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Seasick Steve Interview
March 2006. Words Rick Webb. Photos Andy Hall

Hear clips and download MP3s below, or buy the new CD...

Kicked out of his family home at the age of 14, Steve became a genuine hobo, hopping freights all over America. Always travelling with his guitar - having been taught a few chords as a kid by Delta bluesman KC Douglas, an old pal of the legendary Tommy Johnson - in the '60s he began to play at clubs on the West Coast and supported Son House amongst others.

He played with Lightnin' Hopkins for a while and Freddie King too. After years as a session-man and producer in the Seatle area where he had studio, recording the likes of Modest Mouse and Bikini Kill, his blues career was re-activated in the '90s when he noticed that grunge kids loved his slide-playing.

He's played with all the Fat Possum types, and on re-location to Norway hooked up with the Level Devils, recording the mighty album, 'Cheap' in 2004. There's a new solo album due out soon too.

Long time fan and Resonance 104.4 FM DJ Joe Cushley describes him as "One of the most charismatic performers you’ll ever see. His voice is a mixture of gravel and molasses – a part hobo shout, part soul scream, part blues howl… and he can do spingle-tinglingly quiet as well."

We met up before a show at the 12 Bar Club in Denmark Street for a beer a chat...

Bil: You say on your website that you've recorded the new album - Doghouse Music - using only one track...?

Steve: You know, for me that's all I wanna do anymore and if people don't want to hear it then whatever. I just can't do the other thing no more. Everybody else is making all kinds of fancy records so that area's covered. There's not too many people just sitting with a guitar and making a record.

I got a 4 track... I'm using one old microphone from the 1930's. I got one of them old stove's that's always warm, kinda like and Aga, and I just sit there and open the stove up and I have coffee on there and I sat right there and recorded a whole album like that. Except for when my boy played some drums in the other room! I played the spoons on one song too.

Bil: Is there an American tradition of spoons?

Steve: Oh yeah! Cowboy music had a lot of spoons. A lot of the old hobo's too, especially during the depression, but after that too. You try to make some money on the street corners and some of them guys, what they'd do is tap dance - one would play spoons and one would tap dance, sort of like a Mr. Bojangles kind of thing, but real ones.

Bil: I read something you said about your strongest musical memories/influences were just fleeting moments with people you'd meet when on the road?

Seasick: Well, you had these things called jungles, where the people would make a fire and sleep and they could be by a bridge or outside of town and there's nothing else to do except tell stories - all of it was lies! - and then play a little bit.

Bil: Nowadays it feels feels like music is something that 'they' do - the stars, but it feels like with what you're doing it's important that we remember it should be about 'us', something that 'we're' doing... Is that something that motivates you?

Steve: I'm motivated by money! I wanna be one of the stars! Man you know I aint got that much. You get kinda older you think... I was playing with R.L. Burnside up in Seattle - he got playing with the Jon Spencer thing and all of a sudden there's all these young people coming - I remember R.L. talking one time and he said "I like that boy, but he don't play the blues..." I said "Shut up R.L., he's taking you out on the road!"

But anyway, we played this big show in Seattle for like thousands of people and after I got done playing - I was playing a slide - all these kids come up to me and they were like 'What's that thing on your finger?" and it really hit me that they'd only really heard one kind of music - grunge or whatever, they didn't know nothing! They said "what kind of music is that you're playing?" I said, "We'll we're playing kinda boogie blues" and they go "We don't like blues... But we like that!" and it kind of hit me.

I know people didn't like blues, and I know pretty much why - it's all those guys in bars, all these guys, playing for other guys... So The Blues deserves everything it got as far as that white shit's concerned. And the black guys were doing the same thing - they're playing copies of what they think the white people want to hear - the whole thing has gone wrong.

The Fat Possum thing, you know, that was kinda like important in that young people get into it and then the White Stripes and people like that start to make it and people think 'Ah! There's a little something else going on down there". So that made me go out and start playing again. I don't think I would have done otherwise. Before that no-one wanted to hear it. Every time I started to play no-one was interested.



 
 

 

Bil: What made you get into it in the first place?

Steve: Well my grandfather had a car place in Oakland and during the war there was a big migration from Mississippi and Texas and Louisiana to Oakland to work in the shipyards or whatever, so there was lost of guys around at that time - Pee Wee Crayton, he worked in my gramps shop! And my Dad played a boogie piano - he was a big boogie player, which was kinda rare for a white guy then. He played it before the war - I got 78's of him playing boogie in 1936 that I found when he died - so he was all over that shit.

Funny thing was though he didn't like black people! Well he did like 'em, sort of - he wanted to be a racist, but he was so nice it just didn't wash! If he was talking he'd say things like 'Them damn niggers' but then he'd hire them, and play music with them - he sent me to one, this old KC Douglas boy... KC he'd talk about Tommy Johnson because they were buddies and they used to play down in Mississippi and he told me all these stories and taught me how to play the guitar a little bit.

I was 8 or 9 years old then, playing the guitar. My dad tried to teach me the boogie but I couldn't get my fingers apart... At the time I just thought guitars were something! Anyway, K.C told me all them stories and got me all jacked up about the Delta, but it didn't sink in for a long time...

Bil: So you started getting into your playing, but how did it develop... Were you doing what all the British guys in the 60's were doing - listening to records and studying the styles...?

Steve: I didn't have no records. I had to leave my home so I never had a chance to have no records for years. I was on the road, so I had what I learnt from my dad and from KC and then I just was traveling for years - working on farms and things, so I knew music was going on, I'd hear the radio, but I didn't have no record player - I had nowhere to live.

Of course, later I got records, but by then I was, in a weird way, so influenced, having lived down in Memphis, and Mississippi and Tennessee and hearing this music and when later, in the 60's when all the rock started coming I wanted to listen to all that shit!

Bil: That was in San Francisco in the 60's... Where you 'Loving In' then?

Steve:
Well I was sort of lovin' in... I didn't totally understand what was going on there at the time, but there was lots of free places to sleep and lots of girls, and it was real nice! I really liked it. But I just happened to come back to San Francisco at that time without knowing something was going on. I'd heard you could go over to this place Haight Ashbury - I didn't know exactly what they was doing, but they had free food, and love and everything, so it was all good! I had a great time...

But when I heard those bands like The Steve Miller Blues Band, or The Santana Blues Band, or The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, I really liked them, but that wasn't the blues for me... I'd grown up with blues since I could remember and they were all different. So I came backwards, I very much wanted to do all that stuff, but I got gigs playing the blues because I could play it, like in the folky kind of way, and not many people could do it that way then. But that didn't last very long - I got real unpopular... I didn't have no job!

 


Bil: Listening to your stuff, it feels like that you've got a lot of the old styles, but unlike say those 60's blues-rockers who got it through studying it, you've got it instinctively...

Steve: Well I only can play instinctively - I don't got all that fancy stuff. But I'll tell you one thing that I learnt... For me the story was always the important thing, or the entertainer thing - I was a song and dance man! This playing the guitar fancy, that don't help you on the street. You gotta make like a song and dance and be loud and shit. All the boys that I ever talked to, the guitar was real secondary.

But all the modern people, like in the 60's, they wanted to see how good they could get at the guitar, and they just would sing blues or whatever to accompany themselves playing 'sports' guitar. And that was all good, but it just wasn't how I learned. I learned storytelling, and the guitar was just a thing to keep it going, to keep people from walking away!

So I just learnt from the backwards way, it just turned out that now I can see that was in some ways real good, but at that time it didn't seem that good - I wished I could play all the sports guitar! I mean I can play the guitar, but I couldn't get going like all them people could, but I could sit down and play acoustic guitar, and the way I played it was like nobody else back then could.

Bil: So you stayed out there in California?

Steve: No, I left in 1972, and moved to France. Everything had gone down the shitter and I didn't have nowhere to go and I saw this charter flight for $100 to Pars, and I had $110. So I landed over there with 10 bucks. I got to that Charles De Gaulle airport and a fella gave me a ride right to that Left Bank thing where all the people were and I just started playing outside on the street, doing the same thing I'd done years before.

So I lived over there, wandering around doing that kind of stuff, because I thought that was real fun. And then in the 80's I lived in England for a little bit - I liked all them modern bands they were having back then. I lived near Kew gardens for a little bit, then we went to live up Skelmersdale (Lancashire) for a while.

I'd learnt how to do music engineering in the late 60's, being a technician or coffee maker or whatever in a studio, so could fall back on that kind of a job. I started buying pieces of equipment so I could build my own studio some day. Then we moved to Tennessee again, making some recordings there, but I got sick of being there so my wife said 'Let's go out to Seattle.' She's from Norway and I'd told here that it kinda looked like Norway there in the North West and she wanted to move out there.

We moved there, blind - we literally just looked on the map and picked this town 60 miles South of Seattle - Olympia. We show up in that town and it turns out to be just the beginning of the punk rock grunge thing. That's in the early 90's. So then I brought my studio out there and set it up in the back of a music store and started recording all these punk bands.

The first week I was there I went and saw Nirvana play, in a bar. They were great, unbelievable. I walked in and I went 'This is the shit, man!' They just wondered who the hell I was... I was the only old person there and I'm saying "You guys are rockin'!" They were all suspicious of me! They had that drummer guy, the new one, Dave Grohl. Everybody in Olympia was a drummer in Nirvana for a while! Kurt (Cobain) lived upstairs from me for a while. He lived all over Olympia. People say he was from Seattle, he was from Olympia. He knew what this thing was about... He just was making the kind of music that he wanted to make, but I think he had a pretty good background musically.

He was a nice boy... I would have killed myself too if I was married to that chick he had (Courtney Love)! She was ugly, and she was nasty as can be man... We was at the Capitol Theatre (Olympia) one time and Cathleen Hannah from Bikini Kill was up on stage and Courtney walked up and hit her in the mouth! Cathleen'd told her that she had given kurt a blow-job or something like that!

But I was sorry about him - I saw him at the airport like about a week before and I was talking to him and she come up and just took him away, right in the middle of the conversation - said 'Come on! You don't wanna be talking to him'. Then he was dead...

 

 

Bil: Where are you living now?

Steve: We in Norway now, but I don't want to be in Norway. It's cold man!

Bil: And the future is traveling around Europe doing gigs?

Steve: Yeah, if people want me to. A bunch of people have called me, some festivals and things. People are calling me - I'm an oddity! It's either gonna work or it aint gonna work you know, but I aint gonna do nothing different. This is what I can do and if people want to hear it great, I'm ready to play. If they don't want to hear it I'll go play for my damn dog! That dog like me to play... My dog'll sit there and look at me all sweet eyes and just love me to play, but it's gettin' old too!

People seem to like it when I play though, and that's good. Everywhere I go people come up to me and tell me that they are so tired of listening to whatever it is they're listening to and what I do sounds so different that they like it.

Bil: So would you say 'The Blues' is in good shape right now?

Steve: Well I don't know about 'The Blues' because people interpret that the wrong way... People playing 'The Blues' is what wrecked it. I don't blame anybody, but it just got so boring, so the only people who I look to now is all these young bands who are messing it up and deranging it, giving it a new life. All the people sitting in Chicago and places like that, they hate that shit, but they're all gonna die - no-one gives a shit about them no more. They 'aint doing nothing. It's the new people's time. That other stuff, who's interested in it? Just a bunch of middle aged guys...

So the young people have to pick it up, and they have to mess with it or else it 'aint got no chance to keep re-birthing itself. Things are healthy in the sense that there's young people jumping over all that boring shit and going right back down into the delta or the hill country. Like them Black Keys boys, stuff like that, they're listening to the old stuff, they're trying anyway to re-interpret that Charlie Patton and everything, and they love all that old hill stomp.

Even the White Stripes, putting that Son House tune on there (Death Letter) - so many people must have gone "Who the hell's Son House?"

Bil: But you're just doing it because you love doing it?

Steve: Oh yeah. I dunno, my wife would get tired of me sittin' around the house. I don't do nothing else no more. If I don't go out an play then I'm just gonna sit on the rockin' chair at home and play. They don't mind me doing that but I'm like a lamp or something, I'm just a feature in that house. My kids just walk by... "Oh that's just my dad over there playing." I'm like a lava lamp!

Buy the CD's here:
The new one... The last one... The EP...
   
The first one, with the Level Devils...    

Links:
Our review of Steve's 'Doghouse Music' CD >>
Official site: www.seasicksteve.com >>
Steve's MySpace >>
Wikipedia page >>
You Tube: Jools Holland NYE 2006 show >>
Indepenedent Newspaper interview >>
Fansite forum: www.hobo-low.com >>


Buy our t-shirt tribute here >>

More photos:
www.andyhallphoto.com