At the risk of underselling it, Steven Van Zandt is a New Jersey legend. He's a guitarist in the Garden State's most iconic ensemble, Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, and was one of the stars of the state's most famous TV show, "The Sopranos." So it only makes sense that his new show is set in ... Norway?
Van Zandt co-produces and takes the leading role in "Lilyhammer," which is unique in two ways: it's the only known series about an Italian-American mobster who finds himself adjusting to culture shock in Scandinavia, and it's the first show to be carried in America exclusively on Netflix. Van Zandt spoke last week to The Huffington Post about both the band and the new show, in which he plays the aforementioned mobster, who elects to go into witness protection in the remote town of Lillehammer, Norway, after turning in a rival boss.
This show has some legitimate laughs. I didn't realize was supposed to be funny.
I guess I wouldn't categorize it as a comedy per se, because I don't want people to watch this thing expecting a farce exactly, but it's certainly lighter than "The Sopranos." And part of the reason is the Norwegian culture. When you see all eight episodes, there is some violence, but we're pushing the envelope as far as violence is concerned. They just don't have any -- they don't allow it. You can have sex in primetime there, but violence is not cool.
I know you've toured in Norway and appeared on a TV show there last year. Is that how you got involved in making a show there?
Well, I've been playing in Norway and visiting there a long time, since my solo records in the 80s. And then I started the radio show, and once I started "Underground Garage," especially in the beginning, I had to look around for records. I would go to local record stores and just ask, "Is there anyone making traditional-type rock n' roll records?" And once you hit Scandinavia, there was a lot. And Norway was one of the main countries that just had an enormous amount of talent. So I signed I think three or four bands from there on my record label.
I was working with one of my bands there, when the husband-and-wife team (Trond Fausa Aurvaag and Marian Saastad Ottesen) that created "Lilyhammer" found me and gave me the one-sentence pitch. It was: A gangster goes to witness protection, chooses Lillehammer. And I said, "You know, there's something to that." I hadn't planned on playing a gangster again, obviously -- unless Scorsese called -- but I figured, Eh, what the hell, I don't mind doing a similar type of character. Although this character is quite different in many ways, and was going to run into many different circumstances than what ["Sopranos" character] Silvio would have run in to. It's a sort of a different mentality.
So while your character, Frank Tagliano, is a fish out of water, you're at least a little more familiar with the place?
Yeah, although, the interesting thing about this adventure is, hanging out there and performing there is one thing, but working somewhere is something else. So not only was the character experiencing this adventure, but so was I. Because it ain't HBO with an HBO budget, you know what I'm saying? It was do-it-yourself. That's how they do it over there. You have to make a lot of adjustments.
It's not warm right now in New York, but it can't compare to the cold of Norway.
You know, you just adapt. And it was one of the biggest winters in history, and keep in mind, I'm three hours north of Oslo. It snowed every night in Lillehammer, they get like 6 to 8 feet of snow. We don't even know what snow is here. And by the way, just as a slight digression, the airport never closes, there's no cars by the side of the road, there's no power outages, there's no problem with six feet of snow. We get three inches and the whole fucking world stops over here. I've got to say, it's a different cold. I know people say that and it kind of sounds funny, but I don't know if it's a humidity thing, but it's different.
Did you do any skiing?
Not at all. I tried it one time here, came very close to killing myself, and just never had any interest in trying again.
Your character is trying to learn the language -- did you learn it in real life?
Oh my god, to tell you the truth, it's too tough. It's a tough language. We used that as a premise, that the character understands it but doesn't speak it. Nah, I didn't get too far with it, I'm ashamed to say. It's tough, my ear doesn't quite hear it. I have a Mediterranean ear, it's just not that.
Bruce's new album, "Wrecking Ball," is coming out soon; I know it's more of a solo effort than a E Street Band production, but have you heard it? What can you tell me about it?
I'm going to let him talk about it but, basically, I will tell you this: I love the album. I just absolutely love it, I think you're going to love it and I think everybody else is too. The fact that a guy at his level of success, at his age, is still making records this vital and this relevant and this good, makes me just doubly proud to be his friend. I would love him anyway as a friend if he wasn't doing anything, but it really make me particularly proud to know him, that he would be this engaged, doing something this wonderful at this stage in the game.
I know you've done a lot of political music, including 1985's anti-apartheid song "Sun City"; do you plan on doing that again?
Not really, no. I haven't really planned on doing any more solo records, and if I did, I don't know if they would be political. First of all, nothing's changed since the records I made. Everything I said in the 80s is just as true now. I was deep into it -- worldwide liberation politics as well as domestic -- but by the end of the 80s I had decided it all comes down to one single issue: campaign-finance elimination. And nothing has changed in that regard. It's a shame.
This campaign certainly seems to prove your point.
I made the point today that Gingrich should be the nominee, because he's the best performer. That's what it's all about, it's just show business. Who are we kidding with these issues? Nobody cares about these issues.
All eight episodes of "Lilyhammer" will be available to Netflix subscribers on February 6th.