Kim Gordon has long been one of our most intimidating rock stars. From her work with the legendary Sonic Youth to her side gig Free Kitten and current project Body/Head, she’s always been able to wield harsh noise, anti-patriarchal vitriol, and rock star cool with ease. But even though she can summon the feedback to clear a room whenever she likes, she also needs to get lost in some meditative music once in a while. And if you’re looking for someone to take you on a journey where there’s probably no real destination but the detours are breathtaking, it’s hard to do much better than Steve Gunn these days.
The Lansdowne, Pennsylvania-bred songwriter and guitarist has been making exploratory space-folk for more than a decade, always achieving the right balance between avant-garde experimentation and warm hooks. Originally an instrumental artist, he introduced his laid-back but assured vocals into the mix with 2013’s Time Off. His latest release, The Unseen In Between, features some of his most assured songs yet; it finds him growing into a humanist storyteller, whether he’s reconnecting with an estranged parent or big-upping his favorite Agnes Varda film.
Gordon has been a Gunn fan for a while, and when we learned that she wanted to interview her Matador labelmate for Stereogum (with the occasional interjection from her Body/Head bandmate Bill Nace), we jumped at the chance. She talked to him about his inspiration and (literally) finding his voice, while I asked them about bodega cats, because my priorities are always on point.
STEREOGUM: Kim, when did you first discover Steve’s music?
GORDON: I’m not sure what the date was, but it was when Steve was still playing instrumentally and we contacted him to open for [Sonic Youth]. It was Thurston’s idea, or maybe Jim O’Rourke’s, I don’t remember.
STEREOGUM: Steve, was this back when you were still playing Kurt Vile’s band?
GUNN: I was only in Kurt’s band literally for like a week or something. [But] I’ve known Kurt forever. We’re from the same town outside of Philly. I never was really friends with him when we were younger, but I knew him and his family and stuff. Then he kinda came back around and I saw him play at this gallery really early on, when he had just the CD-Rs. I really liked it and we became friends, [we] sort of reconnected. It was weird because I knew who he was when I was a kid … just being in a small town and being like, “This is that same person? Holy shit.” I became a fan right away. Anyway, fast forward a bunch of years, and what happened was he asked me to open some shows and travel, and basically he was like “Do you want to play on some of the songs?” And that was kind of it.
GORDON: I was also curious how — because we never talked about this — what made you decide to start singing? And how did you come up with this voice that is sort of old and new at the same time? Had you sung before?
GUNN: No, but I was kind of doing it privately, playing with different people. I like doing a lot of instrumental stuff, doing a lot of improvisational stuff, just bedroom recordings of songs. Then I sort of made a little CD and started giving it to friends without ever really performing it. People were like, “Oh, I didn’t know that you sang.”
GORDON: That’s kind of a Philly thing. Isn’t that how Kurt started? Like, “OK, I made a record in my bedroom.”
STEREOGUM: I’ve interviewed those guys, Kurt Vile and Adam Granduciel from the War On Drugs. They were recording CD-R after CD-R when they got home from their job at the bottling plant.
GUNN: He’s apparently a good forklift driver.
STEREOGUM: I believe it. So were you kind of nervous getting started, making the transition to singing?
GUNN: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I’m pretty reserved, so it was weird to sing. But it just took doing it in front of people, and it was helpful to go on tour. I got invited to play this little festival in Europe — it was really the first time I ever, like, sang [in public]. And it was nice to not be around anyone I knew, and travel around and get more comfortable. It just took a lot of time.
GORDON: Your voice is almost like the anchor in the song.
GUNN: I was just doing interviews, and there were people saying, “We don’t even care about the words, we just like the way your voice sounds.” I was like, “I never thought of it that way.”
GORDON: Sometimes it takes me a while to actually listen to lyrics. I tend to listen more to lyrics by women, for some reason, I don’t know why.
STEREOGUM: Do you just think dudes have nothing to say?
STEREOGUM: Just kidding!
GORDON: I didn’t say that! No, I don’t know. But I know actually there are certain records that … all those early Dylan records, I know those lyrics. And I listen to Neil Young’s lyrics, but … I don’t know, it’s not always the first thing that grabs me. It’s kind of the whole package of the production and the musicality of it. And then it leads me into the lyrics, if I like it enough.
GUNN: It’s just the sound of a certain singer. One of my favorite singers is Sandy Denny. Her voice just is enough. I mean, her lyrics are also great, but just the way her voice sounds.
STEREOGUM: Kim, I’m sure you must be exposed to new music all the time — people giving you stuff, people recommending things to you. What was it about Steve’s music that really stuck out to you?
GORDON: I guess it’s because I do listen to a lot of old music and … I know this is going to sound dumb, but I like records that sound like music. The production isn’t in the way of it, there’s a certain purity to it. And I liked [Steve’s] melodies. It reminded me of records I had, but it also didn’t seem nostalgic. It seemed contemporary.
STEREOGUM: Steve, you came up in the scene listening to hardcore punk. Stuff that sounds exactly nothing like the music you make now. How did that transition come about? Or is it just that you like one thing but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what you want to make?
GUNN: I think I was into early kind of bone-headed hardcore stuff, almost the third or fourth or even fifth generation of stuff that I think is great — bands like Black Flag and Bad Brains — so I was just kind of going to these local shows and seeing bands. My first exposure to seeing live bands was sort of like macho, jocky…
STEREOGUM: Bro-core, as they say?
GUNN: It was really kind of formulaic, the music almost didn’t matter. So I quickly lost interest in my teens and then started seeing more bands that were bearing influences I didn’t even know — like a band that maybe sounded like the Fall, or bands that were listening to the Jesus Lizard at the time. I was just seeing bands that were playing a bit more progressively, and I was going to shows at this church in Philly and I saw a lot of great bands there. It’s called Cabbage Collective. It’s in West Philly. I saw Bikini Kill there. I saw punk bands from the early ’90s, but more kind of underground. Some of the bands that I really liked, I couldn’t even place what they were doing, and the interesting thing was, I think that these kids had no idea what they were doing, but there was almost this performative aspect to it, like a detachment of the musicality. It just gets lost in this noisy sort of thing, and I got really into that. It was weirdly odd and frightening.
GORDON: That’s how I felt when I first came to New York and saw No Wave bands. It was like, oh, of course! So free.
GUNN: So I was into all that stuff, and when I was about 18, 19, I moved out of my parent’s house and I moved into a house in West Philly — a big house with maybe eight bedrooms, and there were random people living there, and there had been people living there for almost 10 years before I moved there. I was by far the youngest person in the house, and there were people who just had record collections, and all the records were in one room, and that’s when I just started finding out about all this stuff that I didn’t know about. I listened to the radio, college radio, discovering all this jazz stuff that I didn’t know. I was just more interested in a wider range of music. I was also playing guitar at the time, so I was playing around with friends and listening to all kinds of stuff and trying anything. There’s this great record store there called Philadelphia Record Exchange, and they were all very nice. So there was just this constant stream of [music] coming in and out.
GORDON: It seems like there are musical signposts, people like John Fahey that influenced so many people who came out of punk rock — because he was so punk rock, the way he approached acoustic guitar. Neil Young was that way too.
GUNN: Fahey gets a lot of credit because, I mean, he’s a very interesting guy. But his music, I think, was easy. He plays really slowly and really clearly, so if you’re interested in guitar, you can actually decipher what he’s doing if you apply yourself a little bit. Almost like lessons, where you say, like, “OK, he’s in this tuning, you can clearly hear what’s going on, hear the melodies.” And for me, I love Fahey’s music, just listening to how he was playing it and figuring it out. Another person that I’ve found around the same time that was super important was Sandy Bull.
GORDON: It’s funny, I used to listen to both of them when I was a teenager. I had this one Sandy Bull record that’s so scratchy.
GUNN: I think he’s a big one for me, because I was listening to all different kinds of music, and there’s this piece called “Blend,” which is almost this kind of Indian Raga piece, it’s really long and it’s with this drummer Billy Higgins who’s played with Ornette Coleman. When I heard that piece, I knew who Billy Higgins was just from listening to jazz, and I was just like, “Whoa, how did this meeting happen?” And I was imagining it. It was the first time I really heard guitar played that way. And also, just the stuff he was doing, his stuff was sort of all over the place, and I really liked the sort of collective style. It wasn’t this virtuosic kind of presence. It was this funny, strange guy. All of his stuff was self-produced.
STEREOGUM: Let’s talk about Steve’s new album, which is great. I know the lead single “Stonehurst Cowboy” is about your father. He was going to go to Vietnam, but he didn’t actually go. What actually happened there? And what inspired you to write that song?
GUNN: I was just interested in his story, and I didn’t know much about his [life] in that era. Stonehurst is the area of Philly where he’s from. He grew up really poor and had kind of a crazy life. He was drafted to Vietnam. His brother was already there, his younger brother was drafted too, so three brothers drafted. And his older brother was basically missing.
GUNN: Like in Vietnam. He survived in camp there. And my dad’s best friend was killed. A lot of the guys from his neighborhood were killed, and he was going through a really insane time. There’s a lot of stuff that I never really connected with him on. I also, when I was younger — you know how you just sort of reject a lot of things, particularly with your parents? I was a pretty selfish kid, and I was also trying to work out my own sort of psychosis. So my father got sick, and I was lucky enough to have time with him to reconnect, almost as an old friend, just learn a little bit more about him. And he told me more about that time.
So he was drafted and he ended up trying to get pardoned, and they were really not agreeable to it. He was trying to figure out how not to go, and he didn’t wanna run away or anything. So there are some other details that I won’t mention, but basically, he got injured, and he ended up not going because of his injury, but then they still sent him to Korea. He spent a year there, guarding the border of Korea at the DMZ. There was just a lot of tension … I just wanted to write a tribute to him. The song itself is sort of through his eyes. He’s walking down his old street and thinking about life.
GORDON: Sort of meditative.
GUNN: Yeah, it’s a meditative sort of thing. The second half is sort of from my perspective. It’s just interesting too, because I was thinking about how similar I am to him. It became more clear to me, after he had passed. Even just the way that I move around. I’ve turned into my father.
STEREOGUM: Another standout is the song “Luciano.” It’s about bodega cats?
GUNN: Sort of. I mean it’s sort of a figurative song, and there’s a cat involved, and it’s from the cat’s perspective. It’s about a relationship, so I used this store owner and the cat to represent a relationship, so I started singing about that, and singing about emotional support and worrying about loved ones and whoever. I used those two characters as points of references.
STEREOGUM: Kim, did you have any favorite bodega cats when you lived in the city? Knowing, “Oh, there’s always one at this one bookstore,” or whatever.
GORDON: Well, we had this cat that Thurston got from this health food store on Prince Street. I think it was called Whole Foods, actually, but not related to them. Anyway, he got this cat, kind of a stray that was hanging out there, and he took it.
STEREOGUM: It’s funny, because I know you’re a big fan of Steve, obviously, and years ago I was reading an article where various artists listed their album of the year. Yours was Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring For My Halo and, for some reason, I always just assumed anyone in Sonic Youth listened to nothing but harsh noise all the time. At the time I was like, “Huh, I wouldn’t have guessed she would like that.”
GORDON: I tend to like seeing noise stuff live more than listening to it on headphones. [Laughs] I like to save my ears, though, for my own music that is noisy. You can’t listen to harsh noise all the time.