Steve Gunn, American guitar wizard – one of many exciting talents currently cutting their own path away from the early influence of John Fahey – says that once he discovered music he “kinda gave up everything else that was going on as a kid”. He was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Philadelphia – a fan of punk and hardcore. From there his tastes and talents extended out to the psychedelic jam-band vision of The Grateful Dead via the sprawling, exploratory folk-jazz of Fahey, Sandy Bull and others. Gunn, formerly a member of Kurt Vile and The Violators, has over the last half decade released a handful of records with bands, as a collaborator and solo artist that roll out his pastoral folk and indie rock in the entwined ball that he presents them.
Ask him about contemporaries – William Tyler, Ryley Walker and Cian Nugent (just a small list of names) and he’s buzzing with adjectives to describe how brilliant they all are; how important they are in and of the scene and how “those guys you named are all friends, all people I’ve followed, got to know, played with and all guys who I think are just amazing – and yeah, I guess we’re all doing our own different version of a set of sounds we’ve all heard at different times in our lives, all putting our own sounds together and finding our way”.
Steve Gunn came from “a musical family” and says he remembers music on all the time, his parents playing all sorts of records, he recalls being fascinated by it all from a young age but says the real first helping hand was “having an older sister who was into it, I followed her lead for a while”.
Flash forward to him as a teenage skateboarder – which accounts for the punk/hardcore indoctrination, but once he started playing he “found the thing to occupy the spare time”. He also “found a scene – and that was important”. He started going to shows at “a really young age”. From there it blossomed. Music, he says, “took over everything”.
“To begin with it was really formulaic music, some of the punk – but then I found jazz. Growing up in Philadelphia was great – it’s a very fertile musical ground and I just started discovering things, one thing just went to another: old blues, improvised stuff…my knowledge of music expanded pretty quickly”.
Gunn speaks of “signposts along the way”; the figures who “are important along the way” – saying that Fahey was “a big one for me” but Sandy Bull’s music was crucial as he was “one of the first people I heard playing Eastern music and the ragas – and he played with jazz musicians, in particular there’s a record with Billy Higgins that was amazing to me”.
Gunn says there is also the case of “influences not really reflecting his playing”. He speaks of learning Fahey songs because they were easy to play in some cases but still required a lot of practice – “in a lot of cases they were part of what taught me how to play the guitar, what goes into it, how much you have to work”.
“For me, and for some other people I knew at the time, guitar players, we found him at the right time – he just opened up the door for a lot of people as far as experimenting with composition. He had this crazy, unorthodox approach that wasn’t flashy but was unique – a lot of people have learned from him.
“This was a time where I was practicing a lot of guitar and was playing incessantly and those records became easy to play by working at them”.
“I always had this urge to sing”, he begins. “It’s the same thing with guitar – talking about timing and finding music – I got kinda bored of the instrumental music; I had worked through so much of it and was playing it and then it was time to make an album with songs. I started getting asked to play shows and then all of a sudden I was in Europe playing 20-30 shows in a row as a solo act – and that’s where I found my voice, learned to project, slowly felt comfortable”.
He says he arrived at songwriters and songwriting in an opposite way – “I was always pushing myself to listen to quite extreme stuff, instrumental genius and really quite out there stuff – be it punk or jazz – and then you come around to The Beatles you know…and it’s all just perfect, these incredible songs and you want to know how that is done.”
Now it’s about combining the “guitar knowledge” with song ideas and singing. “Over the years I learned to simplify my playing and focus on arrangements and singing and it’s kept it all very interesting”.
Keeping it interesting is now no issue because so much of the music from the last few years is recorded in a band setting but Gunn will perform it solo – there are band shows too of course, but a song written and worked on and recorded for an album with a band will then get taken back to its demo form when Steve sings it as a solo act; in some cases it’s almost a reverse-embryonic process.
“It’s a challenge for people who have bands to go up and play solo”, says Gunn. “You know, you’re just up there with no support and for me it helps me get right to the core of the songs – I mostly write them in a solo way then add the band to them, so here I’m stripping them back. It was totally challenging to take the heavily arranged songs and take them back to a solo setting”.
The jazzy inflections and world music feels – Eastern, African – come from a pure jazz to begin with, Gunn saying that key players like John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef and Pharoah Sanders would inspire him not just in their albums but in the listening that they had done; becoming aware of their wider and wilder worlds of listening and influence was another crucial component to the Steve Gunn ‘voice’ as instrumentalist.
“From jazz to India and Africa wasn’t such a stretch – in that you can connect the dots, you go on the journey with a particular musician. But Indian classical music was a huge trip, connecting to it, the cycles of the raga, some of that stuff – the cyclical parts, long, repetitive – you can hear in my music. I love the way you can hear each instrument too”.
Cue a quick discussion of Derek Trucks and his approach. “He’s insane!” Gunn says with a warm chuckle. “In my opinion these are the most virtuosic players in the world – and they practice such restraint, that element appealed to me, and still does”.
The British folk players like Davy Graham and Bert Jansch are a huge source of inspiration too. And Gunn says “the melting pot of it all has always been fun – and important. You are listening to Davy Graham and then connecting it to something more psychedelic, say. There’s Jerry Garcia – who in some ways is the American version of that…”
And there we get to The Grateful Dead. He’s a fan, but he has been cautious talking about it, frustrated at times in the way it’s been reported, or focussed on perhaps.
“I found the Dead later on, I was a snarky high school kid listening to Black Flag. The kids who liked The Grateful Dead were essentially jocks. It wasn’t my scene – as such. Later on I realised just what sort of band they were and how there was more going on than just the music; the way they improvised and became this unit. They were so advanced with their gear and their concept of touring – making it work, bonding together, they became their own autonomous unit. They all had a crazy time at it. There’s some of the music I don’t like – but they are a fascinating group, the fact they were on LSD for a lot of the time too…” and here he trails off into a chuckle.
We talk about Jerry Garcia’s separate strains of influence – the tying together of folk and country/bluegrass as well as the psychedelic, some jazz and blues and then it’s to the ideal of the Dead as people creating their own sustained career outside of having hit records or troubling the charts. That is as big a part of the influence for Gunn, in some ways at least it is as important as the best of the music.
In terms of his own approach to playing and having a career, he used to do the joe jobs too – “and then I just started touring a lot, I’m not complaining, and I never complained when I worked on the side. It’s just about putting your head down and making it work…I’m incredibly lucky to have found a way to make it work. It’s a lot of hard work. And that’s really rewarding too of course”.
So for Gunn’s solo tour of New Zealand we will get to hear bits and pieces from across his career (“I’ll probably chuck in a couple of brand new things”) with the focus being the recent material. “For the most part it will be the songs from the last three records but they’ll be different – instrumental stuff, I’ll be adding things and maybe taking some things away too”.
He’s also been wanting to play in New Zealand “for some time”, saying he has friends in the country and also that thing we so often love to hear, “I’m a fan of some New Zealand bands too, there’s a lot of music from there that’s really beautiful”.