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From Turkey to Tulsa

Steve Gunn on The Unseen in Between



Steve Gunn performs on Oct. 20 at Duet Jazz.

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It’s easy to label an artist’s sound, but harder to pin down the feelings it provokes. To this end, Steve Gunn’s music takes listeners “out past the streets, beyond the weather / to that place no one seems to know.” That line comes from “New Moon,” the opening track on Gunn’s latest, The Unseen in Between, which feels more mature and refined than his half-dozen earlier solo releases. Known for innovative guitar-driven work—as both a solo performer and guitarist in Kurt Vile’s backup band, The Violators—the new album from the Brooklyn-based artist also brings his talents as a lyricist to the forefront. 

Following a break from touring, Gunn is hitting the road again to play a solo show in Tulsa on Oct. 20 at Duet Jazz Club. Hosted by the Bob Dylan Center, the performance will also be accompanied by a Q&A. 

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Mason Whitehorn Powell: You just finished up a European tour. How was that experience?

Steve Gunn: It was great. I was in Europe for about a month. I played with a band and some of the musicians live over there and we did almost five weeks, and then I went to Turkey as well at the end and played a solo concert in Istanbul, which was a highlight. 

Powell: Tell me about your writing process. How did The Unseen in Between come about?

Gunn: Almost three years ago, at this point, I started writing it. I had been on the road for a number of years and I don’t want to sound too cliché, but I was off of the road and had a crazy year. My father passed away, and Trump got elected and he had been about a year in office. I had some things to say. I was feeling pretty introspective, more introspective than before. I think a lot of the basics of my songwriting really comes from storytelling and characters. I was always sort of avoiding being overly personal, and I think with this album I looked a little more inward than before and offered up some personal feelings just because I felt more comfortable as a musician and performer too. It’s just what I was going through in my life. I also gave myself some time with these songs, which was also a new thing …

I hooked up with Tony Garnier, who plays with [Bob] Dylan, kind of randomly, and I asked him if he wanted to play on the record and he agreed to it. … I think he wasn’t sure what he was getting into, but when I started showing him the songs, he became very interested, and that was really pleasing to me and I think he became invested in the album. He really helped guide 
the session.

Powell: Tony’s not just Dylan’s bass player but also his musical director. Do you think that influenced how these new songs came together and how the session went?

Gunn: One thing that was really exciting is I’m a huge Dylan fan—also the engineer, Daniel, who runs this studio called Strange Weather, we’re both Dylan freaks. The fact that Tony was in there, we were kind of freaking out. And then when I met him, he just seemed so open and warm and he was like that during the whole session. For us, just to talk to him about his experiences and about some of the sessions that he’s been in and some of the stuff he’s been through on the road—just listening to his stories—also [what he] offered my music. My music isn’t your typical songwriting; he was really interested in my approach. I keep it pretty open-ended. I come up with these strange formations and weird measures. Also, my lyrics can be pretty abstract. I think he was really interested in what we were doing. I think he lent his experience to us, so he certainly did, and he taught me a lot. … He was really listening to everything, almost like playing the bass along with the signing, which gave it this sort of interesting sense of melody, something I never really had achieved before. 

Powell: It’s interesting to hear you say that, because I thought there was a different sound on this album compared to your earlier releases. It has a cohesiveness that stands out.

Gunn: I agree. You know, we’re talking about Tony and the fact that being in a room with him recording gave me and the band this different sense of being present. And I think that before, making records, I was really worried about the music and I would often just sing over top of all of it—I think there’s a disconnect there. With this album I was encouraged to play and sing at the same time, and that’s what I did. Every song I’m just in the room with my guitar playing and singing. I really didn’t do any alternate takes or comping of vocals or anything. It’s all just us playing live. I think that way of working is something I’ll continue doing.  

Powell: In 2003, you worked on a Sol LeWitt wall drawing, and on the new album you have songs that pay homage to Walter De Maria and Agnès Varda. How have other art forms influenced your music? 

Gunn: You know, those kinds of art forms—cinema, painting, use of language—those are always sources of inspiration to me. I kind of had a good education working in the arts in the early 2000s and I met a lot of artists and got to work with a lot of artists. To me, knowing a few of them personally but also knowing their work ethics and work ethos and philosophical ideas about life in general … really informed my ideas about music and my ideas about putting words together and trying to express visual snapshots of things. 

I did go to film school and I worked at a video store—basically it was kind of like [a version of] Kim’s Underground in Philadelphia. It was called the Video Library. That was an education in itself. I watched so many different movies and just absorbed all these different genres of cinema, and I still appreciate cinema quite a bit. 

Powell: What music is influencing you right now?

Gunn: I was just in Turkey and I heard a lot of different kinds of Turkish music, a lot of folk music, and also a lot of current music. There was this band [Insanlar] that was mixing genres—they were almost kind of doing electronic music but playing traditional music over top of it. Almost like a hybrid of electronic and world music. That’s what I’ve been listening to since I’ve been home.

Powell: What’s next for you? Are you working on a new album right now? 

Gunn: Yeah, I am! I’m actually in my rehearsal space right now. I’m working on writing new songs. I recently recorded a film soundtrack for an Andy Warhol movie that I performed with Kim Gordon and Bill Nace [Body/Head] and this drummer John Truscinski. We recorded this soundtrack to one of Andy Warhol’s screen tests—the name of it is “Kiss.” We screened the film and did this hour-long soundtrack. And we recorded an album that was released by the Warhol Foundation and we’re gonna be playing a few festivals next year. A bunch of different festivals, which I’m looking forward to. But right now, I’m at home. I’m leaving for tour in a couple weeks but I’m at home writing in my rehearsal space thinking about the next album. 

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The Bob Dylan Center Presents Steve Gunn 
Duet Jazz, 108 N. Detroit Ave.
Sunday, Oct. 20, 6:30 p.m., $10 

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