Sick as a brick

‘‘This is probably going to sound funny, but
I never thought of myself as playing blues. I
thought I played hillbilly music or something.
Like a train wreck, you know?"
‘‘This is probably going to sound funny, but I never thought of myself as playing blues. I thought I played hillbilly music or something. Like a train wreck, you know?"

Siena Yates profiles a musician who is unprepared for fame.

He is a relatively new name on the music scene, particularly in New Zealand, but Seasick Steve is making waves, even if it is by accident.

With his ZZ Top beard, trucker's cap, overalls and three-string guitar, he is a hillbilly, although there is a little bit of rock and roll, too.

Seasick Steve (his real name is Steven Wold) came on to the United States scene about 2006 after an appearance on the Jools Holland Show.

Since then, he has released five studio albums and two compilations, including a best-of album, and has played at some of the world's biggest festivals alongside some of the music industry's biggest names.

He is described as a blues singer, but try telling him that.

"This is probably going to sound funny, but I never thought of myself as playing blues. I thought I played hillbilly music or something. Like a train wreck, you know?

"You know what it is? Is when you're playing and nobody's listening, then you don't ever have to ponder on what kind of music you're playing. You just play."

But one thing he does know is, whatever it is, it's American.

"I'm pretty sure of that much. I feel like a mix of country, hillbilly, rock and roll, blues and bluegrass. I love it all.

"I don't feel like I'm anything [in particular]. When I play, I don't know what's going to come out."

Fame is already getting to the 71-year-old, who says the internet is teaching him a lot he never knew about himself, including his "friendships" with superstars and his years of hitching rides and sleeping rough.

"Most of the stuff they write on the internet is just nonsense. My wife told me that apparently I was born in Morocco, now. What? People just put nonsense on there. I ain't born in Morocco, man . . . I was born in America.

"I did know Janis [Joplin]. I lived in San Francisco in the mid-60s and I knew her, but everyone did.

"That area where all the bands lived was very small, and these bands weren't famous, yet, so all the hippies and everybody knew each other.

"So I knew her, but she wasn't really my buddy. It's kind of like Kurt Cobain - I knew him to say hello and hi to and stuff, but the next minute we're big buddies, so I don't know what to say about the internet. I've just given up."

He also never toured during the 60s - "except with my thumb" - and did not spend his life hitchhiking, train jumping or sleeping under bridges.

Well, he did for a while during the 60s, but then he got married, had five kids and "had to get a real job".

"I do play the guitar, that is true."

In fact, he plays numerous personalised guitars, including a three-stringed Fender, guitars made from hubcaps and a cigar box and the affectionately named Diddley Bo, a one-string "guitar".

"My son calls them my firewood. They're not too impressive. Some of these things, like the Diddley Bo, it's literally just a piece of wood with a string on it. I just play 'em 'cause they kind of make it so you can't be too fancy, you know?

"The thing that always surprised me is why anyone wanted to listen. I've been playing weird stuff for an awful long time and ain't no-one was interested, and now I go and play festivals for 100,000 people."

Steve played one of the world's biggest festivals last year at the Isle of Wight, where he teamed up with legendary bassist John Paul Jones.

"Wight was our first big show together. I just couldn't believe that I was on stage with somebody from Led Zeppelin. It was just so weird to look over on the stage and see him up there. I remember clearly thinking, ‘What's he doing here? What's happened to me?' "

The pair have since teamed up for numerous gigs and recorded Steve's new album together, which is due out in April.

He has also just finished making a record with Jack White, of White Stripes and Dead Weather fame, which they cut to vinyl from a live performance.

"While we were playing, just behind the stage, there's a guy cutting the disc right on a lathe. No second chances, no fooling around - it goes right on a record."

For a musician used to recording albums with nothing but a tape deck and a bottle of beer on hand, it's just the way he likes it.

Now, with the "boring part" of recording done and dusted, it's time to hit the road again. This time to New Zealand and a new adventure.

"It's not so often I go places I've never been before. I don't know what to expect, it's kind of exciting."

What he does know came from two sources. The first was an article he read about our "man drought" last year, but thankfully his father also told him a thing or two.

"My daddy was there during the war and he told me about it and said it was such a beautiful place. I think since I was about 8 or 9, I was telling people that I was going to move to New Zealand.

"If anybody asked where I wanted to live, I'd say, ‘I'm going to move to New Zealand'. Isn't that strange? And it's the one place I've never been."

But he has finally made it and is playing a gig at Mangawhai Tavern on Saturday night, followed by Coro Gold on Sunday and Monday.

"I'm really excited, man. The thing I like about these festivals, especially with all these young people, they don't care what kind of music you play, they just care if you can rock or not. If we can go out there and just rock their socks off, it's so fun.

"It's a great honour to get to play for young people who don't think we're boring. Every time I get to go play is an opportunity to go jump up and down and sweat bullets. The good life."

Seasick Steve will play at Mangawhai Tavern from 8pm on Saturday.

Coromandel Gold is on Sunday from 4pm to 1am, and New Year's Eve from 2pm to 2am.

Waikato Times