Indie Guitar God Steve Gunn Deals With Life And Death On His Personal New Album

Cultural Critic
01.15.19

Matador Records

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As a guitar player, Steve Gunn constantly seeks to reach a different mental and emotional plane whenever he plugs in. On his early records, he was content to simply play and drift. When he finally made his first album with vocals, Time Off, in 2013, it was natural that he would write lyrics about the transformative power of traveling through physical spaces, a theme that runs through his excellent 2016 release, Eyes On The Lines. It’s a perspective grounded in a certain restlessness, a drive to constantly move on to the next town, another gig, a fresh musical landscape.

“For me, being a traveling musician, I often struggle with just being at home,” Gunn says during a recent phone conversation. “Just pacing around, you know. I like moving around and playing.”

But sometimes, the realities of life and death makes moving on much harder. During the run up to the release of Eyes On The Lines, Gunn’s father fell ill. Gunn promptly canceled a leg of his tour, and bonded with his dad like never before, as the elder Gunn reminisced about a life informed by being a Vietnam veteran and ingrained personality quirks that his son came to see in himself.

Two weeks after Eyes On The Lines came out, Gunn’s father died. The day after his funeral, Gunn flew to Chicago to resume the tour.

“When I started traveling and playing music, he was almost kind of living vicariously (through me), and so proud. He’s always just like, ‘Just get back out there and do it for me, ’cause I’m not able to,'” Gunn says softly. “So I think it was a good distraction, in that sense, and it was a good way of sort of channeling my feelings about it.”

The loss of his father sent Gunn in a more introspective direction on his latest record, The Unseen In Between. Unlike the free-spirited character-based narratives that populate his previous albums, The Unseen In Between is a heavier, more personal affair, with Gunn writing more directly than ever about himself and the fragility of life. (One of the album’s most affecting cuts, “Stonehurst Cowboy,” is a tribute to his father.)

The album is more intimate musically as well. Eyes On The Lines affirmed Gunn’s reputation as one of indie rock’s last remaining guitar heroes, foregrounding his interplay with fellow guitarist James Elkington on jams that pinpoint the middle ground between the Grateful Dead and Marquee Moon. It was another highlight in a first-class series of albums released this decade, both under his own name and with collaborators like Kurt Vile and Hiss Golden Messenger.

This time, on The Unseen In Between, Gunn aimed to make a more song-centric album, paring back the solos and crafting tunes by himself on an acoustic guitar. He then fleshed out the songs with strings sections and relatively restrained backing instrumentation supplied by regular collaborators like Elkington (who also produced the album) as well as ringers like bassist and long-time Bob Dylan sideman Tony Garnier.

I spoke with Gunn about why he chose to strip back, lyrically and musically, on perhaps his most moving album yet.

The album title is really evocative. What does it mean to you?

I think this album is much more introspective than my past ones. And it’s sort of addressing things that aren’t usually talked about, kind of deep-rooted feelings of anxiety or demons, I suppose.

I was really moved by the song “Stonehurst Cowboy,” which is a song you wrote about your father after he died. You’ve never written something so autobiographical, right?

Yeah, definitely. I think a lot of songs before were story-based, character-based, kind of more vague. And this one is very personal, super specific. It’s really the first personal song I’ve ever written, I think.

Was it uncomfortable exposing yourself like that?

It was a little bit. [But] it was a way of almost dealing with it. It felt really nice to do it. I felt that for this album I wanted to have a really really intimate kind of solo song. I feel like my albums previously kind of got away from that, and I’ve been doing a lot of solo performing, and wanted to express that on this album. And I felt like addressing a tribute to my dad was a perfect sort of opportunity to have more of a singular kind of sound.

I became really interested, basically, in my history, and how I grew up, and where the roots of my own psychology come from. Just knowing where my dad was coming from, and what kind of things he dealt with, and how it affected me, and how it was also important for me to come full circle with him, and get the whole story, and just kind of put it all in perspective. And for me, that song is doing that.

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