Itís New Yearís Eve 2006 and Jools Hollandís annual Hootenanny presents us with a slightly grizzled, drawly older American man on a beaten up guitar. This is the UKís first taste of Seasick Steve. His performance that night put him on the path to becoming the powerful live force that he and drummer Dan Magnusson have become today. The power of raw emotion, roughly sculpted into words and music, and conveyed with the minimum of complexity draws the listener in and captures them in his raspy world.
The effect was immediate. His album Dog House Music, recorded live in his living room and released a month earlier, began selling steadily, and he quickly became a fixture on the festival circuit. Since then he's sold out The Royal Albert Hall several times, and released 3 top 5 albums in the UK (one of which is now Platinum), with further chart successes around the world featuring hard-earned, homespun wisdom delivered via gritty boogies and reflective ballads.
But where had he been hiding all our lives? It seemed like Steve had simply appeared one day and as he told stories of his colourful past, we built up the image of the character we wanted him to be "It made it sound like I was living under a bridge just before I went on the Jools Holland programme, negating 30 or 40 years of my life raising children," he says. "Ever since then I've been trying to say, 'Hey, I was just a normal guy', y'know? Working normal jobs, just being a dad and a grandad."
But no matter where he came from, Steve is here to stay and his longevity and continued popularity keeps surprising him "After that Jools Holland show I thought, maybe I've got a job for a year or two, y'know? That was seven years ago, and I still play the biggest festivals in the world, and have just sold out the Albert Hall again: my thing has kept getting bigger and crazier, and that's interesting - I can't believe people are coming to see me, especially that young people want to see us do what we do. I did 22 big festivals last summer around the world. I just don't know how to get off the road. I would like to have a summer off, just mow the lawn or something!" he says.
But that's not going to be possible for a while, as Steve has a new album, Sonic Soul Surfer, ready for release and a sold out tour currently on the road, which saw him play to a captivated crowd at the O2 Guildhall last month and heíll be returning to us for Carfest South in August (Chris Evanís fantastic festival in Laverstoke Park).
Sonic Soul Surfer was recorded in his front room at the little farm where he lives "The whole record is just me and Dan [drummer Dan Magnusson] sitting there drinking and playing," says Steve. "There ain't a whole lot of producing going on! But I know what I'm doing, and I know what I want - to me, it's more like peeling the apple, trying to be as minimal as possible, yet give people their money's worth, that's how I feel about it: don't get too fancy, but try to make it listenable.Ē
"I got really good, old equipment - all the stuff I use is from the '50s and '60s, old valve equipment and tape machines. If you know how to use it, it's very easy to use. If I'm miking Dan's bass drum and I don't like how it sounds, I don't go fooling with the EQ, I go move the microphone till it sounds right.Ē Steve tells us "It's a real organic kinda process, it's how old records were made, and I don't know how to make a record any other way - I don't know how to use a computer, I don't know how to use auto-tune or whatever the fuck that is.Ē
As is Steve's wont, the album features a few new additions to his armoury of homemade instruments. Last time around, it was the hubcap guitar made out of 2 hubcaps from a 1930s Hudson car, a garden hoe, a rusty old barbecue spatula and his left over Christmas decorations. This time, the opening track 'Roy's Gang' features the rasping sound of a one-string washboard. "I fitted a banjo neck to a washboard and put one string on it," he explains. "It's a diddley-wash, or a wash-bow! I use a thimble on my finger, so I'm scratching that across the grated surface, and tapping with my thimble as I'm playing."
The broad range of styles and approaches undertaken on Sonic Soul Surfer finally disproves the notion that Seasick Steve is just a bluesman, pure and simple. "I'm an old country folkie from way back," he claims. "But back then, there weren't so many different categories, blues and country and folk were all sort of intertwined a bit more. I swear, till I came over to Europe, I never thought of myself as a blues musician. And no-one else ever told me I was one, either. Well, no-one told me I was anything, really. I never reflected on it much, because when no-one's asking what you do, you don't need to have an answer. You just play, and you don't think about what kind of music it is."
"Now, when I make a record, I try not to exclude things. I just want to put on it what I feel like. I don't think about what other people think I should do, 'cos I don't have time for that bullshit: if a country song can sit next to a blues song, next to a bluegrass or a rock song, they all gotta go together in one collage, 'cos I don't have enough time to make all them records separately!"
But thankfully, he did have time to make this one and itís a cracker. Take our word for it and if you get the chance, go spend some time with Seasick Steve.