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Seasick Steve is a name that has come totally out of left field over the last few years, following on from an amazing performance on Jools Holland's 'Hootenany' show in 2007. Steve brings with him an abundance amount of musical heritage following over 60 years travelling the world busking, performing as a session guitarist and playing hugely eccentric instruments. Like any true musician in this world he has the sense that music is all around us, from mop buckets to washboards and spoons, the legend himself tells us about the trials and tribulations of his life and the vindication of success.
You've modified some crazy instruments over the years, tell us a little bit about your first guitar, did you have a special bond to it at all?
That was a long time ago! I remember I was excited to get it, I think was only about 8 or 9 and it was just some cheap acoustic. But I was in love with guitars and the way they looked. When I was a little kid we used to go up to this camp up in the mountains when it was summer, they probably don't even have them anymore but these were really old-fashioned camps with these tents that were already up for you, almost like a miner's camp. There was a common area that had this stage where the people would put on skits, you know the different families from the area. One of the props up there was a guitar but it didn't have no strings on it and I used to just go up there to just sit and hold that guitar. I don't even know if I pretended to play it, probably did, I can't really remember. I couldn't believe how beautiful guitars looked, so when I finally got one I was so excited, it could have been any guitar really. I couldn't play at all so it probably wouldn't have mattered what it was too much, I was just a kid.
The main guitar you currently use 'The Three String Trance Wonder', we've heard tales that it is haunted?
I got that from a friend of mine in Mississippi, the BBC took me down there a couple of years ago we did a documentary, went down Tennessee and Mississippi around where I used to go hang out. We went and visited my buddy Sherman down there who I got the guitar from and that's when he said it was haunted. He's so crazy, he's an absoluted fruitcake in his brain, but he was serious about it, not in a bad way. He's got this barn that he's kind of fixed up, his great grandaddy was in the civil war so there's pictures of all these civil war guys, he's got all kinds of weird junk in there! That guitar used to hang on the wall after he bought it at a junk store. It's just a shit guitar I think it's japanese from the 60s, it's not even cool. He just buys junk. Anyway when I got back there he says "yeah man I forgot to tell you, we used to put that guitar on the wall and the next day it'd be all the way over there". Como where he lives is this tiny little town that has one street and he goes "there's 50 solid citizens who would tell you that guitar moves on its own". He's just so crazy, but he believed it, so maybe it is although I ain't ever felt no haunt in it.
What was it other than the ghost that led you to stick with it on your travels?
You know I never had any real intention of playing that guitar, I bought it as a joke. It was my wife that made me play it and this is before any Jools Holland or any of that stuff. One day when I was teasing a friend of mine, he's a guitar builder and he knew I had all these shit guitars so I was just bothering him with it because it only had three strings on it. That was the way it came, probably a little kid had that guitar, it's just some fucked up old thing. I was teasing him, so he goes "you can't play that" and I said "oh yeah I can" and I just started playing some little riff. Then when I walk in the house my wife says "that guitar's gonna make you famous". At that time I couldn't even get a job at a bar, there was no glimmer of fame that's gonna happen, it was literally like saying a flying saucer is gonna come get you tomorrow. There was no connection with reality. I had no intention of ever playing it, I just used to leave it in the corner, I don't even know why I got it as it was just extra baggage I had to carry. When I look back at it, it's just so odd, my friend Sherman can't believe what's come of that guitar. I don't know whether it's haunted but that guitar got mojo, some soul or something, I feel when I pick it up, there's something more than the three strings making you play different.
A big deal was made of the guitar when you appeared on Jools Holland, was it your choice to use the "three string trance wonder"?
When I went on the show I didn't even want to play that guitar, they are the ones, they forced me. I'd never heard of Jools Holland back then, but I had no intention of playing it back then either. They wanted me to play this 'Doghouse Boogie' track which I didn't really play - that guitar is the only one that I could do it on. So really if it would have been up to me I would have played something else and that would have been the end of my career. The only reason I listened to them guys was because I was tired, I wasn't totally well, life had kind of beaten me down to my knees; if I'd been my normal arrogant self I would have argued with them. But they talked me into it, now I get to do all this...
You have immense skills building and modifying instruments, what tips might you give someone looking to do the same?
Well I make them from scratch, I built this one guitar from two old hubcaps. Jack White gave me one from a Hudson Terraplane, these were the cars back in the 30s in 40s and then Robert Johnson wrote a song called 'Terraplane Blues', so Jack had collected the hubcap because he's an old blues fan. I didn't know what I was going to do with it, but then I found another one so I put to them together, got a garden hoe and cut it off and stuck it in the middle making a guitar out of it. I play that and it's got a beer can on one end... You know my thing about that stuff is it's kind of for fun, anyone can go out to buy a guitar. I was fooling with this stuff when no-one wanted to actually listen to me at all, mainly because it's a little bit hard to play these shitty instruments, so it makes me play different. I can play a normal guitar but my instruments have a unique sound; actually I don't know why I don't have any normal guitars. I never figured myself a guitar player so they're more like friends, it's hard to go out and buy a new friend so I stick with the ones I've got even if I don't like them that much. I mean I do like them, you know your friends can be uncomfortable but they're still your buddies.
On the subject of cars, do you still have your old Chevy '51 floating around?
Sure do, I drive it all the time. It's not fixed up, it's held together by rust! The engine runs good, it's my primary car, whilst my secondary car is a 1955 Cadillac. I haven't driven it very much but it's all beat up to. You know for me I don't like new cars, I've got a couple of tractors as I like fooling around with old stuff. They weren't old when I was young you see. I know they're trying to make cars more ecological these days and stuff but my son figured out that to build one of them electric eco cars makes more pollution in the building process than my '51 Chevy will ever create in the rest of my life. Maybe they don't create pollution when you drive them, but they make huge amounts when you build them, it's a little late in the game to get started and I don't like them - they don't have any soul. When you're in your early twenties that's when you make up your mind about a lot of stuff that's gonna stick with you the rest of your life. No matter how much the world changes around you, you've still got a fondness for what you enjoyed when you was "shaking the leg".
From the scene you come from the spoons are used, the washboard and so on, what is the most unusual makeshift instrument you've witnessed?
In my life, I was always fascinated by something called a "gut bucket", they play bass with it. We used to just take an aluminium washtub, you turn it upside down so it's got a flat top, then you take a broom handle and notch an edge, you get a piece of nylon clothes line and punch you a hole in the middle, run the clothes line through the middle, tie it to the top of the thing and as you put more tension on the string it changes the note. That was a real popper thing to do in old jug bands and stuff, these people could play it as good as a stand-up bass, hit every note. I always thought they were so strange as they literally made it out of nothing in an hour, maybe half an hour. I don't see those washtubs anymore, I think they still sell them in America but they aren't so easy to get here, although I did see someone playing one at a festival this summer somewhere.
You mentioned your success was a bit of a surprise, did you find it at all overwhelming or vindicating?
Both in a way because when you spend your while life being not successful, pretty much anything above zero is overwhelming. For me to be able to have this huge success and to play to hundreds of thousands of people when six years ago I couldn't play for nobody is extremely overwhelming. Vindicating, it's a little bit more in the sense that it would have been a bit of a drag to have died from my heart attack a few years back and had so little. Me and my wife and family we've been poor pretty much the whole time I've been alive, but I've been plucking at this guitar that whole time, never really getting anything going. That would have been alright but I think for my wife, she's stuck with me through all this and it's such a weird deal to get this success so late in my life. It don't happen to nobody, almost never, we tried to sit around one day to think of anyone this has happened to. There are people that have been famous before only to come back so it's just weird. For her she's so happy for me that something has come of all of it.
As someone clearly infected with the travel bug, how has it been settling down?
That's a big problem for me actually, we've been married 30 years, now we are at 62 houses. A lot of them are very brief. I've been doing better but I don't feel I have a home nowhere, I don't even want to keep moving around anymore. It's like I don't want to go wandering around but I just can't help it, it's what I've been doing since I was a kid so it's in my blood. But it ain't that fun, when you get older it's a lot rougher. If I could find a place that I felt at home which is probably never I would love to stop moving about.
I'd imagine the touring helps, how did you find the festival season this year?
I did 18 festivals this year! I played all of them V Festival, Reading Leeds, Latitude, Glastonbury and all around Europe. Also this year I did The Isle Of Wight Festival which is huge. John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin, he's being coming and playing with us at most of the festivals this summer, that's been really funny. I keep thinking to myself "oh there's the dude from Led Zeppellin, what's he doing up here!" I never thought he'd want to play with me. He's the nicest guy I've ever met, not one iota of "I'm so cool" - you would never know he was in that band.
Following all the UK success how has "You Can't Teach An Old Dog New Tricks" been received in America?
I don't know actually as I haven't really talked to the guys over at 'Third Man' that much lately but they're kind of a small deal. They've mainly been a warehouse putting out singles, they've only just broken into album territory recently, funnily enough with my record. Even Jack's records don't go through there, they go through Warner or CBS so it's mainly been a singles club. Them putting albums out is a bit of a new deal, although I don't have a lot of interest in going to America so I don't go over there to promote or nothing. I was over there in March, went back and did four shows kind of just for fun, then me my drummer went out and busked round San Francisco. That was the most fun I had throughout the whole thing because I used to live round there in 1966. I think the last time I had busked there was in '67 when I made 89 dollars in 35 minutes. The funny thing is a lot of American people don't know who I am so we were just sitting in a doorway playing. But then some European people would come along, see me sitting on the ground and they'd say "hey! I got tickets to see you at Reading, are you alright!" - they'd thought I'd happened on hard times. A lot of people they'd go "do you need help to get back" and I said "man, we just busking". It was a sunny day and we had nothing to do, I've busked a lot in my life so I still go do it sometimes.
What do you think of London's tradition of buskers on the tube?
Well, I used to come here to busk back in the early 70s, but now you get a little badge and a place to stand, it's a little weird. I guess it's okay as they allow them to do it because you used to get moved along. But it seems a little bit less wild, you have to go audition I think? If they like you they give you a badge, it's almost like you're going to a record company asking "do you like me?". Busking for me is standing anywhere, if people like you they give you money, if they don't they don't, you don't need someone telling you your good enough. I don't think they should stop as some people need it, that's how they make their money.
Lastly do you think you can teach an old dog new tricks?
The thing that I do, the reason people like it must be because of what I'm doing, not because of what I ain't doing. In other words if it ain't broke don't fix it. I just go out there and do what I do, I think people will let me know when they are tired of me. Then I'll just go home! I try to learn all the time but the fundamental thing about what I do and myself is that I'm an old guy now and I'm happy with the deal I've got. Like you said, in a kind of funny way it's been shown to me that from the reactions of the people all around that I'm doing alright.
Tags: Seasick Steve
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