As a fan and admirer of Hiss Golden Messenger, I first discovered guitarist Steve Gunn through his collaboration with HGM called Golden Gunn (Three Lobed Recordings). Shortly after obtaining a copy of that record, I discovered Steve's own new solo album called Time Off (Paradise of Bachelors).
Along with some of some other really great guitar records released recently by Marissa Anderson (Mercury, Mississippi), William Tyler (Impossible Truth, Merge), Daniel Bachman (Seven Pines, Tompkins Square), Glenn Jones (My Garden State, Thrill Jockey) Lena Hughes (Queen of the Flat Top Guitar, Tompkins Square) and the forthcoming release from Nathan Salsburg, Gunn's Time Off is one not to be missed.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Steve about his musical history and the making of Time Off.
Can you discuss your musical history? When did you begin playing guitar?
Steve Gunn: Both of my parents are appreciators of rock n' roll and Motown, so while growing up I always head great music. There were always great songs playing in the house or car, usually with some singing along. When I decided to take up an instrument in my early teens my parents were very supportive. They first bought me a bass and took me to lessons. A year later I got a guitar.
Which artists and albums inspired you most early on?
Steve: I was into skateboarding and punk music (Misfits, Black Flag, etc.), and I had an older sister who had great taste in music as well. I borrowed a lot of her cassettes, and I discovered The Cure, The Smiths, and more "alternative" kinds of bands. A bit after that, I discovered a more local hardcore punk scene, and started to see bands around Philadelphia.
During my last year in high school I started digging deeper and I discovered Coltrane and the Stooges, pretty much in the same week. During my first year of college I started getting into more experimental kinds of things like Sandy Bull, Sun Ra, Dead C, etc.
I discovered your work with your recent collaboration with Hiss Golden Messenger called Golden Gunn. Can you describe your previous work leading up to that collaboration?
Steve: I've been performing solo and writing songs for the past six years or so. Before that I was playing in bands and doing more collaborative music. A lot of that work was improvised and usually home-recorded. Most of the music up until that point was mostly instrumental guitar stuff. When I stepped out with the solo thing, I began to try to sing along with some of the guitar stuff that I was doing.
Can you discuss how you and Hiss Golden Messenger decided to work together? What sparked the notion of making a recording together?
Steve: The label, Three Lobed Recordings, came up with the idea of the collaboration for a release on Record Store Day last year. We all had different things to bring to the table. I was open to the possibilities. I respect those guys as musicians and was up for the challenge. It was a fun record to make, because there wasn't the same pressure as an official release. We wanted to see where we could take the idea, and it was a ton of fun to make. We had many laughs.
We spent a day together driving to a wedding and during the trip we loosely figured out what we wanted to do. We came up with a theme for the album and worked from there. There was a down and out yet dignified character named Dickie Silk, who would be the album's unifying thread, we decided. We enjoyed talking endlessly about Dickie and it was great to hear the final result. I think the spontaneity of our ideas give it a strange cohesiveness. I hope we made Dickie proud, wherever he is these days.
How did the writing and recording process of Golden Gunn come together?
Steve: There was a lot of physically remote discussion. We never were in the studio together at once for this record. Originally, we were going to book a studio for this collaboration, but I'm glad we didn't. The recording has a fractured quality that adds to the strangeness of the record. We exchanged tracks over a month. I did some of the recording at Scott Hirsch's place in Brooklyn and some at my apartment. Mike (MC Taylor) did a bunch of recording at a studio in North Carolina.
Let's move into the making of your new record. What kind of headspace were you each in and what were your goals for the next record going into the writing process?
Steve: My friend Jason has a studio in upstate New York called Black Dirt. It is the perfect place: an escape from the city and a comfortable environment to work in. For me, the recording environment is key, and in certain places (fancy or not), it can sometimes be hard to get in the right zone. This studio is in a beautiful area, and we really were able to relax and let the music happen without much pressure.
When did you begin working on the new material?
Steve: This record was a long time coming. Some of the songs on the album are a few years old and some are new. In the back of my mind I always knew that I'd do a proper studio record like this, it just took a few years to make it happen. I didn't want to force it, and when it happened it felt like the right time. I didn't have any preconceived ideas before going into the studio to record. Everything happened naturally.
Can you describe your writing process for Time Off (musically and lyrically)?
Steve: Some of the songs that are on Time Off have had the time necessary to form into cohesive songs because I've played them so much over a span of a few years. This made the songs really easy to record. I wrote a few of the other songs quite quickly, which is a new thing for me. I hope to try to work that way for my next album.
Lyrically, I wanted to tell a loose narrative, and have all of the songs tie together with a bit of a common thread. With the exception of the song "Old Strange", which is about a departed friend, all of the songs are roughly about people around my neighborhood in Brooklyn.
What were you listening to during the writing and recording processes and how did these sources influence the composing of the material and the "sound" you were going for sonically on Time Off?
Steve: I always have music playing when I'm at home. I guess during the making of this record I was listening closely to a lot of British singer-songwriters like Roy Harper, Michael Chapman, and Bert Jansch. I also was listening to a lot of 60's American bands too, like Moby Grape, Link Wray, and Jefferson Airplane.
Was there a song(s) that set the course for the album?
Steve: The song "Lurker" set the course for the album. I recorded another version of that song a few years ago for a compilation, and I always knew that I would do another one in a proper studio with a band. That song was my first real attempt at really thinking about a narrative thread and writing a cohesive song. It was 20 minutes long at first, and it took me about 3 years to get it down to 8 minutes.
What were some of your sources of non-musical inspiration and how do they translate to your songs together?
Steve: I grew up in Philadelphia and now live in New York City, and the characters that linger and roam around are always a good source of inspiration.
How would you say Time Off connects to and contrasts to your previous work?
Steve: This new record is my first serious attempt at songwriting. It is something I've been working up to and am still trying to figure out. Singing is a relatively new thing for me, and I feel that I've come a long way over the years. I'm still working on that, too. Everything that I have done musically has built up to this point. I think all of the different things I've done come through on this record in one way or another.
What have you been listening to lately?
Steve: I've just been away for a month and picked up a bunch of records on the way:
Marissa Anderson: Mercury (Mississppi)
Hellvete: Sint - Denijs (Blackest Rainbow)
Pelt: Effigy (MIE)
Ignatz: Can I Go Home Now? (Fonal Records)
Steve Tibbetts: Safe Journey
Jim Sullivan: UFO reissue (Light In The Attic)
Sam Cooke: Live at Harlem Square Club
Otis G Johnson (Numero)
What's next for you?
Steve: I have a duo record with Mike Gangloff (Pelt/ Black Twig Pickers) coming out on Important Records in October. I'll be going down to Hopscotch early next month and Cropped Out Festival in Louisville, KY on the 28th. There will be various shows in between too.
I'll also be recording a collaborative record with Mike Cooper in Lisbon during the first week of October. After that I'll be doing a European tour, which will end with a final show in Moscow on November 2nd. In addition to the touring, I am also working on new material for another record. Busy.