Blues brother: Seasick Steve rides the wave of sudden fame

He went from hobo to hero almost overnight, and now he's the toast of the festival circuit. Tim Walker catches up with Seasick Steve and hears the story of his incredible journey
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The Independent Culture

He strokes and tugs at his grizzled beard incessantly – so at least the facial hair is real, because the rest of him seems almost too good to be true. Tattoos on show, fondling a double Jack Daniel's, with his three-stringed "Trance Wonder" guitar across his lap, he looks like a character from a made-up blues lyric. But Steve Wold, otherwise known as Seasick Steve (so called, he says, "because it's just true: I always get seasick"), is the genuine article – and that is undoubtedly his appeal. In an industry where image is everything – and where bands are forever tweaking their backstories to appear richer, poorer, younger, cooler, sexier, lazier, luckier – authenticity like his can't be bought.

The toast of the festival circuit for the second summer in a row, Wold seems utterly bemused by the success that finally arrived overnight, after 66 years, with the release of his debut solo LP, Dog House Music, in 2006. "Maybe it's because my stuff isn't so fancy," he suggests. "I like music if I feel like the people mean it, whatever it is. Maybe things got so fancy with the internet and bands being so overproduced, that I came up on the Jools Holland show banging on the ground and yellin', and people went 'Oh!' It's like a relief valve."

That fateful appearance on Jools Holland's Hootenanny, on the last night of 2006, was the moment when Wold first entered the wider pop consciousness, but the way he tells it, it almost didn't happen at all. "We were at the St Aloysius social club [in north London] to play a gig," he explains, "and the BBC called and said they wanted to hear me play, but they couldn't come to the gig, only to the soundcheck." Having first confused one of the show's producers for a taxi driver, he sat down to play them the song they demanded – and which he hadn't practised. "I played the song and thought, 'This isn't going too good.' At the end I wanted to get some feedback from the guitar, but instead I managed to throw the guitar over the amp, off the stage and down to the ground. It was only the two producers sitting there in the empty room, on folding chairs. They didn't say much, and I thought, 'That's the end of that'. But they called that night and said, 'We gotta have him on the Hootenanny.'"

Watch footage of Seasick Steve



His subsequent television performance was electrifying. Alone in the spotlight with his "band" – the Trance Wonder (a beat-up guitar with just three surviving strings) and the Mississippi Drum Machine (a wooden box to bang his foot on) – he performed the blues-punk memoir "Dog House Boogie" to a rapt crowd that included Paul Weller, Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse. Wold upstaged the lot of them. "I thought I played real bad that night. I couldn't hear much through the monitors, and I couldn't see anybody because of the lights. I just tried to get to the end of the song. Only when I got done did I hear the clapping. All these people ran up to me and said, 'That was brilliant!' And I went, 'It was?' It sounded like shit to me."

In "Dog House Boogie", Wold tells the tough tale of his young life. At 13, he left his home in Oakland, California, to escape an abusive stepfather, becoming an itinerant labourer – a hobo – who rode freight trains to follow the sun, finding work and shelter where he could along the way. His stories are almost as celebrated as his songs, and this romantic slice of Americana is perhaps the best of them, but it is, he insists, the "G-rated [PG] version" of events, which involved constant hardship and at least one jail spell. "It was a struggle, boy. It was real rough. I had some good times, but my brain don't wanna think too hard on it. Most of the hard, hard times was a long time ago."

Such is the fascination with Wold's history, however, that it has become the foundation of his public image. "Somehow people got the impression I just crawled out from under a bridge, or that I was riding a freight train last month. For me, that life ended in the early Seventies. I've had normal jobs since then, been a carpenter, sold shoes, anything."

That said, Wold's life remained a succession of fascinating episodes. He visited Europe once he could afford the airfares, busking in Parisian Metro stations, dodging bullets in Spain, lodging in south London. And he has found himself, almost inadvertently, at the epicentre of more than one musical movement. During the Sixties, he spent time in San Francisco, enjoying the communal living arrangements of the Haight-Ashbury set, and the opportunities it afforded him to play concerts alongside some of the period's best-known bluesmen.

In the Seventies, he recalls, he "went to see Chris Hillman [of The Byrds] play Christian country music at the Waldorf Hotel in San Francisco. As we were going out there was a line of people waiting to get in, wearing leather jackets and make-up and I went, 'What the fuck is this?' I thought, 'Steve, you're gettin' old if you're looking at people and makin' judgements like that.' So I just turned around and got in line. And it was an Iggy Pop show. That was the first punk I'd seen. I walked out a different person. That boy rearranged my brain cells."

At the start of the Nineties, Wold moved to Olympia, Washington, just as the Pacific Northwest was breeding a generation of grunge bands. He made friends with a young Kurt Cobain and, after setting up a home studio, began producing early albums for the likes of American alt-rockers Modest Mouse. By this time, Wold had a wife and three young children (one of whom, Diedrich, now plays with him on tour and designs his album artwork), as well as two older sons from a previous marriage. In 2000, the family moved to Norway, his wife's homeland, to cure her homesickness and to escape George W Bush's America.

Despite Wold's now relatively settled lifestyle, in 27 years of marriage the couple has lived in 59 different houses. This year, they re-located to Leeder's Farm in Norfolk, the rural studio where Wold has recorded his forthcoming second album, I Started Out With Nothin and I Still Got Most of It Left. "I'm still nomadic," he says. "I moved about so much when I was young that I got fucked up that way. I'm always burnin' to move to the next place, which ain't so good when you've got a family. My wife says home is Norway. I say it's nowhere. But Norfolk will do for now."

Watch a performance by Seasick Steve



Dog House Music was recorded at Wold's kitchen table and, he says, he could've easily recorded the new LP at home, but he wanted to help his wife escape her gruelling job at an old people's home near Oslo. "It was one of those places no one gives a shit about you or the patients. She was having health problems because of it. So I said, 'I gotta get this girl out of that job.' I was startin' to do good myself, but she's had so many years of me not doing good that she didn't want to leave the job. So I had to come up with a plan. I said I couldn't do another record in my kitchen and I had to go to a studio for a while, somewhere we could stay. And I said, 'If you don't come with me I'm gonna quit, and I ain't gonna make no record.' I showed her Leeder's Farm on the internet, the nice old bedrooms and the big old Aga in the kitchen. But she still said no, and I said, 'Well, I ain't gonna do it.' Then Warner Bros offered me a deal and I said, 'They wanna give me all this money, but I ain't gonna take it unless you come with me.' She agreed to come for a couple of weeks. We went there and it was a really good studio, and after a couple of weeks she goes, 'OK, I'll quit the job.' I didn't give a shit where I recorded, but I had to get her out of that job."

Wold owes a lot to his wife's faith and encouragement. It was at her insistence that he finally sat down and recorded Dog House Music after years of procrastination and delay. He'd had a heart attack after making an album with Scandinavian rockers The Level Devils, and she wanted him to record "songs like I played when I was just sitting in the living room ... in case I bumped off in a few months." It was she, again, who foresaw the significance of the Trance Wonder. "That guitar is so bad," he says with a chuckle. "It's some Japanese guitar from the Sixties. I still string it the way it was when I got it. Not one string is in the right slot. I wasn't going to play it, but a friend in Norway who repairs guitars asked me to show it to him. My wife was in the kitchen doing the dishes and she saw me out on the front lawn with that guy. He said, 'You can't play that,' and I said, 'Yes, I can,' and I just started playing some riff on it. And he laughed and drove away. I brought the guitar inside and my wife goes, 'That guitar's gonna make you famous.'"

In fact, the Trance Wonder and the Mississippi Drum Machine are just two of the eccentric musical instruments that make up Wold's arsenal. There's also the Diddley Bow – a single string and an old sweetcorn can attached to a plank of two-by-four – and a cigar-box guitar that he'll be dusting off on his next tour. "I don't like new guitars," he says. "But I don't mean to have all these old things. They were just around. Now people give me things all the time that I don't even want. I can't throw anything out. I'm a pack rat. I think it's 'cause I'm trying to hold myself down. If I have enough stuff all around me, then I can't move so much."

Wold can't throw out songs either, which means he has a mental stock of old numbers about travelling, labouring and drinking to fill his future albums, including I Started Out With Nothin... Lucky that, since he hasn't many blues left to speak of now. "Since I write about things that happened to me mostly a long time ago, I don't got no problem finding the blues," he says. "I never wrote my songs down, so I forget 'em, but they come back in different forms, resurfacing until I do something with 'em, like an old bad habit comin' around. I got endless songs in my head. Long as I stay alive, I could make records."

Not only are his stories age-old, but his sound, too, is primal. There's blues in there, some country and a pinch of punk but, says Wold, it's his formative influences that run most freely through his repertoire. He first learnt to play guitar from an ageing employee of his grandfather's, who taught him the basics of blues. "But I didn't even know it was blues. The first music I remember is the old Mills Brothers and the Inkspots; big-band music and country music. For me, even the Seventies are modern history. When I write songs, they come from a time before that. I don't know why, but maybe it's just that the way I play and that period kind of go together. I've played all kinds of music, but when I sit down and play for myself, I flip over all that time and jump back into the Fifties and Sixties. I think the music from up until I was 20 was what influenced me. Not anything too much after that."

Listen to 'Roll and Tumble' by Seasick Steve





And that's why Wold is so surprised that people want to hear what he has to offer. "I been writing songs since I was a kid but nobody was interested," he says. Yet so interested are they now that he can travel first class, draw festival crowds of 65,000, fill the Albert Hall, demand an impressive rider (even if he can never think of anything to put on it but wine, whisky and towels) and stay in posh hotels, much to the dismay of the hotel managers. He laughs: "Those hotels see me comin'! Me and Dan, my drummer, look pretty rummy. They think two drunks have walked in off the street."

He's even made some showbiz pals, in the shape of Nick Cave and his band, Grinderman, who appear on I Started Out With Nothin... "I don't hang out too much with bands," says Wold. "I've met a lot of nice people but it's like hanging out with my kids! I like those guys in Grinderman because they're a little bit older." His audience, on the other hand, is made up of people of all ages. "When we go on tour I see grandparents out there next to teenagers. I feel very lucky to be able to go play for lots of people. And if they like it then I might as well play for as many as I can. I do the same show for one person or 100,000 people. So it's better for me to play for the most people I can in the time I got left."

There are a few recent blues to relate on his latest record. He's written, for example, about his heart attack. And then there's "One True", a song about his late dog, Boss. "He was a beautiful German Shepherd. He was so dumb! But he got me to go on walks every day. I cried like a damn baby when that dog died. I ain't never had a dog from a baby to when he died. When I got him he was just a fuzzball. I used to say, 'When you gonna die, man? We wanna travel!' Then he dropped over dead." He sighs heavily: "Oooweee."

Sometimes, Wold seems to be mining some rich seam of melancholy. So much of his life has been spent in struggle that he's hardly able to comprehend this new existence. Even though he's the one with the abundant experience, his worldliness hasn't helped him to explain to himself the size and suddenness of his success. How does it feel? For a moment, he looks like the bewildered old dude that he is. Staring at the floor, he says in a near-whisper, "I can't get used to it. It's like a dream. Every time I walk out on stage I have to pinch myself. I keep thinking I'm gonna wake up and find it was all a joke. At first I thought, 'Oooweee, this ain't gonna last.' In my experience, people don't stick to something for long. They forget about you for the next band. But it's been going on for a year or so now, and the crowd's getting bigger and bigger. People are faithful. I don't understand why they want to hear it. I'm really glad and grateful, but it's a mystery to me."

' I Started Out With Nothin...' is out on 29 September (Warner). Seasick Steve is touring the UK next month

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