So, a Finnish bluegrass hillbilly band walks into a bar….No, it’s not the beginning of a joke, it’s the start of an evening on Steve ‘N’ Seagulls’ first-ever U.S. tour. If there’s a punchline, it’s that they play metal songs like Metallica’s “Seek and Destroy” and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” but with the twangy tones of mandolin and banjo subbing in for the hard stuff. Oh, and they’re serious about it.
Yet the quintet are also as much fun as their band name indicates. On Facebook, they list their current location as perunamaa, a potato patch, but they’re actually driving across the United States in the RV “tour bus.” They’re en route to West Virginia, touring in support of their Spinal Tap–ishly named debut album, Farm Machine. Today it’s singer/guitarist Irwin Remmell calling for a chat — he’s hanging with banjo player Hermann de German while the rest of the band (Pukki Kaalinen, the mononymous Puikkonen, and Wild Till Hiltunen) drive or nap.
Steve ‘N’ Seagulls are a part of a metal subsect inspired by heavy greats and inventive instrumentation. There’s another Finnish, Metallica-inspired, cello-wielding outfit, Apocalyptica; there’s Steel Panther, a glam-metal parody band. Then there’s Hayseed Dixie, an American group (their moniker a linguistic play on AC/DC) who have been purveying “rock grass” since 2001.
But Steve ‘N’ Seagulls are none of the above. “We’re not a novelty, not a joke,” begins Remmell, in accented but otherwise excellent English. “The point is, we want to have fun, and [we want] our audience to have fun. On the other hand, as musicians, we really want to push ourselves to do all the music, the recordings, the arrangements best we can. That’s what we mean about no ‘humor.’ We don’t make [music] as a joke, we make the songs as good as we can. We aim more and more to find our own thing, and make something unique with this mixture of a rock band [and] a bluegrass lineup, playing like a mixture of rock and metal and country,” he explains. “Also, as I said, we want to have fun.”
So far they are doing just that on this tour, which began on the West Coast and now barrels eastward, leaving no time to visit such American icons as the World’s Biggest Ball of Twine (Cawker City, Kansas) or the World’s Biggest Beagle (Cottonwood, Idaho). Steve ‘N’ Seagulls have bigger reindeer to fry. (“I suppose some people who do not live in Scandinavia are sort of terrified of eating Santa Claus’s reindeer,” Remmell acknowledges.)
The American landscape currently unfurling on the other side of the RV window is not especially reminiscent of the Finnish town where the band members first met more than a decade ago. “We all ended up in a town three and a half hours north of Helsinki, in Jyväskylä. Two came to university, three to study music,” the singer says. “It’s a small town, so everybody who plays an instrument there eventually gets to meet each other.” The members were in various original bands — Remmell and two other current SNS members in a “grunge/garage” outfit — but SNS’s current style was birthed in 2011, before Remmell joined. The players were “asked to do something special for a theme party that had a western or country theme,” explains Remmell, “and they arranged a few songs for that, and the idea came from there. It started to live its own life as a side project. Then…they asked me [to join], and since then  we’ve been doing it this way. It was a little bit by an accident.”
It takes talent to rework a metal song in a winning hillbilly style, and the band has found that not every tune is suitable. “There are quite many different bands and songs that we’ve had to put aside, because we haven’t found the way to redo or rearrange them. It requires a solid riff and something in the song that you can rearrange.” So far, “we tried something from Kiss, something from Van Halen. We might still work on them, but we didn’t get them done for the first album; maybe for the second one. “
The first record features covers from AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Guns N’ Roses, and Pantera, and to date, SNS haven’t heard from any of the bands they’ve tackled. “But we hope they are happy; it’s us honoring their classics.“ They haven’t heard from Steven Seagal, either, the inspiration for their band name and the actor who also calls himself a “film producer, screenwriter, film director, martial artist, musician, reserve deputy sheriff, and entrepreneur.” That said, “We would really love to meet him, because we like his movies.” And, yes, Remmell has a favorite, but he is unable to give the title in English. “We translate the movie names, which are usually totally nothing to do with the original name,” he explains. His favorite has Seagal as an ex-CIA agent on a train that gets attacked. (Under Siege? Above the Law?) Phonetically, it sounds like “Kipr Us Ray Dayla.”
Though Remmell was an exchange student in Minnesota in the late Nineties, he’s never visited the Big Apple, and has two thoughts about the city, which he’s aware of via movies and some of his favorite concert films, like Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden. “We’re just excited to see the way that people live; is it actually so busy as it seems?” he wonders.
While Steve ‘N’ Seagulls are thrilled with their first American tour and the reception they’ve gotten thus far, they’re also looking to 2016 and hope to begin a second album in February. Yes, it will still be heavy covers: “We all grew up listening to metal music and playing metal, because it’s big thing in Finland. I like all the bands that we cover on the first album. I really like Rammstein, and we wanted to do something a little off mainstream, which is why we wanted to do a song in German [“Ich Will”]. Ha, a bluegrass band playing a heavy metal song in German.”
And let’s not forget the farm theme that permeates much of Farm Machine: It’s not shtick. “Most of the videos have been shot at our accordion player’s home farm, and the pictures on the album cover are taken there,” the frontman says. “We have gone there to work on songs and do some BBQ and have a few beers.” And the adorable shaggy miniature horse in many of these scenarios? That’s Benjamin. No, he’s not on tour with the band. And despite the appearance of at least partial insanity thanks to the band’s persona, songs, and videos, Remmell isn’t expecting too much for the end-of-tour NYC after-party. Certainly not the hookers ‘n’ blow of previous generations of touring metal bands. So what shenanigans might occur? Remmell laughs a bit shamefacedly. “Sitting down, having a few beers, and laughing our asses off. I’m a bit boring; no strippers for me.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 29, 2015