For all his studio and onstage brilliance, Steve Hunter rarely appears on-screen, notable exclusion being a few Alice Cooper and Lou Reed full-length videos, and to see the guitarist play his own jazz-tinged creations has always been nigh on impossible – until now. “Tone Poems Live” is a title of the veteran’s CD and DVD recorded in the summer of 2013 in Los Angeles where Hunter revisited most of the six-stringer solo LPs. How all of this came about? That was the question which underlay our short, yet to the point, conversation.
– Steve, why did you decide to do this album now? Are you taking stock of your back catalogue?
No, I don’t think I’m taking stock. I wasn’t sure until we actually got there but what I did was I tried to pick up the songs that were most fun to play and also the ones that I thought that that particular band, the four of us, might do a pretty good job on.
– You think people who listen to your parts on Alice Cooper or Peter Gabriel’s albums are aware of your solo material?
Yeah, I think so. We do a lot of Facebook stuff and we do a lot of press, magazines, so I think they are aware. Most of the people I know on Facebook know about my past work with Alice and Lou [Reed] and Peter Gabriel and those same people are very aware of my solo stuff.
– On “Tone Poems Live,” you revisited your own old albums, like “Swept Away” and “The Deacon”: do you think you improved on the original versions?
I don’t know whether I look at it as “improved” – we did slightly different versions, so it’s hard to compare them because I think they’re just different. Like we did “The Idler,” and “The Idler” on the “Deacon” album is one version, and one we did live was different. The live versions are all going to have a certain kind of thing in them that wasn’t in the recording, because there are live musicians responding to the track and everything. So I don’t know whether I improved on them or didn’t improve.
– And how different this take on “Solsbury Hill” is from one on "The Manhattan Blues Project"?
Again, I have to say what makes it a little bit different is the fact that there’s four musicians playing instead of one guy. On the version on “The Manhattan Blues Project” I did most of it myself. I did have Tony [Levin] play bass but I did most of the arrangements and production, and playing, and drum programming, and overdubbing. So what happens when you take a song like that and put it into a live band, it just takes on a new life. Which is one of the reasons why I liked doing this particular project; going back to what I said before, it brings a new life to each song.
– So an ensemble dynamics play a huge part in your creativity at this particular moment.
Yeah, when you have interactions with other players, a song changes – it always does. Even if you do a live version of a song that you did using the same musicians in the recording, just doing that it changes, because now you have interaction with the audience as well as each other. So one of the fun thing about doing this project was to see what would happen when the four of us play those songs – Tony played his own bass part and Phil [Aaberg] played his own keyboard part and Alvino [Bennett] played drums the way he wanted to – so it brought a whole new life to it, and then we’ve responded to each other like you’re supposed to when you play in a band. There supposed to be that interconnection between musicians, and that was one of the beautiful things about doing this album.
– Why did you choose to work in a quartet format?
I wanted to keep it as small as possible, and the reason for that is it’s less cluttered, which is one thing, but another thing is, it allows each musician to have a lot more freedom. If there were six of us or eight of us, then there’d be less freedom, because if you have too much freedom with that bigger band, it gets very chaotic. But if you have four players, then you have much more room for each player: I like that myself, I like to have more freedom to do what I want to do with the song. That’s why I kept it as a four-piece.
– Would you like to take it to the other extreme and play it with a big band in a jazz sense of the word?
Yes, I would, actually: in a weird sort of way I like to play in front of a big band or orchestra. I’d love to play in front of an 80-piece orchestra or even a big band like what Brian Setzer does – with horns and everything. I would love to do that and I think that would be as much fun as playing with four-pieces. But it’s a different perspective, it’s a different environment. I would love to be able to do that but it just depends on whether or not it would work out financially. Putting together a big band, even if you got one that’s already together and you can pick a big band that you really like, and trying to get it into the studio, that gets a little pricey, it’s a little expensive, so it would have to depend on whether financing will come. If we can get that kind of financing, I would do it in a heartbeat. But you never know – I never say “no” to anything and never say it’s impossible; I said a few of things weren’t impossible for “The Manhattan Blues Project” and then it turned out they were! I didn’t think I was going to get the two cellos to play on the album, but they did! So you never know. If we can work it out somehow, I’d love to do it.
– And the DVD part of “Tone Poems Live”: is it like a master class or just the four guys having fun in the studio?
The way to look at the current DVD is to see the four of us getting together in a living room and just playing some music for you, the viewer. It’s not an instructional video at all; I don’t know if I’m a good teacher, so I’m not too keen on instructional videos, and I think they kind of boring, most of them. So I wouldn’t want to do that; I wanted to do something that had music and playing from four guys. So it’s like a live gig without an audience, in a living room: it’s very small.
– A domestic perspective of your discography?
(Laughs.) Well, I guess you could look at it that way, sure! It would be like if Tony and I, and Phil and Alvino had a big house and we invited some people over and just play for them. That’s what we wanted to do on this DVD; we didn’t want to make a big deal of it, like going into a club and get a bunch of people in there that’s all going to cheer for you and all that stuff – we didn’t want that! We wanted it more intimate, so we set up the studio to look a bit like a living room instead of a studio, and we all sat and just chilled and played: when you watch it, if feels like you’re right there.