The master guitarist’s “good, short journey” to date bodes well for a celebrated musical career of the “long, strange trip” variety. Attention, heads: sonic alert!
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
Steve Gunn is not renowned for his words. He’s not without lyrical skill — a point proven with understated emphasis by Time Off, the Brooklyn guitarist’s new LP out June 18 on North Carolina’s esteemed Paradise Of Bachelors label. But, as these things often go, his other talents overshadow his efficient couplets and soothing croon. He’s a master of mood and a sonic shapeshifter, capable of splicing graceful Takoma-style picking with the bleary mysticism of Indian ragas or trapping explosions of free jazz melody in layers of savory psych-rock scuzz. His instrumental command is singular and enthralling, able to unlock redemptive beauty from within fuzz-fueled semi-cacophony or entrance entire concert halls with winding acoustic gems.
On Time Off, Gunn ups the songwriting ante, rounding out his already imposing skill set. In fact, at this point, he may be better than anyone else at summing up his hard-won niche.
“Toss out your loose ends, I’ll come and tie them down,” he offers on “Street Keeper,” his words emerging from an easygoing flow of charming acoustic loops and striding bass lines. “I know how to use them. It’s why I hang around.” His vocal — like his guitar — is hypnotic: low and rich, nearing a mumble, but only insofar as it goads closer listening. Taken as a credo, Gunn’s words encapsulate what he has managed to accomplish. He has a firm grasp on a wide array of musical roots, binding them together to form multifaceted folk-rock that’s as adventurous as it is innately accessible. Refining this power required years of patient toil.
“I just feel like I had a lot of work to do,” Gunn explains. He speaks over the phone, hiding from a spring storm under a New York City awning. Thunder crashes, cabs honk, and pedestrians shout. But none of this fazes Gunn. His responses are thoughtful and relaxed, much like his music.
“I put in a lot of time practicing, just on my own, working toward goals as far as being able to play certain things and being able to play in a certain style,” he continues. “I knew that I had to put in the time. When I finally ended up accepting offers for solo shows, I felt like I was ready. I felt like I was ready to put myself out there and kind of get a footing as far as doing that sort of thing. I’ve learned to really enjoy it, and it was a real challenge for me to perform solo. I really wanted to be ready and not come off as some sort of hack or someone that was just posturing.”
Gunn’s first solo show happened shortly before his move to New York in late 2001. He and a few of his musical pals served as the entertainment for a summer barbecue in his backyard. It was a low-key affair with little pressure saves for one daunting detail: The late Jack Rose, whose solo guitar pieces were instrumental in establishing the practice as a prominent form, was among the performers. Gunn was understandably intimidated, but he says that Rose was nothing but supportive, encouraging him to do it again, bringing it up again every time they ran into each other.
It was years before Gunn again played solo. He kept busy with other pursuits — most notably the heady psych outfit GHQ — and worked steadily at his craft. The positive response to a self-titled CD-R lured him back to solitary performance a few years later. By 2006, he was playing a few dates on his own. By 2007, two of his early throwaways were reissued, leading the Oklahoma-based imprint Digitalis Recordings to approach him about a proper full-length. The resulting Sundowner — an intimate and mystifying collection of meandering guitar tunes marked by Eastern ideas of melody — arrived in 2008. Gunn’s early pace was somewhat slow, but his effort paid dividends. It’s a work ethic he traces back to Rose.
“I’m constantly working at being a better player,” he says. “I’ve kind of taken that idea from Jack Rose as far as not being a lazy musician. There are certainly a lot of people who are. When you’re not, it’s kind of inevitable. I’ve always strived to be that way, not to be lazy about the music that I play. Maybe the fact that things have gotten more technical over the years is a reflection on that.”
True to his word, Gunn’s subsequent recordings find him incorporating an increasing variety of styles. 2009’s stunning Boerum Palace found him repurposing Sundowner’s ethereal tones as the creepy backbone for stark and menacing blues numbers (“Mr. Franklin”) and the basis for warming acoustic drone (“House of Knowledge,” which is also graced by flares of fiery psych-rock guitar). A pair of LPs recorded with drummer John Truscinski as the Gunn-Truscinski Duo reveal his taste for free jazz abandon and his wowing touch for heaviest distortion and mind-altering effects. Last year’s Ocean Parkway, their most recent offering, finds room for psych-blasted squall, patient blues buildup, and blistering, upper-register solos — and that’s just the first song.
Time Off builds on this experience, but it pushes Gunn’s eccentricities to the background, focusing on songcraft and opting for a loose folk-rock feel. His diverse supply of sounds and influences mark these songs in more subtle ways.
“At this point, I want to simplify things,” he says. “For some reason, I wanted to make things complicated. Now, I’m thinking that I need to find a middle ground. If I got any more complicated, I would be teetering on some kind of weird fusion jazz or something. I think I took it as far as it could go with my playing. I’ve had all these different things swirling around in my head. I’m trying to keep it that way.”
Recorded last summer with Truscinski on drums and Justin Tripp on bass, Time Off is Gunn’s first solo album to feature a full ensemble. Keying on the kind of rambling folk-rock made essential by The Band and others, these songs prove that he is influenced by the accessible as much as the arcane. With crisp acoustic patterns and swaggering riffs, the opening “Water Wheel” combines a carefree gait with intricate and interlocking melodies, hooking its prey easily and then trapping them within cozy confines. Like the rest of Time Off, it’s confident and compelling in a way Gunn simply wasn’t capable of a few years ago.
“This record was a long time coming,” he says. “A lot of the stuff that I made before was sort of understated in its musicianship and singing. Listening back to it now, it’s like, ‘Oh man, I’ve come so far since then.’ I’m really happy with how the record sounds, and I’m really confident with singing and playing in public and touring and being serious about it and shaking people down for money and telling people to be quiet, figuring out how to travel without losing my mind and how to be gracious and outgoing. It’s been kind of a good, short journey to this point.”