New York City guitarist and singer-songwriter Steve Conte is well aware: a reliable reputation goes a long way in the world of rock.
That’s how he ended up a member of the New York Dolls for six years. When singer David Johansen sought to get the band back together after several decades apart, he asked around for a worthy guitarist. Conte’s name was suggested repeatedly and he joined the group in 2004 without an audition. (He stayed with the band until 2010.)
And in between his six-string work with the likes of the Dolls, Peter Wolf, Eric Burdon of the Animals, Billy Squier and Michael Monroe (Hanoi Rocks), Conte has never let his love of songwriting go. He’s back with a brand new solo album, ‘Bronx Cheer,’ which he’s described as a “straight ahead rock and soul album with New York attitude,” bringing in a host of musical compadres to aid him in the endeavor: Clem Burke of Blondie, former Smiths guitarist Andy Rourke, Keith Richards‘ favorite drummer Charley Drayton, New York’s own Jesse Malin and one of his most trusted collaborators since childhood, his brother, John, who supplies bass.
Conte discusses the making of ‘Bronx Cheer,’ which is available for listening today.
Are all 11 songs on Bronx Cheer newly written during the pandemic? Or are there any that you had tucked away and revisited?
I’m just constantly writing for decades, and I don’t always put the stuff out. So I get this backlog. … A recording goes on the back burner for a while and then next thing you know, I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m recording an album. What can I dive into from my backlog of material?’ But it usually starts with a handful of recent songs. And then I find out which of my older songs would go with them. So, in this case, there’s probably five new songs and the rest of them are older songs. The new ones are “Wildwood Moon,” “Those Sexy Lies,” “Dog Days of Summer,” actually, that might be it. “Flying” and “Guilty” are both from the ’90s, from 1994.
What made you decide to include them now?
I never forgot [the songs]. The thing about when a song is good, at least to me — totally subjective because they’re my own songs, of course — but if I don’t forget, if the songs stay in my mind all these years, there must be something about them.
A lot of this album was recorded in your home studio, right?
Yes, I did a lot of the vocals, acoustic guitars, percussion, tambourine, shakers — not loud stuff, because I live in an apartment. But for all my loud guitars, I have a studio space in Manhattan of my own and then we cut the tracks out at a studio in Brooklyn called Atomic Sound. … My mixer lives in California. We never sat in the same room because it was during the pandemic stuff, but I’ve mixed like five records now by the internet.
So working remotely actually isn’t a totally new method for you then?
No, but it’s a freaking pain in the ass, you know? Especially when I was mixing this record. My mixer, Niko Bolas [Neil Young, Warren Zevon], who is an amazing mixer … He was in California and I was in the Netherlands, so we were nine hours apart. We had this little short window, like one hour at a time before I was ready to go to bed and when he was just waking up where’d I’d call him go “Have you had coffee, man? I’m about to pass out. Come on. Let’s talk about this.”
Your brother, John Conte (Southside Johnny & the Jukes, David Bowie, Ian Hunter), plays bass on the record. You’ve been playing with him since you guys were kids and have collaborated on various projects, but did you ever imagine you’d still be doing it all these years later?
We record together and he plays the occasional gig with me, but he’s got his own stuff going on, I got my stuff going on, whenever we can do it together, we do. I knew he was the right bass player for this project. Because first of all, our drummer Charley Drayton, on this record, is ridiculous. We’ve recorded with him before. … I knew I wanted John and Charley and me to be the core. Also, I had a lot of these songs written and demoed up myself in my own studio, and I had bass parts that I thought were pretty good. My brother has no ego about playing what I played. Some other bass players would be like, “Yeah, that’s cool, man, but here’s what I do.” I didn’t want that kind of attitude, I wanted a “Yes, I can do that.” And then he always takes what I do, and he takes it further. He’ll do stuff that I could never play because I don’t have the chops, and stuff that I would never think of, so it was kind of a win-win.
Speaking of family members — I noticed that your kids are credited as singers on this album.
My 12 year old son Zia, who’s been singing and writing songs since he was probably five – I’ve done a lot of demos with him. … I got him to sing on “Recovery Doll.” I had done it in the studio with these two great female singers that I know, Nicki Richards and LaJuan Carter-Dent, and I thought, “It sounds too good, sounds too professional. I want a little garage-y ness to it. I gotta have my kids sing on it.” So I mixed him in there.
Listen to Steve Conte’s ‘Recovery Doll’
Bronx Cheer is being released on Wicked Cool Records, which is Little Steven‘s label. How was it working with him?
He has his hands in, but he didn’t A&R my record and say, “That’s song’s got to go, this song’s got to stay.” … He kept the sequence and kept the title and everything. To be honest, the four songs that he picked, I might have picked one of them, but I would have picked three other completely different songs as singles, but he knows his station. He knows his audience, he knows the Underground Garage, he knows his label. He knows what people are gonna gravitate towards.
You’ve got a really impressive collection of musicians playing on this album with you — Clem Burke (Blondie), Andy Rourke (The Smiths), Charlie Drayton (The Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop) and Jesse Malin. How did you get those guys on board?
That’s the last song on the record, “Gimme Gimme Rockaway.” Basically, the core band that I recorded at Atomic Studios, starting in September 2019, was me and John and Charley. And at the time, I didn’t know that Wicked Cool Records was going to put the record out. I just thought, “I’m gonna do it myself and after I’m done, I’ll see if anyone’s interested.” And after I finished it, I played it for Little Steven and he loved it and wanted to put it out. I had done the single “Gimme Gimme Rockaway” with Clem Burke, Andy Rourke of the Smiths on bass and Jesse Malin singing back up with me. I had done that back in 2017. And Steven was like, “That’s got to be on the record!” Like really? That’s an old song. So I said “Okay,” and I put it on the end like it was a bonus track. And it works. I had it remastered and it fits in nicely with all the other stuff.
Listen to Steve Conte’s ‘Gimme Gimme Rockaway’
Looking back a few years, you were asked to join the New York Dolls in 2004. Prior to that, did you have any experience working with them?
I never met any of the Dolls guys before I joined the Dolls. I actually played maybe on one of the same nights as Sylvain [Sylvain] with a band that he had at the Cat Club down on 13th Street on the East side. But I never met him and I never met David [Johansen] except for one time when I was 17. I was going to a show at the Palladium. David was in quite an intoxicated state, shall I say? I felt some rustling behind me. I turned around, I was like “Oh my God, it’s David Johansen.” I’m this kid from Jersey. Of course I know all his solo stuff. … So David’s behind me, he’s pretty fucked up. And he says to the doorman — I had a ticket, I think it was going to see Thin Lizzy — and [he was] like, “You know who I am? I’m David Johansen.” And the bouncer was like, “I don’t care who you are, man. Get to the back of the line like everybody else.” [Johansen] goes, “I could buy this place!” [laughs]
So when David asked you to join, what was your reaction?
You know, [if] you hang around this crazy town long enough and you have a good reputation, your name gets around. David had asked two or three respected guitar players in the musical circle that we’re all in, “Who should I get? I’m putting the Dolls back together. ” And everybody gave him the same answer: “Just call Conte, he’s the guy. He’s got the right guitars, the right look — big nose, big hair, Italian.” [laughs] … We arranged a lunch date, talked for an hour and then he handed me an envelope with some sheet music and some CDs. He was like, “What do you think? You wanna do this?” We never played a note of music together. … Luckily, it worked musically. I wasn’t ever a Johnny Thunders fan growing up. But I figured I grew up on Chuck Berry and Keith Richards which, to me, that’s what Thunders was. He was Chuck Berry and Keith Richards on heroin with the amp turned up to 11. So I had to forego the heroin part, but I turned the amp up to 10 and there I was.