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Van Zandt dials the underground

Whether known as Little Steven, Silvio or just plain "Steve," Steven Van Zandt is one of those guys who manages to be imminently recognizable to folks, even when they're not quite sure where they know him from.It's not that he's hard to find: Currently, he's still entrenched in his main gig, as guitar player for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band; he's a bit of a political activist; and he plays the aforementioned bruiser Silvio Dante on the hit HBO television series The Sopranos.

It's his new gig, however, that's really got him excited: host of a national two-hour radio program titled Little Steven's Underground Garage, in which Van Zandt plays his favorite music of all time, garage rock. To hear Van Zandt, garage rock is what used to be called, simply, rock. Creative Loafing recently chatted with Van Zandt about his new show.

Creative Loafing: What led to the genesis of Underground Garage?

Steven Van Zandt: I really hadn't been hearing my favorite songs on the radio for a long, long time. Never have, really. So it started out selfish. I just wanted to hear some songs I liked that I hadn't been hearin'. (laughs) I found out about this contemporary garage movement that's going on, and I really wanted to support that with everything I had. A lot of them are having a hard time getting heard, and the major labels are ignorin' "em. It's literally an underground scene. I based my show around these new bands, even though I'll only play, y'know, maybe five out of 25 songs of the new ones. The other songs set the context for the new stuff. There's a few that have been signed -- the White Stripes, the Strokes, The Vines, the Hives -- but that's four out of a lot of bands. It takes some attention to turn people on to it. That's what radio used to be to me and people of my generation. It's also a great party -- these are all two-and-a-half minute songs. It's fun, y'know? It's a nice complement to what most of the stations play the rest of the week.

And you can educate people on the roots of the music.

People don't realize there's a direct link between, say, Eddie Cochran and Pelle Almqvist of the Hives, with whoever -- Joey Ramone -- in between. We're trying to be educational without being educational. (laughs)

How did the show get off the ground?

We got interest right away, but I wanted to do a national show. I thought it was too important to do just on a local level. I went to Hard Rock Cafe, and they said that they thought that even though it wasn't commercial that it was an important venture, and that they wanted to do what they could to help out rock & roll. It's the first time some of these corporations have supported something completely underground. Before now, it's been supporting things that didn't need it, you know? What we're doing is not commercial. Not mainstream. Rock will never be as mainstream as it used to be. It's been dormant. It's been dead. It was time to make a move. I don't think rock could be more dead than it's been. I think that's why people are responding so much. We've been getting amazing response. I'd like to tell you it's me. (laughs) It's getting to hear all these amazing songs on the radio together, which has probably never happened. But when you hear it, it's undeniable. It doesn't matter whether you know the song or don't know the song. That's what's selling the show right now.

What's the criteria for making the show?

It's important to me to not just play stuff that's cool or important, like the college shows do. I've got a mainstream show. On mainstream stations. It's got to be a hit. Or what would have been a hit back in the old rock & roll days, y'know? I got to play the cream of the crop. I'm playing exactly what got me into music. The British Invasion was so important to me. It basically started the whole "band" thing in the 60s. I'm playing that stuff because no one plays it any more. Early Beatles, early Stones, the Kink's first five albums, the Who's first couple of albums. Yardbirds. Animals. I'm playing that, and then the Nuggets stuff that Lenny Kaye put in a compilation back in 1972 -- the one-hit guys, The Standells, The Electric Prunes. The stuff that blew your head then, and will blow it now... if you get a chance to hear it. I got a format I've figured out. A weird balance: old and new, hard and soft. The idea is to show that all 50 years of rock is connected to this garage stuff, which is what makes it so cool for me. It's fun to mix it up set to set, so people are not sure whether it's an old song or not.

It's timeless, essentially...

Yes. It's timeless, it really is. And that just proves it.

What's been the hardest for you, a first-time DJ?

It's funny to say this, but what's difficult is when you have complete freedom. When you don't, it's kind of easy. You have your limitations, you have your rules you have to follow. When you can do anything you can think of, it makes it hard! (laughs) It took a while to find my voice. What kind of attitude are you going to have? Is it serious? Is it too serious? Is it funny enough? Is it too frivolous? We tried four or so demo shows with style, but the music format was never in doubt.

How do the other guys in the E Street Band feel about the show?

They're great. Garry Tallent is a huge music collector, and all of them support it 100 percent. Bruce is like my A&R guy. He loves it. He's actually the one that turned me on to The Hives.

Little Steven's Underground Garage airs Sunday nights at 10pm on Rock 92 WKRR, 92.3 on your radio dial.

Contact Tim Davis at timothy.davis @cln.com

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