Steven Seagal Interview - A Martial Arts Mojo Man

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Hollywood action star and martial arts legend Steven Seagal may, at first sight, appear a strange choice of interview to open 2007 with; however he is a very accomplished traditional blues guitarist with a history in this genre stretching back many years. Seagal has graced the stage – and been friends with – such luminaries as Bo Didley, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, John Lee Hooker and BB King amongst many other genuine 20th century blues legends.

2007 sees Seagal make a concerted effort to establish himself as a credible Blues guitarist and musician worldwide. In 2006 Seagal assembled a top flight touring band ‘Thunderbox’ and released ‘Mojo Priest’, a 14 song Delta Blues album, through ARK21/Universal in Spring 2006.

‘Mojo Priest’ features a heady array of legendary Blues artists such as Ruth Brown, Robert Lockwood Jr, Ko Ko Taylor, James Cotton, Bo Didley, Willie ‘Pine Top’ Perkins and Hubert Sumlin (guitarist with muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf). The album was recorded with many of Muddy Waters own band, and in particular Seagal cites Sumlin as “possibly the most important blues guitarist alive today”.

“It was a dream come true to work with these blues legends, many of whom I had played with before the making of this record” says Seagal. “Ruth Brown knew about my love for the blues and Robert Lockwood knew of it as well. They wanted to work with me on this project because they were aware that I was going to make an authentic blues album; not a rock album with a blues feel”.

Much as many may view the very concept of Steven Seagal the Hollywood Action star as a bona fide blues guitarist with amusement – yet another Hollywood stars plaything – Seagal has a lot of genuine respect, and a formidable track record, in the traditional blues arena. Herbert Sumlin states “…Steven can play man. If you watch his fingers, his fingers are just like mine. We not only got ways alike – we plays alike. That’s my son. He’s my brother.”

Seagal released ‘Songs from the Crystal Cave’ – and gained a number 1 chart position in France – which is an album of melodic, Bluesy Claptonesque rock. With some authoritative and extremely tasty guitar playing on this album, it is very far removed from his on-screen persona and a very pleasant surprise.

Steven Seagal

‘Mojo Priest’ is very much a traditionalist Delta Blues album with a timeless and totally authentic blues feel. There is nothing here that you might expect to find in what many may have perceived to be a Hollywood ‘vanity project’. This will appeal to hard core, ‘real-deal’ blues fans the world over.

He also features on Carmine Appice’s Guitar Zeus album, alongside players including Brian May, Steve Lukather and Yngwie Malmsteen – so bearing this in mind allOUTGUITAR decided that it was worth investigating Steven Seagal’s guitar career a little further.

Seagal’s reputation as an elusive and tricky interviewee is well established, and whilst we do not have an interview of epic length here, Mr Seagal was candid, at times almost chatty – and indeed chuckled on at least one occasion!

alloutGUITAR spoke to Steven at one of his homes in Memphis, USA at the very end of 2006.

You were exposed to a lot of blues musicians at an early age; where did you see them play?

I grew up in Lansing, Michigan, which is Detroit area and it’s no secret that a lot of the blues legends came from the Delta and wanted to get out of the cotton fields so they came across Route 23 to find work. All the neighbourhoods in and around Detroit were full of bluesmen. Some found work in the steel mills and in the auto factories, some didn’t. You’d see them on their porches playing. Across the street from where I grew up there lived this old blues player. He was never a famous guy, but he had hung around all those legendary players and he played as good as all of them. I saw all this from a very early age.

When did you first pick up the guitar?

I got to hold a guitar when I was very young. I was probably 10 or 11 when I got my first guitar.

Did you have any lessons?

No, I never had lessons. I’d watch all these guitarists in the local neighbourhood and picked it up like that.

Were you exclusively into the blues, or did the current music have any impact on you?

Well, as a kid, you know, you had all that stuff that came through in the mid 60’s like The Beatles and The Stones, but I was never a rock player. I was never interested in all that.

By the early sixties you moved to LA; did you keep up with the blues here, as I imagine that LA wouldn’t have had as much of a blues scene as Detroit?

Steven Seagal

I played all the time on my own, but also half of my family was from Texas on my father’s side so we’d visit a lot. In Texas you had Freddy King, Lightning Hopkins, a lot of players… and so I saw a lot of these guys in clubs in Texas and I played with a lot of them as well. I saw Albert King, Albert Collins.

Did you ever consider trying to make it as a musician in your late teens/early twenties?

Yeah, I did you know. I played in bands and stuff, but life got in the way and I was studying the Martial Arts extensively. I sold everything I owned except for one guitar when I moved to Japan. And after practising Martial Arts for
many hours every day, learning from the masters, I‘d then pick up my guitar and practise that. I’d play first thing in the morning and last thing before bed.

So during your days in the Far East you kept your chops up?

Oh yeah…

When you came back to the US in the 80’s was it at all in your life plan to pursue your music career again?

I never really had a plan or anything. When I came back I never had any intentions to become famous, but what I did intend to do was play a lot more. I’d many years as a bedroom guitarist and now wanted to get out there and play.

In the mid 1985 Seagal returned to America and opened a martial arts academy in Los Angeles. Seagal soon found a number of Hollywood’s main players in the movie world as clients, so the transition to choreographing and then appearing in Hollywood action movies was a natural one.

What musicians have you shared the stage with?

I’ve played in many clubs all over the place, Texas, Memphis…back then BB King had his place and I played with him and with John Lee Hooker. I got to meet those guys and I played with them. My strongest influence was Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown. He taught me a lot about the blues. I got to play with these legendary people that I knew; I was lucky to play the juke joints and the bars.

Steven Seagal

You have one of the world’s greatest guitar collections, when did you start collecting seriously?

Well, I mean sometime probably in the 80’s. I’d play with some of these famous people and they’d give me a guitar, I’d give them one, and it just started from there. I have several hundred guitars now.

Are you still collecting nowadays?

Once in a while…

What notable guitars have you acquired?

I have guitars that belonged to Freddy King… Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, BB King…

Do you get to play many of these on a regular basis?

Yeah, I do.

What was the first album that you played on?

You know what? I don’t remember. I have played on so many over the years; just recently I did an interview here in Memphis with some people who were doing a documentary on Son Seal because they’d somehow found out that I’d played in an album – but I can’t remember doing it!

With your first release ‘Songs From The Crystal Cave’ did you record the album yourself and then find a label? Also your forthcoming tour takes in some interesting choices of venues…

I recorded the album myself and then it got released; I’m not really the strategist behind the tour dates or the promoting of the records – I’m not sure where that record is available. For this tour, I just told my people to book some dates to go play in Europe. I wanted enough dates for a good tour but not too many real small places. Do that and you lose money. We toured earlier in 2006 in the States and I’m now just taking the show to some new places.

How do you like the recording process, or do you consider your main forte to be the live stage?

(laughs) Man, I consider my main forte to be a bedroom guitarist! No, I like both, I love playing on stage, and I like the studio. I’ve been playing such a long time now that it’s

I gather you are on Carmine Appices album?

That’s what they say, I can’t remember doing this one either…

Who do you like out of guitarists out there?

Well, there are a few guys still alive who I like, but we’ve lost most of the greats. Only in the last few months almost everyone on ‘Mojo Priest’ has passed away.

How did you hook up with the members of Muddy Waters band that appear on the album?

Well, this goes back a long time, I’ve played with and known many of these great players for many years now. So when it came to doing the record it was all very easy to arrange.

What can fans be expected to see and hear songwise on the tour?

Some traditional blues, and a lot of my own songs – you know pretty much structured like the record.

Would you consider your self first and foremost as a blues guitarist?

I wouldn’t consider myself ‘first and foremost’ a blues guitarist – I’d consider myself only a blues guitarist…

Do you play much slide?

I do, but on this tour I’ve arranged it so that I one of the other guitarists can handle most of that.

Are you mainly a plectrum player; do you play much acoustic?

By plectrum you must mean pick? Plectrum is English for pick, right?! No, it’s all in the fingers, I’ve always played with just my fingers… Yeah I play acoustic – not a lot at this point in time, but I have a lot in my collection that get played.

Do you have any lessons/would you consider getting any?

No, I like what I do; there aren’t too many people now who play like I do. I know that I could pick up some new stuff here and there, but this is what I do, and it’s sort of who I am as a player, so I don’t want to try and change that.

What is your practise routine?

I practise for hours a day…

Every day?

Yeah! (laughs) Every day! You couldn’t play the stuff I do without it.

How often do you gig – and is the blues scene around Memphis still a vibrant one?

I play as often as I can, and I try to play in many different states on my travels. I’m sure the clubs could be doing better, but the blues is the blues and people will always want to come and hear it.

What are your main stage guitars?

Gibson Firebird, ’58 Les Paul Gold Top, and Fender Strat and Tele.

What amps and strings do you mainly use?

I use a 100 watt Marshall Plexi, heavy strings and my fingers.

Finally, your tour kicks off on Jan 18th in Ontario before quickly coming across to Europe and many dates in the UK. A couple of these are close to alloutGUITAR Towers, so we look forward to coming to see this in the flesh.

Well, come on by – it’ll be a real good show…