Steve Hunter: Painting the Town Blue!

By Jeb Wright

Guitarist Steve Hunter is a true rock and roll rebel.  He cut his teeth playing with Mitch Ryder and Lou Reed before taking one of two lead guitar spots with Alice Cooper during the Welcome to My Nightmare era and beyond.  His resume is very diverse and includes everything from Aerosmith to David Lee Roth to Peter Gabriel to Tracy Chapmen. 

While usually mentioned in the same breath as guitarist Dick Wagner, who he shared the stage with Cooper and Reed, Hunter is now back with a solo album inspired by the sights and sounds of New York City.  In the interview that follows we discuss the making of the album, the famous guest musicians on the album and how he got the smooth as butter guitar tone. 

The Manhattan Blues Project is simply a masterpiece of a guitar album.  There are no bells, whistles or gimmicks, even the guest stars had to earn their place on the album, but what is there is pure musical magic.  Steve Hunter is on a creative roll at a time when most musicians are resting on their laurels making The Manhattan Blues Project a must-own album in any music fans collection.

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Jeb: The Manhattan Blues Project is a great album. I have to admit, this is not what I was expecting.  While it is a guitar album, it is not Alice Cooper, Lou Reed or Peter Gabriel in nature; it is Steve Hunter.   

Steve:  The whole album has been buried in me for a few years and I had to get it out.

Jeb: I love the New York theme.  How long ago were you inspired to do this? 

Steve: How it all started was that I saw a picture that a friend of mine, who is a professional photographer, took of Manhattan in the springtime.  This was back in 2010.  She took all of these beautiful photographs and one of them caught my eye.  The song “Sunset in Central Park” sort of came out of that photograph.  I thought it was a really cool idea to do an entire album about the parts of New York that I know. 

In my career, I’ve been in and out of New York City a million times over.  Back in the ‘70’s, I had a love/hate type relationship with the place because it was a lot harder place than it is now--not that is it not now, it’s still a pretty hard place, but it was a lot tougher in those days.  I think, now, it has turned into one of the most magnificent cities in the world.  There were a lot of places in the City that I knew about like Gramercy Park.  I’ve stayed there before.   

We put the album on the backburner for the 2011 tour with Alice Cooper, but it was always in the back of my mind that I needed to get home and finish this. 

I was excited to be writing tone poems, which is not a new phrase; it was something that was applied to Debussy many years ago.  Not that I, by any means, equate myself with Debussy, but I like the idea of writing music that inspires pictures in your mind; when you hear the music, you see images and Debussy was a genius at that.  I wanted to write this album as a musical take on how I see New York. 

As soon as I got off the road, the music just started coming out of me.  Even the cover of the Marvin Gaye song “What’s Going On” just came out.  That song reminds me of New York and I have no idea why, but that track always sounded like a New York track to me. 

Jeb:  How do you equate music to a place?  For instance, “A Night at the Waldorf,” how does it happen?  Does the music remind you of a time and place, or like the photograph, is it always the image that inspires the music?

Steve: It is different for every song.  Sometimes you will write a song and it will remind you of a place while other times, like that photograph, something will inspire the music. 

“Night at the Waldorf” came from when Karen [Hunter] and I stayed at the Waldorf during the Hall of Fame Ceremony.  I was subbing for the late Glen Buxton in Alice’s band.  I got to play in the Hall of Fame Ceremony and it was an awesome and wonderful experience. 

Everyone who is inducted in the Hall of Fame stays in a suite.  I was not inducted, so I just had a regular room.  A regular room at the Waldorf is still an amazing room and an amazing experience. 

That song originally had another title, which didn’t fit the song to me and it didn’t fit the theme of the album.  One day I was thinking that it was really cool to stay two nights at that hotel because it is the epitome of el-swanko hotels and it has such an international feeling to it.   That is how that one ended up being called that. 

Sometimes the song inspires the title and sometimes, something inspires the song, and sometimes it all happens when you are halfway through the process, so they are all a little different. 

Jeb: I love the history of New York, so I love the “Brooklyn Shuffle.” 

Steve: When I did the Berlin show with Lou Reed, we did that DVD in Brooklyn at St. Anne’s Warehouse.  The drive over to Brooklyn is so cool.  When I wrote that song it reminded me of the little drive we took every day over to Brooklyn to do the shows.  Even if I hadn’t had done the Berlin show there the song just reminded me of cruising around Brooklyn. 

Jeb:  On some of these songs there are some pretty famous friends helping you out.  On that song Johnny Depp plays guitar. 

Steve: That is pretty cool, isn’t it?  When I was on tour with Alice we did this little club in London called The 100 Club that is very famous.  The Rolling Stone have played there; everyone has played there.  We had a day off and Alice was shooting a scene in Dark Shadows where he met Johnny Depp.  They got along really well and Alice invited him down to jam with us at the club.

Johnny is a great player.  He had a band in Los Angeles back in the ‘80’s.  I met him and it turns out he is a fan of mine from way back in the ‘70’s.  I am standing there with my jaw dropped because he can’t be my fan, as it doesn’t work that way, because I am his fan.  I told him I was a big fan of his and all of the wonderful things he has done.  We got along really well.  He played great that night and we had a blast. 

I didn’t have his number, so I couldn’t get a hold of him directly, but I knew people who knew him and we went through this convoluted little trail and I finally got to him and asked him if he would play on my album. He said he would be honored.  It is really very special to me that Johnny Depp played on my album; it’s a really special thing.  

Jeb:  Johnny had balls because he is bookended on that song between you on one end and Joe Perry of Aerosmith on the other end. 

Steve:  Johnny can hold his own.  When he played at that club he played two songs with us and he held his own and that is what impressed me. 

Jeb: You and Perry go back to when you played on “Train Kept A-Rollin’.” You were the ghost Perry on that song. 

Steve: I think Joe might have been a little reluctant at first, but I think he saw the irony in it and the fun of it.  The funny thing is that I had lost track of Joe after that band took off.  His career went one way and mine went another.  I have not seen him since.  We have almost run into each other and missed each other for whatever reason.  The last time when I actually saw him, physically, and talked to him, in person, was back when he was recording that album in the ‘70’s. 

It was another convoluted story how he got involved.  I know his guitar tech, as he was my tech when I was on tour with Tracy Chapman.  We stayed in touch over the years and I just emailed him and asked if Joe would be into playing on my album.  He asked him and I think Joe was a little reluctant at first. I thought if he doesn’t do it then that’s cool, but I was hoping he would.  I was excited when I got the email back and he said that Joe would love to play on it.  I got a huge kick out of it, as I played on that Aerosmith album 40 years ago, and now, 40 years later, he returned the favor; how cool is that?

Jeb:  You should have not given him a credit.

Steve: [laughter] Maybe I shouldn’t have credited him.  I could have just said, “Some other guitar player is playing the solo.”  I wouldn’t do that!  Back in those days that is how it happened a lot.  It would have been funny to do that, but I couldn’t do that. 

Jeb: I visit the flame on the side of building where John Lennon was killed when I am in NYC. You got the vibe of the Dakota and that scene on that song. 

Steve: To be honest, I have not been to New York in quite a while and I have not been to the Dakota and seen the flame.  A friend of mine took his first trip to New York and he is really into music history, so he went to the Dakota. 

As he told me the story about the flames, then I knew I needed to write a tribute to John.  I was also a huge fan of George because I have always been a huge fan of his, so I just tied the two together.  I wrote a Beatle’s type song and played slide guitar because George was a genius at slide guitar.  It meant a lot to me that I found that song as I think it was given to me; I don’t know where it came from.  I wanted to capture the story the way my friend told me and how it will be if I ever go there as I am a huge Beatles fan. 

Jeb:  Every time I visit the City I go there.  There is a subway porthole by the Dakota and then you can cross the street and hang out in Strawberry Fields, which is in Central Park and was created by Yoko. There is a mosaic that says “Imagine” in the ground.

Steve: Man, I’ve got to go there as I would love that.  It sounds like a very spiritual thing.  The ironic part is that I’ve never been to Central Park other than to drive through it.  I always tell myself that I am going to spend some time there and I haven’t.

Jeb: “Solsbury Hill” is a great remake and it also has a very spiritual vibe.

Steve: I wanted to do a version of it that was different than Peter’s.  His is the definitive version of it because he wrote those amazing lyrics and that music. 

I wanted to call attention to the feel and the beauty of that song without the words.  It took me a little while to get the right feel to it.  I did it slower than he is doing it now and it is slower than how we did it on the album. 

I wanted to revisit my part as I had come up with that finger-picking part.  It took a little time to get it to sit the way I wanted it to.  Once I got it then it became more fun to listen to and work on.  I got really lucky and I got Tony Levin to play his original bass part. 

Jeb: Tony is wonderful to fans and journalists.  His playing is amazing. 

Steve: Tony is really a great guy.  He really is a genius.   I love playing with guys like Tony because they kick you in the butt a little bit.  When you listen to him play then it inspires you and it kicks you up a notch. 

I did many different types of sessions and live sessions in the ‘70’s and I was always inspired.  I have never been in a group, or in a session, where I didn’t learn something.  I am not talking technically, but more about my own playing and music in general. 

I learned a lot from working with guys like Tony Levin, Jack Bruce, Peter Gabriel and Robert Fripp.  Every time I work with somebody new I learn something new. 

Tony used to drive me crazy because he can learn a song one time through; he just gets it.  In the meantime, I am struggling and writing charts.  I never understood how he could do that, but he is a real genius.  Working with people like Tony can’t be anything but good for you.  Tony is a feel bass player.  He gets it right.  I am more of a feel player.  When you put Tony with a great drummer then you can ride that all night long. 

Jeb:  Has Peter heard your version?

Steve: I don’t know.  I sent a copy to him, but he has been traveling a lot this year.  He took the year off to travel with his family.  I have no idea if he has even gotten it yet.  I would like to know what he thought of it, or if he liked it. 

Jeb:  You surprised me on the guests for “Twilight in Harlem.”  You have Marty Friedman and Joe Satriani, a couple of shredders on a song about Harlem.  I would not have seen that coming. 

Steve: Here’s the deal:  I wrote those solos for Joe and Steve Vai.  I couldn’t get Steve because he was on the road constantly when I was doing the album.  He was willing to do it, but the time just was not able to be found. 

Joe and I met in San Francisco when we were doing a benefit for Jason Becker.  We jammed together on stage and it was awesome.  Joe is one of the most gentle and coolest guys in the business; he’s a real sweetheart.  We got along really well and when I asked him if he would play on my album he said it would be his pleasure. 

When I got that solo back from him, I thought it was just amazing.  I wanted a second shredder, so I asked Jason who I should put in that song with Joe and he said Marty.  I had never really met Marty; I met him briefly at the benefit.  Jason gave me Marty’s email, as he is in Japan.  He said he would do it and I got an extraordinary solo from him.

I meant that to happen.  I wanted that contrast between my playing and the shredder guys.  I wanted intensity in that part of the song, so that when it came back into me playing, it settles back down. If I had not done that then I don’t think the song would have worked the way I wanted it too. 

Jeb:  It can be intimidating playing around guys that can play like THAT. 

Steve:  I have never been interested in playing in that style.  I tried back in the Eddie Van Halen days…I thought that was some cool stuff and I sat down and tried to learn it.  The problem is that it sort of fights a lot of my instincts.  It is not comfortable for me to play that way and it is not the way I think, musically. 

I figured I would just have to go get a real job because I was not interested in doing the musical gymnastics.  I was more into bending and vibrato and phrasing, and I still am to this day.  I spent all my time learning and developing that stuff. 

Joe is an amazing musician all the way around.  He can play blues as well as shred.  He is an all-around musician.  Joe is getting more and more melodic as he grows.  He still shreds, but he has another skill, now, to add to it. 

Jeb:  Jason Becker is a phenomenal story and a phenomenal person.  He is suffering from ALS and he can’t move, yet he still composes music.  He is credited with programming the song “Daydream by the Hudson.”  How did this happen? 

Steve:  I talked to Jason through his nurses, who can read his eyes—he has created a way to communicate through blinking his eyes.  I called him up and I said, “If you have any little clips that I can turn into a song, I would love to put something on my album.”  He said that he would be really pleased to do that.  He has a library that he recorded back when he could play.  He has a lot of ideas on cassettes.  He picked out twenty, or thirty, he thought were good and he played them to me over the phone.  I would tell him the ones I liked and he put together about ten pieces and sent them over to me.  I put them in a little folder and put them on my desktop on my computer. 

When I got to the end of the album, I was ready to listen to Jason’s pieces.  I tried a couple of them, but there was something about the one that became “Daydream on the Hudson” that really spoke to me.  I imported it into my ProTools and messed around with it and edited it.  I put a couple of guitar parts on it and put a little melody on it and I loved it.  It is only a little over a minute long, but we both love it. 

Jeb: Did you meet Jason back when he was with David Lee Roth?

Steve: I ended up finagling my way into that.  I co-wrote some songs with an old friend of mine who was playing keyboards for David.  David called me up one day and asked me if I would like to play rhythm guitar on his next album.  I told him that I would love to do that. 

I had been teaching Jason how to play the blues.  David actually hired me to teach Jason some blues.  I already knew how talented he was.  Jason was a genius player.  He was 20 years old and the way he played was just ridiculous. He was amazing.  I played him some CDs by Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan and people like that and we became fast friends.  We hung out together in Vancouver when we were making the record and we had a blast. 

He was already beginning to have some trouble walking at that time.  I have a lot of eye problems.  We used to joke that I would put him on my shoulders and that he could tell me which way to go.  I just love him to death; we are like brothers. 

Jeb: How inspiring is Jason to be around?

Steve: Anytime you’re having a shitty day, just think of Jason, who can only move his eyes and maybe his thumb, just a little bit.  He is one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met. 

When you go to his house it is full of love and peace and there are just wonderful vibes.  He is still making music; it’s very tedious, but he is doing it.  He is really creating great music, as he’s played some of it for me.  It’s symphonic type stuff and I am hoping he is going to complete this and make an album because there are some really beautiful things on it.  I think he is extraordinary and I love him to death. 

Jeb:  Talk about the tone on this album.  It is fucking out of this world.  Your guitar just sounds good.

Steve: I work hard on that; I really do.  A lot of it comes from using my fingers and my thumbs instead of a pick.  Jeff Beck does that, but I am not trying to copy him.  I have found myself evolving away from the pick, which is the weirdest thing.  Maybe I am following an evolutionary process for me as a guitar player. 

I don’t know what caused it.  I just started playing a few little things with my thumb and my fingers and I just liked the way it sounded.   I think I get a bigger, rounder type of tone than I can get with a pick and I can change the attack.  The next thing I know I am playing more and more with my fingers. 

Most of the melodies on the album, not all of them, but most of them, are made with my fingers.  I don’t think Beck even owns a pick; he gets amazing tones out of his fingers.  Beck is at the top of his game right now. 

Jeb: You are doing some good stuff too.  I think you are getting busier. 

Steve: To be honest I can’t afford to sit back and rest on my laurels, as I am too bloody broke and I need to keep working.  Otherwise, I will be in a doublewide somewhere in a field.  The wonderful thing about being a musician is that you don’t have to retire if you don’t want to.  Beck is older than I am and he really is at the top of his game right now.  I think David Gilmour is also playing better than anything I’ve ever heard.  I am kind of looking forward to that happening to me [laughter].

Jeb:  It is cool that you are still finding inspiration just like you have on the new album. 

Steve:  The inspiration for the album was really the City of New York.  The difficulty was putting that to music.   The song “Gramercy Park” was started two, or three, years ago, but I had not finished it.  When I went back to it, I thought it sounded like island music. 

Gramercy Park is like a little oasis in the middle of Manhattan and it is a beautiful place.  You walk two blocks to Gramercy Park and all of the chaos disappears.  I finished that song drawing on my memories of Gramercy Park.  I stayed there for a month back in the day and I really loved it there.  I didn’t want to leave. 

The inspiration came because I wanted to do things that were a little different.  It is okay if there are ties to the old days, but I didn’t want it to sound like the old days.  I wanted it to be something new.  If it sounded too much like the old stuff, then I threw it out.  I really wanted to create something new. 

Jeb:  I would love to hear you play this in a smoky blues club. 

Steve: I can’t say I won’t play it live, but I am having a lot of difficulty with my eyes and I am trying to get that sorted out.  The other thing is that it is very expensive to tour. 

The problem with putting together a band right now and trying to tour this stuff is that I don’t have anyone to back me up.  I did this all myself and it is much more expensive than it was 30 years ago to tour.  I am not closing the door to it, and if somebody comes along and wants to finance it, then I am there. 

There are people out there who make albums and never tour them and do quite well.  Remember Enya?  She sold millions of albums and never left her room.  It is much harder to do these days, as Karen is always calling people and trying to get the CD reviewed and set up interviews; she is really working hard and we are doing as much as we can.

Jeb:  I really wanted to focus on this album for this interview but next time we are going to explore your past. 

Steve: I really appreciate you doing that.  Anytime you want to talk about the old days then we will do that; I am there.  There is a lot of information out there that is just wrong and any chance I can get to straighten that out makes me feel better. 

Jeb:  Last one:  Bob Ezrin is famous for his work with Alice Cooper.  I have heard that you go back farther with Ezrin than Cooper does. 

Steve: I have known him one album longer than Alice.  Bob produced the Mitch Ryder Detroit album.  He started the production to that just a little before the song “18” was released. 

I have known Bob a few months longer than Alice has known him.  We were doing pre-production on the Mitch Ryder album as he was getting ready to record with Jack Richardson the album that “18” was on. 

Jeb:  I do have to say I really liked seeing you on Welcome 2 My Nightmare and hearing you were back on the road with Cooper. 

Steve: It was a really cool thing.  It was cool for me to tour with him, but it was a very hard tour.  I am an older guy now so it beat the hell out of me [laughter]. 

It was seven months.  I had been used to two, or three, months at a time, but seven is a long tour.  Alice has been doing that for 35 to 40 years, so he is an old hat at it, but it was tough on me.  We had a lot of fun on stage.  It was a fun show to do and those songs are wonderful to do.  Traveling was hard but being on stage was a blast. 

Jeb: Oh, there is one more thing I want to know...with all of the guests on your album where was a Dick Wagner?

Steve: We thought about that, but when we were doing the album Dick was having trouble from his stroke.  He was getting better, but I was finishing up the album and he was out playing some shows in Michigan and it didn’t work out.  You never know about that; I am not closing the door on that either. 

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