Seasick Steve has just witnessed the aftermath a road traffic accident in Kensington. A helicopter had landed on the High Street to tend to the victim; police bikes were strewn around.
“If they helicoptered him then maybe he’s still alive, but I would think barely,” he muses, pinching his grey beard.”His bike was in pieces.”
Steve Wold’s speaking voice is a timeless, deep-down drawl that sounds as old as the proverbial hills, the mouthpiece for a thousand woodsmoked tales. Originally from California, Steve has spent time variously as a freight train rider, a grunge producer, a busking bluesman and, with grizzled face and grey hair, suddenly he’s now adding mainstream entertainer – or “song and dance man”, as he puts it – to the mix.
As his first major label album I Started Out With Nothin’ And I Still Got Most Of It Left hits the shops and he prepares to headline the Royal Albert Hall, does he still see himself as the train-hoppin’ hobo of yore?
“I used to be. I’m not n’more,” he rumbles, purposefully. Fair enough. It’s surely difficult playing Later… With Jools Holland, signing with a major and still maintaining the public image of a down-and-out singin’ ’bout the blues. Come to think of it, what does the word “hobo” mean? It’s possible the definition has become confused in transatlantic translation. Is it something to do with Boxcar Willie?
“It had been a long time since somebody’d come along, stamp on the ground and yell…”
– Seasick Steve
“I’ll tell ya,” he rumbles, looking for all the world like a kindly garage mechanic with his long grey beard and baseball cap. “There are three different names. One’s a hobo, one’s a tramp and one’s a bum. You was a hobo, and people used to be very particular if they fell in that category, if you rode the freight trains looking for work. You was a tramp, you rode the freight trains and tried not to work. If you was a bum you didn’t ride trains, you didn’t even go nowhere and you didn’t work. Those are the three names before you got the word ‘homeless’.” He sips his coffee and looks wistful. “And that was a long time ago.”
Since he first showed up on Holland’s show to play the rip-roaring Doghouse Blues, he’s been in demand. In the last year he’s played his first festivals, including Glastonbury and this year’s Latitude. At the latter he found himself being interviewed on Radio 4’s flagship Sunday morning programme Broadcasting House. The station’s live audience, like Holland and Warner Bros before it, took to Wold immediately. But he has his reservations. “The way a lot of the press has gone on me, people think I crawled out from under a bridge last month,” he says, semi-seriously. “Y’know, I’ve raised five children since that time, I’ve had lots of normal jobs. Lived, you know?”
But with all that said, he was a hobo, back in the mists of time, and that makes him something of a hero figure in the minds of some. For sure that time has left its mark on him. “It’s affected me in the sense that I can never stop moving,” he ruminates. “I been married to this gal now, well, for 27 years and we’ve lived in 59 houses. She counted them. She wrote ’em all down in a little book. That thing, about wandering round, never stops with me.”
He’s not exactly new to Europe. “I came over here back in 1972, to Paris,” he remembers. “I don’t even think I knew where Paris was, but you could get a charter flight over for $100 and I had $110. I was kinda living on the streets then anyway so I figured I could do the same over there. So I landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport with $10 and some fella saw that I looked very lost, and he took me over to the Left Bank and I started playing in one of the cafes.” Just like that? “I didn’t even know they had a Metro system there, but when I found out I’d go down and play there in the mornings. I lived in a park where you weren’t supposed to live, but they shut the gates at night. So I just did the same thing I was doing in America.”
Ah yes, America. Land of milk and honey, where they have those there freight trains that hobos ride about on, writing songs. It was a lifestyle he got into when he left home in his early teens. His stepfather and he did not see eye to eye. “It was a very bad situation,” he understates. He was thrown out of the family home. “I travelled so much after that, even when I didn’t want to travel I couldn’t stop. So I think it got in me, by constantly moving around when I was a young fellow. It ain’t nothin’ to do with being a musician, it’s about being forced out of my home so early and living on my own for so many years. It’s real hard to put your feet down after all that.”
“I don’t follow. Even when I was doing bands I didn’t follow. That’s for young people to do.”
– Seasick Steve
Steve had started to busk in America “back in the early to mid-’60s. Maybe before then.” And he did it for years, though he became convinced nobody cared for him or his music in his motherland. It was only in the mid-’90s, when he did some gigs with blues legend RL Burnside, that he noticed “the young kids” were getting him. “That was the first time I thought people would maybe like me for what I did.”
But even that was over a decade ago. Why has it taken till 2008 for him to get any kind of mainstream recognition? “I didn’t think anyone was interested in the kind of music I played, y’know, at all.” Coming to such a conclusion would convince lesser men to throw in the towel. Not Steve. “About four or five years ago I decided I didn’t give a shit if people was interested or not, I was gonna make a record anyway. Cos I was gettin’ old, y’know. So I made a record with two other guys from Sweden.” By this point he’d found himself in Norway, from where his wife hails. “But then I had a heart attack and I was pretty sick for a while. That was my one big try at making a record, but that made me think I was done.”
He wasn’t. “When I started feeling a little better I tried to play a bit after, but I didn’t feel too good. I’d set up a few shows over here, I was gonna come and play in Belfast. But I had to cancel it.” And that could have been the end of it all, had some tenacious promoters in Northern Ireland decided to let up. “Those people kept calling me up, as they’d kinda made a big deal of it. They said why don’t you come over by yourself and we’ll take care of you? My wife saw me just sitting around, and maybe this wasn’t so good for me. When you have a pretty bad heart attack, you know, it shake you up pretty good. Your main motor not working no good no more. She said, ‘maybe you should go over there’. I said, ‘Maybe I will go over there’.”
On such decisions do empires rise and fall – or at least careers stop or take flight. “I went over there and played by myself and everybody was going crazy. When I got back and told her she was like, ‘Why don’t you just sit in the kitchen there with an old four track tape recorder and make some songs? Not like you do with a band, but just like you do when you’re sitting at home.’ So that’s what I did.” His first record, made in Norway on the cheap, assumed the name Cheap.
“Somebody heard it over here and this guy at Resonance FM gave it to the independent label Bronzerat,” he recounts. “A couple of weeks later they asked me to be on Jools Holland’s show. It was very not planned, and me, I didn’t even think I was making a record, I thought I was making some recordings for my wife. And I don’t really understand what happened after that. I understand that I’ve gotten kinda famous, but it was from bein’ nothin’.” He sounds genuinely amazed still by his change of fortune.
“I knew if I could find me some old gospel singers I’d put me some girls on there, just for fun…”
– Seasick Steve
Of course he’s not the first artist to get a career break courtesy of the piano tinkling boogie-woogie man, but he reckons there’s more to his reception in the UK than that. “In Britain they’ve always been more appreciative of jazz, blues. It has a history here. I just didn’t think I fell into that category at all, but now…” He tails off, assessing his place in the grand scheme of things. “It was also like the timing,” he muses. “I see now people were real hungry for somethin’ plain, and raw. At the time I didn’t know that, but now that I’ve played so much, not just here but all over the world, I see that.”
Why does he think that’s become the case? “Everything had gotten pretty fancy, and it had been a long time since somebody’d come along, stamp on the ground and yell,” he says. Which is what he does, in case you didn’t know. “I think I was lucky with the time. I believe so.” He nods and strokes his beard, considering this revelation.
His new album was recorded on a farm in Norfolk, a part of the world not known for its blues legends. “I know how to record. That was my job for a long time. I just wanted to make a different record. I was gonna go out there before I was signed to Warner Brothers, and try and record in a different fashion. The other albums I made in my kitchen; I didn’t even have a mixing board. I plugged a microphone directly into the tape recorder; it was real raw.” This time was pretty raw too. “We played live, just me and my friend the drummer. Most of that’s live. I just recorded it better, paid more attention.”
And added the spice that is Nick Cave‘s latest project,Grinderman. “Yeah. I like ’em. I played with ’em. The girl who was doing my press at the time, she married to the drummer (Jim Sclavunos), so, you know…” He tails off. “I can’t remember actually how it happened, and I didn’t think they’d want to come and do it, but they did, and we had a nice time. I actually like them guys.”
He met Cave for the first time when supporting Grinderman’s first London gig, at the Forum. “I hadn’t heard of him,” he reveals. “I didn’t know who Nick Cave, Bad Seeds, nuttin’.” I gape at him. There’s a bulging pause. “Maybe I’d heard the name, but I don’t remember. I don’t follow. Even when I was doing bands I didn’t follow. That’s for young people to do.” Cave’s now in his 50th year, and Steve has no doubts that he can cut it still. “I went to see them at Latitude – they was rockin’, boy.”
“I didn’t think anyone was interested in the kind of music I played, y’know, at all…”
– Seasick Steve
Cave and his cohorts aside, Steve’s third album was mixed in Nashville for a reason. “I knew if I could find me some old gospel singers I’d put me some girls on there, just for fun.” The resulting record sounds busier as a result.
Warners offered him a producer, but he reportedly turned the offer down. “Who gonna produce me?” he harrumphs. “What do you produce when there’s only a guitar? The only thing these guys know how to do is add. I told them they can produce themselves if they want, but they ain’t gonna produce me.” It’s easy to imagine him saying it.
He’s already road-tested some of the album at his first-ever festivals, including Glastonbury. Was he nervous? “Oh no,” he chuckles. “I don’t get nervous. I’m too old to be nervous. I don’t give a shit down on the bottom line. I’m happy this happened, but I ain’t trying. I got nowhere to go, so I’m just gonna go play.”
There’s no grand plan? “I don’t reckon it’s gonna last very long so, y’know…” Why? “If history has anything…” He tails off, then changes tack. “I remember back in the ’60s when they dragged all them old black guys out of the woodwork to play for all the college kids. That lasted a whole couple of years. Then they sent them right back to the farm.” He gazes wistfully into space. “The audiences here, at least my audience, are very nice. I’m starting to believe they’ll be around for a while. But my life has been more downs than ups, so I’m happy to take it as it comes, happy to be alive, go play a little bit. If it keeps goin’ it’s all good, and if it doesn’t I’ll go home.”
That would involve another Atlantic crossing, and he’s sure to take a plane, given his moniker. Just how did he become known as Seasick Steve? “I’ve been seasick my whole life,” he says matter-of-factly. “I can’t go on boats. I went on this boat from Norway to Denmark, it was called a booze cruise. They have big ferries that go back and forth every day between Norway and Denmark with these bands playing on them. Mainly for people to just get drunk and buy cheap booze. And I went on the boat and MAN I was sick. I threw up from 12 to 7 in the morning and then I got off, and on the way back they were, ‘hey, it’s Seasick Steve’. It’s stuck on me like stink! Yeah, it’s a serious handicap…” He recently played in Ireland and had to take a ferry. “I took a bunch of pills and passed out. Then I don’t get sick. I can’t even keep my eyes open but it’s better than throwing up.” Sleeping Steve, then.
“Who gonna produce me?”
– Seasick Steve
His burgeoning legend extends to his customised instruments with improbable names like The Three String Trance Wonder and The Mississippi Drum Machine. “People send me all kinds of things now, and I don’t know what to do with them all. Everyone thinks I want these horrible instruments!” He doesn’t mean to sound ungrateful. “It’s really nice. One guy made me this guitar out of BSA motorcycle parts. The bottom part’s a gas tank and the top part’s the emblem… I don’t know what I’m gonna do with it, but it sure look nice. I’m starting to get a bit of a collection. I don’t know why they think I want them. Just because I play crummy instruments doesn’t mean I want any more of them!”
What if somebody gave him a synthesiser? Would he prefer that? “Oh no,” he says, looking as if I’ve just insulted his mother. “That I would not take.”
During his time as a producer and sound engineer he worked in Olympia, 60 miles south of Seattle. The Washington State capital’s grunge scene was not known for its synthesisers. “We did 80 albums there, maybe a bit more,” he remembers. He went on the road and played guitar for Modest Mouse, who’ve since acquired The Smiths‘ Johnny Marr as their new older generation fret-fiddling mascot. “It was kinda like having their grandfather with ’em,” he chuckles. “I got a little tired of it though. That’s like being a babysitter. A lot of young bands think they invented the wheel, but they don’t understand that the band the week before also invented the wheel. And you’re supposed to get all jacked up about each band that comes in. When I couldn’t get excited no more, I quit.” He doesn’t begrudge them their success, of course. “They deserve to have a good time.”
And now, with his major label deal and the applause following him around the globe, he has his thoughts on touring. “When you’re older it’s a little bit harder to do all this. But it suits me fine. I like movin’. I like having a place to put my stuff, but it’s a little bit nice to be able to do both. I get to travel pretty first class now,” he says, beaming. No more freight train ridin’? “I rode a train back in April,” he counters. “When I was in Nashville I picked up a train. But my wife doesn’t want me hoppin’ on freight trains no more. I ain’t that safe, especially now I ain’t that healthy.”
I’m heading off to a wedding directly after this interview, with Steve’s wellwishin’. “You tell ’em from me,” he says, sagely, “The way to stay married is to work a little bit at it. Don’t be lazy.” Safe to say lazy is not a word that could describe Seasick Steve.
Seasick Steve’s album I Started Out With Nothin’ And I Still Got Most Of It Left is out now through Warner.