Heart's Steve Fossen: Heartfelt Emotion

By Jeb Wright

The band Heart is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Not only Ann and Nancy Wilson, but also the classic lineup from the band’s iconic first three albums; bass player Steve Fossen, multi-instrumentalist Howard Leese, guitarist Roger Fisher and drummer Michael DeRosier.  This is a classy move by the HOF and the Sisters.  It is wonderful to see the entire group of musician’s responsible for Heart’s skyrocket to fame coming together for the induction ceremony.  

In the interview that follows, Fossen takes us from the earliest days of Heart—he was there before Ann and Nancy, and even there before the band was called Heart—to the day he learned he was becoming a Hall of Fame inductee.  Fossen discusses his days with the band, song by song, album by album, highlighting the good the bad and the ugly, from getting rich to getting booted from the band.

These days Fossen performs with Michael DeRosier in the band Heart By Heart.  The band performs the classic Heart tunes from their era, sung by the talented Somar Macek.  Check them out at http://www.heartbyheartband.com.

Jeb: The big news is that you’re going in the Hall of Fame.  

Steve: It is unbelievable and fantastic.  I’m on Cloud 9.  Everyday I wake up I have to pinch myself because I think I am dreaming.

Jeb: I am age appropriate for ‘80’s era Heart but I really fell in love with the ‘70’s era Heart that you play on. 

Steve: I think that is common amongst a lot of people.  That is not to say that they didn’t have good stuff, as they had a lot of great music in the 1980’s.

Jeb: I think Heart was very influential and the Sisters were very influential to women in rock.  But, I think, without songs like “Barracuda,” “Magic Man” and “Crazy on You” that Heart would not make the cut. 

Steve: If you see the current incarnation of the band, those are the songs they play.  They call on “Magic Man,” “Straight On,” “Barracuda” and “Crazy on You.”  They bring out all of those songs every time they play.

Jeb: You have been out of band for nearly three decades.  Being so removed from the band did you have any inkling that this would happen?

Steve: We were nominated in 2011 and I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep.  I was fidgety and I was out of my mind.  We didn’t make it that year.  It was a great disappointment and I figured that was it.

I thought the next time we would be nominated that I would be in my Hoveround and be so high on medication that I wouldn’t even know where I was.  We were nominated in 2012 and we didn’t make it.  This year, when we were nominated, I took it much more calmly.  I thought that since we were nominated two years in a row that meant something.  I told everyone not to worry about it because we were in this year.  It came true and I was happy.

Jeb: How did you find out?

Steve: I was downstairs playing bass and I had kind of forgotten about the timing and I got a phone call.  Somebody called and said, “Did you hear?  You’re in.”  I said, “Oh my God” and I welled up and couldn’t talk for about thirty seconds.  I was overwhelmed by it.

When we all left the band the narrative that the girls put out—they were trying to do their best and move on—but the narrative they put out was that they were the only ones responsible for our success and everything.  It seemed that everyone was kind of buying it for a lot of years.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame said, “Wait a minute.  The band that the world fell in love with was the band from the late ‘70’s.”

Jeb: I remember reading all of the hoopla in the rock magazines back in the day. 

Steve: They tried to make it seem that way.  I read once where they said, “If it wasn’t those guys it would have been some other guys.”  That is not true.

Musicians from that day had to be aware of a lot of different things.  The Beatles, the Stones and the Who were out then.  You had to know your instrument and you had to have a certain kind of spiritual love and understanding of music in order for people to take you seriously.  We had that.

Roger [Fisher, Heart guitarist] and I, when we were younger, were partners when we did exercises with each other in P.E.  We were always driving each other to do more sit-ups and more pushups and to run faster and farther.  We did the same thing with our instruments.  We really took our instruments and learned them inside and out.  We learned how to play and we learned the deeper meaning of every note that you play and how it fits into the other notes being played.  If we didn’t understand that and we didn’t work on that when we were younger, then it would have showed.

Jeb: You and Roger go clear back to the band The Army.

Steve: Roger and I, in the downstairs office of my parent’s home, were talking one day and we said that we were going to make a band.  We called a couple of other guys and that is how is started.

Jeb: You played for years before Ann Wilson came along.  You had Whiteheart.

Steve: We were The Army for a year and then we went to Whiteheart for a year and then we became Heart for two years.  We met Ann and we thought that Heart was a little tired of a name, and we were changing members and direction, and focus, so when Ann joined we called the band Hocus Pocus.  Roger and I had acquired some debt by that time and we used the money from Hocus Pocus to get out of debt.

In the meantime, Ann and Roger’s older brother, Mike [Fisher], had fallen in love.  One thing led to another and they moved to British Vancouver.  At the time, being out of debt, we immigrated to Canada.

Jeb: There was a story that you were draft dodgers.

Steve: Technically, Michael was, as he went to Canada to avoid the draft.  Roger and I were fortunate enough to be in the lottery.  My number was 263 and they never got even close to that one.

Jeb: When did you go back to being Heart?

Steve: It is funny that I know this date…We were Hocus Pocus until April when we decided to go back to being Heart.  Michael Fisher, Roger Fisher, Ann Wilson and I took a piece of paper and claimed the name Heart for us.  We all signed the paper.  We put it in a sealed envelope and we sent it to my parent’s house.  The date cancellation on the stamp served as a cheap form of copyright for the name.  I still have that letter to this day and it is still unopened.

Jeb: Ann is an amazing vocalist.

Steve: There is almost nobody better.  I am fortunate to have worked with her and in my opinion, she is fortunate to have worked with me.  This is jumping the gun, but I would love for there to be a reunion where we could go and do some shows and maybe do a DVD and a live album.  I think that would be really cool.  I am just telling everybody that I am onboard.  If it happens, then I am there.

Roger, Howard and Nancy are some of the best guitar players on the planet.  They are in the top ten percent for sure.  Michael DeRosier, nobody can touch him on the drums.

Jeb: Dreamboat Annie came out, and we were just talking how Heart was a band…the cover only had the Sisters.  Was that okay with the rest of the band?

Steve: Quite frankly, it was a shock to me.  We were a band and we were one for all and all for one.  All of the sudden, the girls were on the cover and I was like, “What has happened?”  We were a band.  We all poured our hearts and souls into the recording.  I was not thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to get my haircut for the album cover.”  I just wanted to make a good album.

At the time we all thought that if we could sell a couple of hundred thousand records, then, we might be able to make another album.  I am sure that Ann and Nancy pushed for it, but I think the record company was the one who was really pushing for that.

Jeb: Like it or not, Heart was a unique situation with sisters in the band.

Steve: Number one, a great singer is awesome, but to have a younger sister who is also a great guitar player is almost unheard of.  It hasn’t been duplicated since.  They sing together amazing and they are both amazing on their own.  I am not trying to take anything away from Howard [Leese], Mike, Roger and I, either.  We all contributed to what happened.

Jeb: What do you remember about putting together the song “Magic Man.”

Steve: We were sitting in the studio and they were having trouble coming up with a vibe for it.  The drummer and I, his name was Dave Wilson, no relation, started messing around with the chords and we came up with that vibe.  Roger and Nancy, then, joined in on it.

Roger and I were very conscious of our instruments.  I had a 1959 Fender precision bass with flat wound strings.  I used that on Dreamboat Annie.  Some of the bass sounds that Mike Flicker and I got on that record have not been equaled since.  If you listen to “Crazy on You” the bass is so clear; I haven’t heard anything like that.  I am not saying nobody else gets a good bass sound, but we certainly did.

Jeb: I don’t think you knew you were making an iconic album.

Steve: How could you?  Flicker was such a perfectionist.  Every aspect of that record was filtered through Mike’s ears and brain.  He was so meticulous about every single part and he knew that Ann was such a great singer and he knew if, musically, it did not hold up then it would be a flop.  We did everything we could to take it to a level that was outstanding.  We had no idea at the time what kind of iconic album we were making.

Jeb: Was this the first real studio experience for the band?

Steve: Every band gets a chance to go in the studio and mess around. You’ve either got a drummer that is not up to it, or a producer who doesn’t know what he’s doing, or whatever.  This was the first album where everyone paid attention to everything.  Our motto was: He who hesitates is lunch.  We just wanted to make this the best album we could possibly make.

Jeb: Magazine was a real mess.

Steve: As soon as we finished Dreamboat Annie we had more songs, so we started recording them right away.  We thought that if Mushroom Records is going to let us record then lets record.  We didn’t mess around.  There is a YouTube of Heart back in 1978 in Largo, Maryland and we do “Magazine” live and I heard it for the first time when I was on YouTube, and I’ve got to tell you that is a great song.  “Heartless” is a classic.  We play that in Heart By Heart and I love that song.

Jeb: Heart has a unique sound. 

Steve: We had charisma.  People feel charisma and they crave charisma and a lot of bands do not have that.  We did.  Everybody was so different, but we were on the same kind of quest for excellence.  That charisma just came out when we played.  Everybody gave their individuality on the songs.

Jeb: You give Flicker a lot of credit.

Steve: We were recording on a 16-track, which is almost unheard of nowadays.  There would be a lead guitar track and then, as soon as the lead guitar was done, there would be something else, like a bongo track.  There were not enough tracks, so you would use every inch of space on all tracks.

When we mixed Dreamboat Annie, we mixed it thirty seconds at a time. Everybody had a knob and we went for it.  Flicker would say that we could take it and we would put it on the quarter inch tape and we would make sure everyone was happy with it.  Our engineer, Rolph Hennemann, we called the surgeon because he spliced the master together.

Jeb: It had to be an incredible learning experience. 

Steve: It was.  Our board was an ancient board from the ‘50’s and it was all tube; there were no transistors.  Tubes have a unique sound.  The microphone we used had a tube and the board had tubes and the guitar amps had tubes and we got a great sound.

On the first album, Flicker was like God and Buddha and everything all rolled into one.  Everything went through him.  As time went on, he understood that we had things to offer too.  He relegated control and he let us all expand in our own ways too.

Jeb: Heart seemed to have a lot of issues.  Something happened every time you turned around. 

Steve: It blew us away because we tried to renegotiate with Mushroom Records and they gave us the impression that it wasn’t the music of Heart that was selling the records.  They said Mushroom Records had such a great reputation and that is why the record was selling.  It felt odd to us.  We were the ones out there touring.  It was our contributions that were being played on the radio, but they just wouldn’t budge.

On your first album you have to give a lot back to the record company for the chance to record.  Once you pay them back ten times over, then they should renegotiate with the artist and make the artist feel good.  I am not putting them down, but they were very patriarchal type people.  They were like, “Oh don’t worry,” and “We’ll take care of you.  Let us take care of everything and you will be happy.”

Jeb: Did Magazine keep you from moving forward with Little Queen?

Steve: Here is the funny part about it…when we started out touring behind Dreamboat Annie; the record company was not bankrolling us like we were stars.  We were all playing for two hundred dollars a week.  We toured from March through August for two hundred dollars a week.  We were working hard and touring.  They were paying for flights and hotels.  August comes around and we have a platinum record and we were still making two hundred bucks a week.  It went double platinum and we were still making two hundred bucks a week.  We had not negotiated a proper deal with Mushroom.

People were like, “Did you buy a Cadillac this week?”  I was like, “No…”  Mushroom Records was holding the money they owed us like a carrot over us trying to entice us to do what we didn’t want to do—that’s the impression I got.  Of course, there were other record companies clamoring for us and saying, “If they don’t want to give you a bunch of money they we will.  We will give you a big, gigantic bonus and we’ll pay for the litigation to get you out of this contract.”

Jeb: Did you just decide finally to go with that?

Steve: There was a clause in the contract we came across in Mushroom that we could use.  The judge sided with us.  In the meantime, Mushroom had taken the tapes that we recorded, which were halfway done.  They cobbled that together with a bunch of live stuff to make the full album Magazine.  They released it and we didn’t like it.  Part of the deal was that we could remix it and that is what we did.  It all worked out.

Over the years, they’ve made a lot of money on Magazine.  We were happy to be with CBS.  They were a huge company and they treated us like we were rock stars.

We finally settled with Mushroom and got onboard with CBS.  Our management called and said that we had to go meet with the accountants.  We went there and all sat around the table and they passed around all of this paperwork.  Everybody got a check for about two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.  We went from two hundred bucks a week to a quarter of a million in one day.

We had been out touring and playing big concerts, so we knew the money was going to come.  At that point you start thinking, “I should get a car.  I need a couple of instruments.  I have enough to buy a house.”  One day we not rich and the next day we were rich.

Jeb: Talk about the cover to Little Queen

Steve: It was in Griffith Park in LA.  We all had been given permission to this actual Hollywood costume place and pick out costumes.  DeRosier and I went down and Ernest Borgnine was there picking out a costume for his latest movie.

There were racks and racks of clothes and shoes and hats and everything.  We went around and picked out what we wanted and made sure it fit and then we rented it.  We ended up renting horses and goats and a little gypsy trailer.

Jeb: Was there a lot of pressure with CBS?

Steve: There was pressure but we didn’t feel it.  Ann, Roger and I had played together for four years straight.  We played four to five to six nights a week for four years and we were totally confident to play and to have the energy to do it right.  We were very professional.

Everybody knew that if we got sucked into drugs and alcohol then that would be the end of our career.  We were not tea toddlers but our work ethic was very high.  Flicker was with us and we had confidence and we just knew we could do it.  A lot of bands freeze up on their second album and we decided to instead just power through it on Little Queen.

Jeb: Ann told me “Barracuda” you ripped off from Nazareth.

Steve: They do that kind of opening on “This Flight Tonight.”  Led Zeppelin has a song that does that too.  How can you say ‘rip off’?  Did the Beatles rip off Chuck Berry?  Rock is recycled riffs with a little change in it.  We knew we had something special when we recorded that song.

Jeb: Dog & Butterfly opens with “Cook with Fire.”  I love that song. 

Steve: Heart By Heart opens our set with “Cook with Fire.”  By that time, we had the luxury that when we worked on songs, I could work on the bass part in my house and hone it down until it was really what I wanted to play.  Then I could go in the studio and put it down.  Before, when we went to the studio they would say, “Here is the song: Play.”

Jeb: The song “Straight On” shows the band at a new level of tightness.

Steve: That is the exact song I was able to do at home.  I had a four-track at home with the backing track of the drums and guitars and I could really hone into what I wanted to play.  We felt like we could do anything we wanted.

Jeb: The next album had “Even It Up” and that is another awesome example of how tight this band was.

Steve: We had the Tower of Power horns on that song.

Jeb: Bebe La Strange was the first one not to go Platinum.

Steve: It was also the first one without Roger.  When Roger and Nancy broke up…you know what it is like being around a girl that you just broke up with.  It is very awkward and difficult.  Roger was not himself and I think he was disappointed in himself for things he did to the point that Nancy had to break up with him.

Jeb: Did you know that if people started breaking up then things were going to go bad?

Steve: There have been numerous examples of that over the years.  Some say it was not the best idea for them to fraternize with each other in the band.  But, if it hadn’t had happened then the music wouldn’t have happened the way it did.  Roger and Nancy were so close that they would come up with parts to the songs together.  Ann and Mike, Roger’s older brother, were so close they had like a spiritual connection.

Jeb: Private Auditions is my least favorite of all of that era of Hearts albums.

Steve: Mine too.  We had an ambitious idea to have Jimmy Iovine be our producer.  Instead of doing it in Seattle, like we had done on our last three albums, we decided to do it in L.A.  When we got L.A. Jimmy said that the songs were not done and that we needed to finish them.  Ann and Nancy wouldn’t have anything to do with it.  It ended up being a very weird vibe.  There was a power struggle going on, as Ann and Nancy were really flexing their muscles by that time.  They really wanted to make the point that it was them.  I thought the music needed to rock more.  I wanted to go back to my roots a little bit more.  They girls wanted to go another direction and it was disheartening—no pun intended.

Jeb: Do you remember when you knew it was over. 

Steve: It was during the recording sessions for Private Auditions.  Things were so weird and people were so distracted.  It was very strange.  I think Ann was going through a very difficult time, as she had just broken up with Mike. Nancy had broken up with Roger and after she got out of that relationship she went right to Mike DeRosier.  Her and Mike were not getting along by this time.  Mike was very vocal about his opinion about making the music more aggressive.  The girls felt they needed to go in a different direction.

Jeb: How did you find out that you were no longer a member of Heart?

Steve: DeRosier and I could see something was very, very strange.  We got called down to the office and they laid it out to us. Ann, Nancy and Howard were nowhere to be seen.  It was all done through the manager.  It was almost a relief because things were so strange and so awkward.  It really was a relief at the time.

Jeb: Now, thirty some years later you are all going to be back together.  Have you all made amends?

Steve: I have been in contact with Ann via email.  We have had some very respectful email conversations.  I really respect everybody in the band.  The times were weird back then, but I don’t want to think about that now.  Those times in my life were the most exciting.  Why would I throw garbage on that?  They were a great time in my life that I cherish.

Everybody has lived up to their commitments over the years.  Howard, Roger, Mike and I still get paid for sales on the albums we participated in.  We still get checks four times a year and everything.  There is no reason for anybody to be upset about anything, anymore.  Everyone will have nerves when we first see each other but I think there will be a lot of smiles.  Everybody is still very competent on their instruments.

Jeb: Last one: Tell me about when you played the Texas Jam. 

Steve: The top acts of the day were there and it was a stifling hot day.  It was so hot that people were passing out.  They were hosing down the crowd because it was so hot. People were getting sick from the heat.

When we took the stage it was dusk and the sun was just going down, but it was still stifling hot.  We played the first part of our set.  We hit the opening chords of “Minstrel Wind.”  As soon as Roger and Nancy started playing those chords, a breeze started blowing through the stadium.  I’m choking up right now [pauses to regain composure].  The crowd let out a cheer and the temperature dropped like ten degrees---it was totally amazing.  We all looked at each other and it was unbelievable.

Jeb: Any final thoughts about being a member of the Hall of Fame? 

Steve:  I am reading Pete Townshend’s book.  On the paper cover that is on the outside of the hardback there is a blurb about the author.  On Pete’s is says, “Peter Townshend was inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame in 1990.”  Steve Fossen is also going to be inducted into the hall of fame, also.  It is so mind-boggling—I can’t tell you how much I am blown away by the fact that I am going to be in the Hall.

I am going to get that statue—we all get our own statue.  I tell everyone that I am going to make a little case to put it in.  When I walk up to the bar I am going to take it out and put it up on the bar.  When I leave I will put it back in the case.