Interview: Steve Gunn
Steve Gunn’s 2016 album Eyes on the Line isn’t an especially small-sounding album, but his 2019 follow-up The Unseen In Between makes it feel like an exercise in minimalism. On his marvelous new collection, the acclaimed guitarist/vocalist makes the harmonica from opening track “New Moon” sound like it’s straight from a Sergio Leone western, while gorgeous strings and chimes on subsequent tracks further augment his refined indie rock style.
Newly returned from a European tour and heading to The Mothlight on Tuesday, April 30, Gunn spoke with Asheville Stages about crafting this expanded sonic experience, his “predictable” influences, and all-star collaborations past, present and future.
…on his new album’s cinematic sound
I put a lot of thought into it. I really wanted it to be more open and a bit more wide open as far as texture stuff. I wanted the album to be a bit more acoustic and sonically I was trying to reduce the guitar playing in general and be a bit more simple, focusing on — it sounds cliché, but the song and concentrating on really singing and getting the vocal delivery right. I realized how important that is. I kept listening to my favorite albums and it became a bit more of a focus. Generally, there’s a bit more simplicity there.
…on producer James Elkington’s influence on the expanded style
He had a huge role in how the record sounds. He’s a producer, so I had all these songs written and I really trust him. We’ve played music so much together that I thought it would be great for him to come out and give him a bit more creative input. He really helped with the arrangements. We have very similar interests and he’s just such a great multi-instrumentalist. He was very encouraging in the studio and helped the band play the right thing. We spent a lot of time discussing what we wanted to do. So, yeah, I owe a lot to him as far as how everything sounds.
…on the album’s symphonic elements, especially the string section on “Luciano”
Originally, when wrote it, I knew that — I had talked to James and we had already talked about strings. And I think that this song in particular was one that had kind of suite in the chorus, and I think obviously there was room for strings. I think even from the first demos, that was one that we sort of tagged for working on the string arrangements.
Really, it was James. He arranged those strings himself and he wrote the charts. He lives in Chicago where he knows — he’s involved with Jeff Tweedy and The Loft and all these people. He knew some young string players who could read his charts and just go in and knock it out, so it was quite easy.
…on translating that bigger, movie-style sound into soundtrack work
That’s something I really aspire to do. I just worked on a documentary film — a surf film — where I did a contract with a drummer. I have this guitar/drum project called the Gunn-Truscinski Duo and we have a few albums that have come out over the years, but we got hired to do a soundtrack to this surf documentary. It’s supposed to come out in the next few months. So that was really my first time scoring and I really hope to do more of that.
…on his influences that might surprise his listeners, after recently citing writer Rebecca Solnit and Japanese musician Sachiko Kanenobu in interviews
My influences are so predictable. I don’t know if anything…It’s sort of nerdy, but I’ve been…and I don’t think it’s that far off, but I obsessively listen to The Beatles. And I’ve been listening to a lot more heady pop stuff like The Beach Boys — very studio-oriented pop. I listen to all kinds of stuff — certain kinds of techno to hip-hop.
…on translating the expanded sound to the stage, especially with a big and involved song like “Paranoid” that’s full of organ and chimes
It’s very different on stage. We don’t have bells or anything like that and it’s just a bit more stripped down. But I’m constantly…obviously, we try to get it right, but we try to land on the album version, but sometimes we just can’t and it’s slightly different — which I enjoy, keeping it open-ended like that.
…on how his numerous collaborative albums have enriched his solo work
Working with Kurt [Vile] — I learned a lot from being in the studio with him and seeing how he made records and how he thinks. In my opinion, he’s on such a high level as a songwriter. I’m grateful to just be friends with him, and even just on a ground level, how his band works on tour and what it was like for him to make records and see how his process evolved over the years. It was pretty inspiring. But yeah, I always am figuring things out and learning things from working with people, and I’m so lucky to be working with people like James Elkington, to be friends with people like Kurt. They’re all very helpful and talented.
…on his plans for the rest of 2019
I’m exhausted. [Laughs] I’m pretty open. I’m kind of writing new songs. I’ve got this project with Kim Gordon. She has an art museum opening in Pittsburgh at the Andy Warhol museum. I’m doing a music soundtrack with her for a Warhol movie, and it’s me and her bandmate Bill Nace from Body Head and this drummer who I mentioned before. We did a live score to this Warhol film and we’re going to perform it in May at her opening, which I’m really excited about. Hopefully we’ll do more of those shows.
IF YOU GO
Who: Steve Gunn with Gun Outfit
When: Tuesday, April 30, 9 p.m.
Where: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road, themothlight.com
Tickets: $15 advance/$17 day of show
(Photo by Clay Benskin)