Steve Gunn: Nice Guy

The guitar player opens up about being a private person, living in New York City, and playing in a teenage hardcore band. Plus, watch the short film inspired by “Tommy’s Congo.”

Nov 25 2014, 2:18pm

Photo credit: Nathan Salsburg

When I meet Steve Gunn at a local bar near his apartment in Brooklyn, the tall and lanky 30-something is waiting for a drink, sporting plain clothes—jeans, T-shirt, and a baseball cap—looking just like a guy who's just, well, waiting for a drink. The reality is that this nice guy is one of the most prolific and talented experimental guitar players working across music today. You wouldn't realize that though because the other reality is, hey, Steve Gunn looks pretty good in a baseball cap.

This unassuming persona matches this man's career trajectory. Gunn, who released his newest record Way Out Weather earlier this year, has been quietly working as a successful musician for over a decade. Originally from Philadelphia, he found his way briefly s a member of Kurt Vile & the Violators before breaking out on his own. Now, with Weather, he's delivered an LP full of thoughtful and progressive songwriting. The introspective guitar-driven music somehow works for every mood—bizarrely making sunshine feel brighter and raindrops feel heavier. It's Gunn's most personal record yet—which is saying something, because as our conversation taught me, Gunn is a very private person. Over our hour long conversation and multiple drinks, we talk extensively about what music does to you and what New York City has become.

Below, also see the premiere of the new short film inspired by Way Out Weather's "Tommy's Congo."

Noisey: Overall, how do you feel about Way Out Weather? I feel like I look at my own work in the past and always want to change it but it’s set in stone.
Steve Gunn: It’s a permanent statement, which is tough. I feel like with the last record I made, it was made really fast and I kid of had to live with a lot of the corners that I cut, exceptions that I sort of made when I was making it. There was a certain level of that permanence of what you do but again for the music stuff it’s kind of a part of it. The album itself isn’t something I’m going to sit around, bellyache and listen to that much. I’m also super into it, touring, playing live. I play all the time so it’s not like, it’s different. If you write something, you can’t change anything. For me it’s a bit different where yes of course the record is there and permanent but playing it live is totally different.

Where were you emotionally while recording?
During this past year with the last album and everything I’ve been just on the road touring a ton, traveling and meeting people. I think I wrote a lot of the record on the road.

Was that different than previous records?
It was. Previous records, particularly the one right before that, I hadn’t been traveling that much and I had just been playing the same, a lot of those songs have kind of culminated over the years and this was the same. I knew I wanted to make a record, and when I got home from traveling for most of the year I just closed myself off and wrote all those songs in a short period of time. It was a different sort of thing for me. When I was writing, I was feeling a bit out to sea, not grounded. Not negatively, because it’s a privilege to go out on the road.

At the same time, you don’t do basic daily things in life. You don’t buy milk.
Yeah, or you forget my mom’s birthday. I didn’t do that, but you know what I’m saying.

A short film inspired by Steve Gunn's "Tommy's Congo"

This is so different than your previous record, which focused on characters in your neighborhood.
Yeah, that record was about my immediate environment in Brooklyn basically and this one was me on the opposite end—me being kind of all over the place, not being at home, not walking around observing maniacs. It was more of me sitting in airports, thinking about myself. I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself, more just like, ‘shit, I’m in the middle of nowhere,’ that kind of thing.

What for you, personally, is on display on Way Out Weather?
I don’t think it’s a personal display. I wanted it to be more of a vague thing and anonymous. It indirectly has to do with how much I’ve been traveling, that’s how I’ve been feeling and what I wanted to do as far as making another record. I felt with the last album being so specific with the environment and telling the story, I almost felt like I was revealing a bit too much of myself. I don’t really think it’s necessary to say anything specific about the songs as far as explaining them and I did that with the last one. I wanted to try to approach it in a different way where I didn’t have to do that and I could express the same things or similar things.

You’re not a massively popular musician. What is it like being in the realm where you have very dedicated fans, but you’re touring, making ends meet, etc.
I feel like I’m not a dude who is just like ‘I’m in a band.’ I’m not a guy who is trying to be cool, a band dude. I more or less think of myself as a working musician and I wanted to build up to that and be able to do it. It’s not an easy job but I don’t want to work a shitty job, and I have.

You’ve lived in NYC since 2001. How have you seen the city change?
It’s weird because I have been playing music since well before I moved up here. Philadelphia is not very far away. I was coming up here quite a bit to see music even before I moved, even since I was pretty much in high school. There was a club called The Cooler, and the old Knitting Factory, a bunch of other different places where I got to see a lot of jazz players, I was really into experimental stuff. After I moved, I found people to play with. I saw waves of bands come through and other waves of bands come through, popularities ebb and flow, different clubs close. It’s not even that long of a time span but it was enough to see a lot of change. There was a club called Tonic on the Lower East Side that was my favorite place to go. It slowly closed. A lot of things migrated to Brooklyn as far as venues and things. There was a place called Zebulon that was up and running until maybe two years ago, I can’t remember how long it’s been since it closed. When that closed it was tough because for me it was one of the last standing, unique venues in the city. Since then there’s been different things popping up. You have people that are running more warehouse DIY spaces and still do cool shows, things kind of shift around. I’ve seen a lot of people kind of migrating farther south into Brooklyn.

How do you see this change reflected in yourself and your music?
I value it. I left Philly in my early twenties and I felt like I created this environment where things were a bit more stimulating as far as culturally and aesthetically and just being more worldy. I’m interested in traveling, and New York was the closest thing for me to be in a place that felt like it was a real, comfortable varied culture where there is so much to explore and so much to offer. Not to say that other cities don’t have that but I was just drawn to that. My favorite thing about living in New York is going to the other boroughs and seeing the different neighborhoods, different ethnicities, eating food. It’s such a huge place and it’s pretty incredible that you have this mix of culture, particularly in the U.S. Traveling all over; a lot of places feel a bit homogenous. There are all the same kind of people hanging out in places so that was something that I was always drawn to. It’s an international city, I wanted to live here and I’m still trying, I’ve been here for a long enough time where I’m comfortable leaving but as far as the time that I’ve put in here I value it because I feel like it’s taught me a lot about myself. People are pretty open here, meeting people on the street or just general, day to day experiences are different here than in other places. A lot of places people are closed off and just focused on themselves and not open, I feel like there’s an openness here.

I feel like living in New York has taught me to just deal with it.
It helps me being on the road, being on tour. Going up to somebody and asking them for directions, going into the back of this club and opening a door and saying ‘yo, I need to get paid.’ That kind of thing. I’m not a city guy per se but I enjoy living here and I think it’s a very interesting place and has a lot to offer. You also sometimes get a bit bummed out when you talk to people and they talk about only a certain type of person who lives in the city. Maybe New Orleans will be the next place to move, that’s where everyone is going. I’m not a part of that, there’s like 8 million people living in the city who are making it work and I don’t consider myself a part of this, I’d like to think I’m not part of this identity of being this person who is not a real living, working citizen of the city. I more or less identify with other people, not necessarily people who are living here and will leave in five years, I guess as far as being a resident of New York.

If you could go back in time, what would you say to yourself before you move to New York?
That’s a tough thing because I don’t really know. It would be easy for me to say ‘oh, you shouldn’t do it’ because it is a struggle, particularly for someone who had to make ends meet, who had to work, who had to find a place to live. It’s probably not going to be very nice, you have to deal with a lot of things. But, I did that really against my better judgment but I feel like it was a valuable experience and I enjoyed being here so I wouldn’t say don’t do it, but maybe I’d say if you want to leave, you should. It can be really fun but it also can be a trap. You have a situation where you’re in a job for a couple years, you’re unhappy, you don’t want to leave your apartment then you’re like ‘OK, I can’t leave my job, I can’t leave my apartment,’ fast forward ten years and you’re like ‘fuck, I’m going to live in Pittsburg and work at a coffee shop.’ Time can go by really fast and I would just tell that person to trust their instincts, if they leave the city they can always come back. I feel like I spent years sometimes thinking about it, what did I do for those three years that I lived in that neighborhood? Just worked and sat in my room and play guitar, which is cool, but...

But without those three years, who’s to say you’d be sitting here talking about your record.
Of course. It’s also a matter of luck. You kind of throw yourself into it. I feel like if I didn’t leave where I was, I would be sitting there, I perhaps would be a couch potato, angry, muscled up tattooed dude. Sometimes I’m that guy in my own mind, which is something that I struggle with, but you can kind of form your own identity and you have to be sure. I like that, I think it’s a cool approach to stepping into trying something. It’s a bit of a sacrifice in a way.

Photo credit: Constance Mensh

What your childhood growing up in Philly; what was your home life like?
I grew up in the suburbs but close enough to the city where it was on the outskirts. When I was a teenager I’d go into the city all the time and I was always interested in music, I was playing music at a young age, early teens. I played a lot of sports as well.

What sports?
I played soccer. I also played in this really shitty hardcore band.

What was the name?
It was called Reveal.

That’s a sweet hardcore band name.
I actually did a tour, I convinced my parents to let me go on tour when I was in between freshman and sophomore year of high school. I played bass. I thought it was this monumental thing but looking back on it, it was like Boston, Rhode Island, we played four or five shows and then came back.

Is there anything you feel misunderstood about as an artist?
Sometimes before I started singing, playing songs, I was an instrumental guitar player and I did that for a long time, I was torturing myself trying to learn how to play a certain technique and for so long I was always pigeonholed into this one category, finger picker guitar player. I don’t like that because to me it’s very limiting. Of course I play in that style and there are certain references like John Fahey, Robbie Basho are the two heroes of that style. Everyone throws those names when they’re describing what I do, which is fine, but I think it’s just a lazy way to explain me. I really appreciate when people just listen to the music without any context or any kind of reference towards from old reviews or things. People can regurgitate so it’s been this feedback loop of the same things being said which is fine but after a while it’s kind of boring. It’s gotten better since I’ve been doing more structured singing, it’s my only gripe and it’s not much of a gripe. I feel like also being misunderstood is OK. I would never assume or feel that people need to get it right because it’s kind of open for interpretation. It’s almost like I can laugh at it a little bit, just to myself. Oh this song is about loving a blind woman who plays bingo, OK. You got it right. I would never want to reprimand someone who assumes something, because it sounds like it’s not really open for a specific interpretation.

That’s interesting. Most people really love to jump on an opportunity to say why they are misunderstood.
I’d rather somebody get it wrong in a way because it makes me think about it. I’ve had people come up and say ‘is this song about this? Is this song about whatever?’ And I’m like ‘no but it’s cool that you thought that.’ I’m not trying to make fun of specific statements, it’s more or less expressing something within myself but I’m kind of just throwing it out there and seeing how it comes back to me.

It’s further proof to how subjective music is. Do you ever think you’ll write very specific songs?
Maybe someday I’ll be able to do that. I feel like I’m a pretty private sort of person and I believe right now with what I do specifically singing songs that I’m more interested in dedicating my time and words in a reflection of myself but not necessarily a longing song. I don’t need to say that to anybody. I don’t need to stand up on a stage and say that ‘I love you girl who works at a bagel shop,’ that’s my own business. For me, I would rather express something that’s a bit more not even tangible but more universal and open ended. Part of that topic of this record is just life in general, how it can surprise you, how things can happen out of the blue, things move quickly and slowly. It’s an emotional rollercoaster everywhere all the time. It’s constructing this music is a testament to not necessarily an inward expression of emotions. Don’t feel sorry for me. Maybe it’s not that specific, but you don’t need to know that I just broke up a ten-year relationship. I don’t care about that.

Eric Sundermann sucks at playing guitar. He's on Twitter — @ericsundy