Top image: photography by Clay Benskin
Steve Gunn is known for his sprawling catalogue of work, collaborating with everyone from Kurt Vile, Mike Cooper, and Michael Chapman, to releasing his own diverse solo material.
Telling other people’s tales comes naturally to Gunn – posing carefully constructed tales of observations and experiences, always with a distinct air of mystery – however, in his latest record titled The Unseen in Between, the experimental guitarist approaches from an introspective mindset. “This time I had a lot of time to reflect on myself,” Gunn tells us, “[I was] thinking about feelings and ideas that people don’t necessarily want to talk about or share with other people.”
This new body of work extends Gunn’s premise: to herald the vintage tradition of music being about community, gathering, and – as the title indicates – a channel for the things people often keep close to their chest. With the help of Tony Garnier, Bob Dylan’s musical director, this unchartered territory has exposed an accomplished artist in his own right.
Clementine Zawadzki: In what way does the title The Unseen in Between resonate with this body of work?
Steve Gunn: I think this album was the first time that I was so introspective. A lot of my previous albums were about other people, other things, and told stories and anecdotes. This time I had a lot of time to reflect on myself, and thinking about feelings and ideas that people don’t necessarily want to talk about or share with other people. I like the sound of the title as well and I feel like it fit with the collection of songs because I think there’s a real beginning and end to the album. I’m interested in personalities and stories that don’t get attention but are often the most interesting.
CZ: That was something that struck me about the album because if your previous record Eyes on the Lines is about journeying or traveling in some form, this album is like those paused moments along the way…
SG: Yeah, I was in a different place, mentally and with my songwriting. I wanted to really just be focused and be at home and give myself some time. Previously, a lot of the music I made writing on the road and it was rushed, but for this album I gave myself a period of time to really work on it.
“I think this album was the first time that I was so introspective.”
CZ: Was that challenging?
SG: Yeah, it’s hard. It was daunting because I’m not a natural…I can’t just sit down at a piano and write amazing songs. For me, it’s more of a delicate thing. Even if I wasn’t coming up with anything, I just kept going to my practice space every day, playing and adjusting things, until I started coming up with this album. It took a few months, but I kind of just stuck with it.
CZ: I find it so interesting to hear it doesn’t feel particularly natural to you. To hear you play and your catalogue of work – all of these vast arrangements – it has such fluidity.
SG: I think once I get it, it’s all there, you know? And also, I think the way that I recorded this record particularly, it was different from the other ones as I wanted to play the songs live and have the band back me up. Like a real recording session of the albums I listen to from a different time, like the 70s and 60s where you have these session musicians show up and perform your songs. Some of these guys are jazz musicians and they can kind of do that almost ‘flowy’ playing, and the movement of the songs has that openness to it. So once I had all the songs down, it was easy for me. Playing with such a great band made a huge difference.
CZ: When songs are recorded in that environment, they just have a different energy, even from the listener’s perspective.
SG: For sure. It also just helped me feel more comfortable because going into the studio there’s a lot of pressure with the whole ‘time is money’ thing, and I wanted to just do what I do when I perform. I realised that I was singing better when I was able to not worry and let myself go a little. One of the guys who plays on the record, this guy Tony Garnier, he plays with Bob Dylan, which was pretty amazing to be working with someone like that. Some of his advice was super helpful, he was basically like, “Yeah, just be yourself and go and sing the song, and we’ll do a take of this, get a good one and move on.” Just that simple. I didn’t want to over think it.
CZ: Isn’t it funny how the simplest advice is the key, and it usually takes someone else to say it?
SG: I know, I know [laughs]. I guess I was sort of just afraid to do it, because of the mistakes: “What if I screw up this part or don’t sing this part right?” All that stuff, but you realise it’s ok if it’s not perfect. It was a very interesting learning experience.
CZ: When you were approaching this record, were you maybe looking to find comfort in music more than you have in the past?
SG: I think so. It was almost like… I had a crazy year. I was on the road for most of the year, I lost a loved one and Trump was elected, so I was feeling sort of like the world was turning upside down. I wanted to give myself time to process some things, and in a sense, the songwriting was pretty cathartic. I just had time to reflect and put what I was thinking about into the songs. I didn’t feel like I was bumping my head against the wall. I felt peace with my father’s passing, and that year it was just nice to address any overlying anxiety, and also hope for the greater good of the world as well.
“I felt peace with my father’s passing, and that year it was just nice to address any overlying anxiety, and also hope for the greater good of the world as well.”
CZ: You’ve often spoken about how you first got into music through listening to punk, but moving into folk and various guitar-based writing, where the focus is on these beautiful, winding interludes, did you intend for the lyrics to be at the centre of this album?
SG: Definitely. I really worked hard on the words this time and took it seriously. I had some things to say and was invested in it more emotionally than normal – just because it was personal. I also sort of realised I came to songwriting in such a strange way, almost backwards, where I was improvising complicated guitar stuff. I’ve been thinking about songs for years now and realising… You know some of my favourite songs are like Velvet Underground songs, which are three chords or something and there’s a focus on the words and the singing, so for me, I wanted the record to be a bit more vocally forward.
CZ: You haven’t got any secret punk songs hidden away or anything do you?
SG: I do! [laughs] I have this one recording from when I was like fifteen or sixteen. I found this old cassette, and I was listening… I had taped some songs off the radio and I was just listening to it, and then I realised there was a recording of me playing. I basically recorded two keyboards, I had two Boomboxes, so I recorded this really cheap keyboard – like taped the keys down – and then I would stop that and play the recording of the keyboard and play my guitar over it. I had this six-minute insane guitar thing that I did, and it kind of sounds like me, but like an avant-garde me or something [laughs].
CZ: Like an out-of-body experience.
SG: Yeah! Also, my mum comes into the room towards the end, “It’s time for bed now, Steven. It’s time to wrap it up,” and I was like, “Okay.” Last year I was hanging out in a hotel room with my bandmates pretty late, and I was like, “Guys, I’ve got something to play for you,” because I transferred it digitally to my computer. I played them this track and it completely blew their mind, it was super funny.
Steve Gunn‘s new record The Unseen in Between is out from the 17th January.