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!

Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov ’18

Avid Kurt Vile fan that I am, I have been looking forward to see Kurt Vile & The Violators performing live again in my vicinity for the past six months now. The anticipation was made all the more glorious when the support act was announced: Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird. A veritable feast so to speak and I will of course let you know how this festive occasion turned out, so join me for a review and more blathering on Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov ’18.

It makes my blood boil a bit even though it should be Kurt Vile himself who is the judge on this, but this sticking the “slacker” label on him and “slacker music” on his work, is not quite right. Alright, there’s the guitar music with some of the obvious influences such as Pavement and the appearance of a drawling, goofy, long-haired, slackerly dressed person on stage…fair enough. But there is so much more to Kurt Vile and his music. Steve Gunn, former member of The Violators, and guitarist and songwriter par excellence, should know and in an interview he claimed that Kurt Vile just has it, that ability to write brilliant songs with ease. I do not know how easy it really is for Kurt Vile and his limited vocal range is both just that – limited and one of his trademarks. But on the other hand, if you ever took a closer listen and look at Kurt Vile, you will find a perceptive, witty and touching songwriter, an excellent musician and a down-to-earth, humble person, way beyond the lazy “slacker” label. Also he is an incredibly diligent musician which this year brought him to the brink of mental meltdown due to stress. Not only has he released an album full of the sweetest songs and toured with – it seems – perfect soulmate Courtney Barnett from last autumn on, he has been on the road himself for three years and managed to write and record songs for his new album “Bottle It in”. By no means is he bottling it in on this album, he is lyrically at his sharpest yet and it just seems to flow from his inner self unfettered. Musically he (with thankfully the support of his label Matador) is not restricted to churn out radio-friendly three-minute pop songs (not that there would be anything wrong with that) – the thirteen songs on “Bottle It In” are his lushest in instrumentation yet and the haziness of his four albums before “B’lieve I’m Going Down” has returned, but mostly in a much tighter way. Three of the songs hit the ten minute mark and over. A brave move and a self-confident one and certainly one that his fans mostly cherish. Much to discover then from the new album on this year’s tour.

Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov '18

The venue he played that night, November 2nd, Kantine, Cologne, Germany, well, it is a biggish one and as much as I of course am happy for Kurt Vile to go on to bigger things, I miss the intimacy of earlier performances. A big drawback to the venue is having two bars in there and the toilet facilities behind the stage, meaning there is constant squeezing through and movement in the crowd. Also the sound in front of the stage was pretty bad in my opinion, so I moved to the middle where it was fine and then to the back where much of the vibe got lost in people chattering.

Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov '18

That constant drone of talking and only the first five rows really being captivated also annoyed me during the faultlessly beautiful and magical performance of music scene stalwart Meg Baird (she of Espers, Heron Oblivion, The Baird Sisters with her sister Laura and as a solo artist playing with the legends of fingerpicking guitar style music) and harpist to the stars Mary Lattimore. Mary Lattimore has had a tremendously busy year too, not only contributing her evocative and experimental and just so right harp flourish to a host of albums, but releasing her solo album “Hundreds Of Days” (Ghostly International) which is sheer bliss and has personally helped me to relax, reflect and restart on many occasions since summer but then she went and finally did an album with long-time collaborator Meg Baird, the breathtakingly delicate and haunting and therefore aptly named “Ghost Forests” (Three Lobed Recordings).

Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov '18

We got treated to a fine set of songs of this album by Meg on acoustic and electric guitar and crystal-clear vocals and Mary on her enormous Lyon and Healy harp, “Harpie”, her looping gadget and keyboard. I am getting ready for any comments from behind as to what the hell this performance has to do with the guitar rock Kurt Vile is presenting later. Indeed Mary has been working with Kurt Vile for a long-time and the additions of her harp to the songs on “Bottle It In” range for many among the finest details of the album. But – at least the front bit of the audience – are captivated. My highpoint of Mary’s and Meg’s set was the unexpected delivery of Emmylou Harris’ “Wrecking Ball” which is absolutely chilling. Mary Lattimore and Meg Baird were present at the merch table for a long time during Kurt Vile’s set and afterwards and were very kind to chat to everyone and thanked everyone so nicely for their interest. Och, they’re just awesome.

Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov '18

But this meant also, that on this occasion there was no rolling the harp back on stage and Mary joining in on some of Kurt Vile’s songs. A pity, that.

Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov '18

Kurt Vile & The Violators entered the stage to a very warm welcome which they ever so humbly and sweetly accepted and went straight into the marvellously and ice-breaking “Loading Zones” of the new album. (If only the sound had been better…) Expert musicianship delivered all the way through the shortish set by Kurt Vile, Jesse Trbovich (bass, guitar, saxophone), Rob Laakso (guitar, bass) and Kyle Spence (drums), managing  to unify the kids, the youngsters and the older generation in their appreciation. A large proportion of the new album was played, interspersed with some classics like “KV Crimes” and “A Girl Called Alex” from earlier albums. I was missing a couple of my personal favourites that might have pumped the lagging middle part of the concert a bit such as “Wheelhouse” but then again that might have to do with the fact that I was in the back at that time and the vibes did not catch on so much there. Then again, you can’t please everyone with a back catalogue like that. Many, many people in the audience had never heard Kurt Vile before his single “Loading Zones” off the new album but I always feel happy that other music lovers find older styles like folk and americana or blues to discover via a totally different angle. Happened to me too and Kurt Vile played a great part in that.

Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov '18

Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov '18

Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov '18

Are there any gobsmacking going-ons on stage? No, of course not. Kurt does not even say that much in between songs, being busy with getting yet another guitar or the banjo or the acoustic ready for the next song and that is perfectly fine with me. (Kurt Vile’s guitar rack made me cry with envy almost but then again, unlike him, I would not even deserve them half as much as him).

The band left the stage rather abruptly but did return and gave the fans “Pretty Pimpin” amongst others, the song that is probably his most well-known and caused a huge applause and whoohooing.

A very sweet “I love you all” from Kurt and smiles all round from the band and they were off.

As expected a great show from Kurt Vile & The Violators and supporting Mary Lattimore and Meg Baird. If I had anything to grumble about, it was, that the venue could have been better or more suitable in creating the right vibe. (Which reminds me: It is not very convenient to be asked outside of the venue  for the photo pass en route to getting it! Also the fuss about photo passes by the venue was a bit over the top, considering that in the end there were three (sic!) photographers only on site. Yes, three songs only and no flash, got it a long time ago. Kindly, would the people with the mobile phones turn off the flash as well? And would the security man not propel himself at us a-roaring for making one more shot before the fourth song because I wanted just one photo of Kurt and the banjo? Well, I am sure the orderly was very stressed out with THREE photographers…). Enough of my bawling but the fans enjoyed Kurt Vile & The Violators and vice versa and that is the main thing! Rock on and thank you!

Kurt Vile & The Violators and Mary Lattimore & Meg Baird at Kantine, Cologne, Germany, Nov '18

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 and 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 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.