Seasick Steve: no longer a hobo with a couple of hubcaps

Seasick Steve talks to James McNair about being the archetypal late bloomer, and his latest album – which starts with the sound of a tractor revving up.

Seasick Steve's new album Hubcap Music is out tomorrow. Getty Images
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Seasick Steve, aka the Oakland, California-born Steve Wold, didn’t release his first album until he was 63. Before that, he spent many years travelling around the US as a hobo, during which time he hopped freight trains, slept rough and worked as a farm labourer and street musician.

Now 72, he is about to release Hubcap Music, a sixth album of gnarly country-blues featuring guests including Jack White and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones. The record's title alludes to one of Wold's guitars, an instrument made from two car hubcaps and a garden hoe.

Hubcap Music begins with the sound of engine-noise from one of your vehicles.

That’s right. It’s my 1965 John Deere tractor. It’s a big, six-cylinder diesel thing. I grew up farming and I’d like to do it some more. It’s an amazing feeling to plough. Making proper money playing music is pretty new for me. It’s like a whirlwind or maybe a hamster wheel, but I don’t want to jump off. I have no other way to earn a living and it’s a little too late to do anything else [laughs].

Did you enjoy working with John Paul Jones?

I'm a cheap date but I just sat there with my mouth open. When John played mandolin on Over You, the fire was going and we were just sitting on the couch, drinking – you can hear my old clock ticking in the background.

One time he told me all the songs he played on back in the 1960s when he was doing sessions. I was like: 'You played on [James Bond film theme] Goldfinger? You're too good, man!'

You were a hobo for many years. Without wanting to romanticise that, was it sometimes nice to lead a simple hand-to-mouth existence?

Yeah. And it’s still the foundation of what I do now. If you don’t play well, you don’t deserve to get money to eat. I saw Son House and people like him when they were pretty old and haggard, but if they could turn that switch on, they would. I learnt that fast and I’ve flicked that switch a zillion times.

Didn’t you get to play with Johnny Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins?

That’s what people say. I ain’t said it. The people who are into old blues stuff, that’s what they do. Especially white people. They say: ‘Oh, I got to play with such and such’, but it’s a strange world where they think that just because they’ve played with one of those guys, that makes them something.

How did you meet your Norwegian wife, Elizabeth?

About 35 years ago, I was working in a bar out there playing country music and she was working there, too. I fell in love with her the moment I walked in. She’s a lot younger than me and she didn’t want nothing to do with me at first. I had to fly back and forth from the US, courting her. I’ve got three kids with her and two from my previous marriage. One of my boys teaches physics in Norway. He’s way smart.

As the archetypal late-bloomer, presumably you appreciate your success all the more?

Yeah, and every time I walk out on stage I think, why me? I know 50 other guys who deserve it 50 times more. A lot of people think they’re entitled, but me and Dan [Magnusson, Seasick Steve’s drummer] got none of that. We’ve waited our whole lives to do this, so we ain’t gonna waste no time shoe-gazing. It’s a 100 per cent, sweat bullets deal every night.

Does your success feel hard won?

Yeah. But I can look back now and see that every opportunity I ever had, I sabotaged it. I went my own way and thought I knew better than everybody else. It was after I had the heart attack [in 2004] and I was so beat down that I didn’t have too many opinions any more that things started to happen.

Hubcap Music (Fiction records) is out tomorrow

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