INTERVIEW AND LIVE PICTURES BY MARKO SYRJALA
Steve Conte is an American musician, songwriter, guitarist, singer, and producer. Currently, he plays in Michael Monroe’s band and is also a solo artist. Previously, Conte has worked and recorded with several bands, including New York Dolls, Company of Wolves, and Billy Squier. But what the heck, let the man speak for himself.
You are currently known as the guitarist/songwriter of the Michael Monroe band, but you have a long career that started in the late ’80s. You’ve played with many groups and projects, and you’re also a solo artist. So, tell me briefly about your past career?
Steve Conte: Oh, I’ve been a solo artist since I was 11 years old. I made my first album in my living room when I was 11. I wrote all my own songs, recorded them with a band, and I’ve been doing that ever since. Well, I had my own– I was signed to Mercury, the same label that Michael was with, for NOT FAKIN’ IT. We were on the label at the same time. I had a band called Company of Wolves in New York. And that was my first record deal. That was 1989, 90, and 91. And then my brother was in the band with me, and then we started our own group, The Crown Jewels, and we had the Conte’s, which is our family name, of course. And then I made a solo career. Steve Conte & The Crazy Truth, and Steve Conte NYC, and now my new solo album is out just under my name, INTERNATIONAL COVER-UPS, Steve Conte. And yeah. It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. And I also play guitar with other people. I have played with Billy Squier, Peter Wolf, Willy DeVille, New York Dolls, David Johansen, all kinds of people. Paul Simon.
LIVING IN NEW YORK
You were born in New York City, and you still live there?
Steve Conte: Yeah. New York City. Well, I wasn’t born in New York City. I was born in New York State, upstate, about four hours from New York.
In your opinion, how is the rock scene in New York nowadays? Many friends have said it’s almost dead, the clubs are closing, and people don’t listen to rock music anymore. How do you see the current situation?
Steve Conte: I think that the rock scene is dead all over the world. Except for Finland? Well, no, it’s dead even in Finland. I guess? I don’t know? Maybe it’s not? But it’s changing; let’s put it that way. I think the last time that rock was really happening was probably around the time of… just after grunge, you know, Soundgarden and Nirvana and all that stuff. That was in the mid-90s. Then, somewhere in the early 2000s, there started to be a little resurgence with the Strokes, then The Datsuns, and all these bands. The Hives and The Vines. But it didn’t really catch on. I mean, they’re all good bands, but it just kept being more dance music, more boy bands, kids, electronics, and you know.
Many musicians have left New York and relocated to the other side of the US. So, what’s the reason you’ve decided to stay there?
Steve Conte: Yeah. Well, a lot of people just moved to Nashville, and that’s what I was going to do as well. I was going to move to– well, I was either– okay. We were going to move. We were thinking like, “Okay. We can move to either London, Berlin or… we were thinking about five places where I would want to live. I’d want to live in London, maybe in Berlin, maybe in Amsterdam, because I’m Dutch, too. My wife’s Dutch. Or L.A? I never wanted to live in L.A. Nashville seemed like the logical place for us. But then we just ended up finding a new place in New York, in the Bronx. So, I moved out of Manhattan. I moved to the Bronx. And we found a great place. My kids go to school there. It’s great for the kids. So, I just go on the road, and I play music wherever, and I come home to New York, so. But there’s still– you know, my phone still rings. People still call and go, “Hey. Can you come and do this gig? Can you come and play on this movie soundtrack? Can you come and play on this record?” If I went somewhere else now, I don’t know, but it would take a long time for me to build up that kind of reputation, where people would call.
I’m curious if the musicians still receive enough good offers to make a good living in the New York area?
Steve Conte: Well, it depends what kind of musician you are. I mean, if you’re like a rock guy and that’s what you do, you are in a rock band, don’t play with other people, and don’t do different kinds of music, I can see you want to leave. But I also do other stuff. I do acoustic stuff. I do country. I do R&B, soul, jazz, all kinds of other stuff too. I play with some different people, but I pick and choose what I do. I don’t just do anything. Somebody calls me up; I’m like, “Who? Who are you? Well, send me your CD or whatever.” And then I listen to it… “Nah.” But yeah, if a jazz artist wanted me to play them and I like their stuff, I do that gig. But a lot of guys are just rock guys. They play in a rock band, and that’s what they do. I also do gigs with Bernard Fowler, the backing singer of Rolling Stones, and Charlie Drayton, the drummer playing with Keith Richards and the X-Pensive Winos. He’s out with Little Steven right now. We do gigs together. So, people call with stuff like that, and we play soul music and Stones. So, it’s the stuff that I love.
Many famous rock clubs and concert venues are now closed in New York. In which clubs, you usually play there nowadays?
Steve Conte: Yeah, there’s only a few left anymore. If I play a club show, I play the Bowery Electric, sometimes the Cutting Room. Bowery Ballroom I played a few times. There might be some others, but I mean, those are the main clubs that I play.
JOINING MICHAEL MONROE BAND
Because you’re now playing with Michael Monroe, let’s discuss a bit about that as well. And the first obvious question would be, how did you end up in the band?
Steve Conte: Well, Sam (Yaffa) brought me in because Sam played in the New York Dolls with me. And then the Dolls weren’t working that much, and Sam had already started to play with Michael a little bit because Hanoi Rocks had broken up, and it was 2010 or 2009? And then, yeah, my last gig with the Dolls was 2010, and I had already– Sam had already called me to say, “Hey, we need a guitar player. Do you want to come and check it out?” And they sent me the music, and I went and played about a week with them in California. We did LA, San Diego, San Francisco, Vegas, I think, and South by Southwest in Austin. And then, Michael asked me to join the band, and that was it.
Because you live in New York, it means that you need to spend a lot of time on the airplane. Doesn’t that bother you at all?
Steve Conte: Well, no, actually, because when I first joined him, I wanted to live in Europe. I was already started to think about living in Europe, and my wife is Dutch, and she wanted to go back to school, and it was cheaper to go to school in Holland than in New York. So, we thought, “Let’s move to Holland.” So, we spent 2010 to 2013 over there. Thus, the first three years I was playing with Michael, I was living here. So, it was easy. I just came to Amsterdam, Helsinki, Amsterdam, Helsinki every week, and then when I moved back to the States, it got a little harder to go, but we still do it. But everybody is coming from somewhere else. Sam was living in New York until about a year or two ago also.
If I remember correctly, Sam lives in Spain now?
Steve Conte: Yeah, and he also lives in Helsinki. And Karl lives in Stockholm, and Rich is now in Ontario. Yeah, but the first three years were easy, and then but it’s easy also because I come over here every summer and I stay in Holland with my family over there. So, it’s easy. I just fly over here from Amsterdam every weekend. We do the festivals, and I fly back to Amsterdam. It’s easy, but after the summer, when we go back home, and my kids go back to school in New York, then I have to fly over for the gigs.
I can guess that it is not always nice to fly that long distances because of a few gigs?
Steve Conte: No, but I want to say I’m very happy to be in Finland and playing with Michael. He is the number one, craziest maniac frontman I’ve ever worked with, and I love him very much. And I’m honored that he sings my songs. And I always try and write songs that feel like they come from him. So, the “Ballad of the Lower East Side.” I know he lived in New York, and I live in New York to write that song, but I wrote it in Michael’s head. I wrote it in his voice, so when he hears it, he goes, “Oh, yeah. I love that song,” because when you’re writing for other people, you have to know what they want to sing about. So, after a couple of years, I realize what Michael wants to sing about. And with that song, and I’ve heard it, I know the connections right away. I love Michael, and I saw the connection.
Yeah, you wrote that song for him.
Steve Conte: Oh, yeah.
THE BAND NAME
I’ve learned that the band you’re playing with Michael Monroe is not only Michael’s solo band but a real band. You write the majority of the songs; Rich and Sam also write material. Isn’t it a bit confusing to call it Michael Monroe because I’m sure that many people think of this as Michael’s solo band only?
Steve Conte: Yes, but the confusing thing is the name of the band is Michael Monroe, he says what he says, but really, people only see the blonde guy in the middle of the stage. They might not even know who I am. So, it’s not a band like KISS, where it’s four individuals. It is what it is. I mean, when I started playing with Michael, I knew he wanted to have… I mean, it made sense to carry on his name because he was known because, at that point, he had a 25 year or, what, a 20 something year career as Michael Monroe. So, if the band would be sudden be called The Black Star Riders or something, some name, people would go, “Who’s in that band?” They don’t know it’s Michael Monroe. “Oh, I like this song. Who’s in the band?”
I got it, and I agree 100%.
Steve Conte: Well, I mean I wrote the songs, and so does Rich, and when Ginger was in the band, Ginger wrote the songs, and when Dregen was in the band, Dregen wrote the songs with me, and Sam wrote some songs too. Michael writes some songs, but most of the songs are written by the band or band members. It’s not just Michael. Michael doesn’t come in and, “Okay, guys, here are the 20 songs I wrote for the album.” It’s not like that. Michael depends on us to write the songs and to play, write in the studio, so that’s how it works.
Did you ever consider any other name for the band?
Steve Conte: Yeah. We thought about that. I mean, it’s not that much different [laughter]. I mean, we call ourselves the Monroe’s, and we make a Ramones style t-shirt that says the Monroe’s, but that’s not the real name. But we thought we should be called Michael Monroe and the somethings? Or, I don’t know. At this point, it doesn’t make any difference.
HANOI ROCKS TALK
Michael’s career is heavily tied to Hanoi Rocks, so I want to ask what your Hanoi Rocks history is? I mean, how well did you know the band before you started working with Michael?
Steve Conte: Not good. I know they started with Gyp Casino, and then Razzle came in, and…I know all about the Razzle, you know, I know the basics. And when he was starting a solo career, I remember some friends of mine saying they were going to go down and audition for his solo band, and I was like– they were calling him Mike Monroe. They were like, “Yeah, we’re going to go audition for Mike Monroe.” I’m like, “Who’s that?” “He is the singer of Hanoi Rocks.” I never heard the music. So, I was aware of him, who he was, and who Hanoi Rocks were, but I never listened to the music.
You never listened to the band in the ’80s or later on?
Steve Conte: No. I mean, I never heard Hanoi Rocks. What I meant to say– I mean like “this guy was in Hanoi Rocks!” I’m like, “Oh yeah, I remember the name of that band,” but I’d never heard them. I remember seeing their picture in some magazines in the US, but they never got played on the radio, they were never on MTV, so I never heard them.
Steve Conte: Never. Never. Then I met Sam (Yaffa), and I thought, “Oh. I better go listen to Hanoi Rocks [laughter].” It was just the same with the New York Dolls. I mean, I’d heard the New York Dolls, and I had some New York Dolls records, but I wasn’t a Johnny Thunders fan, or I wasn’t a New York Dolls fan, but I learned quickly. So, when they asked me to join, I went back, and I listened to the records, and I was like, “Oh, okay. I can do this.”
You know Sam and Michael very well, but are you also on good terms with the former Hanoi guitarist Nasty Suicide?
Steve Conte: Yeah. Nasty always loves to play with us, and we love to play with him. I mean, Nasty has played with us a lot of times. He’s a great guy.
What about Andy McCoy, and do you ever see him playing live?
Steve Conte: No. I don’t know if Andy– I mean, Andy had some solo bands, didn’t he?
He has had several bands and projects in the past.
Steve Conte: Yeah. I remember Shooting Gallery. They were on Mercury Records too. Andy was signed for Mercury at the time we were there. Andy is, yeah, he’s a special kind of guy. When I met Andy, he said to me, I was playing with the New York Dolls, and he said to me, “Hey, man, you can relax, there’s only one guitar hero in this town tonight,” [laughter] and I was like, “Okay, now I know who Andy McCoy is.”
NEW YORK DOLLS AND INFLUENCES
You played with the New York Dolls for several years, but did you see the band in the ’70s?
Steve Conte: No. And I never saw Johnny Thunders, and I never saw The Dolls back in the day. I was too young.
What kind of music and bands did you listen to when you were young?
Steve Conte: Rolling Stones, Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath.
What about 80’s music and especially hard rock bands? Did you listen to them at all?
Steve Conte: I hated that music, the hair metal bands, I hated them. I liked The Georgia Satellites in the late ’80s.
You never liked any hard rock bands?
Steve Conte: I liked the music, but I wasn’t into that kind of thing. I wasn’t into Bon Jovi, Skid Row, Cinderella. I look at them as, okay, these are the kind of bands that my band, Company of Wolves, was competing with, but I wouldn’t go and put their records on and listen to them and go, “Yeah.” I would go, “Okay.” I mean, I took my inspiration from AC/DC, from Zeppelin, Prince, Aerosmith, even KISS, maybe when I was younger.
Now that you mention Skid Row, they are also from New York, and they came to the public simultaneously as Company of Wolves. Did you know the guys, and how did you get along?
Steve Conte: Well, I know the Skid Row guys. They’re friends of mine, Rachel, and Snake, and Scotti. Well, they were already there by ’89. I mean, Skid Row, I think they came out in ’87 or ’88? Bon Jovi was already huge. So, we were like…my band was coming under them, and we were on the same label. We were on the same label as Cinderella. We had the same manager as Cinderella, as Kiss– who else? Bon Jovi was on the label too. Mercury. Scorpions were there also. But I never concerned myself with those bands because I wouldn’t listen to the records and go, “Yeah, we got to write a song like that.” I would listen to The Who and go, “We got to write a song like that.”
Have you ever wondered why the Company of Wolves never became as successful as some other bands in the same company?
Steve Conte: Timing. I mean, anybody will tell you that it’s all being in the right place at the right time. I mean, we were at the right place, at the right time to get a record deal and to put out a record, and we were on the radio. We were on MTV. But then our record company president left, and they brought a new president in, and the new president said, “Who’s Company of Wolves?” they said, “Oh, a great band,” “How many records did they sell?” “Oh, only 100,000,” “Ah, drop them,” and that’s what happened. 100,000 records now would be great. But 100,000 records in 1990, not good. If you didn’t sell 500,000, which was gold, they didn’t care about you.
It is true. Unfortunately, this happened to most of the bands at that time. But a few bands sold enough albums and survived. Bon Jovi is a perfect example of it.
Steve Conte: It happens to many people. I mean, for every one band that you know, there’s a 100 band’s that were almost as big as them on the record label, and then they didn’t sell as many records, so the record company said, “you’re out.” That’s what happened to us. If you didn’t sell platinum or gold back then, they let you go in the ’80s or early ’90s.
MORE MUSIC BUSINESS TALK
Let’s discuss a bit more about the music business and album sales. Do you know what kind of numbers Michael Monroe albums are selling today?
Steve Conte: I have no clue how many copies they’ve sold. I know we got a gold album for SENSORY OVERDRIVE. And I think maybe for HORNS AND HALOS too, but not for BLACKOUT STATES because every year record sales, physical sales, CDs, and vinyl, well, now vinyl is supposedly coming back, but CDs go down and down and down to where I don’t even think that anyone buys CDs anymore, they just now… they’re not even buying MP3s, they’re not even downloading anymore, everybody is only streaming, and you can’t make any money on that. You can’t tell how many sales you have, and they buy individual tracks. They don’t buy the whole album; they stream it, so it’s tough, and it’s shameful. I mean, I was watching a video today about– I’m going to join this organization. In America, they go to Washington DC, and they’re battling in the courts, in the government to try and get more money for songwriters. And that’s the payment, the way they pay musicians hasn’t caught up with the technology. In the 50s and the 60s, the 70s, 80s, they made records, you had the radio, everything was a whole process. You make the record, it goes on the radio, and then in the 80s, it went on MTV, millions of sales, you go on tour, you make more money. Now with technology, no one has to leave home, and they just buy another computer, go to iTunes, download the thing, or just go to Spotify and not buy anything. But they need to pay the songwriters. They need to pay the songwriters for these songs that people are listening to. It’s all about the songwriters. Without a songwriter, none of this music– you don’t hear a Michael Monroe record without songs.
Many bands have said that there is no point in making new music anymore because sales are so low and they don’t make enough money anymore. Things have changed, but if the bands stop publishing new music, the situation becomes even worse. If the bands play only old material, people soon get bored, which would be the final nail to the coffin. Do you think the same way as I do?
Steve Conte: Yeah. Now you have to have a new album, sure. I mean, if we play next year and we don’t have a new album, hopefully, we’re going to record it later this year or early next year and have it out by next summer, maybe. But if we don’t have a new album out, I don’t know. Are people going to come out and see us play the same songs again, or do they want to hear some new stuff?
I would say that they prefer the new stuff. But that’s only my opinion. However, now is the time for the last question. The Michael Monroe band has played lots of gigs in Finland over the past ten years. The band plays every year at almost every Finnish festival, and Michael is involved in many TV shows and so on. Are you not worried about people getting tired of Michael Monroe at some point?
Steve Conte: To tell you the truth, I think– God, we’ve been playing here for nine years. Every summer. Like two or three festivals in a weekend, I guess. Are Finnish people getting sick of us? I don’t know. I mean, I’m happy to play. I like to play with the band; I love the music, I need to work, and we all do, and you know, this is what we do for work, so it’s good. But as long as they keep wanting us to play, we’ll keep playing. But there will probably be a time when we have to say, “Hey, we’re going to take some time off and not play Finland for a little while.”
We will see how things will develop in the future. But thank you for your time now, and all the best for the future!
Steve Conte: Thank you, Marko!