TMF meets Seasick Steve
A latecomer to the musical game, 70 year old Seasick Steve specializes in country and blues-tinged tales of travelling. Performing at 18 festivals this year, as well as embarking on a worldwide tour, he released Walkin’ Man: The Best of Seasick Steve on November 14th through Rhino Records. Hailing from California and now living in Norway, Seasick Steve is not one for staying put.
The Music Fix met him in at the Dorchester Hotel in London and managed to keep him in one place long enough to talk greatest hits, globetrotting and ghosts.
So how have you been finding London? You spend a lot of time here…
Yeah, I’ve been having a good time. Me and my wife have been walking around a lot - when I’m here by myself, if I walk around I get hassled a lot, but with her I don’t so it’s been kinda mellow. I’ve been doing TV and radio shows, but in the meantime we’ve been walking around in that park over there [Hyde Park], I love that park.
So you’ve got ‘Walkin’ Man: The Best of Seasick Steve’ coming out on the 14th November, how does it feel to be releasing a greatest hits?
Well, you know, it’s a little bit new for me too - it wasn’t my idea! I can tell you that. But I’ve kinda come around to it now, you know? I seen it, listened to it and I thought shit, that’s kinda cool!
Yeah, it is!
What’s more cool about it is that none of them was hits! It’s like a grassroot hit, but it ain’t never been on a playlist on the radio, no nothin’.
You’ve been playing a lot of festivals.
Yeah, I’ve done it by work and by people being so nice to me so it’s been… it’s felt a bit more real.
How did you go about choosing the tracks to go on ‘Walkin’ Man’?
I didn’t choose ‘em! Rhino [Records] come up with the list and it was actually a pretty good list. I think I changed a couple, and then my friend Joe Cushley helped; he’s the guy who actually kinda discovered me in the first place. We just played the Hammersmith Apollo last week and he’s got this band The Moulettes, a girl band he manages, so I told Joe ‘you make up the list’ so he did.
That’s the hardest thing for me on any of the records, I never could figure out a list, I actually don’t do it. I tell my kids to do it… this last one I think my wife did, for You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks. Anyone but me!
You had Paloma Faith come and perform with you at the Hammersmith Apollo.
Yeah, I love her. She can sing, man! Thing is people don’t know what she can do. I think she made a pop record so people just think that’s what she’s capable of, but she’s capable of a lot that girl. So I love her.
Is there anybody else that you’d like to collaborate with?
Well, me and Alison, from The Kills, we’ve played together and we really wanna do something. It’s just when, you know? She’s gone a lot of the time, she’s in South America right now. I like her a lot.
You’ve had a great year so far, what would you say was the highlight of it?
This year I did 18 festivals, so a lot. I did Isle of Wight, Reading, Leeds, Latitude…
Which was your favourite?
They were all so cool, so I’m only gonna say favourite in terms of the intenseness and surprise. We played Reading and we played quite early this year, like 1 o’ clock and I was like ‘What a shame, no one’s gonna be there’, but there was 80,000 people when we played! I was shocked when I went out there. I’d been to Reading before and I’d seen that not so many people can be there in the morning. It was a little bit overwhelming. I know they came out for us… that was kinda like pretty special you know. But it’s been so fun, all of them - Latitude was super fun, some of the smaller ones were really good too.
It’s nice to be able to see the crowds faces sometimes, right?
I say smaller, but I played the Apollo and that’s pretty big! I’m gonna go over to Holland now to play, and the venues are maybe like 1000 people. Maybe I shall be able to shake someone’s hand!
What’s the reaction like in Europe in comparison?
I mean, we’ve played huge festivals there too, it’s all getting a little bit the same - crazy everywhere. Which to me is just so bizarre. I’m not trying to be modest or nothing like that, but I’ve been playing my whole life and I couldn’t even get a job at a bar. So it’s a little bit hard to take it in. We played our first festival in Holland this year and I’ve only ever played one time there. We played a big tent that held 15,000 people and I didn’t think anyone was going to come because there were a lot of bands playing around, and man, it was so crazy! I don’t know why it was because we haven’t played there, we’re not on the radio and it turned into this huge deal. Because of that we got asked to be on television the next week and then we decided to go do some shows over there and they sold out in one hour.
The guy who held that festival over there didn’t even want us to play! It wasn’t like he didn’t like me or nothing, he just… maybe I wasn’t cool enough. The record went right to the top, just from one show, so that was something.
So it was Halloween recently; I’ve heard a few rumours that you might have a haunted guitar?
We did a documentary and we went back down around Tennessee and Mississippi, to my friends place there who I got the guitar from. He goes ‘Oh I didn’t tell you, but that guitar was haunted’. I mean I thought he was joking - he wasn’t! He would hang it out in this barn where he keeps all his junk, and the next day it would have moved. He said there were lots of people what saw it, and he don’t lie either. It’s a spooky kinda place out there, actually.
I said to him ‘Man, why didn’t you tell me you gave me a haunted guitar?!’, and he said ‘I don’t want no ghost here no more!’ But I never felt no ghost or no shit like that!
Your Dad was a piano player, what inspired you to pick up the guitar instead?
I wanted to play it but my Dad left when I was real young, and so then there was no piano no more. If he would have been around longer I would probably have learnt the piano. But he left so I ended up playing on the guitar.
Music seems to run in your blood then…
Yeah, I’ve got 5 boys, two of them work for me, but my youngest boy, he’s got his own record. His thing is called Wishful Thinking. He wrote one of the songs on the last record so he’s totally a musician.
You’re known for your love of travelling - do you think you’ll ever stop in one place?
I would really like to, but it’s hard to think… I don’t feel like I fit or live anywhere and I been travelling my whole life but I would really like to stop. There is one place I’d like to live: Byron Bay in Australia. I’ve been down there to play a few times and when I’m down there I feel at home, which don’t make no sense. I been doing this my whole life, wandering around and I’m a little bit tired of it - but I started doing it young and it’s now like I just can’t stop.
It gives you lots of content lyrically…
I got plenty of that without moving an inch! It’s alright, it just gets a little more tiring when you’re older, travelling all the time.
What do you make of the Blues genre at the moment?
I don’t pay much attention to no Blues or nothing, I never did really. I never even thought I played Blues music!
[Laughs] Not until I come over here! Well, I loved old country music, I’m deep into it. I loved Hillbilly music just the same. Rock ‘n’ Roll, you know? I never really had to think much about it because when nobody is asking you to play, you don’t have to contemplate what kind of music you play! If there’s no one interviewing you, then there’s nothing! If people ever asked me anything I’d say ‘Oh, I play the guitar’.
So it’s only when I’ve come over here and everyone says I’m a Blues guy, I go ‘Oh…’. And I understand what they saying, but I don’t know if that’s exact. I think I’m more of a mess; I feel like I play American music and it ends up in a big train wreck… yeah, train wreck music! (laughs) But I love all that old stuff, but I don’t listen to anything modern. I mean, I like them Black Keys, and I like Jack’s [White] band and stuff like that. I like crazy music, I like them old country Blues guys cause they play like, one chord for a few hours… it’s more like trance music!
What are your plans for next year?
I think I might take off next year.
Disappear down to Australia?
Yeah, maybe. I’m going to Australia in January. See how long I stay. I been on the road solid since 2007; I been touring and in the middle of that, I make a new record. I haven’t stopped for more than a week or two since then.
What do you do in your weeks off?
Well, there’s like, you know, most of the time you’re just waiting to go to the next place! I live in Norway and we bought an apartment there four years ago. My wife says I’ve been there four months. So the rest of that time I guess I been in hotels or on tour buses.
How easy do you find it when it comes to writing fresh material?
I write all the time. For me my writing comes from the past. Even if I write about something now, it’s all fuelled from the past. I been waiting to be able to do this my whole life so… I’ve got 50, 60 year’s worth of songs. Things are just waiting to come out that no-one gave a shit about. I don’t have enough years left to live to write all the songs I want to write. I write all of the time, and a lot of it is just shit. I can’t help it.
What was the first song that you wrote?
I don’t remember. I’ve written since I was a kid, they were just stupid then. I actually would like to try and remember but I’ve tried before and I just can’t.
That’s a shame.
Oh no, I don’t think it’s a shame, it’s probably good! It was probably some country or folk song that I was trying to write.
Being on tour, what’s the weirdest thing you’ve come across? You must witness some unusual things.
Our deal is a bit geriatric, we stay out of it. I think it’s way overblown anyway, the supposed stuff that goes on. For us, we stay away from the party aspect. A couple of years ago we were playing over in Amsterdam, it was at the Paradiso over there and I said I didn’t want anybody coming backstage that day because I was a little bit tired, and I never say that. You come in our dressing room and it’s the most boring thing. It’s normally just a couple of old guys sitting there getting drunk.
The place was sold out, it was packed. We played and this girl kept coming up to the front of the stage and trying to pass this note to me. I finally took this note and it says ‘I wanna come up and sing with you’. And I’m like ‘Oh no, this ain’t no karaoke in here you know’. We’re playing for these people, they’ve paid to come in. I was getting more drunk and it was towards the end, and I’m like alright then, you wanna jump up here into the frying pan? Jump on up girl! And man, she could sing!
It wouldn’t have been right for her to jump back off into the audience, so she came down with us to the dressing room. We’re completely sweaty, and we all come in and there was a girl sitting in our dressing room, real fancy looking like she was going to a discothèque. So I sat down and was talking to this singer girl and this girl is still sitting in the corner. I turn to a guy who has walked in and I go ‘What’s this girl over there for?’ And he says he’s not sure. It’s our soundman's birthday and he says ‘Well, she’s been ordered for him.’ I go ‘What?!’
So I go ‘What do you mean, she’s for him? Is she a whore?’ and he says he doesn’t know. Then two guys come in all of a sudden, with these jackets and hats on - hip hop dudes. One black guy and one white guy, they just come in and they sit at the table, dump out a massive pile of marijuana and start rolling joints. Then another guy comes in and he’s made a guitar for me, out of a wooden clog. The girl gets up and comes over while the other two are still talking to me, and she goes ‘I’m a dancer, can you please call your soundman to come in here, I’m going to go in the bathroom and when I come out, you play the guitar’. So I tell our soundman that he needs to come back here. So now I’ve got this guy sitting here with this clog guitar, this girl who sang with us telling her life story, these guys rolling pot, and this girl gone into the bathroom, and our drummer sitting over here like he’s comatose.
Then our sound guy comes in, this girl burst out of the bathroom, I pick up this clog guitar and start to play. She starts lapdancing all over him, she’s got her butt in his face. Then in burst a Hell's Angel guy all the way from Newcastle, and he knocks that chick out of the way - not on purpose, but because he wants to get down and hug me. So we’ve got the dope rollers, we got the girl trying to talk, the guy with the clog guitar, the lapdancer, our sound guy is looking at me like he wants to kill me, and then this Hell's Angel comes in crying and hugging me.
I look up at his daughter standing in the doorway and she looks like she works in a bank. Here she sees dope, half naked girls grinding on guys, guitars… You could not have created this scene. It was like a film!
Then there was another band that heard there was a party going on in our dressing room, so they came up with all these joints going and I just said, 'I’m getting out of here!' So that was our one rock and roll night! Turns out what happened was, our soundman also works for [legendary 70s rocker, names deleted to protect the innocent - Ed.] and he had known it was his birthday and called the promoter up and ordered a lapdancer for him. So the next day we’re out at breakfast and our sound guy figured out it what had happened. So he called [aging rocker] on the phone and told him he had been in the hospital all night, and [elderly wailer] goes ‘What?!’ ‘Yeah they were trying to remove the lapdancer off my lap!’ So the whole thing was just so surreal.
If you could give a piece of advice to yourself, maybe 30 years ago, what would it be?
I wouldn’t want anything different to happen, because then this wouldn’t have happened. The one piece of advice I’d have given myself, which I actually took for some reason, was don’t give up. Music was like a friend to me. That’s what I think a lot of young people are missing out on - they’re already practising signing their autographs and got the whole mansion with a down payment… it’s a bit premature. It’s not that they shouldn’t have the goal, but it used to be that everyone just started for fun. 99% of the musicians in the 50s and 60s started out to get to meet a few girls or play at a party, there was not this whole corporate plan laid out, you know that we gotta be rock stars. So that’s taken over the motivation of a lot of people to want to play.
The thing is it would be alright, but 99% of them don’t get to do that. So then you don’t even enjoy the time. So I would say, to have fun, because you might never be no rock star. I know things have changed, but because most people don’t ever get to be successful, it’s hard; it’s like being married to four or five other guys, it’s a lot of work. Then not to it’s a hard thing if you don’t get there. Then you’d have to join Wall Street, and become a banker or something.
Walkin' Man: the Best Of Seasick Steve is out now.