Saturday 9 January 2010

Seasick Steve 2007 Interview

Ex-hobo, carnie and migrant worker Steve Wold, aka Seasick Steve, gets to the blues essence with his weathered voice and such homemade instruments as the three-string trance wonder. He caused a stir on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny (it’s a wonder the grey-bearded codger got past BBC security) and at Glastonbury Festival. The album, Doghouse Music, a stunning motley of raw riffs and wild regenerate/degenerate blues, sealed his reputation. The occasion is Seasick Steve's 2007 UK tour. Seasick Steve rings through from Wales after the interviewer failed attempt to reach him at the allotted hour. Dateline, 1 August, 2007.

SS: ... I’m sorry about that. I just had no idea the thing [mobile phone] didn’t work out here.

MB: That’s alright. These things happen. Nothing spoilt. Glad to have got you at last.

SS: This thing usually works everywhere I go, so I was a bit surprised.

MB: I’ve got a bunch of questions for you. Are you holidaying at the moment?

SS: I just played at Newcastle, so I drove down and now I’m going to play at the Big Chill. I just thought I’d take a couple of days off and go out, be out by the ocean, y’know.

MB: It sounds nice. Sounds lovely.

SS: Yeah, it’s really nice out here. So that’s what I’m doing. I’m working every weekend, you know.

MB: I’ll try not take up too much of your time. So tell me, is Seasick Steve a stage persona, like Tom Waits’ drunken lounge-lizard, or a real person?

SS: I don’t know nothing about that Tom Waits kid, but, er, I actually met him one time. I don’t know too much about him, but I just never really believed him. But I like that one record he made. He made a record called Nighthawks at the Diner.

MB: I remember that one, yeah.

SS: I believe he was living in LA then, and living pretty rough and sleazy. So I think that record was real, you know? According to me.

MB: What I’m asking, Tom Waits, at that particular time, had a stage persona of a lounge lizard and barfly, and his real life was blurring into it somewhat...

SS: My real life is... I’m just writing about what happened to me. That’s all I’m writing about, if that’s what you mean. Nowadays, I’ve had me five kids and I’ve been married to this one girl for 25 years, so I’m a little bit settled down now. Me and my wife have been married 25 years, and she tells me we’ve lived in 56 houses. That’s me being really settled down.

MB: So you did lead a hobo lifestyle?

SS: Yeah, for longer than a lot of people... Back in them days they didn’t have no word called homeless. That’s a modern word. I lived that way for a long time. I rode freight trains...

MB: Is it even physically possible to ride freight trains? Aren’t they so fast now?

SS: I know kids still ride them. They do go faster, but when I rode them, this was... I rode them for 14 years off and on. But I know kids ride them because they write me letters. They do it kinda like... I don’t know if there’s so many hobos so much left, because the work dried up that used to follow that kind of stuff, y’know. But I reckon, they tell me the kids, kinda like punk kids, ride the trains. And some people do it almost like a sport. That’s what they tell me.

MB: Jeez.

SS: You can still ride trains. I got on a train two years ago on my birthday. I wasn’t supposed to either, because I’ve had a heart attack and I’m not supposed to do things like that. So I didn’t tell my wife but she heard about it later, and she got mad at me.

MB: Does that lifestyle go with the music? All those old guys - the Blind Lemon Jeffersons and Blind Willie McTells - they were all vagrants too, weren’t they?

SS: Yeah that’s what I hear but I think that certainly during the Depression, it wasn’t too rare to be a vagrant. They were a few hundred thousand people wandering around and riding trains at one point. Y’know, I left home when I was really young so I didn’t think about it too much. It’s just something that happened. That’s the life I lived, and it was kinda outside of the normal... You could kinda hide out that way. The same like working in carnivals and things like that. It’s where all the convicts, and all the wrong kind of people work. That’s another place you could hide out, which I did too.

MB: So when you sing in Last Po’ Man that you’ve never met a rich man that you like, is that a reflection on your anti-social nature or your circle of friends?

SS: Well I think of it like a hopeful song. It’s just that I’d like to meet a rich man that I like. I’ve met some rich people and I’ve met a couple now, in the last few years, who have maybe got some money who are pretty alright, but in my experience, people who are rich think that they’re special. Everytime I scratch down a little bit deep on any of these rich people I ever met they’re not very nice. That’s just been my experience. I do believe there’s rich people out there who are probably nice, I’ve just never met them.

MB: How has your lifestyle changed from those old days, now that you’re a semi-respectable music professional?

SS: Ha ha ha ha ha! I don’t live under a bridge anymore. I don’t know man, I want to be a rich man that I like. I ain’t never had no pension or nothing like that, so this late-found earning ability here that’s going on is always good because I got a lot of pension making up to do. Most people my age, they’ve got a pension fund and things like that. I ain’t had a dime in a pension fund. Now I’m trying to work so I can get some money. I don’t know how long I can keep going for, y’know?

MB: Were you surprised at the reception of the album, and the concert tours?

SS: Yeah.

MB: You’re much talked about. You were the talk of Glastonbury Festival. People are still talking about the Hootenanny, Jools Holland thing.

SS: Yeah, they write me up all the time. They put me in these magazines, I don’t know what it’s called, The Sun, and the newspapers, and Mojo voted me Best New Artist, which was pretty funny to me.

MB: Are you someting real in an artificial business?

SS: I don’t know nothing about that. I just like earning some money, man. I don’t know nothing about that damned business. I just like... One thing that I remember though. I remember a long time ago, like back in the nineteen-sixties, all of a sudden the folk people thought the blues was popular and they drug up half-dead old Delta boys. That lasted for a whole couple of years. I ain’t black, but I certainly have been drug up. I ain’t holding my breath that this is going to last forever.

MB: Was that your formative period? I heard that you learned first-hand from those guys?

SS: That’s what people like to say. I think you learn first-hand from the school of hard knocks. I got to play with some of those people, but I think I got formed just living on the road for so many years and by hearing people tell stories more than anything. Storytelling, I think that’s what formed me. I mean the people who formed me, they’re dead. And they never was famous. They never got recorded. No-one ever knew who they was. I believe that’s the truth. I saw Fred McDowell play in the late sixties. i believe that stuck in my blood. Son House and things like that.

MB: Were they approachable?

SS: Sure. Fred asked me to play in his band. But I was too much of a bum.

MB: I detect a continuity. When Son House gets so deep into a groove that you’re unsure whether its performance or spirit possession...

SS: That boy was definitely possessed. But I believe... I knew him a little bit, and I believe some of these other boys, all of them, was like a little bit song-and-dance-men too, y’know? The idea was to make some money. Especially a long time ago when they’d be playing at picnics or barbecues and things like that. It was just to make a ruckus, and make a little money, y’know? Or playing on the street. Certainly that’s where I learned to make the most noise, playing on the street. I don’t know, when they drug up all these guys for all the white people to listen to back in the folk days, I don’t know what they was thinking.

MB: I imagine they were thinking just what you’re thinking, and just what you told me earlier.

SS: Make a little money before you drop over.

MB: Yeah.

SS: Or before the white people decide that that ain’t so popular anymore. Certainly if you were to catch one of them on a night when they weren’t trying to perform for white people then I think you would have found there was something spiritual going on. I believe that.

MB: So how are we going to rescue blues music from white guys in ponytails?

SS: That is something I believe needs to be done, but that’s only for the young people to do. Kids like the White Stripes, and the Black Keys. They doing that on they’re own without even hardly knowing it. I know in America now - people are telling me this - that a lot of the young kids are getting into bluegrass, and blues, but skipping over all the boring middle-aged shit and they’re getting back down into the hillbilly thing, or down into the Delta. They’re getting down into the roots of it. If there’s any rescue, that’s the rescue. I don’t know what happened there in the late sixties. The white people got into it and it was kinda good there for a while and all of a sudden it went horribly wrong.

MB: It seems to happen to most music. As soon as it becomes popular it slips into a formula. Look what they did to soul music.

SS: But you know the minute black people stopped being involved was when it really lost. This music comes from the black people, and then they didn’t want nothing to do with the blues. And the few that did, they just try to make some money playing for white people. They get so confused they don’t know what they’re doing anymore. You got Buddy Guy, and all them guys, imitating people imitating them.

MB: Do you subscribe to the RL Burnside method: you make it real by integrating a bit of punk rock and garage band music?

SS: RL had nothing to do with that. RL was just going along for the ride.

MB: I suspected as much.

SS: The thing with RL was, he always had these strange kids all around him all the time and he was up for a party. And then these kids, like the Jon Spencer people come, and dig him out too. It made me start playing again. I was playing with RL.

MB: There’s a direct connection, yeah?

SS: I opened some shows for him, after he started getting popular with Jon Spencer and the kids liked me, and I thought, ‘Aw shit, maybe I can play too’.

MB: What made you move to Norway?

SS: My wife is Norwegian, and she just got sick of being in America. That’s all that was about. She lived there with me for twenty years, and she didn’t want to live there no more.

MB: You don’t worry that it doesn’t remove you from your wellsprings of inspiration, perhaps?

SS: Ha ha ha! I think them wellsprings all dried up over out there in America pretty much. But the truth is, when I can I go down to Mississippi to see my friends, or go down to Tennessee every once in a while, maybe I soak it up a little bit. But there’s very little in music going on that I care too much about.

MB: Excellent. Well Steve, let’s leave it there.

SS: Oh. That wasn’t so painful...

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