On his records, Steve Gunn sounds like a grizzled 68-year-old drifter. In person, however, he’s someone you might accidentally walk past, as I did, even when looking for him. As I apologize to an older, bearded (confused-looking) man for arriving late to our interview, Gunn, fresh-faced, mild, and sitting ten feet away, hails me meekly. With his trucker hat, denim jacket, and boyish face, I mistook him for a barista on break. “I can look kind of like a substitute teacher sometimes,” he acknowledges, as I settle in next to him. “My presence isn’t very ‘dude-in-a-band.’”
Nonetheless, Gunn has recently made the leap, after a lifetime working odd jobs, into full-time musicianship. Way Out Weather, his newest record, builds on the sound he established on 2013′s Time Off — a resonant and melancholy take on folk rock, tinged with an oblique sense of loss. A veteran guitar player who has spent years making freer, improvisatory music, he has done a stretch as Kurt Vile‘s sideman, and his new music feels touched by a similar grace.
He has been embraced by many of the pillars of the folk-rock scene he grew up idolizing. He recently toured with ’70s cult folkie Michael Chapman and collaborated with the similarly revered Mike Cooper — “It’s funny, I’m on the road with people who are older than my parents,” he says, laughing. That said, Gunn’s two solo records have made him something of a flagship artist for the North Carolina-based label, Paradise of Bachelors, that signed him. He tours constantly, only stopping off for a few days at his apartment before he’s called back out.
Even though he moved to New York weeks after 9/11 and has been here ever since, he’s unwilling to fully adopt it: “I always tell people I’m from Philadelphia, because I still identify as ‘from there,’” he says. As we talk he gazes around abstractedly — it seems possible, during our conversation, that he will stand up mid-sentence and decide return to Philadelphia for good. Even in the open air, he speaks like he might upset a nearby study group.
This contingent, almost-here sense permeates everything Gunn says and does. He is a strange mix of fidgety and placid. “I would never think to myself, ‘Now I’m a full-time musician!’” he says. He prefers to call his current fruitful moment “a sabbatical.” “A lot of the other work that I do, I could make some calls and do some jobs, get right back into it,” he says.
Gunn’s music is similarly elusive, a mix of the quiet and the quicksilver. Its virtues are both simple to grasp — it’s pretty, warm, and rich — and tough to pinpoint. To say that Gunn plays folk-rock is true, but it doesn’t do much to explain why he’s interesting. For that, you have to get a little more theoretical. Brendan Greaves, who runs Paradise of Bachelors with Christopher Smith, resorts to SAT-2 prep language: Gunn’s songwriting is “precisely articulated and distinctly helical,” he says. Mike Cooper, whose seminal jazz/folk fusion records Trout Steel, Places I Know and The Machine Gun Co. were reissued by Paradise of Bachelors this year, sends along a similarly gnomic assessment to me via email: “Steve reminds me of myself in some ways when I was his age. Hitching a ride on the ferry boats of musical opportunity just for the pure enjoyment, or maybe to see where they might take him on these rivers and oceans of sound.”
Smith, a childhood friend, has a firmer bead on Gunn. He has watched Gunn evolve from a punk kid in Philadelphia playing in hardcore bands to his time as an experimental improvisatory guitarist to his current sound. “The first time I remember him playing was in a shoddy hardcore band when he was maybe 14, likely younger,” he says. “I can sort of pinpoint a time we lived together in the mid-1990s [when Gunn began exploring folk-rock]. We were so deep into records and music, living with some older guys and just getting turned on left and right. I remember Steve just sitting in his room for hours playing a guitar. It was always good, but the next time you heard the sounds coming from the room they were even better than before. He was absorbing so much Fahey, John Martyn, Sun City Girls and every stripe of free jazz.”
Way Out Weather is the moment where every note Gunn has ever played in his career coheres. The influence of Cooper, whose expansive early records sought a fusion of country blues, folk and free jazz, is palpable. The album brims with confidence, unfurling over 7-minute tracks that pull every sound he’s worked with in toward an oceanic center, the guitars, pianos, harps and banjos and organs all moving in even swells. The music is like a sea breeze through an empty house.
The title itself hints at the climate changes that disturbed Gunn as he toured for Time Off last year. His lyrics hint at elemental changes and geological shifts, but there isn’t a single line that pegs it as “topical” or “political.” As an artist, Gunn doesn’t work or think in concrete terms. For him, weather is simply a timeless poetic constant, something humans do not control but comment on, using as a way to triangulate their relationships with other humans. “It’s something we all have an opinion on,” he says. “And it affects all of us.”
But the ruminations on the majesty of nature are interrupted by a persistent bee that won’t leave our muffin plates alone. Gunn swats wildly at it, leaping around in a highly unexpected bit of physical comedy. “I hate bees, man,” he says, with surprising vehemence. “They’re angry right now, too, because it’s fall and it’s getting colder.” The bee is disruptive enough to his composure that we relocate to his apartment nearby. It is my only dim clue in several hours that Gunn is, in fact, a New Yorker.
Resettling in the backyard of his apartment building, which is overrun by plants, Gunn reflects on his relationship to the city, which provided much of the inspiration Time Off. “There was a guy in my old neighborhood who was sort of a self-appointed captain, a sort of one-man Safety Watch, and I was fascinated by him,” he says. “And most people didn’t even notice that he was doing any kind of work for the neighborhood at all. I watched him kind of get forgotten as the neighborhood changed. That perspective is as interesting to me as anyone who is getting more attention.”
Gunn is attuned to the mixture of old New York and new: The characters and figures that become consigned to local color when the new neighbors move in. That kind of observation is intrinsic to Gunn, who can’t help but see the world along the invisible fault lines that group and separate people. “All my favorite literature and poetry is observational, not personal,” he says. “I think that’s kind of a selfish endeavor.”
“You spend enough time in New York and you meet people whose lives blow your mind,” he says. As an art mover, Gunn once worked at a gallery that had a lot of Picasso, and recalls handling a piece worth somewhere between $20-30 million. “I’ve been in a lot of celebrity homes,” he says. “I’ve met a lot of insanely rich people — all kinds of actors and maniacs — where you suddenly realize that there’s, like, a team living in some secluded hallway or lower-level of the home that are constantly working for the family.”
“I also went into all these buildings up on Park Ave and the Upper West Side — some of the most expensive real estate in the city. And for us, we can’t go through the front door to deliver the art — it’s all service elevators and service-industry secret portals. So, we’d always go through the back and you’d see this labyrinth — the soft underbelly of that world. It’s crazy how many people help the daily routines of those people’s lives.”
It is this quiet, persistent class consciousness that radiates from everything Gunn says. “Some of the elevator operators in those buildings are pretty incredible people,” he says. “These guys with their old Mets newspaper clippings posted on their transistor radios, sitting in that plastic chair, and they just fucking work the elevator all day. It’s such an old, antiquated trade, but it still exists. It’s such a strange combination: You have all these really interesting people who are working in these buildings that have probably been there for a long time, and then you have the working people that pass through all the time. The elevator operators are kind of the node where those two worlds meet. And of course, we’re delivering stuff that’s highly valuable, but something so profound shifts when you cross over the threshold into their homes.”
Gunn speaks of this time with his trademark gentle illumination, and there are parallels between this work and the music he makes. Art-moving requires extreme mindfulness and patience. It also requires a comfort with the margins, an ability to make yourself invisible, or to be unperturbed by your sudden in invisibility, to the people you work for.”You can’t really also have an ambitious attitude,” he says. “You have to let the clients say whatever they want, even if it’s wrong. They’ll say, ‘Can you do it this way?’ And the answer is always ‘Sure!’ But then you just do it your way when they turn around and they don’t notice.”
It’s odd, then, that Gunn is finding solo success as “Steve Gunn,” fronting a band that bears his name. He is congenitally modest. I ask him if there was a moment, in the last two years, where he felt truly successful and allowed himself to be simply proud of himself. “After a show with Michael [Chapman], we’d had a few beers and he turned to me and said to me ‘You’re a great guitar player,” Gunn remembers. “He had no good reason to say that — [but] if Michael says it, it’s true. To hear someone I admired so much, a hero of mine, really, say that —” he stops. “That felt good.”