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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.
What insight did you gain on your own life by writing about your father?
I feel like I’m just similar to my dad. You know, psychological struggles, and the way that we even just sort of talk and move around. It’s kind of amazing, how it all came into focus after he passed away. I realized that I started reminding myself of him even more.
I think when I was younger — of course, it’s very common — you sort of reject your parents in a certain way. You’re so absorbed with figuring out your own mind, and trajectory. I didn’t really consider the whole story behind him, until later. Luckily, I had the time to really reflect with him. And he was pretty open about everything. Pretty intense.
There’s a recurring theme on your albums about traveling. You usually write about rootlessness from a positive, even romantic, point of view. This album seems darker to me, particularly tracks like “Vagabond,” which is based on the classic Agnes Varda film.
I’m not a brooding, negative person. I’m pretty positive. But I think that I was often afraid to address the darkness, I suppose. It sounds funny saying that, but I just sort of went for it this time, and let my guard down. It was just my heightened sense of paranoia, you know? In regards to the election, and sort of what was going on in the world when I was writing these songs. It was affecting me in that way. I didn’t want to hide that, those kind of sentiments.
The song “Chance” seems to be about a person who is living on the road because he’s basically discarded by mainstream society.
The characters that I sing about are often kind of on the fringes of society, or on the outside of people’s peripheral awareness. I think for the song “Chance,” I was actually thinking of people in particular that I worry about. And then, in the chorus, there’s these sort of sweeping strings, and I think it pulls back a bit. I didn’t want it to be so bleak.
Your last record sounded like a band playing live, whereas this album is a little more intimate and produced. Were you reacting against the sound of Eyes On The Lines?
I wrote all the songs at home, and I really took a lot of time. I made demos. A few sets of different demos. And really worked on the words. And I really felt like I wanted to do an album where I wanted to be able to play the songs, all of them, as if I was playing a solo concert.
Before we were kind of, I think, overdoing it with the guitars, and just really creating this web of different sounds. Which was cool, but this one, I feel like, stands out a bit more, as a singular sort of sound. I also really wanted to be vocally forward. And just be more simple. I wanted to reduce everything that was happening in my songs, and get more to the basics, you know?
The Unseen In Between is out 1/18 via Matador Records. Pre-order it here.