Imitation is one thing. After all, it’s said to be the sincerest form of flattery. Emulation is also admirable. That’s the ability to trade on a technique and offer it homage, even while opting for originality, all at the same time. However innovation is something else entirely. It involves taking an idea and transforming it into a new concept entirely, creating a form that’s distinctly different from anything that’s come before.
So credit Steve ‘N’ Seagulls — not to be confused with Steven Seagal, Flock of Seagulls, or any variation thereof — with finding the means to indulge in a bit of each technique, taking well-heeled templates like bluegrass and grassicana, and then creating a concept that’s entirely original and distinctly different all at the same time. The Finland-based band whose members identify themselves by first name only — Remmel (vocals, acoustic guitar, balalaika, mandolin), Puikkonen (drums, percussion, vocals), Pukki (double bass, vocals), Hiltunen (accordion, kantele, mandolin, keys, flute) and Herman (banjo, vocals, acoustic guitar) — take well known rock standards and then convey them in archival fashion. As a result, even credible classics like Born to Be Wild, I Was Made for Loving You, and Panama retain a renegade attitude despite being reinvented in a distinctly down home persona. The unlikely premise aside, the combination works remarkably well, so well in fact that it’s easy to mistake this Finnish five piece for a brassy band of down home heartland pickers.
“It all started as a side project which was more spaghetti western at first,” Hiltunen says when describing how the concept came about. “Slowly, it moved towards a more acoustic style and then eventually came together. It’s continued to change and evolve. It felt natural to do things this way and we trust that feeling.”
Remmel says the approach initially evolved out of bluegrass, mostly culled from a contemporary crop of influences — bands such as Hayseed Dixie, Greensky Bluegrass and YonderMountain String Band in articular. “The Barr Brothers and Mumford & Sons have also been inspiring,” he adds. “We get influences from lots of bands and styles. All kinds of acoustic music is important to us. And everyone brings their own influences into the group as well.”
Despite such disparity and what some might see as a clash of concepts, the band has managed to find an audience in dozens of different places. “We’ve performed in about 25 to 30 countries,” Remmel says. “We’ve toured in the U.S. six times, and we just finished the second part of our current tour there. We tour a lot in Europe and have also played in South America. In total, we play about 120 to 150 shows yearly. So yes, we tour frequently.”
Happily, Steve ‘N’ Seagulls have also found a niche at home, due in large part to their reliance on traditional instrumentation. “Finland has a small but tight bluegrass and country scene,” Remmel points out. “Finnish folk music has a lot of mandolin and such. Let’s say that it’s small but very interesting.”
Likewise, the band’s live shows have garnered good reactions wherever they’ve played. “People seem to like the fact that we mix things together and they’re there to enjoy themselves,” he suggests. “The atmosphere at our shows allows people to leave the venue with smiles on their faces. We’re fortunate that we get to play in front of so many different audiences.”
In addition, the band has recorded three albums so far, all of which have climbed the bluegrass charts. With preproduction due to start soon on their next album, and plans for a full slate of festival appearances taking place this summer, the emphasis on ingenuity is bound to continue.
“We have discovered new angles to our band and to our sound, little by little, Remmel remarks. Don’t be surprised to find Steve ‘N’ Seagulls continuing to take flight.