As he prepares to release his fifth album, Seasick Steve is more surprised than anyone that he's lasted so long. The enigmatic septuagenarian talks to Andy Welch about his unorthodox recording techniques and working with some legendary names.
By Andy Welch
In a world where music's as much about how it sounds as the story accompanying it, Seasick Steve seemed too good to be true at first.
When he started garnering attention around 2005, much was made of his former life, illegally riding freight trains across America, travelling from town to town, job to job, and his seeming inability to lay down roots.
He was blessed with an almost supernatural musical ability, the skill and soul of a long-dead bluesman too.
Everything about him was shrouded with mystique: the fact he'd played with Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell, his years spent working in various studios as an engineer and session musician. Even his age appeared vague, while his various guitars never had the correct number of strings - one even earned the nickname The Three-String Trance Wonder.
For the same reasons, there was also something of the gimmick about him. Even if his music was 'authentic', a factor so important to many fans, it was likely the novelty wouldn't last.
Perhaps even more interesting than his mysterious past is the fact he's managed to stick around long enough to release his fifth album, Hubcap Music.
Speaking to the man - real name Steve Wold - today, he's as surprised as anyone that he's still here.
"I didn't think I'd even release one record, let alone five!" he says. "I didn't even know I was making a record, we just recorded songs over a long time and eventually there were enough. When it did good, I thought I might be able to play for another year or so, or play in some bars every now and again. Then a year became two, and three, and things got bigger, and here we are."
It's pleasing to report he's every bit the gentleman of the road, the hobo raconteur, one would expect. He's 71 or 72 - reports vary - but speaks in a way that seems even older, belonging to a long-passed era.
"I don't get why it's me that got famous," he says. "There are people out there that do what I do, but better. This is not me trying to be humble, I'm really not, but the one thing I can take from it all is there must be a bit of a hunger for raw music all over the world. I still don't get why I was chosen though."
His first album was recorded in Norway, where he's lived since 2001. Wold "married a Norwegian gal 31 years ago", and living there has been the nearest thing he's ever had to a settled life.
"I'm not there all that much these days," he explains, "but it's where I pay my taxes.
"I speak the language too. My wife talked Norwegian to the boys when they were growing up so I heard it every day. I'm just not the quickest of talkers."
If he doesn't like spending too long in one place, he doesn't like spending too long recording an album either and won't do more than a couple of takes for each song.
"We're not like those dudes in Nashville who get on a computer afterwards and neaten it all up, we just play," he says. "A lot of time people will have like 30 takes of each song. By the time we finished this record I think we had one full version of each song.
"I ain't trying for perfection, cos there ain't no way I can be perfect so it don't matter. There's nothing else perfect in the world, so why try for that?"
His latest collection took just two weeks to commit to tape - actual tape, eschewing the ease and cost savings of recording to a hard drive - and was mixed in just four days. His normal practice of having no overdubs (adding another recording on top of another) was broken this time around, but there were extenuating circumstances, as Jack White did the honours.
"He plays on The Way I Do," says Wold, referring to one of the album's standouts. "He was back in Nashville as we were recording so we had to have him added afterwards. He came with his guitar then made this solo up that was so crazy I can't even get my head around what he did.
"Nothing like I could ever imagine, his brain is so strange. And he's serious, it's not like he came to play without preparation, he had thought about it, like a genius crazy person."
Wold, with his lasting love of old country music, bluegrass and delta blues, unsurprisingly has a deep admiration for White.
"We have a lot in common, Jack and I, but he's, like, the same age as one of my sons."
They met at Glastonbury in 2008, having only ever exchanged nods at festivals previously. Afterwards, Wold went to Jack's Nashville Third Man studios to record a single, although their working relationship has grown since then.
White is releasing Wold's album in the US on Third Man Records, and last year, Wold took advantage of his friend's facilities to record a live performance at Third Man's makeshift venue direct to vinyl.
"There's a lathe right behind the stage," he says in awe. "You play for 20 minutes and there's a clock on the wall counting down, so you have to stop, get another lacquer on the machine and start over. Flying by the seat of your pants, but it was a lot of fun."
The former White Stripe isn't the only big name to appear on Hubcap Music. There's also Elizabeth Cook, perhaps not a household name in the UK but something of a celebrity in the country world.
Then there's John Paul Jones, a long-time collaborator and friend, who plays on all but one of the album's tracks.
"He knows so much, it's mind-boggling," Wold says of the Led Zeppelin multi-instrumentalist. "He tries to blend in. He's such a gentleman. A lot of people are great in bands, truly great bands like Led Zeppelin, but they seem lost when they're not in that band any more.
"John, he's just good at everything. We really play our blues down in the mud, but he knows it all - blues, slide guitar, country music, and can join with whatever we're doing - ukulele, lap steel, banjo, organ, bass, gourd. He plays it all, and he's not interested in showing off, just making the song better."
Talking of making things better, this album marks one of the first times Wold has stepped away from his classic fuzzy blues template.
Coast Is Clear, thanks to a rather wonderful Hammond organ part from Jones, comes over like an alternate version of Procul Harum's Whiter Shade Of Pale or Bob Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone.
"That's exactly what I was going for," he says. "I wrote it on the Trance Wonder, and I never make pretty songs on that thing. I was playing this new song and my wife heard it, she didn't really like it, so I threw it away.
"But I couldn't get it out of my head, so John played this Hammond organ over it, and then we dolled it up some more with some horns, and made it sound real pretty.
"My wife told me it got put up on the internet and some people didn't like it, but I don't give a damn," he adds, laughing.
"Most of the record is down and dirty still, and if I can't do what I want at my age, when can I?"
Extra time - Seasick Steve
:: 'Seasick' Steve Wold was born in Oakland, California.
:: He married his second wife Elisabeth in 1982. They have three sons, while Wold also has two more children.
:: It's said he and his wife have lived in more than 59 houses and Wold, during his appearance on Top Gear's Star In A Reasonably Priced Car, claimed to have owned more than 50 cars.
:: As well as his Three-String Trance Wonder, he has instruments known as The One-Stringed Diddley Bo, The Morris Minor Guitar, a Four-String Cigar Box Guitar, and a Mississippi Drum Machine, which is nothing more than a wooden box he stomps on.
:: He released his first album, Cheap, in 2004. His third album, I Started Out With Nothing And Still Got Most Of It Left, released in 2008, achieved platinum sales of more than 300,000.
:: Seasick Steve's fifth album Hubcap Music is released on April 29. He plays shows in London, Edinburgh and Manchester on May 1, 3 and 4 respectively