Interview | Sylvain Sylvain and Steve Conte
Outrageous, dishevelled and rocking like maniacs, the New York Dolls were the Sex Pistols crazy godmothers. Steve Bailey meets guitarist Sylvain Sylvain and new axe hero Steve Conte.
‘One time, Lynryd Skynyrd were supporting us,’ recalls Sylvain Sylvain, fondly remembering a storming gig back in the early ’70s. ‘They came up after our show and told us “Y’all boogie like hell!”‘
All glam posturing and ramshackle attitude, the New York Dolls weren’t used to receiving such praise for their musicianship. During the band’s 1973 stint on the Old Grey Whistle Test, presenter Bob Harris even described their efforts as ‘mock rock’. But the Dolls took it all on the chin, and the feral intensity and sheer audacity emanating from the TV that night inspired a whole new movement.
Now the grandaddies of punk are back, and they can still boogie with the best of them. The rhythm section of Jerry Nolan and Arthur Kane has sadly proved all too mortal, as has the first great punk guitar hero, Johnny Thunders; only Sylvain and singer David Johansen are still with us, but the Dolls spirit remains in rude health. In for Thunders is the flamboyant powerhouse that is Steve Conte, while Sami Yaffa picks up the bass and Brian Delaney is the new skins man.
The search for someone who could wield a Les Paul Jr with the necessary degree of Thunders-style swagger began when Morrissey persuaded the Dolls to reform in 2004 for the Meltdown festival in London. ‘David asked a bunch of respected guitar players around New York who should he get for the gig,’ explains Steve. ‘They all told him, “Call Conte.”
Long-time guitar obsessive Steve Conte was shown a Chuck Berry riff aged 13, and soon became a brilliantly adept self-taught rock’n’roller. His break came with the big-haired Company Of Wolves in the late ’80s, but things soon turned sour.
‘I was headed in a bad direction at that time with certain substances, so I channelled my addictive personality into studying music… otherwise, I would have killed myself.’ Conte went straight from playing blistering rock’n’roll to studying Charlie Parker solos, ending up with a BA in jazz performance. ‘It was tough, but I didn’t do anything else. Then I got out of school and went back to what I love.’
Another prime qualification for the job is the possession of a ’59 double-cut Les Paul Jr previously owned by punk guitar guru Chris Spedding. Steve befriended the legendary veteran after spotting Spedding’s poster advertising for students on the wall in the building where he has a rehearsal space in Manhattan. ‘I went over there and we would hang out all day and I’d give him a token amount of money that was really not worth his while. We’d smoke cigarettes, jam, then watch videos of Django Reinhardt and listen to Thelonious Monk.’ Spedding sold Conte his Junior for a mere $1000 on the proviso that if he was ever tempted to sell it, he must offer it back. He then recommended Steve for the vacant sideman job with rockabilly revival hero Robert Gordon.
This CV makes Conte the perfect foil for original Dolls six-stringer Sylvain, whose introduction to guitar was a little different to Steve’s. ‘I learned from people in the streets of Greenwich Village and the caf鳠like the Go Go and the Wah. I saw people like Mick Taylor playing with John Mayall when he was just 16.’ Extra help was sought from a Learn To Play With The Ventures book, complete with 12″ vinyl tuition record. ‘I was the one who taught Johnny Thunders how to play Pipeline. He made a whole career out of it!’
A natural understanding has grown up between the two, with rhythm and leads traded on the hoof to enhance the band’s swinging stomp. ‘Leads, to me, are rhythm,’ states Syl. ‘I was inspired by Eddie Cochran. He really inspired punk.’ He also tries to summon up the madcap spirit of the Benny Goodman Band when playing solos. ‘Chuck Berry said that was what he was doing when he came up with the Johnny B Goode riff.’
Steve’s take is a little more pragmatic. ‘If you can’t sing a solo, you can’t play a solo. You’re just letting your fingers go in a pattern – that’s not music. Can you sing a Van Halen solo?’
This interplay has been captured on the band’s second comeback album ‘Cause I Sez So, produced by the same man who helmed the band’s 1973 self-titled debut, Todd Rundgren. Todd is a resident of Kauai, the most northern of the inhabited islands of Hawaii – a remote place for a recording studio.
‘It’s called Utopia Sound Studios, but really it’s Todd’s house,’ reveals Syl. ‘I was in the second bedroom, Sami played bass in the kitchen, Steve was in the pantry and the drums were in the big room. There was some leakage, of course, but we played everything live.’
The band had to ship their amps at the last minute when they realised Todd had intended to use modelling amps on the album. ‘We weren’t having any of that,’ snarls Steve. ‘You can’t record the New York Dolls with Line 6 amps.’
The whole album was made in exactly four weeks, which included writing virtually all of the material. ‘We had some outlines and titles,’ explains Syl, ‘but Todd said “What? These are songs? Go and get them written.” So the first week, we wrote. The second week, we did the arrangements. We didn’t start tracking until the third week.’
‘It’s the fastest record I ever made,’ allows Steve. ‘It was like being on stage. I only overdubbed slide and eBow.’
‘The fourth week we did David’s voice, plus the overdubs,’ continues Syl. ‘Todd was always saying “My studio must be good! You don’t really want this to end!” It was like, “But Todd, we’ve only been doing this two hours…”‘
Steve brought his Spedding Jr, his ’69 Les Paul Custom and played Sylvain’s Gretsch Nashville Golden Anniversary on Exorcism Of The Spirit and Ridiculous. ‘It’s the first time I ever played without a pick. You can hear it’s nice and shaky.’ A ’59 Danelectro also saw some tremolo-pedal action on Temptation To Exist.
Syl is a confirmed Gretsch man: ‘I hotrod ’em, because I punch the shit out of them. I fix the floating bridge, change the tuning pegs and often swap the treble pickup for a regular humbucker. I’m a pawnshop kind of Gretsch guy. If a guitar hasn’t been pawned it can’t play the blues, anyhow.’
Despite bringing Marshall and Orange heads, Steve ended up using an old brown-face 1×12″ Fender. ‘From the ’60s, I think, but I don’t remember the name. It sounded really big. That and an old Vox reverb unit was pretty much all I used.’
For many of the tracks Syl led proceedings by plugging his Martin D-18GE into an Orange head. ‘You get a really great effect with an acoustic guitar going through an amp. It’s got that metal sound, almost like a fuzz sustain.’
The making of ‘Cause I Sez So has been a whirlwind, with members old and new stepping up with songs, ideas and some devastating performances.
‘David and I have not formed a benevolent dictatorship,’ insists Syl. ‘If Sammy or Steve write the best songs, those are the ones that are gonna get played. Sometimes criticism is hard to take, and we might get into a little scrap here and there, but we’re all grown men… and we can take it.’