BRING IT ON:
An EXCLUSIVE interview
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
Patience is a virtue, and sometimes patience pays off – Seasick Steve is proof of that. Born Steven Gene Wold in Oakland, California in 1941 – yes, 1941 – Steve has spent his life in transit: he’s been everything from a hobo to a record producer. But he never strayed far from music. He was playing live and in the studio with Blues musicians in the ‘60s, and has befriended and/or worked with artists as varied as Joni Mitchell and Modest Mouse. After decades of staying in the shadows, he finally decided to record his first album, Cheap, with The Level Devils in 2004. His next album, Dog House Music, was released in 2006. On New Year’s Eve that year, Seasick Steve made his first UK television appearance on Jools Holland’s annual NYE Hootenanny special. From that moment on, everything changed. Seasick Steve may not be a household name in the U.S., but since that TV appearance he has become one of the most celebrated roots artists in Europe. His unique approach to Country, Folk and Blues is enhanced by his use of handmade instruments: The Three-String Trance Wonder, The One-Stringed Diddley Bow, The Morris Minor Guitar, the Four-String Cigar-Box Guitar all create earthy, emotional sounds that add personality, charm and a distinctly original angle to his music. When touring in Europe, he no longer plays clubs; he sells out theaters and plays at festivals. With each album release, he consistently achieves the rare feat of being a critical and commercial success. He may have been in his mid ‘60s by the time fortune and fame came calling, but it seems to have been well worth the wait. Oh, and about his nickname? It’s quite simple, really – he gets sea sick on boats.
Seasick Steve’s 2015 offering, Sonic Soul Surfer, is another hearty slab of Country-Folk-Blues that is as energetic as anything Jack White or The Black Keys could conjure up. It is raw, dirty and earthy but far from a standard retro Blues album. Recorded at his home with longtime drummer Dan Magnusson, the album is easily one of his most creative. He doesn’t stray too far from what he’s laid down before, yet he adds some twists and turns in both songwriting and production. There are big, bold, beefy Blues tracks like “Roy’s Gang,” “Dog Gonna Play,” “Barracuda ‘68” and the title track mixed with the tenderness of “Right On Time,” the playfulness of “Summertime Boy” and the ominous tone of “Your Name.” Never once does the album plod along like many of his modern contemporaries – this is an artist with the skills and knowledge of a veteran and the energy of a group of young upstarts. Sonic Soul Surfer proves it’s never too late to Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Slightly Nauseous Steve SPAZ Schnee was able to chat to Seasick Steve about his new album and his career thus far…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Sonic Soul Surfer is just about to be released. How are you feeling about the album and the reaction you’ve had so far to it?
STEVE: I like the record ‘cause I had fun making it, and so the fact that I still could hear it and listen to it and like it is a pretty good sign for me. We had real fun doing it but you never know what other people are gonna think about it. Everyone who’s been connected with it says they like it and the press people who’ve called me said they like it. In Europe, I’m real famous over there so people are waiting for me to make a record. It’s inspiring because you got people waiting for you to do something so that’s kinda nice.
SPAZ: The album’s first single is “Summertime Boy.” I’ve read that you wrote that about your time in California…
STEVE: Well, actually I wrote it in California. It was about a year and a half ago and it was really bad weather over in England - it was flooding. Because I’m over there a lot right now, I have a lot of friends there and there were a lot of people who were really having a hard time. At first I was just sitting around feeling sorry for everybody. Then I started thinking, “Man, I’m so glad I’m not there getting rained and flooded on!” And then I started thinking that I don’t even like winter at all…and that song just popped out (chuckles). So, it kinda came out of first feeling sorry for the people over there and then feeling liked I dodged the winter bullet! The song just kinda tumbled out.
SPAZ: I’ve watched the video. Is that you actually surfing?
STEVE: Oh yeah, man. I started surfing in 1959. Me and my wife made that video. That’s just me sticking a GoPro on the front of the surfboard and the other part on the beach is just my wife putting the GoPro on the beach. We had a little boom box there so that I could play along with the song. Yeah, that video was super cheap (chuckles).
SPAZ: I guess you are actually a real DIY kind of guy.
STEVE: Yeah. The last video we did, my wife did that. We got in front of a big old hay barn and jumped out of a car and she had the CD in the car playing. She got her iPad out and filmed me one time dancing in front of a hay barn. That video cost like $10 or something to make – it got almost a half a million views. I really like the bare-knuckled kind of thing and it’s the same when we make a record. I mean, it’s not that I’m trying to make a cheap record. I just don’t want to fool around. Like with “Roy’s Gang” (the album’s lead track), my son had a washboard that he played – a real old one – and it was starting to fall apart so I took it out in the barn to fix it. When I was looking at it, I just got inspired to turn it into a guitar. So I just stuck a banjo neck on the end of the washboard, and it took me a while to get it so it wouldn’t fall apart. Then I walked in the house and I wrote “Roy’s Gang” ten minutes later. Dan, the drummer, he come the next day and I just said, “Man I got a new song, but I ain’t gonna show it to you. We just gonna turn the tape recorder on!” So, that song there is one take.
SPAZ: You’ve worked with Dan for a while. Does he instinctively know where you’re gonna take the song? Are you on the same musical wavelength?
STEVE: We have a communication through wine. We’re on the same wine length (chuckles). I think Dan doesn’t care too much what I do. For him it’s all just a ride. He’s definitely crazy – he’s got a few screws loose – but he just likes playing and fooling around. Because we’ve been playing together for a while now, we kinda know the style we like to do. There’s no rules in it, so I think that frees everything up. We just go there and do it, and we try not to practice any song hardly at all. When I’m with him, usually the first thing he plays is gonna be the best, so I don’t wanna beat it into the ground at all. Like “Roy’s Gang” – I didn’t want to show it to him because I didn’t know how it went, and it’s only got one string, and it was really hard to play it, and so it was crazy. But some of the other songs, maybe I’ll show it to him one time, and I’ll just say this is how it goes. Then he kinda sees it and then we just turn the tape recorder on and usually we get it just in one whack.
SPAZ: Your approach to the music sounds like this wonderful combination of the energy of a young musician, and yet you have the experience and the wisdom of a veteran. Do you think both of the angles help you in creating your music?
STEVE: Yeah, I think you hit it kinda real square there. When we play, we are playing young, but not on purpose – just kinda comes out that way. It’s almost like I got my feet in a deep river. I know that I’m sucking up old things and I’ve have a long life behind me as a person. A lot of young people don’t have all that time behind them to draw from so maybe in some ways that’s good. They come up with brand new things. For me, it’s important to dredge up, to always take from the well and then try to treat it in a kind of crazy way.
SPAZ: You are classified as a Blues artist. However, you tend to stretch that out and cover a lot of musical ground within that framework. Are you okay with being classified as a Blues artist or does something like that not even matter?
STEVE: Yeah, it don’t matter. I partly don’t really like it, ‘cause I never really thought of myself like that. It kinda happened when I got over to Europe and started playing, and everybody else was saying, “Hey, he’s like a Blues guy!” I don’t know why. When I lived in America, I didn’t play much and if no one’s asking you what kind of music you play, you don’t need to have an answer. I always thought of myself as more Country. I know I’m not a Country artist, but if I was to lean a way, I would lean towards Country, Bluegrass or Hillbilly…and also the Blues. I’ve always thought it was really weird when white people say I’m a Blues guy. I know it’s okay and I know there’s great white Blues but when I grew up, the guys who were playing the Blues were all black guys. I never thought about much calling myself a Blues guy. One thing I did that I think was the smartest thing I ever did in my life – once I became popular in Europe, I refused to play Blues festivals. Anything with the name Blues in it, I just didn’t play.
SPAZ: Would you reconsider doing that in America?
STEVE: I wouldn’t play a Blues festival here either. And that has freed me. I play all the biggest Rock festivals in the world. I didn’t know it at the time, but all the guys who go the Blues festival route, they don’t get to play Glastonbury and Reading and all these big festivals. So, it’s a label that don’t do you a whole lot of favors. And you know what? It never did me no favors, so I don’t wanna have nothing to do with it really.
SPAZ: There’s a lot of honestly in your music, a lot of emotion, but there’s also an air of mystery. What are your influences both musically and otherwise?
STEVE: I feel like I’m just a big old American stew. I like a lot of things from Nat King Cole to Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and all them old Country guys. I like the old Country Blues. I didn’t really like much Electric Blues. I like Mississippi Fred McDowell and Blind Willie and all them people. I like that kind of Country thing and the noisy part of what I do – I’m not sure why. I mean, I like Jimi Hendrix, man! I liked all them bands back in the ‘60s. I was up in San Francisco then, so I liked Quicksilver (Messenger Service) and The Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape. I liked all that kinda stuff, too. I just never was very good at that kind of music, I don’t think, I was much better playing Country music.
SPAZ: Which of your instruments made it onto the album?
STEVE: The one string washboard guitar!
SPAZ: Did the Three String Trance Wonder make it?
STEVE: You know, this is the first record that it didn’t get on. I recorded a song with it, but somehow it didn’t get on the final record. But there are some other odd instruments. There’s that one thing I have made out of hubcaps – that’s on there. And then I got another guitar that’s made out of an air cleaner from a Ford – so that is a four string air cleaner guitar. And then there’s my cigar box. I think those are the weird ones on there.
SPAZ: What about a regular six string guitar?
STEVE: I made this one guitar. A friend of mine cut a body out of a piece of driftwood –real driftwood. So then I had this old Danlectro neck and I found these old pickups and some oil cans and I made that into a guitar. That’s on there on a few songs – the driftwood guitar.
SPAZ: Do you prefer being able to experiment in the studio or do you like the spontaneity of performing live?
STEVE: I don’t like recording in the studio. I have my own studio at my house, but I don’t really like recording. Although this one was pretty fun, I would rather get out there and play. When I’m making a new record, I’m trying to make the record like I’m playing for people. I really think about that a lot. If I’m gonna record, I wanna be able to go play it without too much fuss.
SPAZ: Do you feel a kinship with a lot of your young, modern Blues/Rock/Garage contemporaries?
STEVE: I just love that they’re taking from that old thing and making something new out of it. I think that’s the thing I like the most. If it can’t grow into the future, it’s dead. I know there’s a big Americana thing with a lot of young people. I hope they take it and make it something new and kinda change it. Otherwise, it just dies away…
SPAZ: Why do you think the Europeans respect and embrace classic American music far more than the Americans do?
STEVE: I don’t know! It’s like America’s always been the last one to pick up on its own thing. I remember in the ‘60s talking to some of the old Blues guys who went over to Germany and played, and they were just so blown away by the audience clapping and that they actually got paid (chuckles). All the Jazz guys were going to France and Sweden. There’s always been that kind of reception, but not for everything. That’s the weird thing I’ve learned. A lot of bands think that they can go over there and just wave an American flag and everybody’s gonna fall over, but it ain’t the case! There’s some secret there that I ain’t exactly sure of. They like certain parts of the Americana world. And then the other ones, they’re not interested in, so I think it’s just gotta vibrate in a certain way.
SPAZ: Your records sound modern, yet there’s an authenticity to what you do. I think people tend to be more receptive to that.
STEVE: That’s what I see over there. I don’t know why. I mean, why me? I can pat myself on the back all I want, but it’s just an odd thing that what I’m doing seems to be doing something over there. When I was doing it in America, no one cared. So, it’s a mystery to me. The one thing I see everywhere we go play is this hunger in young people’s eyes. I don’t mean just for me, but they want this kind of raw thing really bad. I have learned it’s gotta get served up a certain way and if it’s served up a little bit wrong, they just think it’s boring.
SPAZ: Which format would you prefer people to listen to your music on?
STEVE: A record, man, thank you very much. On my new album, there ain’t no computer involved at all. It’s recorded on tape and then we mixed it onto tape. A lot of people make LPs now, but they’ll make a digital record and then transfer it over to LP. Even if they’ve recorded an analog record, they’ll do it part analog and then mix it on ProTools and then go to a mastering place and dump it onto a computer and then it gets dumped onto the vinyl. But, this record is absolute pure, just like it used to be years ago.
SPAZ: This is all analog?
STEVE: Everything. There ain’t a bit of computer within reach of it.
SPAZ: What is next for Seasick Steve?
STEVE: We have a tour in April and then kind of roll right off into all the summer festivals. They’re already setting up a fall tour so I’m gonna be on the road. I’ll be out playing until November.
SPAZ: What do you currently have spinning on your CD, LP, DVD or Blu-Ray players?
STEVE: Funny enough, a friend of mine is involved somehow in Norway with Nico and Vinz. They had a huge hit this last year in America. These guys are from Norway. First of all, almost no one ever gets heard of outside of Norway, but they’re just gigantic. They had this big song, “Am I wrong.” A friend gave me the CD before we got here and you know, I didn’t wanna listen to it. My wife made me listen to it and you know, it was good, man. I got kinda forced into that, but I’m just telling you the truth. I’ve listened to that, and I brought some stuff. I actually got Fred McDowell CDs and then I got the best of the Chambers Brothers. Then when we go on the road, we’re on the tour bus, and we take a record player, and we listen to vinyl.
SPAZ: When you tour, do you still go record shopping?
STEVE: Dan – he’s absolutely sick about buying records. He’s crazy. He’s probably got 20 or 30 thousand of them. And then he’s like an addict. He’s the one who buys records all the time and every once in a while drags me with him. No matter what town we’re in, he can smell a record store driving down the street. There’s no indication there’s a record store and then he goes, “I think there’s a store here.” And sure enough, there is. I’ve never seen anything like it – he smells them out. Man, if he’s in a record store, you can’t get him outta there. He fills up his suitcases with records. He lives in Sweden, and then he leaves all his clothes at my house so he can take records home. We have a storage place in London where our equipment is, and half of it is his clothes in there half the time. So he’s left all his shit there so he can take more records home. So yeah, we do go record shopping.
Thanks to Seasick Steve
Special thanks to Steve Dixon, Dana House and Nick Kominitsky.
SONIC SOUL SURFER