Finding the Good Wind with Steve Gunn

The last show I saw before the pandemic was Steve Gunn at the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa. He was nearing the end of a long year of touring, and even though we’d never met face-to-face before that evening, our conversation was that of old friends with a shared history. Gunn is a thoughtful songwriter who considers his words and his approach carefully, always honing his craft, taking nothing for granted. His new album, Other You, is a culmination. 

During the better part of the last two decades, Gunn has been searching. Through his career, there have been moments, like 2014’s masterful Way Out Weather, where Gunn leveled up and transformed anew as if time stood still. Other You takes those spades and mines the finest details to create something memorable, something special. With a deceptively simpler palette, Gunn’s impact hits harder than ever, his voice at the fore and his melodies laden with dream hooks and echos that stick. It’s certainly among the best albums 2021 has produced.

In two separate conversations with Steve in mid-August, we discussed his new record at length, but perhaps even more importantly dug back through our shared roots and how the energy and mystery of that period continue as a formidable driver of inspiration. As ever his thoughts and his viewpoints are carefully considered and always open to new possibilities. For an artist nearly 20 years deep into his career, it still feels like he’s just scratching the surface of what he can do. 

Obvious first question, what’s it been like the past year and a half for you?

There were a lot of stops and starts. I’m really lucky because 2019 was the busiest year that I’ve ever had, with traveling and gigs, and just everything. It became a real whirlwind, and I was in a hole. I was in a tunnel, you know, the tour tunnel. I was all over the world. I mean, it was wonderful, but I was so exhausted. By the end of the year, I was just a shell of myself. The exhaustion was something I realized was deeply rooted in me. I think it took some time to get out of it. 

New York, during the beginning of the lockdown, was so weird, it was like being in some sort of dystopian nightmare. It was really hard for us to wrap our heads around what was happening. Everything was kind of happening in real-time, and from day to day, things were changing. It was very, very weird, obviously, but it also helped me realize I needed a break, and I fully embraced it. I had already been writing new songs and thinking about this next record, and once lockdown happened, I totally immersed myself in working on the record. It was a really good focus for me, and it provided me this opportunity to work on music in a way that I’ve always sort of aspired to. I was able to be really patient and really explore things. I was able to really revise things and work on demos. I was living like a monk, essentially. I kind of just let everything go, you know? I let everything that was nagging at my soul, so to speak, I just let everything go. That was the one major positive aspect of everything. 

It’s interesting to hear you say that because one of the things I was thinking about with this new record is that it feels so focused and dialed-in, in a way that previous records didn’t. So when you talk about how you were doing demos and doing a lot of revision and everything, while that was a sort of byproduct of this environment, it sounds like an intentional choice.

Yeah, it’s true, I think this one is way more focused, and it was actually intentional. This isn’t really a COVID record, so to speak, because I was writing the music well before. This old friend of mine named Justin Tripp, who I know from way back, even before Sundowner and all that stuff, was a big part of it. I made the record Way Out Weather with him and he’s just a really old friend, an old music associate. He knows me really well and we’re really close in that way. I told him, “I want to make a record like we did in the past.” The last couple of records, it was always like, “Oh, let’s get this band in there and let’s cut this stuff live, and let the music unfold in the studio.” Which was cool! But I wanted to be way more focused for this one and have it really be me. 

So throughout the lockdown, I was just working on these songs and sending Justin demos, and we came up with this plan and we came up with the record, so to speak. Originally, I was supposed to do this tour with Cass McCombs out on the west coast. I was gonna have my band there. So I thought, “Oh man, we’ll do this tour. Then we’ll go in the studio with Rob [Schnapf], and I’ll have the band and it’s going to be great. We’ll do five days and try to start banging out the songs.” Then, of course, all that got canceled.

But I realized that I wasn’t ready. I’m glad we didn’t go in there and start hammering away at the songs because I needed more time. After that, I knew I needed to take a step back and get deeper with this stuff. It’s cool that you can hear that it’s way more focused. When it was time to really start working on it, I felt ready. I felt like there was nothing to prove. Rob was such an amazing facilitator of what we were trying to do. He also had amazing input. We never had any snags or roadblocks. We never had any trouble. It was really awesome.

That’s such a great feeling when it comes together and works like that. To me, it’s like the universe saying it was supposed to be this way.

It almost was like that. I don’t like to get overly congratulatory, or pat myself on the back like, “Yeah, well done buddy! Isn’t this great?” But we set out and did what we wanted to do, what we talked about, and there wasn’t any question about it.

We also made careful decisions about who we had come and play on it. My playing and my writing have changed over the years, of course. I mean, you know that since you put out my very first record. I’ve come a long way, so we were really careful with who we had involved. Rob included. My friend Ryan Sawyer came in to play drums. He’s someone who lives in New York and is an improviser and plays in a bunch of bands, and he and I were playing together a bit before I went to LA to record and I just knew I wanted his energy on the record. He’s such an amazing drummer. He can swing on so many levels that most drummers can’t. No offense to other drummers! But he really elevated the music, you know? So all these little pieces of the puzzle, they all fit in this really natural way,

That was another thing that stood out, this incredible list of collaborators and guest artists that play on the record. It’s like this who’s who of a lot of my favorite artists. One of the ones that really stood out, though, is Jeff Parker. He’s one of my favorite guitar players on the planet, and I feel like he never gets the credit he deserves.

Yeah, same. 

I was trying to let the music breathe a little bit. And I felt like these people that we carefully chose was a way to open the music up a little bit and give it more depth.

Anyway, so when you were working with Jeff or with Julianna Barwick, Bill MacKay – any of those people – did you have specific ideas in mind about what you were wanting them to do? Or was it more of an idea that you wanted them on the record and just let them do their thing?

I think it was more of the latter. With someone like Jeff – which, I completely agree with you, by the way. Jeff is one of my favorite guitar players, and I just wanted him to interpret some of the things that I was doing. To me, that’s the most exciting exchange, to ask someone I admire and give them a piece of mine and say, with no suggestion, “Check these out, and if you have any inspiration let me know.” To me, that was the real exchange that I was trying to cultivate with asking. Julianna, for instance, I’m a real admirer of her and I knew she was gonna bring something cool to it. 

I finally figured out a way to just write more simply, and really sing and not be so complicated with my guitar playing. I was trying to let the music breathe a little bit. And I felt like these people that we carefully chose was a way to open the music up a little bit and give it more depth. Everyone really contributed to that feeling. I feel like there’s so much more space in the music on this record.

It’s really great, too, how a lot of these artists have a recognizable sound, but it all just slots together seamlessly. Okay, I’m gonna go in a totally different direction here and shift this conversation back to the early days because we’ve known each other for quite a while. I have to ask about Sundowner

Oh, of course, of course. 

But specifically, I still think about that John Martyn cover all the time. I remember when you played here a few years ago, I was so close to heckling you from the crowd to play it [laughs]. 

Oh man, I should have prepared! [laughs] 

I’m a huge John Martyn fan and because of that cover, I really associate the two of you, but beyond the cover I do think there’s a similar thread, in some ways, running through your work. So I’m just curious to hear your thoughts about him and what his work has meant to you.

It’s interesting, I think back on certain albums, and there are these records that come into your life, and you’re not exactly sure how they did, but they stay with you for so long. When I was young, 18 or 19, I somehow got Solid Air on CD, and I listened to it incessantly. I was listening to a lot of Nick Drake and Bert Jansch, I was just discovering that stuff, and for some reason, that record, Solid Air, struck a chord with me. 

Eventually, of course, I found other albums of his, but I think his early stuff, particularly, really resonated with me. At the time, I was listening to a lot of, for lack of a better word, experimental music and I was listening to a lot of jazz, I was absorbing all this different music. Martyn’s playing was eye-opening in that context. A perfect example is his record Live at Leeds where he’s using an Echoplex through, I think a bigger amp, perhaps it’s a Fender amp. And his playing on it… I really feel like he’s a real pioneer of this sound. He really started this ‘acoustic guitar through an Echoplex and a lot of reverb’ style, and then also his loose singing. 

Plus, the fact that he was just touring with a bass player, Danny Thompson. Those two musicians are a force of nature, and that duo particularly is unbelievable. It kind of transcended any of the British trappings of Baroque folk mixed with jazz and fingerstyle stuff, which I also loved, but they were on some other level. It was almost like you couldn’t even categorize it. It wasn’t experimental. It wasn’t folk. It wasn’t really rock. They were on some heavy shit. 

Obviously, his lifestyle took a toll on him and his music, but I feel like he broke a lot of boundaries. So I listened to Solid Air a lot, and his music became an important part of not only my appreciation for that kind of music but also my playing. So when I made Sundowner, it just made sense that I do a John Martyn cover. 

You know, one person that also really admired John Martyn, and who was one of my friends and musical heroes at the time, was Jack Rose. He was super into John Martyn, and I think he actually even turned me on to the Live at Leeds record. Jack really perpetuated my deeper appreciation of John Martyn. I’m not so hip on his John’s later stuff, though. I kind of draw the line after a certain period, maybe One World, but I can understand the trajectory from that time

When I listen to this record and think about your earliest stuff, think about Sundowner and how you were a part of this kind of specific scene of experimental music, or whatever, that I was also a part of, I love to trace back the history of it, and even find connections in your early solo stuff or even projects like GHQ. How did you meet Marcia [Bassett] and Pete [Nolan] and start playing with them?

I was a fan Un in my early days in Philly and I was a fan of Siltbreeze Records. I was also a huge fan of Bardo Pond. They were a big band for me. So there were shows all the time, and there was a venue in Philly called Astrocade and it was a place that just had tons of bands coming through. I saw people like Arthur Doyle and Mainliner there. I saw a lot of wild music there, and a lot of it I didn’t even know what it was, it was just mind-blowing.

So Un would play there and I didn’t really know them, but I was a big admirer of their work. When I moved to New York, I just sort of fell into playing with a few people. We just sort of kept getting together. Marcia was one of them, along with a few other people, and we were just getting together and having a nice time. There were different people involved over the years. We were doing a lot of home recording then, and we did a little studio stuff too, but it mostly was just stuff that we were recording in warehouse spaces.

We played a lot of gigs and then we recorded the record that Nemo [Bidstrup] put out on Time-Lag, and that seemed to solidify things, I guess. I mean, everyone had a bunch of other things they were doing, too, so it was all this very loose thing, but it was fun and it felt good.

Everyone was in so many different projects in those days. I loved it. I mean, it was maybe the same 15 people in 100 different configurations or something, but I absolutely loved that, and all the self-released micro edition CDRs and all that. It was such a fun, strange time.

It was. I think about it a lot. You know who was really awesome, and whose music was kind of above and beyond anything that other people were doing? The Skaters. Do you remember them?

Oh man, yeah. There was nothing else like them and hasn’t been since. I saw them in St. Louis in probably… 2007? Somewhere around then. They did a tour with a bunch of those great Finnish groups, like Jan Anderzén, Lau Nau, Islaja, Kuupuu – that whole crew. 

Yeah! I love all that music.

Fonal! That was the label that put a lot of it out. So yeah, maybe like six or seven of the Finns came to the US and did this tour. And Spencer [Clarke] and James [Ferraro] from The Skaters joined them. This guy, Michael Ferrer, who lived in St. Louis at the time ran a venue called The Spooky Action Palace, I think? Something like that, but it was in his basement and he hosted a two-day event with all the Finns, The Skaters… I think there were others, too, but I can’t remember. It was such a great, unique experience.

There was something unique about the way that they conjured up their sound. I spent time with them back then, when they were playing shows, and I hung out with them. I met them in San Francisco, and then I also met them here in New York. They just had this really cool, very unique, sensibility about what they were doing and their music didn’t sound like anything else that I had ever heard. It was such a wild mix. It’s almost like an Angus Maclise sort of take on playing this real kind of tribal, rhythmic music, but it also had an element of humor to it. It had this aesthetic of playing a Casio with a few keys missing and just pushing it as hard as you can to see what comes out of it

It was always brilliant. I think they pushed up into this really interesting corner of sound. It’s like it came from outer space.

I always thought they were such a great example of how you can have this very specific, almost minimal palette, but push it so far, and also take these busted-ass instruments and just use that restraint to your advantage.

Yeah! It was so cool because of how minimal and ramshackle it was, but it was also extremely specific. Everything was super, super detailed. It wasn’t just this idea of, “Let’s throw all this stuff in the air and see what happens.” It was very methodical. 

It was also interesting to get to know them because, and this is kind of rare as well, but they embodied their music too. Not only did their music sound interesting, but they were very interesting as well. They were like music. They were super into film. They were buying really obscure VHS tapes of really bizarre movies about volleyball and were really into digging and finding old, completely bizarre film soundtracks and cassettes of late 70s/early 80s Bollywood techno. So I was really happy to know those guys.

And I think too, and you kind of mentioned this, how there was a sense of humor to it. They were very serious about their music and their art, but there was also a goofiness to it that was so great and I’d even say that made it more inviting for me.

Definitely. I think it made it an even more celebratory kind of music, which was great.

Whenever I see bands from that era doing reunion shows and new albums and stuff, I just think how I wish The Skaters would do that. [laughs]

And you mentioned Finland as well. That stuff was great… The Jan Anderzén and Fonal stuff. It was really something that blew my mind as well because their music was similarly very technical, but really strange.

Yeah, I mean, in like talking about that music, if The Skaters were from outer space, those Finnish groups sounded like they were from some primordial time where things moved at a different speed.

It did. Particularly with Lau Nau, her music is so beautiful. There’s this detail to melody and atmosphere that is so engaging. It was very gentle, but also very specific and just gorgeous. Hearing that style of music done in that way where it’s this deep listen, but it’s also a more positive, almost soft, and otherworldly kind of listen. To me, that was so refreshing.

I really agree with that and I think it’s interesting how you had groups like The Skaters and then the Finnish stuff and even Jewelled Antler, that whole scene, where sonically the palette was very different, but there was this common thread to it that really connected it and brought those artists together.

I think so, and with that stuff in that period, there’s a certain sense of mystery to it that I think is so hard to do these days. The fact that The Skaters would come up with these narratives for their records, which of which are usually hilarious, right? Their artwork was super interesting and they’re using this random, strange photocopies and collages, but they also had these really specific narratives that were about specific locations or whatever. But that was all there was to go off, to get! You couldn’t just go find their social media or whatever, there was this detachment from it that made it more mysterious. It was great.

Right, right. I don’t know how possible it is to do that these days, at least in the same way. I recently did an episode of my podcast for Patreon with my friend Norm [Chambers] where we talked about the Jürgen Müller record we did back in 2011. He wrote this great backstory to it, it was a whole thing, but we just thought it would be this fun little thing and then it blew up. I just don’t know how possible that would be now. It’s too bad because it gets into the idea of digging through records and finding some unknown, unheard gem. But everything is on Discogs now, so everybody knows what they have, or whatever. I know a lot of people don’t really care about that, but for me, it’s kind of a bummer.

Same. I’m glad that I was around at that time. What you’re saying about the mystery, I liked reading something about a band I didn’t know, but it wasn’t super specific so you’d get the music and then have to create the narrative in your own mind. To me, that is such an important thought process with music and art. Now, everybody wants to contextualize everything. Everyone’s comparing what something sounds like to this and why you said this, and what does this mean. Everyone wants to build this narrative, which is fine, but also they want to know exactly what you mean. They want to make exact reference points and know exactly what you’re talking about. But for me, that’s just not where I come from.

I don’t like trying to contextualize my music to someone. I’ll give you reference points, but why don’t you take a walk and listen to it or take a road trip, and come back and tell me what you think.

This makes me think of the essay Rick Moody wrote for the album, which is so great. I thought the way he wrote about the music was really beautiful.

He’s a genius writer, and he’s such a deep listener as well. I really love the way that he writes about music. And he’s very careful. His interpretations and attention to detail are really profound. Yeah. So when this record was done, and the label was asking if I had anyone in mind to write this, asking Rick made so much sense. I was really happy that he was up for it. 

I was blown away by it. It was so generous. He really listened closely and got really into it. I was just so grateful that he did it, you know?

One of the things I really loved about it, and I think about this with music writing more generally, is how he approached it from this almost personal level, personal perspective. I love reading things about music and art like that where someone has this experience or interpretation that you didn’t even think of. 

Yeah! To me, that’s the beauty of all this. I realize it’s very cliche, but let the music speak for itself. I don’t like trying to contextualize my music to someone. I’ll give you reference points, but why don’t you take a walk and listen to it or take a road trip, and come back and tell me what you think. That’s what I want to hear. For me, that’s an important part of the process.

Completely! Because there are no wrong answers, right?

Right. So I don’t know where I was getting with that, but it was just really nice to have someone explain it in that way. I really enjoy people coming up with their own interpretations, I mean as long as it’s positive and helpful. I hope to think that my music is like that, you know, it’s not just some dark shit.

Yeah, there’s enough dark shit in the work.

Obviously, there’s some darkness in there, but there’s an undercurrent of hopefulness within it as well.

That’s really what I hear on this record and why I’ve connected so deeply with it. There are definitely some darker aspects to it. It’s kind of like how if you don’t acknowledge that is there… you can’t really have one without the other, especially right now.

You have to step into it. You can’t just be overly protective of yourself. That’s a big part of life. It’s not always gonna be comfortable. 

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