Roy Bittan talks Springsteen, The E Street Band: the Rockol Interview

Roy Bittan talks Springsteen, The E Street Band: the Rockol Interview

He’s simply “The professor”: after Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons’s passing, Roy Bittan is the one of the eldest members of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, right after bassist Garry Tallent. As the second leg of the Wrecking Ball Tour is about to hit Europe once again, we caught up by phone with Springsteen’s pianist while they were touring Australia for the first time in a long time. Here’s what he told us.

How is it going in Australia? You are touring there with a new guitarist, Tom Morello, filling in for Steve Van Zandt
We’re having a great time: we haven’t been here in more than ten years. The fans have been fantastic. And Tom is doing a great job: every night he’s learning new songs at the last moment (laughs). His solo guitar work is really incredible. He sat in with the band many times, playing two or three songs at the time and I think he will make an appearance when he’s around. But he was not a real replacement for Steve Van Zandt. This was simply due to Steve’s commitment and we were lucky enough that Tom was available and willing to substitute him.

You have been playing more than 200 different songs so far, in this tour. How’s that possible?
It’s amazing, isn’t it? Even Bruce told me that the other night... That’s really a huge playbook. And by the time we get done with the rest of the tour later this year, I have a feeling we’ll have added quite a few more.... It’s a challenge, it’s great fun. It certainly keeps things interesting not only for the audience, but for us as well. It allows Bruce to shape a show depending on how he’s feeling and on how the audience is responding. We try to do it without having too many “train wrecks”, as we call them - especially if we haven’t played a song, say, in ten years.

What was the last ‘train wreck’ the band had?
It may happen that some of us forget a part of a song. Or that Bruce will call a song and you try to remember how the middle section goes. But most of the time we learned to go through the songs without having a disaster...

Once Bruce said that you can play so many different songs at the last minute because you once were a “Bar band”. Do you agree with that?
It’s a good way of the describing how the E Street Band works. First of all, the guys in the band are real music fans. We all grew up in a time when we listened and learned every song on the radio. When you play in bars you also learn how to work and audience and how to follow a band leader. We come from that tradition of performances. I think that a lot of today’s band are missing that, because they didn’t have an opportunity to play a few nights every week. The music world is kinda different now. When you grow up like that, you really learn to be versatile on stage.

What is the decision process about picking the songs? Is there one?
Bruce picks the songs, that’s it. Some times he just has an idea he wants to play something different than what’s on the list. Sometimes he just sees a sign for a request. We never really know. Sometimes we just play most on the songs on the list he just made. And some nights he makes huge changes.

After Garry Tallent, you’re the longest standing member in E Street Band, right now. Do you feel some responsibility for that?
Let me think.... I guess Garry is the senior member of the band. Max and I entered pretty much at the same time. I think I was in one or two weeks before Max joined the band. Bruce was replacing piano and drums and I was voted in just before Max. It’s been 38 years and it’s been the great musical joy and journey. When I look back and think that most of my adult life has been spent with Bruce and these guys, I feel blessed and lucky. The songs every night are still very meaningful.

You also were the only member of the E Street Band to play with Bruce in ‘the other band” in the early ‘90s, when the original group was let go.
I felt really bad that the other guys were not around. But Bruce needed to move on without some of the patterns that we had. I was the lucky recipient of some of his changes at the time. It happened in a funny way, it was never planned: I was told, like everybody else, that he was going to record without the band. But we were both living in California, we got together and I played him some music, he rewrote some lyrics to those music and ended been credited as a co-author to some songs. I was not really included in his plans and it was a little weird.

Your piano playing has truly shaped Springsteen’s sound. Do you agree with that?
When I first entered the band, my piano playing certainly shaped the sound of the band. But I think that today, because Bruce uses so many arrangemental ideas, I don’t think it shapes the sound as much as it used to. But certainly when the piano is featured, when Bruce decides that he wants the piano upfront, I do have a certain style that carries what people hears as “the sound of the E Street Band”.

What is your favorite piece of playing in the E Street Band’s catalogue?
“Racing in the street” is always a wonderful piece for me to place, and “Jungleland”, of course. Then there are some rockers that I love to play. The other night there was a sign for “My love will not let you down”: I love playing that song, it has a piano part that’s really fun for me to play. Again in a catalogue of 250 songs, you can’t have just one favorite.

You played with many artists such as Dire Straits, Stevie Nicks, Meat Loaf, but you never published solo work, right?
Just before the tour started, I was finishing an instrumental album that I wrote, pieces of music that I did just to explore. I’ve written things here and there over the years, but it’s always hard for me to focus on my own music, I was always involved in other people’s music, playing and producing. And of course the band is always busy. But I decided I was gonna write my own music, and I’m hoping at the end of the tour I wall get that music the music out.

One last thing: what kind of future do you see for the E Street Band?
Because how the band is right now, Bruce has so many options of what he can play and how he wants to play. The band is working so well, it’s such a fantastic unit, a wonderful group of musicians. I think that we will just continue on. We’ll never know what he’s going to come up with the new material or how he wants to present it, but my feeling is that he’ll do it until he can’t do it anymore and hopefully we’ll be around and just play as long as we can. We have no reason to stop, now.

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