How Steve Gunn Makes Being a Guitar Savant Seem Effortless
The musician talks his latest (and most excellent) record 'Eyes on the Lines' and fighting stereotypes.
Photo by Constance Mensh
During Eyes on the Lines, the singer, songwriter, and guitarist Steve Gunn has the good habit of sounding effortless.
His preternaturally calm voice, for instance, drifts freely during “Night Wander,” moving with the cool mystique of the nocturnal black cat that serves as the song’s hero. And on “Conditions Wild,” a succinct manifesto for personal liberation, Gunn is so self-assured he practically murmurs through the verses, as if he’s lived the lyrics he sings. His sharp electric lead seems to refract into a thousand different rays during an instrumental break, but it all feels incidental and free, the anthem’s idealistic aims not just preached but—musically, at least—lived, too.
Eyes on the Lines doesn’t sound lazy, of course. These nine songs can evoke, for starters, the guitar tessellations of Television, the transcendental rift of ragas, and the airy impermanence of The Grateful Dead. Each moment is elegantly constructed, warping what you may dub folk-rock with unexpected layers (those tripping rhythms during “Heavy Sails”) and unforeseen twists (the blaze of glorious boogie late in “Full Moon Tide.”) Throughout, however, Gunn seems eternally settled, the unflinching conduit for these complicated hymns.
What may sound like effortlessness now, though, seems to stem from decades of learning and working. A voracious listener and prolific collaborator and improviser, Gunn has put in a lot of playing to reach the completely easy feeling of his Matador debut. On the heels of a whirlwind European press tour, he talked about some of the experiences, influences, and icons that took him from his hardcore youth to solo guitar prominence and to, these days, beguiling singer-songwriter.
Noisey: You’ve just finished a European press tour—about 30 interviews in just more than a week, you estimate. What are you tired of being asked?
Steve Gunn: People bring up The Grateful Dead, and it’s a leading comparison. Perhaps my music does sound a little bit like it, and I am a fan. But there are a lot of ways to interpret that. Sometimes I think music journalists just read old record reviews and see certain signposts. They’re not really listening to the new record. I can tell with the formulaic questions who’s really listening and paying attention and who’s not.
I’d say that’s an accurate assessment, but why do people want to talk to you about The Grateful Dead so much?
I started mentioning that a few years ago. I had some questions about bootlegs. I got a little nerdy, and I would mention that in interviews. Jerry Garcia is an amazing guitar player, obviously, and that’s influenced me in a certain way. I play fingerstyle guitar, and I did learn how to play guitar by learning old folk and blues songs, so maybe there’s a thread there. Also, in Europe, perhaps the question is geared towards me being an American.
I never liked The Grateful Dead until I was older. I grew up listening to hardcore and punk. When The Dead were around, I was in high school, and The Dead were not appealing to me at all. It was like liking John Mayer. They were a rock band, and jocks in Jeeps were pumping that stuff. I didn’t know anything about the band until a lot later, when I learned they were pioneers of being a touring, working band. They were a lot more punk than some of the punk stuff I was listening to.
Do you think the more recent reassessment of The Dead, which seems to have been happening for at least a decade now, has anything to do with the fact that they only kind of exist now? Can listeners separate the music itself from the cult around it?
I think so. When they were all present and still around and touring, there was a different interpretation. Since all the older recordings are better in many people’s opinions, people—after the band stopped—got into their legacy and what the band actually did. Some of the documents were reassessed. A lot of the music that me and a lot of the people I associate and play music with were looking back to was from the Vietnam era, anyway. Those rock bands were the ones we were talking about, trying to figure out how they made their albums, what gear they had, how they toured, what their life was like back then. Like I said, I was around during a bad era for The Dead, coming up as a snarky skateboarder. It took me a while to come back around.
When did that happen?
I have a very specific moment, actually. I was probably just graduating high school, and I was absorbing a lot of different kinds of music. I used to go to The Philadelphia Record Exchange, and they were playing a live album. It was “Dark Star,” the song. I thought it was some kind of krautrock band, like Ash Ra Tempel. They said, “No, it’s this live Dead album.” I couldn’t believe it. That was the first moment.
So you knew Ash Ra Tempel before you knew The Grateful Dead?
[Laughs.] At the time, there was a record-and-CD store called Sounds of Market, in Philadelphia. There was this really awesome guy who was a buyer and put on a lot of experimental and free jazz shows. Every time I walked in, he was like, “Hey, check this out.” I discovered Can and Faust and all those bands; the first Ash Ra record was one of those. It’s funny to think about how the hell did I have that and end up listening to it so much.
You grew up listening to hardcore and playing in a hardcore band, then got into blues and folk and experimental music. I’ve heard a similar story from your friend and collaborator Michael Taylor, from Hiss Golden Messenger. Why do you think that happens?
There is a similar story there with Mike and others. I knew that I was working toward something, maybe pretty slowly, but I was being pretty serious about it. I was playing with all different people, and I started realizing who was taking it seriously and who was posturing and more into socializing. For me, I was more interested in seeing musicians play and being inspired by musicians who worked really hard.
I stepped away and started privately working on it and got it to a point where I felt like I could step out on my own. I did a lot of touring on my own and some bedroom-style recording and self-releasing. It was a slow process of honing what I wanted to do as a musician. I would go through different stages and get tired of certain things and want to change and learn.
Looking back, I can see how everything led up to now. I wasn’t just like, “I’m going to start a band with these guys.” The people I’m playing with now came from a pretty natural, long process. I cycled through figuring out my own way of playing guitar and being on my own and being a singular guitar player, but I really missed that exchange of having people that I really trust.
Who was responsible for that shift?
The drummer John Truscinski. He and I met a while back, after I moved to New York. We had a similar circle of friends, and we were all playing with each other. A lot of it was improvised. He and I started hanging out and talking and realizing we wanted to do something that had a little more focus. We could push each other into the parameters of working on music, instead of just going in and playing and shrugging our shoulders and then going to have dinner. We knew that if we worked on it, we could make music we wanted to release and could be proud of. That’s when I really started to enjoy playing with a drummer. Singing came later. I was writing songs separately from the stuff I was doing with John, and after a while, I was like, “Oh, man, let’s try a little bit of a trio.” That was the album that I made, Time Off.
How has incorporating more people into that mix pushed your guitar playing?
Before I moved to New York, I was friends with Jack Rose. I knew him when he was in the band Pelt. I didn’t know this, but he was playing in bar bands when he was a teenager, playing blues-rock stuff. But he lost his job, and I remember he started really working on solo stuff. When I saw him, I was blown away by how hard he worked on music and his attitude and the way he demanded respect and his general presence. It helped me commit to playing. I started practicing a lot on my own and trying to figure out how to navigate and get my dexterity down. I spent a lot of time working on that, privately.
When I moved to New York and I met the people I was improvising with, I brought all that stuff I’d been practicing into what I was doing. One example of a relationship that was really inspiring was Sandy Bull and Billy Higgins. Sandy Bull was playing a guitar in open tuning, and Billy Higgins was basically playing jazz drums. They were improvising, but there was a framework they were working within. That opened up a whole different perspective. It helped me not be this solo guitar guy. I didn’t aspire to be that. When you put solo guitar on a CD-R or something, it’s like, “Oh, man, here we go. I’m going to be in John Fahey’s fingerpicking shadow,” which is pretty hard to get out of.
Meeting people in New York, I started doing all kinds of different things. I was absorbing all the stuff that was happening. I just kept playing. All I wanted to do was play all the time.
You’re not the first person to go from being known as a solo guitarist to a singer, but I tend to check out when Leo Kottke starts singing.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I take the needle off the record.
Were you anxious to make that jump, knowing others had missed the mark?
It was a little nerve-wracking, but I did it slowly. I was playing in the band GHQ, and we were doing shadowy, moany, drony stuff. I was starting to sing quietly and shyly. I knew that I could kind of sing, but it took me a while to work through it. I was listening to a lot of songwriters, and I wanted to try that, try to sing. I wanted to try and make a record where I was singing. I did that at my apartment.
I know what you mean about Kottke, though, where perhaps he was just like, “Fuck it, I’m going to sing this song.” It sounds to me that some people can’t really hold a tune, even if they’re incredible guitar players. Maybe that’s why they’re incredible guitar players. It took me a long time to get up the confidence and step out into it.
Did different influences come into play once you began to pursue your own voice?
Someone like Meg Baird was really inspiring to me, because she was such a great singer and player—and a friend, as well. I was listening to a lot of British folk stuff, like Bert Jansch and that whole crew. I delved into that world and learned those songs and added my own thing. Around that time, there were a lot of people playing in that realm, with the whole—I hate to use this term—freak-folk thing. I wasn’t buying it at all, and I wasn’t wearing a tassel jacket. I didn’t have long hair. But I was appreciating it from a distance, at least the people that stuck out to me.
Your profile really seemed to rise as or after that scene, or perception of a scene, faded. In retrospect, was it beneficial to you not to be seen as part of it?
It was. Thinking back—and this was even happening in other scenes, too, like the experimental scene in New York—I couldn’t figure out, “Is this good?” There were so many things that weren’t about the music to me. It just got a little bit ridiculous, and I felt like a lot of that stuff was a lot of posturing. I just wanted to work on music. I looked like a normal dude, and I didn’t really fit in.
I’m glad I didn’t go down that road, but I wasn’t going to go down that road, anyway. I could see pretty clearly who was doing it for real and who was just an act. It was frustrating for me, because I could see what was going on. I just thought it was lame. I was a little disgruntled by it, so I just pursued my own thing. And again, for me, Jack Rose was the person that transcended all that shit. That trend wasn’t guiding him.
How did Jack become such a mentor?
I met him in Philadelphia when he was coming out with solo recordings. He knew that I was working on guitar, and we’d talk a lot about guitars. I’d see him at the Record Exchange, and we’d sit around and listen to records. He was so humble and so supportive of the people he liked, and he would champion people he thought were working hard. I made a CD of my very first song stuff, and he said, “Dude, I have your CD in my car, and I’ve been listening to it nonstop. Keep working on it, and it’s going to be really great.” That’s all I needed to keep pushing.
He worked really hard. The hard work he put into it really paid off. Unfortunately, he died at a place in his life where he finally reached this comfortable moment. All the work he did before was a big inspiration to me. When he did pass away, it hit me really hard. I made a conscious decision: “OK, I’m really going to fucking do it. I’m going to work as hard as I can.” It was already building up to that, but once that happened, I thought, “That’s it.”
Grayson Haver Currin is a writer based in North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter.