With over 14 million YouTube views for their take on AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’, Steve ‘N’ Seagulls head to the UK for the London Acoustic Show – Sam Wise chats to the band about their debut album Farm Machine…
The first time I came across a Steve ‘N’ Seagulls video, I initially thought I was watching Hayseed Dixie before realising there were some subtle differences. Hailing from Finland, more famous for metal bands like Nightwish, and for the reticence and quietness of its residents, Steve ‘N’ Seagulls seem like a band unlikely to even exist, never mind rise to prominence. Nevertheless, the chances are that you, too, have seen their hillbilly take on AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’; the video, which opens with the arrival of the accordion player on a ride-on lawnmower, could almost be on a farm in Alabama, USA, but perhaps the continental chromatic system accordion is a clue that all is not as it seems. We caught up with vocalist Pukki as he prepared to go on stage at a festival in Finland, while recovering from another gig the night before in Lithuania.
How does a Finnish band end up making American hillbilly covers of American rock tunes?
Well, that’s the question I guess. We just started off with cover versions of pop songs from around the world, and started the whole metal/rock thing about two years ago. The thing with the first video was to get some commercial breakthrough with this line-up. It’s been a nice change for us, the whole acoustic thing; we had all been making a living out of making music, but electric music, so it’s really fun to do something different.
Where Hayseed Dixie have a bluegrass background, most of your musicians play as though they have a background in metal. Is that right?
Yes, you’re right about that. We don’t really have a bluegrass background. I mean, there is an actual bluegrass scene in Finland, not with many bands, but they’re out there. We’re playing songs that we grew up listening to, which were on our parent’s record shelves, mangled, but mangled with respect to the originals. Truth be told, we have been checking out a lot of bluegrass bands, but you know, while we can’t play like them, we don’t sound much like traditional Finnish bands either. We checked out Hayseed Dixie, and their banjo player is incredible; we could never compete with that, so we’re trying our own thing. We were all studying in the town of Jyväskylä in central Finland, some of us in the same school, and at least four of us had been playing together before Steve ‘N’ Seagulls, and we already knew some members from different bands. We had all grown up listening to classic rock and metal, and also we’d listened to a bit of bluegrass. Our banjo player wasn’t really a banjo player; he had been a guitarist, which I think shows in the way he plays. He understands the tuning, but he picks it like a guitar player, not playing all the traditional banjo rolls, which gives us a bit of a different sound from someone like Hayseed Dixie. Anyway, we had this idea to play bluegrass version of pop songs, rock songs, and it was, for a long time, a side project, but the world of the internet is a strange one, and our version of ‘Thunderstruck’ went viral, and suddenly we’re playing everywhere!
Your Wikipedia page gives what appear to be fake names for you. Can you tell us about the origin of those?
The band name was our banjo player’s girlfriend’s idea; they were driving by the lake, and saw some seagulls, and it just seemed to fit. As for our names, those are just the result of constant jabbering in the van for thousands of kilometres; the things we discuss aren’t exactly intellectual. Finns are not famous for small talk, but in a van, there’s no room to be silent, so there’s a lot of nonsense, flatulence and silliness, and we gave each other nicknames.
Your accordion player plays a continental chromatic system, which are rarely seen here. How did you find him, or is that the normal accordion in Finland? (This is a button accordion with row after row of black and white buttons; it looks like a melodeon on steroids…)
Well, in Finland we have both; piano and chromatic, but he’s been playing that since he was around four years old. I don’t think he’s ever played the piano accordion, but it’s pretty common in Finland. He’s been playing traditional Finnish dance music since he was a teenager, and it’s relevant for that I guess. Dance music is very separate from traditional folk music in Finland, and he was only doing the dance music stuff, but I think anything other than the chromatic would be very strange for him. So, I guess we have to look strange to the world instead!
If Steve ‘N’ Seagulls change the world, what would it be like when you’re done?
I guess it would be something like, er, people not taking themselves or each other too seriously. We really don’t take each other seriously – or life, really. What we do is a lot of fun, but I guess that’s usually how music careers should be; it’s not dead serious, nobody is irreplaceable. You should have fun making your music, otherwise how can you expect anyone to enjoy it? This was never supposed to go big; it was supposed to be a side project, but we don’t mind, we take anything that’s on offer right now and see how it goes.
After an album of cover versions, what will you do next?
Well, to be honest, I don’t know yet. We should probably start thinking about the next album; there is definitely going to be one, and it will be mostly covers, and probably some originals as well. We don’t have any of our songs finished at the moment; we will just do what we always do, just get together and let our ideas collide, which is how we got our sound in the first place. I think it’ll be a collaborative process. We don’t really do the thing where you show up at a rehearsal with a song, and tell everyone what to play.
How hard is it to play those traditional type instruments on such a large concert stage? Do you have amplification issues?
The main challenge with an instrument that sounds beautiful when it’s heard acoustically is that you then have to buy loads of equipment, and technology, and try and try again to get something that sounds at least okay. In a lot of places, the volume is just too loud to use a microphone for the instruments, but a lot of the pickup systems aren’t great. For example, anyone who can make a decent contact pickup for double bass and cello will be a rich man! Even playing in tune can be hard when the volume is high, though the in-ear monitors really help. Actually, as an acoustic band who play mostly at venues and festivals who are used to electric musicians, we used to have constant amplification problems all round, but that was before we had our own technician who is the sixth guy travelling with us now. He’s done a lot of work making it sound right, and now we consider him a part of the band.
Given that there is not an established circuit in Finland for bluegrass versions of rock songs, you guys are playing all sorts of venues. What makes a good show for Steve ‘N’ Seagulls?
This might sound a cliché, but first of all it’s the audience. The second is how it sounds to us; if we can’t hear ourselves properly, it’s really hard to make it a good gig. Considering we’re in Finland, and play outside a lot, the weather can make or destroy a gig. We’ve done all sorts of things; weddings, small private occasions, nightclubs, big festival venues. This is such a small country, with so few people that you have to be able to play in all sorts of places – we can’t afford to be too selective!
What are your tour plans for the rest of 2015?
Well, right now we just came back from Lithuania, with no sleep at all, and now we’re in Finland at a smaller festival. We have a few other festivals here, and then we’re off to the Wacken festival in Germany, which is one of the biggest metal festivals in the world. Metal audiences react surprisingly well; we went to a metal festival in Finland a couple of weeks ago, and when we got out of the van, the first thing that greeted us was a death metal band sound checking, growling and shouting, which honestly made us a bit nervous. The fans, though, they like the songs we do; actually, metal fans were the first to take notice of us, and then bluegrass fans, before it ever started to go viral. I mean, you can’t really predict how a band is going to go anymore, but it went well this year, and let’s just hope that there’s at least one year more. The best thing you can do is to come see us live, buy our album, and enjoy the show!
Steve ‘N’ Seagulls play the London Acoustic Show on Saturday 12 and Sunday 13 September 2015.