By the time you finish reading this sentence, Steve Gunn probably will have recorded a new album. Or he’ll have finished perfecting a ten-minute Portuguese freak-jazz solo with his minimalist drummer. Or produced new albums for one or two legendary English guitarists, who count Gunn as a peer. Maybe he’s already thinking about his next solo album.
The prolific guitarist has had a busy and interesting career, acting as a musician’s musician while helping evolve the sound of indie’s hazy interpretation of Americana (a word he doesn’t like). Gunn is from Philadelphia, lives in New York, and with The Unseen in Between, made another great heartland road-trip album.
The Unseen in Between, which sounds like Bob Dylan’s long-lost Manchester album, is a great introduction to Gunn’s flightful sound, which has grown more eclectic over his solo career and collaborations with Shawn David McMillen, Ilyas Ahmed, the Black Twig Pickers, Mike Gangloff, Mike Cooper, Hiss Golden Messenger, and more. Gunn spoke to Vulture about some notable songs from across his career, what they mean to him, and his growth and influences throughout the years.
“Mr. Franklin” (Boerum Palace, 2009)
Before Boerum Palace, Gunn had been playing for years with GHQ, Tom Carter, the Magic Markers, Marc Orleans (who plays pedal steel on “Mr. Franklin”), and more, as well as releasing limited CDs and cassettes under the name Moongang, and later his own name. However, to him, the trippy acoustic blues of “Mr. Franklin” marks the real beginning of his solo career. “This was really the first album I made with vocals and that was song-based,” says Gunn, “and people were like, ‘What the hell, I didn’t know you sang.’ But I had been doing it kind of privately.”
“This was around the time I started listening to a lot of Michael Chapman. He plays these songs in this sort of A-minor tuning, which is where I lifted that tuning for some different riffs. I was thinking about the way he sings and writes songs, and it’s also my first attempt at character-based songs. ‘Mr. Franklin’ kind of represented my idea of ‘the man,’ so to speak, and sort of rebelling against that. [Singing] was also such an extreme change from what I had been doing. But I was welcome to it. It was a challenge to me, and I also figured out that I loved doing it.”
“Banh Mi Ringtones” (Ocean Parkway with the Gunn-Truscinski Duo, 2012)
While exploring American blues and English folk, Gunn also experiments with Indian raga and other styles of Eastern improvisation, which can be heard on “Banh Mi Ringtones” and throughout his collaborations with drummer John Truscinski.
“I listen to a lot of drummers,” he says. “It’s sometimes the first thing I listen to. There’s that saying that your band is only as good as your drummer. For [The Unseen in Between], I was looking for someone who had more jazz chops. When you listen to the new one, it’s not full of “rock” 4/4 beats or a heavy rock thing. It’s more being sensitive to the swing of a song … I think there’s a fluidity to [jazz drummers] and the way they can improvise and get in between songs.”
“Water Wheel” (Time Off, 2013)
“I think [breakout album] Time Off was the album where I really started becoming better at singing. It was after I had been on the road for a bit, and I had performed more as a singer-songwriter. I now had some shows under my belt. I had these songs written for a long time — some of them for years. When we went to record them, I just knew them. I wasn’t trying to find my way during the recordings, and we recorded all those songs basically live in a room. Also, some of the early stuff that I did, they were always really long. I couldn’t figure out how not to write a ten-minute song. So now I was like, ‘Let’s be more concise.’ It was also the first time that I worked on lyrics and really thought about what I was writing.”
“Lurker” (Time Off, 2013)
Inspired by his neighbors from his longtime Brooklyn neighborhood and the storytelling of the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray,” “Lurker” is a tribute to his guitar influences — Chapman, John Fahey, Sandy Bull, Jack Rose, Bert Jansch — and the importance of geography in his songs.
“I was seeking inspiration in my immediate surroundings. I think it’s important when you’re walking around to kind of be aware of the people you’re around. Especially in New York, where there are just people going from A to B, and they just want to get to where they’re going. They’re not stopping and looking around. But one of the appeals to the city and to New York, for me, is being around all the people. It’s such a rich environment. The song was about the people in my neighborhood who worked and lived real lives and had hardships and are getting unnoticed from the rest of the world.”
“Way Out Weather” (Way Out Weather, 2014)
“When people heard Way Out Weather, they said, ‘Oh, that’s funny that you live in a city, I thought you lived out in a cabin somewhere in the middle of nowhere,’ and I thought, Oh, maybe in my mind I do,” he says. “I still think about the way we made that record. Everything just aligned perfectly. It was the first time I was playing with [James] Elkington, who’s such a sick guitar player. I remember it was February and there was so much snow on the ground. It was like The Shining. We were locked in the studio and everyone was staying there for like four or five days. I didn’t stress or pull my hair out over the words. It was one of those rare times where the song just kind of happened. That’s when I quit my job, actually. There were now offers for a whole string of festivals for five weeks, and I was like, ‘Fuck, if I do this, I gotta quit my job.’ It was a scary prospect, but of course, I was going to quit my fucking job.”
“Wildwood” (Way Out Weather, 2014)
While discussing “Wildwood,” it seemed worth bringing up that Gunn has had a hand in shaping the sound of this decade’s take on indie Americana, as he and his peers embraced more psychedelic and experimental influences. Gunn wasn’t sold on the idea. “I can certainly see that with the War on Drugs and a lot of music,” he says, “where it has this propulsion and repetitive drumming. [But] for me, I kind of struggle with the term Americana. I feel like it’s a weird word to use because I don’t know what it exactly means. When I hear the word Americana, I hear Americans making watered-down or contrived music. I think of a guy with the leather vests and a cowboy hat singing a slick, boring song. But I understand that tradition is important, and being an American musician, obviously, there is a certain sound.”
“Ancient Jules” (Eyes on the Lines, 2016)
“It was bizarre,” Gunn says of playing “Ancient Jules” on CBS This Morning. “But it was also a lot of fun. I did feel a lot of pressure though, like, We’re gonna be this rock band. But I don’t know … it’s almost like you have to walk into the woods with no compass and get lost and figure out what the hell you’re doing. I was definitely out there thinking, What the fuck am I doing?”
“New Moon” (The Unseen in Between, 2019)
“I felt like I knew ‘New Moon’ was always going to be the opening song. It’s a statement of how everything is kind of stripped down, and then it arcs in this way where I’m introducing what’s going on, and then there’s the guitar lead at the end. It’s this sort of hopeful dystopian song, and it’s how I was feeling at the time. I also had Tony Garnier, who plays with Bob Dylan on the bass, so I thought we should open with this simple bass line.”
Dylan is a major influence on Gunn, so conversation turns to Blood on the Tracks, and if it’s possible for an artist to really get personal on record. “I understand why he would say the songs are not personal,” says Gunn. “I also understand how you would want to give the song to other people. You don’t want sympathy, you know? It’s a very benevolent sort of approach, where you’re giving something away that people can use for their own devices. For me, that’s how I look at songwriting, too. I don’t know if Dylan was thinking that, but if he’s saying, ‘It’s not about me,’ he’s saying that it is and isn’t.”
“Vagabond” (The Unseen in Between, 2019)
“Vagabond” might be the most Smiths-sounding Steve Gunn song yet. Gunn, a devoted Smiths fan, says this was intentional.
“It’s laughable how close it is,” he confirms. “When we were coming up with it, we were like, ‘This is so ‘Hand in Glove.’’’ James [Elkington] and I are huge Smiths fans, and we’ve been geeking out about them for years and about Johnny Marr’s guitar arrangements. This was my nod to them and my appreciation for them.”
“Stonehurst Cowboy” (The Unseen in Between, 2019)
“This was a big one,” he says. “I think I was at a point where I was ready to kind of let my guard down because I didn’t have anything to lose, you know? I was out a lot on the road, I lost my father, Trump got elected — I was like, Okay, I need to spend some time with myself, to look inward instead of looking for answers some other place. And also being positive — paying tribute to things and not being woe is me. When you go through a lot of hardships, it can be very isolating, and it’s really hard to dump your feelings onto people. I wanted to create a universality to it where others can relate. Even if it’s like, ‘Shit, I’m sorry your dad is gone, but I love that song.’”
This interview has been edited and condensed.