Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Steve ‘n’ Seagulls fly high in Finland

Steve ‘n’ Seagulls aren’t your ordinary bluegrass band, but then again, any outfit that makes its home in Finland, a country normally unaccustomed to those particular tuneful trappings, would hardly be considered “ordinary” to begin with. The band became especially well noticed during the summer of 2014 when they began posting their videos of YouTube. Their unlikely take on AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, rendered with full bluegrass trappings, garnered the band 150 million views on YouTube. A bluegrass cover of the Beastie Boys song, Sabotage, followed the next year, with a similar treatment given Motörhead’s Aces High released in 2016.

The band — which currently consists of Remmel (vocals, acoustic guitar, mandolin, and balalaika), Jamppa (upright bass, violin, vocals), Herman (banjo, acoustic guitar, vocals), Hiltunen (mandolin, recorder, flute, accordion, keyboards/organ, glass bottles), Skubu (drums, percussion, vocals, glass bottles), and Antti “Ministeri” Laitila (sound engineer) — is based in Finland, what Remmel refers to as “the beautiful gem of the north.” “We live a bit scattered now,” Remmel says. “Some live in the central part of the country. I myself live in an area called Savo.  Personally, I also feel at home on the road. It’s a certain lifestyle to play music, and maybe it calls for people who are a bit nomadic or who enjoy moving around in a tour van.”

The original ensemble first came together while studying in a Finnish town called Jyväskylä. “That’s where we met and got to know each other,” Remmel recalls. “A few years ago we had a bit of a lineup change and Skubu and Jamppa joined us. We knew them already, so it went quite easily.”

Remmel adds that the band originally began as a side project around 2010. “The lineup at that time played together in another band, and were just supposed to do one tour with a spaghetti western/country/bluegrass theme,” he explains. “Then things escalated from there and here we are.”

He describes their sound as a mix of bluegrass, country, and rock, mixed with influences of Finnish folk music. “When it comes to instrumentation, we have a good amount of bluegrass in there,” he adds. “There’s five string banjo, mandolins, violin, upright bass, and four part vocal harmonies. But then too, we also have a drum kit and accordion, and that gives us a unique sound when those elements mix together. Our live sound can vary from quite acoustic to a more massive festival stage sound. Someone in France called us a ‘progressive bluegrass band,’ and that sounds very accurate.”

According to Remmel, the group took root from some varied sources. “I believe all of us have our own influences, and sometimes they are from very different angles when it comes to music,” he said. “We see that as a good thing. We can draw inspiration from all of it. Our other influence would be Finland. This country is the one we were born and raised in, so for sure you can hear the Finnish influence in our music. If I were to make a list of specific bands or musicians, it would be a very long one. Personally, my influences vary from country artists such as Townes Van Zandt, Blaze Foley, and Kris Kristofferson to Israel Nash, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, and on to more rougher stuff like Gojira, Megadeth, Ghost, etcetera. And then too there’s also gigantic musical monuments such as Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, and Rolling Stones. There is so much great music in the world that basically every day is an adventure when it comes to finding new sounds. Some tango composers like Astor Piazzolla have a wonderful sound, Yann Tiersen makes very beautiful soundtrack albums, and so on and so on.”

It’s hardly surprising then that the band spends much of their time on the road. “We tour quite a bit annually,” Remmel said. “Since 2010 we have played quite a bit in Finland — including bars, clubs, night clubs etcetera. After our music went viral in the summer of 2014, we started touring a lot more since. To date, we have played in over 40 countries and on four continents — North America, South America, Europe, and Oceania. On a normal tour, year we play approximately 120 – 130 shows per a year. We have done eleven tours in North America alone and several in Europe.”

They’ve also appeared at any number of high profile festivals, among them, Pol and Rock (Poland), Wacken (Germany), Sweden Rock (Sweden), Paleo festival (Switzerland), Transmusicales (France), Boomtown (England). Perth Festival and Byron Bay Blues Fest (Australia), and Maximus festival (Argentina and Brazil). They’re currently preparing to hit the festival circuit in the US as well. 

“During the pandemic, we did a video series on our YouTube channel,” Remmel notes. “It’s called Seagulls’ Nest, and we built an actual treehouse that we filmed it in. In these six episodes we had the honor of having some of the most well-known Finnish artists visit us, play music with us, and do some interviews. Guests included Timo Kotipelto (Stratovarius), Tarja Turunen (ex – Nightwish, solo artist) and Sami Yaffa (Hanoi Rocks, Joan Jett, New York Dolls).”

The group has also released a number of albums that showcase their verve and versatility — Farm Machine (2015), Brothers in Farms (2016), Grainsville (2018), and Another Miracle (2020). They’re currently working on album number five. All of their albums have placed on the Finnish album charts as well as on the Billboard bluegrass album chart.

“A good way to get to know our music is to go on our YouTube channel,” Remmel suggested. “We are also on every major streaming service — whichever you use.”

He said their musical mix consists of both original songs and their unique versions of classic iconic songs. “From the cover song perspective, we have recorded our versions of songs like Thunderstruck, The Trooper, Self Esteem, You Shook Me All Night Long, November Rain, Paradise City, Seek and Destroy, Alive, Panama, Gimme All Your Lovin’, Over the Hills and Far Away, etcetera.”

Their music has been received very well by fans in Finland. “We have a lot of people attending our live shows, and afterwards we like to go and chat with people,” Remmel mentions. “They seem to usually be in a very good mood and we also get a lot of very kind and appreciative messages from all over the world. Our videos have a lot of views and comments on them too.  People seem to enjoy our mixture of music and good times.”

Naturally, Remmel isn’t at all surprised that bluegrass fosters such international appeal. “I think it has something to do with the sound, the acoustic sound and the general vibe to it,” he muses. “It instantly gives you a certain type of a feeling. And it’s unique. I also believe that it’s been used in some iconic movies, so that has an effect on it too. But of course the main things are the songs, the music, the musicians. Usually the musicianship in this genre is very high and valued. People who make bluegrass music, I believe, really do it for the love. It is not the mainstream genre, but has a special place in the hearts of many people. And of course the fans play a major role. Without every one of them it would be hard to do what musicians do.”

To that end, he offers one very strong suggestion. “Come to see us live. You’ll find our tour dates online. Check out our videos and albums. Many many thanks to all of you who have supported us on our travels so far. We really do appreciate it.”

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.