Music Interviews

Seasick Steve: “I’ve been struggling all my life, so if it’s struggling songs I need, I’ve got a million” – Interview

Seasick Steve

Seasick Steve

This is the second time Seasick Steve has spent time with us, and it’s safe to assume he hasn’t changed a bit since that first interview, three years ago. “I like to know who I’m talking to,” he says. “I don’t know much about the internet, but I know it’s an important thing. They didn’t have that internet shit very long ago, it’s kind of new – but my kids know about it. They know all about everything, they tell me all the shit people write about me!”

His face tells a thousand stories, even though his eyes often narrow to slits, retreating behind his ever more impressive beard. Wearing checked shirt and a John Deere cap, he is enjoying a glass of pinot noir, which he offers in our direction. “Might as well enjoy yourself while you’re here!” he quips.

You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks. So goes the proverb – and the title of his new record. Obviously he likes it – but there is trepidation too. “You never know,” he says, “you make something, stick it out there and cross your fingers.” It has all the hallmarks of previous albums, though, in its instinctiveness. “Oh yeah,” he says with feeling. “I made it in my kitchen, on the worst equipment, and some people like that. Everything I do above that is big production, you know, but I think, “I made that sitting in my front room! We were pretty lit up most of the time, we would have a few drinks and just play. No computers, no fucking around, just play – and if that’s too produced, alrighty!”

For him, it really is just about the music. “When we sit down and play, if it feels good, and we make a mistake, no-one else knows those songs so they ain’t gonna know if it’s a mistake when it goes on the tape. When we get done with that song we don’t do 20 takes, we do one. I think one song we maybe had two, I dunno why, but when we went to mix it there was only one each. It wasn’t ‘the best of this, the best of that’ – if we can’t play it, then it don’t go on the record.”

“If you don’t give it your all, then you don’t get any money, and you don’t get to eat. It’s a pretty basic deal, and I’ve carried that out to wherever I go.”
– Seasick Steve, whose music is literally his life

The album is characteristically direct in communication, typified in songs like Burning Up. “Yeah, if I can’t put history into a song then I don’t play it. Even when we play live, if I can’t conjure up the song, why I made it or something about it, I don’t play it, because then I turn into a parrot. That’s like my best effort when I do that, and if I don’t feel like it’s the best I could have done then that also doesn’t go on the record. I know that I ain’t a jickety-good guitar player, or anything like that, but I know that I’m pretty good at conjuring up how I feel about things, and I think that’s why people like it. They know that one way or another I mean it.”

Meanwhile Underneath The Blue and Cloudless Sky is all about his wife. “One hundred percent. It’s about when we got married, when we didn’t have fuck all. I almost didn’t have the five dollars to get married! We went down to the court house, and they call up a retired judge, who marries you. Maybe it was fifteen dollars, I don’t remember that much – but we actually had to borrow five bucks from another guy. It was an absolutely blue day, and we stood out on the lawn in front of this court house and got married. But then I didn’t have much to offer, so that’s why I said that thing in the song – “won’t be no bed of roses but there’ll be a bed” – and I said I’d stick with her. We’ve been together nearly 30 years now. And I was married before that too – but that didn’t work out so good.”

Steve Wold is a candid interviewee, pausing at times to consider the question before answering with absolute conviction – such as when he is asked if record companies have tried to direct his work in the past. “Oh yeah. They’ve never got successful at it. Maybe somehow underneath they’ve succeeded and I don’t know about it, but on the surface I don’t give a shit about what they want. That last record, before that (Man From Another Time), I didn’t have pressure from them because they didn’t know where I was. I didn’t tell them anything. The first time they heard the record, we rented Air studios in London, and the press got to hear it first, before the record company! So they had to sit out in the hallway, and wait til the press got to hear it. That record has some stress, but this one doesn’t.”

Much of the record is Steve and drummer/percussionist Dan Magnusson, but the title track and two others on the album feature John Paul Jones. “We was real drunk one night, me and Dan,” recalls Steve, “and we were going “Shit, we should have a bass on this song!” And we were sitting there and after five minutes he said “Man, let’s get the guy from Led Zeppelin, he’s a good bass player!” And I go “Hmmm, how do you do that?” But we did, and eventually he called back and said yes. That was funny. I never really talked to him since then, but he’s going to come and play festivals with me. He’s a nice fella.”

Jones also joined the pair for their most recent appearance on Later… with Jools Holland, which Steve credits with helping his rise from obscurity. “I love that, I’ve been on there about five times. I love that place, and they’re so nice to me – otherwise I never would have had nothing. And that’s a hundred percent.” It showed, too, how his music works in both small and large environments. “We can play down in the basement of a clothes store, and that’s a mystery, but I think the secret, now that I’ve got to play so many big festivals, is because when we play we play one hundred percent, whether it’s in a basement or a festival. I learned that busking, that if you don’t give it your all, then you don’t get any money, and you don’t get to eat. It’s a pretty basic deal, and I’ve carried that out to wherever I go. I’m gonna do the best I do, whenever I play, and I haven’t cancelled a gig yet!”

Has his story, the rise from living with little to no money to playing in front of thousands, inspired people? “People tell me that, young and old. I don’t know if it’s true or not, I think I was real lucky. I was playing the right thing at the right time, and people let me come through. I have no illusions about being a great guitar player, it’s not true!”

Is it that a lot of music is about timing? “It was with me.” He smiles again. “I’d been trying on and off for 50 years, and nothing ever happened, so with me it seemed like I had to have a heart attack and almost die, to be so poor we could hardly pay our rent, and then all of a sudden something happened! I don’t recommend that though, not the best way to go about it. I don’t think I’d like to go through that heart attack thing again, just to get famous, but if I hadn’t had it, I probably wouldn’t have listened to anybody, which I had to do to get on Jools Holland, so nothing would have happened anyway! It was almost like I had to be a bit fucked up – but now success is a good medicine!”

“Most of my music is an excuse to play, and the miracle is that there is anyone listening! That’s the wonderment.” – Seasick Steve

Do the songs still come to hand as readily as before? “I don’t have a problem writing songs. I get paid good money to do this now, but I don’t see it, I don’t walk around with piles of money in my pockets – I feel the same. There ain’t nothing I want, the only difference is being able to pay my bills, and that’s so recent that it ain’t hard for me to remember not being able to do that. I’ve been struggling all my life, so if it’s struggling songs I need, I’ve got a million!”

He proclaims himself to be in good health, despite the heart attack that nearly killed him. “I’ve been a lot better, I’ve been good. I take the medicine, take care of myself, I’ve got a couple of tubes in my heart. But you never know do you, I’m real happy to still be alive, to play a little bit and see my kids get older – and I’ve got some grandkids now. Can’t be bad.”

There is discrepancy on the internet as to his real age. Could it be that he is even 70 now? “After I had the heart attack I stopped thinking about that much,” he says, looking in to the middle distance. “My goal is if I just don’t talk about it then maybe I’ll live longer. I’m working hard, and go all over the place. If I stop playing I don’t have enough money to retire, as I don’t have a pension and would run out of money in a year or two. What the fuck am I supposed to do?” A brief pause. “But I like it too,” he says, softening again. “The thing is I understand now I’m more famous than I got money! I don’t have hits though, so I need to work. It’s really cool.”

So he still travels around the world – using rather different transport than the freight trains he used to ride in America. “I feel normal now,” he proclaims, “but that time I was bombing around was an awful long time ago. In the meantime I’ve raised five children. The thing that annoys me is when people think I was a hobo, and that I rode a train right on to the Jools Holland show. And yet what about the 35 years of being a dad? They weren’t so interesting!” Has it been special watching the family grow up? “They’re all grown up now, my eldest is 37 and the youngest is 22. That heart attack was six or seven years ago, so I’m really happy to have got to live to see the youngest grow up. I’m in the bonus gravy with my grandkids!”

There is another song on the album that looks once again at the dark side, however. Titled Back In The Doghouse, could it be another one about his marriage? He smiles again. “It’s not about my wife, it’s like there’s always troubles, you know? It don’t matter how – the super rich, they have troubles. Troubles is troubles, you know. There’s always a hard time, it’s like pimples or something. It’s when you’re in trouble, dog! And the song is an excuse to boogie. Most of my music is an excuse to play, and the miracle is that there is anyone listening! That’s the wonderment.”

And what of the dog on the record’s front cover? “Hopefully I’m going to know him. My wife found a picture for me, when I said I wanted a dog with a white muzzle. It turns out the dog lives in Portsmouth, so hopefully we’re going to go and meet him. He was abandoned on the highway when he was a baby, and was taken to the rescue shelter. This girl found him, about 12 years ago, and he’s almost 13 now. I like the way he looks. He don’t look mad or mean, he just looks neutral. He goes ‘maybe you’ll come this way?’, and that’s how I feel too.”

Seasick Steve’s You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks is out now through PIAS. He plays numerous European festivals this summer, including Latitude, Larmer Tree, Grassroots, Reading and Leeds.

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Seasick Steve: “I’ve been struggling all my life, so if it’s struggling songs I need, I’ve got a million” – Interview
Seasick Steve @ Royal Festival Hall, London