Steve Gunn on instrumental vs. lyrical songwriting for Time Off, shaking the habit of “shy singing,” and meeting ODB in the parking lot of Grateful Dead show.
Steve Gunn is in a particularly good mood today for two reasons. Firstly, his second “songwriter” record, Time Off, recently debuted to particularly glowing reviews, bolstered by his celebrated cameos opening for and playing with Kurt Vile and the Violaters, and secondly, we’re at one of his favorite Polish restaurants, Lomzynianka, on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint. Like his music, he’s low-key and gracious, taking time to carefully answer each of my questions. Time Off is the kind of record that patiently waits for you to catch up to it, and when you eventually do, it creeps into your consciousness, due to his evocative six-string work as much as the meditative tone the record sustains throughout. Steve and I sat down over pierogies—boiled and fried—to discuss square dances in Virginia, his songwriting process, and the unlikely similarities between the Wu-Tang Clan and the Grateful Dead.
Gary Canino So you grew up in the suburbs in Pennsylvania?
Steve Gunn Yeah, it’s a Western suburb of Philly, probably ten miles out. It’s called Lansdowne and it’s part of Upper Darby.
GC Your record comes out tomorrow.
SG Yeah, it’s been a long time coming.
GC Some of those songs are pretty old, right? “Lurker” is a couple of years old?
SG Yeah, I’ve played that one solo a bunch, and then I always knew when I first came up with it that it was going to be a band song, but it took this long to kind of get that on the road. To get it to come around full circle and be able to play it with a band, you know?
GC And there are different recorded versions of it out there too.
SG Yeah, the first recording of it came out on this box set in 2011. The box set was for this label called Three Lobed Records, and it was this big ambitious release. When Cory [Rayborn, owner] asked me to do it, I had basically already started to come up with this song, and so I recorded my first real version of it. That version is a whole LP side. So I really stretched it out then, but over time, I condensed it.
GC How do you feel about these different versions of songs that are all different lengths? Do you ever like one version more than the other?
SG No, I think I’m done with the LP-side length version now. It was sort of turning into something else anyway, you know? I’m glad it exists, it’s nice to write longer stuff, but at this point, I’m really into writing new stuff. Now that I have this record out of the way, I’m just trying to keep the momentum going, and to keep playing and keep coming up with stuff. I’m even trying to get back in the studio soon.
It’s strange because we’ve already played the songs on the record for such a long time, but the record is just out now, so we’re going to have to play them a bunch more. It’s fine though; we kind of approach them differently sometimes, or try to keep it so that it doesn’t get stale—expanding certain parts and all that stuff.
GC I guess at this point I have to bring up the Grateful Dead, who are known more than anything for that. I’ve finally gotten really into them recently.
SG Yeah, you made the switch?
GC (laughter) Well, you know, growing up, I only knew the culture, and sort of fell into blindly hating them without actually knowing any of their music…
SG Yeah, I mean, I was never, I was really sort of against it in high school particularly. I got into them in like early college, but I didn’t know their older stuff, you know? I was only exposed to them through my town’s Jeep Jocks, you know? They were always blasting the Dead. I remember only being able to hear the tinny noodling coming out of their Jeep sound systems. (laughter) So I wasn’t into it.
GC How did you come around?
SG I remember I picked up this one record of theirs, and it had live and studio stuff on it, but there was this version of “Dark Star,” and that was the first time I had ever heard that song, and I remember thinking, “This music is crazy.”
So then I kind of got into them more. My favorite is the live stuff, kind of nerding out on the different bootlegs. You can get really deep into it. There’s like some serious Heads that know all the instrumentation—what Jerry was playing at what time, when the Wall of Sound was up, when it came down, like all the details of the inner kind of drama of the band.
GC I was reading about Keith Godchaux earlier. He was only 32 when he died, which was surprising. But near the end of his life, I read that his playing had really deteriorated, and he started purposefully imitating Jerry’s lead lines all the time, and it would make Jerry crazy.
SG Oh shit. And I didn’t know he was so young when he died, wow.
Yeah, and there’s also that whole parking lot scene. Thousands of people in the parking lot, flailing around and doing their thing, and then you have the people leeching off that, bootleggers, people selling drugs and whippets. My friend actually met ODB at one of these things.
SG Yeah! He met ODB in one of those hip-hop, tape shops. Basically, the Dead were in town, and it may have been the same show that I went to with this friend of mine, but apparently ODB was talking about Jerry Garcia and how he wanted to be like him, he kept saying, “I want to have that shit.” Just talking about the culture and the parking lots and all that. I think he wanted the Wu-Tang symbol to be a real cult following like the Dead. It’s pretty funny that he made that reference.
GC I’ve read that you’re a big hip-hop fan. Was Wu-Tang one of your early influences?
SG Absolutely. I just love their references, those old TV shows and all that. I actually just saw their 20th anniversary show at Coachella. I was pretty starstruck. I somehow managed to jump up on the side of the stage with my buddy Jesse from the Violators, and together we watched the Wu-Tang Clan with 20,000 other people.
I remember seeing Ghostface live just after ODB died, and I noticed a bunch of Wu-Tang members hanging around the show, and they all came out and did a bunch of old Wu Tang songs, and a couple of ODB songs too. It was the best rap concert I’ve ever seen.
GC Was Coachella the biggest crowd you’ve ever played to?
SG Yeah, except for Kurt’s hometown Philly show. Coachella was crazy, I’d never played a festival like that before, so it was intense. They pick up your gear and take you in a golf cart to the stage. It’s intense.
GC That sounds like CSNY at Woodstock.
SG (laughter) Yeah, basically. It was fun.
GC I like how the last song on Time Off, “Trailways Ramble,” is instrumental. What was the idea of including one instrumental on an album where you sing on every other song?
SG That was the first song my band and I were trying out for this record. Originally, I did that piece solo, and it was kind of boring: it’s really repetitive, and it kind of builds up and it’s droney and I was never really that happy with it, but I always wanted to try to have a rhythm section behind it to kind of flush it out more. So when we tried it, it sounded really cool, and since it’s nice when bands can do that with an instrumental song, I felt like it was worth trying.
GC Since you have so many songs that are instrumental, how do you decide whether or not to add vocals to it?
SG Well the stuff I’ve been coming up with recently is all vocal-based. The instrumental stuff is going to be a little bit looser because the stuff that I’m kind of trying to come up now with is more songwriterey. Not so much with lyric lyrics, but just ideas of songs and how it’s going to work. And the instrumental stuff is always a little more spontaneous, you know?
GC Is your guitar playing more complicated when you have an instrumental song because you don’t have to focus on singing?
SG Not necessarily, because I try not to get too wanky or proggy about it, and I think almost all the stuff I do is cyclical and not too technical: I’m not jumping between modes and all that kind of crap. It might be more complicated, obviously, because not singing might allow me to do certain things I probably couldn’t do if I were singing, you know? I just try to mix it up.
If I’m doing instrumental stuff, it might be a little more unhinged, you know, a little wilder, a little more meat to it. But nothing too crazy.
GC Back to “Trailways Ramble,” do you think it could ever work the other way around, like could you put a song with vocals on an instrumental album? Do you think it would stick out too much?
SG No, I think it could work. It depends though, because usually when I come up with the instrumental stuff, it’s only sort of really small ideas that just come into form by playing it over and over again. Recently, all the instrumental stuff I did was with the drummer that I play with, John Trucinski, and he and I would just come up with these sort of melodies or ideas of what we wanted it to sound like, and we would just play through them.
Whereas with the song stuff, it’s a little bit different. It’s kind of more planned out, with parts and changes. But with the instrumental stuff, it’s more of just a free-flowing kind of thing.
I guess if I took the instrumental pieces and decided on a new approach, I could maybe turn them into songs, which maybe I should do to have more [songs]. (laughter). But then you’d hear this weirdo singing over it. That’s kind of cheating, I guess. Every guitarist sort of has their own style, and sometimes I’m in this one zone where I can weave in and out of some of the stuff that I’ve done before, old songs kind of creep into the other ones sometimes. And that’s okay, but it also sort of blends together at points.
GC Would you say you do more overdubs on the instrumental stuff, or songs with singing?
SG I mean everything I do is pretty minimal, overdub-wise.
GC Do you do vocals live too, or are those overdubbed?
SG It depends. On some of them, it’s kind of half and half. On some of the songs, I realized I was compensating with the sound, like if I can’t really hear myself in a live room I can kind of get into this like Eddie Vedder yowling kind of thing, which is just me making up for not being able to hear, because I don’t really sing very loudly. If certain things weren’t really working, we would have to do the vocals after. we would try to do the vocals straight after, so that it was still in the process.
GC In another interview you mentioned you were trying to overcome “shy singing.” How did you manage that?
SG Well, I had been playing solo for a long time before I realized that I needed to project my voice a little more. When I started playing with a band, I didn’t have a choice. Sometimes you need to hear “your vocals aren’t loud enough” from someone else, so I just kept working on it, and it really developed in our rehearsal space. We have a PA in there, and I just made sure as I was listening back to practice tapes that the vocals weren’t in the background or too hushed. It still sort of is kind of mumbly on the record, but it’s something that I’m working on and trying to get away from. It’s a long journey, because I’m not a natural singer. Some people can really sing, you know? And then you realize like, “Oh, they were in choir and they have experience with their family’s lineage of folk musicians,” and they grow up being able to sing and knowing what to do and how to do it. I never knew how to do it. I just kept trying it and seeing what worked and what didn’t.
GC It must’ve been interesting being on tour with Kurt Vile and Angel Olsen because the three of you have very different singing styles.
SG Yeah. I feel like whenever I see someone sing like Angel, I’m feel like I’m totally the guy who can’t sing (laughter), you know? So maybe on that trip, I was that guy, you know? And Kurt has such an awesome and distinctive voice, too. But in regards to my singing, I’m still trying to get away from that monotone, gruff thing that I sometimes tend to do in practice.
GC Like Eddie Vedder.
SG Yeah. (laughter) I mean, no diss to him, it’s just not my style. Maybe I meant more like like Creed. (laughter) But [Vedder] sort of started that and then Creed took the cue from him I guess.
GC Yeah, it is unfortunate how many horrible bands you can trace back to Vedder. He can’t be too happy about that.
SG No, but he made that ukulele record so he should be fine.
I’m sure he’s living in Hawaii, surfing or something, so, yeah, he’s not doing bad at all.
GC Yeah. I know you’re a big fan of Jack Rose, right? I went to school down in Virginia for a couple years actually.
SG Yeah. I was just down in Blacksburg actually. The guys that Jack played with in Pelt started this band called the Black Twig Pickers, and I’ve recorded a bunch with them, and I also recorded a duo record with Mike Gangloff. We just recorded an instrumental album right outside of Blacksburg.
GC Blacksburg’s interesting. It’s a lot different than the other places in central Virginia I’ve been. I was in marching band my first year at UVA, and we travelled to Virginia Tech to play the big UVA / Tech game. As soon as you get into town, there are just cows everywhere.
SG There’s a country store there in Floyd, Virginia, just outside of Blacksburg, that has these dances where musicians go in and play these super long square dances, and hundreds of people would show up. But yeah, the music scene there is interesting. A lot of old-timey, bluegrass stuff.
GC I know you’re a big fan of Moby Grape too?
SG Yeah. That’s a fact. That Skip Spence solo record is probably my favorite to come from them though. He played drums in Jefferson Airplane, and then he played guitar/wrote songs in Moby Grape.
GC And then he chopped down his band mate’s door with an axe.
SG Yeah, and then he drove away on a motorcycle.
GC Do you think that kind of mythology can exist anymore?
SG No, I guess not. Well, sort of, but it’s usually not true. And who knows if that’s even true with him.
GC It’s a shame that that’s the only record he made.
SG Yeah, yeah. I mean, he just kind of dropped off after that, and finally resurfaced 20 years later…
GC The long instrumental songs on that album have a weird vibe to them.
SG Yeah, I know what you mean, “Grey/Afro.” He played everything on that record, too.
Courtney Melody & a young Ghost 1988 (live)
A summer dream of a great party. Worth it for the hype man alone, but when the kids come in it’s sweetly maniacal.
Derdiyoklar Ikilisi 1984
Turkish rocker dudes who lived in Germany. They were soon to dive into the disco craze, but this obviously predates that.
Captain Beefheart “I’m Gonna Boogiarize You Baby”
This era of the Magic Band was the most badass band that ever was.
Thai guys. I hope to someday achieve this level of shirtless jamming.
Pandit Kumar Bose at Darbar Festival 2006
Kumar Bose is the most unbelievable tabla player I have ever seen. His accompanist here is the Sarangi master Ramesh Misra. The Sarangi is probably one of the most difficult instruments to play in Indian classical music, it’s basically a rectangle box with tons of strings that seems like yarn. This guy is a legend and lives in Jackson Heights, Queens. He’s played with all of the masters. I have had the pleasure of seeing him play numerous times over the years.
Jerry Garcia Band 3-17-78 Capitol Theatre Passaic, NJ
JGB 3/17/78 New Jersey. They start of with my favorite Jerry song ‘Mission in the Rain,’ one of the saddest songs he’s ever done. You can hear the Persian Ghosts in his loose voice.
AĞDAM TOYU RƏMİŞ 16.11.1991
In the hottest days of the summer I’m dreaming of a hang like this.
Gary Canino is a writer and musician based in New York City.