INTERVIEW WITH SEASICK STEVE
SEASICK STEVE’S colourful history has been almost as well documented as his music, from hitching trains as a former self-proclaimed Hobo to selling out London’s Albert Hall and being nominated for a Brit at the start of this year. But there is more to Seasick Steve than the clichés trotted out to make sense of a man clearly from another time, who catapulted onto our screens for that infamous Jools Holland extravaganza and much to his astonishment, took the crowd by storm. He is a unique breath of air and an uncompromising star; a heavily tattooed, tea and whiskey drinking, straight talking, hard working reflection of his own long life, defying all the odds to make it to the top of an industry saturated with youth and shine where great PR tends to be worth more than any talent or individuality.
His wiry white beard presents an aura of hard-learnt wisdom, suggesting he has indeed seen it all a thousand times over, but he is more than just an old guy that got lucky – even if he’s too cool to admit it. His passion for life and music is undiluted and unwavering and his crinkled sky-blue eyes still sparkle with amusement and mischief as he recalls a classic tale of life on the road, with an occasional glaze of bewilderment, as he still struggles to figure out how it all came good. His storytelling ability is reflected in the simplistic beauty of his lyrics which provide gripping, hilarious, romantic and painfully nostalgic snapshots of a life on the road of an impoverished, post-war America.
Seasick Steve and his guitar ‘The Three Stringed Trance Wonder’ are off on a UK tour this month, so we caught up with Steve and his drummer, Dan Magnusson to talk about festivals, his imminent new album, roaming free through life and what he really gets up to on the road.
What’s the main difference between busking on the streets and playing to huge crowds at festivals?
You get paid different, I’ll tell you that for one thing. I know there are lots of people out there so that’s obviously different, but once we start playing it almost don’t matter whether there is 20 people or 20,000 out there. I guess it’s different in that people are sending you all kinds of attention so it’s pretty intense and a little bit nice because when you are playing out on the streets, there ain’t no-one screaming at you except maybe the police.
Your music has fallen into various genres in the past, from blues to country. For those people who don’t know your music, how would you describe it to them?
I never really thought of it like blues, I don’t really know what I thought of it, I love old blues and I like country music a lot – old country music, and I like hillbilly music so it’s all a bit of mish mash. When I was growing up there wasn’t any rock n roll going on so I used to listen to folk, but I was never like “kum bay ya” or anything, I was more “kum by ah, let’s get some wine.” I liked it, but it didn’t light me up, not like the first time I saw Son House or Fred McDowell, that lit me up! A lot of the folk singers, even if there were singing about something sad, it just all seemed so white, there weren’t really any black people playing folk music and then you see someone like Fred McDowell – they up there bleedin’! Bleedin’ is a little bit different, not that I wanted to be a black man, it was just they had soul and folk music was just repeating itself…
In the digital age and an era surrounded by electronica, why do you think raw folk and blues is becoming popular again?
You think it is? I hope so, that would be nice. The only thing I’ve been able to come up with is that people are a little bit tired of all this fancy stuff and there were enough people tired of it to give me a job.
There is no denying you did it the hard way – playing for decades before you got a record deal. Do you have an opinion on programmes like X Factor and America’s Got Talent?
Yeah, I have an opinion alright, I think it’s the worst thing ever for music, for most people who do it, it wrecks their lives. In England and America, these people might have a chance of a career who go on that, but I live over in Norway and they have the same shit and it leaves people all dressed up with nowhere to go. Even if you win, nothing happens, somebody is working as a waitress or something and sprung into huge fame and it lasts about six months, it’s a powerful drug for any young person and then within six months they are back working as a waitress. In general, it’s just a money machine and I really hate it. I thought that the normal radio couldn’t get any worse, but it did. Normal radio has been pretty bad since the 50s with all this shit and then they figured out something else.
How do you go about writing your songs and how easy is it write and play with the same raw grit and hunger that you started out with now that things are slightly more comfortable?
You know, I have a whole life of being uncomfortable so it ain’t ever going to be a problem, every time I pick up the guitar, I always go backwards in the brain – I wish I would go forwards sometimes – and I’ve only being doing good for a few years, I spent my whole life doing bad so it ain’t no problem about having things to write about, I’m not saying it necessarily has to be bad, but just you know, down in the dirt real and also I think that because this whole thing happened at the end of my deal, when you get old, you don’t change no more. If I was like 25 years old, this probably wouldn’t have done me too many favours, I would have been a complete idiot and I got no pat on my back, because I’m sort of done with this shit, but if I was a young fella, and someone handed me money and all these people and stuff like that, I would have been an idiot.
So no regrets about not making it big sooner?
I have regrets, because I raised five children. They’re all grown up now and it would have been nice to do more things and not to struggle so much. They’re alright, but as a parent I wish we could had money to buy them what they wanted at the time, but if I had had the money back then, I might not have even been a parent no more, I would have been laying in a ditch.
Do you think you’ll ever write a song about living in a nice big house in Norway?
I don’t live in a nice big house in Norway, I live in a one and half room apartment in a 50s building and I’m the youngest person there. The lady underneath us has a nurse comes over six times a day, there is a lady opposite about 75 and she sits there and coughs all night long. We can get a nice place, but we didn’t… It’s too late in the day for that. Twenty years ago, the money would have made me an idiot, but I’m too old now. There ain’t anything I really want to do, all that burning desire for fancy cars and five girls or whatever, I don’t have those feelings so… it really don’t seem to make no difference. I have been so busy, I haven’t even had time to sit around saying ‘Hey, I’m doing pretty good, why don’t I got to Majorca or what the fuck.’ I just wanna play so I’ll make hay while the sun is shining.
So you feel immune to the trappings of the glamour of the industry?
I’m immune. Hanging out with him (points to Dan) he’s even worse than me, we just don’t…you need to come to our dressing room one day, you will be so bored.
What are your typical requests on your rider?
Just some towels and wine. You know what, I just found out that we’ve been having someone else’s rider and in the rider it said no peanuts as we’re allergic and then it requested all these special herb teas and a toaster, a coffeemaker and no Styrofoam cups, just china, as Styrofoam wrecks the world – maybe it does, but I never said that and I like peanuts. Also there was something about a smoke machine. Every time we play and there is a smoke machine, I’m like “Turn that f**king thing off” because it bothers me and nobody needs to see smoke pouring out behind us.
Apart from smoke machines, what has been your most glamorous experience so far?
Ok, there is nothing that happens usually backstage apart from me and Dan trying to stay awake. We played in Amsterdam and this girl in the audience kept passing me notes saying that she wanted to sing and I got a bit drunk and thought, “Hell, whatever, why not,” so she got up and man she could sing! Everyone thought it was part of our act, so she came back to the dressing room with us afterwards as I wasn’t going to make her jump back down, so she’s sitting on the couch over here and when we walked into this big square place and there was a gal sitting in the corner looking almost like she might be going to a disco, so we start talking to this girl and she starts telling me what she wants to do with her life and shit and then we’ve got this old guy Roy doing the sound for us. So the girl is sitting there and this promoter comes in and goes ‘You see that girl sitting there, that girl is for Roy’. Now Roy is like 61, maybe 62 years old and looks like a little small Santa Claus so I’m like ‘What do you mean, she’s for Roy? Is she a whore?’ and the promoter says ‘I’m not sure, it’s a birthday present, call Roy and tell him to come back’ and I’m like ‘Woah! I don’t know about that’ and then right then somebody burst in the dressing room with a guitar made out of a wooden clog and was like ‘Steve, I got this guitar for you, man’. And this never happens right, so the girl is there, the guy, and then the girl for Roy says to me ‘When I come out, will you play some music?’ so I’m like ‘What are you going to do?” but she disappears into the bathroom and then there is these two boys, like hip hop guys come in with a pile of marijuana and start rolling joints and we’re like, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’
Then Roy comes and I tell him to sit down and tell him it’s got nothing to do with me and this girl bursts out of the dressing room almost naked and wants to lap dance him while I play and this girl is sticking her butt everywhere, I’m trying to play and then this huge Hell’s Angel bursts in and he knocks the girl’s butt out of the way, throws his arms around me and is like ‘Steve, I love you’ and I see this girl standing in the corner who looks like she works in a bank, as straight as can be and I’ve got these guys rolling dope, a lap dancer on Roy, the clog guitar man and then the Hell’s Angel points at the bank girl and says ‘That’s my daughter, I love you so much man she has driven me all the way from Newcastle because I missed the UK gig’ and this poor girl’s face, there is dope rolling going on, lap dancing and I’m like ‘What’s going on here, man?’ Nothing like this happens with us, and I’m like ‘Everybody get out, Jesus man!’ and that poor little girl, she had driven her dad all the way from Newcastle, this huge guy and he didn’t care about the whore or the clog guitar, he just wanted to say hi to me. It was some experience all right and the only experience like it and now you’ve heard it. Shit like that never happens to us.
What was it like hanging out with Grunge bands throughout the 90’s and the late Kurt Cobain?
Kurt Cobain wasn’t a friend, I mean I knew him, we both lived in Olympia, he was just a normal guy, he had his band, Nirvana then but I mean, half of Olympia was in that band then. I was older than all of those people, but I knew him, he was a nice fella. I don’t even know why they came to me as I was about as out of it as you could possibly be, but I had a little studio so they came to me like real suspicious and I did a lot of girl bands too and they would look at me funny because there was a real weird scene down there and I wasn’t really part of it, I didn’t get shit and I wasn’t involved in their stuff, I just made the record and stuff, but I did get involved with Modest Mouse as I produced them and I also played on the record and went out on the road with them around America one time.
As a former producer, how do you handle other people messing around with your songs?
Nobody messes with my tracks, I produce everything myself. Remember when I played you that record? I was telling the truth when I told you that the record company hadn’t even heard it, they didn’t even know where we were when we recorded it and they didn’t pay for it. I told them, “We do it my way, or the highway,” so they never heard the record until it was recorded. I don’t know anybody out there who knows my songs better than me. What are they going to tell me, put a drum machine under that or a little orchestra here? F*ck that. If I thought there was someone out there who could do what I do better and understand me better, then yeah, they could come, but there ain’t nobody understand me better than me. When you’re younger, you need some guidance and older people trying to find a new sound or stay hip, they need the cool producers and sometimes it works, but I don’t give a shit, I’m real happy to have this job but other than that, I’m going to do 100% what I want to do, and if they don’t like it, they can fuck off and that’s for real. I was real stupid before because I didn’t have a lot of opportunity and I didn’t believe anyone had any interest in what I was doing so I just did what they wanted me to do.
So in the beginning you just wanted to please everybody?
Well actually, most of the time, people didn’t want me to do anything, for real. There wasn’t exactly like a line of people lined up saying “Hey Steve, we want you to make a record” and we’re not talking about a long time ago. Record deal? Man, I couldn’t even get a job, I wasn’t even in the running so I didn’t have a whole lot of pressure. I didn’t think anyone was interested and I stopped playing for people for many years because I didn’t think anyone wanted to hear it.
You had a fairly primitive approach to recording previous albums, ‘Dog House Blues’ being recorded in a kitchen with a four track tape recorder and two microphones from the 1940s. Your new album was recorded on a farm in Norfolk and then mixed in Nashville. Do you think that makes a difference to the sound?
How do you know it was recorded on a farm in Norfolk?
Someone told me.
We recorded it all over the place on old equipment, but none of it was in a recording studio. I can go into a recording studio and make a good record because I know how to do it, as long as it has tape machines and ok microphones, but I don’t like it too much. I like just going somewhere and setting up equipment in a natural place, living room or…as long as you have height in the ceiling and a few things, just setting up playing, no computers or shit, just turn the machine on and done. I mean, you can make clever stuff on computers, but it’s not real, it’s not live, it’s something else. Thirty years ago you couldn’t do none of that stuff, if you couldn’t go in the studio and play, then you didn’t get to do it. Especially in the ‘50s, there wasn’t even multi-track recording, the singer sang the song and that was that. I don’t know what happened.
You’ve said in the past that you enjoy the luxury of playing solo as you have the freedom to do what you want such as alter the tempo or stop and start telling stories. How does that work with Dan?
That’s why I play with Dan because he don’t care if I stop. He doesn’t care what I do. We played together before that whole ‘Dog House Music’ thing, then I got sick, had a heart attack, so making a record was just something to do then when I actually started playing again and starting doing more I was like ‘Shit, Dan, you wanna come and play?’ because I didn’t realise what was going to happen. When I made that recording, it was not going to be released, there was nobody wanted to put it out, it was just my friend Joe called to see how I was doing and I said I was just recording in the kitchen and he said I should get it out and I said it ain’t that easy.
Was your wife a big encouragement?
She was, not in terms of getting the record out, but just getting the record down because she thought I was going to die and she wanted a recording to listen to after I was dead. It was like therapy recording it, because before I was just sitting there in my apartment looking out the window and it was pretty grim and I think she got tired of just sitting there looking at me and I had nothing else to do.
And then came your appearance on the Jools Holland show, New Years Eve 2006.
Yep, that was totally it, everything changed after that.
What’s the most amusing thing that’s happened to you since that appearance on Jools Holland?
You never thought that one day you’d be a celebrity or cult icon?
Think about it, girl. As far as we’ve been able to figure out, this has never happened before. Somebody who has never been famous, getting famous when they’re old and the music industry for a long time has been for 20 year olds unless you are already famous like Johnny Cash or somebody.
What’s the best thing about success?
Being healthy. Success is a great medicine, not having to worry about how I’m going to pay the rent next month and it’s fun, I mean I’m going out to play to 40,000 people on a Saturday night – that’s fun!
At festivals, do you like watching other bands and if so, who were your favourites this year?
A lot of the time, like at the Brits earlier this year, I didn’t even know who the acts were and sometimes its quite hard for me to go out and listen to them as everyone wants a picture which is rude when a band is playing, but I try and listen to as much as I can as there is a lot of good stuff out there.
You obviously like the idea of freedom, being free from constraints and being able to move around and there is a reference to this on one of the tracks on your new album entitled CSX ‘Just Because I Can’. How does that work now that you’re a celebrity?
I can in America, nobody knows me over there or back in Norway. It’s part of the job and I never factored that in, you always hope someday if you play music you might get somewhere, but I never thought about that part of getting famous. There ain’t really no downsides to fame, just sometimes it’s a little hard to go places, but it’s all good, I have a job and I understand that’s part of the deal. I owe them people 100% everything so I always try unless I have to get somewhere, I stop and sign the pictures, although I don’t know why they want a picture of me, what do they do with them? People send me pictures of myself. I see myself everyday in the mirror. I don’t need anymore reminders.
Was it a conscious decision to market yourself here instead of the States?
Think about it – how much money would you have invested in this plan. I’ve got some old fucker who plays old country blues who was just had a heart attack and is living in a one bed flat in Norway and he is going to be the next big thing. What do you think? How much money you gonna put up? I wouldn’t have put one dollar up against him, would you? I didn’t move here to play music. I moved to Norway to do nothing, I tried to work my studio but that failed so I didn’t know anybody was going to like me here. My wife lived with me in America for 20 years so we moved to Norway. Even if I did have a plan, it wouldn’t have worked. I read something that said: ‘Steve has the most amazing publicity plan and there is a machine working’ It’s all bullshit, you wanna try it. My formula for success? Fail for 50 years, have a heart attack, knock death’s door and then tell me what you’re talking about. You try and promote someone like me. My only credit in this whole thing is that I didn’t stop playing, even during grim times in the kitchen because if you quit, you’ve ain’t got no chance that anything will happen.
Your new album, is called ‘Man From Another Time’. What time are you referring to and would you like to go back to there?
I’d like to go back to the late 50s early 60s. I just remember it better but everything, you know, it probably would have been better calling the album ‘A Man Who Feels Displaced’ because as you get old you watch life passing you by and think about the good old days. Now is the best time of my life, I just miss the way things was, I don’t want to go back to living on the streets but I missed how cars looked like, drive in movies, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I should probably just snap out of it but I probably never will – I still drive a ’51 Chevrolet, I’ve got a VW bus, a 1948 motorcycle. I got a mobile phone – I like that otherwise my wife wouldn’t let me go nowhere and I got an 8 track in my car.
Speaking of nostalgia, your dad used to play a lot of boogie woogie piano. Do you think he would be happy with the way things turned out for you?
He’d been real happy because when he died when things were pretty grim so he’s be real happy, not because I’m playing music, but just because I’m doing alright.
Do you sometimes wish people would focus less on the hobo story that was been built around your image and more on the music?
Yeah, I mean, because that happened a long time ago, and it all got a bit strange people thinking that I just crawled out from under a rock a year ago, but I’ve raised five children, my boy is 35 years old, I didn’t do that living on trains, I had lots of normal jobs, whacking a hammer, doing plumbing, I sold shoes, I did anything man, so most of my adult life, I’ve had a lot of jobs. Job after job after job after job.
But this is your best one so far?
‘Man From Another Time’ was released on Atlantic Records on 19 October. Catch Steve at Cardiff Millenium Centre on 12 November. On tour, Steve will be joined by Paul Martin Wold (his son), aka Wishful Thinking, showcasing a selection of his songs from debut album ‘A Waste Of Time Well Spent’. www.seasicksteve.com
Words: Gemma Brosnan