Steve Hunter: The Deacon Speaks

By Jeb Wright

Steve Hunter came to prominence as part of a guitar tandem that included Dick Wagner.  The pair were matched up by producer extraordinaire Bob Ezrin to work with Lou Reed.  Later, Ezrin called them into work on an album by Alice Cooper titled Billion Dollar Babies, and, from there they went on to be in Alice’s band, beginning with the iconic rock album Welcome to My Nightmare.

Hunter went on to record with many other legends of rock, including Dr. John, David Lee Roth and Peter Gabriel. 

He is still creating music as last year’s critically acclaimed The Manhattan Project shows.  In the works is a DVD project, and then after that, perhaps more new music from the man known in rock ‘n’ roll circles simply as The Deacon

In the interview that follows, Hunter discusses working with Lou Reed and Alice Cooper.  He sheds light on why he and Dick Wagner were brought in to play sessions on Billion Dollar Babies, and explains how the oil embargo put a kibosh on an Alice Cooper tour way worse than Cooper’s issues with the bottle. 

This is a great chat with a guy who has totally been there and done that!

Jeb: The last time we spoke we talked about The Manhattan Project.   How did it do?  Any new plans for more new music?

Steve: The album has been received really well.  It’s got good reviews.  I can’t buy a house with it, but it has been doing better than I expected it to.  I am very happy with it. 

We have a DVD coming out later in the spring.  It is a live DVD, but we didn’t do it in front of an audience.  We recorded the band live in the studio, like they used to do it back in the ‘50s.  This will be around 11 songs that are mine and a cover or two.  It is in the mixing and editing stage right now. 

Karen [Hunter] and I are also doing some songs together as she is a singer.  We are going to do an EP of five or six songs that may just be for download, we’re not sure yet.  As far as my next album goes, it will probably not be for a little while because we’ve got all of this other stuff going on.  I don’t even know what it is going to be.  I will move on to something else, but I have not really thought about it much because I have other stuff going on.  There will be another CD, for sure, at some point. 

Jeb: You are famous for playing in bands with Dick Wagner, back in the day.  How did you guys meet?

Steve: It’s kind of strange because I can’t remember exactly how we got together.  I remember Dick had a band called Ursa Major.  There was a time I played for a short time with The Chamber Brothers.  We had some shows in Florida and we had driven from Connecticut to Florida.  The first night when we got there we were off, so we went to this club.  I think it was in Miami and I think it was called The Flying Machine and Dick was playing there with Ursa Major.  That is where we first talked and met. 

I didn’t know at the time that he knew Bob Ezrin.  Later on, after I was with the Lou Reed band, after I had done the album Berlin, Bob suggested Dick and I get together.  It was mainly through Bob.  Bob was working with Dick at that time.  Bob knew of Ursa Major.  Dick could clarify all of that.  I don’t know how Dick and Bob met.  I am sure that Bob knew of Dick before he met me.  We sort of got together for the Lou Reed thing. 

Jeb:  Dick came after Berlin?

Steve:  I am not really sure, but I think Dick played rhythm guitar on “Sad Song.”  He may have done some background singing as well.  I did a lot of the basic tracks in London, the electric guitar stuff.  I did some overdubs in New York later and by that time they had added some horns.  I remember Dick saying something about background vocals.

Jeb: Did you like playing in a band?

Steve: In the early days, I wanted to be a session player.  I didn’t want to be a reader guy.  I wanted to be a rock player because I wanted to play with a lot of different people.  This was the late sixties.  I thought it would help me gain a lot as a guitar player if I worked with a lot of different people.  I wasn’t into the band sort of thing. 

I got out of the army in 1970 and I joined a couple of local bands, but I did not just want to stay in a band.  I wanted to keep moving.  I thought if I played with more and more different musicians that I would become a better and better player.  I was into playing with other people over being in my own band.  I liked being a side man and a session guy. 

Jeb: That era of music was very special. 

Steve: The rock stuff that was going on in the late sixties was jumping off points of what we wanted to do in the seventies.  I loved the Doors, Hendrix, the Stones, the Beatles and Cream and we used them as a jumping off point. 

The kind of rock stuff that I was into at the time was Led Zeppelin, and I loved the power blues thing they were doing.  I think we were just trying to take it the next step further.  There were a lot of bands around who were trying to do that.  They wanted to create their own version of what those guys had done.  I really think that is the way it has been for a long time, and I think that is how bands develop. 

Jeb: What was Lou Reed like?  What did you see that we didn’t see?

Steve: Lou, to me, was a genius and he was a great artist.  His take on music and poetry and how he put those things together made him one of a kind.  The thing I admired about him the most is that he did precisely what he wanted to do.  He never wanted to make a song a top-ten seller.  I don’t think he thought that way.  He knew what to do as well. 

Most of the people that I’ve worked with that have been hugely successful have been like that.  They don’t give a damn what someone else tells them they should do.  Lou was out on his own all of the time.  Lou was on the edge with his music all of the time.  It made it great to play. 

I enjoyed playing with Lou, it was a blast.  He was also very childlike in the whole grand scheme of things.  He would get as much joy out of things as anybody else and I really admired that about him. 

Jeb:  Lou was an icon.  He helped create a genre. 

Steve:  I know that Lou had a special ability to create something that was uniquely his own.  You didn’t hear the Beatles or the Stones, you heard Lou Reed and that is a very special thing. 

Jeb:  Talk Rock and Roll Animal

Steve: It was a live album.  We had been playing that show every night.  Even though we did the same songs every night, in the same basic structure, there was a lot of room for improvisation.  Lou liked that.  There was a lot of room to take little liberties here and there. 

The thing about doing a live album is that it is a risk because you might have a bad night.  The more improv there is in a show then the more risk there is.  It was a risk to do a live album like that.  We did two shows that night so we could pick the best performance of the songs in the two shows. 

Working with Lou was pretty easy in those days because he kind of stayed to himself.  While we rehearsed the songs he would be off doing press and promo stuff.  He sent us a list of songs to learn and we learned them without him.  During the last two or three days of rehearsal he would come in and do the songs with us. 

When you came to see a Lou Reed show you never knew exactly what you would get.  Our job was to make it as powerful and tight as we could make it.  We felt the power in the songs.  You can’t do that with a song that is not a good song.  You can only do that with songs that are well written and structured.  Working with Lou was a dream.  I’ve worked with him in lots of situations and environments and it has always been fun. 

Jeb: Did you leave that band because Lou just decided to shift directions, musically?

Steve: That is what everyone came to love about Lou.  When one would hear Lou was going to tour everyone would wonder what he was going to do this time and that is a wonderful thing for an artist to have.  When people wonder what will happen and who will be in the band, that is wonderful. 

There were times I toured with him and we never did “Walk On the Wild Side.”  We didn’t always do “Sweet Jane.”  He had the courage to do that.  It takes a lot of courage to do that.  There were times I was like, “Lou, shouldn’t we do ‘Walk On the Wild side’?”  He would just say, “This is how we are going to do it.  No discussion.  This is how I am happy.”  I loved him for that. 

Jeb: What did you learn from your time with Lou?

Steve:  The Berlin album was my second album. The first album I was on was a Mitch Ryder album.  Berlin was my second and the third album I was ever on was Billion Dollar Babies

During Berlin I was still learning how to go into a studio and work together with a band.  That was all new to me.  I was cutting my eyeteeth on those albums.  I didn’t know all of the things that went on in the studio. 

I learned how to make arrangements which I learned from Bob.  I learned the basic recording process during that time as I didn’t know anything.  You have to learn how to work with other musicians and that sounds obvious, but it is really not. 

You don’t become aware of that until you are put in different environments with a guy you’ve never met before and you have to play music with him like you’ve been playing together for twenty years.  How do you do that?  I was learning how to do that. 

I still use those basic things I learned then today.  Now they are second nature, but they sure as hell were not in those days.  I was like, “How do I play with Jack Bruce without being in awe?”  Luckily for me, Jack is a really sweet and cool guy.  Before you know it, he is just the bass player and I am the guitar player and there is a drummer, so, let’s do it. 

I think I learned the most stuff in the early days, and then after that it was finding out how to adapt the stuff that I learned to make it work in the next session.  It all was very cool.  I really enjoyed it and loved it.  I liked coming into the studio not knowing what was going to happen.  It was very exciting, and it had a nice edge to it. 

Sometimes I learned the song in the studio right before I recorded it and I loved that.  I think it has a freshness to it that shows up on the record. 

Jeb: A famous session was the Billion Dollar Babies session.  Rumor was the guys were messed up on drugs or that they were not good enough to play the parts.  You were called in by Bob Ezrin to play on that album.  What really happened and what songs are you on?

Steve: For me to try to remember what songs I am on…I would really have to sit down and listen to the album.  I know I played some solos on “Billion Dollar Babies” and I played a solo on “Generation Landslide.”  I played on “Hello Hurrah.”  I played a pedal steel on that, but I played it like a slide guitar.  I may have been on others, but it’s too long ago and I can’t remember.

I can’t say what the situation was, as to why I was called in.  I got the call from Bob to fly to New York to overdub on Alice’s new album.  I walked in the studio and there is Michael Bruce, Glen Buxton and Dennis Dunaway, and they were the coolest guys.  I didn’t see anything wrong with anybody.  I did not see anybody who could not play.  I think I was called in because they wanted some different flavors on the album.  I think that was a good thing.  It made that a really special album. They didn’t get Donavan to sing on it because Alice could not sing. They got Donavan on there to give that song flavor.  I think that is all it was.  Glen and Michael are all over that album.  They are playing all over the place.  I never felt anything else.  They were just guys to me and they were the same as when I first met them.  We were all buds and we were hanging together, and it was all good. 

Jeb: You made an album with Dr. John…

Steve:  That was after Welcome to my Nightmare.  It was just slightly after that one, if I remember right.  It was between legs of one of Alice’s tours.  Bob did that album out in Los Angeles.  It was a treat to be on an album with him.  I was in awe of him.  One day in the studio we were tearing down the drums and resetting the studio and we had some time.  Dr. John sat down and started playing piano and I went and sat over next to him on bench.  I said, “Man, that is good.  What is that?”  He said, “That is from Professor Longhair.”  He starts playing this Eubie Blake and Jelly Roll Morton stuff and I was suddenly listening to the history of New Orleans jazz.  He has a touch, man.  I can hit a piano key, but I can’t hit it the way he does.  I am very proud of that album, and it was a great experience for me. 

Jeb:  Was there any trepidation to take the full time gig with Cooper?

Steve: In a way, I was a little concerned, because I knew the band.  I knew the band before they even broke.  They were really good friends.  I knew them in Connecticut when they had that mansion and they all lived there.  I hung out with them at that mansion.  I loved the band and I thought they were amazing.  We opened for them when I was with Mitch Ryder a couple of times.  They got me tickets and a backstage pass later on.  I am still really good friends with Dennis, Michael and Neal [Smith].  I was concerned because I didn’t know what had gone on.  I don’t want to know, even now, what happened.  I would rather stay out of it because I don’t want to know what happened.  I don’t want it to have any effect on these great friendships I have with the guys, including Alice. As soon as we got in the studio, it was fun.  Alice is a funny and crazy guy, and within five minutes we were a band playing with Alice. 

Jeb: The band was famous before this, but this album took it to a new level.

Steve: The original band was very powerful. I knew they had their own fan base. I was concerned that we would go out on an Alice solo tour and that it might be less successful because there would be people who were bummed that that band had broken up.  I had seen that happen before when artists went out solo and it didn’t come off as big as you wanted it to.  We were all a little concerned that it might not come off.  We were concerned people might be angry that Alice left the band.  That was quickly quelled on the first show. 

I think the very first show we played was in an arena in Chicago and it was completely sold out.  It was in the winter as we got snowed in and we couldn’t leave the next day.  It was packed, and I remember when I came out to go on stage and I saw that many people, I was completely blown away. At that moment, I knew it was going to be a fun ride.  They were accepting Alice as a solo artist.  Part of that was because the album was strong.  There were people that were upset that the band broke up, and there is always going to be that, but it was just a wonderful tour. The tour was ninety percent sold out.  Cities were selling out well in advance.  It was one of the most fun tours I have ever done. 

Jeb: How did you decide to play the solos and who got that awesome solo on the track “Welcome to my Nightmare?”

Steve:  The long solo at the end of “Nightmare” is clavinet.  The solo earlier is Dick.  He wrote that as a musical section.  The cool stuff at the end is Josef Chirowski on clavinet with a wah-wah pedal on it. 

Dick and I sat down and went over each thing song-by-song and decided between us who would play what solo, where, so it came out even.  By the end of the night, we both played an even number of solos.  It was important to both of us that we did that.  

Jeb: The stage show was so theatrical… did that make it difficult to play with all that stuff going on?

Steve: The Nightmare tour was not so bad.  We, as a band, were kept out of the way.  Most of the theatrics were Alice and the dancers.  It was very cool.  I loved it.  Dick and I would come down front for our guitar duel that we did.  The rest of the time we were out of the way in the back.  “Devil’s Food” and “Black Widow” was when Dick and I would do our thing. 

Jeb: Do you give yourself credit for what you were doing and how much it influenced others?

Steve: I am very proud of that, but at the time it was happening…I don’t know how Dick feels about it, but for me it was like I wasn’t really sure who was listening.  When you look out from the stage to the audience everybody was watching Alice.  You get the thought that nobody is listening or watching us as they are paying attention to Alice.  Our job was to support him and to play some kick ass rock and roll stuff behind what he is doing. 

When we did the guitar duel, I just thought it was part of the show.  We added a little different segment in the middle that is different than everything else.  I thought it was great and it was a lot of fun.  It was my idea for Dick to take a swing at me and for me to go down. I just thought it was silly.  I had a blood capsule in my mouth that I would bite when he hit me.  It was great because people really thought I was hit and fell down.  We were just having fun. 

Jeb: Parents were afraid of Alice Cooper… 

Steve: I don’t know if that is necessarily true.  I think most people got it.  When you watch Frankenstein, the original movie…that movie scares the hell out of you when you’re ten years old.  But as you get older you see the campiness in it.  There is even some humor to it.  He is a monster and you are supposed to be afraid of him, but it is done tongue-in-cheek.  I think that is what Alice was trying to do, as he loves the movies as much as I do. 

I am a huge black and white horror film fan.  I love those movies.  What I love about them is that they are fun. It is like a visual rollercoaster.  You get on a rollercoaster and you get the shit scared out of you and you know nothing is going to happen to you.  It is just a fun ride. The show was like that.  It was like we were trying to make the same feeling of those movies on stage in a rock and roll setting. 

Jeb:  Alcohol abuse did hurt Alice as time went on.  What was it like as you saw that happen?

Steve: In actual fact, I don’t think that is what made it fall apart.  I was out on the road with Alice and he was having some trouble with it, and I knew he was.  I tend to stay out of it.  I am not very good with band gossip.  I stick to myself and I try not to listen to stuff. I don’t care who is doing what as it is none of my business. Once people are on stage and they play like they are supposed to then I am a happy camper.  I don’t care what they do before that or after that.  I stay out of it.  Of course, I could tell there was something that was happening, but we were still touring and we were still doing big shows.

The most bizarre thing happened that led us to cancel the last leg of the last tour I did with Alice. It was because of the oil embargo with Iran.  If you remember, we were rationing gasoline.  In those days you figure you’re going to spend fifty bucks for tickets, or gas, or whatever.  Some guys could not afford that. We were not the only ones.  I think the Eagles had to cancel parts of their tour because of the gas crisis. 

When we pulled off the road, we sort of stayed off the road because it wasn’t working.  We were not able to do it because you got gas on different days, depending on the odd, or even number on your license plate.  When you have four, or five trucks, it is hard to get them all gassed up. 

We were out on the road and we had a meeting.  We were getting ready to take a little time off.  We would do six weeks and then we would have a few days off.  We were getting ready for a period of time off and somebody said, “We may not come back out on the road.  We will let you know.”  We wondered what was going on.  I heard they were having trouble getting the trucks gassed up because they would have to wait till midnight to get fueled up because of their license plate numbers.  There were a lot of bands having the same trouble.  It was silly. 

Jeb:  When was your last tour with Alice?

Steve: The last one I was on was Madhouse Rock.  I think that was around 1978 or 1979.  Davey Johnstone was the other guitarist on that. 

Jeb: What is the biggest misconception of when you were with Alice Cooper?

Steve: I don’t know how to answer that.  I don’t really know what misconceptions there were.  Well, some people thought that what Alice was when he was on-stage is what he was when he was off-stage.  That just wasn’t true.  People don’t think that now, but they thought that then.  He was doing things to try to quell that back then.  He did Hollywood Squares and we did the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  He tried to clear up that he was an actor playing a character when he sang as Alice, and then when he got off-stage he was Vince. 

The misconception was that he was this crazy and demented guy when the show was over.  He was a silly demented crazy character.  Alice has a crazy sense of humor.  Some of the things he did on stage would crack me up. When we did “Cold Ethel,” we had a life-sized dummy and the things he would do to that dummy were hilarious to me.  When Alice is off-stage he is a golfer.  He is a regular guy.  I think in the seventies, and probably into the early part of the eighties, a lot of people thought he was living his life as Alice.  He even said once that he was becoming Alice. 

Jeb: Did you call him Alice or Vince? 

Steve:  No, I used to call him Al.  Or I would call him ‘the boss’, and sometimes we would call him ‘Vinnie’ because I think that is what his mom called him, so we would call him that.  When you’re off-stage with Alice’ he is like another guy in the band.  When he gets on stage he becomes something entirely different. 

Jeb: We have to talk about your work with Peter Gabriel…

Steve: This goes back to my wanting to play with a lot of different people and a lot of different styles.  The challenge to me is looking to different styles of songs and creating different types of challenges.  Peter writes very challenging stuff. “Solsbury Hill” is a good example, because it is in such an odd time.  When you’re challenged, you learn something and you get better.  Peter is a genius.  As soon as I heard the first song I knew he was special. 

Jeb: Where did you go in the 1980s?

Steve: The ‘80s were a very, very tough time for me.  When I got off the road with Alice I did The Rose movie.  I thought, “Well, okay, maybe I have to do something else.”  I couldn’t get work.  What was happening in the ‘80s had nothing to do with what was happening in the ‘70s.  I was a blues rock player from the ‘70s and that was not happening.  With the advent of MTV, bands like The Police came about.  Blues rock guitar playing was no longer desirable.  Eddie Van Halen and other guys changed rock guitar.  I always say, “Thank God for ZZ Top” because they were one of the few remnants of the Seventies that remained in the Eighties.  I thought they did great things in the Eighties, although people always scream at me about that.  I think they were amazing then, and that they did some beautiful things.

I really couldn’t get work, and it was a real struggle.  I auditioned for a ton of bands, and I tried to get on sessions, but the phone wasn’t ringing anymore.  I really struggled, and I had to fight my way out of it, and I had to find something to do in order to make a living. 

Jeb: Did you get back in the scene because you were told to teach Jason Becker how to play the blues?

Steve:  I can see where it might seem that way.  Out of the blue I was playing with David Lee Roth and Jason Becker.  I had done some small things before that.  I did a small European tour with Meat Loaf and I had done some other sessions.  I had done a few film scores. 

Bob Ezrin called me one day.  He was the original producer on the A Little Ain’t Enough album.  He told me he had a great guitar player but that he needed him to learn some blues.  He said that Dave wanted me to send him to you for a few lessons.  I said, “Sure.”  Jason came over and within ten minutes we were great friends.  He is the greatest guy in the world and we are still the best of friends. 

We listened to Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and we had a blast.  I co-wrote some songs with Brett Tuggle who was the keyboard player in David’s band, whom I had met in Mitch Ryder’s band.  Dave said that he wanted me to play on the album.  I played on the album with Dave and Jason.  It seemed I came out of nowhere and that I was suddenly with David Lee Roth but there was more to it than that.  I was doing what I could to keep food on the table.  It was a struggle.  I did a solo album called The Deacon and I did a tour before David Lee Roth.  I had been doing some things, but that was the highest profile thing I did in the Eighties. 

Jeb:  Would you ever consider doing a Hunter/Wagner album?

Steve: Well, the reason I don’t think that is ever going to happen…and it is nothing really bad.  This may be a good time to explain this.  Dick left Alice first, and then I left Alice.  We didn’t really leave Alice, we all just moved onto other stuff.  Through those forty odd years Dick and I tried several times to put something back together.  We would talk about it on the phone.   We would get together in LA and I even went to Saginaw where he was living at one point.  We tried several different times in several different ways to put something together, but it never worked.

I think part of the reason why we worked so well with Alice and Lou is because we had a focus then.  Our job was to focus on Lou’s material and Alice’s material.  Dick even co-wrote a lot of Alice’s music with Alice and Bob.  Still, our main focus was to make the music good for them.  As soon as the two of us get together on our own, the focus goes.  It is sort of like Dick wants to go in one direction and I want to go in the opposite direction.  We tried eight to ten times to do this, but nothing ever worked. 

To me, what we did back then is what we did.  The reason it worked, for whatever reason it was, there are probably a hundred reasons why it worked…there are also lots of reasons why it didn’t work.  Dick has his own thing and I’ve got my own thing now, and that is the way it should be.  That is the way the evolution of it should have happened. 

Jeb: Last one: In 2011 you appeared on an album by Glen Campbell…

Steve: A friend of mine was going to produce that album.  He called me up and told me that Glen had a song that was going to have a bunch of different players who would play on the end of a certain song, and he asked if I would be interested.  I told him it would be a real treat to play on a Glen Campbell album.  He sent me the track, and we have Pro Tools now, so he sends me a file and I played on it and I sent my track back to him via email. 

It is a wonderful thing to be able to do that.  I took some time, and I sent him my track.  I sent it back, and I heard the album, and it is there and I was really proud to be on that.  I have met Glen a couple of times.  I did the Alice Cooper Christmas Pudding show a couple of times when Glen did that too.  We just met briefly.  He’s a pretty cool guy.  Being on a Glen Campbell album is pretty special to me.