Dear blog reader, I can almost feel you doubling back in sheer horror at the length of this post. Wait now, something good is coming or would you think that after two nasty viruses hitting the Offbeat household, three concerts and four interviews in a week, day jobs, radio shows and this being absolute Doomsday for mankind and the U.S. specifically, I’d be sitting here, typing until my fingers bleed? Naaaaw, it won’t be just me blathering – Steve Gunn will tell us about himself in his own words in the Steve Gunn & The Outliners Interview November 2016.
After the release of his first album for label Matador “Eyes On The Lines” which will have introduced him to a wider audience, Steve Gunn started a long tour all over the world (apart from doing a gazillion other things – read about it further down). It is always an immense pleasure to see Steve playing live and also to talk to him (see an older interview here) but this time was priceless even though it did not start out too well…
Trying to hurry to Cologne in the lashing rain on a choc-a-bloc Autobahn (on a Sunday evening?), getting lost, running hysterically in circles, getting advised by the mobile phone map thingie that you better call a taxi as you are facing a 30 minutes walk (erm, the venue was around the corner from us) and then missing each other repeatedly at the venue, it did not bode well.
An hour late we started the interview and the concert was starting early as The King Georg venue is in a living quarter not outside town, meaning, you have to stop the music by 10pm. And yet Steve Gunn took his time to answer each question elaborately, looking for the absolute right words in that soothing voice of his (just imagine this for a moment now until I finally figure out how to put interview snippets on here or listen to my shows on www.novumfm.de and www.byte.fm). I once said and I still stand by it, the man should be doing audiobooks! Maybe though, Steve is just too polite to say no (could be that, too). Anyhow, I bet you to find a nicer interviewee and in many years of interviewing I have had only two bad experiences (who won’t be named as there is no such thing as bad publicity).
Another fact that made the evening special was that Nathan Bowles played support on the banjo (in Steve Gunn’s The Outliners he plays the drums. Nathan hails from the band The Black Twig Pickers and he also has a solo album out – “Whole And Cloven”).
In the rather intimate venue (and I don’t mean the colour scheme and seating arrangements dating from its former somewhat seedy existence) the pleasantly mixed audience were treated to a feast of musicianship. Now, I have seen Steve play solo, with another backing band, then with also Jason Meagher on bass and Nathan Bowles on drums but Paul Sukeena on guitar. All great but maybe due to the “new” delegating Steve, this show ranks high up there, simply because of his guitar harmonies and duels with James Elkington who indeed graces this tour. All Stars band in my humble opinion.
But without further ado, let us have Steve Gunn speaking in his own words.
Offbeat Music Blog: Steve, thank you for taking the time, first of all.
Steve Gunn: Of course, my pleasure.
OBM: I read an interview and article with/about you in “Uncut” and you were going to a record fair with them for three hours and you were happily perusing the records on offer. How do you know all this music of all these different and sometimes exotic genres?
SG: I am a kind of, I guess what you would call, information junkie. I have been collecting and reading and asking questions about music since I was a teenager and then I sort of became slightly obsessed with certain genres and certain players and certain regions of the world. I have gone through a ton of different recordings whether it be at the library or at friends, collections or reading about things in books and online. I am not a scholar by any means but I definitely like a wide range of music and it took a lot of time to investigate certain things, particularly music around the world, understanding the structure of certain types of music, scales and the instruments themselves. I try and correlate a lot of the tones and scales into what I do. I really appreciate not just western music. Even to this day, I am constantly trying to explore and find new things. It’s cool that some of my peers are also similarly interested in getting musicians from around the world to come and play. It gives a new breath, a new life to some things we are doing because we are only really recycling things that have already been done. That kind of music offers a whole new perspective and window and a story as well. That’s also what I’m interested in: People’s cultural stories and personal stories. That music really provides that for me and my peers.
OBM: You originally started out doing hardcore/punk music, then skater music and at some point you’ve had it with the electric guitar, found yourself stuck and picked up the acoustic. What would it be nowadays, would it still be the acoustic guitar first?
SG: It usually always is if I am at home. It is also because of the style in which I play. I have gotten a lot more interested in electric guitar, obviously, if you’ve seen me play and heard my records. But I think, the basis of what I know and how I learn how to play is from acoustic. I always go back to that if I am simply playing and trying to write songs. Playing with a band has got me pushed more into playing electric. I really do enjoy that aspect but if I had a choice, I would definitely pick acoustic (laughs).
OBM: What would be your favourite acoustic guitar?
SG: Hm…right now…I just bought a guitar in Los Angeles at this shop. It is called “Old Style Guitars” and is a small shop. I wouldn’t call it boutique shop per se but the owner has a lot of old instruments and fixes them up. I went in there, not thinking I was going to get anything. I’ve heard stories about other players doing this where they pick up a guitar and it just feels as if they should own it. Easy to play. It is also for me the kind of thing where I am sort of looking for something to inspire me to play in a different style. Anyway, I went to the store and there was this guitar there from the 1930s from Hawaii. A Hawaiian guitar that was more lightly strummed. It has a smaller body so it has a particular tone. This guitar-maker, he put an electric pick-up in it and these flat round strings so it had this really incredible tone. It almost sounds like an oud or some sort of middle-eastern instrument. I started playing it and felt, I could tell, if I owed this guitar, I would play it all the time.
OBM: It spoke to you.
SG: Exactly. I bought it. I brought it home. Drove it all the way back from California to New York. Before I left for this tour, I basically played it every day. I am really developing a relationship with it. Currently, that’s my favourite instrument. It’s funny because I went to this very fancy guitar-maker’s shop in Santa Cruz where he makes these incredible guitars from all different kinds of wood which are super beautiful and sound amazing. They are really expensive but he really takes his time and he is one of the few people in the States taking as much time in the craftmanship – doing it right. And I was so ready to put the money down and buy one of these incredibly nice guitars. But something just said no. I don’t want the instrument to be too precious. Because I worry about it. So, this Hawaiin guitar now was perfect because it had lived a life and it had its own existence. This guy found it and rebuilt it. It just made it special. When I picked it up, I realised that “I don’t need to buy some fancy guitar to be inspired”. This is perfect because it has its unique sound and I really like playing it. The point of my story is that I like guitars that have more of a story and are unique in their own way.
OBM: Not necessarily brand-related then?
SG: Yeah, and that also goes for electric instruments. The two electric guitars that I have are made by people that I know and they get special materials from very unique sources. The one guitar that I have – there is a guitar-maker in New York City who excavates wood from old buildings. There’s all this development been happening in New York City of course in the past thirty years and this guitar-maker knows a lot of the wood that these old buildings that are almost 200 years old have, like beams. Some of the oldest parts of Manhattan contain wood from trees that don’t even exist anymore. It used to come from down the rivers, from Upstate. There are still existing trees but they don’t mill them because they are so precious. The guitar-maker was going to these sites where the builders were demolishing and rebuilding and basically throwing the wood away. He took all the pieces and makes these beautiful guitars out of this wood. He has this incredible shop, he is super friendly and he takes his time making these amazing guitars and they are not that expensive. He makes guitars for Bob Dylan and Richard Thompson. He knows all these people and is really friendly. He made this guitar for me. I waited two years for it, slowly paying it off. That’s one of the guitars and then the other one, similarly, is a from friend who makes guitars and he got this special piece of wood. I like to know exactly where it’s coming from.
OBM: And support these people rather than a big chain?
SG: Yeah, totally.
OBM: You are a bit of a perfectionist as in you lock yourself in your room and practise singing until you are confident to bring it to stage or likewise you sit in your room and play and play guitar until you are really perfect at a piece. Your guitar playing also is very intricate. Nowadays, especially with Jim Elkington in the backing band, you are letting go a bit, delegate a bit. Was that a very hard thing for you to do?
SG: It was! I guess I was so programmed to overthink things. The way that I learned how to play, particularly playing solo – I was not trying to be a virtuoso per se, I was just trying to do a lot within what I was doing, playing fingerstyle, playing the bass parts and trying to play all these different melodies and all these tunings. All this stuff is from memory and pretty specific and complicated. Then singing on top of it makes it even harder but I forced myself to figure out how to deal with it. So playing with a band, I realised: “Hey, this could potentially be too much sound and too much playing at once.” It was interesting and it is almost like this reverse way of learning. Maybe it is getting a bit more mature, learning how to simplify things. Learning how to listen for other instrumentation within a group setting. So it took a bit of time but I really enjoy it. Particularly with a player like Jim! I know a lot of guitar players and he really is the best guitar player that I know.
OBM: And that says something!
SG: Yeah, he can play jazz, blues…he can do anything. Sometimes, you don’t even know and he is playing some flamenco thing (admiring sigh). He is just an incredibly brilliant musician. And pretty humble about it which is great. He has a new album coming out. He recorded a solo record for Paradise of Bachelors label that will come out at some point next year. It’s sounding really good!
OBM: Will keep my eyes open for that and my ears! Which brings us to your label change from Paradise of Bachelors to Matador. Are you happy with your new label?
SG: Oh yeah, it’s been great!
OBM: The new album “Eyes On The Lines” sounds as Jason Meagher put it, not for commercial reasons, maybe as a stage of your development, tighter. Was that a natural development?
SG: It was a natural development and it also was a choice because I realised that sometimes concerning some of the longer songs (even if you see the show tonight – we do some of those songs a lot longer): I had a lot of trouble in the past with having songs too long that are on albums, particularly if it is one LP and you have two sides. If you have a song between seven and eight minutes…
OBM: That’s a quarter of the album.
SG: Yeah, you have a really tough time fitting all these other songs on there. And I also wanted to bookend the first song with the last song. I was working within this kind of formula. It was the first album where I was really thinking about every piece as a whole whereas before I would go: “Ah, I really love this song. Let’s do it. Oh shit, that’s like seven and a half minutes.” You never really try and work within these timeframes. For this one I was very conscious of the length of the songs. Also I wanted to kind of switch it up because I felt, sometimes, even with the album before (“Way Out Weather”), I was falling into these trappings of people describing the music and I wanted this new album to reflect something a bit different. I live in a city! I was not getting frustrated but I felt like people were interpreting my music as a place where I was from. I never thought of it that way. It made me choose perhaps to try and reflect more of a city feel.
OBM: The stories were definitely from the city.
Steve Gunn: Yeah, they are. Everything is.
OBM: But the music kind of conveyed…
Steve Gunn: A more pastoral feeling.
OBM: Yeah, a kind of folksiness, the wide open road.
Steve Gunn: Like a wide open landscape. Still, that’s also a big part of my life. I wanted to have more of an edge sonically. I was thinking about my favourite city bands and city albums and conceptually I thought it was an interesting thing for me to do. New York is an important place in my life: Matador Records is from New York. Some of my favourite bands are from New York. In a sense I wanted to make a New York themed album. A lot of the topics from the songs come from New York or being away from it and thinking about it. There is no cityscape photograph on the front but I am trying to integrate it.
OBM: But is still Steve on the outside, observing?
Steve Gunn: Yeah, yeah! Maybe it has a bit more urgency. But I am not going from that point into the more extreme. For the next one I am going to try something a bit more different. Every time I have these little conceptual ideas.
OBM: You did videos now for the first time. Did you have some input into them?
Steve Gunn: The thing is, working with Matador, they come up with these interesting ideas for videos. We were getting people pitching ideas. Matador was really interested in my relationship with Michael Chapman. The song itself (“Ancient Jules”) was about a character, not about Michael Chapman specifically, but some older figure in my life or anyone’s life that was a bit more detached from current society or having trouble understanding this mindframe or a different way of perceiving things and time and attention spans. All that stuff is tied in the theme of the album as well. I picked a song about an older whacky man that was in a sense our guru. He was basically telling us to pull ourselves away from all this stuff. In a sense that’s what this song is about. Michael is, you know, a very good friend of mine but also an inspiring figure to me. Matador saw that relationship and thought it was a good idea to see if he wanted to make a video. I was already visiting him and they sent a filmmaker up there. I think it worked out well.
OBM: Did you feel comfortable getting filmed?
Steve Gunn: Probably….NO! (laughs).
OBM: You can see it a bit! Michael Chapman is like a natural…
Steve Gunn: Yeah, he’s a ham…he’s like (growling resolutely): “So!” He’s all into it. It was just weird. The guy was sort of telling us to do things and I am not going to pretend. We were just hanging out. Yeah, it’s strange.
OBM: The video come across as being about this younger musician who travels and is restless and comes to the home of the older musician, a very homely home – there is the roaring fire and the glass of wine and hanging out. And the older musician is all settled down and has seen all that and done all that.
Steve Gunn: That’s exactly what it is. It is incredible to know though that he still does do that (touring).
OBM: I saw Michael Chapman doing support (should be the other way round) for Ryley Walker last year. He was excellent.
Steve Gunn: He is amazing. We are playing a show with him in Leeds on this tour. We made an album with him.
OBM: I was going to ask you about that. You produced the album?
Steve Gunn: Yeah, produced it. I guess that’s what you’d call it but I basically was talking to the label and said, you should send him over here and we can use our band. The band I am playing with tonight (Nathan Bowles, Jason Meagher and James Elkington), we made the record with him. He came and presented the songs and we just helped arrange them. You know, I know Michael. Musically we have toured together a bit and I understand certain things about him. I was trying to guide him in certain directions and helping bridge the gap between him and the studio and the band and stuff. The bass player in the band (Jason Meagher), he owns the studio (Blackdirt Studio). It is a very close family kind of thing. Michael is an old school person. He is an older man, recorded a lot of albums in the seventies and has got all these old studio tricks. I was like: “That’s great but that doesn’t work. We can’t do it that way. We have to do it this way.” (Grins.) We were working within certain parameters from engineering. Jason is amazing but he is doing his own job so there needed to be someone to help. Make it work. But we are really happy with the way it came out. They just released the first single online, probably my favourite song on the album (“That Time Of Night” from the album “50”, release date January 2017 via Paradise of Bachelors)
OBM: You are planning to record with Mary Lattimore as well?
Steve Gunn: We have been talking about it for a while so hopefully…She’s been travelling all over. I hope to get into the studio with her at some point. Because we play really well together and I love her playing.
This tour is the last big tour for this album (“Eyes On The Lines”) and I am doing a solo tour with Lee Ranaldo in January. And I am going to record some solo guitar instrumental stuff, not even for release, just to go into the studio. Just to do it. I have some new songs I am working on, so I will take a break and start working on some new records.
OBM: You have an enormous musical output. Do you ever get stuck as in a song is just not forthcoming and you feel the well is drying up?
Steve Gunn: I think in whatever medium, whether you are an artist or writer, there are those times. But for me, I had to trust the process and live with certain things and just keep working. I am not a natural like some people that I know like for instance Kurt Vile: He’ll write a song and you don’t even know what he is singing about but it sounds right and it is simple and really good. It just pours out of him (laughs). So for me, I’m like playing eight hours a day. Then I have to put myself into this mindset and trust the process. Lately I have been trying to just live with things. I never want to put this kind of pressure on myself: “Is this my last song”. Even if I write a bad song, it is still something.
OBM: You wouldn’t want to turn music into something stressful because it is your life.
Steve Gunn: Well, it is stressful. My life is stressful. I am just trying to find a balance.
OBM: But you are doing something that you like?
Steve Gunn: (smiles) Of course, sometimes I forget that. I’ve had jobs. I worked manual labour, construction jobs and on trucks which is fine but sometimes I forget: “Oh right, I am not supporting myself with a different job anymore.” It is also frightening as well because I feel the rug can be pulled from under you any time. It’s a brutal business.
OBM: And on that note (no, because time is up): Thank you very much, Steve!
(And thank you very much to the whole band, to Tout Partout Agency, to Matyas, always all round tour manager as well as Dominik Schmidt at Matador.