As his excellent eighth album continues to rack in critical acclaim, indie rock’s most potent guitar hero preps for a summer tour and talks with RNRG about what’s happening in the meantime
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Steve Gunn has trod a distinctive path in his career, from his days as featured axeman in Kurt Vile’s Violators, to a series of improvisational records, to albums focusing on his ever-sharper sense of songcraft.
The Philadelphia native and New York resident first hit the radar with the release of his fifth LP Time Off, a showcase for his skills as both guitarist and composer that proved his breakthrough. For his eighth album The Unseen In Between, Gunn decided to move away from his guitar slinger reputation and put the spotlight squarely on his songwriting. “For this record, I felt like really focusing on the lyrics and the singing,” says Gunn from Belgium, following a soundcheck, “and I felt a bit more freed up.”
Working with producer James Elkington (Tweedy, Nathan Salsburg, The Horse Ha), Gunn wanted to tap into a looser vibe than he’d felt during the last two records, Way Out Weather and Eyes On the Lines. “The one before, Eyes On the Lines, was this web of tracks, and it was just too much,” he explains. “I really wanted to get back to the way that it felt with Time Off. Obviously I’ve come a long way with my singing and song structure, but there’s an ease to that record. No one was putting it out, it was almost like I had no pressure. I didn’t have a label in mind at the time, and it was like, “Let’s just go fuckin’ do this – let’s go have some fun.” It was easy.
“Things are a bit more simple [on The Unseen Inbetween] than the other ones, in the sense of trying to get back to that, in a circuitous kind of way,” he continued. “When it was time to put on a lead, I was like, ‘Fuck it – let’s just do it.’ And we kept it – it wasn’t like, ‘Shit, I’ve gotta get this perfect.’ It felt really organic in that way. I let my guard down a little bit, because sometimes in the past I’d do octaves, bleeds, and all these crazy weird little changes and stuff. When we started touring for this new record, I was like, ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe this – these songs are so easy to play.’”
With a specific vision in mind for the album, Gunn and Elkington worked to express new ideas without directly invoking the artists who inspired them. “It’s hard not to reference things when you’re in the studio – records from the sixties, or ‘How did Clarence White get that lead sound in that one Byrds song?’,” Gunn says. “When we’re playing ‘Vagabond,’ we’re not like, ‘Let’s rip off this Smiths song.’ But this song is very Smiths-y. That C change is very close – it’s almost like a funny joke.
“I was thinking a lot about Fred Neil, Dylan and Neil Young – these kind of records where you can feel the band in the room. There’s so many albums that we were referencing, and trading back and forth, and I think that it’s sometimes difficult not to say, ‘Let’s try that one upright bass/Fred Neil-y sound. Or that tic-tac bass on the Beach Boys song.’
“[Engineer] Daniel [Schlett]’s not that old of a guy, but he’s very old school as far as engineering goes, and very pragmatic. His mentor was this guy Al Schmitt, who recorded Sam Cooke and Bob Dylan and all these other soul people. Daniel has these amazing microphones and approach, and so a lot of records that Schmitt worked on consequently inspired us. But we weren’t saying ‘Let’s do that chord progression from a Motown song’ or anything like that. It’s more discussing engineering sensibilities and tone.”
Though he’s centralized his approach to his songs on The Unseen In Between, that doesn’t mean Gunn has abandoned his guitar work completely. He still makes improvisational and instrumental records, particularly as one half of the Gunn-Truscinski Duo. “I still really enjoy improvising, exploring sound and textures,” he notes. “But I’ve separated the two. If I’m doing the improvised stuff, I’m really listening to the other person. With my songs, I’m really focusing on the song for the song’s sake. Not to say that any elements of improvisation might not come around in certain respects. But I think they’re a bit separate. But at the same time, you obviously can’t separate them that much.” It is, after all, the same person creating both sides of the coin. Gunn agrees. “The songs are still the songs, but they shift around. I get into throwing curve balls all over the place, and we do different stuff, which keeps it fun. That’s what’s interesting to me about improvising. You get pushed into these different places, then you let yourself go, and it’s like, ‘Holy fuck, how did I just play that?’ There’s almost this subconscious ability to do it.”
Outside of his own music, Gunn has also for the past few years worked with one of his key influences: veteran British singer/songwriter Michael Chapman, a contemporary of Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Richard Thompson. Gunn produced Chapman’s recent LPs 50 (2017) and this year’s True North. “I discovered Michael’s early albums, like Rainmaker  and Fully Qualified Survivor , and those records just completely blew my mind,” Gunn says. “At the time I was living in Philly and I was absorbing all this English folk rock, but that record didn’t sound like any other records that came from England at the time.
“Then fast forward a few years, and I realized he was out playing gigs. He was on tour with Jack Rose, who was in a sense my mentor as far as guitar playing goes, and he was always very generous and cool to me. He brought Michael to the States, and it ended up with me just standing in a room and meeting him. Then Jack passed away; Michael came back for this memorial, and I played and Michael played, and we just hit it off. We ended up booking some gigs together, and became fast friends.
“So my friends and I were like, ‘We have to make a record with him, and we’ll be the band.’ This was for 50. Michael had some songs, and we brought him to upstate New York. Which was amazing, but also intimidating, because Michael asked me to be the producer. There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen, including the engineer, and we were all butting heads, and I was like, ‘Fuck, do I have to step up and say what’s gonna happen?’ I ended up doing that, but it was stressful. Michael’s one of my heroes, and he’d do these vocal takes, and I’d be like, ‘Dude, you have to do it again.’ He’s a one-and-done kinda guy, and we were like ‘You completely slurred our words on the third line.’ It got a little tense. But at the same time it ended up being great.”
In an unconscious parallel to his own process, Gunn took a different, more stripped-down approach to producing True North. “For this new record, I wanted to capture him as a singular guy,” explains Gunn. “He plays these amazing solo sets, and I feel like some people get him in a studio and they put pedal steel all over it, and drums, and a big belt-buckle rock kind of thing. Michael is a sensitive guy, and such a great performer solo, and no one really tried to capture that. That was my plan. I went to England for a few days, then we drove to Wales, and there was this beautiful old castle with a studio. It was really laid back and just chill. This guy B.J. Cole came, who’s this really incredible pedal steel player – he’s played with Michael since the seventies, and has all these stories, and he’s played with everyone. Bridget St. John was also there, who’s one of Michael’s oldest friends – this really amazing folk singer in her own right. So it was an amazing crew. Michael’s getting older, and it was very relaxed and we weren’t trying to force anything.”
While the resulting album turned out great, working with one of Gunn’s chief inspirations as a peer is a reward that pays off in more than recording accomplishments. “Michael’s still writing songs and still engaged – he still has things to say,” enthuses Gunn. “And he’s an old man. It’s like, ‘Fuck!’ It’s really inspiring.”