Steve Conte has had quite the career. He’s a New York City-based singer and guitarist whose resume includes playing with the New York Dolls, The Michael Monroe Band, his own band, and too many other acts to name. He also writes and produces his own songs, and even after over 30 years of rocking, he still makes his punk haircut look good.
Even if you aren’t into rock music, you’ll likely recognize his voice from songs like “Call Me, Call Me” and “Rain” from Cowboy Bebop, “Living Inside the Shell” from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, or the opening “Stray” from Wolf’s Rain. He’s worked with Japanese composer Yoko Kanno since the ‘90s and has helped create some of the most iconic music in anime history. We interviewed him over the phone after his summer European tour and his appearance at J1-Con in Atlantic City, NJ. Here’s what we found out!
So how did you get started as a musician and, how does recording an album differ from touring as a band?
I got started as a musician very young. My mother was a jazz singer, and my dad loved jazz too. They had an amazing record collection – like Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. I grew up hearing that stuff in my house. I couldn’t process the complexities of jazz at that age, but the sounds got into my head and I recognized and appreciated some of it. But then, my parents’ friends came over one night, and they brought the Beatles album “Revolver”. And my brother [John] and I listened to it the whole night while they were having dinner. And that was it – we were hooked. We became Beatles fanatics.
The next year, I wanted to be a drummer. I started studying the drums because I wanted to be Ringo. So I had been playing drums for five years, and then I picked up my brother’s guitar and found out immediately that I could write songs and that I could get around a guitar even though I didn’t know what I was doing. So I thought, “Well, I can’t be a singer and play the drum kit. I want to sing and be out front!” So I started taking lessons, and within about a month I became better than my brother, who had been studying about two to three years.
That had to feel good!
I knew that’s what I should be doing, and my brother knew it too. He switched to bass and now he’s a phenomenal bass player, so we actually found what we were suited for doing that way. I started writing my own songs at 11 and he and I had our first band. We recorded, in the family living room, our first “album” with all songs that me and my brother wrote. We did a couple of albums like that and I continued to write songs and have bands throughout middle school and high school, although we didn’t really record and get out there as an act until we graduated from college.
Recording, with your own original songs anyway, is about getting your ideas out of your head and down onto a form where you can have them realized and heard by yourself, and then ultimately by the public. A lot of times, I’ll do demos first, especially if I’m experimenting with some new form or if I’m just alone at home and I come up with a song. But sometimes, I go into the studio and I’ve never done a demo of the song – I just say, “Hey guys, let’s record this song. Here’s how it goes”, and it becomes the start of the record.
And when you record other people’s songs, like the projects for Yoko Kanno, is it a similar process? Do you experiment at all?
That’s just a surprise. A lot of times I show up and I learn it on the spot and I do it. However, come to think of it, Yoko has usually sent me demos of the song with her singing them, which is always a little funny because she’s got such a little tiny voice and she doesn’t really speak English so well. So I just get the feeling for the melody and rhythm of it and then when I get in the studio, I know the melody already and she’ll tell me, “Sing it more raspy” or “Sing it more cool and detached” or “more angry” or whatever emotion.
Was she there in person or did she call you?
She’s always there in the studio when I record vocals. She’s always flown to New York because she uses a lot of New York people – horn players and drummers and other instrumentalists as well.
So how did you get involved with Yoko Kanno initially?
Well, when you’ve been in New York for a while and your reputation is good, like being a good musician and showing up on time for recording sessions and gigs, people recommend you. Yoko came into town [in 1998] and she got my name and I auditioned. She liked what she heard so I came into her studio and recorded for her solo album, which is called “Song to Fly”, and I did this song called “Nowhere and Everywhere”. She really liked what I did, so she said, “Oh, I’m coming back in six months to do music for an anime.” And I said, “What’s an anime?”
Ha ha! Did you have any idea what you were getting into?
No, I didn’t. And she explained to me, “Oh, it’s a cartoon series and kids are all really into them.” The closest thing to anime that I knew was Speed Racer – very basic movements and not at all swanky like today’s stuff is. But I said, “Okay, I’ll do this.” The first thing we did was a recording session in New York – that’s what I do, I’m a musician, I work, it’s just a job. We did “Rain”, which was in the first Cowboy Bebop [album]. Soon after, we were doing the next session and we did “Call Me, Call Me”, which I sang live with a 30-piece orchestra, which was amazing. You can’t really mess up when you’ve got a whole string section there.
Yeah, and that song is a really big deal in the series because that’s when Ed leaves for good.
Yep, I know, I’ve got the series. I bought it on DVD, and it’s like six [discs]. I haven’t watched all of them, but I remember that scene – it’s someone walking away into the distance.
So that was nerve-wracking; it was my second anime session and here I was not being recorded digitally, but going to analog tape. She came from Japan with these big reels of tape. All she had on the tape was piano and a click track –she wanted the orchestra to record live. And it was really great because I got to feed off the energy of everybody. And with live strings, it was just incredible. After that, we did “Words We Couldn’t Say”.
That’s one of our favorite Cowboy Bebop tracks!
Well... I’m glad you like it, but that’s my least favorite one. Not because I don’t like the song, but it’s my least favorite performance of myself. When [Yoko] comes, she says, “I’m going to come in three months, and here’s your time to learn the song.” And that week that she came to do “Words We Couldn’t Say”, I had the worst flu ever. I just had to tough it out. I would be under my covers, drinking garlic tea with pepper and trying to sweat all the flu out of me. I can hear it in my voice, I can hear that I’m at about 80%.
Maybe it works because it’s supposed to sound very pained. It’s definitely a sad song.
Well, that’s the one where she wanted me to sound very cool and detached. She’d say, “Sing more cold, like Sting.” I just think my vocal is flat in spots and it’s not 100% where it should be. I don’t normally bring up my shortcomings, except that I’ve seen other people say in forums, “Oh, he sounds flat on this song.” Yep! I do.
That’s got to hurt when a critic confirms your negative thoughts like that.
Well, at least people know what they’re listening to – they have educated ears. There are plenty of flat notes on major hit records all over the place, so I’m just a little hard on myself. I want to be as perfect as I can be, but it’s okay as long as they’re still feeling it. Sometimes you can be perfect and have no feeling, and that’s not good either.
So, for Yoko, she gives me the stuff to prepare and I work it up, and she really produces me. We’ll do background vocals and I’ll stack myself 30 times while singing the same part three or four times... she really works me hard in the studio. When I work for myself, I work in a similar way, but I produce myself, so it’s all about my vision of how I want my song to come out. Working for Yoko is more about following her vision, which is completely different from what I would do. And that’s why people go, “That’s the same guy that sings on his own records?” Yeah, it’s completely different because it’s a completely different kind of project and a different kind of producer. There are some people who sing the same way all the time but, luckily, I can do different things.
Is it fun to do different types of songs and not stick to the same style all the time?
Like I said, when it’s with Yoko, it’s all about what she wants me to be. I guess she heard [on “Nowhere and Everywhere”] that I could do that sort of Beatle-y, John Lennon kind of thing, so “Call Me, Call Me” is not a stretch from that. And “No Reply” fits in the same sort of bag. Then she stretched it, and we did some different kinds of stuff like “Could You Bite the Hand” from Wolf’s Rain.
“Diggin’”, from the Cowboy Bebop movie soundtrack, is another one we wanted to mention. It’s really different!
Yeah, that’s like my Johnny Cash vibe, and then “The Garden of Everything” [from RahXephon] is really soft, and “Rain” is very gritty and hard. They’re all a little bit different.
And “Rain” has two different versions, as well. Mai Yamane sang the version that’s in Cowboy Bebop, and yours was on the soundtrack album.
When Yoko flew me into Tokyo for the 20-year anniversary of the Seatbelts, Mai and I did a duet of “Rain”. I sang the first verse, and then she sang the second verse, and I sang the end, and then she joined me... it was really nice.
That’s so cool! So are you a fan of anime and video games at all, or do you mostly just make music for them?
No, that was the other thing. After I did a couple of these [anime projects] in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, I noticed that when I would start Googling my name, pages and pages of anime stuff before my own website or performances or albums. I thought, “What is up with this anime thing?” And I realized that it was this whole world of kids that had networks all over – people from France were recommending me, and Japan, and Russia.
One of the reasons for that might have been that Cowboy Bebop’s music is considered to be one of, if not the greatest anime soundtrack ever.
Well, I’m proud to be involved with it for that reason, and also really for this reason: because the anime itself, unlike other films or anything else that has a soundtrack to it... usually, the shooting gets done first, and then the editing, and then the director would give the completed film to the music composer and they would make the music fit the visuals. With Cowboy Bebop, it was done the complete opposite way. There were no visuals, there was no [script] even. There was a storyline, and Yoko wrote the songs based on the story, but there were no visuals to look at. So we recorded the music, and the director listened to our tracks while he drew.
So the animation was done to the music. Wow! That’s very rare.
That is the complete opposite of any other animation or cartoon or show that I’ve ever heard of. Which maybe is why that soundtrack is seen as so important.
Do you think that other shows should follow that process in order to make their soundtracks stand out?
No! I don’t think anyone should ever do that. I think we should be the only ones so we can be the best of all time! It’s been the perfect confluence of composer, director, musicians, the time period. If someone tried to repeat that same sort of thing now, it might not work.
So you just got done with your own band’s European tour and the anime and gaming expo J1-Con in New Jersey. Can you tell us more about those?
My summers are always filled with touring my own music and music that I write for another artist named Michael Monroe. He’s a guy who I play guitar with and write songs for. He’s based in Finland and he’s the former frontman of a band called Hanoi Rocks, which was a sort of glam-y, punk-y band in the early ‘80s. They were heavily influenced by The New York Dolls, who I used to play with as well. We tour all over Finland all summer long. And then I tour with my own band, doing my own music in England, Holland, sometimes France and Belgium as well. That’s how I’ve spent pretty much my last 14 summers.
Europeans really appreciate my music, especially music that’s played and created by real people, not by pushing buttons and getting samples and loops. When I go out on stage in Italy or Germany, people’s eyes are wide, like, “Wow! These guys are going to create something right in front of our eyes.” By contrast, when you play in New York, people just stand there with their arms crossed like, “Yeah, go ahead and impress me. I’ve seen it all.”
Are Japanese audiences any different?
Oh, it’s crazy. Especially if they know who you are – Michael Monroe is a legend in Japan, and the New York Dolls were legendary in Japan, too. People will show up to the show all dressed up like the band – leopard skin and pink hair, crazy designs and styles. You can tell that the audience is into it.
So I came back from the European summer and got back to work here in the States. I just came from a weekend in Atlantic City where I did two gigs, one with my band Blues Deluxe, where we do classic early Rod Stewart stuff like “Maggie May” and “Every Picture Tells a Story”. It’s basically a cover band, but we don't really try to sound just like them or look like them or anything. We do our own thing, which is close to what those guys did anyway. So it’s totally believable, and it’s not like going to see a cheap imitation – you see five great musicians doing great songs. We did that at the Hard Rock Café Hotel and Casino.
And then, the next day, I went right next door to the Showboat Hotel and did J1-Con. I didn’t sing or play this year, unfortunately. I just did a Q&A session about my work with Yoko and the Seatbelts and how the soundtracks came together. I had a little booth there and people came by, bought CDs and shirts and had them signed. I love the J1-Con people and, hopefully, next year I‘m actually going to play. I’m always up for appearing as a musician [at cons] rather than just going and answering questions. It’s always more fun to play.
Do you have anything else that you’ve been working on lately?
We have a new Michael Monroe album that’s in the can, ready to go. It’s probably going to be released next year, and I wrote a bunch of songs for that. And I’m working on a new solo album now, writing songs for it and getting all the arrangements together, which will be done here in New York.
Very cool! There’s one last thing we wanted to ask. In your music career, what do you think is the most rewarding thing about it?
When people appreciate the music or the performance or the song. It feels really good to know that a song I wrote touched them or helped them through a hard period in their life. I have people come up to me all the time and say, “Your music helped me through my divorce” or “got me through college” or “got me through my breakup with my high school girlfriend” or whatever it is. That’s good to hear. Or when people say, “I love that solo” or “I love the way you sing this song”... just basic stuff like that. You feel like you’re pulling the heartstrings of people. And, you know, getting paid for it ain’t bad either! I’m very grateful that I get to make a living doing what I love.
Well, you’ve certainly made your mark on the music world. We hope you continue to make great music and inspire people, through both anime and your own work. Thanks so much for chatting with us today!
Steve Conte is very passionate and opinionated about his music, just as all of us are about anime. If you’d like to check out more of his work, go to http://stevecontenyc.com/site/ or any of his social media profiles to keep up with his releases and tour dates.
What are your favorite Steve Conte anime songs? Have you heard any of his other music? What do you think of his hair? Let us know in the comments, and thanks so much for reading!
Author: Mary Lee Sauder
After the hard-hitting East Coast lifestyle hit me a bit too hard, I started pursuing my passion as a writer in my cozy home state of Ohio. Aside from that, I spend my time cooking, cosplaying, collecting anime merch, and being an improv comedy actor. I also love sneaking alliterations and stupid puns into my writing, so be on the lookout for them! 😉