Steve Gunn moves from music’s experimental edges to a singer-songwriter space

Steve Gunn plays his first Vegas show on October 2 at the Bunkhouse.
Photo: Nathan Slasburg

If you’ve only heard Steve Gunn’s three most recent solo releases—2013’s Time Off, 2014’s Way Out Weather and June’s Matador Records LP, Eyes on the Lines—you might think he burst forth from his musical womb playing lush, folk-steeped rock songs. Far from it, the Philadelphia-bred, Brooklyn-based guitarist’s roots actually trace to more formless sounds, both on his own and with experimental outfit GHQ.

We caught up with Gunn on the eve of his latest U.S. tour leg—which includes an October 2 stop at the Bunkhouse, his first-ever Vegas performance—to talk about that evolution and what might come next.

After playing with lots of different people over the years, you’ve had a consistent band lineup for a while now. Has that stability helped your music? We have almost a full year of touring under our belt, and the more we play as a group the more things change in interesting and subtle ways. We strive for synchronicity as players, you can only reach that point by playing as much as you can. Plus, these guys are my closest friends, so it’s been great to pursue it with them exclusively at this time.

Were you all close before you started touring together, or has that happened on the road? The guitar player, Jim Elkington, we met just a few years ago, but became fast friends and realized that we had a lot in common, musically and with where we were as guitarists. The bass player, Jason Meahger, owns the studio where I’ve been recording pretty much every album that I’ve made. He’s been a real supporter and champion of my work, and we’re very close musically and as friends. Similarly, Nathan Bowles, the drummer, I met years and years ago through Jack Rose, and we’ve become fast friends as well. So they’re not just hired hands I met in a bar or something. We have a deep understanding of each other musically.

Have you gotten to the point where being out front, the focal point of the show, is more or less second nature? It’s more natural now, but it took some time, singing and playing with a band. It’s a lot to get a handle on. I went from playing solo to using effects and amps and singing. I really learned how to project my voice more. It just took some time to get more comfortable with it. The only way for me to do it was to just go out on the road and play as much as I could. So I did a lot of touring, and I feel like it paid off.

To me, your three albums latest solo feel like a series of sorts, with compositional and lyrical threads running through them. Do you see them that way? Yeah, they all kind of correlate, and they all touch on similar themes. I also think you can hear the progression, like there’s a slow arc with some of the stuff that’s moving upward. For the next one, I want to try different things, maybe approach things differently in the studio but continue that general thread.

You’ve been busy recording and touring for a number of years now, seemingly without much of a break. Is that just the way you work, or do you see yourself pausing to take a breath anytime soon? I think my next endeavor is to start working on a new record. And now that I’m working with Matador, there are more moving parts with what I have going on. It’s more work to make an album, which is good. Before I was just able to crank things out and keep the wheels moving. I’m looking forward to taking a step back and slowly working on songs and taking my time with this next record. So in a sense that’s a break. I never want to stop working or thinking about it, but the process is changing a little bit, which is exciting.

GHQ was a pretty experimental band. Do you think that era’s Steve Gunn would be surprised to hear your current music, which is far more structured? (Laughs) I think I had it in me, but it was a long trajectory. A band like GHQ was good for me—those experiments in sonics and drone sorts of things; I do definitely enjoy that—but I was moving away from it and wanted to challenge myself more. I always wanted to sing, and I slowly grew into songwriting. I think my younger self would be a little surprised, but I think I was always heading that way.

I did a lot of playing on my own, basically in my bedroom. And when I started distributing a CD of songs, just DIY style—printing them up myself and selling them through the mail—it really caught people off-guard, because I had never performed in that way. The other stuff I was doing was so experimental, and a lot of the players I was playing with didn’t play anything else, or listen to anything else. I’m on the subway listening to Bert Jansch and going to play drone music. There was a real exclusivity with that music, and I was never a part of that. It just so happened that that turned up on records before I was more developed with my singing. Once I knew that I was able to do it and people started appreciating it, I started touring Europe by myself, solo, and it started going really well. And I knew that I’d found my path with it.

Your two Gunn-Truscinski Duo albums were recently reissued on Three Lobed Recordings, and to me that feels like the middle phase between your experimental stuff and your current singer-songwriter music. That’s a really good observation, because that really did springboard into me wanting to do things a little more structured. John [Truscinski] played an important role in me exploring that. We were coming from the same scene, endlessly playing in these long-form bands with these different people, and he’d played in GHQ. We were really influenced by Sandy Bull, especially this song “Blend,” which has Billy Higgins playing drums on it. That track was what we wanted to do, to become better players and not just flail around. We started playing together a lot and coming up with these really involved, long drum-and-guitar pieces. I was kind of connecting all the dots with what I wanted to do, and we were really pushing forward and focusing and rehearsing a lot, but also learning how to improvise in certain paradigms. It was a really formative time for me. And it definitely helped me when I started singing. I was sort of working toward that, and you’re right, you can hear that happening.

Do you see yourself revisiting Gunn-Truscinski at some point? We talk about it all the time, and we still play as much as we can. We share a rehearsal space here in New York, and we’re still close. We’ve always been playing, so we’re gonna continue to do that, and I hope we’ll do another duo album at some point.

I know you’re a Grateful Dead fan. Were you asked to participate in the Day of the Dead compilation? I was never asked, and frankly I was fine with it. I do like the Dead, and I hope that’s a great release that does their songs justice, but I needed a little bit of separation. I started talking about it, and I started getting a lot of Jerry Garcia comparisons when my first record came out. Which is fine, but I feel like there’s certain signposts that music journalists … like, aw, man, you’re gonna review my album and say that it sounds like the Grateful Dead? I started to get a little bit annoyed by that. So I was perfectly happy not being involved with that project (laughs).

I wasn’t even going to ask about this, but since you mentioned signposts along your career, it seems like the Kurt Vile thing has become that, too. Your involvement with his band was pretty limited, yet every article I read about you seems to reference it. Yeah, it’s true. I knew it was going to be, but it’s sometimes frustrating to see that. There’s nothing I can do about, and it’s certainly not a bad thing. But that’s the first sentence: former guitar player from Kurt Vile’s band. People ask, “What was it like to get your start in Kurt Vile’s band?” I’d been playing at clubs for 10 years before that, and I was only in Kurt’s band for a very short time. I didn’t play much of a role in any of his process or anything like that. He basically was doing me a favor, and I went on the road with him for a couple of weeks. It was kinda no big deal, but it became this thing. It could be worse, but sometimes it’s like a big shadow that’s difficult to step out of.

Last thing: Anything you’ve been listening to, on the road or otherwise, that you’d like to shout out and recommend to our readers? I’ve been listening to Gabor Szabo lately, the guitarist. There’s an album called Dreams, and it’s so good. I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz. Jimmy Giuffre—he had a band called the Jimmy Guiffre 3, which was him on horn, Jim Hall on guitar and a trombone player. One of their albums is called Western Suite that I really like. And I’m looking forward to hearing this Washington Phillips reissue that’s coming out. He’s like a gospel singer who kind of built his own instrument, sort of like a weird zither, and he has this really high-pitched voice and it’s super-beautiful music. This label, Dust to Digital, is reissuing a collection of his music.

Steve Gunn with Drew Danburry, Aubrey Debauchery. October 2, 9 p.m., $7-$10. Bunkhouse Saloon, 702-982-1764..

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Spencer Patterson

Spencer Patterson is the Editor of Las Vegas Weekly, having previously served as Managing Editor, Arts & Entertainment Editor and ...

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