Steve Gunn interview: Passing landscapes and snapshots of travelling

Dan Wray spoke to Steve Gunn, a vital voice in folk music, who has also played in Kurt Vile's band The Violators.

Ben Smith

Date published: 9th Sep 2016

Image: Steve Gunn

Brooklyn-based Steve Gunn may not quite be a household name in the world of contemporary music but in the last ten years he’s put out more albums than some people do in a lifetime. Aside from being a prolific solo artist in his own right, Gunn also played in Kurt Vile’s band, The Violators, and has put out collaborative or split records with the likes of Vile, Hiss Golden Messenger, Mike Cooper and many more. 

His 2014 album, Way Out Weather, was something of a breakthrough, steeped in meditative breezy Americana, rooted equally in traditional folk and prime-era alt-rock whilst always feeling like it was striving for something newer and fresher on the horizon.

Combined with the similar discovery period of artists such as William Tyler and Ryley Walker, Gunn feels like a vital voice in a genre that’s having something of a resurgence, driven by a younger generation dragging tradition into the future. 

Earlier this year he released the excellent Eyes on the Lines and will be hitting Liverpool Philharmonic Music Room on Tuesday 15th November.

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I wondered if you could discuss the role of movement in your music and approach to music? Aside form being incredibly prolific and therefore constantly moving forward, I always find there’s a beautiful sense of fluidity to your music. Is it important for you to always have something flowing and moving in this sense? 

The songs I wrote for Eyes on the Lines have a propulsive, forward moving quality, and it’s a continuation of where I’ve been heading musically with the band for the past few years. Rhythm plays a pretty important role in the songs, and many of the parts are cyclical that repeat, so there is a flowing, meditative quality to it.

Most of this album was written while I was traveling, so it has the feel of movement to it. I’ve been moving around even more in recent years, and I think the music directly reflects that — it shifts around a little more than before. I’m lucky enough to have a great band that can adapt to this flow with ease.

There is also a certain element of rolling improvisation streaming throughout most of these songs, and for us it keeps the process - and I think the music - more engaging and interesting. It keeps us alert and prepared for almost anything that happens within the song. 

You have worked with a huge number of people over the years now, what would you say the key to a successful collaboration is? 

For me collaborations are successful when the musicians don't have to over think the exchange, while trusting the process and seeing what comes out of it. 

Likewise, a lot of people you have worked with some years back have all gone on to have very successful solo careers. Is there any healthy competition between you all as friends or is at all entirely supportive and encouraging?  

Everyone that I have worked with in the past has been extremely supportive and encouraging. Most of us have been extremely busy lately, so catching up, exchanging ideas, or just simply having a drink is always gratifying. 

I wondered if you could tell me about what you feel makes a good guitarist? Clearly you are one but your style never feels like technical ostentatiousness, is it important for you to avoid unnecessarily intricate and showy guitar playing? 

A good player to me isn’t someone who can rip insane technical guitar leads, it’s about the approach to the instrument and how that person can make it open up in different ways. My favourite guitar players cultivate their own sound, it’s immediately recognizable.

Johnny Marr, Jimi Hendrix and Gregg Ginn come to mind. For me the simple task of playing a lot helps. I also think how you spend your time learning and practicing is very important. The guitar is capable of sounding many different ways, and I think it’s important to take risks and see what can happens rather than playing it safe in certain formulas. I did take lessons when I was young, but I consider myself as fairly self taught.

I absorbed a lot of music at a young age, and tried to do things by ear. I pretty much was just experimenting and figuring out my own way of navigating around the guitar, while avoiding the showy, technical stuff. I also learned to play basic folk and blues songs, which helped a lot for when I started thinking about my own songs. 

How have you found the transition into being a front person over the years? Is it a role you’ve slid into comfortably? 

I think it’s a role I slid into naturally, and it slowly got comfortable. It took me a little while performing solo to get adjusted to it. Now I really enjoy this role and am lucky to have a great band who play a big role in the music.

I’ve read a lot of articles / words that suggest your music is perfect road trip music. I guess it ties in with the question of movement above, but do you associate with this in any way? Like your songs being a collection of images you pick up whilst moving at pace etc? 

I do associate with this concept of movement, because the music has a cyclical propulsive quality to it, and lyrically it could perhaps be looked at as a kind of travel log. For this album I tried to use imagery that suggests passing landscapes, thoughts, and snapshots of traveling from once place to the next.

I take a lot of pictures and notes along the way, and I try to fit the things that I’ve gathered into the songs somehow. Sometimes a story comes out of it, or a string of imagery that can allow someone to make up their own story.

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What would you say have been your biggest advancement and evolutions as a solo artist since you started? What separates the work in your mind?  

For me coming up with song structures and seeing how things can work together has been something I have been working on. It was important for me to learn that guitar playing does not have to be complicated to be good, and it took me a while to figure that out when I was learning.

I had a lot of experience as a guitar player before writing songs, and I learned pretty quickly that coming up with a solid song is not an easy thing to do. Some people have the gift to do it naturally, which is inspiring. 

Your most recent album felt like a bit more of an exploration into brevity than some previous work. Was that intentional? Almost like intentionally restricting yourself to see what you could work with in tighter formats? 

The songs on Eyes on The Lines are a bit more concise than on previous albums, which was intentional. I’ve come around to realize that a longer version of a song could be played live, but doesn't necessarily have to be on an album. I also wanted to try to write some shorter songs, which was a challenge because of the way I play guitar. Some of my favourite songs are short, so I wanted to try it. 

Also considering how long an album has to be for an LP, I’d be in trouble if all of my songs were 10 minutes plus. 

You covered Nico’s ‘60/40’ on your split E.P with Kurt Vile last year. I wondered what your relationship to that song/Nico is and are you sat on any other songs you’d really love to take on? 

A friend turned me on to that album and song, and I thought it would be a great song to try to do a version of. I love Nico’s voice, and this was more of a later era, obscure song of hers that I thought would be cool to try and do my own version.

It’s also about living in New York, which I thought was fitting. For the band, I think we are maybe close to covering a Groundhogs song, and for my solo playing I hope to at some point try to cover a Richard Thompson song. 

What’s the set-up of your upcoming live dates? Are you playing solo shows or will you be with a band at all? 

I have two solo shows coming up, and all the rest of the live dates are with a full band.

Given you work at such a pace, do you already have plans for the next record/project and if so, where do you think this one will go? 

I’ve been working on new material this summer, and I’m not exactly sure where it’s going to go. I’m still trying to figure where it will go. I usually arrive at that stage a little later. I’m excited to start working on it after the touring has slowed down. Some traveling soon will give me some time to think about it. 

Steve Gunn plays at Liverpool Philharmonic Music Room on Tuesday 15th November - Find tickets below

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