Swinging Modern Sounds #72: Urban Pastoral
Way Out Weather, Steve Gunn’s release from late 2014, has been one of my most consistently favorite albums of the last couple of years. (And maybe it’s exactly a writer’s album, because it was suggested to me by the excellent novelist Kirby Gann.) Where other records come and go, by their contemporaneity burning bright and fading quickly, Way Out Weather sticks around. It’s a slow-moving and mysterious album, in which the lyrics hover and allude without appearing to need to mean relentlessly. The guitar parts, the thing around which the whole album moves, recall the Piedmont fingerpicking of John Fahey and Robbie Basho, lyrical and traditional sounding, but there’s also a late 60s vibe to the band sound. Guitars played through a Leslie cabinet, lap steel drifting in and out. And then there’s Gunn’s voice, not a singer’s voice, exactly, more of a poet’s voice, kind of declamatory, but with a slight soul influence in the way he rounds his vowels. Way Out Weather truly could have been made any time in the last forty years, and like the best albums from last forty years you have to live with it for a long time to understand its luminosity. It’s like a landscape that you can’t know until you’ve seen it through four seasons, until you’ve seen it on days gray and bright. Gunn’s preservation of these careworn and bygone approaches to music-making is deeply felt and thorough, and it makes the whole feel reverent somehow.
Because of how much I loved Way Out Weather, I was really excited to hear what he’d do next, and now we know, because Eyes on the Lines is out from Matador today. It’s a more rock and roll album than Way Out Weather, full of melodic, elegiac guitar solos of a kind that frankly recall Glenn Mercer from The Feelies, and the team of Verlaine and Lloyd. All this while still sounding like the guy who made the previous record. The last truly great guitar albums in the US, in the field, let’s say of independent music, were made in the nineties. There were some moments on the later Sonic Youth albums, and there was the occasional great solo by J. Mascis, but Eyes on the Lines and Way Out Weather remind me of Girlfriend, by Matthew Sweet, where great guitar playing was essential to what made the album great, where great guitar playing was still something people wanted to do. Not so much now. Steven Gunn is a young guy, still figuring out all his moves, and therefore we’re really lucky. He can make a lot more records according to his inquisitive, gnostic, understated method, and we’ll be lucky to hear all of them.
Gunn and I talked in Washington Square Park one day, for a long time, about halfway between his two albums. He’s a funny, modest, curious, and thoughtful guy. I felt lucky to hear him think so earnestly and intensively about what makes music good. You will too.
The Rumpus: Where did you go to school (if you don’t mind my asking)?
Steve Gunn: I went to Temple University.
Rumpus: And what did you study at Temple?
Gunn: I studied filmmaking, actually. I was still really interested in music; I took art classes. I did a kind of video-making and I incorporated the music. I studied art history. I tried to become a bit of an editor but it didn’t really work out for me.
Rumpus: When did you get out of Temple?
Gunn: I graduated in 2000. I moved to New York in 2001.
Rumpus: And at that point you were determined to play music?
Gunn: Pretty much. I was playing in bands and stuff when I was in college. I was studying guitar. I took lessons when I was a kid and I got more serious as I was in school. I thought about pursuing music in school and I tried it but it kind of failed pretty quickly. I played in bands and stuff like that; I played by myself a lot.
Then I moved here (to NYC), kept playing, and kind of linked up with people. At the time I was doing more experimental guitar stuff: just jams and open-ended, noisy sorts of things. I always was quietly playing at home, thinking about songs. I kind of grew out of this circle of noisy music, but then I began to want to focus on telling a bit of a story. I didn’t know how to do that because I was pretty shy about singing. It took years to get better at it. Then I started touring in Europe; I did my first release around 2005, 2006. You know, it was a really small label. A friend of mine put the record out and people were sort of interested so I ended up touring in Europe. Touring in Europe by myself was great. I had a lot of time to work on my stuff in front of people I didn’t know and a lot of time to read. It was an awesome couple of years.
I read fiction and I read about music. I read poetry. With this past record, I thought a lot about words and how important they are. Listening closely to songs these days, there’s a lot of lazy songwriting where people get away with it. I don’t want to be too critical about it. But I also feel like I wanted to say something a bit different from just being a musician and singing about yourself. Ultimately, that’s not really interesting to me. Even when I was a kid, I was interested in observing people and maybe making my own stories. That kind of reflects in my music.
Rumpus: Let’s pick a song by someone else that typifies the songwriting aesthetics you’re talking about. What’s a song that really made a mark in terms of combined lyrics and music?
Gunn: Let me think about that. Skip Spence… That record Oar.
Rumpus: A very great record.
Gunn: Also, just the mystique around him that kind of pervades the record. Even his story—going up to make the record—I don’t know if you know that story.
Rumpus: I’m familiar.
Gunn: It’s probably mythical but still interesting: he was in Bellevue and wrote the album in Bellevue, got an advance, drove his motorcycle down to Nashville, made the record and then drove off into the sunset. I put a lot of pressure on myself to figure out what to say and, lately, I’ve started trying to work through things in my head. Before, I wouldn’t trust my instincts or what I wanted to say and I really struggled with what I wanted to say. I guess it’s just the classic case of writer’s block and learning how to work through that. I’m slowly learning how.
I guess my point is: with Oar I can really sense that Spence is doing that. He really wrote that record off-the-cuff and there are all these buried meanings. It’s pretty abstract but you can take something personal from it. That’s sort of what I try to do with the way that I think about words. The first song on Oar, “Little Hands,” is such an incredible song.
Rumpus: I love the way that album becomes more dissolute toward the end. It starts with very recognizable songwriting impulses and becomes less traditional as an album as it goes along. All those percussion tracks are very unusual.
Gunn: Also, I’ve been thinking a lot about Lou Reed. I know that he studied poetry and he was into art; he was also trying to write sort-of pop songs before he linked up with John Cale and Sterling Morrison and Andy Warhol. His writing style has always appealed to me. It’s mostly character-based and it sounds like he kind of makes up his own words and throws in names to link up a story. The narrative is sometimes time-based. You know, like “Sister Ray.” There’s basically all these different characters in this small area of the city and he wraps it up in the end. So, I guess those two songs are good examples of what I’m trying to do.
Also, my girlfriend is a writer. She’s a fiction writer and she teaches at Brooklyn College. She introduced me to people like Amy Hempel and other writers. We’re constantly talking about writing; she’s always turning me onto things. I think a lot about writing and I try to read a lot. Being a musician, like I said before, I don’t take the words lightly; they are very, very important to me. At the same time, the words have to be musical and have to fit.
Rumpus: That’s the big struggle, I think. I write words a lot; I can write verses until the cows come home but it’s so much harder to make words that have the sing-ability feature.
Gunn: I come up with the music first; I play through it and I just kind of sing. I have my little recording setup at home and I kind up make up words to fit with the music and then I come back to it and then I try to decipher what was coming off the top of my head. So, I guess that’s just picking words out at random, letting them sit and then sculpting them a little bit more and also attaching a story to some of the songs.
With Way Out Weather, there are all these personal stories; there’s all my own references that are pretty banal and day-to-day, like telling stories about my neighbors and things. And I don’t necessarily want to tell anyone: “This is a song about my neighbor,” but I want it to look and feel character-based. I describe my interactions with a person and put it out there and it’s interesting to see how it comes back to people and it’s something completely different. It’s something I realized that I want to do: not say something so specific and personal.
Rumpus: So does that mean that the songs are anti-confessional?
Gunn: I guess so. I never thought of it that way. I think so. I guess I’m sort of afraid to reveal myself or something, you know? Not afraid but… I guess I do it in a roundabout way but not overtly.
Rumpus: I read a description of you somewhere, in which you were described as a singer/songwriter, and I found that kind of odd, since that form is traditionally noteworthy for confessional writing. Blue by Joni Mitchell or Late for the Sky by Jackson Browne, for example: those are confessional albums and they seem so driven by the words. I think it’s self-evident with Way Out Weather that the words serve the music and that they’re there oblique because their first responsibility is to be ornamental. So, can we pick a song and try to tease out the lyrics a little bit? What about the song “Way Out Weather”? How did that happen?
Gunn: That was the first year that I kind of wrote that record (the year before I recorded it). I travelled a ton. I really love traveling and I met tons of people. I know this is a very common thing but I just started realizing that, with every other person or almost every person, there’s this ritual discussion about the weather. It’s this way of relating to people immediately.
It’s like this way of communicating where you don’t have to ask any questions about personal business; you don’t have to get too deep within anything but it’s this exchange. I was dealing with that a lot and thinking about it and I was also thinking about, you know, maybe it’s okay that you don’t have to spill yourself out to everybody. So, I was sort of thinking about other people and being happy to meet other people. Also, that song is sort of about traveling by yourself, being on planes and just being worried about everything. Being full of anxiety and trying to deal with that!
I could break this song down with the lyrics if you want. I reference the ocean and weather patterns and things. I kind of wanted it just to be this song that wasn’t, like I said, I don’t want to be overly personal, so that was one thing that I thought was the least personal. But it also is extremely personal and it’s a reflection of me, too.
Rumpus: And the music was written beforehand? You know what I really love is that long sort of instrumental period at the beginning when it’s gathering itself up. Was that something that happened in the studio?
Gunn: That was just me and my friend. He owns the studio and, with Way Out Weather, we really talked about what we wanted to do as far as the record. The other record before that was basically just cut live. We just went in there for two consecutive weekends. With this one, the songs were sculpted in the studio.
We talked a lot about what microphones; we got a big Leslie speaker in there, all that kind of stuff. There was a lot more preparation as far as the engineering aspect but I guess what I was saying before was that I wrote all these songs on a hand-held recorder (like what you’re using right now) in my apartment with my guitar. You know: just singing and playing. So, a lot of the songs were just riffs at first and then I would listen to it and then I would really try to sing it and play it. I compiled all these songs, sent them out to the band, and they would give me feedback and then when we got to the studio, we’d talk about what we wanted to do. I kind of had a general idea of how I wanted that song to sound.
Rumpus: And that instrumental portion on that first song: do you think of it as being introductory to the album?
Gunn: It happened that way. I knew that song was going to be first one because it kind of built up and I did want to have a slow build up and have it be a bit drony. I had the idea and, luckily, I work with this really amazing guitar player named Jim Elkington. He lives in Chicago. He plays in Jeff Tweedy’s solo project; he plays in a bunch of different bands. He’s a good friend and he helped me build up that beginning part. He was doing lap steel stuff.
Rumpus: The lap steel is great.
Gunn: It was crazy, that record. It was very minimal with not much money behind it and not much time. The label who put it out wanted a record so I felt like: “Let’s just do it; we’re gonna do it. They want a record; we’ll just do it.” So I wrote all these songs pretty quickly and had been thinking about them on the road so, when I got home, I was really trying to shape things up. We went into the studio in February—in the middle of winter—and basically cut the whole record in four days. We stayed up pretty late everyday: fourteen, fifteen hours. And then I just came back and did vocals and minimal overdubs so everything had this fast sort of flow to it. I was really lucky because I feel like we had all the right people there to help.
Rumpus: I find it miraculous that it didn’t have a lot of overdubs; it’s got so much texture.
Gunn: The bulks of the tracks were done pretty quickly and all together. We were trying to keep this core group together and a lot of the overdubbing was more or less vocals.
Rumpus: I just want to ask about the last song really quick.
Gunn: Sure, okay.
Rumpus: It’s called “Tommy’s Congo,” is that right?
Gunn: That’s one of the songs where people come up with the craziest interpretations, which is great.
Rumpus: So, mine has to do with Heart of Darkness.
Gunn: Oh, cool. Okay.
Rumpus: Because of the Congo part of it. I’m also really interested in that weird rhythm track at the beginning of that.
Gunn: The drum machine stuff?
Rumpus: What is that drum machine thing? Is that an old drum machine or something?
Gunn: It is, it’s an old drum machine. It’s crazy. My friend Justin kind of helped produce that record. He’s from Philadelphia. We’re both big music appreciators and deep record collectors; he really helped facilitate the record and helped get everybody there. He had people workshopping parts when we were recording other things; he helped organize the session and he’s involved with the music. He doesn’t tour with me but he’s pretty involved with helping me get the records done. He brought all these drum machines to the studio. We were working on that song (“Tommy’s Congo”) and he had this idea. There were two drummers there and we put two drummers in a room and a guy playing congas. He dropped his old drum machine in there and those guys just played along to the song and it really worked.
Rumpus: It’s not the organic vibe of the record in some ways so, it’s surprising. To me, it gives it—I mean, this is a strange comparison—a Lee Scratch Perry vibe.
Gunn: That’s cool. I listen to reggae so that’s interesting.
Rumpus: It’s not reggae so much as its ideas about the sonic spectrum that you might find in reggae, you know? But then I somehow, in my mind, connect that to the Heart of Darkness problem. You know, in literary circles Heart of Darkness is an incredibly polarizing book. A lot of times many African writers think that it’s a deeply racist book so, it’s problematic. The whole question of the Congo is problematic.
Gunn: For sure. What’s interesting for me—because I wasn’t thinking along those terms—is I wrote that song in Belgium. Well, the song is about a bar in Belgium basically. The history of the Congolese people there is pretty…
Rumpus: Belgium was a colonial oppressor in Congo, right?
Gunn: There’s an incredible Congolese community in Belgium. In Brussels, yeah. I have a band I play with in Europe; they live in Brussels. The guy who plays bass (his name is Tommy) lives in Brussels and has become a very good friend of mine and he kept saying “When we go back to Brussels, I gotta take you to this bar! It’s this Congolese bar.” They have these bands come in and they play until six in the morning and it’s super fun. We went a couple times and, the last two times we went, we stayed up all night and these bands were completely incredible. I couldn’t stop thinking about it after we had gone there because it was this really magical place and the people were so friendly. Growing up in Philadelphia and living in New York, I feel like New York is a bit more harmonious than Philadelphia (particularly racially). Being in a bar and being the only white people in this bar, the people there were so welcoming and happy and friendly. It kind of blew me away. The bands were completely incredible.
Rumpus: What was the sound?
Gunn: You know Highlife music?
Rumpus: Sure, yeah.
Gunn: Similar to that and just extended songs. They’d play the same song for twenty or thirty minutes and they’d have different singers come up and sing traditional stuff (I think it was traditional). It was this really cool party, you know. Different guitar players would come up and, basically, you’re sitting at the bar next to a guy (you’re sitting next to him for like thirty minutes) and he’ll get up and play guitar! One thing that I reference in the song is that the guitar players don’t look at what they’re playing. They play these super complicated cyclical riffs and they’re just socializing with their friends and looking around and partying! It completely blew my mind. So, I just wrote the song. I wanted to hint at what I was hearing that night with the riff and the sound of the song. I wanted to do my own interpretation, not specifically what they were doing. But I listen to a lot of African guitar music so that was an influence.
Rumpus: Like Ali Farka Touré…?
Gunn: That’s interesting that you point out that reference because I never thought of it that way but I was kind of indirectly thinking of that.
Rumpus: The curse of the colonizing countries is that they absorb the local culture and then it comes back and inhabits them. That’s how it goes.
Gunn: I was just talking about this with my girlfriend. There’s an essay by James Baldwin—I can’t remember the name of it—where he’s referencing that point. One of her students at Brooklyn said something like: “I think the issue of racism today is doing better.” They listen to hip-hop at bar mitzvahs now. I grew up in a neighborhood where there was this dichotomy of lower-class whites who were taking bits of their identity from African American culture but they’re still completely racist.
Rumpus: Your family lived in Philly your whole childhood?
Gunn: They’re still there.
Rumpus: My sister lived in Philly for a while and I always visited there often. One of my best friends lives there. Such a dark energy in Philadelphia.
Gunn: There is!
Rumpus: One time I opened for the Magnetic Fields in Philly (this was probably 2001). I read before I went on and I could not believe the poisonousness of the vibe in the crowd! And it’s the same thing if you go to a Phillies game. It seemed like there’s this aggressive thing happening in Philly.
Gunn: I grew up going to sports games. My dad was a huge Philadelphia Eagles fan and there was Veteran’s Stadium. My dad had a huge posse of guys doing the tailgating thing and he had this whole section, section 601 that was pretty high at the top (with like forty or fifty guys) and I remember seeing the most insane stuff happening. This was before (maybe in the 80s or 90s) when they really cracked down on alcohol and they had a lot more police there. Before that, people were sneaking in kegs of beer and bottles of vodka and stuff like that.
Philly is a complex place. It does have this dark energy but also has this vibrant music scene and there are people who are really dedicated friends and people making art and opening businesses. Overall, I feel that dark energy and I’ve experienced it a lot. In high school, I thought “I have to get out of here.” None of my family has gone anywhere, really. That’s not a negative dig on them but I just knew that I needed something different. It’s kind of incredible to me (because of traveling around Europe and all over the world) how different New York is. Obviously, it’s not perfect either. There’s a different sensibility as far as culture and different people. I feel like there’s an openness that I was drawn to. I still enjoy it.
Rumpus: I’m going to go in a completely different direction. I want to talk about “the drone” because I keep seeing you say “La Monte Young” in public, and you were talking about The Velvets. I’m interested in what his music means to you, how you encountered it, where you got it, what you think.
Gunn: People just take these references and throw them at you and put these names on things. You almost have to explain it after the fact and I feel like, when I was saying that, I was talking out of my ass a bit like, “well, yeah, that’s an interesting reference!” Lately, I’ve been thinking about it and I’ve come up with more of a realization as to maybe why La Monte Young was a reference. I mentioned before, when I first moved to New York, I was more or less playing experimental stuff and I got really into all the drone music and I was listening to La Monte Young and the Indian singer, Pandit Pran Nath.
I was going to the Dream House and I got really interested in Indian classical music. I was sort of playing with people who weren’t necessarily the best musicians but were incorporating that idea into what we were doing. So, I did that for a few years and I was still playing in different bands and things. After a time, I started drifting away from that sound. But as I reflect on my own music now and I realized that there still is a kind of drone through it.
Rumpus: Your songs never modulate, right? I don’t think one song on Way Out Weather modulates.
Gunn: It still kind of has this cyclical drone through it. A lot of people who were talking about the record said “This is the perfect driving record; it’s a perfect traveling record. I drove across the country with my girlfriend and we listened to it so much.” I kind of wrote the record as I was traveling and is has this consistent feel to it. I listen to a lot of bluegrass and folk music; there’s a drone going through folk music as well. The style of guitar that I really learned how to play is based on, more or less, a bluegrass style.
I use open tunings and I play finger style. That kind of practice was combined with my interest in that kind of drone thread going through stuff. I guess it was a combination of those things. To sit and reference someone like La Monte Young now, that’s not really right and it’s unfair. I’m not a scholar of music per se like he was, but his stuff was awesome for sure; it helped me discover other musicians as I was learning how to play. He’s certainly an influence.
Rumpus: Do you think that it’s about the fact that the drone connects folk tradition with experimental tradition or is there more to it than that?
Gunn: I don’t really consider what I’m doing experimental but “improvisation” is more of word I’d rather use. I feel like, just with life, that’s an important thing to get a handle on and I’m still trying to get a handle on it. Improvisation, to me, was an important part of what I do musically and putting an experimental tag on it is not really right as far as trying to explain it, I guess. Does that answer your question?
Rumpus: I am interested in your resistance to the word “experimental.” Because what you’re doing certainly doesn’t sound like rock and roll to me. It’s got a rhythm section like a rock band but it’s like rock and roll the way Television is like rock and roll and I consider them somewhat experimental.
Gunn: They’re one of my favorite bands for sure. When I was doing experimental stuff I got frustrated because I wanted to practice and I would practice all the time; I felt myself getting better. Some of the people I was playing with never practice and they can’t even tune a guitar.
Gunn: So, I started to just step out on my own and work on my own stuff. At the time, I was just playing guitar and getting more of a handle on what I was doing and trying to be more dexterous with my hands. I was really nerding out with instructional videos and that kind of stuff. Not taking lessons but reading and listening. Just working and stuff. I tried to become more of a singular guitar player. I was working through all this stuff; I had this instrumental duo project with my friend, John Truscinski.
We made two albums with just guitar and drums. We were kind of involved in the same scene; we were improvising a bunch and he was playing with jazz people. Then I started coming up with songs; they came slowly. No singing and they were loose so they would open up and expand. We did two records in that way but I really wanted to start singing. So I started taking what I was doing, from just being a solo player playing with a drummer, and I started trying to sing over the top of it.
So I had this really skewed way of songwriting. Only recently within the past year I’ve tried to take a step back from what I’ve been doing because I was starting to realize that I can simplify things and think about songwriting in a new way. I kind of became a songwriter from a different direction and that reflects in the music. I don’t know exactly how Tom Verlaine came up with his personal style of songwriting but they were definitely improvising.
Rumpus: Jazz is such a piece of that. I heard him talk about Mingus in an interview not too long ago. Mingus, Miles Davis, and Coltrane were pieces of how the first Television album got structured. They didn’t know how to play jazz scales or anything, but Marquee Moon is so indebted to A Love Supreme in some way.
Gunn: It makes sense.
Rumpus: It’s the fighting against rock and roll guitar playing, that seems integral to me in that model, trying to push rock and roll in another direction, which results in this new thing. I can tell you that I was fifteen when Marquee Moon came out, and when it came out, it did not sound like one other thing I’d heard. The strangulated vocal style and these bursts of totally lyrical guitar playing against riffs that were as primitive as anything you can hear at that time. A totally bizarre record in its day!
Gunn: It’s interesting to read about when they were playing at CBGB and people were like “what the fuck is this band?” And they were getting slammed in the press.
Rumpus: They were not a punk band in the normal sense of the word. They were their own thing; they made up a genre.
Gunn: Did you ever see Richard Lloyd’s lessons?
Rumpus: I read some, a transcription of the lessons maybe.
Gunn: It’s pretty amazing.
Rumpus: I can’t understand exactly what he’s saying.
Gunn: I can’t understand it either. It’s just completely nuts.
Rumpus: But I’ve seen him play a few times. I count them as greatest shows of my life.
Gunn: You saw him with Television?
Rumpus: No, I saw him with Rocket from the Tombs. No, I never actually saw Television back in the day. I’ve got boots, but I never saw them play.
Gunn: I just want to make one point. Jazz is definitely a big influence on me too.
Rumpus: Which jazz?
Gunn: Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Sun Ra.
Rumpus: Sun Ra for me, too.
Gunn: I kind of discovered all that stuff sort of at the same time. I was into punk and hardcore and then I discovered Coltrane. Well, first I got Kind of Blue and then I discovered Coltrane. I was hanging out with these older guys who lived in the city and we’d go out, drink beers, smoke some pot, and they’d put on the first Stooges CD. That was it; they started to introduce me to all this stuff. But Coltrane was a huge influence on me and Sun Ra lived in Philly so, when I moved out of my parents’ house when I was eighteen, nineteen, I started seeing them around the city. You know: this concert and that concert just completely changed my life.
Rumpus: We don’t even know yet how important Sun Ra was to American music. There’s just too much material. We can’t digest it yet but in a hundred years they’ll know. Like: Duke Ellington, Well, okay, let’s talk about the singing a little bit. So I’ve heard you say that you never sang as a teenager.
Gunn: Not at all. I was too shy. My parents aren’t musicians but they’re pretty musical so we always had music on in the house and I used to sing by myself. My mother has a good voice and my parents were always goofing around listening to Motown and the Rolling Stones and stuff like that. I wasn’t necessarily tone-deaf or anything when I was trying to sing; I knew how to do it. Part of it was me not being shy about it and then just working on it. At first I would sing quietly and then I got more comfortable. It took some people saying “You need to sing louder.” That started happening when I started playing electric guitar.
I had a rehearsal space in Williamsburg—this was years ago. We were starting to do this electrified thing and the guy playing drums was like, “This sucks. Are you singing? I can’t hear you.” I realized that I needed to project a bit more and I kept doing it and now I really enjoy it. I’m still working on it. It’s strange because I had to really get into this mental space to do it and it’s almost like shutting everything around me out.
Rumpus: You must sing at every gig now.
Gunn: I do.
Rumpus: Do you have stage fright in relation to singing?
Gunn: Not anymore. In a way it calms me down now.
Rumpus: What about the guitar playing? It seems like guitar is second nature to you.
Gunn: That’s weird because I’m stuck in my own moves, you know. If I sit down with someone and have to abandon all my weird references then I’m lost. So I have these comfort zones I’ve been playing in for the past years where I know what to do, I know all the moves. There’s only three or four of them but I know where to go so I don’t stumble too much. It’s fairly simple stuff; a lot of it’s by sight. So I guess I’m fairly comfortable with the guitar. Lately I’ve been sonically trying to work things into the effects and different sorts of amps and different guitars and things. It’s really cool playing with another guitar player; I kind of feed off of that.
Rumpus: It’s interesting to look at the melodies on the songs.
Rumpus: You have certain vocal melodies that you really like.
Rumpus: There’s certain moves you make as a singer from song to song that sort of gives the album a feeling like it’s one song. Would you try to push that further?
Gunn: I’m working on that actually. I’m listening to a lot of different kinds of music; I got really stuck on Bill Withers.
Rumpus: That’s so funny about Bill Withers. Someone else I talked to recently was on a Bill Withers jag.
Gunn: I never liked him but I heard this live song. I was traveling in Europe and the guy I was playing with played this song and it was a live song—“Use Me.” There’s a live version recorded at Carnegie Hall; it kind of blew me away. When I got home, I got stuck on these songs. He does this thing where the songs are so simple (sometimes there aren’t even bridges or anything and it’s just like two chords). Just driving through the song, he changes key with his voice and I’ve never done that; that’s something I want to work on.
Also, just being a bit more comfortable and singing naturally and saying words naturally and keeping that feeling with the music. With Way Out Whether, it’s so precious and I was super stressed in front of this microphone. I’ll dip down for the first two words and then it’s mid-range. It’s this pattern that I didn’t even realize was happening. It’s also similar with my guitar playing; I do these patterns and I’ll reference things from other songs and be like “I already wrote that song” so I’m trying to be a bit more careful .
Rumpus: One time I went to see Al Green do his preacher thing in Memphis. I went to his church. It was electrifying for those lessons in vocal simplicity. The service was basically all music. There was maybe one reading but, basically, they were singing the whole time. When he preached, he would just riff over a one-four; that would be his sermon. That guy could do more things vocally with the simplest harmonic vocabulary. It was astonishing. Then I would come home and sit down at the piano and play a one-four and it seemed so easy when he did it! But he’s going so far harmonically with that bedrock of soul music; it’s fascinating to me.
Gunn: With Bill Withers, there’s this song called “Harlem” and it’s like two chords and the chords don’t change but his vocals change different keys. It gets more and more intense and then comes back down. It’s this really interesting, cool trick.
Rumpus: Did you meet David Grubbs? His is sort of a similar career path in a way because he’s come back to songwriting and he thinks very intensively about lyric writing. He anguishes over words; he wants the lyrics to be great. I think he’s actually a great lyricist but it’s not without great effort.
So, tell me about the new record. What are the ideas for the new record?
Gunn: I keep changing my mind about it. I wanted it to be thematically a bit more of a city record rather than a rural record. A lot of people comment on Way Out Weather and say “I can’t believe you live in a city; I’d think you live in the country somewhere.” I guess a lot of that is just me dealing with living in the city. Musically, playing with a band, things have been getting louder. I don’t necessarily want the record to be loud but I want a grittiness to it; I thought the last record was kind of precious. I just kind of want to loosen up and do more simple things in a live setting and see what happens.
I’ve been thinking about it and working through a bunch of different stuff. It’s hard because I’ve been really busy doing shows (this happened with my last album) and it’s hard to force inspiration when you have time and you’re sitting at your desk and want to write something. I mentioned my girlfriend: she’s really dedicated to her writing and it’s sort of inspiring to talk to her about it because I realize the practice is something that takes work. You can’t just expect something to come. So, right now I’m in a place where I have a bunch of songs written.
The new record is coming out on Matador. I have a bit more time but I still want to keep the same sensibility I had with Way Out Weather where things came into being at the studio. A lot of the lyrics just happened in a real spontaneous way. I feel like there aren’t enough songwriters these days who add a narrative thread or characters into their songs and I think about that a lot. I think about certain people who are characters in my mind that I want to sing about. So, I’ve been thinking about that.
I guess my original point was I don’t want to say tougher, I’m just trying to be a bit more gritty and think about the New York. I kind of wanted “Tommy’s Congo” to be at the end of Way Out Weather because I wanted it to be a continuation into the next record but I’m still interested in making acoustic stuff and trying to figure out how to write a sentimental song. At this point, I have a lot of demos that are circulating with my friends. My friend who’s in my band owns a studio in upstate New York. We’re going to go up there for a week and work on stuff.
Feature photograph © Constance Mensh. Second photograph © Moonloop Photography.