Analogue Music | Steve Gunn

Interview: Steve Gunn

By Scott Elingburg

Steve Gunn is a patient man.

He's an artist that follows the true path of music, not always the most accessible one. And his songs are patient as well, taking time to unfold over multiple listens and sessions. I was able to see him perform at this year's Big Ears Festival. And if that weren't enough, the show took place in the gorgeous and acoustic-friendly St John's Episcopal Cathedral. Its beauty wasn't lost on Gunn who quipped, "It's such a pleasure to play Fuzz Wah in church today."

Gunn appears to derive much of his enjoyment from being able to play music for others. His acoustic finger-picking styles and occasional drone forays emit a Zen-like quality that create an attentive trance, both live and on record. He knows who is and what he wants to play. And only the best kind of music comes from that kind of ideology.

When I spoke to Gunn, he had his first "wide open afternoon" in a while, having just returned from England where he produced a record for friend and occasional tour mate, Michael Chapman.

Analogue: I saw you in Big Ears back in March. Was it nice to get to play a few different things over a few days?

Steve: Yeah, it was really nice to do that. I really like that festival, it’s so well-curated. I like to do different things and that was a cool opportunity to play with The Black Twig Pickers. I enjoy playing with them.

Analogue: Did you get a chance to see any other musicians there?

Steve: I did. I kind of ran myself into the ground at that festival trying to see everything. I saw Milford Graves play twice. Arto Lindsay and the band, Tal National, just all kinds of stuff. The Thing was really great. I was bopping around as much as I could. Combined with playing and forgetting to eat and just running all over the place I think I spun myself out by day three for sure.

Analogue: It's easy to do. And you were part of the drone flight, too. Drone can be a kind of music that is difficult to quantify and can, sometimes, be difficult for listeners to penetrate. What attracts you to the music?

Steve: I was always interested in that kind of stuff, early concepts of minimal composers. And Indian classical music that is really based on certain kinds of drones. Learning about that music a while ago affected my own playing perspectives in music. I still improvise a lot and I use to do it a lot more before I started doing this singer/songwriting stuff. So it’s still a big part of what I do.

Mike Gangloff who’s in The Black Twig Pickers was in a band called Pelt that are really drone-based. So, it was appropriate and cool for us to collaborate on that.

Analogue: I’ve always enjoyed drone music but it is the hardest type of music to explain to people. Because you have to be open to the idea of it or else someone’s mind might just shut down.

Steve: Yeah, it’s not for everyone But, in my opinion, to appreciate that music, it’s kind of for deep listeners and people who use music not just for one purpose but people who use music for different purposes; people who use music to meditate and to expand their mind. And I feel like that kind of music is very important to different people who are listening to music on a different level.

Photo Credit: Constance Mensh
Photo Credit: Constance Mensh

Analogue: Do you meditate?

Steve: I do, yeah. I’m not an expert at it but I’m interested in the concepts of it. I know that any kind of way to recharge your mind and relax your mind from distractions is important in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. So, I definitely try to give myself some time for that. Especially for me because I’m on the road a lot. I could easily jump around and forget to check in with myself. But I always know when I need to give myself a little break and some time to recharge.

Analogue: And using music can be difficult because you have to have the right kind of music to achieve that meditative state.

Steve: And you have to have an open mind about what you’re listening to. Some people react very strongly to things that aren’t familiar to them. For me, as a youngster, I always had an adventurous ear and I always wanted to hear things that I couldn’t understand, hear things that were challenging to me. To go all the way back, that kind of stems from being interested in punk rock and seeing what else was out there. I was just a suburban kid and that kind of filtered through everything and I’m always searching for different kinds of music for all kinds of reasons. If you’re listening to Celine Dion for three years and you hear [drone music], you’re going to be like, “What the hell is this? Get it off.” (Laughs)

Analogue: Your last two records had a Zen quality to them from start to finish. And it was really on display when you were performing live in the church. You seemed definitely in tune with that quality and it was emanating out to the audience.

Steve: Yeah, I felt that, too. I tried to really connect in that way. I really try to channel myself into that kind of state. It’s cool that you recognize that because it’s a big part off what I’m doing. The songs are pretty cyclical and they build in this circular way. For me to really get into it I have to let myself go in that context and within the music. And it’s cool that people can see that and it’s not just another dude up there with an acoustic guitar singing about himself.

Analogue: The setting certainly had a lot to do with it. Over the past two records, I know you keep a theme of traveling and moving and you’re on the road a lot. But is that what draws you into that theme? The experience? Or is it a meditative quality?

Steve: I think it’s a bit of both. The last record I was on the road a ton and wrote almost all those songs on the road. Actually, it’s kind of combination of both: being on the road and staring out the window and thinking about what I was doing. What traveling means to me and kind of moving through time and space in that way. It had a big effect on where I was as a songwriter. And it comes through.

Analogue: Did you figure out about what it means to you to be a traveler?

Steve: I mean, I like it and I respect it. And I value being able to do it. I know that I don’t want to take it for granted. It’s hard work and I know some people might not see it that way, but when you’re at an airport and you’ve got two guitar cases and and suitcase and you’ve got to use the bathroom those moments are the hard ones. For me, it’s something that I always wanted to do. I always had this dream of traveling and playing music.

I’ve met a lot of people doing it and I’ve learned a lot about myself. It’s been a valuable sort of experience. I was going through a tough time with family stuff and some big things happen in my life. And just to contemplate those kinds of things but also to be hopeful and grateful.

Analogue: That feels like a big theme some people are coming around to: how to be hopeful. Because it can be difficult.

Steve: It is. For me the thing that keeps me going and the thing that’s most inspiring is when someone comes up to me at a show and says, ‘thanks, your music has helped me in some way.’ That’s where I feel like I’ve set out what I wanted to do. People will take these records that I make and use them to their benefit. The intent of a lot of music is changing a little bit—I hope. Where people have more of a message than “Me, me, me. I’m this cool person. Look how cool I am up here with my awesome hair…” and stuff like that.

For me and my peers, and the people I surround myself with, it’s much more important.

Analogue: When you’re out touring and a guitar, is it difficult for people to sit still and listen?

Steve: I think that kind of takes work and it really depends on the setting. For me the ideal environment are when people are quiet and they fill the room with their sound. That’s always something that I'm very sensitive to. And I've done it enough to know how to work it. I’ve stood in front of rooms where people don’t care. They’re holding pints of beer wanting for the other act to come on. And that’s always a challenge and it can be a hard position to be in to face a crowd like that. But it’s also a cool challenge. It’s hard to faze me at this point unless you’re throwing things at me. (Laughs)

Analogue: I know there are some less-than-ideal venues that musicians have to play in out there.

Steve: It’s interesting because lately, I started playing a lot of solo shows and it seems like, especially in the US, there are a lot of places that are opening up their doors to concerts. Like old theatre and churches, as well. Some of those spaces are so beautiful and great for acoustic music. And it seems a shame that all these beautiful buildings would only be used once a week.

For me, it’s something that I always wanted to do. I always had this dream of traveling and playing music.

Analogue: At the gig, you talked about being around your dad and his friends and feeling like a weird kid, maybe an outcast around adults. Was there a time growing up when you knew music was going to be your way out?

I never felt like too much of an outcast. I don’t know...I mean I was interested in different types of music and I fled to the city when I got old enough and then moved to NYC. I choose a different path. I think it’s easy for a person like myself and the kids I went to high school with to fall into that traditional lifestyle, and I didn’t. I lead a less traditional quote/unquote lifestyle. I guess I pursued what I really wanted to do. And it wasn’t easy.

I wouldn’t want to say that I was too much of an outcast. I lost my dad just under two years ago. We we’re very very close. He lived a difficult life as well but, I guess my point with that song was there are these places you go to and the meanings shift around as you get a little bit older.

Analogue: I see that. And the reason I ask is because I always felt this awful contrasting force between the music I liked growing up and the rest of my family—especially my dad. They never liked anything that wasn’t immediately recognizable, so it was hard for me to force a connection with my family when they weren't so open-minded.

Steve: Yeah, people are kind of comfortable with their traditions. And that’s ok, but for me my kind of insatiable interest in music stems from my parents in a way. I just took it to the next level—to the extreme, I guess. I guess it’s the sort of thing where you’re 18, 20, 25, and they think, “Maybe he’s going to grow out of it…” (Laughs). Nope.

Analogue: Maybe he’ll go back and get that law degree.

Steve: Exactly. But they love it and they’re such big supporters of it. So it kind of came full circle.