SEASICK STEVE interview by IAN JOHNSTON
A recent conversation with the venerable white country blues singer/songwriter Seasick Steve, talking about his magnificent new LP, You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks.
I think the first time I saw you perform was at the Electric Ballroom in Camden Town”Â¦.
Seasick Steve: “That’s where I’m playing now again (Thursday, 26th May) . Haven’t played there in four years, or something.
It’s in aid of the homeless, is that correct (full details below)?
Seasick Steve: “Yeah, it’s a benefit for The Connection at St Martin’s, a day centre.”Â
That’s obviously an issue you feel strongly about?
Seasick Steve: “I’m really happy to do it. I lived rough a long time ago, but I didn’t think of myself as homeless. I just kinda wandered around. I don’t feel like I ever lived in a doorway, you know what I mean? I think some hard circumstances put these people here. Some kind of hard circumstances put me out there too, but it was a different time and that word (homeless) didn’t even exist. The people who are really stuck on the street out here, as recently as a couple of years ago, because they lost their house and shit like that, jobs. Even though I really wanted to do this, I don’t feel like I was a homeless person so I relate so well. It’s more that I have a lot of feeling for these people who end up there some way and everyone has got a reason why they’re out there. For some people it’s because things fell apart real quick. Some people can’t face the normal day to day. Which ever way you slice and dice it, it’s hard living out on the street. If there is any comfort that this organization (Streets Of London) can give, while they are trying to figure out”Â¦ If you want to get off the street, you’ve, first of all, got to want to get off it. In the meantime, people can give you some help. I hope playing will bring a little bit of attention and they will donate some money to the people to whom it will make some difference.”Â
I love the sound of your new album You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks. Did it actually take long to record and how did you managed to capture that sense of urgency in the recording?
Seasick Steve: “Because we did it urgently (Laughs). I didn’t pay more attention particularly. I just set the gear up in a house and me and Dan (Magnusson, drummer} stood around and had a bottle of wine and started rockin’ and if it sounded good, I punched the tape recorder on. So it was pretty fuckin’ urgent in that sense (Laughs). There was no fooling around. On the drum songs, we just bashed through them. Our main goal was how to end the songs.”Â
The drums sound fantastic”Â¦
Seasick Steve: “The drums were in the front room. The guy who mixed it is real good; he’s my friend Vance (Powell) down in Nashville. He’s real good at that shit, I’m a little bit deaf now, but he’s real good. But I recorded it, I know I recorded it all right but he’s so good in the ears that he was able to put everything where it belongs. We don’t use no computers or any shit like that. We mix it on a tape; it’s all for real. We just record it and play it. We don’t have twenty takes to listen too; we have one take to listen too. If that take ain’t no good, then do it again.’
Seasick Steve: “No, we did overdubs. We really only overdub”Â¦ Well, most songs only have guitar and drums. So, we do that, because it was in a small room, in the house there, and after we’re done with the drums and shit like that and then I’d go sing it. I did a lot of live singing but not with the drums, because all you’d hear is the drums and the vocal. I just sat and sang playing the guitar at the same time.”Â
You’re back on an independent label (Play It Again Sam) after being on a major”Â¦
Seasick Steve: “Hallelujah!”Â
(Laughs) How is that working out?
Seasick Steve: “Well, we just got going here so I hope it’s going to be good. And everyone is really nice. I don’t know, it’s so much more relaxed! But also when I made that record (You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks) I was with no record company. So, that’s maybe why”Â¦ I had no one calling me on the phone, no one anything. That was obviously different for me.”Â
I remember there was a TV advertisement for the last album (Man From Another Time, 2009), so you had that behind you, but was it that you couldn’t get to speak to anybody, if you ever needed to speak to anybody, because the organization is so big?
Seasick Steve: “People just get fired all the time. Like with that I Started Out with Nothin and I Still Got Most of it Left record (2008), the week my record come out everyone who had had anything to do with signing me was fired, even the head of the company, the week my record come out. The MD, the head of A&R, all of ”Ëum, fired (Chuckles). There wasn’t anyone to talk to there anyway. Still the record did good. That whole major record company is a tough thing, man. There are people living in fear, you know. The people here, as far as I’ve been able to tell, are here for a whole lot of way different reasons: like kind of like loving’ music. A novel idea.”Â
Former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones makes very spirited musical contributions to the record. How did that come about, working with him?
Seasick Steve: “Well, you just kind of thought,’Hey, be kind of funny to have some bass on some songs.’ It was really like that, I didn’t know how to get hold of him or anything. So Dan said, ”ËWhy don’t we just get the guy from Led Zeppelin?’ (Laughs). Easier said than done, you know, and why would he want to play with us? That was the other question. He played last night with us on TV.”Â
Seasick Steve: “Jools Holland. Damn, it was good.”Â
I missed it; I’ll watch it on the BBC i-Player.
Seasick Steve: “He played with us (John Paul Jones). It was rockin’. The longer show is going to be on again on Friday. We did two songs for that one and then talked to Jools. Anyway, we didn’t call him up; we called someone who we found out works with him. I just left a message. And he called me. I said, ”ËI don’t mean to bug ya, but, you know, you want to play?’ He just said, ”ËYep.’”Â
You all sound really fired up on the tracks where you are working with him, the title track and ”ËBack In The Doghouse’. How do you prepare to deliver that kind of vocal? It must be difficult going in cold to perform a number like that”Â¦
Seasick Steve: “Well, I was actually kind of sick when I sang that song. I lost my voice, kind of. So when I sang, ”ËTricks’ anyway, I just sang it, thinking that wasn’t the right one but at least we need to have a vocal on there, just so we could see where we was. That ended up being the vocal. Never did go fix it. I was still hoarse and I figured that it ain’t gonna get no better, so I may as well leave that one. I didn’t actually think that I had sung the song yet. I thought I had to go sing it when I got better. But I listened to it with my wife and she said, ”ËIt’s fine, just leave it the way it is.’ So that was kind of the demo part. So I certainly didn’t prepare, I didn’t even know that I was singing the vocal.”Â
I really like the opening song ”ËTreasures’. I think that if Johnny Cash was still alive the chances are that he would have recorded a cover of it.
Seasick Steve: “Well that is a serious compliment. I appreciate that.”Â
I was just wondering if that had been at the back of your mind, that type of Cash song?
Seasick Steve: “I don’t even know where that song comes from, you know? I thought about Johnny Cash, funny enough, but not on that song. I thought about him when I was singing that song, ”ËIt’s A Long Long Way’ (closing track on You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks). I don’t know why, but I did. But I did that ”ËTreasures’ song all by myself. I was just kind of sitting, late at night, and I had to wait until all the traffic went by, because it’s so quiet, the song. I just sat down and played it. That’s the way it come out. Then we overdubbed the girl (Georgina Leach) playing the violin but she wasn’t there, you know, I had to go find this girl. She played real pretty. The vocal on the guitar is totally live, I just sat there and played it.”Â
Where was the house where all this was recorded? In the UK? America?
Seasick Steve: “Well, I live in Norway, so it weren’t no America. We mixed some of it in America, cos I went out there to record with Jack White.”Â
Because you are on his Third Man label in America for You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks, right?
Seasick Steve: “Yeah. We are doing a single (a 7”Â featuring two Mississippi Fred McDowell covers, ”ËWrite Me A Few More Lines’ backed with ”ËLevee Camp Blues’), that’s going to come out real soon too. He’s real good; he’s a good drummer, goddamn. I’m gonna fire my drummer (Laughs).”Â
Nice. ”ËDon’t Know Why She Love Me But She Do’ perhaps carries echoes of someone like John Lee Hooker and the Cigar Box Guitar pictured on the sleeve”Â¦
Seasick Steve: “That’s what we played last night. So, if you see it on that Internet thing, that’s the song we played.”Â
That guitar looks incredible; there has to be some story behind that instrument?
Seasick Steve: “Well, the actual Cigar Box didn’t quite look like that, I put the electronics on it and everything. But it’s just an old pickup from an old guitar; it ain’t nothing fancy or nothin’. I was playing down in Australia, we were playing in a kind of bar, no, it was a club and the bar was in another room. Before the gig, like maybe an hour or two before the gig, this young fella come in. he’s go this cigar box and a jar of moonshine, and he walks up to me and gives me this clear moonshine and this cigar box. Then he turns around and walks out again. A lot of people give me weird instruments like that, so I didn’t think much about it, but I took the moonshine and that thing into the dressing room and started to play it a little bit. I thought, ”ËThis sounds kind of alright.’ I had to fix it a little bit, but I’ve been playing it ever since and that’s how I got it.”Â
What about the 3-string Trance Wonder guitar?
Seasick Steve: “Oh no, man. I’ve told that story so many times I don’t know if I can hardly spit that story out again. That was give to me by my friend Sherman in Mississippi.”Â
Yes, sorry, I remember now, you told that story when I saw you live four years ago”Â¦
Seasick Steve: “Remember that now? It almost doesn’t work anymore. But that was the guitar that I played the first time I was on Jools’ TV show. That’s what got me going.”Â
It’s amazing that such a dilapidated piece of equipment should launch a highly successful international career”Â¦
Seasick Steve: (Laughs) Well, they are all quite dilapidated, I can tell you that, man. And also, last night, I played the one that’s made out of two hubcaps put together (the Morris Minor Guitar). That one struggled a bit last night. That’s on ”ËTricks’. It’s pretty rough to play it. “
The picture of the doleful dog on the cover of the LP is wonderful. How did you come across that?
Seasick Steve: “We wanted a picture of a dog, or at least I thought I did, that looked a little bit like me; how I felt, anyway. My wife was looking on the Internet at some place were you can see loads of pictures of dogs and she found this picture of the dog. I think it was on that Facebook thing, I don’t know where she found this picture, but I went, ”ËOh, I like that picture.’ And so somehow we were able to find the person who took that picture and it turned out that they lived in England. So I called up the girl who took it and said, ”ËI love the picture of your dog. I was wondering if I could use it for the cover of my album. Can I use it?’ And she said, ”ËSure.’ A pretty simple deal. I just love the way he’s looking: he’s not mad, he’s not anything, he’s just neutral.”Â
The look of a survivor. He’s seen a lot.
Seasick Steve: “Yeah. He’s like 12 or 13 years old. That’s pretty old for a dog. Apparently, he was waiting for her to throw him something. That’s his look, you know. But I thought that’s kinda how I feel. She was really cool that she let us use it.”Â
You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks is a very musically diverse album. There’s a bit of Delta blues influence on ”ËHave Mercy On The Lonely’, there’s a bit of country on ”ËUnderneath A Blue And Cloudless Sky’. These are the touchstones of your music, right?
Seasick Steve: “I like all of them, you know. I love country music and everything, hillbilly music and stuff. I don’t really think much about any of the records I make: whatever is in my mind goes on the record. After Dan left, having played the drums on the record, I found I wanted to put some kind of quiet ones down. I just started remembering some songs I had, so it was really kind of haphazard. When we got the songs together, my wife, she made the order. I’m no good at making no orders. But I like the order, the way it feels, a little bit of bluegrass or country, a little bit of crazy music, a bit of rock ”Ën’ roll”Â¦ It feels good to be a like a good mishmash. I guess we’ll find out if people like it or not later on.”Â
It flows very well. You put it on and you listen to it until the end.
Seasick Steve: “I’m glad about that, cos we ain’t had a whole lot of feedback on it yet. I was just over in Europe doing a three or four countries promo tour and did twenty something interviews. The interviewers over there were saying the same sort of thing. So, that’s a start, anyway.”Â
What’s next for you?
Seasick Steve: “We are playing a lot of summer festivals, beginning here and then over in Europe. I got a few little TV things to do, then we are going to try and go on our own tour in October or November, something like that. We will be playing in England again, a proper tour. Then more dates in Germany, France, stuff like that.”Â
On the I Started Out with Nothin and I Still Got Most of it Left album I really enjoyed the song you did with Grinderman, ”ËJust Like A King’, and the show you performed with them in 2007 at the Forum, in Kentish Town.
Seasick Steve: “I really like their band. That band kinda light me up when I go see them play. I really think they are amazing. These guys, who ain’t no kids, and they get up there and just tear it up. They go crazy, I love it. They are actually one of my favourite bands to go see.”Â
Thank you very much indeed for your time, Steve.
Seasick Steve: “And thank you. I appreciate your writing the kind words and taking some interest. It’s all good, it’s all good, my brother.”Â
Seasick Steve will headline this year’s Streets of London Concert for Homelessness, at London’s Camden Electric Ballroom on Thursday 26th May. Tickets ÃÂ£22.50 from Ticketmaster, Ticketweb, Seetickets, Stargreen. All proceeds from the night will go to The Connection at St Martin’s, a day centre near Trafalgar Square that provides specialist support to more than 200 homeless people each day.
”Â¨Streets of London Concerts for Homelessness ”â raising awareness about homelessness and raising funds for front-line services with some great live music!”Â¨www.streetsoflondon.org.uk
Seasick Steve’s new album You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks is released on 30th May.
copyright Ian Johnston 2011