Among certain critics and cultural trainspotters, there exists a colloquialism — ‘gamechanger’ — to denote a brazen, unexpected creative leap by an already respected and established artist. The risk of potentially alienating a listenership that increasingly has more choices than patience is a perilous one, but to take such a gamble and succeed can earn an artist irreproachable status henceforth. Some examples of historical gamechangers are Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden, Radiohead’s Kid A, and Scott Walker’s Tilt. We may soon be adding to this list the new album by New York-based guitarist Steve Gunn, whose Time Off, released June 18th on Paradise of Bachelors, finds the formerly ubiquitous psychedelic journeyman exploring traditional songwriting through a prism of airy blues, ambling jazz-folk, and subtle but virtuosic guitar dreamweaving. For starters, imagine the Dead’s “Bird Song” performed by guys who know all the Sun City Girls records by heart. Not so much an about-face as a panoramic zooming-out, Time Off should introduce Gunn’s beguiling music to an entire new audience even as it retains the spirit and the logic of his earliest and most experimental work. I got to talk to Steve about Time Off, declining lucrative record deals, and how legends like Jack Rose and Michael Chapman have influenced his life as much as his music.
James Jackson Toth: This may seem like mundane way to start, but despite the fact that you’ve been around a while, there seems to be a relative dearth of biographical information about you out there. Let’s start with your roots in the hardcore scene. Is that when you started playing music, or were you already playing by then?
Steve Gunn: I was definitely playing before I got into hardcore. When I got my first instrument I was borrowing music from my older sister, like Misfits tapes, and stuff like that, and I was also listening to rap. It was kinda all over the place. A few years later, in high school I started getting into punk and hardcore. Around then I started playing with other people, going over to people’s houses and playing in their basements and things.
JJT: And was this in Philly?
Steve Gunn: Yeah. I lived out in the suburbs of Philly, and then during my freshman year of high school I started going to the city, and going to shows – punk shows and all other kinds of different shows. And this is when I started hitting up record stores.
JJT: This was before you met Jack (Rose) and Bardo Pond and all those Philly folks, right?
Steve Gunn: Oh, yeah. I actually convinced my parents to let me go on a small tour the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of high school. I played in this really terrible hardcore band — we were doing Chain of Strength covers and stuff. We even played a couple shows with that band Mouthpiece. And I somehow convinced my parents to let me go. I basically cried, and they were finally nice enough to give me the OK.
JJT: Skipping ahead a bit: the first time I met you, I think you were playing with GHQ. For those who don’t know, GHQ is a long-running band that, at one time, included Helen Rush of Tower Recordings and Metal Mountains, but was a trio of Pete Nolan and Marcia Bassett when you joined. How did this collaboration come about? Were you aware of Un at this point?
Steve Gunn: I was definitely a big Un fan. When I was in college, I moved into a house with these older guys, and they had all these records, and it kinda opened up my world. That’s when I got turned on to all those Siltbreeze bands, and I got to see most of them [play live]. And I definitely became a fan of Un and saw them a bunch of times and I became friends with Grant [Acker] and Marcia. When I moved to New York, I was still keeping in touch with Marcia, and I started playing around and doing these sort of pick up jams with her and whoever she was playing with. Another person who I knew from back then in Philly was Patrick Best, who was in Pelt. He was living in Brooklyn at the time — around 2001 — and so this first incarnation of GHQ was me, Patrick, Helen and Marcia. We never played many proper gigs, though we did a few recordings that never saw the light of day. That’s kinda how it started, and we just kept it going. And then Pete [Nolan, of Magik Markers, Spectre Folk, Vanishing Voice, et al] moved to New York, we hooked up with him, and that’s when we started actually playing gigs and compiling recordings.
JJT: I’m eager to talk about the new album, but I also want to touch on the work you did between this era (GHQ) and Time Off. Like the short-lived Moongang project…
Steve Gunn: That was just sort of my attempt to try to do tape manipulation music, and less straight-up guitar things. I was layering different field recordings with random instrumentation and tape loops and all kinds of stuff. I always meant to pick that back up but I never did.
JJT: Someone should reissue that tape with the spider inside (Fifth Sun Visions, on Not Not Fun). That one rules.
Steve Gunn: Oh shit. I forgot about that one! There’s a pretty limited CDR, too that had these longer tracks. But the tape…I kinda forgot about that. That ended up being more guitar stuff.
JJT: What were you listening to around this time to inspire the tape stuff?
Steve Gunn: I was listening to a lot of La Monte Young, and a lot of Indian music, that kind of thing. Also, Faust and a lot of Krautrock stuff.
JJT: “The Lurker Extended,” your contribution to Three Lobed’s Not The Spaces You Know, But Between Them box set, was a revelation for me. On a comp featuring sidelong contributions by Sonic Youth, Sun City Girls and Bardo Pond, I thought it was pretty notable that you sorta came out the winner. It’s definitely the side of that comp I play the most. It was also the first time I really heard you sing, and I remember thinking, “Why the hell doesn’t he sing all the time?” What made you start featuring vocals more prominently?
Steve Gunn: I think it was always something I wanted to do and never was able to pull off in any other capacity until I had the time to work on it and play gigs solo. I just recorded [“The Lurker Extended”] in my apartment, and I just wanted it to sound like something I might want to listen to. I wanted to get away from the sort of ‘shy singing’ vibe, and though I could more easily do that at home by myself, I eventually got more comfortable putting that out there and doing it live. I guess I just decided to go in that direction because I was privately working on those kinds of songs for a long time, and when the more improvisational stuff started to slow down, I became interested in doing more structured things, and singing. I was really working on guitar playing but I didn’t necessarily want to be another solo guitar player guy. I had a real interest in songs and singing, but it took me years to get it together. “The Lurker Extended” was my first real attempt.
JJT: That sort of natural progression from improv to traditional song structures leads me to my next question, actually, because “Water Wheel” reminds me of some of the extended jams of bands like Pentangle — I’m thinking “Pentangling” — and also some of the more outside stuff by Fairport, like “A Sailor’s Life,” etc. Was this sorta stuff on your mind at all?
Steve Gunn: Yeah, definitely. Because these songs I had were written as solo songs, and the guitar playing is pretty intricate, so I didn’t want to do the sort of four-on-the-floor rock vibe in a band setting, which would overpower what was happening on the guitar. I guess I wanted it to be, for lack of a better word, sort of jazzy, with the rhythm section sort of lower in the background supporting what was happening with the guitar, and I think Pentangle and Fairport kind of do a similar thing. They’re not pushing the heaviest, heavy rock aspects; they’re doing it with a lighter touch, and freer. It has a swing to it.
JJT: Well, you found players who seem really sensitive to that. How did you hook up with (drummer) John Truscinski and (bassist, guitarist) Justin Tripp?
Steve Gunn: I met John when I moved to New York and was playing around with a bunch of different people. He had moved from Northampton, and we had some mutual friends, so we just linked up and started jamming with all different sorts of people. Over the years we just started scaling it back to just a guitar-and-drums duo, and started to flesh things out. We played a lot together and sort of developed this relationship, and this musical understanding of each other that we also built a friendship around as well. So when I had these songs it definitely just made sense to ask him to help. Justin is a really old friend of mine from Philly. We were roommates and we both moved to New York at the same time, and we have similar musical interests and stuff. He’s more of a guitar player, and when I asked him to play bass, I was just looking for something super simple, and he totally understood, and just stepped in and did an awesome job. He’s also really good with arrangements and studio stuff. The fact that it was just the three of us made it really simple; it was a really natural way to play the songs.
JJT: Yeah, you guys interact onstage like people who’ve been playing together much longer than you have. How much of a role does improvisation play in these songs? How much improvisation is on the album as opposed to when you present these tunes live? It often sounds like you’re stretching these songs out, but maybe this is deceptive, like, there are a certain predetermined number of bars, and you guys have just practiced the shit out of them.
Steve Gunn: They’re definitely pretty tightly structured, but the more we play them, the more risks we’re willing to take, and the more we’re willing to let the songs breathe and open up a bit. It’s funny because Justin and John have learned to expect and adapt to me not being able to count so well. (Laughs). But on certain parts I can extend the change, or extend the part before the change, and they totally pick up on it. It’s always this thing where it teeters on the edge of an improvisation. But it’s also all about cues and stuff. We’ve been playing the songs so much lately that it’s been getting easier to play them, so they’ve been expanding in ways.
JJT: What is the significance of the title Time Off?
Steve Gunn: This record was sort of a long time coming. I’ve had some of these songs for years, but the album finally happened naturally. A number of years had passed and I felt like I didn’t want to put any time significance on the album, either for now or the future, if that makes sense.
JJT: I interpreted it as “This is what I’ve been secretly working on since you last saw me!” Like, the album is the result of some pretty serious woodshedding.
Steve Gunn: Yeah, that’s part if it. But I mean it as just trying to shut the concept of time out of my mind, presenting the music and not thinking about how long it’s taking for me to do it, not being conscious of any of that. When you’re past 35, there’s this sort of pressure a s a musician, like “Fuck, what am I doing with my life? I’ve got to get my life together.” But then I see someone like Michael Chapman, who is one of my heroes, still in his 70s, still pushing along, still doing it. So this is what I’ve been working towards and I’m not going to stop.
JJT: It’s great to hear you say that. I’ll be 35 in September and I had a similar epiphany a few years ago: one day I was suddenly struck by the notion that there is no longer a ‘plan b.’ No more “Maybe I’ll go to tech school, maybe I’ll get my teaching certificate.” Because I’m already a grown-ass man and this is what I’ve chosen to do with my life, for better or worse.
Steve Gunn: Yeah. Not to sound corny but I’ve come to have a respect for just playing music in general. I’ve met most of my closest friends through playing music; it’s a big part of my life. It’s a privilege to be able to do it, it’s not just like I’m picking up a band and trying to play gigs or whatever. This is just what I’ve been doing since I was a teenager.
JJT: It seems like there is something of a guitar Renaissance going on right now in our scene. Between you, William Tyler, and younger cats like Sam Moss and Daniel Bachman, the underground is paying more attention to guitar music than ever, but it also seems like many writers are, perhaps typically, as misinformed as they are enthusiastic when describing with these disparate strains of guitar music. For instance, it’s hard to find a review of any of your records that doesn’t mention John Fahey. Similarly, I always laugh when I read a review of a Rick Bishop or a Six Organs record, and the writer can’t seem to come up with a single other guitar player to compare these guys to. Is this frustrating for you? And to what do you attribute this sudden renewed interest in guitar soli, or what-have-you?
Steve Gunn: I certainly think that Jack Rose set the bar for it. Over the years, he dealt with the whole Fahey comparison, but he managed to step out of that shadow and prove himself as his own being, and I think he started the renewed interest in that world. I certainly listened and studied a lot of that stuff, and Jack was actually a big inspiration for me to go down that road. But now it is a bit frustrating to still see that comparison, but people need something to grab onto when they write about music. I do find it a bit lazy when you can tell when you’re reading a review that the writer is just looking at other reviews and doing the Google thing, not listening to the music and interpreting it for themselves. I don’t know if that answers your question.
JJT: Well, I think some writers just lack some very fundamental understanding of the music. I saw a review of one of the great Imaginational Anthem compilations on Tompkins Square and they were going on and on about the shadow of Fahey — I mean, the first volume featured a track by Bern Nix, fer chrissakes. When I hear guys like you and William (Tyler), I hear as much Sandy Bull, Richard Thompson, and Jerry Garcia as I do anything from the so-called Takoma school.
Steve Gunn: Yeah, Fahey is just the easiest go-to reference for the whole fingerpicking thing. Jack set the bar and I was like, “There’s no way I’m going to step in and try to do what he does,” but at the same time, I was so inspired by him, I just wanted to turn it into my own thing. I’m hoping that when people hear this new record, people won’t be making those comparisons. I don’t really want to be lumped into that school.
JJT: I like what you said, about hearing something, being inspired by it, and then turning it into your own thing.
Steve Gunn: Yeah, and Jack was always like that, too. He was all over the place, and his tastes were so eclectic and weird. He saw people who were real and weren’t bullshitting and people who worked at what they did, and he respected them for it. And I thought, damn that’s it right there: Don’t try to copy anyone, but you still have to work on what you’re doing and put your own stamp on it. Don’t do some cookie cutter version of something that’s already been done, and done so much, and is frankly pretty fucking boring. I’m much more interested in someone making mistakes and putting themselves out there and doing their own thing than someone sort of pristinely playing songs that have that sort of thinness to them.
JJT: Jason Meagher once called Jack the most affirming person he ever met. Like, if Jack didn’t think you were bullshit, you could rest assured you weren’t bullshit.
Steve Gunn: (Laughs) Totally. I gave Jack a CD of my very first solo recording and he was so supportive and it meant the world to me. I got the approval, you know. Pretty fucking awesome.
JJT: Moving onto to more current stuff, how did you hook up with Kurt Vile and join the band as a Violator? Will this be a full time gig?
Steve Gunn: I just finished a tour with them, and they went on to Europe, so that was sorta my stint with them for now. Kurt and I are from the same suburban town outside of Philly, but he’s a couple of years younger than me. I saw him play live around 2005 and I got a CD that he made on Gulcher, and I really liked it. We kinda reconnected after that and I knew one of the guys in his band pretty well, so we kept in touch. And then Kurt heard a bit of my new record and really liked it, and he wrote me a really nice letter and wanted me to be involved a bit in his music, and have me as an opener, which was super nice of him. And I just sorta learned a few songs. It was great to sit in with them, it was a ton of fun. And it was also a real learning experience for us as an opening act in these bigger clubs, figuring out our sound. Being acoustic and stuff, these big clubs created kind of an issue for us. We were constantly having to tweak things to make it right.
JJT: And, of course, you weren’t traveling with your own soundguy for these gigs.
Steve Gunn: No, not at all. And it was tough. We were opening but I was also doing double duty, and I was tripping over guitar cases and forgetting things…it was kind of a mess. We’d jump up there, do a line check and just play, and if my guitar wasn’t loud enough, or if a tom was just droning feedback the whole time…
JJT: A friend once made the comparison that having a house soundman is a lot like having a public defender at a murder trial.
Steve Gunn: Yeah, totally. But every night these different issues just made us aware of what we need to do to adapt.
JJT: A few months ago, I spoke with Michael Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, and he mentioned how when he’s making a Hiss Golden Messenger record, he usually knows exactly how the record’s gonna turn out, that it’s already mostly constructed in his head, and with the terrific Golden Gunn record you guys did together for Three Lobed, he didn’t, and he was a little nervous about that. Would you say that LP is more in your comfort zone than Michael’s, having more of a history in improvisation, or was it an experiment for you, too? You guys sound like pretty natural collaborators.
Steve Gunn: No, it was definitely an experiment for me, too, I also didn’t know what the end result was gonna be, and I was pretty nervous about it, too. I was thinking “This shit is so strange, I wonder if it will make sense to anyone but us.” It was an interesting challenge because it was a true collaboration, with both of us putting our own stamp on it, and it became something totally different than what either of us would have done. So it took on its own strange sort of life; it captures a really weird, sleazy vibe and it has an interesting flow, and I didn’t expect the end result to have that sort of cohesiveness. It has this strange sort of life that I didn’t realize until we finished it. It was also really nice to do something where there wasn’t any pressure to worry about what it sounded like, and we both seemed to let our guards down. It was also a Record Store Day really, so we wanted to make it fun, and it was fun to make. Those guys would send me some backing track and I’d just sip some tequila in my living room and just fuck around and try to catch a weird vibe.
JJT: You don’t have to answer this question, but there were rumors going around a few months back that you were turning down offers from some fairly high profile indie labels. What made you decide to release Time Off with the smaller and somewhat specialized Paradise of Bachelors label?
Steve Gunn: Well, at the time, it’s true there were other people that wanted to put the record out. I was super flattered and appreciative of the interest, but I was kinda getting torn in different directions and I didn’t know what to do. I know Brendan [Greaves] pretty well and Chris [Smith] is a really old friend, and I knew they really wanted to do the record. I also had a sense that some of the other people who were interested didn’t really know where I was coming from, or anything about stuff I’d done in the past. I talked to other labels and I could tell they heard the record and liked it but literally didn’t know anything else about me. And those scenarios just didn’t feel right. But I knew the Paradise of Bachelors guys were working with Hiss Golden Messenger, and they did such a good job with his previous record. I also just knew they were going to work it in the right way, and they had the right aesthetic. They know how to write about it and they know what to do with it, and that was my main concern. I didn’t wanna just hand it over to some label who just puts out tons of albums, gets a little press, and then moves on to the next release. I didn’t want that to happen, and I’m glad I went with those guys; they’ve already done a really great job. There’s also something to be said for working with a new label; there’s a level of excitement with those guys. Besides, I don’t necessarily believe in “Oh, he’s on such-and-such label, it’s gotta be good.” I mean, it doesn’t really matter at this point.
JJT: I think the recurring theme of this interview is that the lessons of punk rock were well learned by Steve Gunn.
Steve Gunn: Yeah, I guess so! Totally. (Laughs).
JJT: And I think this is a good, punk rock note to end on: Michael Taylor mentioned something about how, during the whole Krishna Consciousness invasion of the hardcore scene back in the day, your mom freaked out because she found some Krishna literature and wanted to deprogram you or something. Aquarium Drunkard readers need to hear this story, Steve.
Steve Gunn: Well, I was a fan of Shelter, but I was way into Youth of Today. This was pretty brief, but I was definitely a fan. Those guys moved to Philly and they were living at the Krishna temple there, and they’d have these weekly gatherings with free food. I was just a sophomore in high school at the time, so I was pretty starstruck to meet Ray of Today, Porcell, the guitarist from Beyond…they were all just hanging out, being nice. And we started going there, and I guess I got some beads and some pamphlets and stuff, and my mom found them in my room and was just like “What’s going on with this Hare Krishna shit?!” So I got kind of reprimanded. It was a funny time because there were all these kids between 13 and 18 showing up to this Krishna temple hanging out. The Krishnas were perfectly nice and awesome, but looking back on it, it was…err, pretty strange. (Laughs)