Steve Hill Interview
Words: Di Tunney | Photos: Anthony Firmin
It has been interesting watching Salford Quays evolve over the last 20 years, much like the way Steve Hill has evolved too, and tonight he played at The Lowry. Not the main Lyric Theatre but the smaller and more intimate Quay Theatre where his performance gained him a standing ovation and at the bar afterwards several members of the audience were describing it as “astonishing”. Not bad for someone who is undertaking his first full tour of this country and as a consequence the queue at his merch stall is constant as he signs autographs and sells his CD’s to new fans.
Grabbing a pint with Steve Hill before he packs up he explains that he is loving England there are so many good places to play he says, I am just loving the place. It is his first time as a solo artist although he did play a showcase at The Borderline with The Respectables seven years ago but unfortunately was only in the country for two days but I had always wanted to come back and now we are going to Scotland and all these places I have wanted to visit for so long.
Although Canadian by birth, his family is originally from Marsden, emigrating to Canada in 1830. Tomorrow he has a day off so is heading back to his family’s small town in the hills to visit the cemetery and look in the church records, my dad created a family tree but couldn’t find anything before 1830 and I will be the first Hill since that time to revisit Marsden.
Members of the audience standing at the bar had described him as an extremely accomplished musician, his ability to play all these different instruments at the same time is astonishing but it wasn’t always like that. He started off as a guitar player in a band, playing clubs when he was 16 but the band’s singer left to pursue studies so Hill had stand at the microphone and start singing as well.
By the time he reached 18 Steve Hill became a professional musician, releasing his first album at 23 and continuing to release albums as a singer songwriter with other musicians playing along with him. On the side he was hired as a lead guitar player by big names in Canada, doing what he had to to pay the bills I never did anything else and don’t want to either, all I ever wanted to do was play the guitar and that is my first love.
A few years ago a guitar pusher friend turned up with an old Gibson ES-225 but Hill didn’t have any money to buy it at the time. So the friend left with it but called him back two hours later and said ‘you do a solo show, I’ll sell some tickets and I’ll give you the guitar’. I hadn’t done a solo show in 20 years, back when I was busking and playing pubs. I wanted the guitar so said yes, he lent me it for three weeks to practice on, the show was sold out, the reaction was great. It was just guitar and vocals but I put a mic on the floor and would stomp my foot to create a beat.
A few weeks later his record company released an album called Whiplash but they failed to promote it. In addition he had manager and money problems so deciding that the solo thing was fun he called some of the clubs where he used to play to do some gigs on the side I did a few of those gigs he recalls and I got a bass drum and it went from there. I own a studio too so I decided to record an album all by myself, live in the studio and I will sell the records when I do my solo gigs, just to pay the bills and credit cards.
The album, Solo Recordings Vol. 1 was released into stores and outsold all his previous six albums going on to win in Memphis the Blues Album of the Year and nominated for the Juno’s, the Canadian Grammy’s. He explains the thinking behind the title if I decide in 10 years time to do a follow up I will just call it Vol. 2, it was something I was going to do for 6 months or a year and get my finances back together, but the reaction to it was great so I released Vol. 2 and it did even better and won everything you can win in the blues field in Canada.
In 2017 Steve Hill is doing a massive 79 shows in Europe and the UK, I had previously toured Germany supporting Wishbone Ash and this year I returned as a headliner, it must 600 plus shows that I have done since that first album and people enjoy it. It keeps me in shape too, it is very physical, every night is quite the challenge. Hill stands on his heels in order to play the drums with his feet whilst stood up, it looks impressive as he tries not to topple over, singing and playing the guitar at the same time.
How is he enjoying being on the road as much as he is? I’m loving it, I only have one thing to do and to focus on. I manage myself and run the record label so I have a lot of business stuff to take care of when I am not on the road, but when I am on the road my tour manager takes care of everything, I just know that I have to be in the van at 11, go the venue, do the soundcheck and the gig and then back to the motel, it is a life that I really enjoy. It can be stressful but it is a great routine. People often see artists as not having routines but it is good to have one. It is a different place every day but I love it.
Taking time out is also important I get to visit places quite a bit but the last two tours of Germany I did were just highways, halls and hotels. Today we woke up in Scarborough, on the coast, we went to the castle, I’ve been to Stonehenge too. In Brighton I woke up in a hotel looking over the beach so I put on Quadrophenia and was imagining mods and rockers.
At this point we start to get a bit technical, Hill has an additional pickup on his guitar which is for the bass the pickup is offset and is only under the bigger strings and I have a stereo output on the guitar too, the sound goes through an Octaver pedal and a bass amp to give me a bass sound when I play the bass lines with my thumbs.
Moving on to his influences I am surprised to hear he first started off listening to prog rock like YES and Genesis before he discovered Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love, a turning point for him as that was when he started to play guitar. Around the same time I heard Hendrix and Led Zeppelin but I played piano for a year before I started with the guitar. I also loved Mark Knopfler’s playing in Dire Straits, but there was something about an electric guitar playing bluesy stuff.
Hill is also an avid reader so when he picked up interviews with Page and Clapton he explains they would be talking about Muddy Waters, the three King’s and Robert Johnson so I ended up buying a Muddy Waters tape when I was 13, Robert Johnson when I was 15, I was listening to all these guys and John Lee Hooker at a very young age.
But it was a steady mix of these influences along with his brother playing classic rock like AC/DC at home when he was eight which has helped develop his sound especially on songs like Dangerous I still listen to a lot of music even now, up to 6 or 8 hours a day, all sorts of things from country music to rock and all these artists end up influencing me.
Songs like the Ballad of Johnny Wabo can’t be any more Canadian within it’s storytelling – a man moves from Montreal to Toronto to make it in the music scene – and Steve Hill continues that tradition alongside Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young the song even has the reason why I started.
Ideas from songwriting come from differing sources too sometimes I will be reading a book and I will see a word or two that will rhyme and I will take notes. Or I will be walking down the street and I will have the whole chorus come into my head, it comes with the chords, the melody, the lyrics and everything. Then you can work for three weeks, six hours a day and just come up with shit, it is very hard to analyse really, it is mostly personal what I write about and sometimes I don’t even realise it, it’s a subconscious thing. The way I see it you have to work really hard and that stuff isn’t going to be good, but if you don’t do it you don’t get those diamonds that come out, some only take half an hour to write. Bob Dylan was once asked how long it took to write The Times They Are A Changin and he said 10 minutes, and he didn’t even know how he wrote these songs. I can go for a year without writing anything then I can write two songs in a day, it is often a question of timing, even then I don’t know, you can have the perfect conditions and nothing is going to happen. Or you can be stuck in a horrible hotel and you haven’t slept for three days and you pick up a piece of paper and it just comes to you.
Steve Hill can be caught on tour at the moment and will be back in May 2018 and we will look forward to seeing him then. Remaining dates...
Thursday 9th November 2017 - Bootleggers, Kendal
Friday 10th November 2017 - The Jam House, Edinburgh
Saturday 11th November 2017 - The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen
Sunday 12th November 2017 - The Ferry, Glasgow
Tuesday 14th November 2017 - Riverside Lodge, Morpeth
Wednesday 15th November 2017 - ARC, Stockton-on-Tees
Thursday 16th November 2017 - The Layton, Blackpool
Friday 17th November 2017 - The Picturedrome, Holmfirth
Saturday 18th November 2017 - ASHCON, Clitheroe