Ahead of his shows in Australia, the Boss explains the art of performance and never taking an audience for granted.

You must feel an incredible sense of power, standing in front of 80,000 people. And with great power comes great responsibility, as Spider-Man put it. Do you feel that responsibility, too?

Well, you’ve got to look at it … you go out on stage each night as if, one, it’s the most important thing in your life you can do, two, it’s only rock’n’roll. You’ve got to be able to keep those conflicting points of view in your mind at the same time without letting either of them drive you crazy, or taking either of them at 100% face value. That’s sort of how you live with it. But it is something you asked for. You can’t get around that part of it. You just do your best with it.

Your show is about delivering to the audience moments of transcendence – it’s something you’ve spoken about. When you go on stage do you have any idea where those moments might fall, or where you want them to fall? Can you pace a set like that?

You can’t predict it. Every show is so organic. I’ve never played two shows that are the same, in all the years we’ve been playing. You’re dealing with the alchemy of yourself and your audience, and that’s a swirling, changing experience from moment to moment. I go out and I both guide and allow myself to be guided by the audience. And those moments happen … There’s a structure to the show that builds to certain points, it ebbs at certain moments, but there’s always a moment of surprise – those moments will come up and surprise me during the course of the evening, and you’ll just play something where I’ll just look at Steve [Van Zandt] and we’ll go, “Yeah, that. We got that.” We’ll just look at each other and go, “Wow. That was a great moment.”

How, mentally, did you adjust to how aging has changed your performance, the fact that you could no longer jump from the piano, or if you did a kneeslide, it might take you five minutes to get up from it …

I’m probably not going to do three running somersaults at this point. But the basic thing, the only thing that I notice as I’ve gotten older is that you have certain structural weaknesses in your body that arise, and you’ve got to manage your physical self so it can do the essential and important things. So you can deliver your message and create the evening you want to create. So you curtail a few of the other things that at this point aren’t as necessary – you have the possibility of busting your back or your neck.

You can remove the adornments from a cathedral, but it’s still a cathedral …

Yeah, exactly! Those are the only adjustments I’ve had to make. Energy wise, I don’t feel anything different. Physically, I don’t feel anything different. We’ve played some of the longest shows of our career [in 2016], so there are a few small things, but not too much.

The hunger in you that drives you to throw everything out there … would be the same in front of an audience of one

Does it feel different to play to 70,000 people as opposed to 150 people?

The machine, the inner workings of what you’re doing is exactly the same. You’re still working as hard to impress 150 people. The hunger in you that drives you to throw everything out there, amazingly enough, I believe would be the same in front of an audience of one. Because you’re trying to start a conversation, to fire up a conversation, fundamentally with one other person, which then extends itself, to 50, to 500, to 5,000 to 50,000. But the act itself is profoundly the same. You have to learn some different elements of your craft to play a bigger crowd, you have to have a certain talent for it. But the inner alchemy is basically the same.

Michael Stipe of REM told me he was happy to play a full room of any size, but once it wasn’t full he had a problem with it, no matter whether it was a club or a stadium, because that’s when the insecurities would come out.

Really? That’s interesting. My approach was a little different, in that I always looked at it as: I’m here to play for the people that are here. And we go round the States and we don’t sell out all the time. We’ve played arenas that are three-quarters full. We still sell a great amount of seats but you’re not going to sell out every show for the rest of your life. I still come out on stage with the same presence of mind as if the place was full. The stakes are still the same. You’re always happy to see a large group of faces staring back at you. And I’m used to playing full houses, so I’ve been spoiled a little bit by that over the years.

It’s not that you wouldn’t have second thoughts, “Hey! Where is everybody?” – of course, you would. But still, the fundamental act is the same. You’re trying to talk to who’s there. You have a window of opportunity where you have some influence, and you try to use that window well. Go home, put your head on the pillow, and sleep well that night.

What do you recall about making the steps from arenas to stadiums in 1985?

You are initially intimidated by the space. But it’s all mental. You have to be mentally prepared for the larger environment. If you can mentally project yourself to the last row, you’ll be fine. It’s all about making that initial connection with the audience. If you do that, the folks at the back will feel it, the folks in the middle will feel it, the folks at the front will feel it. If you go out there and you can’t imagine that connection, it’s not going to happen, and then you’re going to have a miserable few hours. That’s when you think, “OK. I’m a fraud.”

Are there shows where you don’t feel you make that connection?

The key is you have to take each audience on its merits. No two audiences are the same. If you go and play a show in Spain, it’s not the same as playing in Hyde Park [in London]. It’s not the same as playing in the States. Every audience has its own characteristics. You can’t expect the audience to conform to your expectations. You have to come out and say, “OK, I’m meeting someone new tonight. First let me meet them and learn a little bit about them.”

So you have to come out, start playing, and get a feel for the audience that evening. They may be quiet. They may be wildly boisterous. They may overwhelm you with their energy. You may feel there’s a particular crowd where the energy is low. But you can’t have preconceptions – if the energy is low, people may simply be listening. Or they may be experiencing the music in a different way.

I’ve had circumstances where I’ve seen somebody in the front row who appears completely stone-faced, not enjoying the show at all. I’ll see ’em at another show – “Gee, that guy wasn’t having much fun at the other show, what’s he doing here?” And then you bump into them in the street, and the guy’ll go, “I’ve been the biggest fan of yours for the last 25 years.”

You can’t read what people are thinking or how they’re experiencing what you’re doing. So you have to have faith in what you’re doing, and you have to have faith in the audience when you come out. Then you have to go about your business until you can feel the connect happening. But it’s very important not to come out with a set of preconceived notions about who the audience is.

At the big outdoor shows, there’s also the fact of geography: diferent songs work in different ways in different parts of a huge crowd. Sometimes, at your shows, I’ve found ballads work well at 120 yards away, because people have to be quiet. Whereas up close, the big numbers steamroller you. Geography matters at those gigs.

It certainly does. The sound will shift every hundred yards or so. So the audience has to mentally prepare themselves also. You find your place where you’re located and you find your way into the show as it’s being presented. So the audience has work to do also.

Bruce Springsteen performs in Manchester
‘Whenever you’re going out in front of a crowd of any size, your body knows it.’ Photograph: Jon Super/Redferns

Do you still get the same adrenaline rush from performance?

It varies from night to night but whenever you’re going out in front of a crowd of any size, your body knows it. This is what I do. This is the only thing I do. This is the only thing I’m qualified to do. So it matters how I do it at night. There’s a lot of anticipatory anxiety which then translates into a raw shot of adrenaline once you’re out there. We come out to press our case very hard, about what we think about everything, I suppose, and life itself. And so it’s challenging nightly.

But how do you find meaning, night after night, in Born to Run, for example? Nils Lofgren said he does it by remembering that while he plays it 150 times a year, the crowd don’t hear it 150 times a year, so he finds that person in the crowd for whom it’s the big event of the year and feeds off them.

Yeah. It’s like if you’ve written something … You work on an album in a hermetically sealed environment. One of the most frightening things is playing it for someone else. For the first time you’re hearing it through their ears. They’re just sitting there, but you’re hearing the thing totally brand new through their ears. And you’re recognising all its faults and all its strengths. So the thing about coming out in front of an audience every night is that I’m hearing what I’m doing through that audience’s ears. That’s what Nils was sort of explaining. I may have heard it 100 times, but that guy’s only hearing it that night, that’s all.

Part of my job is to have a foot on stage and a foot in the audience. To have one ear to the band and one ear to the crowd. And if you’re doing that correctly you experience the evening through their ears as well as your own.

Do you never get lonely being the leader of the band, being their employer, the Boss?

It’s been that way for so long that I don’t really think about it much anymore. While you feel the fullness of what you’ve accomplished, you also do your best not to dwell on it very much when it doesn’t serve you to do so. Everyone needs a degree of anonymity, a degree of freedom of movement – at the end of the day, a big piece of you is still who you were previous to when you picked a guitar up, or before you started. You need to feel that person still close by. You can’t live inside your work; your work has got to live inside you.

Are you still friends with the E Street Band members in the way ordinary people are friends? If you’re in the same place at the same time, would you call up and have a beer?

Oh yeah, very much. Everyone has families and lives in different places. But if I get out west, I’ll see Roy [Bittan]. If I’m in New York, Steve and I will make a point of bumping into each other as much as possible. There may be long periods where you don’t see the guys. But I’m happy to report that the E Street Band is still filled with people who actually like one another. We may not have everything in common, but there’s a deep mutual respect and I believe a real love between the band members that projects from the stage and is very real.

At times when your status has ebbed, as it does for all artists at some point, have you found that hard to deal with?

Not really. Everyone has their moments when they think, “Gee, why isn’t everyone listening to this record I made?” But I take the ebb and flow of my work life, after 50 years of doing it, as a natural part of the dynamic of your career. But whenever you put something out there – particularly if you believe in it completely – you want to to be understood, you want it to be well received. You want to grab people’s ears – that’s my business. If not, you’re going to be disappointed.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band tour Australia and New Zealandbetween 22 January and 25 February