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EXPLORING THE JUNK PLANET WITH STEVE CONTE - INTERVIEW BY DICK PORTER

Although he is perhaps most widely known for his coruscating Thunders-infused leads in the reformed New York Dolls, Steve Conte has been recording since 1990 – initially with the Company of Wolves, then with his Brother John, in the Crown Jewels, and more latterly, the Contes.

When I first interviewed Steve in 2005, he’d just come through the New York Dolls initial round of reformation shows. At the time, he described the experience asa real rush,’ adding, ‘I just couldn’t get over how much fun it was to play in this band. It’s a classic rock ’n’roll band set-up – A star frontman, his rhythm guitar partner-in-crime and the flashier lead guitarist, with killer bass and drums. I’ve learned that for a player like me, there are no mistakes when you’re a Doll … only notes and chords of “tension” to be resolved."

Since then, he has established himself as an essential part of the Dolls – it’s incredible to think that he’s now been in the group for longer than Johnny Thunders was. It's been a whirlwind! We've released two live albums, two studio albums and played almost every place on the planet that a band can do a rock show – from China to Russia to Israel, Australia and Brazil.

"Of course we're all more familiar with each other now, our quirks, strengths, et cetera. Personally I'm much more relaxed since we've started making new records because now I'm not just the guy onstage playing Johnny Thunders parts, I'm me playing what I play and writing some of the songs as well. On the new record there was certainly more of a sense of trust for our instincts. I mean, we went to Hawaii to record with Todd Rundrgen and only had outlines of songs. Somehow we rose to the occasion and made this great album – pretty much from scratch – in six weeks. Also there wasn't the pressure like there was on the first “comeback” album so we could do what we wanted to a certain degree."

The Dolls’ most recent album, 2009’s 'Cause I Sez So', features a remarkable, reggae infused re-working of the classic 1973 cut ‘Trash’. I asked Steve about the genesis of this controversial updating, "We just kind of tossed that off, it wasn’t even a serious contender for the record but once we were there in the sun with the palm trees it felt right to record it. We had been doing the reggae thing in the middle of “Trash” in our live shows for the past year and it was always fun. There was nothing mental about it – believe me! I think a listener hears the lyric in a different way on the new version, which some diehard fans may think is sacrilegious but you can‘t please everyone ... like Ricky Nelson said – “So ya gotta please yourself...”’

Although the re-tooled ‘Trash’ caused a few bacon sandwiches to be dropped, the live version has always been a freewheeling treat, as was aptly demonstrated during the band’s appearance on BBC TV’s Later With Jools Holland, in May 2009.  "It was an absolute gas to play on Jools Holland,’ Steve declared and it’s always a pleasure to play in England where people really “get it” – you Brits just have great taste."

During breaks from touring and recording with David Jo, Syl and the gang, Steve has recently put together a band of his own – Steve Conte and the Crazy Truth – who’s first album has just been released on the Varèse Vintage label. I asked him how the album came together; "I had been stockpiling material for this kind of band for awhile now so some of the songs were already completed, some were written during the Dolls’ One Day It Will Please Us... period, and some were brand new."

‘After the breakup of our band Company of Wolves in the early 1990s, my brother John and I started making records as the Crown Jewels which were always of high quality; melodic, soulful and sentimental. During that time I had written dozens of songs that were dirty, bluesy, raw and just didn't fit with Crown Jewels material. After we did our last album together as The Contes, John and I took a break and I went on tour with Willy DeVille and the following year joined The Dolls.’

Steve’s mention of Willy DeVille prompted a discussion of the way in which the last twelve months has seen the deaths of many great rock’n’rollers, including Willy, Ron Asheton, Lux Interior and Sky Saxon. In particular, the loss of his close friend left a big gap for Steve. "If it weren't for Willy I wouldn't have a lot of what I have in my life right now. I met my wife on his tour, and now I have a beautiful son. Among other factors, I think playing with Willy may have figured into David's decision to meet with me as a potential guitarist for the Dolls reunion shows.

‘I had recently run into Sky Saxon, who gave me a new Seeds CD so it came as quite a shocker when I heard he passed a few weeks later. Thankfully I got to see Lux and Ron both play over the last few years. We're all gonna die ... whaddaya gonna do?"

Back on the subject of The Crazy Truth, Steve explained, "After two years of playing sloppily joyous shows with David & Syl, I was longing to have a band of my own where the music didn't need to be so “precious” – which would mean not making a record with such beautiful harmonies, layers of guitars, keys, and sounds that can't be reproduced live as a trio. I wanted to play my dirty rock’n’roll songs with a band that could just plug into a couple of amps and shout out backing vocals. And record it that way too! So I called on a guy who I had known since we were teenagers, Lee Kostrinsky and he pulled in his drummer friend Phil Stewart and The Crazy Truth was born.’

‘The record was produced by myself with inspiration from bassist Leeko and producer friend Kevin Salem – I liked to call them my “punk police.” I wanted to be sure that everything on the record sounded like it belonged there and didn't come from some other place. Once I got going though it was really easy to stay on that wavelength. I even found a way to include instruments you wouldn't normally find on an indie-rock’n’roll-garage-band's record – like tin whistle and twelve-string acoustic guitar.’"

"We went into my own studio one weekend to just cut demos, and after listening back I thought, “These are too good to be demos ... this is the record!” Arrangement-wise, everything was pretty mapped out ‘cause we'd been playing them live for a year, but the lyrics were still being worked on. Any overdubs that were recorded just sort of presented themselves and were added as needed. To me the key tracks are “Gypsy Cab”, “The Truth Ain't Pretty”, “Texas T”, “Busload of Hope” and “Junk Planet”. Lyrically and sequentially those first bunch of songs tell a story – the “Crazy Truth” about hard living in NYC. “Junk Planet” is my only political song to date, and seems to be hitting a nerve with the people who are tired of being lied to by governments."

Steve Conte and the Crazy Truth has been greeted by overwhelmingly positive press, with many reviewers focusing on the unadulterated rock’n’roll attitude that suffuses the disc. I asked Steve whether he believed this attitude was an integral part of his character, and if he thought it was a quality that was becoming increasingly rare. "Attitude is something that can't be learned so I'm not even aware of what I have ... I'm just singing what's real. If you write and sing something that you really know about then the honesty is gonna come through. I might not spell out all the details but the basic feelings are apparent and that's what a listener connects with. I hate to think it's an increasing rare characteristic because that would mean people are writing with no emotion. I take my cues from artists like John Lennon, Joe Strummer, Tom Waits and Iggy Pop who always tell a certain kind of truth."

However, despite having the ungovernable spirit of rock’n’roll coursing through his veins, Steve’s influences are wide-ranging, and this is duly reflected on the new album. "There's a bit of latin, reggae and jazz in there, but just enough to keep an album of original rock’n’roll songs sounding fresh on a complete listen through. I'm not a fan of albums that sound like twelve variations of the same song. As far as Beatles records go, I'm a White Album guy. Leeko, our bass player is very much into reggae, as am I – Lee “Scratch” Perry, to Israel Vibration. I love Cuban music like Arsenio Rodriguez and Guillermo Portabales. Our drummer Phil Stewart and I share a love of old school bebop jazz like Miles, Trane, Bird, Diz, Monk, Mingus, et cetera. So when we play rock’n’roll something different happens even if we don't try to use those influences. But then we're just as much into the Clash, Pistols, Stooges, Kinks, Who, Stones, T Rex, Replacements, Pretenders, Morphine, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf."

The disc certainly demonstrates that The Crazy Truth are far more than a mere side-project, and Steve is already planning further recordings. "I love playing with these guys ... it brings out the real animal side of me. There are a few completed songs for a second record and a load of musical tracks without lyrics yet. Some are a bit more on the “world music” tip, but all are rockin’! I am also working on a solo acoustic record where I'm the only one involved; from writing to playing to recording."

The Crazy Truth will be heading out to play some shows this winter, initially in New York and New Jersey, though Steve would like to bring the trio to Europe.

"We’re looking into touring opportunities with other acts as well as booking shows of our own. We would love to come play in the UK and Europe. If anyone can help make that a reality then please do so!"

With a new band to gig with, a new album on the racks and the Dolls hitting the UK in December, Steve has plenty going on right now. "I have so many different projects I want to do, I hope I can get to all of them before I'm old and grey. I see myself going the way of people like John Spencer and Jack White; how they reincarnate themselves into all these different bands. I'd like to do that with some of my other influences; an instrumental guitar record, something in Italian, Afro-Cuban with percussion, et cetera. I love producing other artists as well and would welcome more of that into my world. Basically, as long as I've got my hand on a guitar, pen, microphone or recording equipment I'm a happy man."

Steve Conte and The Crazy Truth is out now on Varèse Vintage

The New York Dolls will be playing Cambridge, The Junction on 2 December, Bristol Anson Rooms on 3 December, London Forum on 4 December, Liverpool Academy on 9 December, and Edinburgh Picturehouse on 10 December.

Interview by Dick Porter 11/11/09

Photos by Mel (taken 03.07.08)