Talking travels, characters and Time Off with Steve Gunn (playing Johnny Brenda’s tomorrow night)

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Steve-in-studioWe could all learn something from Steve Gunn.

Now in his mid-thirties, the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter has eschewed the constraints of time that cause musicians to churn out mediocre work just to keep afloat.   For the last fifteen or so years he’s been building a network of collaborators and admirers in the underground clubs of New York, lending his nimble guitar playing to the drone / psych experiments of GHQ, the mystical and mysterious rumblings of his duo with drummer John Truscinski and always pushing the frontier of solo acoustic guitar playing.

His is a realm of genre confluence that innately desires experimentation, discovery and adventure while demanding an exact ability to work within rigid boundaries: chords, keys and tone.  And Gunn’s efforts have always been precise, even in their most free-form, avant-garde moments.  Perhaps the juxtaposition of freedom and limitations in his music comes from living in New York City for over a decade, a city that encourages its inhabitants to think outside the box and break down perceived walls, both creative and social, while simultaneously urging them forward in a swift current that doesn’t allow for many missteps.

All of this comes after Gunn cut his teeth in Philadelphia as a compatriot of Jack Rose and Meg Baird, becoming part of a local movement that celebrated and expounded on the trailblazing  fingerpicking of John Fahey, Harry Taussig and other American Primitivism guitarists.  His own albums are steeped in cultures both near and far, colored by trips to Morocco, Ireland, Turkey, Portugal and cities all over the U.S. and approached through the back alleys of acid jazz and psych-folk.

But back to timing.  Time Off, the follow-up to 2009′s Boerum Palace and Gunn’s label debut on Paradise of Bachelors, sees the Lansdowne native expertly weaving his experiences with raga, blues, folk, jazz and rock into a vibrant tapestry that reveals more and more of its intricacies over time.  It’s a crock-pot of American tradition, world travels, characters, moments and ideas that seem both familiar and new; it’s an homage to what music has been, is and could be that The Key’s editor, John Vettese, aptly described as a “vision quest.”  To learn more about his influences, process and the new LP I swapped emails with Steve ahead of his record release show this Saturday, June 22nd at Johnny Brenda’s.

The Key: Your music seems to draw a lot of inspiration from equal parts foreign and local places, from the style of music you play to your lyrics – what role does traveling have on your songwriting and, similarly, how does your life in Brooklyn inform your material? 

Steve Gunn: Traveling is an important part of my life and has been for a while now.   I always seem to be planning for the next something.  I’ve taken in a lot of inspiration from all kinds of things along the way, whether its staring out a window on train rides or finding some odd cassette at a flea market.  I suppose it does have a connection with the music that I make.  Where I live and my immediate environment play a significant role in my music as well. A lot of the music on my past few albums somehow deals with living in a big city, but not a direct one like ‘taxis and bright lights’  - I guess it’s more about escape. I really do like living in a city, but I also like leaving. Coming back is nice too.

TK: Your lyrics tell some great narratives of, from what I’ve read, people you come across in your neighborhood.  Do you do any other kinds of writing?   

SG: I don’t really do any other kinds of writing, though I do enjoy trying to craft a story within music. Writing words to songs is really tough for me because they have to sound right within the music, as well make a bit of sense in general. I sometimes will work with a sound of a word rather the actual word, and try to find the right one in later that fits the sound.  This process can really break up a narrative thread or abstract certain meanings, like some kind of cut-up, psychedelic ramble.  I guess the trick is trying not to let it to get to far away from the original idea.

TK: When I listen to a song like “Lurker” or “Street Keeper” it makes me think of Paul Auster’s Brooklyn Follies, or an east coast version of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. Are you familiar with those books at all?  Or are there other writers you’re influenced by?

SG: I am familiar with those books, and perhaps there is somewhat of a connection to ‘Lurker’ because the song refers to an outcast in a specific environment, or more specifically a neighborhood or community. It’s interesting how certain types of outsiders are perceived by others, and those two books give an insider’s perspective on those types of characters. I suppose I am trying to do that with the ‘Lurker’ song.

A lesser know Brooklyn writer named L.J. Davis, who unfortunately passed away 2 years ago, wrote a book called ‘A Meaningful Life’. This book works with a similar idea of the outcast, and painted a really dingy and humorous picture of how life was in this part of Brooklyn in the 70′s. There are certainly a few like those characters from his book still wandering around over here.  I’ve met a few of them, and see them every day.  Of course now there are less of those types walking around over here, but they are still around and not going anywhere.

TK: Is this sort of character observation something you’ve always done, even before you started writing lyrics?

SG: Yes – I can say that I’ve been an interested observer of many characters before I attempted to write lyrics.  There was no real shortage of them growing up in Philly and taking the El train at 69th street all the time.

TK: The artwork tells its own narrative through images rather than sound – how did you choose the pictures in the collage?

SG: Those are pictures that I dug up and laid out in trying to find some inspiration for a cover. Some of them Justin (the bassist) took, most of them are mine. We were hanging out trying to figure something out, and we just kind of tossed them around on a table. We were like, ‘ok, there it is, take a photo of it and lets go’ – It happened really fast.   I went through a bunch of photos and picked out ones that I thought somehow went along with the narrative thread through the record.  I’m still not exactly sure what that narrative thread is, but I guess it kind of worked.

TK: I think the initial reaction people have to the album’s title is “oh this is referring to vacation, relaxing” etc. but you’ve mentioned before that it’s more about not feeling pressured or defined by time.  And I think someone who listens to the record without any sort of background on who you are or when it was released would have a hard go at pinning down when it’s from and probably end up guessing the sixties or seventies – is that sort of what you were going for?

SG: You are right in that it’s not a reference to a vacation. Not being able to pin down when it is from is probably because of how of we approached the record in the studio and what kind of albums we were listening to and influenced by, i.e. albums from the 60′s and 70′s.

TK: Time Off is comprised of two songs you’ve been playing out for at least a few years, two that have been included in some form on other releases and then three songs that are new, to me at least.  Were those three tracks collaborations with John and Justin or did you already have them worked out? 

SG: The songs were already been written and played a lot on some solo tours  before we went in to record the record. They were pretty different at the time before we started to work on them as a band, and John and Justin really helped develop them as realized songs.  The songs really came into a better being when those guys came in and got behind them.

TK: Yeah, like “Lurker” has gone through at least two studio-recorded incarnations right?  I remember when I first saw you in London a few years ago that was the song that absolutely stunned me – that was the Three Lobed compilation version [see video below].  The Time Off version – and this sort of leads into another question about the album as a whole that I had – seems to balance more of your influences and the styles you’ve played over the years.  Like it has the raga, the fingerpicking, an electric guitar riff that’s sort of Grateful Dead-esque and then there are some classic Led Zeppelin-y parts on other tracks – do you feel like you’ve finally found a way to realize all the sides of yourself as a musician in one album or is this just the natural progression from Boerum Palace and your duo with John and the older projects?  

SG: The version of ‘Lurker’ on the new album is the first real proper studio version. The other version I recorded in my apartment in a more lo-fi environment, ie. mic setting mics up in my living room, etc.  I knew that I wanted to recorded the song with a proper band in a studio at some point back when I came up with it,  it just took a while to finally get around to doing it.
Yes, the new version is more of a balance of all the stuff I’ve done over the years, at least I’d like to think so. Having Justin and John there in the studio was a helpful in realizing how to record the song in the right way. Those guys are both are really great in the studio and always have great suggestions. There was a lot of discussions on how we wanted to approach the songs before going in to record.   I feel that this album is a natural progression from ‘Boerum Palace’ and the Duo records, and it all made perfect sense when we went in to record when we did.
I had never really done proper solo shows before ‘Boerum Palace’ came out, so I got a lot of experience playing and singing live before doing the next one.  Doing the duo albums helped a lot as well, because again John and I played a lot together.  Also, we went back into the same studio ‘Black Dirt Studio‘,  where we did both of those records and a few other projects. We are really comfortable there, and working with our friend/engineer Jason Meagher is always so great.. He’s got a good thing going up there, and there has been a community of musicians building around the studio for the past 5 years or so.

TK: Have you written any songs since Time Off was finished? Has your experience with Time Off changed your songwriting process at all?  Like your other solo releases were just you and a guitar for the most part, but do you now think of new songs in terms of ‘Ok, I need something with lyrics, drums, bass…’?

SG: I am currently working on new stuff now, and have been for a little while. Probably going to be a bunch of different things.. solo, collaboration, band.. I’m keeping that aspect of what I do open.  My experience with ‘Time Off’ has hopefully helped me work a little faster in coming up with material as a songwriter. This past record took a while.  Playing with a band also has changed things for that process. It’s new factor in how it’s going to develop, which has been really enjoyable.

TK: One more – any hints for what we can expect at the Johnny Brenda’s show?  Any chance of “Mustapha’s Exit” making an appearance?

SG: Well, Endless Boogie is playing. One of my favorite bands in the universe. Perhaps Mustapha will make an appearance. Not sure though, I haven’t seen him in a while.

Steve Gunn celebrates the release of Time Off at Johnny Brenda’s tomorrow night with Endless Boogie and Psalmships; tickets and more information for the 21+ show can be found here.

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