Singer-Songwriter Steve Gunn on Arthur Russell, Kim Gordon, and Belgian BeerNovember 01, 2019
There is a quiet confidence that surrounds Steve Gunn. An antidote to the immediacy that defines current music industry standards, the Pennsylvania native’s catalogue carries a patient and consistent thread. Following relentless touring behind 2016’s Eyes on the Lines, the songwriter heeded his own advice: “Take your time, ease up, look around, and waste the day.”
In between numerous collaborations, Gunn took time to reestablish what he knew about songwriting. Released earlier this year, The Unseen in Between sees Gunn yielding his unmistakable guitar mastery in a more pointed, subtle way. Featuring contributions from bassist Tony Garnier (Bob Dylan) and jazz drummer T.J. Maiani, Gunn’s introspective yet enigmatic lyrics are set atop straightforward arrangements.The performances illuminate the deep listening that was happening in the room, both musically and interpersonally.
Ahead of a sold-out show at Wonder Ballroom opening for Dinosaur Jr, I met Steve at a quiet bar in NE Portland to chat beer, inspiration, and the road much travelled.
You were born and raised outside of Philadelphia. What beers do you associate with that region?
I grew up going to Veteran’s Stadium with my dad who was a huge Eagles fan. He had season tickets for 20 years. Him and all of his friends would be drinking Schlitz, our cheap regional beer. The owner of Schlitz lived in our town. He was this notorious character. He got himself into some legal trouble but he also decorated his house for Christmas in this wild way. Train tracks on the roof and tons of lights. It was an attraction in the neighborhood.
Yuengling started around there too, right?
I was going to mention Yuengling. I still have PTSD from that beer. I wasn’t so much a social person in college, but I moved to Philly when I was 19. I lived in West Philly in a big house with five to ten people at a time. Then I moved to an area called Northern Liberties, which is now this epicenter for bars and restaurants. Back then we’d have these crazy house parties and I remember there being a mountain of Yuengling bottles in our backyard. You know how you have this associative memory with taste? I can’t even drink it. It just brings me back to that time.
We’re talking early 2000s, late 90s. Then there was a brewery called Kenzinger that popped up. Yards was just burgeoning. That was the fancier beer at the time. There’s also some great micro-brew stuff in Philly now that is exceptional, including [Fermentery] Form, who use an old way of producing beer called mixed fermentation. They make some amazing beer.
You’re on the road more often than not. Do you have a favorite city for beer?
When I go to Europe, I have a band with two guys who live in Brussels. I spend a lot of time in Belgium. They have schooled me on all kinds of beer. My friend Tommy runs a venue in Brussels called Les Ateliers Claus. He does all of the beer ordering and does it all locally. I’ve learned a lot about smaller-batch Belgian beers. I remember we went to a sour and gose-style bar. In English the name translates to “the institute to quench thirst” or something like that. [Ed. note: The pub is called In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst, meaning “insurance against great thirst.”] It’s in Dutch. It was a bar that was only open on Sunday from 11 to 3. Originally it was for people who were going to church or going to see cycling. It’s an hour outside of Brussels.
Does your relationship with alcohol change at home vs. on the road?
I’ve become a quality-over-quantity kind of guy. I’ve been on the road enough to know the perils of overdoing it. I’ll have a drink earlier in the day after dinner, play the show, and then maybe one or two other drinks. You have to delegate your steps. For me beer is an earlier evening thing. Later in the night I’ll have a cocktail, but I enjoy wine as well.
At the same time, I try to seek out the good stuff or local beer. Like we’re sitting here drinking beer from Double Mountain and Rosenstadt Brewery. I travel all over the world. I’m heading to Japan after this and then New Zealand and Australia. I’m appreciative of regional cuisine. For me, part of being on the road is experiencing the food and drink that is local.
There are also breweries like Dogfish Head that place a high value on working with musicians.
That company, they had me play at their brewery down in Delaware. They treated us really well. The owner is so into music. It seems important for him to support musicians and to channel independent artists like myself. He’s been nothing but supportive. His whole aesthetic I really admire. He’s not just making a beer and trying to get people into his establishments, he’s casting a wider net. He’s influencing that area in a big way and it needs it. There are a lot of folks in Delaware who wouldn’t necessarily listen to my music but he goes out of his way to tell people, “You guys have to hear this, I’ve invited this artist here, please come check them out.”
Something that’s always struck me is the patience in your music. Do you consider yourself a patient person?
I think I’m a fairly patient person. I strive to be. It’s an important part of my day to day life. To be conscious of being patient and being calm. A lot of the music that has influenced me in the past is based on simplicity.
Arthur Russell is big for you.
Arthur Russelll is a perfect example. J. Mascis too. He’s someone I admire as a musician and as a person. His music is very loud and he’s an amazing guitar player, but the way he presents his music is very generous and not overly showy. To be able to hang with them and travel with them and see how their whole operation works is super inspiring.
Something about Arthur I find so inspiring is that he navigated his own path and found his own voice, but also was a workaholic. He liked his solitude within his own music. He really created his own universe. He’s a supremely talented person. He was constantly listening and constantly playing. Those are the kinds of people that I admire and fashion my own work ethic from. I’m constantly working and thinking and If I’m not doing it I start going a little crazy.
I wanted to be myself. I didn't want to force anything. I worked on that. I worked on being ready.”
Making The Unseen in Between saw you undoing some of what you knew about songwriting, going from complicated to simple. What led to this change?
Over time I became more interested in songwriting and I learned more about it. I started leaning less on the technicalities of being a guitar player. I had trouble combining songs with my guitar playing. I’d come up with all this guitar stuff and then I’d sing over it. It was separated. Over time I’ve been combining them and thinking of them as one thing and coming around to being more simple and being more comfortable in keeping it simple. Not having to add any complications.
The album feels like a “band in a room” record.
That’s exactly what I was going for. I learned about how it's palpable to be comfortable in music. I’ve learned my lessons in the past. I was thinking about records where bands are playing live in the studio. I thought a lot about Fred Neil. He had an attitude where he had the songs and played them and there was a session band. Dylan and Neil Young, too. It’s not precious, but it’s about being present in a room and feeling this energy between the musicians.
I realized that I wanted to, for the first time, play and sing and not record the guitar parts separately and then go back and do vocals and comp takes. Everything aligned itself with the session in this organic way. I hooked up with Tony Garnier, who plays with Dylan. It was random. He really connected with what I was trying to do. At first he just came in for a couple of days. He as a person was like, “Dude, what is your vibe? These songs are heavy and your style is so interesting.”
When writing on the road you’ve said you felt less sure about what was happening. Was this a moment you felt sure of yourself as an artist?
I did. I kind of had to. It wasn't a pressurized thing. I set up the session in a way where, not to sound corny, but I wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to be myself. I didn't want to force anything. I worked on that. I worked on being ready.
In the past during sessions you are like, “I’m not ready,” but you say, “Fuck it, let’s just do it anyway. We’ll figure it out.”
You’ve spoken in depth about your love of Sandy Denny’s voice. What makes it special? Was it surprising to hear that people, including Kim Gordon, have taken to yours?
It was so interesting to talk to Kim about that. I had never thought about that way. She was like, “I’m not concentrating on the words, but I like the sound of your voice.” She said it was calming and that the quality of my singing resonated with her. I never thought of it in those terms. I was always poring over the words and trying to get it right. At the same time, there is a state of mind. You know that Jackson C. Frank song “Singing Is a State of Mind”? It’s beautiful and also cliche. It makes me think about that. When I sing, I’m not an overt singer. I really have to be in the right mindset.
In regards to Sandy’s voice, she is such a natural singer. There is a timeless quality to it. Almost a timbre of sound that taps into a calmness. It’s grounding but at the same time it’s illuminating and beautiful. Nina Simone is similar. It’s unique, it’s personal, and simultaneously universal. Hard to explain. It’s not affected and there is an emotional quality. Some people have their own natural way of being melodic. You can’t explain it with technical terms.
Top photo by Clay Benskin.