Steve Gunn talks about The Unseen In Between

As you might deduce from this blog and also from my radio shows, I have been listening to Steve Gunn for quite a while and hence eagerly anticipated his new album “The Unseen In Between” (Matador). The sheer multitude of Steve’s outputs, collaborations, musical interests and the scope of his guitar playing as well as his dedication to music is second to none.

When I heard the first few songs of Steve Gunn’s new album, I was amazed at how lush they sounded and still intimate, how light and yet bittersweet, how much he has managed to find his voice, both literally and in his lyrics, his probably most personal, yet leaving room for your own reflection. Do yourself a favour and make that new album a companion on your way into spring and summer and also do not miss your chance to see Steve Gunn introduce “The Unseen In Between” live. Songs of the new album and a well-chosen array of older material were also presented by Steve and his immaculate touring band on February, 15th at Nochtspeicher in Hamburg, Germany, which I could gladly attend.

Also, yet again, Steve Gunn took time out between soundcheck and dinner to talk. Considering the wealth of music and musical interests, Steve has to offer, those interviews could last forever (and Steve would even be too polite to cut them short) but still, this is a huge one but I hope you enjoy it reading it until the very end. If you would like to check out older interviews with Steve, find them here and here.

Steve Gunn talks about The Unseen In Between

Interview with Steve Gunn on the “The Unseen In Between” Tour at Nochtspeicher, Hamburg, Germany, February 15th, 2019

Offbeat Music Blog: So thank you, Steve, for taking the time!

Steve Gunn: Sure!

OMB:  You’re looking well and relaxed.

Steve: (laughs) Thank you! It’s early on the tour, it’s day four, so I’m feeling pretty good.

OMB: The new album “The Unseen In Between” (Matador) turned out to be a beauty.

Steve:  Thank you so much!

OMB: The last time we met, that was just in between the passing of your father and the election…

Steve: Oh my gosh, yeah…

OMB: …of what shouldn’t be called the President of the US but it is.

Steve: Yeah, oh, what a weird time that was. 

OMB: It was a crazy time.

Steve: It is funny to think that was almost four years ago, I mean three years ago, I guess.

OMB:  I think so, yeah, three almost. But then you had still a busy time: You went on tour with Lee Ranaldo.

Steve: I did, yeah. 

OBM: But I think, you took a break then, didn’t you?

Steve: I did. I took a break probably shortly after we spoke, after that tour. I remember the last night. We were in Manchester and it was the last show of the tour. And it was rainy. And the election had happened. And we all flew our separate ways. And that was it. It was in the end like the closing of a book almost. Then I was home for a few months and I had been thinking about all these songs and had all these ideas and when I got home I closed the door on the touring and the past album and started a totally new project, like buying a new notebook sort of thing (laughs).  

I have a rehearsal space in Brooklyn and I really kept a schedule. I’d never really done that before. But I had all these feelings and things floating around my head and had no real channel to get them out. So I was going to my rehearsal space every day for the whole day, basically.

OMB: Sort of forcing it out?

Steve: Yeah. I think, before, I was always relying on inspiration to visit me and this time I was trying to summon it, I suppose. And learning about writers and poets or artists. I think that the really good ones and the ones that you think, perhaps, they’re just pulling this stuff out of thin air: It actually takes a lot of work and a lot of discipline and I felt like I wanted to try that a little harder and rely on it a little more? 

So even if I wasn’t working or rather if I wasn’t coming up with anything, I still considered it important to be doing it. It actually took a long time for me to come up with some of the songs but you know, I think it was all that time and work that I had been playing and editing and thinking, just being alone. It really was just a different way to work and it felt like it was rewarding.

Steve Gunn talks about The Unseen In Between

OMB: So, you collected the songs over some time. Did you think they fitted into one kind of framework?

Steve: You mean like just one whole big vision? 

OMB: Yeah.

Steve: A little bit. Well, production wise, I had been talking to a few people, but I was on the road – I always mention him when we speak – with James Elkington – we were on the road together. And he’s my very close friend and almost confidante where I ask him about what I should do, or how I should approach things. And he’s very smart, and he has so much experience. He’s also very pragmatic and I always value his advice. So, we were talking quite a bit about this new record. And, you know, we were coming up with this plan as we were talking, and then I realised – after visiting all these studios and speaking to a few producers – that I’m not that kind of a musician. I didn’t really want to have a producer. I already knew I can trust all the stuff with my close friends. James, for instance, he just knows how I work and I think there’s a shorthand involved and I thought it would be really cool to hand over the production part of it to him. Not so much the engineering part, but navigating the songs, knowing the arrangements, knowing where I’m coming from.

OMB: Because he knows what you are getting at?

Steve: Yeah and also, we just talk about music all day and gear and we had everything kind of figured out within a few hours of talking and I think with another person or giving up certain artistic control to a producer… not to say that it wouldn’t be its own thing or be great in its own respect…but I didn’t want to give these ideas up to someone who might not necessarily know how to facilitate them.

OMB: It could have gone wrong.

Steve: Yeah, and it just made everything so easy because one of the main topics that we discussed was to reduce everything and to do it more simple and there don’t have to be like seven things going on at once, so it can just be your guitar and your vocals and just 

sort of simple ideas. We kept talking about those kinds of things and we came up with this very simple plan. 

I visited this really amazing studio in New York. And it all just sort of aligned itself in this cool way. And then in the studio, I became friendly with the engineer. He was like “Hey, I have Bob Dylan’s bass player in here today, he was working on a session with some other people. And, you know, he really likes the studio”, the engineer was saying. “Tony’s really hitting it off well, and he was wondering what was going on in the studio. I told him you were coming in here and he was interested and he heard some of the demos and…”

Meanwhile he’s telling me all this and I’m slightly freaking out like “oh my gosh”, because Jim and I were just going to do the bass stuff and figure it out but it just so happened that a week before, Tony, Tony Garnier is his name, was interested in coming and even just playing for one day and seeing how it went. And it turned out, he walked in and we all just became fast friends and hit it off immediately. He was having such a great time. We were just so thrilled to have him there. Jim and I and also the drummer, this guy, TJ, Tony kind of just saw something really interesting going on. And I think it felt, you know, somewhat refreshing for him to see some younger guys trying to approach an album almost in a kind of a way that is almost lost. Recording, where you have a room and you’re trying to get a live room sound and you want to have a presence of the band actually playing.

OMB: Also like a jamming thing?

Steve: Yeah. I imagine, Jim and I talked about this endlessly. Like you have these session musicians, almost like the group called The Wrecking Crew which was Hal Blaine who was the drummer who just passed away and a bunch of other musicians. They are so accomplished, they can walk in and support a guy coming in or someone coming in with songs where they don’t have to rehearse so much. Just get a feel for it, do a couple takes…It’s what we were trying to go for.

Jim had the bass arrangements ready so he could transfer them to Tony and yeah, we just sort of went from there and we were doing stuff really on the fly. What was cool was, Tony decided to stay for the whole session and he became invested in it and he was very encouraging to me.  Because, you know, there are so many different ways you can make an album. His whole thing was´(and I really think, he gets this from playing with Bob Dylan so much):  “Just go in there and sing your song. There’s nothing else to it. You know, just be yourself.” He instilled this different sense of being present and being confident and not worrying about it. 

OMB: You do sound as if you are becoming more confident about the singing, just letting go?

Steve: Yeah, it was almost like a cathartic sort of thing for me. Well, I also remembered when I did this album before (“Eyes On The Lines”) and there was a lot of pressure and it was rushed. Now there was a lot going on and I just felt like I didn’t have anything to lose. And I had some things to say and I really just let myself go a bit. Yeah, it felt so easy. I felt as if we had been building up to it and all the discussions and all those days of me going to my rehearsal space and all the editing and working on the words as much as I could and going over it two, three, four, five, six, seven times and getting it right and revising stuff… I think,  well there were also other things that just kind of came up very quickly and then that was it and then we moved on. Like for instance the song “Morning Has Mended”: I wrote it very fast and I went and recorded it in one day and then we moved on. 

Steve Gunn talks about The Unseen In Between

OMB: It does have a light touch to it, the album. Maybe what pop songs in the original meaning should sound like. Maybe you keep the more experimental ideas now to, say, your collaboration with John Truscinski?

Steve: Yeah, John and I are still playing a ton and we worked on a film soundtrack. And we played with Kim Gordon for another soundtrack as well. We are performing that this summer with her and another guitar player named Bill Nace. 

So John and i are still very engaged with what we do and yeah, I think, I’d like to have those things separated a bit. I really have changed as a songwriter and there are certain things I’m doing now that I wouldn’t really have imagined myself doing in the past, just really knowing a bit more about songwriting. I don’t know, it just it took me so long to come to realise how you can write a song. And there’s a simplicity that is not easy to do. But some of my favourite songs are just so simple.

OMB: They sound simple but that’s probably the most difficult thing to do. 

Steve: That’s what I mean. Some of the best songs, my favourite Velvet Underground songs, are just a few chords. So for me, it took me so long. I think one reason was that when I was learning how to play guitar, I really kind of jumped into this virtuosic approach.

OMB: And you put a lot of time and effort in it.

Steve:  I put a lot of time into it. So it’s hard for me to pull back and just play a 1, 4, 5 chord progression in a major key you know, and this time I don’t know, I just was like, why not? 

OMB: Maybe you realised it’s not beneath you…

Steve: Yeah (laughs).

OMB:…and it actually turns out to be a good song and it is not easy to write a simple song.

Steve: Yeah, right! And it’s interesting to know and to hear people speak about what kind of musician they are, and what kind of parameters you can put around what you can do. And there’s another side to it as well: If I’m a musician only doing improvisation and droney noise stuff, I think that would be quite boring for me because I really like the challenge of trying to construct something within a formula and, and mixing it as well as improvising. I can’t do everything but for me that’s something that I enjoy you know. I wouldn’t want to just do one thing but they all correlate.  

OMB: Do you feel that after you’ve learned so much that you have all these techniques at hand and you can play with them without even thinking about it, it just gels?

Steve: Yeah, I think so. 

OMB: You don’t have to consciously strive for something. You just have the tools there and you go ahead.

Steve: I think also – I mean, you’ve seen me play before – but tonight as well,…The album ist very straight but there are certain things we’re feeling out on stage. And I use a lot of those tools where I let go at certain points. And, whether it’s this kind of stuff or the other things, I really have to get into it mentally. I can’t just go up there and “la la la”, just do it. It’s something that I internally have really encompass into myself and get in a meditative sort of state to make it work. To connect with the other players – we’re all similar in that way.

Steve Gunn talks about The Unseen In Between

OMB: You were saying at the time that once you started singing, you had to kind of delegate the guitar work a bit. And that that was hard for you in the beginning. How does it feel now?

Steve: Yeah, really hard. it’s interesting, because that’s another point with the album, this new one, where I was thinking about these simple songs that are so inspiring to me. And I think there’s so much more to it than just guitar, bass, drums, whatever. It really comes down to the singing and the vocal delivery and the words, and for me, that’s really what I felt was important and what I concentrated on and I wanted to improve as a singer and I wanted to be comfortable and I worked on it. 

It’s actually funny because with these new songs and me trying to sing more and sing better and the songs are a bit simpler and I’m like, Oh my gosh, this is easy! It’s not a walk in the park by any means. But before I was doing all this complicated stuff and singing over it and I’ve sort of matured a bit in that respect and taken a step back.

OMB: You have Meg Baird singing on the album as well?

Steve: Yeah, that was really really great to finally collaborate with her. She’s someone who I’ve admired since I was still practicing and before I was ever performing, you know.

OMB: You’re a person who wouldn’t want to write confessional songs? Not in the Joni Mitchell kind of sense since you find that people would not be interested. Still, that album seems as personal as it probably could get for you with having a tribute to your father or a song about your father. And was that a one off? Or would you think you’re happy enough now to write more personal stuff?

Steve:  Yeah, I think it’s a new, I wouldn’t call it direction, a new topic for me or just a new subject or a new approach.

OMB: It is still pretty abstract. People would still be able to project their own thing onto the songs. 

Steve: Right, right. I really think it’s important just for me to have that kind of universality like a not so overly personal song where I am singing about my own experience specifically where it’s some sort of historical time frame of my own life. But at the same time there are certain songs like “Stonehurst Cowboy” where it was a song I knew I wanted to write as a tribute to my Dad. I’m also thinking about the people who are listening. And I mean, that’s all part of life, the experience that I had. And I’m reflecting on that. 

Thinking about my father’s story. I think that, particularly my Dad and his peers and his family went through a really strange, hard time and made lives for themselves. You know, I mean, I’m no psychologist by any means, but to get the full story and to come full circle with his life and to have him ill and dying essentially, and have him with me was this really almost beautiful, sad but beautiful kind of experience. And I really value this because a lot of people don’t have this opportunity. But I valued this time with him because I think that there is a lot of things that I wanted to figure out. I didn’t, of course, figure it all out. I carved my own path as an artist. And he was, you know, working class, a very poor kid. He and all of his friends were sent overseas and were in this senseless war. And all of them struggled with their own battles, with all kinds of different things. And there’s a lot of unspoken kind of pain. I think that comes along with families who’ve been at war, whether it’s parents, grandparents, and there’s a lot of undiscussed things and a lot of embedded psychoses. People deal with it in different ways.

Then I got more interested in that as I got older and I got more interested in his story. I understood the parameters of his experience a bit more just reading about it and learning about what actually happened. And the fact to have a firsthand source of the experience. It’s not something he wanted to talk about, but it was a part of his life. It’s part of my life as part of my family, my mom’s, my sister’s. So I thought it was important to really pay tribute to him in a way that other people can relate to. 

One thing that I really value the most in doing this: Having people to use the music for any kind of comfort or whatever they want to use it for and to give that to the world is important. I don’t want to take anything. I don’t want to say, here’s me and my new suit. Look at me, I look so cool. That’s not why I’m doing this. You know, for me, it’s, I think about people listening because this is what music does for me. And I’ve grown up using it as a tool. And it’s helped me in my life. And I feel like if I’m going to have a platform and do it, that’s how I want to be looked at. And that’s how I want to be interpreted. And some people use music for other reasons…

OMB: Some background…some dancing.

Steve: Yeah, and that’s fine, too. I mean, I do it as well. We were talking about experimental music. I love that stuff too. But do I want to play feedback and Indian like guitar skills and make records like that forever? I like telling a story. And I like the mystery of language. And I like playing with those kinds of things. And I like painting. I’m not a painter and not a filmmaker, but I like creating this imagery with words. 

OMB: Words are a very powerful instrument, also to create an atmosphere. 

Steve: Yeah. I’m inspired by people, particularly poets and artists and painters who are giving something else to people.

Steve Gunn talks about The Unseen In Between

OMB: You wrote an introduction to a reissue of “The Words In Between” by Dave Evans on Earth Recordings. Listening to the title track in particular I was was thinking about you and thought how proper spooky that was that you used words on your album more than ever and called it “The Unseen In Between” and it was released shortly after the reissue of “The Words In Between” by an artist you really love.

Steve: It is interesting you caught that. I was definitely inspired by him and by that record and I really love that title. I think it’s somehow just stuck in my head. 

OMB: I had never heard of him before. You have a knack for really finding a lot of music .

Steve: That was an album where I go to record fairs and I talk to people who are record collectors and that was always one where they went: Hey, have you heard that record by Dave Evans?  Also, getting to know some of the older players like Michael Chapman and Mike Cooper and …(oh, I am drawing a blank, he shares the same name as your man from Jethro Tull and is a friend, unbelievable)…of course: Ian Anderson is a musician who lives in Bristol and in the early 

60s did the kind of blues or revising around England where he was playing folk music and was interested in the blues players. And he and Michael Chapman knew each other, and also Mike Cooper, they’re all around the same age. Ian Anderson had a label back in the 60s and put his own albums out which were really, really great. So, and then the label’s called The Village Thing, and it’s all more regional homegrown folk stuff, almost similar to Pentangle or more higher end folk musicians, but with their own kind of aesthetic and it was a community of musicians called the village thing and basically all these people lived around there. Dave Evans was and Ian put his album out. That was his first album. And he was quite an accomplished guitar player and he made his own guitars. Really interesting guy. He still lives. He lives in Belgium. I don’t know if he performs very much and he works in a guitar store. A very interesting character. The album is beautiful. I made friends with Ian Anderson in Bristol and we were just talking about all this stuff. Then Earth Recordings approached me to write something after I had written about an Anderson album and said they were going to reissue. I said “Oh my gosh, I’d be honoured.”

OMB: You also went to Wales to produce Michael Chapman’s new album “True North” which again is like a tribute to where he comes from, his upbringing?

Steve Gunn talks about The Unseen In Between

Steve: Yeah, it was interesting to do that with him and quite rewarding. I also was honoured that he asked me again to do it and I felt like there’s something about Michael that’s so magical when he’s just sitting in a room playing for people. To me, he had gotten newly inspired and he had been writing all these great songs. We were trying to figure out what songs to do. And he had some older material and I went to his place, his house in England first, and we hung out for a day or two and picked the songs to work on. And then we drove down to Wales, and I really just wanted him to be comfortable and to play and sing at the same time and bring the people that he’s been playing with for a long time. The album’s got BJ Cole who has been playing with Michael since the 70s. And he is just an incredible pedal steel player. Sarah Smout is a cellist that has known Michael since she was a child and her father is basically Michael’s manager.  Kind of all in the family and also Bridget St. John was there, one of Michael’s dearest friends, and I’ve gotten to know her as well and it was just very, very intimate amid a super beautiful landscape in this really lovely place. 

I think it was a nice time in Michael’s life to do something that wasn’t in a studio with a bunch of people who want to play all over it but an engineer who was like just be yourself. Similar to what I was talking about with my last album. I was still in that kind of headspace. I wanted to capture just a very uncontrived, pure sense of what Michael is presently. He’s getting older and, you know, you can hear it in the album. But that’s kind of what makes it interesting. 

OMB: The music on your new album “The Unseen In Between”, there seems to be definitely some influence from The Smiths there?

Steve: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. That comes from Jim, James Elkington, as well. I grew up listening to The Smiths and Johnny Marr, such an influential guitar player for me. And I remember reading about them, and learning about artists, even wondering, trying to decipher how Johnny Marr is layering these chords and how he’s arranging the songs. So because I listened to that stuff so much when I was younger, and then I shelved it a bit and then got into all this other stuff. And then later and later started revisiting it and talking to Jim and I found a new appreciation for The Smiths.  Musically and guitar wise it was a really interesting combination of things that that band was doing. I was also saying that I’ve gotten a little bit more oriented with pop stylings. 

OMB: Again, The Smiths probably sound very light. But it is very difficult to do. And also there’s this bittersweetness to it that suits your album very well.

Steve:  Yeah, totally. It’s very sharp and biting a bit and it’s also a little bit vague and it’s very poetic but also sounds lush. 

OMB: Lush, exactly, that was the first thing I thought when I heard your new album.

It does have quite a few layers but only where necessary. How are you able to reproduce that on a tour or are you finding your way around it or improvising?

Steve: It’s not easy. Finding my own way, yes. Yeah, I mean, luckily, I have a lot of great musicians that I play with. It’s a different thing, you know, of course, but we try to make it all work. It’s all part of the job where you have effects and you figure out the sounds and you listen to the album and say: “Okay, well, let’s try this part this way”, and sort of keep tweaking it and trying to get it right. And then also as we continue to play, and as I I often play with different people, sometimes it shifts around and moves around and lives in different ways, and I really like that. I love the performative aspect of it. So the album is the album. The songs I don’t necessarily want to play note for note as the album is and I like that kind of looseness to it. Obviously, it’s not that loose. 

OMB: But it still has range to develop according to your development or your mood.

Steve:  And yeah, it was great to have Meg. Meg was on tour with us in the States. That was really lovely to have her singing with me and she was playing keyboards. And I was like, whoa! Really filled it out a bit. You know, she was doing all this great textural stuff, so that was nice. 

Steve Gunn talks about The Unseen In Between

OMB: You are used to playing with all sorts of musicians but this is like a completely new band you are going on tour with?

Steve: Well, the two guys that I’ve played with here in Europe, I’ve been playing with them for a bunch of years now. Eric and Tommy.

OMB: All right, Tommy and Erik from Belgium.  

Steve: Yeah. They’re always enlisted to be in the band and then learn the songs. Then the other guitar player Will is someone who I admired for years. He’s been in a few bands and I just asked him if he was interested and I gave him the time slots. It’s interesting because the people that I play with are doing different things, they play their own music, they play with a few other people. So I know it’s nice not to have to pull all the commitment from them.

So I like to be a bit more open about it. And I’m lucky to know some really great people who want to do it.

OMB: James Elkington is on tour with Jeff Tweedy.

Steve: Yeah. James is on tour with Jeff Tweedy. Can’t really bump him off of that (laughs). Maybe someday. 

I admire Jeff so much. And all those people. Jim is a part of that community. And I’ve benefitted from that and gotten to know Nels and Jeff and those people and that kind of community and they’re all just really interesting and supportive. 

OMB: But that’s probably the mark also of musicians who are not artificially made but have a craft and build a network, play with other people and get inspired by other people. Which is a good thing for the listeners as well, because that gets us to know other musicians as well.

Steve: Yeah, cool. Making the connections. 

OMB: I don’t know if you read reviews?

Steve: Some, I kind of stopped. 

OMB: Some are, possibly like myself, saying, this is a brilliant album and I like where he is going and I kind of knew that was coming and it is very well done. And others are:  What’s with all the singing and where’s the guitar playing. I mean you can never please everybody but do you sometimes feel that people want you to do a certain thing and stick with it?

Steve: (laughs) I think so yeah. People want to hear certain things that I do and I’m doing all kind of different things. And they’re like, where’s your signature guitar playing? I’m like, that’s in there. And it’s all me.

It’s very strange being in the music business and having to put yourself out there in that way and having to adhere to certain things and be open to it and put yourself in almost not compromising positions. But maybe, you know, I’ve learned so much from working with Matador and they’ve been so supportive of me and what I want to do, but they also have their parameters as well. They make me work really hard and they were putting me back in the studio and had all these suggestions and actually they were right in the very end, but it was hard work, you know.

Being in a studio and thinking you’re done and you high five, and everybody in there, you’re thinking like I’m the fucking man, walking around, and then all of a sudden, I’m not.

OMB: Thinking, ah, that’s a burden off my shoulders. 

Steve: Sure. Yeah, I’m just the best. – No, you’re not the best, get back in there and we need more material. – Really? Oh my god. 

So that kind of stuff is very humbling. Also it made for a better album and and they know what they’re talking about. So it’s a different thing and, you know, for me, that’s fine.

OMB: But isn’t it very demotivating?

Steve: Yeah, but I mean, it’s great, they had a plan and I’m happy that they pushed me in that way, and I feel like they’re also satisfied. But to get back to the reviews. I have a hard time with them sometimes because I feel like I can tell when people are being lazy. I can tell when people are just grabbing things and they’re not making discretional decisions for themselves.There’s all these signposts saying “Okay, I’m going to write this review of this person. I’ve listened to the album twice. Okay. It’s not really my thing. But I googled him. Okay, he was in Kurt Vile’s band”. This kind of thing. 

OMB: But your time in Kurt Vile’s band was such a short one and is so unrepresentative of what you do. It is just because people know Kurt Vile.

Steve: Yeah, that’s exactly what I mean.  But some of the reviews are very thoughtful which I like. But sometimes l go: “This sucks. You’re not even giving it a chance.  You’re not even really listening or no, you don’t know where I’m coming from and you’re just making these assumptions”. But I guess that’s what people do. I mean, I don’t expect everyone to know. But sometimes it feels like there’s these channels and there’s these trends going on within the indie world.

OMB: That’s what I was going to say. Especially for people in the indie scene – whenever you make something a bit more poppy sounding or moving to a bigger label, people assume it’s not hip or out there anymore, right?

Steve: Yeah, exactly. But I don’t harbour any bad feelings. And I get it. And I’ve learned to not really let it bother me. There were a couple of years, where I was just like, man…there was a pitchfork review and it was the worst review I’ve ever come across. There’s no depth to it. You could tell that this person didn’t really listen to the album, pulled things from my biography and maybe read a few most recent press pieces. Why were you assigned to do this? I sometimes think it’s just a bit harsh, you know, it’s like why would you do this? It’s just a bit disrespectful and thoughtless.

But at the same time, I don’t want to concentrate on the negative.

OMB: Exactly, you have to see where it is coming from. If someone is assigned to do this and merely sees it as a job or not. The reviews always have to be taken with a pinch of salt, I think. 

Steve: Yeah, and I also think that there’s been some great, very thoughtful pieces as well, which I really admire. Like the one of John Mulvey.

OMB: Of course, of Mojo.

Steve: He wrote such a thoughtful review. He’s been following my stuff and kind of sees the progression and he contextualises it and it’s really beautiful. So I am grateful for these kind of responses.

OMB: Thank you very much, Steve and all the best for the tour!

Steve: Thank you!

That was Reeperbahnfestival 2018 like – to me

No excuses, I told you about Hamburg’s Reeperbahnfestival last year and let you know that and when it is happening again. Hope you were there and enjoyed it as much as I did this year. It is been and gone and it was superbe. That was Reeperbahnfestival 2018 like – to me:

For a dedicated follower of music, the Reeperbahnfestival on St. Pauli (yep, ON is correct), Hamburg’s famous harbour quarter, is heaven – and hell at the same time, especially when you can throw in a good dose of OCD like myself. It has clearly become what the festival has been modelled on: Germany’s, if not Europe’s answer to the US’ SXSW festival. This is where music’s movers and shakers, fans and makers meet up. I said it before but like to drop it in again, just for good measure: Face the impossible with nonchalance, you will and cannot do everything at the festival even if you only concentrate on the music side of it.

For me, additional torment was in store this year, as I could only make it to the Reeperbahn by Friday afternoon. By then, the festival had been in full swing for two and a half days already. Plus I had work commitments and quite frankly: Yes, I did get sidetracked in parties and chats, in drifting and laughter, in soaking in the atmosphere in general. But that is as good a feature of the Reeperbahnfestival as any. And then the storm hit: On Friday afternoon the festival organisers decided to close down the open air venues such as Heiligengeistfeld and the Spielbudenplatz. It was just too risky. The weather did peak up again in intervals but generally myself as loads of other people seemed not so inclined to walk a lot between the venues and stayed put. And yet, it was fabulous. Thank you Reeperbahnfestival!

That was Reeperbahnfestival 2018 like - to me
Views of St. Pauli

Meeting up with my friend and colleague Sandra Zettpunkt at the well-trodden and established music venue Molotow, slapbang on the Reeperbahn, and missing each other because we used different entrances, we both enjoyed The Babe Rainbow’s set on Friday late afternoon immensely. The venue was packed, the audience was jumping, beer was consumed in large quantities already and was it any wonder, when an Australian band gave a tremendous and exhilarating and sunny and completely “down under” performance? Theirs is an amazing mix of funk and pop and psych and och, anything, melted into their version of Australian laid-back good feel. That was a brilliant start.

Time to eat, to snatch a drink and to wander around a bit and make our way to St. Michaelis, Hamburg’s landmark church, locally referred to as Michel. To be on time for Okkervil River‘s performance seemed crucial, as there was already a long queue. Stunned by the interior of this huge and impossibly imposing church, I almost missed the band turning up. Will Sheff did not look out of place under a painting of Jesus, albeit his brown suit and the glasses and greeted the audience warmly. Also clearly impressed by the church, he mentioned however, that on arrival, Okkervil River were dumbfounded because, hey, the acoustics are mighty and their set was not suitable at all for a big echoing space like this. Experienced musicians they are, though, they quickly adapted their set and everyone was treated too some classic early material, quite a few songs – to my delight – from their album “Away” – and then a few from the latest “In The Rainbow Rain”. The opulence of the latest album maybe did not allow for more songs in this environment. There was funny banter, a solo and acoustic excursion of Will Sheff through the pews of the church (even asking a dedicated fan for some lyrics he had forgotten) and some fantastic cover versions. A fairly long set for a festival and the pews became ever so hard to sit on and quite frankly I would have preferred a more intimate, more interactive environment for Okkervil River. But they left happy and so did the audience. The moment, a full moon was casting its light through one of the church windows to the sound of Okkervil River, is something I will never forget.

That was Reeperbahnfestival 2018 like - to me
Okkervil River at St. Michaelis

We got sidetracked to a party which was very enjoyable and pitied the people queuing up for Muse – the surprise act – for hours and missing out on so much. After all, not everyone got in, the venue was quickly full. Now, it is not that I have something against Muse (cough), but I was not too heartbroken to have to give their gig a miss. In all fairness, they were introducing the first songs of their new album and their live performance is said to be great.

Indeed we went for the packed and swaying and hopping Mojo Jazz Cafe to give Uns, a Berlin band, a listen. Fashion sense of the eighties combined with the Neue Deutsche Welle Sound of the same decade, huge dance and magic potential and a good laugh or two shared between the band and the audience inbetween made this very worthwhile.

The evening ended for us in the gorgeous Prinzenbar where Liza Anne and a very tight backing band (unnervingly all dressed a bit like little Playmobil builder figures) played her new sounds. I remember Liza Anne as a folksy, indie singer not unlike Sharon van Etten and was meeting the change in her music – now fast, loud, trashy, rocking – with quite some hesitance. Was there a commercial reason for this change? I would not approve at all, at all. But I had read beforehand that Liza Anne just wanted to get it out of her system, the anxieties, the depressions and clearly, the new songs were just doing that. Tremendously enjoyable.

That was Reeperbahnfestival 2018 like - to me
Liza Anne at Prinzenbar

Next day, more bands (don’t tell me what I missed out on, I cannot be everywhere at the same time because work was calling on top).  Yes, I had a super time meeting everyone from work too, so happy as Larry, we were moving on much later than anticipated, to maybe see Metronomy. Fat chance, should have queued up for that some time ago. A great stint of Field Division, a band on of my favourite labels Bella Union, had been on my radar for quite some time and they delivered their Americana tinted cloud with silver lining songs with heart and soul. Check. Wonderful.

Something completely different now at Angie’s Nightclub, a venue of some disreputable distinction (no shit, Sherlock, on the Reeperbahn? You don’t say.) and quite the suitable backdrop for the seventies’ to eighties’  or rather plasticky clad Lomboy from Brussels. The front woman clearly has been all over the world and brought bits into her music from everywhere as well. The languid, francophile music kept everyone nicely on their feet and dreaming away. Oh yes, did I mention that? France was the country represented on this year’s Reeperbahnfestival. Yes, and I did miss Halo Maude who performed astoundingly according to Sandra. But here’s the plan: Forget the plan. After a short visit to the famous Golden Poodle Club, we galloped to Nochtwache, the cellar club of Nochtspeicher and were expecting a late night treat like last year, something wild and quiet and jazzy and trippy and got Chris Garneau. Now, I would have been happy with the announced Canadian singer-songwriter, indie folk to tone down after a long day and make me weep a little bit. But no.

Great guitar, great drums, but the somewhat whiney, keyboard accompanied songs of Chris Garneau did not do it for me (think Marc Almond, kind of). But that’s just me. The numerous visitors seemed to enjoy it whole-heartedly.

And shock and horror, that was it in terms of gigs. Plenty of parties going on still but the instrument cases were being packed. There is always a next year. I have told you so!

 

 

Coming soon…Reeperbahnfestival

While Offbeat finds that the summer slump in the music industry does not really exist anymore, it has to be said that individual gigs are giving way to festivals during the summer and releases take place in September – we are getting fed album teasers until then.

Coming soon...Reeperbahnfestival

And yes, Offbeat was having a wee summer slumber as well…time flew by. But soon the posts will be flying out the window again. Before that I would like to draw your attention, if you would be so kind, to one the finest festivals ever: Reeperbahnfestival on Hamburg’s St. Pauli is coming up again, from the 19th till the 22nd of September. It is Germany’s answer to SXSW and just like its counterpart has a two-sided nature: It is a meeting point for the music industry with all that entails – label introductions, new artists being introduced, conferences, workshops and seminars. On the other hand we have the festival side with performances from the arts, movies, theatre and music of course.

Forget about trying to see everything, you can not. Especially since you will not be dragging yourself through a muddy, separate festival ground but will be visiting endless individual venues, differing in size and character. But that of course, is also the beauty of the Reeperbahnfestival. Hope to see you there! Keep your eyes peeled for news on the blog…coming soon.

Hamburg at its best: Reeperbahnfestival 2017

Hamburg – you need loads of time for a visit to Germany’s second largest city that was built on the labour the river Elbe port had to offer and the ensuing trade opportunities it generated. Of course, Hamburg has been severely damaged in World War II and today you will find soulless high rise estates around Hamburg that are not exactly welcoming places. But then again, as a tourist, you would not go there anyway. Plus, you will have your agenda full with just visiting the old town, the merchant city with storage houses, the harbour, the beautiful old mansions and the sinful and happening Reeperbahn as well as other trendy quarters like the Karoviertel or the Schanzenviertel. Which is where you see Hamburg at its best: Reeperbahnfestival 2017.

Indeed the multitude of banks, insurance companies, the IT sector, the media companies and of course a lot of the breathtaking architecture speaks of riches in no small part due to the success of Hamburg’s port. But visiting sailors also needed to be entertained and thus Hamburg boasts probably the world’s best-known red-light district. In recent years the Reeperbahn in St. Pauli has still been offering the sex trade and everything related to it but has cut down on crime and become a tourist attraction plus the place has seen an abundance of non-sex industry related theatres, clubs, cafes and venues popping up.

Add to that Hamburg’s native lively music scene (yes, The Beatles were born in Liverpool and grew up in Hamburg as John Lennon put it) and lovely friendly locals and you have the perfect location for a club festival: The Reeperbahnfestival. It is been around for twelve years now and boy, has it grown. I’d easily call it Europe’s SXSW. Actually it has become Europe’s biggest club festival.

Naturally there are drawbacks when a festival reaches such a size. It was very well organised and of course you give your all to see as much as you can – but there is always the pang you missed something. (Yep, I missed Timber Timbre and Nadine Shah!) You just have to accept the fact you cannot attend everything and let yourself drift and then discover wonderful things.

A huge thanks to my dear friend and colleague at Byte FM, Sandra Zettpunkt, musical detective for her show Golden Glades and musician herself and ever so handy: A Hamburg native she is and knows St. Pauli like the back of her hand. So I had not to worry about a thing. I did not get lost, not hit by a car, received a lot of information and discovered great bands. Oh boys, and how did we laugh:-)

So, do please join us next year for the next edition of Reeperbahn Festival. You won’t regret it.

Reeperbahn Festival runs for four days choc-a-bloc full of music-industry related workshops, conferences, networking affairs and of course live performances around many many venues. This year’s festival was dedicated to Canada as featured country, the “other” America:-) Canada’s huge music scene was represented very well, I thought, with the big names included as well as absolute freshmen. Then there was the surprise performance: Liam Gallagher. We gave that a miss as we both had seen Oasis before and queues were huge – and so much to do and so little time.

I only arrived Friday afternoon and while Sandra had already checked out a couple of bands (see her blog post here), poor me was only starting. Well, trying to: Strict security at the first venue, Grünspan. As laudable as that kind of security level is in today’s times: I had to get rid of my bag and try again. Yep, off we went and saw the very first live performance of Superorganism.

Superorganism have just been signed to Domino, before their first live gig…fancy that. There was no need to worry, as eight-piece Superorganism deliver technicolour pop with bravado and witticism, with accompanying art and an interesting set-up of conservative instruments, three backing singers and fronted by a seventeen-year old Japanese girl from Maine in New England. Their current location/mainstay is East London and it is there where they come up with their truly intriguing live shows and performances.

So we were off to a good start then on this Friday, 22nd of September then. What next? We walked all the way up to the bunker where Terrace Hill is located. Fazerdaze was playing. Alas, it was so packed that you could not see a thing and thanks to the bar in your backs not hear much either. So up for a breath of fresh air on the roof terrace and a view over Hamburg. Pity about Fazerdaze but then an amble down to the gorgeous Imperial Theater where on entrance (yes, we were late), the dulcet tones of King Creosote could already be heard. I was missing one of my favourites “Melin Wynt”, aargh…No bagpipes by the way. Indeed, Kenny Anderson alias King Creosote was on his own, just with an acoustic guitar but still the songs conveyed all the deepness and layers that the full band could have offered, or so I hope. Astonishingly, the King’s guitar playing was quite basic despite up to 40 albums under his belt. I suppose though, that this minimalism is intentional. After all, the songs thrive on King Creosote’s tenor voice with trademark little yelps and prominent Scottish accent as well as those bittersweet, poetic lyrics. Had I not heard him, I would not have recognised him, without hair…Or maybe it was one of his two stuntmen anyway, as he claims – Badly Drawn Boy and Baldrick from Blackadder…

Hamburg at its best: Reeperbahnfestival 2017

There was onstage banter galore and a wordsmith like King Creosote of course had the audience in the palm of his hands. At times I was howling with laughter. Yes, the tears of a clown comes to mind, as used up as that saying might be. Lovely, lovely gig in the intimate and wondrous setting (with plush seating) of the Imperial Theatre.

All warmed up we went on our way and took a short break at the centre of it all, the Spielbudenplatz, amazedly staring at the queues for Liam Gallagher and wondering where to go next. We gave a young Canadian band a chance and I forgot the name and remembered they were nervous but there was no need to be, neither was there to crank up every channel on the sound system.

By then Jane Weaver beckoned. She graced Häkken, right at the Spielbudenplatz, a lounge bar that fitted her music perfectly well, I thought. For no apparent reason other than the ominous Liam playing next door, the gig was not as enthusiastically attended as I wished it would be. The fans who were there enjoyed it immensely though. And what was not to enjoy? Jane Weaver voice and lyrics shimmering ethereally over the music of a very close by – locally and musically – band. Man, were they tight, were they on point. It must be very difficult to perform someone else’s music, especially Jane Weaver’s – so hats off to that band again! A beautiful satisfying danceable swaying spirit-lifting mind-drifting krautrocky, psychy set in truly individual style by Jane Weaver mostly featuring songs from her very latest “The Architect”. “Modern Kosmology” and “The Silver Globe”.

Hamburg at its best: Reeperbahnfestival 2017

Of course the sets at festivals are shortish compared to individual concerts and then you have reach the venue and then there are the overlaps but in most cases the artists managed to convey the complete esprit of their music. We called it an early night (well, for the Reeperbahn anyway) as we were facing a long day the next day.

Saturday saw us missing This Is The Kit due to other commitments. Trying not to be too hard hit, our opener for the evening was Marika Hackman in the Nochtspeicher – an incredibly warm venue. But never mind, rock away, Marika. And she did, seriously and ironically with a fresh almost grungy twist to her folky songs. Enjoying that very much, especially her kind in-between banter. Surprised at how young she looks (she is, she is) and yet is an old hand on that stage. Marika Hackman had the audience entranced and deservedly so. Special praise to her excellent and non-showy band. Luis from All We Are was watching too and after talking shortly, we decided, suffocating heat in the place or not, we would return for All We Are, who are such lovely lovely people.

Meanwhile though we wandered around the Reeperbahn a little more. By the time we could finally enter the venue Molotow Karatekeller (was absolutely packed), the gig by Canadian Taylor Knox had ended. Boohoo…Next year we will plan our schedule with absolute military precision and run as fast as we can.

We squeezed into the backyard of the Molotow, where, you guessed it, a gig was about to end: Philadelphia’s The Districts. From what we still gathered they sounded amazingly raw and fresh.

Rightio, back to the Nochtspeicher for All We Are. Their new album “Sunny Hills” seems a little coherent to some critics but then again, as much work as has gone into Guro, Luis and Rich’ albums, I always have regarded them as a live band. This is where All We Are truly shine and engulf you in their contagious enthusiasm. Word. I did not spot anyone in the audience who was not hopping along (did I mention this was an incredibly hot venue?) and the front was a veritable mosh pit. Also Marika Hackman and band were happily grooving along. Thank you, All We Are, that was awesome.

Hamburg at its best: Reeperbahnfestival 2017 Hamburg at its best: Reeperbahnfestival 2017

The night is young and so are we…kind of. What next? Time for drifting. So we stumble down the cellar stairs of the Nochtspeicher to witness French Aquaserge drowning us in a concoction of jazz, funk and later a lot of psych. Magnetising and good fun in both measures and the right poison for head hitting the pillow and falling into a coma.

Hamburg at its best: Reeperbahnfestival 2017

Thank you so much, Reeperbahnfestival for doing such a lot of work to entertain so many people to their heart’s content. It was ace. See you and you, dear readers, next year!