Steve Gunn Might Be the First Indie Musician to Make Their Dad Proud
On 'The Unseen in Between,' the NYC-based guitarist reflects on the passing of his father, who came around on his son's indie rock aspirations.
Photo by Clay Benskin
Steve Gunn has been putting out heady records for over a goddamned decade now. In that time, the New York-based guitarist has dipped his toes in scenes ranging from harsh noise, to drone, to more folk-based songwriting. While steeped heavily in traditions of Eastern ragas and modal blues, Gunn’s sound has helped continue to push the new school of jammy/psychedelic/fingerstyle guitar music made popular in this century by bands like Espers, Wooden Wand, Six Organs Of Admittance, Bardo Pond, and other underground fringe scenes scattered across North America and Europe. As he’s woodshedded over the years, he's developed minimal and lean cyclical picking patterns that make every tune feel familiar, like an old drinking pal up to hang until last call.
Gunn’s writing has always been full of colorful observations on the small details of city life and the oddball characters who inhabit his urban sprawl, but his newest LP, The Unseen in Between, contains some of his most personal tunes to date. His late father’s passing weighs heavily here, especially on “Stonehurst Cowboy,” a solitary and incredibly touching tribute to him. “Vagabond” is a no-bullshit uptempo jukebox-leaning, record sleeve ringwear anthem, a true-blue Steve Gunn rager; thanks in part to production by guitar god and studio wiz Jim Elkington, Gunn and his band practically leap through the stereo. Nobody on the track is competing for airtime, everything in the mix falls right into place. Expanding beyond his tight and polished guitar/bass/drums power trio found on previous albums like Way Out Weather and Time Off, this record sees Gunn showing us his universe through a wider lens including far-out strings, twisted baroque clarinet, and easy-breezy background vocals from Meg Baird. The result is an album that feels like Sunday morning at the diner with your closest friends. Deep fried and held close, just where you belong.
I recently sat down with Steve at a coffee shop in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to discuss old directions, eternal legends, and how to conceal a keg.
Noisey: Was this record a long time coming?
Steve Gunn: It's been done for a while. Months and months, just sitting on it.
The last three records you’ve done that have gotten out into the mainstream, those feel like a distinct trio. Does this one feel like a reinvention or a new start?
I think everything realigned for this one. For me, I never felt like a natural songwriter. Just being a guitar player and improvisor, I was learning how to do it along the way. And I think, up until this record, I finally felt comfortable that I could just go into a studio and go, “I’m gonna go into the studio and sing this song, and you guys back me up.” Before, it was always like, “I’m gonna do the vocals after we get this sick song together, and then I’m pulling my hair out trying to do it.”
Yeah, that is a terrifying feeling to go about it that way.
It's a classic thing that people say—all the records that you and I and all of our peers love, that's how it was done. Just go in there and do it. Luckily, I had the right people in there to say, “Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about screwing it up. Don’t worry about a weird take.” It had this weird performative aspect to it that I had never tried before. And maybe it’s like, not caring as much. You know how you get so stressed? At this point, it’s like, I’m still gonna fucking do this no matter what.
I feel like you’re now a stalwart of New York City guitar music. You and your crew have created this world around you, this homie sort of collective. The whole thing feels like psychedelic East Coast commuter music, the same vein of Lou Reed, where the freak minutiae of living in a dense city comes out. A perfect example off your new record is the song “Luciano.” I’d say that's a total classic Gunn tune. You can pull out these grand story arcs out of seemingly simple everyday life here in New York.
For me, that’s why I love living here and why I love New York. That’s why I gravitated towards it, to sort of remain anonymous. I’ve been here so long, even to just walk around and be observant of what's going on at all times, there’s a certain kind of energy that many people aren’t aware of, so many different everyday stories. Not “Who do you know?” or “When is Fashion Week?” or any of that shit. As a city, I think it's pretty fascinating.
The title of your record, The Unseen in Between, even examines this sort of big-city, small-detail approach. Sort of looking under the hood at all the cogs that make this thing work.
That’s what inspires me. We meet all these people, listen to all these records—it’s this whole fucking thing. And we work pretty hard at it. There’s such a weird thing about being a songwriter. There’s people who are like “me, me, me,” this character for everyone to enjoy. If you wanna sit and shop for clothes, that’s cool, just not for me. You can kind of convert stories and messages that aren’t exclusive and selfish.
Conversely, I really enjoy that tune “Stonehurst Cowboy” that you wrote about your dad and his crew. At least in my life, that whole crew was angry as hell, drank way too much, but were the most funny and down to earth people.
I always think about them. They are all from the Vietnam era and grew up very working class and poor. There were a lot of difficulties and psychological stuff going on, but they maintained and raised families. I used to go to Eagles games every Sunday. My dad had season tickets for 20 years or so. I always think of my dad and his crew tailgating at The Vet stadium. I just remember the the posse was so crazy. Even as a young boy, they would have me sneaking in bottles of vodka for them.
You were a booze mule for them?
I’ve never heard anything more Philadelphia in my life than that.
They had a whole section of the nosebleeds of 20 or 30 people deep that just went off. Fights, the whole thing. There was one dude who came in a couple times who was in a wheelchair that had a keg stashed underneath.
That's so sly.
I always think of that whole posse in that context. Even speaking to some of my dad’s friends now, they still have the craziest stories.
It’s funny, these people who I thought were immortal when I was kid, who I thought could lift a car over their heads, are kind of slowly fading away and getting older.
My dad passed away two years ago, and a lot of that song was when he was slowly fading. He was sick and had cancer, so I had time to really connect with him and get the backstory of his life. The whole era of the 60s and 70s, living in Philly, trying to make a life for themselves—all the shit him and his friends went through was really interesting to me. And when he got terminally ill, he started really opening up and we connected in a way that we really hadn’t before.
Was he a pretty reserved guy?
We cut to the chase on a lot of things. When I moved to New York, I was playing experimental music and making CD-Rs. There was a sort of disconnect. Nobody really knew what I was doing. I was sort of figuring things out on my own for a number of years, which is totally fine. I was out on my own, though. I connected with him through the music. My point is, I started getting a more full-circle view of the story and that song is all about that.
It's really touching and funny, and so many things in it resonate with me. The older I get and talk with my dad, things become more understandable. I’m his age now when he had me. I’m an adult baby, indie rock dumbass. To think of raising a family now is beyond me.
Well, you’re working hard and traveling the world. You always have to put that in perspective. I always check myself. If I’m in an airport in a toilet with my guitar and suitcase, I’m like, “I fucking hate this.” It's easy to forget how lucky I am to be making money and doing it, because it is hard work.
When were you finally able to quit full-time work and live solely as a musician?
That was kind of after Way Out Weather came out—2015 or so. My dad was like, “Holy shit! You’re a professional musician? That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard of.” To someone like him, who worked so hard his entire life, it was a big deal to hear.
The city has changed so much since you were starting. So many scenes have come and gone, venues come and gone, stupid fucking trends in pants have come and gone.
A lot of pants. When I first came here, the pants vibe was pre-skinny but post-Dickies. Still a chain wallet here and there, but definitely on its way out.
Did you come here during the Animal Collective and Black Dice era?
Yeah, that stuff and the hippie freak-folk thing was big. When I moved here, I was going to Tonic a lot. I think Alan Licht was booking it. There were places along the waterfront, like Free 103, kind of pirate radio station with small performances. First time I went there I saw Chris Corsano and Paul Flaherty, No Neck Blues Band.
Such a nihilistic time in music. Everything was fucked up.
When I grew up, I loved punk, and eventually got into stuff like Void or The Ex. Eventually when I heard Coltrane or Ayler, it tapped into the same interest, just on a bigger scale. It all sort of linked together. All these signposts along the way from punk led me here.