Drummer Steve Luongo Keeps an Artistic Beat With His Designer Threads – A Sarasota Post Interview
I met rock drummer Steve Luongo about 6 years ago when he was playing with the Robin Zander Band. I was hanging around with my camera since I was a fan of Zander from Cheap Trick. Steve liked my photos and invited me to shoot the band at various venues including B.B. King’s in New York City! We keep in touch and recently I photographed him playing with Eddie Money at Eddie’s show at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater! I asked Steve if he would do an interview about his days in music and his new venture into clothing design for The Sarasota Post! He gave us a great interview!
SP:At what age did you start playing the drums?
Steve: I was fascinated by tempo and percussion as far back as I can remember. My mother told me in my infant years I was spellbound by the windshield wipers on the family car. She had to ride around on sunny days with the windshield wipers going or I would cry. The next indication was in kindergarten. The high school band came to perform at our school and after that performance I was announcing to everyone that I was going to play the drums. I received a toy set of drums that Christmas. There was no turning back.
SP: For the drummers out there, you were into the early days of electronic drums and the prototype of the Moog synthesizer drum. Give us some idea of what was happening with percussion back in the day compared to now.
Steve: Drums haven’t changed much over the years. The original drums were wood with an animal hide stretched over it to make the tone. The materials and construction have gotten more sophisticated but the mechanics of a drum remain the same.
I was always looking for the next cool thing to add to my growing kit. I never replaced anything. I added stuff. If something made a cool sound when I hit it with a stick chances are it wound up in my drum kit. I remember being in NY at a music store back in the early 70s when I saw the Prototype for the Moog electronic drum. It was a small tom tom filled with electronics, 2 knobs on the side and a very long industrial looking cable and plugs. I was told that you had to plug it into a Minimoog which was released or year or two before and in 1972 a Minimoog was around $1800. Luckily for me, our keyboard player had a Minimoog. It sounded incredible and I began incorporating the Moog Drum in my drum solo. I have used synthesizers and electronic percussion in my solos from then until now. They will never replace acoustic drums and percussion but with samples and triggers you can now play any sound in the universe with a stick.
SP: What was the New York music scene like when you started out?
Steve: I wanted to be in a band as soon as I found out what being in a band was. There was no music scene that I knew of at 11 or 12 years old. It seemed as we grew as musicians, a music scene developed along with us. The New York, New Jersey, Connecticut music scene and the bands of that early 70s era along with an 18-year-old drinking age fueled a musical era that will never be repeated. All of a sudden in the mid-70s there was a competition to build the biggest club that could hold the best bands to play to the largest crowds. It was a great time to be a young musician.
SP: Your band, Rat Race Choir was well-known in and around New York and you recently had a reunion- what was that like after all these years?
Steve: Rat Race Choir was from Westchester County but actually broke out of the Hamptons in 1971. Not only was that band overflowing with musical talent, we also had chemistry on stage that was undeniable. RRC became important to a lot of people in the NY music scene. Despite the talent and popularity of RRC we could not secure a proper record contract. We did a reunion in 1997 at Speaks on Long Island. But I was touring with John Entwistle. When John was with The Who I was overseeing our business partnership pursuing various projects for us. It would be another 20 years before I performed with Rat Race Choir at the reunion weekend in December 2017. It was not what I expected it to be or what I imagined it might be but it was fun. It was an unusual glimpse down the real memory lane. Almost otherworldly – as if time had stopped which of course it didn’t. I feel like that chapter of my career is comfortably complete. I’m good with that.
SP: How did you meet John Entwistle of The Who and tell us about your relationship with him?
Steve: I met John in June 1987 at McCormick Place in Chicago which was the site of the music industry trade show known as summer Namm. Joe Berger was our band’s mixing engineer who also worked with Entwistle at these trade shows. Namm was famous for the celebrity jam sessions. In the late 80’s John Entwistle was the King of NAMM. Joe introduced us and of course I asked John if he wanted to jam. He said “anytime”. I took that as a license to orchestrate an event that changed my life and career. I found out who was having the biggest jam, I went to them and said “I’m playing with John Entwistle and we’d like to jam tonight.” Before the sun went down we had the prime spot in the lineup at the Vic Theater in Chicago. Luckily, I was at the convention with my band mates from Rat Race Choir. As kids we used to perform Tommy, Quadrophenia and Live at Leeds so I wasn‘t worried about what we would play with Entwistle. I called him at The Drake Hotel and told him I sorted out a place for us to jam. I said, “I’ll pick you up” and I headed to his hotel. He was walking through the lobby and noticed that I was in a ridiculously long limo. The car was provided by the guitar company who was hosting the jam. We pulled into an alley and went down a flight of stairs to a long row of dressing rooms. It was just me…and John Entwistle who asked “What are we going to play?” I said, “‘Who’ songs.” He said, “I don’t know any.” At that point the rest of the band walked in and I said, “We do, we’ll teach them to you.” He laughed and agreed. After 90 minutes of rehearsal for 4 songs Entwistle said, “You guys even learned the mistakes…” We all laughed. When we were called to go on stage we had to stand single file on a metal staircase leading up to the stage. It became apparent that this was not just a jam but the featured concert of this summer Namm. When Dweezil Zappa introduced John Entwistle, we heard thousands of people cheering. There is actually video of the performance and the initial look on John Entwistle’s face was one of horror until he realized we knew our parts and it was more than historic in my career. John and I went on to become bandmates, co-writers, business partners and most importantly the very best of friends. For 15 years to the day, that time was among the most magical musical years of my life. When he passed in 2002, I was invited by John’s family and the other members of The Who to deliver the eulogy at his memorial service in London. It was an honor. John was a genius in every sense of the word. “When it thunders, think of John Entwistle.”
SP: You played on the “Walk Down Abbey Road” tour with such artists as Ann Wilson, Alan Parsons and Todd Rundgren along with John Entwistle- what was this experience like working with these artists and playing Beatles music?
Steve: Until Abbey Road in 2001, I hadn’t played Beatle music since I was a kid. Doing the Abbey Road tour at that time was amazing. I had a lot of fun and I got to rediscover the music that changed everything with an incredible lineup of musicians. Everyone on that stage gave 100% every minute of every show and nothing less. That’s when you know you’re working with pros! That’s when you’re really making music.
SP: When did you first meet Robin Zander of Cheap Trick and decide to put the RZB band together?
Steve: I met Robin when I first moved to Florida in 2004. He did an interview for a film I was directing, and we hit it off. Over time we did some fundraiser shows together. I’d show up with my bass player and guitar player and Robin would hop up on stage and we’d jam playing classic rock. John Entwistle loved to play so much he would’ve performed at the opening of an envelope if his fans were there. Robin Zander is the same way. It doesn’t matter how big, how small, how far, how long, if it’s music and he’s available Robin will show up. He rang me up in 2012 about partnering up in a new band that would play all the music that we love. We did Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Who, AC/DC Badfinger and Cheap Trick. Not just the hits, we played the deep cuts, the stuff we really wanted to play. We did some original material as well. Before life intervened and sent us in different directions we managed to record and video two performances at the Arcada Theater in Chicago. The fun part of The Robin Zander Band was trying to sound authentic while maintaining your own musical personality. Those 3 years flew by.
SP: What are you doing musically these days?
Steve: When you are a “Lifer” you never stop playing and you certainly never stop being creative. Even when I was playing 300 nights a year I was always looking for something to do musically or artistically on my days off. As far back as I can remember I always had some form of recording studio and many days off were devoted to writing. My lifelong career spans decades and I found out along the way how necessary it was to be able to reinvent yourself. I always found a way to create new musical revenue streams. The first slump in my career was in the mid-80’s just as the internet was coming into focus. Electronic percussion had advanced and I found myself using my studio as a hub to upload and download drum tracks on other people’s material. I called it Drums-Online and it served me well. From 1987 until 2002, I had a musical business partnership with John Entwistle of The Who. That kept me busy until his sudden unexpected death in June 2002. Later that year I formed TorQue and released TorQue 103103. It was that band that became RZB. We also recorded with Leslie West and backed up Mark Farner, Eddie Money, Buck Dharma, Robin Zander and Dickey Betts at various charity concerts. Throughout the years I always enjoyed composing music to picture. I started doing films back in the 80’s. I was doing graduate films for directors at the NYU Tisch Film School in NYC. These days I find myself back in that composing mode. For the past three years I have been working with a prominent Hollywood composer providing soundtrack and background music for ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, A&E and Discovery Channel.
When we finally decided on a full-time residence in Florida the first thing I did was have a professional recording studio built in the house. I needed to know that I could always have a place to work musically. In NY there’s a professional recording studio on every corner, it’s not quite the same here in Southwest Florida.
SP: Your original artwork has been displayed in various galleries. How did your interest in painting and art come about?
Steve: I have been creating art as long as I have been creating music. Perhaps longer because I had access to art materials like pencils, cardboard, glue and of course crayons. As an infant and adolescent, I grew up playing on the floor of my grandfather’s textile factories. 50 sewing machines performing a rapid-fire drum solo as I played with spools of thread and tape measures. I had access to time cards, outdated checkbooks and they were my artistic playground. In school I was always drawn to the art classes. They didn’t offer music lessons until the fourth grade. I tried lessons, but I was a non-conformist. I got frustrated with lessons because they weren’t holding my interest. I was becoming a rock musician and I was not embraced by the music faculty in my school system at the time. In fact, I was told throughout my school years that I would never make it as a rock musician. Thankfully the music side of things was taking care of itself. We were playing out, making serious money and having the time of our lives! I decided to devote every remaining public-school moment to visual art. Throughout my career I have been designing album cover logos and I was somewhat infamous for my dressing room drawings which depicted the music business of the day. At times the art would all but vanish from my life but in the end my art was always there.
In 1988 my artistic focus took a remarkable turn. I discovered some new techniques along with old-school techniques that I was taught in school. From there I merged them and developed my own style. It was the first time I ever saw true artistic purpose in what I was creating visually. No two canvases looked alike, but everything I did was somehow related. I had discovered my own original artistic fingerprint. It was energizing to see what was appearing in front of me. For 20 years I had no idea I was creating a gallery of artistic work. I loved creating art for the fun of creating art. I certainly never thought about selling my art. It was the furthest from my mind. I hadn’t shown any of it publicly since the high school art fair in 1968.
In 2008 we were planning a fundraiser in Fort Myers. One of the volunteers saw some of my art and thought we should include it for sale at the event. I had never contemplated that, but I agreed, and we sold every piece. It was unbelievable. Like magic. People were truly getting joy from my canvases. That’s why I create art. It’s fun for me and it’s without rules. Whether it’s music or visual it’s a joyful experience to create and share anything. I love the thought that I’m providing people with something that evokes joy.
SP: Now your art has become designer shirts and more! What was the process in turning your artwork into clothing designs?
Steve: Over the past 10 years I have shown my art in several venues including galleries, museums, auction houses and online. I hear a lot of comments from people about my art. The three that stand out are “I’ve never seen anything like it.” “Whoa, that reminds me of college…” And “This would look cool on a shirt.”
People will tell me about the images that they see in my abstract paintings. “I see an owl, I see a scary old man, that looks like my dog, I see flocks of birds.” The magic is when they show me what they see, and I can see it too. How many more people would see my art and engage in that conversation if it was printed full scale on garments?
Six years ago, I decided to focus on a line of fine men’s shirts that featured my art. But I needed a hook, something that would set my brand apart from everyone else. It has always been important for me to put my personal touch on anything that I do. And the shirts would be no different. Since I had never planned this I had no rules to break and decided that the first thing I wanted to do was make them truly limited edition. Only 100 shirts using any piece of my art, numbered, named and signed. Made from the finest materials and cut for today’s man who is not afraid to stand out in a crowd. I’ve always loved stage clothes. I always enjoyed picking out cool stuff to wear when I performed. Now I find myself creating exactly what I was looking for. The numbering was tough. Out of 100 who gets number 01 and who gets number 100? I broke it into 5 groups of 20 in 5 sizes. 01 of 20 Small up to 01 of 20 XXL.
I have a remarkable project manager and team at the factory. Everyone understands our purpose in making these clothes. It’s not just splashing some color on a shirt to be noticed it’s a piece of art to be discussed person to person. Someone stares down at your sleeve or notices your collar or cuff and you begin to discuss the art used on your shirt. Not a t-shirt with picture of the Mona Lisa heat transferred like a rubber stamp. A fine garment that doubles as a wearable canvas displaying art to be enjoyed by whoever encounters it.
SP: Some of your musician friends have been wearing your shirts on stage and rocker Eddie Money recently wore them on his TV show! This must be exciting! Did you expect them to take off so quickly?
Steve: I always hope for the best. I knew I was creating something different. I used a premium 100% cotton for the body and appointed the garment with details including etched signature buttons and a print of the original art on the shirt’s cardboard. I personally love every design we’ve created, and I wear them because I like them, not because it’s my label. Everyone I showed them to loved my samples and, yes, my friends and bandmates have been quick to support my brand – Steve Luongo Designs. But when they choose to wear them on stage that’s the biggest compliment.
Over the past few years I’ve been creating samples trying to get the shirt just right. Everything down to the packaging was thought out. When Eddie Money found out what I was doing he said he wanted to wear them on stage. He’s got 7 or 8 different styles. He even wore “Vines” on his reality AXS-TV series Real Money. Gene Cornish and Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals are currently wearing them on their summer tour. Gene has 4 and Felix just received his first one. Mark Rivera plays sax for everyone from Ringo Starr to Billy Joel. Mark has 3 from Steve Luongo Designs. He wore “Black Flower” with Billy Joel & Bryan Adams recently at their Madison Square Garden show in New York. Other celebrities including Randy Jackson-Zebra, Will Lee from the David Letterman Band, Matt Beck-Matchbox 20 and more are wearing them on stage. True these are my friends, but when they wear my designs on stage it’s because they choose to.
SP: Steve, where can people find all your designs in person and online?
Steve: Because of the limited numbers we are only featured in select boutiques. Steve Luongo Designs are available at Jackie Z Style Company St. Petersburg FL, Broder Carvell Fine Clothiers Ft Myers FL, and on South Beach at U-Rock Couture, Ocean Dr, Miami Beach FL. Click here for Steve Luongo Designs website for online shopping. Three shirt styles are available now with 7 new designs scheduled to be released before the holiday season. SLD recently added one-of-a-kind designer pillows to the site as well as my original abstract art. We’re adding a women’s line, a swimwear line and a complete line of bedding including sheets and pillowcase sets. The entire brand is based on my original art. This is the perfect time of my life to launch this endeavor. It’s another opportunity to add some color to someone’s life.
SP: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us and continued success!
Steve: Thank you, “Dream in Color.”
Photos courtesy of Vicky Sullivan / Rock the Lens Photography and Steve Luongo Designs FB.