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Steve Gunn on being a guitarist in the guitar’s era of decline

Ahead of his four New Zealand solo shows starting this week in Auckland, singer/guitarist Steve Gunn discusses the decline of the mom and pop guitar store, childhood buddy Kurt Vile, and the colourful characters and misadventures of his youth.

While laconic musicians playing lo-fi rock will never totally go out of style, popular culture has unquestionably moved away from the guitar worship of old.

Fifteen years and 14 albums deep into his career, Philadelphia-born psych-folk singer and guitarist Steve Gunn knows that finding your audience relies on hard work and collaboration. Gunn has proved a nimble-fingered gun for hire, moving gracefully from drone/psychedelic efforts with Kurt Vile’s Violators to delicate finger-picking with The Black Twig Pickers and his own Gunn Truscinski Duo.

His latest solo album, 2016’s Eyes on the Lines (Matador) sees the musician exploring the American landscape through folk, bluegrass, and country.

Ahead of his four New Zealand solo shows starting this week in Auckland, he discusses the decline of the mom and pop guitar store, childhood buddy Kurt Vile, and the colourful characters and misadventures of his youth.

Steve Gunn performs onstage during the SXSW 2015 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

Is this the start of the tour for you or in the middle?

It’s actually the start, the first show was last night. I got here the day before that, so it is very early on. I am flying to Melbourne this morning. I am in Sydney right now.

Is it just you or are you with a band?

I am travelling with one other person, and he is playing some of the gigs, but I am playing solo so essentially I am travelling alone.

Is that your usual state of affairs, or is tha the further afield you go the smaller the group gets?

Sometimes yeah, it is a lot easier. I have been doing a lot of solo touring lately but I also travel with a band quite a bit as well. Kind of mixing it up a little bit.

Your records seem to be getting more band orientated.

Yeah I know, I am just getting back to the solo performing. I have been doing band stuff for years and years, and I have a lot of songs now, and I am available to play gigs, and I wanted to get back to solo performing. This year I have done more than I have in a while so it has been really nice to get back to the very basics of the songs.

So is that both an aesthetic decision and a logistical one?

Basically yeah.

I’m interested in your musical journey from an improvised or experimental sound towards, I don’t want to say ‘classic rock’, but rock. Four minute songs that have solos. Is that just something that has come naturally?

I don’t know. I’ve already done both. I still do both. I think each sort of thing, particularly the song writing stuff has been perpetuating for the last four or five years now. I have been feeling more comfortable in the studio, and also been getting more interested in songwriting. That was sort of a new thing for me.

It all moved along in this parallel kind of way for the last four or five years now. I still enjoy both and do both, and try to incorporate the improvisational stuff into the music. It probably more comes out when I am playing live, than when I am recording a record. I try to keep that element in the songs as well.

And then you found other outlets for that, parallel to your solo work?

I do a lot of improvising. I have musician friends in New York, and it is a bit of a community and we will do recordings and performing and all kinds of different stuff like playing with dancers, or working on film scores. All kinds of things like that, whether it is session work or live stuff. So I get a lot of different kinds of playing in with other people. So it’s good for me to stay loose and kind of work in that way within some of the song stuff as well.

It is interesting that you have done stuff with Kurt Vile, and he has in some ways had a similar transition from lo-fi towards a cleaner rock sound, and you come from a similar place geographically. It is part of the scene you grew up in?

Not really. We grew up in the same small town (Lansdowne, Pennsylvania) so maybe there is something in the water there. But we didn’t really connect until much later. We were in different scenes. I moved to New York in my early 20s and I was really into experimental music and all kinds of weird esoteric music for lack of a better word. I didn’t get around to song writing stuff until a little bit later.

And Kurt was living in Boston and moved back to Philly, and we sort of reconnected when he came back to Philly. And I think we kind of arrived at, or certainly he did with his songs and stuff, and I was getting more interested in singing and writing songs too. I took a lot of inspiration from him, and it was really cool to see him working and improving, and kind moving in the direction he was going. And he was supportive of me, which was also really helpful too.

In the last couple of weeks on the internet I have seen at least four articles about the decline of the guitar. Have you seen them too?

I know! I have seen a few of them. It’s funny because I had been thinking about this, and I had been talking about it before these articles started piling up, because I went to my old (guitar shop). I took guitar lessons when I was basically a kid, and that shop is still there in this small town I mentioned outside of Philadelphia. And the owner was there, and I walked in and I hadn’t seen him in like 20 years, and we were talking and he explained to me that kids aren’t buying guitars any more. And kids’ sensibilities about being creative have really changed.

Back when I was taking lessons it was kind of a thing you’re either playing football or baseball you’re playing sports, or you’re into music. It was almost like either one. A lot of kids who I was going to school with were taking lessons whether it was piano and guitar. They are obviously making more music on their computers. There is this real shift in this kind of perspective and it is obvious.

I was talking to this person who owns the guitar shop and he is really struggling. He is not giving lessons, he is not selling instruments.

These articles kind of focus on the bigger side of it, and there are fewer mass culture kind of guitar heroes anymore. But it relates to most DIY and improv music – a lot of that shifted away from guitar as well. It seems like this move away from guitar seems to have infiltrated all kind of music culture. Is that something you see?

Yeah, I sort of notice it I guess. Popular music and popular culture, trends kind of change. You see rap artists trying to play guitar, you might catch Justin Bieber trying to bust a solo where it is this cool thing, but it is this detached thing. It symbolises something, but actually putting in the work isn’t really there. There are no people who have been brought up playing and they are these brilliant musicians. They are posturing I guess. You see like Lil Wayne playing, it is almost like he is playing a guitar like a 12-year-old; maybe a 12-year-old is better, I don’t know.

He’s like playing it with The Shaggs or something?

He is jamming with The Shaggs. I would like to see that band.

But 10 – 15 years ago, if you went to see some noisy improv thing, it was likely to be some guy with a guitar and a bunch of pedals, and now it’s more likely to be like someone sitting on the floor with all these different electronics plugged in.

I think that was also happening back then as well. There were a lot of bands who were playing a lot of effects and kind of copying. There is a Japanese band called Taj Mahal travellers that were round in the early 70s, and in the New York underground scene I feel there were a lot of bands that weren’t playing guitar and kind of just doing tape bloops, and drony vocal sort of stuff and all that.

I do think you are right in saying the guitar is kind of dwindling. There are still some people out there. There is female guitar player named Sarah Lipstate who goes by Noveller. She lives out in Los Angeles now, and she is an incredible guitar player. She really uses her effects and really knows here stuff, it is cool that she is becoming this incredible guitar player. So there are still people out there. But on the grand scheme of things obviously it is dwindling.

Does that change how people react to your music?

To be honest I am not sure. I don’t think so. For a lot of the stuff that I do and the work that I am doing, I am sort of a workaholic and a lot of the time I keep my head down and stay focused. I am always grateful to talk to people, and people are coming to see me and are interested. I take the practice of being a guitar player pretty seriously. I am very open to taking risks and not being some technical wizard. As a practice I take it seriously. I don’t really notice if it is having an effect. Things are always shifting, the music business is a strange universe, you got to have perspective and just do your stuff.

Tell me about your workaholism. Is that touring all the time? Is that working all the time? Is that personal drive, or just what it takes to make a living in the music industry these days?

Right now it is a combination of both. I don’t think I am going to get a real job anytime soon. I love travelling and of course I love to play. I have been pursuing it for a while and things have gotten better and I have had more opportunities, and I am meeting all kinds of people and I am being inspired by my peers and my friends. So I feel like I am in a good place. I have a lot more music to work on. And I am lucky that I am surrounded by some great engineers and musicians. I am always constantly inspired by my friends.

Is it harder to make a living now for musicians?

I also think for me, it is what I do, it is my job. There are a lot of musicians who don’t like to tour and complain and feel victimised by it. I don’t really feel that way. I don’t want to feel that way and I try not to. And it is all in the matter of how you do it and how you approach it. You have to take care of yourself and not burn out. Not get disgruntled or jealous or all that kind of stuff that comes along with just being an artist and playing songs, in standing in front of people and playing your music. You are kind of revealing this aspect of yourself that could come back and bite you on the ass if you are not careful.

I am grateful to be able to travel and meet people. If I can play guitar and get by and fly all over the place then I am happy.

Steve Gunn performs onstage at the 2016 Bonnaroo Arts And Music Festival. (Photo by FilmMagic/FilmMagic for Bonnaroo Arts And Music Festival )

We have a friend in common, Justin Tripp. I asked him what I should ask you. Do you want to hear his questions?

Of course. He is a smart ass.

Have you ever lost your t shirt at a foam party?

I think so. He knows the answer, he is just trying to make fun of me. Son of bitch.

He said ask him about Mikey Wild. Who is Mikey Wild?

Mikey Wild is amazing. May he rest in peace. He lived in Philadelphia and he used to hang out on the south street, which was kind of the strip since the 60s. It has sort of changed a bit now. There was a record store in Philadelphia called the Philadelphia record exchange and Mikey Wild was a self proclaimed hero of rock and roll and punk rock. He was this total character. He was always around, hanging around the store. You know the term you can talk the ears off a brass monkey, well he talked to you all day if you let him.

He was in five different bands and he is really arrogant and hilarious. And he also drew portraits of people. He was obsessed with horror movies. You should check him out. There is a little documentary on Youtube. A pretty fascinating character for sure.

 

There was a time a while ago, and I was in New York, and Philadelphia was pushing itself quite hard as a place where people should move to afford a more creative lifestyle. Did that work out for them, did that happen, is that happening?

Yeah! Philadelphia has changed. I have been up in New York for a long time now. So I kind of missed that part of living in Philly and sustaining your practice space, and meeting this wonderful community of musicians, and we are all supporting each other, and we are these brilliant rock and roll musicians, and there is quite a scene here. Philly, Philly, Philly.

Meanwhile, I was living in New York, paying too much money for an apartment, trying to feel like I was cool.

I think that definitely existed and still does. But this city has changed quite a bit since I left. The neighbourhoods are changing and there are lot of people moving in from all over the place and the rents are going up. Just like anywhere else.

Just like everywhere else…

All my friends who are from there are all disgruntled because there is all this development. Rightfully so. I see that stuff in New York City so nothing surprises me at this point.

Have you ever taken acid and gotten lost in the desert?

You bet!

What happened?

I went on a trip in my early 20s. And I took this super super clean LSD. And my friend and I, he had a brother who lived in Vegas and was working at a university there and was our host. And we went on this overnight hike to watch the sunrise. Somehow we got split up and I just kept walking and walking, and I slowly, as the sun was rising, realised I was alone, in the desert, in Nevada. Very far away from where the car was.

Then I just tried to stay calm and I followed Jesus back to where the car was without even thinking about it.

So Jesus saved you?

He appeared and I just followed him. Hahaha.

It was crazy because we walked through all this brush. It was dark when we walked out, that I had no idea, I probably did, but I was cracked out of my skull, that I wasn’t sure. I just followed this guy in a white robe with long hair and a beard back to the car. Hahaha.

Then we drove back into town, and I was still flying pretty hard and I went and sat at a bus stop in downtown Las Vegas for a few hours and the busses just kept passing and then I went and got some french fries at a fast food place and walked back to my friend’s house.

Cool story right?


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