Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER
BY JOSH PELTA-HELLER Recently, at a claustrophobic club that opened less than a year ago in the East Village underneath the decades-old 2A, Philly-native-turned-Brooklyn-indie-it-boy Steve Gunn and his band calibrated their instrument levels, getting ready to air out some cuts from their new record Eyes On The Lines. The album’s nine songs credit as many musicians, over twice the number of players they could have comfortably fit onto that stage with just enough room left over to turn back around with guitars in hand. But even as the band began to experiment with their volume, they were immediately leveraging the expansiveness conveyed by songs like album-opener “Ancient Jules” against the cramped space and low ceiling of the basement-level bar.
You might argue that highway ballads of travel and transition and journey-over-destination are nothing new, of course, and an American tradition of road warrior rock ‘n rollers from Woody to Wilco have always juxtaposed the relevant metaphors with meditations. All of that imagery in Gunn’s latest work is available: Eyes is the poetry of lines and paths, flights and terminals packaged in lyrics accessible and melodies unobscured. Still, those topics are so readily relatable that they’ll rarely disappoint, and Gunn’s musings on the subjects manage to render like an updated study. And although it’s only been out for a month now, his guitar hooks will track grooves in your head like the opening bars of old favorites, even after hearing them just a few times, rehearsed at a soundcheck.
Before a short set that night bathed in scarlet spotlights at Berlin, the Philly-born musician was open about the headspace he was in as he composed Eyes, talking with Phawker about his new album and his career to date. He reflected on making music in Philly with his contemporary Philly legends, and on those major decisions, including when commit to your art, and when it’s time to move to New York City. Steve Gunn plays Union Transfer tomorrow night.
PHAWKER: I know you’re from Lansdowne — could you give us a quick overview of how long you spent in Philly, and when you made the move to New York?
STEVE GUNN: I been up here [in New York] for 10 years. I grew up in Lansdowne, went to high school in Drexel Hill, went to Temple University, lived in West Philly. My parents both grew up on 69th St., and you know, they were very into music, they were coming of age in the ‘60s and they got turned on to, you know, Jerry Blavat, and DJs like that, and they were really into soul music and all kinds of rock ‘n roll. I was exposed to a lot of music through them. And yeah, I spent a lot of time in West Philly, playing with people and meeting musicians and going to record stores. I moved to New York after I graduated college, I got a job at an art gallery and just decided to come up here, and I’ve kinda been here ever since. I go back and forth to Philly quite a bit.
STEVE GUNN: Yeah, I think I just wanted to kind of be in a place that was a little more kind of exciting to me. For me, coming up here was sort of as international as I could get without traveling a far distance. And since it was close, I decided to take a crack at it, and try it, and for better or for worse I’ve been up here since. I’ve managed to establish some great friendships and, you know, managed to sustain my musical life and a job for a long time. And now I’m fortunate enough to just be playing music full time. But you know, it was a combination of different things that kept me up here.
PHAWKER: How did you originally get involved with Kurt Vile in Philly?
STEVE GUNN: Well I was doing my own thing for quite awhile before I met Kurt. And I mean I became a quick fan of his music when I saw him kinda starting out and playing, and you know, I was pretty inspired by his music and his band. And fast forward a buncha years, we kinda reconnected, ‘cause he’d heard some of my music and reached out, and I knew who he was and knew his family from back in Lansdowne, and you know, we kind of just really established our friendship then, I didn’t know him really before that. So it was a quick friendship. And it was also a very short-lived stint in his band. You know, he was super supportive of me and my music and just kind of asked me to sit in with him a few times. It was nothing permanent or anything like that. I’m not on any of their recordings, I just went on tour with them briefly when his Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze record came out and I also played a lotta gigs opening for him. And I know his band, you know they’re just all sort of friendly and comfortable and fun.
PHAWKER: But you guys did make Parallelogram together last year?
STEVE GUNN: That’s a collaborative record that Kurt and I made together. After we became friends, we went to the studio together in Philadelphia with Jeff Zeigler, who a lot of people work with in Philly, and we just kinda took one project for this label, we got together and recorded some cover songs.
STEVE GUNN: I’ve done a lot of different types of albums — some collaborative stuff, some sort of instrumental albums — really this one is my third or fourth sort of songwriting record, where I’m singing. So yeah, I’ve done many different sorts of albums in different contexts.
PHAWKER: In your interviews, or when you’re referred to by music journalists, your influences are described as a number of musicians who are generally regarded to be “composers” rather than “singer-songwriters.” In consideration of the dichotomy of those sort of genres or categories, do you relate more to one or the other?
STEVE GUNN: No, sometimes it’s just a descriptive language. It’s really hard to be specific, and there’s different descriptions that people use, particularly journalists, that they might not know how to explain something, and take a shortcut. And I’m not saying it’s easy, and that’s fine, people can say what they want. But I don’t know, the process for me was really slow, and I kinda grew into what I’m doing now at a pace that I was comfortable with, and I never just made a decision to say ‘I’m gonna be this, or that,’ I kind of followed this sort of circuitous path, I guess…
PHAWKER: …right, I guess what I’m really asking is, do you find yourself more influenced by or drawn to creating music that’s more focused on a compositional mode or idea over, say, a folk song…
STEVE GUNN: …oh, I see. Yeah, I think so, I think I’d like to keep things a bit more open, and keep things a bit more spontaneous. Obviously I’d like to have structure, and sorta guidelines in songs. But I’d kind of like to leave them open-ended. On many levels, even the context of the words, and the music too.
PHAWKER: In one interview, you mentioned that people were surprised that you were from New York, because there’s a quality of openness belies the feel of a city. How much do you think that a songwriter’s music, or your music in particular, is influenced by the place that you live, and for you, how much do you feel influenced by making music in Philly in contrast with New York?
STEVE GUNN: Well I think for me, I always get asked, ‘oh, I can’t believe you live in a city…’ You know, I’ve lived in a city almost all my life, and for me the music is maybe even a way for me to find, like, a medium sort of balance between living in the city and playing music. The music that I play — for me it doesn’t feel like it should reflect my immediate environment. Sometimes it does, because I also travel a ton, and some of these songs aren’t written in a city, so sometimes it reflects that. But I don’t know, maybe it’s like reverse, where I play music to kind of deal with my environment in certain ways.
PHAWKER: “Deal with” as in, process, or escape?
STEVE GUNN: Yeah. A lot of it’s about transcending just, like, day-to-day things, day-to-day thoughts, sort of personal realities, and things like that. A lot of it’s in my head, and sort of just how it comes out. And you asked about how it’s changed, since I left Philly, well, it’s been a long time, I’ve been up here for about 14 years. It’s been a long time. And I did kind of get my footing, as a musician in Philly, and at the time it was a great scene. I was really inspired by the guitar player Jack Rose, and the people who ran Philadelphia Record Exchange, and the band Bardo Pond, and the label Silt Breeze. The Khyber Pass was having a lot of shows at the time. There was a place that was called the Astrocade, which was really important for me — they had a lot of experimental bands come through, and jazz people — it was just a warehouse right off of Spring Garden, and I played some of my first shows there. And you know, I really came to enjoy performing live and playing, and, when I made the decision to come up here, I kinda took all that with me, and I even met a lot of people through my friends in Philly who live up here. I connected with a lot of musicians that way.
PHAWKER: Speaking of Jack Rose, what was your relationship with him like? Did you know him well, did you collaborate with him?
STEVE GUNN: No, I was more a big fan of his. But I also was friendly with him, and I really looked up to him as a player, and a personality just as a hardworking musician. And that to me was really inspiring. And he also was really supportive of what I was doing at the time, and that kinda meant a ton to me, and it helped me sort of get my crap together and get my head straight and really believe that practicing helps and working hard pays off. I could kind of really see that trajectory with him, and that was really inspiring. Because he was such a badass person and player, and the fact that he was complimentary to me and friendly to me meant a lot.
STEVE GUNN: Yeah. In a way. From a distance.
PHAWKER: It was a pretty big shock when he passed away.
STEVE GUNN: Yeah it was really shocking. And then that was another point where I was sort of like, ok, like I really wanna commit to working on this stuff.
PHAWKER: Rose experimented with elements of drone in his music. I know you’ve mentioned other influences from classical Indian raga music to musicians influenced heavily by that music as well, like La Monte Young or Robbie Basho. Do you consciously inform your compositions from that perspective?
STEVE GUNN: Well, I learned a lot of stuff that I play by ear, so I listened to a lot of Middle Eastern music, a lot of Indian music, and tried to kind of pick out the scales, and what the temperament of the music was. I would never say that I know specifically what they’re doing — I know a little bit about it — but, you know, those musicians really kinda dedicate their lives to playing and practicing, and for me that was just music that I was really drawn to, and music that I wanted to understand as a guitar player, and I kind of tried to discover it on my own. I learned how to kinda use open tunings, and I learned certain scale structures, and things like that. And now that I write songs, I kinda have a lot of that knowledge, and the way that I navigate the guitar sometimes is that I use some of those things that I’ve learned from listening to those records, different instruments and things like that. So, yeah, it does still have an effect on what I do now.
PHAWKER: In terms of your newest record, much of it feels like open-road ballads, and your voice sounds a little like later-era David Gilmour. Can you talk about writing this particular record, about your state of mind or your process for this?
STEVE GUNN: Yeah, I did a lot of touring last year, and I was on the road for most of the year, and I wrote a lot of the songs and kind of thought about a lot of the songs while I was on the road. And I think a lot of the lyrics sort of reflect that. I was trying to put a cohesive body of songs together with a certain idea, and a lot of the ideas throughout the songs are just observations of my being on the road, traveling, how I’m feeling and what I’m seeing. So traveling was kind of the big influence on the album. And also, musically, I think I wanted the album to kind of reflect where we were at as a band, and as players. We did so much playing that, sonically, the music is a bit more propulsive, and we wanted to kind of push the envelope a little more, have it a bit grittier, and maybe the songs a bit more concise.