dave Grohl’s speech the other night at the Grammys. He talked about craft. I’ve done speeches about it, I did a keynote speech about it, and I’m always talking about the craft, which we just ignore and talk more about the technologies and delivery systems.

But when it comes to music, you’ve got to write a good song. Let’s not forget that. (Laughs) Start there. It’s the same thing with TV or anything else. The script has to be great. Start with a great script, start with a great song. That’s what we need to focus on a little bit more than how it’s going to be delivered.

Tavis: You’ve opened up a wonderful door for me, and those sitting around the set right now who work with me every day know that I’m always anxious to ask this question of any great artist. Since you went there, I’ve got to follow you there.

So for Steven Van Zandt, what does, in fact, make a good song?

Van Zandt: Mm. Well, you have to have your own high standards, I think, to begin with, okay? Now, where does that come from? Well, that comes from analyzing and in the case of music what we call the bar band phase of your career, which a lot of bands are skipping right now, which is very bad.

So you start to learn – you learn your instrument and the first thing you’re going to do is learn other people’s songs, your favorite songs. Then you have a band and you then go into a club or a bar and play those songs, but they’re all your favorite songs that your heroes, your whatever.

By learning other people’s songs, you start to analyze those songs and start to establish standards for yourself. Now having learned all your favorite songs, now you begin to write, okay? All you’re trying to do is write a song that’s as close to as good as your favorite songs as you can, right?

Tavis: I got it.

Van Zandt: That’s the key. As you do that, you get better, naturally. You also, by the way, learn how to perform when you’re in that bar band phase, right? So you’re learning how to write, you’re learning how to perform, and that is the most important years of your life, and there are many bands out there right now skipping it.

Going from learning the instrument to writing songs and then putting them out on your website or whatever. It’s a bad idea – bad idea. You need that interaction of people to keep your standards up. We had a little bit of an advantage growing up when I did, because we were all dance bands.

People danced to rock and roll, which, of course, no one remembers. But before there was disco and before there was techno and all that stuff, people danced to rock and roll and soul music, which we mixed very much together in the ’60s.

In fact, you go back and look at those old rock and roll shows – “Hullaballoo,” “Shindig,” all those, Rolling Stones come on, Marvin Gaye comes on. Beatles come on, Smokey Robinson comes on.

Every single show, interestingly enough. All that soul music was influencing the rock and roll at the same time it was coexisting with it, right? But it was all dance music. When you got a job at a bar, your job was to make people dance. You had to pull them out of that seat, which made you more of an intense performer. It just created more intensity.

We have carried that into the concert stage of our career. So people say, “Why are you guys so intense all the time,” but that’s why. We come from that era when you had to pull people out of the chair and make them dance.

Tavis: My question is just not why you guys are that intense, but how you have maintained that intensity for four decades now.

Van Zandt: Okay, well, same answer. We grew up in what I call the renaissance. I firmly believe that that will be studied for hundreds of years, the 20-year period from about ’51 to ’71. That’s just a renaissance period. Our standards were set very, very high, mostly by the British Invasion, right? Beatles, Rolling Stones, early Kinks, the Who, Yardbirds, Hollies, Dave Clark 5, all that.

At the same time you got Motown at their peak, right? You know the list – Four Tops, Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, on and on. You had Curtis Mayfield, you had Stax with Sam and Dave and Otis Redding. An incredible amount of great music that we were learning and at the same time trying to aspire to reach.

Well, Tavis, we’re still trying. We’re still reaching. (Laughter)

Tavis: You’re way too modest, man.

Van Zandt: No, I’m telling you right now, I’m telling you right now, that’s how that works. That’s what keeps you intense, is trying to get to that level that you’re probably never going to get to in your mind. So we just grew up with that at the right time, set our standards very, very high, and we’re always trying to reach it.

Tavis: What I adore about you guys, the entire band, is not just your appreciation for craft, not just the intensity, but there is clearly – I want to phrase this just right – there is a deep and an abiding love that you all have for your fans, for the people.

So many artists, everybody says, “I love my fans, I love my fans.” When you guys get on stage and do those marathon shows, I mean, three hours plus, you don’t have to do that, particularly at this age. You’ve earned your –

Van Zandt: Don’t remind me.

Tavis: Yeah, I know. (Laughter) You’ve earned your stripes, you’ve sold millions and millions of records all over the world, it seems. But obviously there must be a love there when you guys get up. You want to leave, as they say, everything out there.

Van Zandt: Understand this – to make it in a band, to make it in music, it’s a miracle, okay? It was the impossible dream, right? Literally, we were kids from New Jersey, right? You ain’t going nowhere, okay? (Laughter) You’re going to the beach if you’re lucky, okay?

Tavis: See, and now they got a hit show about kids from New Jersey.

Van Zandt: Yeah, right, right.

Tavis: Who still ain’t going nowhere, but it’s a hit show. (Laughter) I digress.

Van Zandt: Well originally there was no money in the Jersey shore. Nobody was paying us to sleep on the boardwalk, okay? (Laughter) And God bless you, good luck.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Van Zandt: So it was such an impossible dream that once you managed to make it – and we made it pretty late. We were in bars five, six, seven years before we got in the music business. Only the Beatles, they were there four, five years in Hamburg. Most everybody else makes it a little bit quicker than that.

But by the time we got there, we felt we were the last ones in the door. We were very lucky to get in when we did. So we don’t take anything for granted, you know what I mean? You’re asking people to love you. You’re asking people to need you, to want you, to make your thing an essential part of their lives, okay?

Once they actually do that, you better believe there’s an obligation and a responsibility to deliver. It’s a social contract. It’s an emotional contract, right? You’d better deliver.

Tavis: Before I let you go, all Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band fans were just devastated when we lost Clarence Clemons just a year ago. What do you say to the family and the friends of Whitney Houston, who are now going through the same thing that you guys had to go through just a year ago?

Van Zandt: Yeah, yeah. That vibe over the whole show the other night, we came with it, you know? We already were coming with it from Clarence, and then Whitney. We’re built for that, we’re prepared for that. We are serious people, and maybe that doesn’t make us the most commercial thing in the world, but when it comes to serious issues and serious moments, it’s kind of built in.

Bruce is one of the greatest writers in history when you’re talking about serious issues, and we’re a band that’s just going to deliver it, that’s going to communicate it the way he writes it.

So we went to that show with the attitude of yes, it’s sad, it’s going to be sad, it’s a tragic moment, and there’s no getting around that, but all you can do is take the power of that work of a Clarence Clemons, of a Whitney Houston, an Etta James, Amy Winehouse. Take what they gave and carry it on, because that’s what they would want, right?

You have to pick up their flag and just carry it, man. That’s what we do, and hope you can just inspire the next generation and get as much good work done as you can before you check out. That’s all you can do.

Tavis: You’re doing that and you guys are doing it well, and back out on the road here pretty soon.

Van Zandt: Yeah, mid-March.

Tavis: Mid-March, yeah.

Van Zandt: Starting at the Apollo. (Laughter) It’s going to be the shrine of shrines. I’m a little nervous about that, I’ll tell you.

Tavis: No, please.

Van Zandt: I wasn’t nervous about the Super Bowl, I wasn’t nervous – Apollo?

Tavis: But the Apollo got you –

Van Zandt: I’m going to be looking for that hook, you know?

Tavis: Sandman. I don’t think the sandman’s coming for the E Street Band. No, you guys have got this down to a science now.

Van Zandt: Not taking nothing for granted.

Tavis: Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, great artist, of course actor as well from the “The Sopranos,” now with a new project called “Lilyhammer” on Netflix. I’m honored to have you on this program.

Van Zandt: Hey, man.

Tavis: I enjoyed this immensely.

Van Zandt: Great, me too. You’re great.

Tavis: Good to have you here. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

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Last modified: March 5, 2012 at 1:30 pm