The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s recent class of inductee’s included some long overdue actual rock and roll acts like Rush and Heart, bands that continue to influence and set the tone for hard rock to this day. Co-founder/bassist Steve Fossen joined Ann and Nancy Wilson and the original Heart lineup in accepting the award as well as performing onstage and longtime fans experienced a very cool flashback to the original sound the band helped architect. Steve recently spoke with us about the induction, those classic early Heart records and what he’s been up to lately, read on…
Legendary Rock Interviews: Hi Steve, you were recently inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame as the original bassist of HEART and you also played with the Wilson sisters again during the show. How did it feel to be back onstage performing with the old band again?
Steve Fossen: Well, it felt like old times. We had a rehearsal a couple of days before at a private place and then we had dress rehearsals at the theater the next day before the performance and each time we played it felt the same. It felt really, really good and felt like the old days. Everybody was super competent and nobody was unprepared. It was like riding a bike, you just jump on and go.
LRI: The performance on HBO sounded great and it kind of reminded me of the statement made not long ago by one of the sisters that they would include you guys in the award but didn’t ever think the original lineup would play together again. I don’t have a clue how close you’ve kept in contact with Ann and Nancy but did you always kind of hope that they’d change their mind about playing with the original lineup at an event like that?
Steve: Ann gave that interview you’re talking about a few years ago when things were kind of different between us all. It was just a few hours after that interview was made public, which in itself was just a few hours after our nomination was announced as an induction, that we made contact and she explained that it was an old interview and that they were already working on revising their thoughts about that. I always had confidence that it would happen but it did take them a while to figure out exactly what kind of role they were gonna let us play in it all.
LRI: I can understand that, I’ve talked to other people from bands like Metallica and Alice Cooper or Guns N Roses who’ve been inducted into the hall and some of those decisions can be kind of difficult. People always remember the original lineup but respecting some of the replacement players can be pretty important too.
Steve: Well, yeah, I’m sure it is but the original 6 of us was the lineup which originally captured the hearts and minds of fans all over the world. The music that we wrote and recorded on those original records, no Heart concert today is played without those songs being performed because those are the iconic songs that got Heart to be a household name.
LRI: The current Heart that Ann and Nancy front is amazing live but I have an ongoing discussion with people I know who love the 80s and 90s Heart material because I just can’t relate to it. I always thought it was because of the outside songwriters and hitmakers who resurrected the band with the sisters but as I watch the footage from the Hall of Fame or especially the classic footage, I can see it was more than the songwriting. There’s an interplay and exchange between you guys that is just special and if you begin to tinker with that chemistry it becomes something else.
Steve: Yeah, that’s true. We did have a chemistry and charisma and bands that make it always have that kind of interplay between each other and not everybody in the band can be Mick Jagger or play that role, so to speak. If everyone in the band were playing that role the Rolling Stones would never have made it, they made it because Mick was doing his thing, Keith Richards was doing his thing and Charlie Watts was doing his thing and so on. The fact was that it all blended together and it appealed to people in a big way and Heart had the same thing with our original lineup. The guys in the band were super competent at what they did. Howard Leese and Roger Fischer have to be considered a couple of the best guitar players in the world and Mike DeRosier has gotta be considered one of the best drummers on the planet. I’m not gonna brag about myself but I did a pretty good job too (laughs). Ann and Nancy are unbelievable. For them to be sisters, playing and singing together for so many years, that’s so unique and so cool. It’s like the Everly Brothers or the Andrews Sisters or whatever, it just doesn’t happen that often and it’s so special. It was almost something that was hard for us to, I don’t wanna say compete with, but….. to be able to hold our own with onstage with that kind of unique presence is something. I’d say we more than held our own when the band was doing it’s thing.
LRI: Do you think some of that stems from the long history that you and Roger had of playing with each other? I mean, you guys had originally formed another version of Heart long before Ann or Nancy had joined.
Steve: Oh yeah, yeah. I mean, Roger and I met when we were like 13 and right after that was the first summer that we first heard The Beatles and we were both, like everybody, knocked out by that experience. We would get together and think and dream about things and talk like “Wouldn’t it be cool someday to play instruments, make music and do tours or record albums that people love”. We kept talking about it and talking about it and then one day we said “Let’s quit talking about it and actually do it”. So we started by renting instruments, getting together with friends and exchanging ideas and one guy knew how to play this chord so he’d teach you that and another guy knew that chord so he’d teach you that, that sort of thing. After a couple of years of playing like that Roger and I got together and started a band officially, at first called The Army, then Whiteheart then shortened just to Heart.
LRI: During that time you were doing all the things serious bands do like, write, record, take promo photos and get your music out there. How much different was the original Heart without Ann and Nancy from the band everyone grew to know years later?
Steve: We went through a lot of different phases, when you’re trying to find your place as a band you tend to do that. At first we were kind of really poppy like the early Beatles and then we started listening to a lot of progressive stuff like Miles Davis, Santana and King Crimson, that kind of stuff and we kind of got into a progressive groove for a while and it was during that era that Heart actually made their first album, before Ann and Nancy of course. Then that band kind of dissolved and Roger and I kind of floundered around for a few months trying to figure out what we were going to do and we put an ad in the paper for a singer and Ann was one of the singers who answered the ad. She had a drummer and another singer and we had two guitar players and a bass player and we all got together and had an audition in Bellvue, which is a city now but was a little suburb of Seattle back in those days. We all decided to start a band and were very anxious to get out there and play, we were a cover band and we were all anxious to make some money so we put together four sets of material and started playing, mostly Washington, Oregon and Idaho. During that time was when Roger’s brother came down from Canada and met Ann and they started a relationship. When that band, which was called Hocus Pocus, dissolved, Ann, Roger and I joined Mike Fisher up in Vancouver and we started Heart, with the four of us as the core. We hired a few Canadian musicians and we started playing bars and clubs up there.
LRI: So, the legend is that you guys created a poor man’s copyright by creating the name, signing it and mailing it to yourself?
Steve: Yeah, yeah. We actually mailed it to my parent’s house and it says on the envelope, “PLEASE do not open” and they gave it to me and I’ve kept it to this day, it is still not opened. It’s pretty cool. I’d like to open it someday but I haven’t yet.
LRI: Did any of the riffs or melodies from the original Heart album you and Roger made make it onto the classic “Dreamboat Annie” LP?
Steve: No. no. We were still in that progressive phase and that was definitely a different sort of material, it was more instrumental based than vocal based. At the time we had a guitar player named James Cirrello who kind of went on to become a famous jazz guitarist in his own right.
LRI: Do you recall any particular light bulb moments when you started working with Ann in Hocus Pocus where you knew you had potential for something magical, beyond just a cool cover band?
Steve: Well, obviously we could tell she was a very good singer but at the time she was pretty folk-sy. She was more of an acoustic guitar, folk type singer and it was hard to get her to really rock it up. Over the course of the next few years of hanging out with Mike, Roger and I who’ve always had a real solid rock background we kind of coaxed her along in terms of being a little more progressive as far as what types of songs she was willing to try. We ended up doing a bunch of Led Zeppelin stuff and we knew she could sing it and she knew she could sing it but I don’t think we all knew how good she would end up singing it (laughs). It wasn’t a confidence barrier it was more a matter of being introduced to it and realizing that it was something which could be really fun.
LRI: When Nancy joined the band a short time after, was there any apprehension on the part of you guys as far as working with that dynamic or concerns that the sisters could become the focal point or was it viewed as a positive thing from the get-go?
Steve: Oh, I viewed it as a very positive thing for sure. I thought Nancy was an extremely positive addition to the band, primarily because Nancy was a very competent guitarist and singer in her own right. The two of them singing together….that two part harmony, with an occasional three part harmony thrown in, is something that is just so appealing to audiences when done right that it is beyond compare.
LRI: How important was producer Mike Flicker to that original sound of the band?
Steve: They sort of discovered us. Somebody from Mushroom Studios had heard of us and sent Mike out to see us and he was very, very interested in the band, particularly Ann as a vocalist. He and his studio investors sought to invest in us doing a demo and all that stuff and it progressed nicely and when it all came together Mike was like…. (laughs). He was like GOD to us. We weren’t novices in the studio in terms of playing but we had never had that type of opportunity before. He was giving us that opportunity and we could tell he was a solid producer and a very meticulous, intelligent person. He pretty much supervised every second of “Dreamboat Annie” and pretty much everyone’s part had to go through your own brain, into his brain and onto the tape and because we were using a 16 track, all the parts had to be meticulously planned out so that we could make the most of those 16 tracks.
LRI: So he definitely filled that “George Martin” role as far as making things happen in the studio?
Steve: Oh yeah, he totally filled that position. It was like “Okay, the acoustic guitar part is gonna go here and then, it’s gonna go into the piano part there and that piano part is gonna blend into this guitar part here and then the bass and vocal are gonna kick back in here”, that type of work was totally planned out in exactly that kind of way. Looking back, it was pretty incredible. He had complete control and we were just like “Okay, Mike, what’s next?” (laughs). Especially on “Dreamboat Annie”. By the time “Magazine” came out we had come around enough to know what was gonna fly and what wouldn’t fly and we had a little bit more leeway and then with “Little Queen” we got a little more. We began to understand the limitations and advantages of what we could and couldn’t do based on those original “Dreamboat Annie” sessions.
LRI: I have 3 sisters myself, know how complicated that can be and have to ask…..Did you see mostly positive interactions between Ann and Nancy as far as getting along and how they treated each other?
Steve: Yeah, yeah. They had long since gotten away from the childhood spats and that kind of stuff. I’ve been around other sisters, where, especially at that age in their 20s, where they would have some pretty nasty verbal exchanges but that was never, never an issue with Ann and Nancy. They were totally cool and if they had ever gone through that phase it was in the past because they were totally focused and on the same page in terms of being good musicians and good people in general. Their parents were both focused people with good parenting skills and between that and having an older sister in their lives there was no lack of structure in the Wilson family.
LRI: Having said that, there was certainly a fair share of “Behind The Music”- type complicated relationships between band members in Heart. Did you or Howard (Leese) ever feel isolated in any way by staying out of all that type of drama?
Steve: No, not really. I didn’t. I kind of watched the relationships and was kind of glad that I wasn’t involved in that end of it. You know, of all the people who were a part of it all at the time, I think in some ways, Howard and I had the most fun. Not to say that the others didn’t have their fair share of fun (laughs) but we because we weren’t involved in the couplings we just mostly enjoyed the time and had fun with the band focused around the music.
LRI: Your memories are a little less clouded by personal issues.
Steve: Oh yeah, I have nothing but great memories of that time, there are very few instances that I could pinpoint or say, “That was a bummer”.
LRI: I realize it was quite a ride but do any particular gigs or tours stand out to you from that time?
Steve: Well, the Texas Jam, held at the Cotton Bowl stands out to me for sure, we were playing with Van Halen and all of the groups were really popular so the crowd was just huge. It was packed….it was a sold out show and playing in Texas there just felt really good.
LRI: There was a gig here in Rockford, Illinois at the Speedway that is very well remembered. Was the midwest a hotspot for Heart in those days?
Steve: Oh yeah, I remember playing Rockford, I think one of those gigs was with AC/DC if I recall. The midwest was like meat and potatoes, hard working fun shows with fun people. You could just count on a nice, big, enthusiastic rocking out crowd in places like that. I really, really enjoyed it, especially doing those big outdoor shows.
LRI: I wanna take a look at the individual albums and maybe some individual tracks. “Dreamboat Annie” is a classic debut by anyone’s standards and everyone knows the hits but some of the other tracks were just as strong, a song like “Sing Child” still sounds good on the stereo today.
Steve: Oh thank you. “Sing Child” is a song that Roger (Fisher, guitarist) and I co-wrote with Ann. That was one of the first tracks that Mike DeRosier (drummer) actually joined us on. We were halfway through recording the album when we actually saw Mike and asked him to join the band. We kind of perfected that song in the studio, one riff was mine and the other riff was Roger’s and we kind of combined them. I remember Mike’s drumming really complimenting it all and making it work real nice. I remember working on “Dreamboat Annie” probably as well as any album that we ever recorded, probably because that was the first time that all the stars lined up perfectly. We had the right studio with the right equipment, the right producer, the right engineer and our experience level was at the point where we could actually translate from our brains to our fingers to the tape. We were able to execute things the way they should sound professionally, at that level. A lot of the recording was done in the summer of 1975 and it was a very hot summer up there. I remember coming into the studio in my tank top and standing around working and just having a helluva lotta fun. It was fun, it was a wonderful experience working with Mike Flicker who kind of took me under his wing and taught me the ropes and I will be forever grateful to him for that, for sure.
LRI: Can you explain the timeline of the “Magazine” album?
Steve: Yeah, “Dreamboat Annie” was done and released. We were out touring and it was selling. When we had time between touring, we would take a few days off in Vancouver and get back in the studio. The songs that we recorded, I can’t think of them all, but “Heartless, the title track and a few of the others were studio quality and were progressions of what we had done with the debut album. Then we kind of had some misunderstandings and stuff with the record company and things didn’t turn out as planned.
LRI: I think it sucks that the overall image of “Magazine” was tainted by the problems with Mushroom Records. It’s got some great material on it.
Steve: Yeah, I heard a live performance we did in Key Largo, Maryland back in 1978 where we performed the song “Magazine”. I heard it again for the first time in a long time last year and thought to myself, “Man, that is a good song”. That album was supposed to be developed along the same lines as “Dreamboat Annie” where all the songs were linked together with segues and stuff but then we had our troubles with Mushroom Records and that stuff kind of languished for a while. Unbeknownst to us they had mixed versions of the material themselves and it was kind of a shock to us when they released the album.
LRI: In the meantime, while the “Magazine” release drama played out, you were working on “Little Queen” for the new label and you guys were not showing any signs of slumping or lack of killer material. Was that at all on the band’s collective mind at that point?
Steve: The one thing about Heart was, people had talked about the slump potential and all that but we were kind of so green and novice about it all that it really didn’t bother us all. We had that confidence and we just went in and just knocked “Little Queen” out and got it over with because we knew that if we thought about it too much it could turn into a debacle. We had been touring and had a lot of confidence stemming from that because we were doing well and starting to sell out places. We were getting a lot of accolades from “Dreamboat Annie” and some accolades for “Magazine” as well and we just decided “What the heck, let’s forge forward”. We kept the same team together and everyone was confident in themselves and their abilities while our confidence in each other as bandmates was growing daily.
LRI: The title track, “Little Queen” is one of my favorites. Do you recall that song coming together?
Steve: Yeah, it it just came together really easily in the studio, again I think, because of that confidence. We were really being creative and really adamant about not letting anything stand in the way of what we knew we could accomplish. “Little Queen”, especially that middle part where it goes to half-time, is a pretty emotional piece really if you listen to it. If you’ve ever seen the Cal Jam 2 live performances of that song, it is one of our best performances of that track ever, in my opinion live.
LRI: Even all these years later, “Dog and Butterfly” feels like a reinvention. Were you guys intent on evolving on your own terms?
Steve: Yeah, that’s what we kinda did. That’s also where Ann and Nancy’s folk roots really started reemerging again, in my opinion. We recorded “Dreamboat Annie” and “Magazine” at Can-Base studios up in British Columbia, Canada and then we switched it up and recorded “Little Queen” back in Seattle at Kay-Smith Studios and then we switched to yet another studio for “Dog and Butterfly” which kept things fresh in a way. A new environment, new equipment can really help each album have sort of a different feel and sound or ambiance to it. I really like “Cook With Fire” off of that album. My new band with Mike DeRosier, Heart By Heart does that song and songs like “Little Queen”, some of the deeper album cuts as well as the songs everybody knows the most. We kind of try to keep it as true to the original album versions and how we played it back then, as much as possible
LRI: “Bebe Le Strange” is probably the last really great Heart album from the classic era. Other than Roger leaving the band were there any hints of stress or issues recording the album?
Steve: We went back to Kay-Smith Studios in Seattle for “Bebe Le Strange”, the same studio that we recorded “Little Queen” in. By that time, Mike and Ann as well as Roger and Nancy were having their breakup problems. That did kind of affect the mood as well as the outcome of “Bebe Le Strange”. During the recording of the album we all kind of came to the conclusion that Roger wasn’t going to continue with the band. I don’t know if he didn’t enjoy the music or was too distracted by the relationship stuff but we couldn’t produce the kind of music that we wanted to produce when he was around because he wouldn’t learn his parts or he kept experimenting with his parts. I don’t know but it got to the point where, whenever he was around the songs just couldn’t come to their logical conclusion and things felt like they were in perpetual limbo. We kind of decided that we had to record a lot of the album without Rog.
LRI: Did that hurt you from a personal standpoint since you two had started off and had that dream of playing all those years earlier?
Steve: Yeah, it was really strange but at the same time Roger is sort of a different kind of guy and maybe he did it unconsciously, maybe he didn’t but he sort of alienated himself from each of us in his own way at that time. It was sad and everything but at that point it almost felt like a relief to not be around him because he was in so much pain.
LRI: “Even It Up” resulted from those sessions and is one of those classic hard rock songs. Was that an easy track in terms of getting it to the finish line?
Steve: That is a fun song. We would play that song live on tours before it was even out and it always went over well so we sort of put that one together on the road, in a way.
LRI: I have to admit, of all of these albums, the one I go to on vinyl most often is “Greatest Hits/Live” which some people might not list at the top of their favorite records but has a great version of “Bebe Le Strange” on it. Do you recall the actual mobile recordings of those shows and how that release came to be?
Steve: We knew we were going to do a live album and we hired a truck to go around and follow us, recording every show, wherever we went. We recorded every concert for, I guess it was a month or so and then at the end of the tour we sort went through all the tapes and figure out which performances we liked and what we wanted to include. We did whatever needed to be done to clean it up and make sure everything was up to par. I like that album a lot because I am a big fan of our live performances. The live drums and guitar sounds were a little more aggressive usually and the audiences were real responsive and seemed to add something to it all, including getting you up a little bit more to play.
LRI: The “Private Audition” album is kind of a mixed bag. It was also you and Mike DeRosier’s last record with the band after which Howard and the Wilson sisters regrouped and began shifting gears again. Did you feel like the band was moving away from it’s identity at that point?
Steve: “Private Audition” was recorded at a time in our lives where I kind of felt like everybody was searching for a way to be or a new identity I guess. It started off on the wrong foot and ended up on a different wrong foot, in my opinion at least. Jimmy Iovine was supposed to be the producer on that album and when we took our whole crew down to Los Angeles to do that album and when he came to our rehearsals he said “Well, I like this and I like that but that’s only a couple of songs. You guys need more songs, I would suggest you write some more songs and do some more rehearsing and brainstorming and all that”. Ann and Nancy would have nothing to do with his suggestion, they thought things were going along just fine and they wanted to continue on with what they’d written so far.
LRI: So there was already some tension there.
Steve: Yes and I think Mike and I were both of the same mind, thinking we really did need to rework some of the songs and rehearse some more new ideas, maybe get back to our roots a bit more instead of trying to go in some new direction. I think “Private Audition” was probably the least successful album for Heart, I’m pretty sure. I get my royalty statements and to this day, that record still does not light up the charts.
LRI: I always wondered, sometimes in the old TV clips they would refer to Heart as a Canadian band, sometimes as a Seattle band. Did those Canadian remarks ever rub the hometown Seattle fans and friends the wrong way?
Steve: No, I don’t think so. We were Americans obviously that immigrated to Canada and then we came back. We got our start in Canada and Canada was really good to us. I still love Canada and my son lives in Canada but when the accountants told us that if we remained in Canada we would have to pay Canadian taxes and American taxes but if we lived in America we would only have to pay American taxes we knew it was a no-brainer and we came back (laughs). I think people in Seattle realize why we did what we did. When we left town, Boeing was in a downturn and Seattle was in a downturn. It was at the end of the Vietnam war and there just wasn’t a lot going on here in the mid-70s, money was really tight. Up in Canada, in Vancouver, it was booming at that time and that was one of the few times when the Canadian dollar was more valuable than the American dollar so it was a wise financial move on our part, at that time. The entertainment scene and gigging scene was viable in Canada and it was a bit more conductive to getting a band off the ground.
LRI: You, Roger and Mike achieved a great deal of mainstream success again many years after Heart when you were in the band Alias. How did it feel to once again be touring and riding the wave of a hit record, albeit with a different band?
Steve: It was great. It was really fun working with Freddie Curci and Steve DeMarchi of Sheriff who are great musicians and of course working with Rog, Steve and Mike again. It was really good and they were very professional people who took their music very seriously. I remember before doing the tour we got together and practiced for two weeks and then we were out doing our national tour. From dealing with musicians I deal with now around here and other musicians I’ve dealt with over the years, most bands take months and months to get ready for a tour in order to really pull it off but it came together very quickly for Alias.
LRI: I’ve heard your girlfriend Somar sing and she is amazing, can you explain how your current band Heart By Heart came together?
Steve: Well, Roger Fisher married a Czech baby and went overseas and worked on his stuff in Europe for a while. When he came back to the Seattle area from Europe, a party was thrown for Rog called Rock Star Reunion or something and it was Mike and I and a bunch of musicians from the northwest area playing with Rog to kind of get him back into the rock and roll mode again here in Seattle. We wanted to do some Heart songs and through the grapevine we heard that Somar was the lead singer in a Heart tribute band and she could do a few Heart songs with us since she already knew the material. That was the first time we all heard her sing and obviously we thought she was a very good singer as well as a very nice person and everything. As time went on, she had another band that she was playing in which was a different Heart tribute band and once in a while Roger and I would sit in with them and play a few tunes and we got to know her a little better. That band went through a few trials and tribulations as all bands do and Somar began doing her own stuff, with songs that she was writing at the time and they would call me up from time to time and still ask me to sit in with them. We got to know each other a little more and would go out to dinner or go see other bands play and pretty soon we became romantically involved. We would mess around with Heart songs, just me on bass and her singing and do stuff like “Crazy On You” or “Dog and Butterfly” and people would ask us to do other songs so we’d work on other Heart songs. We got asked to do a few other things around town and then a guy asked us to open up for Dwight Yoakam in Anchorage, Alaska so we got together with Randy Hansen (known for his Hendrix Tribute work) and Mike DeRosier and said “Hey, we got this offer to go and do this show, would you guys like to come along and help us out and make this a real band?” They said sure and then one thing led to another and we were regularly doing shows as Heart By Heart.
LRI: Thanks again for taking the time to talk with us and congratulations on the Hall of Fame induction Steve. Besides you, Mike, Randy and Somar who else rounds out the current Heart By Heart band and when can we see you live?
Steve: If you go to our webpage, Heartbyheartband.com you can see some of the live stuff on our youtube link but I love Illinois and the midwest and would love the band to play your area soon. The current lineup also includes Lizzy Daymont on rhythm guitar and vocals, Andy Baldwin of Rail on guitars and Bob Rivers on keyboards. We do the classic Heart hits that people love as well as the deep cuts they haven’t heard live in some time. We play pretty often around the northwest but we are also planning on taking the show on the road around America and playing as much as possible.
Aug 02 Triple Door ~ 8:00PM Seattle, WA
Aug 11 A Taste of Edmonds/Main Stage ~ 5:30PM Edmonds, WA
Aug 15 Grant County Fair (Two shows: 7PM & 9PM) Moses Lake, WA
Aug 22 Puyallup Concerts in the Park ~ 7:30PM Puyallup, WA
Aug 25 Tulalip Summer Concert Series Opening for Foreigner Tulalip, Wa