Trust Your Instincts: An Interview with Steve Gunn
Acoustic finger-picker left the archival folk behind to arrive at a psychedelic 1960s-influenced style on his 10th album, Way Out Weather. The trick, he says, it not to overthink things.
"All these songs on Way Out Weather came to me fairly quickly. I used to be afraid of that," Steve Gunn admits over the phone. "I used to not trust my ability to come up with songs."
This time around, though, Gunn says he tried to tap into his natural instincts, refusing to overthink his songs. "You kind of have to let your mind wander and come up with stuff. That's how I've been trying to approach songwriting," he says. "The people who have this natural ability can come up with an incredible song. It's almost like they just dig into their subconscious and come up with stuff."
Gunn has been playing the guitar since his teen years, starting in punk and hardcore, but discovering in his early 20s, the eccentric beauty of acoustic experimenters like John Fahey, Peter Walker, and Sandy Bull. As a young man in Philadelphia, he soaked in the droning guitar atmospherics of Bardo Pond, alongside the dexterous intricacies of Jack Rose. His collaborations are wide-ranging, everyone from 1960s British folk blues legend Mike Cooper to the nouveau string band known as the Black Twig Pickers.
For a few years, he played in the Violators, gaining a profound admiration for Kurt Vile's ability to spin out effortless melodies. And now with Way Out Weather, he has compiled his own eight-cut collection of unforced epiphanies, heading into a more rock-leaning, vocally-centered and utterly captivating direction. In the year-end rating frenzy, Way Out Weather has so far turned up at sixth play on the Mojo list, 12th on the Wire and 26th at Uncut.
Listen to them long enough and the songs on Way out Weather take on a rambling, restless character, serene but not exactly settled, landscapes viewed dreamily from a moving car's window. Gunn says that, sure, that sense of movement was something he was shooting for when he recorded the early ideas for these songs while on tour.
"I have a little hand-held recorder that I was traveling with and whenever I would have downtime, I would just sort of strum around. I was also writing a lot and thinking about topics and jotting things down in a notebook," he remembered.
"When I finally had some time at home, I had a weird collection of notes and snippets of recordings that I was trying to make sense of. Then I would cut and paste those sorts of things into demos and share them with the people that I was going to record the record with and start discussing things," he said. "The process, the actual writing and construction of the songs, didn't really happen until I was home, but I was working with the ideas that were popping into my head on the road."
"I wanted the record to have a feeling of traveling," he added. "Just kind of rolling, rolling along. A lot of the songs I feel have that kind of feel to them."
More prominent vocals mark another shift from 2013's Time Off. Gunn is singing better and more audibly than he has in the past. "I've been working on my singing over a span of about four or five years," he notes. "As my singing got better, I wanted to concentrate more on getting the vocals a little bit more up front in the songs."
Gunn also used a lot more electric guitar textures on this album than he has in the past. If you think of him as an American Primitive-style picker, Way Out Weather will surprise you. It sounds more like 1960s psych rock than pre-war blues. "The new album is more or less half electric half acoustic. I've been really interested in combining both sounds," he says.
That shift is especially apparent live, where Gunn plays with James Elkington of Zincs., Brokeback, the Horse's Ha, and Jeff Tweedy's band on electric. "When I play with a band, I feel like electric instruments are sort of important. In a sense that's sort of why they were invented," he explained, citing bands like Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, and Quicksilver Messenger Service as touchstones for this amplified aesthetic. "So I really like having the sound in some of the songs that I come up with expanded sonically. So I'm bringing electric guitars and other electric instruments into it to give it a bit more volume and depth."
And like some of his forebears, Gunn likes to combine folk-blues precision with guitar-rock brawn. "One of my favorite guitar players is John Cipollina who played with Quicksilver Messenger Service," Gunn said. "He had this really unique style where he played finger-style but electric. It's kind of what I've been doing."
Gunn recorded Way Out Weather with Jason Meagher, a one-time No-Neck Blues Band member who now plays bass in Gunn's band with some mixing assistance from Jeff Ziegler. Together he and Gunn worked out an aesthetic for the new album. "Sonically, I wanted the record to be more clear and have things a bit more up front than in the past," said Gunn.
He and Meagher spent time listening to old records and talking about the desired sound. They came to focus on two albums from the 1970s as guiding inspiration -- one the Everly Brothers' Roots and the other the Beau Brummels' Bradley's Barns. Both were arranged by the guitarist Ron Elliott of the Beau Brummels, who had, according to Gunn, an exceptional way with capturing guitar sounds.
"There are these really amazing textures in the album," he notes. "A lot of it was guitar based and sort of simple but there are all these really incredible tones that Ron Elliott was getting. It sounds like sometimes he was just getting notes of feedback and layering them. The preciseness of it. There were really serious arrangements, but it has a laid back feel to it."
One of the prettiest songs on Way Out Weather, "Milly's Garden", has that quality as well, the intricacy of its dual guitar arrangements melting into simple, unhurried gorgeousness. Gunn says that the song was about a neighbor of his in Philadelphia, whose surface niceness and hidden religious intensity inspired the lyric, "Your faith is savage, and your mind is damaged, you're halfway there."
"She was out there on the front sidewalk, completely friendly and smiling," he continues, "but there was this other window into her world, that I didn't want to be exposed to. It was disruptive. It felt strange to me. There wasn't anything evil per se. It was just fanaticism, almost like when you watch televangelists and it makes you feel creeped out." The song, too, has a friendly surface and an unsettling undertow. There's a darkness bubbling under even the sunniest guitar licks.
The song that might point towards Gunn's next album, though, is "Tommy's Congo", a hypnotic, rhythmic heat-shimmer of a track that evokes African blues and moves in a way that none of the other cuts do. "That's an idea of what I want to do next," said Gunn. "I want to extend and continue."
Collaborations and Connections
For Way Out Weather, Gunn fronts a band that includes James Elkington, Jason Meagher, and John Truscinski (his partner in the instrumental Gunn-Truscinski Duo), and his live band has included Nathan Bowles, the banjo player, on drums. Beyond that, he's a serial collaborator, mixing it up with traditional and experimental players of all stripes. His other big record to come out this year is a duo with Blues Committee vet Mike Cooper.
Gunn says he got involved with Cooper through a friend who runs the RVNG label. His friend had been putting together a series of collaborations he called FRKWYS. He thought that Gunn and Cooper would be an interesting match.
"I'm a big fan of Mike Cooper's music. His older albums from the 1960s and 1970s are amazing, but he's currently more of an experimental player," said Gunn. "He took a bit of convincing, because he wasn't familiar with my music. So I started sending him recordings and he finally was up for it. We ended up doing this session in Lisbon which was also really nice."
PopMatters' Matt Fiander called the pair's Cantos de Lisboa "exciting yet rooted in tradition, comforting yet willing to trouble you ... it's a fascinating musical conversation between musicians from two different generations of experimental music."
More recently, Gunn has been working with the Black Twig Pickers for an early 2015 collaboration which will be released by Thrill Jockey. "It was basically just us ... it culminated from two different sessions. It runs through the older, traditional stuff and we played one of my songs and there's some improvisation stuff. So it's kind of all over the place but it becomes kind of a cohesive record."
When we talk Gunn has just returned from a tour of Europe, and, indeed, his whole 2014 has been spent mostly on the road. "I haven't been home since July," he said, a day or two into December. "I just looked at my calendar and it's like scribbles for every day for the last six months. So I'm happy to be home and to feel a bit grounded. I'm already digging in to coming up with new songs. That's what I'm working on today. I have all the ideas that I'm recording at home. I'm making sense of things that have been popping in and out of my head."