James Elkington, finally touring his solo album in Europe

James Elkington, finally touring his solo album in Europe
James Elkington, photo by Tim Harris

James Elkington used to be the frontman of the much-loved The Zincs. There is simply no way you could not have come across his work – he contributed his stylish guitar work (and other musical touches) to countless works of artists and bands alike or played with them live. To name but a few: Richard Thompson, Steve Gunn, Laetitia Sadier, Tweedy, Brokeback, Eleventh Dream Day, Tara Jane O’Neil. The list is indeed endless.

The year 2017 finally saw him getting around to put the finishing touches to his first solo album “Wintres Woma” (Paradise Of Bachelors). On the occasion of touring with this album in tow almost a year later on the continent, James Elkington kindly gave Offbeat an interview before a tremendous gig at the King Georg in Cologne, Germany. After visiting Europe he will open for The Sea And Cake in the US in May.

Grab the opportunity to see James Elkington live by all means, check out more info here and here and enjoy the interview below:

Offbeat Music Blog: Thank you so much for taking the time, James! To start off really heavily: Steve Gunn called you one of the best guitarists (if not the very one) of this generation and said, you can play anything, anything at all.

James Elkington: That is…untrue. He is a very supportive person, Steve, and we are good friends. But it is not true that I can do anything. As anyone who is coming down to the show tonight is probably going to find out (laughs).

OBM: Your masterful guitar playing then, does it stem from talent, is it genetic or immensely hard work or a combination?

JE: I am glad you are asking about that because I was talking to an elderly man called Charles in Overpelt (B) this morning on the train about that. And he was saying that he never played a musical instrument because he assumed you had to have some sort of innate talent or ability. Two things I have to say to that. Firstly, when I was learning how to play guitar, I was the slowest student. I mean, anyone else, anyone I studied with or played with, they all got better than me a lot quicker. I had to work twice as hard or at least twice as long to do the most basic things. Later in my life I was teaching guitar for a while, so I got to see people learning a lot and what I realised was: What we think of as being talent is just those people who for whatever reason happen to have the right muscles in the right places to be able to make those sounds. But for most of us, you just have to put the hours in. I think what we sometimes mistake as talent is just kind of luck or something. Maybe there is something innate that gets passed on but not in the terms of the technicalities of playing. I think you just have to put in the hours or even more hours if you are me.

OBM: So did you come from a musical family?

JE: My Mum was a singer in a choir and my Dad played the spoons to a high level.  People were impressed, other spoon players. But no, ultimately no, not really, There was no-one in my family. People were musical but they weren’t musicians.

James Elkington, finally touring his solo album in Europe
James Elkington

OBM: You eventually joined bands in the UK and then had your own band The Zincs and took them over to Chicago?

JE: Well, actually I started The Zincs in Chicago. I played in other people’s bands. I hadn’t really done anything of my own until I moved to Chicago. It took me moving to Chicago to have the confidence to start my own project completely.

OBM: The music of The Zincs already sounds very influenced by all kinds of American music.

JE: I had been mostly listening to American music during my late teens and twenties. I also moved to Chicago because I wanted to be near to where some of this music was being made. But also when I was a kid, I grew up listening to The Smiths and Orange Juice and things like that. All of this stuff was beginning to mix together for me. I was trying to synthesise something that was partly what I was at the time and also what I had been into as a kid. I was already thirty or in my late twenties then. So I was beginning to be interested in the stuff that I was listening to as a kid and reconnecting with that. So that band was sort of about that. But the weird thing is that I wrote a few songs…I had already sort of started my guitar style. It started around then. It wasn’t particularly technical but it had the foundations of it. I played a show one time and a friend of my bass player said: “This actually sounds like English folk music. Does James like to listen to much of that stuff?”. The fact is that I had not really listened to it since I was a kid. I don’t know if you had this too, but there was country dancing when I was a kid. (OBM: Nooo.) No, no (laughs). I mean, it was awful. We were exposed to a lot of this music and it always seemed to be around in some shape or form. It seeped in somehow but I was not really conscious of it. It was around that time that I was making more of a study of the sixties and seventies folk band stuff from England. I found that a lot of things about it really resonated with me. It set me off on this new trajectory. The Zincs were the beginning of that. I was even thinking about some of those older songs. They are not that dissimilar to my songs now but they are just wearing different clothes or something.

OBM: But being a frontman was not really your thing?

JE: Yeah, it was. I quit was what basically happened. The Zincs had been the first band that had been purely mine.  I worked really hard on it and I took it very seriously. I took it way to seriously. What I realised in retrospect was that part of me actually needed it to be a success to make it all worthwhile. However you quantify success, in sales or people coming to shows – I really wanted those things but I hadn’t admitted it to myself. When those things did not happen and they don’t happen to most bands…

OBM: Critically they did…

JE: Critically, yeah, some people seemed to like it but it did not really go anywhere and I needed it to go somewhere. I thought it was not really worth my while or I did not really have the temperament for it. So I stopped for a couple of years and I was just teaching. It was around 2010 or 2011 that a friend of mine, Jon Langford asked me to come and play a show with him. Jon has a band called The Mekons and The Waco Brothers and he has been around making records for over forty years now, I guess. I did not really know anything about his music but I took my guitar and he showed me a couple of songs. I played the songs with him and  I had a great time and I realised that what had been missing from music for me was or what it added to music was that expectation that it would go anywhere instead of doing it for the sake of doing it. I had a complete rethink. I was like, okay, I just want to play in other people’s bands because it makes me happy to do that. And it frees me up from any expectation of anything. I can concentrate on the music which is all I have ever been interested in.

OBM: Also, no responsibility?

JE: Oh yeah, that’s another one. I mean, I am not really a natural leader. I never had a gang or anything. I was more worried that my band was having a bad time. or there was not enough money. Being in other people’s bands was a way for me to play music and be completely absolved of that responsibility. That made me happy to the extent where when I had some free time, I actually started to write songs. But it was purely as a kind of…you know, I always liken it to when people were on the phone, or when they used to be on phones that had cords, they would stick it under their chin and they would draw little doodles. The music I was coming out with was like my little doodle that I did when I had time off from touring. It was really just for me and not meant to be anything. But I found after a year of these doodles that I had of what amounted to a collection of songs. I very slowly recorded them and stopped, thought about it for a while and play some to people and stop. I was sort of edging my way back in but it was very important to me that it wasn’t like before and I was doing it for the right reasons, just that it made me happy to do it. That’s how it worked out.

OBM: The artists whose work you contributed to or played with cover a wide range of genres. Is that part work for you or does it reflect different sides of your musical character?

JE: Sometimes when I would be playing with people it would be more of a technical exercise for me to see if I could do it.  The thing is though, with playing in different styles of bands, my style of playing remains the same in all of those bands. The fun for me is to figure out where I fit in to something. I played with Jon and that was fairly straight rock stuff with a country tinge. But then I played with Kelly Hogan for a year and she has almost more of a soul thing going on but again, I was still playing my style, my sound, but her songs. Usually I can find some sort of combination that makes me fit. That’s why I don’t really think of myself as a session person because if I came to play with you and you wanted this to sound like Nile Rodgers, I don’t know if I’d be able to do that. I can only do the thing that I am going to do. Fortunately for me, the people I played with have asked me to because I do a certain kind of thing. But I am certainly not a master of all styles.

OBM: Is that a technical thing or would you say, your heart is not in it?

JE: I think I made a decision when I got back into music that there is a lot of people playing guitar, a really tremendously huge amount of people playing guitar and to try and play like someone else, it’s just a dead end for me. I don’t think it’s worth pursuing for anyone. Because there are a lot of them out there. By finding your own voice on the instrument, the interesting things happen. But that’s what I have been able to concentrate on. But I have also been very lucky. It’s a Chicago thing too because Chicago has a wide and very inclusive musical community. People play across genres all the time. The folk guys play with the jazz guys who play with the experimental rock guys. It’s always been that way.

OBM:  Doug McCombs (Tortoise, Eleventh Dream Day, Brokeback) himself is already combining all the genres.

JE: To be honest, the way Doug’s whole career has gone…I play in a band with Doug…even just watching him, developing the different things he was doing, was part of led me to move to Chicago anyway. You could go and play different kinds of music but that does not necessarily mean that you are like a dilettante or that you are somehow insincere. I think, if you have a style or a sound and an approach, then it is actually an interesting synthesis to be playing in different styles. When I lived in London, I did not find that people looked at music that way so much. It seemed to be much more segregated. That did not appeal to me so much.

OBM:  I do think your style is very distinctive. I was listening to James Toth’ (Wooden Wand) wonderful “Clippership” album and during the song “Mexican Coke”, I thought “That sounds like James Elkington in there” and I looked it up, yep, it is.

JE: That’s the best compliment anyone could give you, thank you! Or did you go: “Hang on a second, this does not sound that good. I bet Jim is on this.” (Laughs).

OBM: No, no, it wasn’t that way at all. You do not only play guitar though, you are a multi-instrumentalist.

JE: No, I play the drums. The drums were my first instrument. And I love the drums but the drums do not love me. It doesn’t matter how hard I try, I just don’t get very good on the drums. So I sort of stopped doing it. I loved it though! The again, it is just for me. I play drums on a couple of records. Doug’s band Brokeback – not on the last record, the record before, I was the drummer. And I played drums with Laetitia Sadier as well. Both of them will tell you (laughs), it’s not my main thing. I play a lot of piano on people’s records, too. And I am a terrible piano player.

OBM: Oh stop! On Joan Shelley’s record for example?

JE: Yes! There’s some terrible piano playing on that record. But no-one else wanted to do it. (Laughs out loud).

OBM: Ah, I wouldn’t believe that. It says here on the blurb for tonight’s gig on the website you are the master of the open tuning. Did you always use open tuning? I did not think that.

JE: No, I didn’t. Actually, I play with this guy, Nathan Salsburg, and he really is the master of the open tuning, as is Steve (Gunn).

OBM: Yeah, he is trying everything and so is Nathan but I would have thought that you stick to the classic one.

JE: Yes, I do, especially when I play with those guys, I just need a stable reference. I need to go with what I know. But again, the record that I put out last year, my solo record (Wintres Woma) is all in this tuning called DADGAD. That was part of the doodle. In my spare time, instead of just going to sleep or wandering off to a record shop or something, to sit down with this tuning that I did not really understand, I got that feeling back when I very first started to play the guitar. I did not know what I was doing. I was kind of wandering around.

OBM: You were out of the comfort zone?

JE: Yeah, and that’s were all these songs came from. I was finding all these little surprises in this tuning. But I am too lazy to change the tuning. So I went, this is all just going to be DADGAD. I never change it, so I am by no means an open tuning master.

OBM: So the album was based on the tuning DADGAD, you had that and you took your time to do it. It took some convincing to get on with it (JE laughs), so I have heard. But did you also have in mind, well, not in the sense of a concept album, but a certain atmosphere that it was going to convey?

JE: I had already been involved in a couple of records that were made in the Wilco Loft recording studio and I knew that the sound that they have there was going to marry well with the way the songs sounded. “Wintres Woma” means “The Sound of winter” and I wanted it to have a sort of, not cold sound, but sort of sparseness to it. I had quite detailed demos already. I have a project studio at my house. I pretty much mapped out exactly how I wanted it to be. It was never going to sound great. It was just a kind of a road map. I work with this guy in Chicago, Mark Greenberg, who is very good at reading maps and being “oh that I think what you mean is this” and then makes it sound great. It was a combination of me having a strong idea of what I wanted and Mark is just an amazing facilitator at that sort of thing. I kind of go into making records with kind of a strong idea in mind of what I want it to sound like. Sometimes it doesn’t really end up like that. Most of the time it doesn’t end up like that. I don’t even like to go into the studio without knowing. I am a little uptight like that (laughs).

James Elkington, finally touring his solo album in Europe

OBM: I have seen pictures of The Loft and it must be guitar heaven.

 JE: That’s it. It’s insane.  I could use whatever I’d see but there are so many guitars there, there isn’t time to try out everything. So I limited myself to the – literally – five guitars that were within eight feet of where I was sitting. And that’s the whole record. It’s just those guitars. Of course they are all fantastic and they all record really well. I’d love to have all of them.

OBM: What would a guitar you would like to play have to be like (other than like in that case be in the proximity). How would it have to feel or sound?

JE: It is kind of a difficult thing to quantify. We settled on this old guitar from the 30s, a Gibson that Jeff owns.  I sat down with it and immediately it had the kind of sound that associate with Davey Graham and John Renbourn even though none of these people played this guitar. This guitar is more synonymous with old blues players. But I played it and it sounded really good. Mark recorded me playing and when I finished he said: “You should come and listen to this because it sounds good when you stand next to the guitar but it sounds amazing recorded.” For some reason it sounded better recorded than just our ears. That ended up being the guitar for the whole record pretty much. Any other guitars I used just had to not sound like that one. Everything was built around that.

OBM: So you are not into a specific brand?

JE: No, no, the Gibson ended up being the basic guitar and if there was any other guitar, I made sure, it was as far removed as possible just to give it a different feel.

OBM: And are happy with the result of “Wintres Woma”?

JE: I think, yeah, I am. It’s the only time that I have been completely happy with a record I have done. Maybe even though I had a strong idea of how I wanted it to sound, I left ten or twenty per cent to chance and that’s where the surprises are. When I listen to it, I still like it. There are records of mine in the past where I really controlled every aspect and ended up with this boring…well, not exciting to listen to because everything sounds like something I have decided to do. This one has some random stuff in it. The mistakes are all left in. It’s pretty rough but I like it like that. It is like the music I like to listen to.

OBM:  You come up with the lyrics last and they are pretty abstract.

JE: Deliberately so. Sometimes my lyrics are genuinely random. Then I find out six months down the line that my subconscious has been talking about something. I just found out something about a song, discovered that a song that I had written a year ago was about a very specific thing which is extremely mundane so I would not tell anyone what it was. I always like the sort of lyrics where you are given enough information for your brain to do the last bit of work. I mean the listener has to think to himself: What does it actually mean? What does it sound like to me? Because then the listener is involved in the process. Their brain has to work a little bit. All of my favourite lyrics have that. They don’t completely spell it out. There is enough space for the listener to get involved. Even if write something about something specific,  I will intentionally cryptify it a bit to give it a space to operate in.

OBM: Or to make it possible for the listener to own a song – or totally misinterpret it, thinking the song is about a lovely man singing an ode to his sister….:-)

JE: Exactly. And yes, that just happened to me.  A year a go I was playing in Louisville, Kentucky. A friend of mine went: ” I really like that “Sister of Mine” song. I think that is my favourite song of yours. What is that song about?” I told him and he went: “Errgh. I don’t think I a like it as much anymore.”

OBM: It does cast a shadow!

JE: It does, I know!

OBM: But it is about all not being black and white and perspective and all that, but yeah, people are humming along and then comes that dark cloud.

JE: Yeah, I spoiled it for him. That’s my point. I blew it. So now and try and shut up as much as I can. Difficult for me though.

OBM: So what are your next plans?

JE: I am going to finish tour and then I have another short tour opening up for my friends The Sea And Cake on the East Coast. And then, I am going to make another record! But again I am being careful not to get too far ahead of myself. I had so much fun making the last record. And I really had no expectations for it whatsoever. It was really nicely received and this is my first tour and it is really wonderful of everyone to come out and see it. I am really having a good time. I’ve got more than I could ask for right now. In making another record, I just want to make sure that I go into it with the same perspective. Not really wanting anything other than having a good time. So I frequently pump the brakes as they say. I go: Oh, wait a minute. I can tell I am really getting concerned or serious about this particular song. And then I just stop. You know, I have a wife and a four-year old – I am happiest when I am just with them and cooking and so on. So I have plenty of other stuff going on and then I play with other people. This is just one thing that I do but I am keen to protect it. Its value to me is really for me to have fun.

OBM: Thank you very much.

JE: Thank you!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jeff Tweedy & James Elkington, Vicar Street, Dublin, Jan 30th

Jeff Tweedy & James Elkington, Vicar Street, Dublin, Jan 30th
www.wilcoworld.net

Jeff Tweedy elaborates duly when someone from the audience hollers: “What’s with the long hair, Jeff?”. Basically the Wilco front man and tonight solo performer has not cut it since the US election. He finds it highly uncomfortable, in fact he hates having long hair. But seeing that so many people suffer in the US in the current situation and Jeff Tweedy regards himself as privileged, the least he could do was trying to find a way to feel uncomfortable too. This exchange took place on the evening of the following event: Jeff Tweedy & James Elkington, Vicar Street, Dublin, Jan 30th!

Now, I am pretty sure that Jeff Tweedy was being his usual humble self about his annoying long hair being the only contribution in view of the current political climate of the US, but it is too good an introduction to this post to miss.

Yes, I feel privileged in my life as well but have been under a lot of mental pressure up to burn-out lately, so I had myself a wee present. Although the time off was shortish and it really drove me almost insane to find time for it in the first place, a couple of days off just by myself, in Dublin, and taking in some music was a big treat.

So I tried to remember what I used to do all those years back in Dublin and indulged in doing that again. Bookshops, record shops, vintage shops, loads of walking about to old haunts, people watching, meeting people again. Same me, same Dublin, really in a nutshell and it made me very happy. (Okay, forget the old shock when catching my face in a shop window – wow, has it been that long ago that I did this?)

But you don’t want to read about this (even though, I still warmly recommend Dublin for a lot of things aside from the usual – entry point to Ireland, shamrocks and stag and hen parties: The mountains, the sea, the suburbs, the museums, the sheer poetry in people’s conversations, a mug of tea, a pint of this and that…).

Won’t torment you any longer. So, Vicar Street it is. My first time there and it seems a great and lively venue. I am pleasantly surprised that tonight’s concert is seating only and my feet will be forever thankful. Must say though, I am pretty sure though that I had clicked the front area rather than the block to the side when choosing the ticket. After all, I was worrying for ages that I might block everyone’s view being tall and on moderate heels…

Convivial and listing great acts, Vicar Street for me though features a bit of a problem with that seating idea. Comfy as it is and suitable for quieter acts definitely, it should mean, stay bloody well seated, which of course most people don’t adhere to – so for every drink and every visit to the loo and what not, the whole row of seats has to get up, and people keep swarming by in front of you and clambering through the seats.

The support act possibly gets the worst of it. Not only half the audience did not bother to turn up for the support act, James Elkington. There was incessant moving and talking, even from the door staff (of course one girl in particular told her life story in a grating voice, sorry, yeah, you, has to be said). James Elkington seemed to be blissfully unaware of this, found  the audience eerily quiet and would prefer to be talked over as much as possible.

No need for that though. James Elkington has been shying the limelight since his days as front man of The Zincs – since then he has been collaborating with and contributing to a gazillion bands and artists of many genres, Steve Gunn, Richard Thompson, Eleventh Dream Day, Laetitia Sadier, Joan Shelley to name but a few. Eventually though with a bit of pressure of Steve Gunn (good man, yourself!, James Elkington released his solo album “Wintres Woma” last summer via Paradise of Bachelors and what a wondrous treat it is.

Tonight he performs most of the songs of the album and impresses everyone with his truly amazing guitar mastery. Personally I am relieved that a performance that I saw online where James’ voice went a bit all over the place was an exception or done under unfavourable circumstances because his voice is  now pitchperfect and accompanies the songs that if not intentionally but certainly subconsciously so, draw on a well of traditions including his native English folk music wonderfully.

A short break (and this time people are turfed out of the bar into the venue for Jeff Tweedy’s arrival) and then I do not know what hit me. A roaring reception for Jeff Tweedy who unceremoniously in Stetson and jacket walks on stage and starts to play. I have never had the chance to see Wilco live, so I cannot compare but to me the songs of Jeff Tweedy’s solo album “Together At Last” in their stripped down simplicity are very magic, and live on stage – wheyhey….That acoustic guitar is not even plugged in. There is Jeff, there are two microphones and the guitar. But man, the songs (a great selection from all over the Wilco catalogue plus some Loose Fur and Uncle Tupelo oeuvres) do not lack anything at all. To me Jeff Tweedy has one of the finest voices in contemporary music that can express anything (mostly it is of course of a more melancholic nature).

Neither did I expect to be bent over double, my sides splitting with laughter about Jeff’s deadpan banter between the songs. Sorry for the people behind me who were clearly filming and now have my howling laughter in the videos…Back to songs and there were still tears enough for those fragile songs that pull on every heart- and soul string that you might possess. A singalong, a long show, a truly satisfying one and too right we are all getting up at the end to salute Jeff Tweedy.

Thank you, best ever!

Note: Jeff Tweedy announced more solo concerts in the US and later in the year in Europe! www.wilcoworld.net

Setlist:

Via Chicago

I Am Trying To Break Your Heart

Bombs Above

We’ve Been Had

Passenger Side

Locator

Hummingbird

Lost Love

Born Alone

Noah’s Flood (Let’s Go Rain Again)

New Madrid

One Wing

Bull Black Nova

Laminated Cat

Don’t Forget We All Think About Dying

Hesitating Beauty

Jesus, Etc.

I’m The Man Who Loves You

California Stars

Kamera

A Shot In The Arm

 

Laucan and more

Summertime = no releases time? Ha, not really. Of course I will let you participate generously in the wealth of music to pick from and hope you will find something you will like or even love. First up:

Laucan

It was only in March that London musician Laucan (Laurence Alpin) released his first EP “Up Tomorrow”. Hey presto, here is his first album via Sunday Best: “Frames Per Second”. A dreamy, magical album with loads to discover (the strings sections are just beautiful). A debut album that will certainly in my collection last me a lifetime. Musically, Laucan is supported by Andrew Phillips – lyrically it is partly about the control of our own thoughts, releasing our outlooks from the prison we created for them.

Kerosene Stars

From there to something a bit more upbeat: Kerosene Stars from Chicago are Scott Schaafsma, Andy Seagram, Todd Honeyville, Jim Adair and Tom Sorich.  They are not afraid to play a catchy melody and they do it oh so well! Their latest releases are the EPs “Burn The Evidence” and “a million little trees” and out just now “The Lost EP”. Timeless, well-made gems!

Laucan and more

James Elkington

Staying in Chicago, for years now the home of James Elkington. You could not have missed James Elkington playing somewhere, surely? And you could not have missed his solo release? Just in case. Let me keep it short (a difficult feat in the case of information about Jim Elk). Steve Gunn calls him the best guitar player around and an incredibly humble person. Who would argue with Steve? Anyhow, that combination of skill and humbleness might just explain why James Elkington has only now released his first solo album after years of supporting other artists and bands (the list is endless: Jeff Tweedy, Richard Thompson, Steve Gunn, Brokeback, Eleventh Dream Day, Joan Shelley, Tara Jane O’Neil, Michael Chapman…). Initially he was frontman of a band called The Zincs but felt no need to be at the front or on the songwriting side for a long time. Thankfully he changed his mind and here we have his technically (he also plays drums, bass, piano…) wonderful and atmospherically wondrous album “Wintres Woma” (Paradise Of Bachelors)

 

 

Laucan and more
James Elkington by Timothy Harris

Moon Goose

Cherryshoes from Hay on Wye have us enthralled with their music. Wonderful news so that Cherryshoes now have a sister project: Moon Goose. Wait for it, I cannot keep their own description from you: “Moon goose has crawled out of the primal swamp and taken a good look around. The resulting bird has flapped madly around a barn with a load of guitars strapped to one wing and a synthesizer on the other, while it flies repeatedly into some drums. Made out of bits of comet and whalebone, the music that people are already calling ‘epic’ and ‘unlistenable’ throws a jagged beam of light in the growing darkness, to reveal some people using a barn as a giant amplifier. Duchamp put a toilet in an art gallery. Moon goose put music in a bag and shook it around until it was in bits, poured the bits out, and set fire to them. It’s the sound of a dragon colliding with an asteroid. If you enjoy things like gneiss, rare cheese, and strange ideas followed through to an illogical conclusion, you’ll love Moon goose.”

Laucan and more

There you have it – and you know what? That description fits and the music is absolutely hypnotising! Their debut EP Space Probe Shut Down is on its way. Here’s the first single: The mysterious coffins of Arthur’s Seat.

Prana Crafter

I leave you today with intriguing music from the Washington woods: Prana Crafter. His latest album “MindStreamBlessing” is the musical impersonation of the title. For my favourite track from it – Agatha’s gate – there is now a video available. Indulge here:

Steve Gunn & The Outliners Interview November 2016

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”).

Steve Gunn & The Outliners Interview November 2016
http://www.nathanbowles.com/ supporting and playing in Steve Gunn’s band / Jim Elkington on drums

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.

Steve Gunn & The Outliners Interview November 2016

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.