Movement and change define the music of Steve Gunn, both in its content and in his own approach. Having refined his enviable skills over the course of a series of open road evoking recordings of largely instrumental music, Gunn’s latest album, Eyes on the Lines, finds him shifting focus toward a more traditional rock mode. Widescreen, ambitious, shaggy yet focused, Eyes is Gunn’s most accessible work to date. We called up Gunn in advance on his November gig to get to the bottom of this change in tack and ruminate on the inspirational potency of life on the road.
So I suppose we should start at the start. How did you discover music, and what kind of childhood did you have?
I was kind of like a normal suburban kid. I lived in a neighborhood just outside Philadelphia and I was into usual things that kids were, sports and stuff. Then I got really into skateboarding and my older sister was into goth and punk music. She had a lot of cool friends too, so I kind of emulated her and her friends and borrowed their cassettes. I discovered bands like The Misfits and Black Flag and punkier bands. For me, skateboarding lead me to discover a lot of music. I’d have skate videos and hear songs in there. I slowly got more interested in some of the bands that were in the videos and because I was such a wimpy skateboarder I figured maybe I could be better at playing music.
It’s funny how skateboarding can act as this gateway to all this different music and art that you would otherwise be totally removed from. It captivates so many white suburban dudes that probably wouldn’t be getting exposed to a lot of different sounds otherwise.
It’s interesting too because a lot of the skaters wanted to be different and choose songs that you wouldn’t expect and then you’re like, “Fuck, that song’s cool!” That was an interesting way to experience music because then I got into hardcore where you meet kids that aren’t even listening to anything else except for this three-chord, very formulaic music, and [to them] everything else sucks. I got into that kind of stuff and then got out of it very quickly because I was like, “Wait a second, there’s a whole world of stuff out there”.
It’s funny how common that chain of influence can be: Being into hardcore and then moving onto, in your case, improvisational folky stuff, but more experimental music in general.
I meet people all over the place that you would never expect to have come from hardcore backgrounds. It’s incredible the amount of those people that are out there making all different kinds of stuff. For me, Philadelphia was an amazing place to be, especially around that time. I got interested in music and the city has so many different kinds of bands and great record stores and I was a super curious kid. I started going to record stores more, there’s a place I still go to called the Philadelphia Record Exchange, the guys who own that are super cool, just really friendly and knowledgeable. They’d play some weird, obscure records and if you wanted to hang out in there, they’d talk to you all goddamn day!
When I finished high school I moved into a house full of record nerds that were older than me so that’s when everything opened up. While all this was happening I was still learning how to play guitar and practicing a lot and found what I really liked. I got really into the blues and discovered all these different kinds of music from all over the world and I was just really curious about everything.
Do you think the mindset of working on your singing over time is informed by the approach you took to learning guitar? Like, fingerpicking isn’t easy, there’s a lot of time spent repeating the same gesture. Do you think that’s carried over into how you think about your vocals?
Yeah, well it was a combination of things. I never like “practiced” singing. I never took lessons or did like an hour of la-la-la’s in a room or anything. For me, it was just about getting experience performing and getting better at projecting my voice, not being frightened to do it and just letting myself go. I think my singing improved with that kind of approach. Now that I’m playing with a full band I’m really interested in interplay with the other instruments and arranging songs for albums. I’ve kind of come full circle with the virtuosic approach and trying to simplify things. It was new to me to really think about song structure and not be overly complicated with that.
Looking at the new record, it’s almost studiously unshowy. It’s a lot more concerned with groove than what you might expect from a “technical guitarist”.
Well that’s somewhat intentional. I don’t want to be overly showy with some of that stuff. I’m just trying to make more concise songs and then think about a group of them in terms of an album.
The music itself elicits a lot of road trip imagery. To what extent do you think having travelled so much informs your writing style? How different do you think your approach to writing would be if you weren’t so well travelled?
Yeah, I think I’d probably write more anxiety driven songs about “me”. I really like being the outsider and observing things and discovering things you wouldn’t necessarily see if you were just sitting on your ass and not exploring. I think the album reflects somebody who is kind of passing through both time and different places and it was sort of an intention to have that kind of feel.
So do you consider touring to be an essential part of the writing process?
I think so. I was drawing inspiration from people I was seeing on the road, the way it makes you feel. A person is faced with a lot of things when they’re staring out of a window. When you’re touring you’re doing something that’s hard, that’s strange. People think you’re fucking nuts. It’s obviously a very privileged thing to do, to be able to travel and play music but there are a lot of different factors that come with it. It’s harder than most people think, you have to leave your home and your loved ones and you’re sort of floating in this weird different reality and it fucks with your head. You have to learn how to do it and accept it. I really enjoy it.
I’ve noticed that a lot of the time your work is discussed in relation to the term “storytelling”. What do you find appealing about framing the act of songwriting as “storytelling” rather than anything else?
Well, I don’t know. It’s not like, “Gather ’round, Uncle Stevie is gonna tell you a story!” I think maybe people are putting that title onto the music because my lyrics are narrative based, but I also use a lot of word imagery and sometimes it’s not that specific so it’s kind of open to interpretation. Maybe some people try to define the lyrics like that because most songwriters these days are kind of confessional stuff, it’s all about them, like lost lovers… for me, that shit’s just not interesting. I don’t really want to know about somebody’s personal business. I’m interested in characters that are somewhat on the periphery. People who are in the spotlight or putting out albums or whatever else tend to create a character of themselves which is for me, definitely not the kind of road I want to go down. I like paying tribute to people who are outsiders who deserve to have somebody talking about how interesting they are. A lot of the time their stories are more interesting than they are given credit for.
So which do you find a greater source of inspiration your songwriting, traveling through the States or going further afield?
It’s harder to tour over here [in the US]. It’s so vast and so different all over this country, which is scary. I’ve learned to realise there are some really beautiful parts of the States and to see the country as a whole is a really incredible experience. The political climate at the moment, it’s in such an extreme state and to feel how separated people are here and how different people are in different parts of the country, it’s really, really intense. There’s this kind of heaviness to it but then there’s parts that are just breathtakingly beautiful. It’s this really strange kind of combination of things: Deep disappointment and a sense of hope and then a sense of real appreciation.
The idea that travelling around America can be so jarringly alien is pretty remarkable.
Well like I said, politically speaking, it’s getting so extreme and so many people are so different right now that there are some really deep misunderstandings happening with how this country should be run and how we should participate in other things that are happening around the world. Religion plays a large factor in it and people who are extreme Christians. Donald Trump, even if he’s a bad guy, even if he isn’t doing what Jesus said is right and wrong, they’re going to vote for him. Also, a lot of people who are really affected by political problems just aren’t voting. There are so many different levels of racism and fear in this country that if he gets in there, it’s fucking end times.
But I must say too, seeing this stuff politically and rolling through all the space in this country, I also love it. You meet so many incredible people that are running their own businesses and living in small towns. I went to Reno for the first time and it’s like a smaller Las Vegas, but it doesn’t feel like a big city like Vegas does. Everything is from the ’70s, it really feels like you’re walking through time but we ended up finding one of the best record stores in the country. It’s still exciting in that way. So, with all my negative sad stuff, that’s scary shit. But, I’ve learned to enjoy the other aspect of it as well.
Steve Gunn plays Whelan’s on Wednesday 16th November, with tickets available at €16.50.
Words: Danny Wilson
Photos: Constance Mensh, Nathan Salsburg