What’s not to like about Steve Gunn? First off, he made the guitar record of the summer with Time Off, a gorgeous collection of sprawling acoustic jams with cyclical melodies and influences both Eastern and American. Secondly, he comes from a heady improvisational background, playing in groups like GHQ and Desert Heat to crowds of chin-scratching Belgians and various Byron Coleys. And thirdly, he’s just one of those naturally cool guys who handles his instrument reverently and expertly, the type of guy who doesn’t need a pair of sunglasses to look sharp – he’ll make squinting seem righteous. If you haven’t already, please go and check out his latest record, it’ll make what he has to say below that much more impressive.

I know you were in hardcore bands growing up…at what point did you switch to acoustic guitars as your guitar of choice. Is it fair to say that you are primarily an acoustic guitarists at this point?
I did play in some hardcore bands when I was in high school. My parents let me go on a small East Coast tour the summer between my freshman and sophomore year, filling in for a bass player who couldn’t make the trip. I begged my parents to let me go, and they were really cool about it. The music was an utter mess. I’d say it was pretty bad by anyone’s standards. I suppose it was cool that we were just out playing. My rig was what most teenagers had at the time – the small Peavey amp and a fake Fender. In the band, I just plugged in and thrashed around. At this same time I was playing the acoustic guitar and trying to make sense of it, so everything kind of happened at once.
I didn’t get an electric until a year or two after my first acoustic. I played the acoustic a lot in high school, partially because it was there to pick up and play, and it could be private and no one could hear. After that I started playing much more, but the acoustic was always kind of sitting around.
I guess when people start playing guitar at that age they kind of go for one thing – the metal heads go for the leads, the hardcore guys go for the power chords, the spin doctors dudes go for the blues riffs, etc… I wasn’t really going for one thing. I just kind worked out rhythms and melodies that I would hear in various songs, not really concentrating on any technical stuff. The lessons I took helped a bit, but I didn’t really follow through with them. I suppose at the time I didn’t have the attention span to sit and actually learn things and really study the instrument. I more so got a handle and feel for how to play just by sitting in my room and doing whatever. The teacher was a nice dude who I think played in a pretty pro cover band. It always felt a bit strange, and I didn’t really take much from it. I ended up learning more technical stuff later when I was more ready for it.
Greg Ginn’s guitar playing in Black Flag struck me because it was so expressive, and he had a unique style – not flashy, and more rhythmic. No other players really sounded like him. I was inspired by him and wanted to play like that. I’ve always been drawn to players who have their own take and style on things. I suppose having that kind of appreciation merely for how things sounded rather than technical stuff helped me develop my own kind of thing for better for worse. When I discovered open tunings for guitar later on, it opened up a lot a ton for me because I could still play in the way I was most comfortable. It helped because I was still doing my own kind of thing, but wasn’t limited to the standard tuning thing anymore. That’s when I got back to playing the acoustic a whole lot. Learning how to do finger-style stuff with the acoustic came along with that. I could still freely play rhythmic stuff but could do things in a wider range, and sort of compose parts, etc. This kind of fell in line with me discovering older blues players and solo instrumentalists doing all kinds of different stuff, players like Fred Mcdowell and Sandy Bull gave me the same kind of excitement as when I first got into Ginn and Hendrix back in high school. I kind of came back to acoustic full circle around this time.
I’ve been playing more electric guitar these days, so I wouldn’t consider myself exclusively an acoustic guitar player by any means. I’ve been working on trying to get away from that. I’ve been incorporating more electric guitar into the band setting and hope to have more of that kind of scenario going on on my next solo record. I’m a little burnt out on only playing acoustic and want to expand the sound a bit. I still intend on it being a mix of both, but I’ve been getting more and more into playing electric. It’s a nice change from trying to play in a band with only acoustics through a Fender twin – it’s been tough in a lot of situations and doesn’t make the most sense.

When playing your songs live, do you plan to improvise or stretch songs out longer than their recorded versions? Is it something that just happens, or do you go into shows with the intent to just kinda let the songs sprawl out as they may?
Yeah, the plan for improvisation is always part of it. I guess it’s just being aware that it’s in the cards and being ready for it. The drummer I play with, John Truscisnki, and I have done a lot improvising over the years, so it’s easy for us to go down that road. Most of the songs have parts that can stretch out, and when we do them live they often go in different directions. We usually try to discuss what we are going to try beforehand, but we’re also open for things that come out of the blue. When I play solo there is much more room for this kind of thing to happen, and I embrace it. It helps also with not getting bored of the songs, gives them a bit of spontaneity, which helps adapt to certain situations with the kind of room/crowd etc.

You’ve also done your share of improvisation / “free” music, prior to the solo acoustic stuff you’re doing… did you have to mentally unlearn any improvisation techniques in order to play the comparatively simple melodies of Time Off? I know some people who came up in certain underground music scenes have found it hard to step back and just play simple stuff, instead of constantly pushing their technical ability.
All of the stuff that I’ve done with improvising helps with playing the songs off of the new record. While doing all of the improvisation stuff, I’ve always been simultaneously working on songs and melodies. I don’t really have to ‘unlearn’ things when doing the songs, but I do have to know what and where improvisational stuff can fit in the framework of the song. With the songs there is no really dropping out, but more like stretching out what is already there.
It is true that people who do improvisation have different abilities outside of playing that way. Some people can only do just that, and can’t do play in any other situations, etc… others can do everything, like play complex compositions and Flamenco or something. During the time when I was mostly doing improv stuff, I was always kind of privately practicing more structured guitar playing. When I started doing more song stuff and singing, it was a real change from what most have heard me do, but in a way, it’s what I’ve been working up to the most.
Also, it was nice to really switch it up and go in a different direction, because to me I felt like I was a approaching a huge void of just playing a ton and getting anywhere with it, like approaching a vapid void of blind strumming. It was certainly fun and rewarding, but I felt like I wanted to go in a different direction.

What kind of crowd response do you hope for when playing live? Is just a quiet, respectful, attention-paying audience the best a performer like you can hope for?
It can be hard when people are making noise over what you are trying to do when playing an acoustic solo set, but I’ve gotten used to it. I almost expect it at this point, so I’ve learned to tune it out. In that setting, it’s always nice to have a quiet attentive audience though. Since playing with more of a band, a rowdier crowd is fine, but not too insane with people screaming, etc. We’re still not that loud and can get drowned out a bit. We’re still trying to figure out our volume with the band setting.

Where do your lyrics come from? Are you trying to evoke specific images, or are you more interested in having your voice work as another instrument, with certain phrases sticking out here and there?
My lyrics come from trying to portray a loose narrative combined with finding words that fit certain sounds. It’s an exercise in finding the balance of the two. I take a lot of scrap notes of things that I hear or observations or whatever, and often try to string some things along. Having a voice work as another instrument is part of it in the process, so a lot of words get changed to fit regardless of meaning. It’s nice to do this to deconstruct any original idea of what a certain group of words is going to portray.

Why did you choose to release this music under your own name, instead of a moniker, or a band title? Do you feel more exposed? Or does it even matter?
When I first started to release solo music, i felt using my name was fitting, because it was solo bedroom style stuff and pretty personal. At the time I was doing a bunch of different things, and this stuff was really what I had been working on on my own. The songs on my new record were solo songs, so I felt the name thing wasn’t important. I am open to the idea of getting a name when I have a band, just haven’t figured out what fits. I’ve never come up with a moniker or band name that I felt was fitting, and I don’t really like having a name combined with mine, like Steve G & The Bimbos or something like that. I still perform these songs a lot solo, and will do a lot more of that, so I didn’t want to make it more confusing than it already is by changing it completely. More recently I’ve been doing a pick-up band kind of thing, which has been really cool because it kind of changes the songs around a bit. I am playing a festival in Belgium this week and have two guys from there who are going to sit in with me for the show. Maybe I’ll start coming up with band names on the fly, or maybe something will stick by the time my next record comes out. A lot of people think my name is not my real name, so in a way I’ve got a made-up name already.

I know it’s not my place, but I gotta say, “Gunn” would be pretty cool. Or is that too egotistical? It wouldn’t be the same if your name was Steve Smith or Steve Kowalcyk or something.
Years ago I had a band called Gunn Control for about a week before the name changed into something else. I think if I did have a band called Gunn, I would maybe have to wear a jean jacket with no sleeves and a bullet belt or something. Or maybe not. Could be a cool direction – it does have a good ring to it. Since my name has only two syllables, I always thought it was easy to use.

You seem to get wrangled in with guitar players like Jack Rose, John Fahey, Leo Kottke, that sort of school of underground-approved American fingerpickers… do you feel any kinship there, or does it just feel like a lazy comparison to you?
Yeah – thanks for asking this question. In almost anything that is written about me, those names are dropped, and sometimes I feel like it’s a lazy comparison. I don’t mind it all, but I feel that my new album is kind of getting away from that. There has been a few reviews and write-ups that haven’t said anything in that regard (Fahey this and that), and it’s always a bit of a relief. I can always tell when music writers gather old reviews and reiterate what has already been said about other releases. It’s nice when people really listen to the stuff and come up with their own opinion and take on it.

Is the guitar your favorite musical instrument? Do you think its importance in modern music has been fading?
The guitar Is the only instrument I really know how to play, and I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s my favorite. My favorite instrument to listen to changes every so often. I’ve really been really enjoying the Indian dulcimer instrument called a santoor. I have a few albums by guys who play this, and the percussive and melodic control is unreal.
I’ve been listening to a lot of live Hendrix stuff, so I guess the guitar is an obvious favorite.
Perhaps guitar has been fading a bit in popular modern music, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Keyboards and beats seem to be the future and I’m enjoying that.