Q&A: Steve Gunn On Kurt Vile, New York City, & Way Out Weather
There’s little about Steve Gunn that suggests he has trouble standing still. When you meet him, he’s a remarkably calm and soft-spoken man. His work, usually rooted in folk traditions, can range from experimental guitar music to spare, almost singer-songwriter material. His newest, Way Out Weather, finds him fleshing it all out more than ever before, working with a band and achieving a sound that’s moderately psychedelic but still folky. The unifying factor is that everything he does seems like the kind of music that takes some introspection, some catching of your breath, to make properly. And yet, Gunn may have as many as four releases attached to him this year or by early next year, and this after a different solo album already last year. It’s a furious succession of work considering the way Gunn comes off and the way he describes his life. Consider it a quiet focus that manages to burn fast, I suppose.
After a brief stint touring with Kurt Vile & the Violators brought Gunn’s name a little further into the indie sphere, the excellent and more expansive Way Out Weather is the kind of record that could potentially bring him a new kind of recognition. But we didn’t really talk about that. We did talk, probably for a bit too long, about our mutual roots in Pennsylvania and our mutual Irish heritages. But once we got that out of the way, we also, naturally, talked about various projects he’s been involved in during 2014.
STEREOGUM: So you know Kurt from when you lived in Philly?
GUNN: I actually know Kurt because he grew up in Lansdowne.
STEREOGUM: Did you know him when you were younger?
GUNN: He comes from a huge family and I knew who he was and we went to the same grade school. We didn’t really connect until he started playing shows, early on. I saw him play around Philly and became a fan of his music and we kind of became friends.
STEREOGUM: When was this?
GUNN: Around when his first official CD came out, which has been reissued now but this was probably around 2006 or 2007. I kept hearing his name and when I saw him I was like, “Holy crap, I know him.” I recognized him from when I was a kid. Since then we’ve become pretty close friends.
STEREOGUM: Are you still in the Violators?
GUNN: No, I’m not. I was playing with them pretty briefly, that was last year.
STEREOGUM: I think you might have still been with him when I saw them a while ago at Terminal 5. I feel like I remember him saying, “We have Steve Gunn tonight.”
GUNN: Yeah, I think so. That’s one of the shows I did with them right after their last record came out. Kurt and I just made an album together a few months ago. It’s a collaborative record. It’s two sides. We each did a few cover songs and a few original songs.
STEREOGUM: When will that come out?
GUNN: Either late this year or early next year.
STEREOGUM: So that means you’re going to have three releases this year, potentially.
GUNN: I have the new album, and an album that I made with [my drummer] Nathan’s band. He plays in a band called the Black Twig Pickers. We made a record together that’s going to come out on Thrill Jockey Records. This spring, in March or something. I [also] made this collaborative record with this guy named Mike Cooper that came out on RVNG.
STEREOGUM: We were big fans of the video for “Pony Blues.” (http://www.stereogum.com/1697479/the-5-best-videos-of-the-week-140/franchises/straight-to-video/)
GUNN: The video is incredible. It’s mind-blowing how good it is. This director from Southeast Asia wanted to make this ambitious video with a big budget. And then I saw it and it [has[ really good cinematography and there are aerial shots. It’s amazing.
STEREOGUM: You didn’t have any hand in the concept?
GUNN: The actual song itself is a cover song by Charlie Patton. The video itself is based on a ghost story, a traditional Thai ghost story. So the video is kind of portraying this story while coinciding with the song. It works, it’s cool
STEREOGUM: Back to this record with Kurt for a minute. Did you guys write any songs together or did he have Side A and you had Side B, or something like that?
GUNN: Well, we recorded it together. We had some friends come in and help us. We did it at the studio where Kurt has worked for years. It was not much pressure, more of a hang and it as pretty fun. Kurt picked out a few cover songs to do and he ended up dong an original and some instrumental stuff. We basically just said, “Let’s do some covers and have some fun.” I did a Nico cover and an original song and we hung out and tried different things, fucked around, and had fun.
STEREOGUM: That was this year?
GUNN: We finished that about two months ago.
STEREOGUM: When did you record your own record?
GUNN: We basically cut Way Out Weather in February, the bulk of it. It was in the dead of winter. Four days. We tracked the whole thing and then I went back and added some vocals later, but more or less we recorded the whole thing in less than a week. We recorded in upstate NY and it was just like two feet of snow outside, sort of like The Shining or something, locked in.
STEREOGUM: Seems like you’re on a pretty constant clip this year if you’ve got four albums in various states of completion.
GUNN: Yeah, it’s been pretty constant.
STEREOGUM: When did you move to New York?
GUNN: I moved to New York in 2001, pretty much right after 9/11.
STEREOGUM: Always in Brooklyn?
GUNN: I lived in the Lower East Side very briefly and then moved to Fort Greene and then made the rounds, Bushwick, Williamsburg, all around Brooklyn. When I first moved here, Williamsburg was still a place where artists could live in lofts. I had friends that had big spaces and were living on a limited budget.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel like there’s any disjuncture about the fact that you write what people would call more rustic music or Americana music, but you’ve lived in the city for 13 years? Or do you like to exploit that tension?
GUNN: I know what you mean because a lot of people hear my music and say it sounds really rural and it’s funny to hear that when you’re a city guy. But I feel like I’m not really a city guy, I [just] live in the city. I enjoy living in the city for sure, but I’m not a city slicker dude. I enjoy the city for other reasons rather than wearing a cool outfit and hanging out in bars. Sometimes you tell people you live in NYC and they think you’re some guy who is partying all the time and taking the subway at five in the morning. You know, I live a pretty normal life. The music doesn’t sound like I’m a city guy. I think one of the main reasons is maybe the music for me is in a way kind of dealing with my own environment and creating my own world for myself and it’s all in my head kind of. I think it’s interesting when you do something and it sort of reflects the opposite of the environment instead of being where you are at the time. That’s how I look at it. For the most part I’m a pretty calm person and I work hard at not being stressed out.
STEREOGUM: What’s the daily routine for you? Do you play everyday or write everyday?
GUNN: When I write music, that usually happens in blocks of time. I think about it all the time but I don’t actually work on it and then I allot the time to work on it. Then when I allot the time, I just do it. I found ways to do it, but it’s not easy.
STEREOGUM: You never have to go to retreat to a cabin upstate or anything?
GUNN: I do sometimes. The last record I wrote a lot on the road and sitting waiting for airplanes and trains and sitting in the back of the car. I usually just think about a lot of things and take notes and I give myself weeks or a month and then I just work on my shit. I try to play all the time though because it’s something I enjoy doing and it’s a routine of my day. My way of meditating and chilling out. For years I practiced really hard, but now I play so many shows it’s nice to have a mental break from it.
STEREOGUM: What’s your writing process like?
GUNN: Lyrically, I write stuff down and switch around the words and try to fit the words within the music. The music stuff is a lot of me just playing a lot. Basically I have a hand held recorder and I come up with different ideas and then I just move. I often forget about them and then sometimes I’ll re-listen and detach myself a little bit because I get so caught up. I’ll even forget how to play it sometimes — which is weird, to relearn something you did. I figured out that I could be more productive if I trust my instincts and play stuff and try to document. I was forgetting things before, so for this last album I made a point to say, “I need to come up with songs and try to write some shit and hold on to it and see it through.” So that process was a lot of playing and kind of shutting my brain off and just improvising and hanging out and things would just come out of the blue. Or I would hear old folk tunes and take the idea and turn it into my own sort of thing.
STEREOGUM: Where did the title of the new record come from?
GUNN: The new one? I was really thinking about my last album and how it had such a specific environment.
STEREOGUM: What was the environment?
GUNN: Just where I was living in Brooklyn. My immediate zone and the people that were surrounding me in my life at the time. It was personal, and this next album I wanted it to be a bit broader. I had been traveling all over the world this past year and there’s this go-to topic to speak to to strangers about, which is usually weather. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s an important topic, but it’s this kind of go-to form of conversation where it’s immediate and you don’t have to reveal any personal details but it’s still an exchange. I was thinking about that a lot and about the way I had been interpreting that and how I’m certainly guilty of doing that. In a certain way, I wanted the record to have that quality wherein you’re talking about a certain topic abut it doesn’t necessarily mean one thing or the other. It’s kind of this ritual thing, it’s just unspecific, an exchange. I wanted the content of the music to be open-ended and more common. The album is definitely self-reflective, but I didn’t want it to have that personal thing because I don’t need to say anything specific about my life. Because I already did that. That’s the approach I was going with for the title and the opening track. Also, a difference with this album is all the songs kind of live on their own, so it’s a bit anonymous and a bit more all over the place.
STEREOGUM: Why did you want to do another record so quickly?
GUNN: It was a challenge and I wanted to see if we could do it. We have this great group of people and I wanted to make another album to follow up with this last one and I wanted to see if we could do it and trust my instincts. I wrote the songs really quickly, which was really new for me. The last album was a painstakingly long process, I didn’t have the courage to just write something and live with it. I kind of did that with this one and I made these crude demos, sent them around to the people that were going to be there, and then when we got to the studio everyone had ideas and we were workshopping and working on one thing and then moving on and bam, bam, bam, and it all kind of formed more or less there [in the studio], which was a really new process for me.
STEREOGUM: Do you have any interest in doing another solo record next year?
GUNN: Yeah, I’m already….this album is more or less a testament of what we’re capable of doing and I want to definitely make another, we’re ready to do more. I’m excited.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel any need to get a certain amount of Steve Gunn music out there in a certain amount of time?
GUNN: I don’t really have any time pressure on anything. I feel like I’ve been building up a relationship with the people I play with and the studio I work at and it’s just cool we have gotten to a point where we want to make more stuff and listen to a lot of records and talk about them. It’s really fun and we’ve all improved over the years. I’ve always been working to sustain playing because I really enjoy it and I’ll always probably do it. I don’t consider myself this dude who’s in a band per se, I think of myself as a working musician. I like touring, I like traveling, I like playing live, and I have friends who are in their 70s and they’re still doing it. They’re huge inspirations. So, no, I don’t feel like there’s any pressure or rush. I would never want to put something out just to do it.
STEREOGUM: Right, it’s not like you’re in some hardcore band and you have to get it all out while you’re young.
GUNN: I feel that I’m at a point where there’s more stuff to be made. I’ve come a long way from being an improviser and wanting to be a songwriter and working at it, and my last album was kind of the real first attempt at doing that. And I knew I wanted to improve so I’ve been doing that. There’s a lot more shit to be done. I’ve built up to it, so I’m definitely ready to keep going.
STEREOGUM: How big is your live set up?
GUNN: Right now it’s a trio. For the next tour in October, when our record comes out, we’ll have another guitar player and a harp. There will be five people. There’s a lot more instrumentation [on Way Out Weather], so it’ll be a bigger band.
STEREOGUM: How long have you been working with a full band?
GUNN: It’s only been two years.
STEREOGUM: Has that altered the way you write songs?
GUNN: A little bit, I have it in mind. When I was doing the solo stuff it was way more cerebral challenge where I had to fill in all the stuff. I was over playing in a way. With the band I can kind of sit back and play something that seems a bit boring or more simplified, which has been cool and great. It’s just a different approach. I’ve always obsessed over parts and trying to cram stuff, particularly with the solo stuff. With the band though, I’m trying to take a step back and breathe a little bit. There’s a different exchange of feeding off each other. I can step back and do more guitar soloing, which I enjoy doing. We get pretty loose and open the songs up and do more improvisational stuff. The songs are always kind of changing and we’re always trying different things. We all have backgrounds in improvising. I don’t want to go out there and play the same chords and bop around and play these selfish songs, so it makes it more tolerable to be on the road and hanging with my friends.
STEREOGUM: The Violators phase was last year?
GUNN: Yes, only last year. A short amount of time. [Kurt] heard my record and was so supportive and had such awesome things to say, which was flattering because I’m a huge fan of his. We became more friendly and he had this new record and wanted me be involved and I did what I could, played on a few song. He invited me to the West Coast and a few festivals. It was a great experience to hang with those guys and be in the band. They have a long history together but it was really cool to do it for a short amount of time, and still remain friends and a fan.
STEREOGUM: Did playing in more of a rock band change your songwriting or performance?
GUNN: It was really fun to play in that band and it was also challenging. I’m pretty much a self taught player so for me to jump into another situation with others people’s music…I worked hard on trying to fit in and complement it as much as I could. It was fun to play in a more rock context and we’ve been playing in more rock clubs lately, so certainly it was a learning experience to see how those guys work and do their thing on a day-to-day basis. Their gear, their sound checks — it was a learning experience. They know what they’re doing. Kurt is a pro, he’s been doing it a long time, and it was really inspiring to see him at work and to be a friend and be involved.
STEREOGUM: Do you have any interest in doing a more rock-oriented Steve Gunn record?
GUNN: I feel like with the new record, there are some rockier songs.
STEREOGUM: I was really surprised by the arrangement on the last song, “Tommy’s Congo.”
GUNN: Yeah, because it’s different than anything we’ve done. We played that last night. It’s getting a bit more rocky and I’m doing extended solos and this shit’s been changing. I think when we get a second guitar player it’s going to get even more rock-y. I also play solo as well, you know, acoustic guitar shows. I really enjoy doing that too; it’s just a different thing. It’s nice to have a mix. For this new album I have a couple of tracks that are pretty mellow with minimal accompaniment, so it’s nice to have it mixed. I don’t think we’re going to go more rock-y than the last song on this new one.
STEREOGUM: Is there any contemporary stuff that you follow and feel akin to? Do you feel like you’re playing in the same vein as anyone else?
GUNN: I don’t know. I think we’re fitting in with different audiences and I don’t think we’re being pushed into any kind of scene or anything, which is really nice.
STEREOGUM: I’m interested in this difference between this very old tradition you come out of and the pseudo-indie world you have a foot in. You mentioned yourself, you have a lot of friends that are in their ’70s that are folk musicians.
GUNN: I mean, they’re inspiring because they’ve made some of my favorite albums that I’ve come across. They made them in the ’60s and ’70s. They’ve been vital musicians. As far as bands out now that I’m inspired by, I don’t know. Certainly Kurt and Adam [Granduciel] and War on Drugs. I saw them play at this festival, Pickathon. Their instrumentation, they’re just a solid band. I’ve seen them play over the years, and it’s cool to see them evolve into what they are. There are a lot of bands out there, but their kind of approach and their instrumentation and their sound, they take it very seriously. Their shows sound really fucking good.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel like growing up in Pennsyvlania had any influence on the kind of music you make?
GUNN: Not necessarily. Well, certainly Philly. Being in Philly, there was a great scene. It was a great music town. It still is. A lot of cool bands are there. I was into hardcore when I was teenager, and there’s a great underground scene there. There’s this institution called the Philadelphia Record Exchange, and I’ve been going there since high school. That place was the epicenter for me, I would go in and hear the records they were playing, they were always having open discussions about records and labels. I met so many people, I played shows there. They moved and they’re still doing really well. There’s a really big wealth of music. I was into hardcore and skate shit when I was in high school, and I actually played in hardcore bands and stuff.
STEREOGUM: When did the folk thing enter your life?
GUNN: Much later. I was more into punk, and then when I graduated high school I moved…I was already friends with these guys who were a bit older, and record collectors. I discovered the first Stooges record and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on the same night. I was hanging out with these dudes who lived in South Philly and they were older and just really friendly and cool and total music heads, and just throwing stuff on. I remember going in, hearing those albums, and going to buy both the next day. I got really into jazz, and later through Coltrane and Miles Davis I discovered Sun Ra. His band was living in Philly at the time. I saw the Arkestra play a ton of times in Philly. My mind was blown. I discovered all that stuff and was discovering smaller labels.
STEREOGUM: Do you still follow punk scenes at all?
GUNN: Yeah, I still like it. I don’t listen to a ton of contemporary punk stuff, but I still like it. One of my favorite punk bands ever is Void. The instrumentation is just insane. I was also really into the DC scene, I was a big fan of Fugazi. I saw them play a lot. They were a big inspiration to me, they were one of my favorite bands at the time. All those bands, like Rites of Spring. Also, at the same time, I also listened to N.W.A. and a lot of rap. I was a suburban kid with headphones on.
STEREOGUM: Besides the obvious, has your life changed in any way since you’ve become a professional musician?
GUNN: For me…making that step is a big thing, because…it’s a tough thing to do. It’s hard to sustain. It’s certainly a step that I would never want to complain about. There’s almost like this…not to be extreme, but not having a net underneath you and then trying to go out there and make it all work is a whole different mindset. Being on tour and knowing you have to make ends meet. Luckily I have people that are helping me, and it’s been cool. I at least wanted to try it. I’m psyched I can at least try it for now.
Way Out Weather is out 10/7 via Paradise Of Bachelors. Stream it here.