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Issue 1088

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Seasick Steve: The Unlikely King Of Real, Raw Blues

Seasick Steve @bluesandsoul.com
Seasick Steve @bluesandsoul.com Seasick Steve @bluesandsoul.com Seasick Steve @bluesandsoul.com Seasick Steve @bluesandsoul.com

SEASICK STEVEâS colourful history has been almost as well documented as his music, from hitching trains as a former self-proclaimed Hobo to selling out Londonâs 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, hardworking, long walking 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 is worth more than any sense of individuality, especially when youâre over 60.

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 â even if heâs 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' just finished playing Bestival, his new album is due out next month and his UK tour kicks off in November.

Gemma Brosnan 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.

GEMMA: Youâre just finished playing to 40,000 people at Bestival and have played a host of international festivals over the past few years since that infamous appearance on Jools Holland. Whatâs the main difference between busking on the streets and playing to huge crowds?

STEVE: You get paid different, Iâll tell you that for one thing. I like playing, you know, I mean, I know there are lots of people out there so thatâs obviously different, but once we start playing it almost donât matter whether there is 20 people or 20,000 out there, because you are playing. I guess itâs a little different in that people are sending you all kinds of attention so itâs pretty intense and a little bit nice because when you are playing out on the streets, there ainât no-one screaming at you except maybe the police.

GEMMA: Your music has fallen under various genres in the past, from Blues to Country, with most settling on the idea of you being all about Delta Blues. For those people who don't know about your music, how would you describe it to them?

STEVE: I never really thought of it like Blues, I donât really know what I thought of it, I love old Blues and stuff, like really old Blues and I like country music a lot, old country music and I like hillbilly music so itâs all a bit of mish-mash.

GEMMA: How about folk?

STEVE: I wasnât such a big Folkie person, when I was a kid growing up there wasnât any Rock n Roll going on so I used to go to listen to folk, go to some of those folk festivals and stuff, but I was never like âoh, kum bah ahâ kinda thing or anything, I was more than âkum bah, letâs get some wineâ. I liked it, but it didnât light me up, not like the first time I saw Son House or Fred McDowell, that lit me up! I never saw Woody Guthrie play so I donât know what he was like, but a lot of the folk singers, even if there were singing about something sad, it just all seemed so white, there werenât really any black people playing folk music and then you see someone like Fred McDowell â they up there bleedinâ! Bleedinâ 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 itselfâ¦

GEMMA: Be careful, I play trad musicâ¦

STEVE: I love that stuff, the way the music is passed on, thatâs like a tradition, almost like a story.

GEMMA: In the digital age and an era surrounded by electronica, why do you think raw folk and blues is becoming popular again?

STEVE: You think it is? I hope so, that would be nice. The only thing Iâve 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, and all these up and coming folk, bluegrass, blues, old fashioned stuff springing up a bit, I like that.

GEMMA: There is no denying you did it the hard way in terms of playing for a number of decades before you got a record deal. What are your views on programmes like X Factor and Americaâs Got Talent that champion the notion of the instant celebrity where the package is just as important as the music. Do have an opinion on those artists?

STEVE: Yeah, I have an opinion alright, I think itâs the worst thing ever for music, itâs the bottom of the barrel â not the people, but the machinery â and 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, itâs a powerful drug for any young person and then within six months they are back working as a waitress. I donât like it man, not even for America or here, but some country singer came out of the American one and she can actually sing, but in general, itâs just a money machine and I really hate it. I thought that the normal radio couldnât 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. Shit man, its likeâ¦compared to you sitting around playing your traditional music, itâs about as opposite as it gets.

GEMMA: Your songs are obviously inspired by your lifestyle and have an autobiographical twist. How do you go about writing your songs and now 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?

SEASICK: You know, I have a whole life of being uncomfortable so it ainât ever going to be a problem, every time I pick up the guitar, I always go backwards in the brain â I wish I would go forwards sometimes - and Iâve only being doing good for a few years, I spent my whole life doing bad so it ainât no problem about having things to write about, Iâm 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 donât change no more. If I was like 25 years old, this probably wouldnât have done me too many favours, I would have been a complete idiot and I got no pat on my back, because Iâm 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.

GEMMA: So no regrets about not making it big sooner?

STEVE: I have regrets, because I raised five children. Theyâre all grown up now and it would have been nice to do more things and not to struggle so much. Theyâre 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.

GEMMA: Do you think if you lost the Deep South narrative and lyrics about your harder times, your music would be less popular? For example, do you think youâll ever write a song about living in a nice big house in Norway?

STEVE: I donât live in a nice big house in Norway, I live in a one and half room apartment in a 50s building and Iâm 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 didnât...

GEMMA: But if you did�

STEVE: If we did, you see, it donât matter now even if I got millions, it donât mean anything, what am I gonna do? How many boats am I going to speed behind? Itâs too late in the day for that, even up until 20 years ago, it would have made me an idiot, but Iâm too old now.

GEMMA: So how you manage to retain your soul in an industry saturated with shine?

STEVE: By accident. You get kinda fixed as you get older and all your habitsâ¦there ainât anything really I want to do, all that burning desire for fancy cars and five girls or whatever, I donât have those feelings soâ¦it really donât seem to make no difference. I have been so busy, I havenât even had time to sit around saying âHey, Iâm doing pretty good, why donât I got to Majorca or what the f**k.â I just wanna play so Iâll make hay while the sun is shining.

GEMMA: So you feel immune to the trappings of the shine?

STEVE: Iâm immune. Hanging out with him (points to Dan) heâs even worse than me, we just donâtâ¦you need to come to our dressing room one day, you will be so bored.

GEMMA: What are your typical requests?

STEVE: Just some towels and wine. You know what, I just find out that weâve been having someone elseâs rider and in the rider it said no peanuts as weâre allergic and then it requested all these special herb teas and a toaster, a coffee-maker and no Styrofoam cups, just china, as Styrofoam wrecks the world â maybe it does, but I never said that and I like peanuts. Also there was something about lights that needed to shine up and a smoke machine. Every time we play and there is a smoke machine, Iâm like âTurn that f**king thing offâ because it bothers me and nobody needs to see smoke pouring out behind us, so somethingâs gone wrong.

GEMMA: Apart from smoke machines, what has been your most glamorous experience so far?

STEVE: I can tell you our most glamorous backstage experience â you wanna hear it?

GEMMA: Absolutely.

STEVE: For real?

GEMMA: Go for it.

STEVE: 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 âHell, whatever, why not let her come up and singâ 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 wasnât going to make her jump back down, so sheâs 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 weâve got this old guy Roy doing the sound for us. So the girl is sitting there and this promoter comes in and goes âYou see that girl sitting there, that girl is for Royâ. Now Roy is like 61, maybe 62 years old and looks like a little small Santa Claus so Iâm like âWhat do you mean, sheâs for Roy? Is she a whore?â and the promoter says âIâm not sure, itâs a birthday present, call Roy and tell him to come backâ and Iâm like âWoah! I donât know about thatâ and then right then somebody burst in the dressing room with a guitar made out of a wooden clog and was like âSteve, I got this guitar for you, manâ. And this never happens right, so the girl is there, the guy, and then the girl for Roy says to me âWhen I come out, will you play some music?â so Iâm like âWhat are you going to do?â 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 weâre like, âWhat the fuck is going on here?â
Then Roy comes and I tell him to sit down and tell him itâs 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, Iâm trying to play and then this huge Hellâs Angel bursts in and he knocks the girlâs butt out of the way, throws his arms around me and is like âSteve, I love youâ and I see this girl standing in the corner who looks like she works in a bank, as straight as can be and Iâve got these guys rolling dope, a lap dancer on Roy, the clog guitar man and then the Hellâs Angel points at the bank girl and says âThatâs my daughter, I love you so much man she has driven me all the way from Newcastle because I missed the UK gigâ and this poor girlâs face, there is dope rolling going on, lap dancing and Iâm like âWhatâs going on here, man?â Nothing like this happens with us, and Iâm like âEverybody get out, Jesus man!â and that poor little girl, she had driven her dad all the way from Newcastle, this huge guy and he didnât 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 youâve heard it. Shit like that never happens to us.

GEMMA: What was it like hanging out with Grunge bands throughout the 90âs and the late Kurt Cobain?

STEVE: Kurt Cobain wasnât a friend, I mean I knew him, I see him, he lived in Olympia, I 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 donât 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 wasnât really part of it, I didnât get shit and I wasnât 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.

GEMMA: As a former producer, how do you handle other people messing around with your songs?

STEVE: 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 hadnât even heard it, they didnât even know where we were when we recorded it and they didnât pay for it. I told them, âWe do it my way, or the highwayâ so they never heard the record until it was recorded.

GEMMA: So itâs obviously important for you to retain artistic control?

STEVE: I donât know about artistic, but I donât 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**k 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 ainât nobody understand me better than me. When youâre 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 donât give a shit, Iâm real happy to have this job but other than that, Iâm going to do 100% what I want to do, and if they donât like it, they can fuck off and thatâs for real. I was real stupid before because I didnât have a lot of opportunity and I didnât believe anyone had any interest in what I was doing so I just did what they wanted me to do.

GEMMA: So in the beginning you just wanted to please everybody?

STEVE: Well actually, most of the time, people didnât want me to do anything, for real. There wasnât exactly like a line of people lined up saying âHey Steve, we want you to make a recordâ and weâre not talking about a long time ago. Record deal? Man, I couldnât even get a job, I wasnât even in the running so I didnât have a whole lot of pressure but I was thinking maybeâ¦but I didnât think anyone was interested and I stopped playing for people for many years because I didnât think anyone wanted to hear it.

GEMMA: You had a fairly primitive approach to recording previous albums, âDog House Bluesâ being recorded in a kitchen with a 4 track tape recorder and 2 microphones from the 1940s. Your new album was recorded on a farm Norfolk and then mixed in Nashville. Do you think that makes a difference to the sound?

STEVE: How do you know it was recorded on a farm in Norfolk?

GEMMA: Someone told me.

STEVE: 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 donât like it too much. I like just going somewhere and setting up equipment in a natural place, living room orâ¦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.

GEMMA: Do you feel thatâs the best way to retain raw quality?

STEVE: Itâs the only way. I mean, you can make clever stuff on computers, but itâs not real, itâs not live, itâs something else. Thirty years ago you couldnât do none of that stuff, if you couldnât go in the studio and play, then you didnât get to do it. Especially in the â50s, there wasnât even multi-track recording, the singer sang the song and that was that. I donât know what happened.

GEMMA: Youâve 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?

STEVE: Thatâs why I play with Dan because he donât care if I stop. He doesnât care what I do. We played together before that whole âDog House Musicâ 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 âShit, Dan, you wanna come and play?â because I didnât 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 ainât that easy.

GEMMA: Was your wife a big encouragement?

STEVE: She was a big encouragement, 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.

GEMMA: And then came your appearance on the Jools Holland show, New Years Eve 2006.

STEVE: Yep, that was totally it, everything changed after that.

GEMMA: Whatâs the most amusing thing thatâs happened to you since that appearance on Jools Holland?

STEVE: Success

GEMMA: You never thought that one day youâd be a celebrity or cult icon?

STEVE: Think about it, girl. As far as weâve been able to figure out, this has never happened before. Somebody who has never been famous, getting famous when theyâre 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.

GEMMA: Whatâs the best thing about success?

STEVE: Being healthy. Success is a great medicine, not having to worry about how I'm going to pay the rent next month and itâs fun, I mean Iâm going out to play to 40,000 people on a Saturday night â thatâs fun!

GEMMA: At festivals, do you like watching other bands and if so, who were your favourites this year?

STEVE: A lot of the time, like at the Brits earlier this year, I didnât 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.

GEMMA: 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 âJust Because I Canâ. How does that work now that youâre a celebrity/cult icon?

STEVE: I can in America, nobody knows me over there or back in Norway. Itâs 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 ainât really no downsides to fame, just sometimes itâs a little hard to go places, but itâs all good, I have a job and I understand thatâs 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 donât 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 donât need anymore reminders.

GEMMA: Was it a conscious decision to market yourself here instead of the States?

STEVE: Think about it â how much money would you have invested in this plan. Iâve 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 wouldnât have put one dollar up against him, would you?

I didnât move here to play music. I moved to Norway to do nothing, I tried to work my studio but that failed so I didnât 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 wouldnât have worked. I read something that said: âSteve has the most amazing publicity plan and there is a machine workingâ Itâs all bullshit, you wanna try it.

My formula for success? Fail for 50 years, have a heart attack, knock deathâs door and then tell me what youâre talking-about. You try and promote someone like me. My only credit in this whole thing is that I didnât stop playing, even during grim times in the kitchen because if you quit, youâve ainât got no chance that anything will happen.

GEMMA: Your new album, is called âMan From Another Timeâ. What time are you referring to and would you like to go back to there?

STEVE: Iâd 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 âA Man Who Feels Displacedâ 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 donât want to go back to living on the streets but I missed how cars looked like, drive in movies, I donât know whatâs wrong with me, I should probably just snap out of it but I probably never will â I still drive a â51 Chevrolet, I've got a VW bus, a 1948 motorcycle. I got a mobile phone â I like that otherwise my wife wouldnât let me go nowhere and I got an 8 track in my car.

GEMMA: 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?

STEVE: Heâd been real happy because when he died when things were pretty grim so heâs be real happy, not because Iâm playing music, but just because Iâm doing alright.

GEMMA: Do you think you were born to be a traveller and roam or that it things had been easier at home, the desire to move around would have been less?

STEVE: I didnât want to go away. If youâre a kid, you donât want to leave your home, it was either that, or die. Somebody was going to die. When youâre 13 or 14, you wanna hang out with the girls and I wanted to go to the dance and I couldnât wait to get my licence to go cruising with my baby down the streets, back and forth back and forth back and forth. I didnât have no itch.

GEMMA: Do you sometimes wish people would focus less on the hobo story that was been built around your image and more on the music?

STEVE: 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 Iâve raised five children, my boy is 35 years old, I didnât 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, Iâve had a lot of jobs. Job after job after job after job.

GEMMA: But this is your best one so far?

STEVE: Hell yeah.

âMan From Another Timeâ is out on Atlantic Records on October 19th.

For more information check out www.seasicksteve.com
Words GEMMA BROSNAN

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