Steve Gunn: Introspective Guitar Seeker Discovers His Voice, Respects the Dead

"It's weirdly harder to go up and sing a rock-y song than it is to do some tricky picking thing."

Steve Gunn
Steve Gunn
David Marchese WRITTEN BY
David Marchese

Who: Steve Gunn owes his roommates. After graduating from high school, the singer-guitarist, who had spent his teens playing in punk and hardcore bands, moved out of his parents' home in suburban Philadelphia and into a house in the city proper. "I got a room in a place where all these record collectors and musicians were living," Gunn reminisces. "Through them, I discovered people like Sun Ra, Sandy Bull, and John Fahey. That started me on my trajectory to becoming the musician I am today. It was so important to be exposed to artists who were pushing the envelope."

Da Art of Storytellin': Now 36 and living in Brooklyn, Gunn pushes the envelope, too, in graceful, elliptical ways. Time Off (Paradise Bachelors), his third album and first recorded with backing musicians John Truscinski on drums and Justin Tripp on bass, flows confidently through ringing cosmic-country lopers ("Lurker"), hypnotic drones ("Trailways Ramble"), and cryptic folk-rock ("Water Wheel"). His biggest experiment, though, was Time Off's most approachable element. "Singing and telling stories in the lyrics was a big step forward on this album," Gunn says. "I felt like it was time to give it a shot, and I'm glad I did."

Attention Must Be Paid: Gunn plays guitar in the touring band of his Philly friend Kurt Vile, and this summer he'll be on the road supported by singer-songwriter Daughn Gibson. "It's been an interesting change," Gunn says about playing for audiences more eager to get buzzed than go gape-jawed at meditative guitar wizardry. "Since singing is still so new for me, I can lose my concentration really easily if the crowd is rowdy, way more than if I was just on acoustic guitar. It's weirdly harder to go up and sing a rock-y song than it is to do some tricky picking thing."

Jerry Picking: Free-jazz visionaries and folk mystics are fine conversational currency, but the Grateful Dead, Gunn notes, are a harder sell. "There was an expansiveness to what the Dead were doing that's not so different from 'cooler' musicians," he says. "They have a lot to offer, but it's still considered embarrassing to say you like that band." Still, Gunn is careful to add, "I'm not a nerd about them or anything."

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