When Clash walks through the door Steve Gunn looks completely at ease.
Seated in the reception of his hotel he – somewhat typically – has his guitar at his side. Fresh from hosting a show on NTS he’s playing an in-store in London later, and used a few spare moments to limber up his fingers in a quiet space in the hotel. It’s been a productive 12 months – he’s finished his excellent new album, while finding time to oversee a special project from British folk legend and long-time friend Michael Chapman.
But it hasn’t been all easy. At first Steve Gunn’s father fell ill, an experience that brought them closer to together. After his passing the guitarist withdrew, focussing on his work, and his gradual, decade-long manoeuvre from side-man and musician to frontman, singer, and songwriter. The result is his most focussed yet also most cryptic record yet, with ‘The Unseen In Between’ offering snapshots of wisdom amid those swirling guitars, at once steeped in the traditional while searching resolutely for the modern.
“Finally I’ve come around to this idea that songs are one thing,” he smiles. “Usually I would think about them separately, like the crazy guitar lick, with words fitting in on top, and then bring it together. But this time the way I was writing was different.”
“I approached it in a different way,” he continues. “I was going to my rehearsal space, and I would make time for myself. I was really trying to inspire myself by playing and singing at the same time, and coming up with songs in that way. Where before I was pulled in all different kinds of directions, trying to write things on the road. A little bit less sure of what was happening.”
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Struck by this sense of purpose, Steve Gunn opened up, allowing his band to influence the sessions, and the direction of the album. “It was the perfect alignment with everyone,” the guitarist comments. “I was trying to do something where it was more of a real session, where you’d go in with your songs, sing ‘em, and then the band plays behind you. That way of recording. In the past I was always slightly unsure, I’d be like: let’s do the vocals after this, we’ll get the guitar parts down. Piecing things together.”
“This one felt more relaxed, and I was able to get into it a little bit more and be myself. I had also been singing a lot so I felt like I wanted the record to be a little more vocal-forward. I was really concentrating on the words a bit more, and thinking about having that more significant within the structures.”
Joined by long-time producer James Elkington, the album also benefited from the experience of bass player Tony Garnier. A supple, vastly experienced musician, his work with Bob Dylan produced a slew of anecdotes, offering advice that rooted itself in the true meaning of each song. “We’re all Dylan freaks, so in between takes we’d be like school boys,” he laughs. “I think he was enjoying it as well! He told us some crazy stories.”
“His whole thing – to me – was just about being yourself, doing your own thing. Don’t worry about anything else. We’re here to play your song, so treat it as a song. Don’t over think it, don’t over-think your guitar parts, and don’t over-think your vocal parts.”
Keeping things simple, Steve Gunn joined his band to play live in the studio. “We mic’d everything with really nice microphones, so you go in the vocal booth, and sing the song, and we’ll have the band play along with you. Of course we did overdubs – we didn’t have a string section, initially – but for the most part it was tracked that way.” “Which was… once we got into it, it was pretty fun. It was like we were playing together as a band for the first time.”
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One of the key aspects of ‘The Unseen In Between’ is the growth of Steve Gunn as a lyricist. Characters pass through as in a screenplay, while the odd turn of phrase can both disguise and reveal. It’s a sign of his growing confidence, as well as his broadening influences in words almost as an instrument in their own right.
“Lyrically, I was editing a lot myself,” he recalls. “I had everything ready. I made some adjustments along the way, but lyrically I was being a bit more introspective. The lyrics were more personal.”
Granted time and space to fully access and distill his experiences, Steve Gunn has responded with a rich, mysterious, and fascinating record. It’s the sound of a songwriter straining, pursuing, and constantly revealing. “I think I pushed myself a little bit,” he explains. “It was a little bit cathartic, and therapeutic to do that. I was in a time and place where I felt like I had nothing to do but reflect on those things. This is a time where I had lost a loved one, I had been on the road for a year, I had hardly any time to be at home.”
The darkening of America’s political and social climate also struck home – not an overtly political record, ‘The Unseen In Between’ still taps into the “latent paranoia” as he terms it of living under Trump’s administration.
“Most of that stuff was personal as well,” he adds. “Which was new to me. Before, I was always taking a step back, like an outsider, observing other people and looking out towards the landscape or something else. And singing about those kinds of things. Where there was a certain sense of detachment from my ego and myself for a minute. This time, I don’t know… I felt like it was time for me to reflect a little more than before.”
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It was a move the band actively supported him in. Showing tremendous trust in those around him, Steve Gunn shared the most personal, poignant elements of the album in full. “It was really interesting because Tony (Garnier) got me to print out all the lyrics and give them to him while we were recording. It was really cool to watch him play because he was reading the words as he was playing along. He was making his own notes and things, doing his own charts. He was really focussed not only on the music but what I was saying.”
Aiming for feel over precision, ‘The Unseen In Between’ at times has a jazz-like looseness, with Steve Gunn’s meditative guitar patterns undulating out in ever-increasing circles, looping themselves around some of his most frank and beautiful material to date.
“With this one I wanted to reduce things, and keep things simple,” he nods. “Some of my favourite songs are very, very simple. Three chords. Like Dylan or the Velvet Underground. For me, it took me a long time to come around to that, and just to be able to do that – because it’s not easy – and I finally felt like I was able to simplify things a little more.”
“In the past I was always creating this web of guitar, and the vocals are on top of it. It’s like, yeah we’re both good guitar players, let’s rip it up on this song! Obviously there is some lead playing on this one, but I just wanted to let the songs breathe a little more.”-
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At one point Clash notes to Steve Gunn that ‘The Unseen In Between’ – much like his previous album – has nine songs on it. It’s a very concise tracklisting, and nine in numerology is a number of return – just like the blues, or his circular folk patterns, or the LP itself, the record is also returning, but forever finding itself in a different space.
“It’s interesting,” he comments. “I get asked a lot about my influences. As a young guitar player I was really informed by players like Davey Graham, Bert Jansch, Michael Chapman. People who were playing the blues, but also influenced by jazz, songwriting from folk traditions. All that stuff was super interesting to me.”
“But it was also fun to decipher what they were doing, because there were all these open tunings, elements of Spanish guitar, Indian classical stuff. All these different minor modes. To my ears, it was so engaging. It was awesome to discover that.”
“As a young guitar player, taking lessons, it was like: this is not what I want to do, I don’t want to learn how to play Van Halen licks. Of course I learned chord structures and stuff, but I wanted to do something different. Even bands like Sonic Youth, who were really pushing the limits of the instrument, I was like: woah, that’s where I want to be. Similarly, those guys were inventing things.”
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'The Unseen In Between' is out now on Matador.
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