Interview: Seasick Steve

(Image credit: Seasick Steve)

Seasick Steve is living proof that your big break can come at any age. We talk to Seasick about starting life in your 70s, not changing your strings in five years, and building guitars from bits of scrap… y'know?

Cast your mind back to the 3rd July 2011, we're at the Milton Keynes Bowl and Nirvana drummer/Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl has just introduced Seasick Steve to a roar from the crowd. Led Zeppelin's bassist has also just taken his place on stage and Steve tells the audience: "Five years ago I didn't even have a job and now I'm on stage with Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones - man, anything's possible!"

Seasick Steve's sudden rise to fame has become part of the folklore of popular music history; a single appearance on Jools Holland's Hootenanny on New Year's Eve 2006 launched him into the public's consciousness to the extent that he's now a regular at festivals all over the world including this year's Glastonbury.

I caught up with Steve in a rare moment at home in Norway: 'I'm not here very often,' he tells me. 'I'm here this week but I think that over the last six months I've been here about four days!' Success in music found Steve in later life and so naturally there is a lot of curiosity about his past, but he is very reluctant to talk about it, telling me, 'If I have to go into the past it's only to get drunk and think about the things I could have done better. Everyone's always trying to drag me backwards and I just want to go, "Hey man, I'm so happy to be alive and that I get to do this thing I do now." It's like digging up a grave and looking at some old bones and going, "Well, that's interesting…" but I'm not an archeologist for music or anything and so I don't mean to rain on anybody's parade but I'm interested in talking about now, my new record, the future and what's happening to me now rather than all that old stuff.'

Fair enough, then… but I am curious about when he first encountered the guitar and so perhaps we can briefly go back and talk about the beginnings of this remarkable man's music playing history?

I think I got a guitar when I was about eight-years-old. But I never really thought of myself as much of a guitar player; it was just something to strum along so that I could sing or talk, y'know? I never focused much on the guitar, I was just trying to give myself an excuse to make noise and, especially when I learned how to busk, to make some money; but as far as thinking of myself as a guitar player, that's something I ain't never done!

What were the first things you started listening to?

I was so limited in my ability, but I liked country music back then and so I tried to pick out some country music because all I knew were a few chords. So as soon as I could I'd be doing some old Hank Williams and stuff like that. I played some old folk songs that I learned, too, like John Henry and Stack O' Lee… I guess I learned to play some blues back then, too - at least the chord pattern of it. My dad was a piano player, but it was very hard for me to work out what he was playing, so I kinda just fluffed around for years and didn't really get very far.

Did you start busking pretty soon?

My family broke up when I was very young and I started busking after I left home. It was kinda born out of necessity so I could try to earn some bucks, y'know? I had to start working right away, just doing any kind of job I could get and so sometimes it was a relief from working to go and earn a little money busking. It really depended on what the work was like; if I had plenty of work I didn't busk and if there was no work then I'd try to go out and play the guitar.

It would be tempting to say that this all sounds like it's shaping up to be the archetypal early life for a bluesman, but Steve resists any such categorisation…

To be honest, I'm just so reluctant to go over my ancient history. I know a lot of people try to place themselves somewhere in time to make themselves relevant, but my musical time growing up has been pretty much a bleak thing. Ever since I got to go on the Jools Holland show, my life has kinda turned around way for the better and literally most of my life I haven't really played music other than at home. I've always tried a little bit but y'know I had five children to raise and so I didn't have a lot of time to go out and be fooling around with this stuff and so what I mostly did was work jobs - carpenter or construction, a lot of real normal work -and when I think about that time and the time I was young it was just nothing but struggle.

A lot of people have tried to make me into some authentic guy because I lived rough when I was young but I don't even want to be authentic; I don't want to be anything - I want to be what I am now which is someone who gets to play at all these festivals and make some money and get to travel around. That whole time for me is like looking back into a hard, sad period and a lot of people want to latch on and say that I'm a white guy who plays blues - and I don't think I even play blues - and that I've earned the right to play blues, but I don't give a shit about it. For me, the time of growing up was rough but a lot of people have rough times and that doesn't give me any right to play any kind of music, I feel.

So I'm a little bit ornery that way; I feel like I've been placed up on something just for people to say, "Well he's authentic…" but I don't feel anything like that. I feel like my life has just started and that everything before that was just a gigantic failure. The only thing I didn't fail at totally was raising my children and because I felt responsible, I was around for them as much as I knew how and that didn't include going out and playing music. A lot of people ask me why I didn't you do this before, and I say, "You go and try it with five children!"

Most of us will remember that first British TV appearance on the 2006 Jools Holland Hootenanny… If not, it's worth checking out on YouTube. The effect was groundbreaking for his career - but the story behind it is really quite remarkable…

I had a little band, a three-piece, and somehow we made a record over in Norway called Cheap and it actually came out later but it was recorded before Dog House Music. Somehow that record got released and we printed up ourselves about 500 but nothing happened because we couldn't get anyone to put it out. But a fellow called Joe Cushley, who had a radio programme on Resident FM in London, was on one of these things on the internet where people chat or whatever they do and he hooked up with someone in Norway who knew about our little band and liked us. So this guy was telling him about us and Joe got interested and he got hold of a copy of the album somehow. Now this is before anything - we were just trying to play in a few bars over there and selling the album at gigs, you couldn't buy it in a store or anything. So Joe called me and said, "Oh, I love this record. If you want to come over and play on my radio show, I'll try to get you a couple of gigs…" I didn't know, but his radio show probably had a total of 50 people listening, but anyway we said we'd come over and Resident Radio was on Denmark Street then. So we came over and played on his little radio show and afterwards he got me to go over the road and play at The 12 Bar Club and he also got me on Charlie Gillet's radio show, too. So we ended up playing just a few little shows around - it wasn't very many - and then went back to Norway and I had a really bad heart attack and so, for me, that was pretty much the end of the music thing.

Before I got sick these people in Belfast who have this thing called the Open House Festival had booked our little band to come over and play. I think maybe Joe had organised it but we had to cancel it. But they kept on calling me and I just said, "No, I'm not playing no more…" But eventually they called me and sort of said, "Look man, please…" and I said that I didn't have a band anymore and they said, "Well, if you can just come over by yourself…" I told them I'd been sick and they said they would take real good care of me and I talked to my wife and she said, "What have you got to lose? If it's your time, it's your time…" and so I flew over there and I just played by myself. I opened for Hayseed Dixie, but everyone went real crazy when I played; I mean it was like nuts! There were people screaming - and I was just sitting on the stage playing. So I was kinda shocked and I went home and told my wife and she encouraged me to go into the kitchen and kinda bang out some songs. I had an old four-track tape recorder and a couple of microphones, but there was no purpose to those songs; it wasn't like I was going to try and do something with them. So I ended up doing these recordings and they were just random; I just sat around and played and most of it was just me. Maybe on one or two songs I got my son to play a bit of drums, but mostly it was just me sitting in the kitchen.

So during the process of doing these recordings Joe Cushley called me up again to see how I was doing health-wise, because we'd become friends. Charlie Gillet also called me and I told them that I was recording this stuff in the kitchen and so Joe kept calling me after that saying that he really wanted to hear what I was doing. I said, "Oh man, this is just some amateur shit I'm doin'…" I mean, the recordings were all in mono, they weren't even in stereo - that's how primitive it was! But eventually he talked me into sending him a copy and so I did and he said, "This is the greatest thing since sliced bread!" [Laughs] and I just said, "Come on, Joe…" But he said he really believed in it and we had to get it out there somehow and so I told him to go ahead. So he tried to get some people interested and there was a guy called Andy Zammit who had just started a little record company called Bronzerat. Joe called me and said that he was going to put my record out, which was great!

By that time it was around October 2006 and I don't know exactly what happened but I know that a number of different people like Charlie Gillet and Mark Ellen had been telling the producers of Jools Holland's show about me over the last few years. I didn't know anything about this - I'd never even heard of Jools Holland - and Joe managed to get in touch with them and they asked to see me play a gig. But I didn't have any gigs! So Andy set up a little show for me at the St Aloysius Social Club in London, but it turned out that the people from Jools Holland couldn't come to the show. So they ended up wanting to come to the soundcheck - but it was just me, we didn't have no soundcheck! There was no PA there either because it wasn't going to come until later and so basically they just came and sat on two folding chairs and I just sat on the ground with them and played them a few tunes. They said they wanted to hear 'Dog House Boogie' but I hadn't played that song since I recorded it and so I told them I didn't want to play it, but they said they wanted to hear it. I only had my son's little tiny practice amp with me, a little Roland thing that you carry around with you and so I just plugged it in and played them the song. These people were poker-faced, y'know? They just said, "Thanks very much…" and left, but they called Andy that night and said they wanted to have me on the Hootenanny! Like I said, I didn't even know who Jools Holland was and I certainly didn't know what no hootenanny was! So the whole thing was real haphazard and literally nobody knew me, other than maybe about ten people, before I went on Jools Holland.

So all of a sudden everything changed?

It was just like night and day. The next day and all of the week they were calling from festivals… I think Mark Cooper [Jools Holland producer] kinda gambled on that, because he just kinda shoved me out in the middle of the floor and I only got to play one song whereas everyone else got to play three or four. I didn't have any expectations and it's funny now but when I was out there and playing, from where I was sitting it sounded horrible. I don't know if you remember but I kinda throw the guitar down at the end and went, "Ah, whatever…" y'know, because I was mad. Plus, where they had me sitting I couldn't see the audience or hear them because they were in the corners of the studio and so the only thing I saw were some lights in front of me and the cameras and so I had no idea I had done something good. It was only after, when they brought the lights up and everyone started yelling and screaming and my friends ran over saying, "Man, that was amazing!" and I was like, "Huh, what?" So I honestly didn't know that I had done a good show; the whole thing just sounded like a noisy mosquito to me. But obviously I saw it later and realised it didn't sound like that. But that show, without reservation, changed my life.

Whereas usually we might start talking about vintage Martin acoustics or even the odd 1950s Les Paul at this point, Steve's instruments are defiantly low tech - and a couple are hand made. On the latest CD,Hubcap Music, he is even playing a guitar made out of hubcaps and a broom handle - but it sounds amazing.

You wouldn't think so if you had to play it! [Laughs] It doesn't like staying together too well, but I like it because it's like playing with a piece of dynamite.

It looks like it's held together precariously…

Let me tell you, "precariously" is generous! As I say, I don't really care too much about guitars, but obviously I wouldn't be able to play without them; but I like having things around that aren't very good. There are two things that it does; for one, it always reminds me of busking, especially a long time ago because it was really hard to get guitar strings and so if you broke a couple of strings and were a baby about it and said you weren't going to play then you didn't eat. So, for me, the ability to play and keep the song and dancing going even if I broke strings literally meant eating or not. So there's that and also just having these things that are so uncomfortable to play kinda keeps me on edge. There's no comfort when I play. On the cigar box guitar that I have, the strings haven't been changed in five years. I know it's going to break in front of 50,000 people, but there's something about that I like, y'know? None of my guitars are any good; it's like with that hubcap thing, the bridge is just an old engine bolt and if you bump it, it goes completely out of tune. So it's like this battle to get through the song and when I get to the end I'm so relieved.

So it's a high maintenance instrument?

It kinda sticks together, but those engine bolts are the main problem. My son takes care of them for me during the show and it's mainly a matter of just making sure that they're sitting there straight and haven't got bumped too much. Then he tries to tune them and you can't tune the bottom string because the minute I hit it, it goes way sharp. So he'll tune the lowest string lower so that when you hit it, it goes up to something in-tune-ish.

When I first played with John Paul Jones and he was tuning I very confidently told him that I was in B and he goes, "I think it's more like B-ish…" I've never lived that down! So any time I say what tuning we're in, he goes, "…ish". But my son is really good at getting the main notes sounding kinda vaguely right. I like what I do, I'm just mystified that so many other people have liked it. I mean, I'm not trying to be humble - I've been doing this for a long time and no one was ever in line to give me a job and so the fact is for whatever reason I get to go out and play this crazy shit, it's just kind of a miracle, really.