Steve Gunn, master guitar player and singer/songwriter (proven on his very fine and highly acclaimed album “Way Out Weather) has released three albums over the past year, his own “Way Out Weather”, a collaboration with Mike Cooper and a recording with The Black Twig Pickers. Before that he has released numerous solo albums and worked together with many more bands. The man never rests and what he does, he does get obsessed with on top.
And now he is on tour, one hell of a tour. There must be a place near you where you can see him live and I urge you to go.
I had the fortune to see him playing supported by Mary Lattimore & Jeff Zeigler. More on Mary and Jeff in a later blog post. But for now, I have an interview with Steve Gunn for you (the audio files for that to hear Steve Gunn himself will go up at a later date. Now it is time to read.
I would like to thank Steve for taking so much time and being such a brilliant interviewee!
Question: Do you come from a musical family, Steve?
I come from a musical family. They are not musicians per se but they are very musical and huge music appreciators and listeners; there has always been music in the house growing up – all the time: In the car, in the house.
My parents came from the generation that listened to early rock’n’roll and motown and bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles and a lot of soul of music. So that’s what I grew up with.
I had a familiar knowledge of music even when I was pretty young and I had my favourites. Listening was really important.
My Dad was sort of a musician – he did not really pursue it but he played the drums when he was younger. He was very musical. So when I expressed interest in playing, my parents were really supportive. They got me a proper instrument and took me to lessons, really encouraging. They led me into wanting doing it more.
When I started, I wanted to play simply, a couple of chords and jump around. I didn’t really get serious about it until later. When I was graduating from high school, I started listening to more jazz and things. My musical knowledge became a bit more complicated.
Question: Your music in the beginning was quite different. Would you take us through your musical development?
It was. I was fortunate enough to have an older sister. Her friends were so cool. She was just old enough, five, six years older than me. She had all these friends who were dressing cool and listening to cool music. That was a huge influence on me. The stuff they were listening to was alternative music or termed alternative at the time, like The Smiths and The Cure. My sister was also listening to new local bands and going to shows often. I was meeting people who were in bands who were older than me. I was introduced to some people. That kind of put me on a path as well.
The subculture from when I was a child has changed quite a bit. But you were either a sports kid or you were a kid that was into skateboarding and music or art. Or you were into science and mathematics and not so sporty. I was very active in sports but I was also very interested in music. In high school you really had to dedicate most of your time if you wanted to be an athlete, basically all of your time to practising and travelling and playing. And I just stopped. I wanted to play music.
When I was in high school, I played in a punk/hardcore band with some guys who were older than me and I went on tour with them. My parents were initially: No way. I convinced them with a few tears and begged them and they let me go. It seemed like such a monumental trip to me. More or less it was just a hundred-mile loop of a few different locations. As a teenager though to leave home, to sleep at other people’s houses, to do shows – it was a huge experience for me.
I was a fairly good kid, so my parents were trusting of me, which was nice. I wasn’t drinking or taking drugs, I was fairly straight-laced. The music I listened to was a bit wild, but they were supportive.
Question: You had then discovered new styles of music. And it says somewhere that you looked yourself in and learned from watching videos. Are you a very diligent person or a perfectionist?
I think so. I have a really obsessive work ethic where I can meditate on something and play it over and over again and get it to a place where I can do it. At first listen if I am watching or hearing something, I don’t think it is possible for me to play. I put a lot of hours in trying to play certain things that I thought would be extremely complicated. Either by ear or by actually watching things and figuring them out. Sometimes it would take me weeks just to figure out one little passage.
For instance with a mixture of folk and jazz and blues. I discovered guitar players that encompassed everything. Some of them or a lot of them are British, Davey Graham, Bert Jansch. They were doing these different styles where they were throwing in jazz chords, doing a blues progression and also doing classical as well. When I discovered that kind of music, I really started practising that way and I felt like that was a really cool outlet for me to explore the guitar. Growing up, I did take lessons but never really wanted to be rock guitar player like Jimmy Page.
There were other players that were doing similar kind of things and I got caught up in the scene, but more or less was doing instrumental music for years, in my twenties.
I was always interested in singing but that did not come until later when I felt that I had gone to a point with my guitar playing and did not want to become this virtuosic precious guitar-player. I started getting interested in thinking about words and telling stories. That’s more or less when I started singing. I was also doing a lot of improvised music and I got a bit tired of that as well. I still like it but I felt that I was sort of spinning my wheels, as they say, not really progressing.
Question: How do you write your songs, I suppose, music comes first?
It does. It is interesting; before I started writing songs, I was really overworking my songs because my guitar-playing was a bit complicated. I just felt, I was obsessing over the songs too much and I wasn’t letting people hear them, constantly changing things. It took me a few years to just let things live as they were. I finally got to a place where it was becoming easier for (starting with this new album) me to say: “Ok, that’s a song, let’s move on. I had this idea – that’s another song”. And move on.
So I would more or less come up with the guitar licks and sing the vocals – melodically the vocals were very important to me. And the words I finished and shifted around a bit later after I started thinking about it more. The themes were there but it was more important for me to get the vocal melodies right and not obsess over the words too much.
So I just record these crude kind of demos, solo and with an acoustic. I have about twenty or thirty different ideas and I either combine things or throw things away and then redo the demos and send them to the players who played on the record. They also had really cool ideas as far as arrangements go. It was an interesting way to work where the arrangements happened very quickly and then we record and move on.
I am also working on new music and I am using the same kind of model and it really works for me. It is spontaneous and a bit spirited. I guess, I learned to just trust what I am doing and to let it go. Some people who record albums get really obsessed with it and tear their hair out, changing a string part and redoing vocals and guitar. I don’t want to work that way. I like coming up with an idea and then doing it and moving to the next one.
So, that’s how I made that record (Way Out Weather), very quickly, in five days. Most of the music. Of course I did go back and redid vocals and stuff but the bulk of the session was five days. I just did a session for my new record which will come out next year and I try to do the same thing. I found a way to combine everything.
Question: On “Time Out”, your lyrics seemed more personal than on its follow-up “Way Out Weather”? Did you want to get away from that?
I do. I realised that my first album was too personal. I revealed a bit too much of myself. And it was the first time people really started asking me about the music. And I did not want to explain but I had to. It was okay, but I did not want to do that again. I also realised who I wanted to be as a songwriter. In my favourite kind of songwriting the topics are not overly personal. I don’t really want to write a break-up album. I feel that that is kind of selfish. I like to use words more as imagery. Of course there are personal things that I am expressing. But I’d rather tell a story that is more general and express something that is even a bit more abstract. One of the things that I really enjoyed about “Way Out Weather” was: I was using these specific imageries from my personal life that nobody need to know about and it was so cool to put it out there and have it come back and see how people interpret it. I really enjoy that and am exploring it more. It was my goal to have people see a reflection of their lives in the song.
On the title of the album: I was travelling a lot when making that album. I thought about how I had these almost instant relationships with people and the one thing that I always talked about was the weather. It is this general, ritualistic topic where you do not have to reveal too much of yourself but you are connecting in this common way. That was something I wanted to express and a big part of the music is giving something to someone and not just telling about my pain or something that is going on in my personal life. I feel like travelling and playing music and my upbringing make me a very privileged person. I work hard for it but there are a lot of people out there who don’t have that privilege.
So, that’s what I wanted as a part of the music.
I also enjoy telling a story and using just pictorial snapshots which are almost like a list. As in, you are walking down the street and see a guy, planting flowers and you keep going and something goes by and then you watch the river…it is like these pictorial lists that I piece together to tell stories.
Question: Would you tell us a bit about the album and its songs?
Way Out Weather
The weather has really affected my life seriously. There were all these storms and the weather patterns had been changing. I did not want an overly “Global Warming” record. I wanted the record title to have a double meaning. It had to do with the anxiety of everyday life and the fact that global warming does affect everyone. The other meaning was about relating to people. Also, the song speaks about personal anxiety and hope. So I try to tie that together.
Wildwood is a location in New Jersey, it’s a shore and it’s still there and my family goes there. The song is not specifically on the location but I wrote it there, sitting on the beach. I wrote it very quickly, in real time almost. It has a personal context. I used to go there quite a bit as a kid, it was my summer holiday. I went back their as an adult with my family and I was just reflecting on where I was in my life. And also on the environment of that area, how much it changed. When I was young I would dream about going there. Now it is not the last place I would want to be but I would not desire to go there. I travelled so much and have seen so much of the world. I feel I am more sophisticated now.
I was living in a small apartment in Brooklyn for a long time and had a neighbour who was a very religious person. She was very disruptive and loud. She had this secret life that I was exposed to because my back window was close to hers. She would scream at her family and watch evangelists on television. She was very obsessed with religion and she was sort of evil. The garden aspect was that the apartment building and a lot of buildings have that, especially in New York, back alley where nobody goes. She lived at the ground level and decided to take that space, put her shrine there, leave the dogs out there all day and her grandchildren would scream about and she’d scream back. When the weather was nice, it was just a constant disruption. I confronted her about it and she was really mean and surprised about it, as she had been very friendly to me. I am much younger than her, so she did not expect me to come forward with a serious conversation but I was very serious. So, this did not work and I decided to just forget it and wrote the song pretty much out of frustration.
It has a deeper meaning. I like observing people, taking the characters, thinking about them, writing about them. My interpretation of her character gets put on a bigger level. And that’s how that song came about.
It was another observational song. In my neighbourhood in Brooklyn, there were these twin brothers, older gentleman. They live in probably the most expensive real estate, Brooklyn Heights. They dress in identical white outfits and wear goggles and walk around and collect odds and ends from the neighbourhood and bring them back into their house. I imagine they have quite a bit of stuff in their place. They maintain this certain radius in the neighbourhood. I got pretty fascinated with them. Just seeing them around, I was always very curious as to who they were and what their story was. There seems to be a classical condition called “hoarding” and I was reading up on that. There were two brothers who lived up in Harlem in the 20s and 30s, coming from a wealthy family. But they grew old together, lived together and had their enormous house full of stuff. So it is about those brothers and the other brothers and also about how people go unrecognised in your neighbourhood. Everyone is so busy with their lives and the hustle in the city and just focussing on where they are going and not taking a step back and looking around and seeing who is really present in their environment.
Fiction was more or less me piecing together thoughts while sitting on a train or a plane. Random thoughts placed together. Kind of like my travel song.
Drifter was inspired by someone I knew who slowly became more and more mentally unstable. Over a bunch of years I watched people become more distant to him and not taking him seriously. He was battling with his own condition. At the time he was still a happy person. He was still pursuing his life but he was going more and more off the rails. I was imagining what it would be like in twenty years. It’s a positive song. I was imagining meeting this person in the park, chatting with him, hanging with him.
That was a song similar to “Way Out Weather” on the same topic but also on living in New York City and discussing things with strangers.
That song I wanted to lead into the next album. It is a real shift. Hopefully that shift can make sense and I think it will. I was hanging out with Tommy who plays bass and lives in Brussels. We went to this Congolese bar and I was just super inspired by this place and the musicians. A place that stays open all night, has rotating guitar players and it as just incredible. So in the song I was reflecting on that night. In the U.S. in certain places you are not necessarily welcome. We were the only white people in the bar in Brussels and there was no point where I felt not welcome. That does not mean that happens all the time. In the U.S. race is certainly an issue, lately especially and that at the East Coast. I don’t mean this is as assessment that in Europe there are no race issues. But that particular night stood out for me.
And I was certainly inspired by the music and the musicians and the great time they were having.
Question: Your music seems like wide-open road music and yet you live in a huge city?
It’s interesting. People always say, the music is so wide open and pastoral. Maybe in my mind I feel that way and this is how I deal with my environment. It is a direct reflection of my musical influences. The new album I am trying to figure out to make more of a city album.
Question: You collaborated on two other albums but your own last year. Would you tell us about that?
That was an amazing experience. Mike Cooper was someone I was a huge fan of. He made a number of great singer/songwriter albums in the 60s and 70s and then he got more interested in improvising, stopped singing, made more experimental music for the past 25 years. A label from New York got in touch with me and was interested in putting us together because we had sort of similar kinds of trajectories. Obviously mine is much shorter. But I do a lot of improvised music and am now a singer/songwriter. They were interested in seeing what we could do colloboratively. It took a bit of convincing with him. Ultimately we did make a record and it was an awesome experience and we made it in Lisbon, became good friends. I am a big fan of his music and his approach.
He was not familiar with my music, but the more we talked the more he wanted to do it.
He is a really interesting guy. He is in his 70s and he was around, knew all these people, was in London in the late 60s and hung out with everyone. He was friends with Brian Jones and The Stones. He was on a major label, went through the whole ins and outs of the music business.
The Black Twig Pickers I came to know because of an instrumental guitar player by the name of Jack Rose. He had a huge influence on me and we were friends. Jack was friendly with these musicians. The musician who founded the band, Mike, has a band called Pelt who are an experimental drone band, they still exist. Mike also had an interest in bluegrass and formed The Black Twig Pickers. Mike and I became friends. Nathan Bowles plays in my current band and playing on my records. I was going down to Virginia and hanging with them. I made a duo album When we had enough tracks together, we did the album.
Thank you so much, Steve Gunn! And as for you guys: Listen to his fantastic albums and grab the chance to see him live!