Courtesy of the artist
Guitarist Steve Gunn's contribution to Three Lobed Recordings' 10-year anniversary box set bursts at the seams.
Guitarist Steve Gunn's contribution to Three Lobed Recordings' 10-year anniversary box set bursts at the seams. Courtesy of the artist
If you've ever made friends with a dyed-in-the-wool townie, you know just how rewarding that relationship can be. One of my favorites is Ort, a beer-loving, university-library-lurking Athens, Ga., resident I got to know years ago. If you give him an audience, his knowledge about obscure local history and rare 45s always makes for a long-winded earful, but it's worth the time. (The town's weekly paper, Flagpole, finally gave him his own column in 2009. I recommend starting with his incredibly detailed and delightful account of the March 31, 1973 tornado that hit Athens.)
Listening to the music of guitarist Steve Gunn feels much the same: It can be a laborious investment, but one with a big payoff. Take "The Lurker Extended," which appears on Three Lobed Recordings' 10th-anniversary, four-vinyl-LP box set, Not the Spaces You Know, But Between Them. It's a swirling, gorgeous 20-minute solo track dedicated to the long-time residents of Boerum Hill in Brooklyn. Gunn performs "The Lurker Extended" as a long-form folk song that wanders in meditative improvisation and then bursts at the seams with effusive energy that could only come out of an ignored "street lurker" given a voice and a loving ear.
In a phone interview with Gunn, we talked about not only his progression from a John Fahey-inspired fingerstyle guitarist to a singer-songwriter, but also his love of Grateful Dead bootlegs and the much-missed Jack Rose.
I hear so many different kinds of folk music throughout your discography — blues, psych, honky-tonk, American folk, Indian ragas. It all comes together somehow like patchwork. Even though there are songs in your work, "The Lurker Extended" is the most singer-songwriter-y piece I've heard from you. It actually reminds me of Roy Harper's 1971 album Stormcock, which I adore. Are you becoming more comfortable in a singer-songwriter style, even if that produces 20-minute acoustic epics?
I feel like I never wanted to aspire to be a singer-songwriter. It just sort of came naturally. I've been messing around with songs for a long time over recent years. It took me a long time to take the songs and stretch them out. I've been trying to get more comfortable [to let] improvisational aspects come into the songs. It's been a long time of playing songs to get to where they are now. To answer your questions, I am more comfortable with presenting songs, because I feel like I can play them the way that I wanted to.
Were there any particular singer-songwriters that you were inspired by to go in this direction?
You mentioned Roy Harper — he's one of my favorites, [along with] some of the British singer-songwriters from the '60s that came out of the London scene like Wizz Jones and Bert Jansch. And [then] someone who I've gotten to know, play shows with and become a friend of is Michael Chapman, who's recently had a resurgence in his career. He's been touring a lot, recording and meeting all kinds of people who were influenced by him, including myself. That scene is a big inspiration to me — they were incorporating some of the things I do now back then.
There's an earlier, shorter version of "The Lurker Extended," just called "The Lurker," on the digital-only release Live at the Night Light. How has the song expanded and grown since then? Take me through the process.
Originally, it was a shorter version, but I felt like it had sections. I felt like some of the sections weren't exactly short, songwriting-style parts, and that they needed to be fleshed out. It's sort of a combination of two different pieces — a guitar instrumental and songs — and I just decided to combine them and make a longer piece.
I've been playing it live for a while, and when [Three Lobed Recordings owner] Cory [Rayborn] asked me to do the box set. ... I had one side of an LP; I thought it was a great opportunity to continue [the song's] expansion. I wanted to document the thing as a whole. Along with the other pieces that I do, they're always expanding — I've been playing the same songs for a while now — and they're constantly changing. Even now, that particular piece, "The Lurker," is different than what it is on the compilation.
So one day we'll see "The Lurker Extended Plus"?
[Laughs.] In 10 years, I guess.
That said, what is the song about?
I live in Boerum Hill in Brooklyn. My girlfriend and I, we walk around the neighborhood and we meet a lot of people. There are a couple people that really fascinate us. They're long-time residents that have been in this neighborhood their whole lives. They're just these wanderers of the neighborhood, and we've gotten know them and hear their stories.
So... do they lurk?
[Laughs.] I guess the title has to do with how people perceive them. Over the past 10 years, our neighborhood has become pretty gentrified and pretty fancy. But then you still have all these folks who have been here all of their lives. Some of them don't work and they just kinda hang out. They may stand in one spot for a few hours and maybe talk to themselves or stare at everyone. I guess the perception of these people would be of a "lurker," a vagrant or something of that nature.
I want to talk about the electric guitar solo that appears in the middle of the song. There's a very breezy, outdoor-festival-ready quality to it. Are you a Deadhead?
I knew it!
I was actually listening to the [Grateful] Dead before you called.
Dick's Picks, Vol. 8.
So you're a hardcore, bootleg-collecting Deadhead.
Totally. I'm all about the bootlegs.
In college, my friends and I all discovered the same kinds of music around the same time — particularly, records from Three Lobed and Time-Lag. My friend Philip posited that eventually all of us were going to have a Deadhead phase. We had all resisted it, because all the Deadheads that we knew in college were dirty hippies.
I'm in the same bracket. I hated the Dead when I was in high school, basically because of that — all of the jocks and their Jeeps with the dancing-bear stickers. I never really heard any of the older stuff. It wasn't until college that I bought a live Grateful Dead album and I heard "Dark Star," and I was like, "Wait a second." I actually went to a few Dead concerts, but I wasn't a fan. I just hung out in the parking lot.
What are some of your favorite Grateful Dead bootlegs?
Everyone says that 5-8-77 is the greatest Dead show ever. Have you ever heard this?
No. Like I said, I'm still piecing through the music. It's only been in the last two years that I started my Dead phase.
I was always into the late-'60s/early-'70s stuff, but then I started listening to the Dick's Picks bootlegs. My favorite ones are Vol. 1, which is from Tampa, Fla., and I believe it's 1974. [It's 1973. —Ed.] I really like this one, because Donna [Jean Godchaux], the woman who sings backup... I wasn't a big fan, and she was having a baby that day. So she's not on the bootleg. And there's only one drummer, Bill Kreutzmann.
And my other favorite one is Dick's Picks, Vol. 8, which was recorded 1970 in Binghamton. This is my all-time favorite Dead recording. It was recorded on May 2, 1970. It's a three-CD set, and they go through an acoustic thing, then on disc two they get cooking, and then on the third disc — that third set is my favorite Dead stuff.
My No. 3 is Dick's Picks, Vol. 10, which is Winterland Arena, 1977.
You've done a number of releases under a few different names with Three Lobed Recordings, including GHQ and the Gunn-Truscinski Duo. What's your relationship with the label?
I had done some smaller-label, limited-edition CDs with some solo music, and [label head Cory Rayborn] had asked me if I wanted do a solo album. It took me a while to put it together, but it's called Boerum Palace. Cory's been a good friend and a great supporter of mine. It's been really great working with him, because he's so organized and it's really a labor of love for him. He's very dedicated and he gives [the artists on his label] all of the freedom that they want. It's all around a good situation. I've worked with so many different small labels, and sometimes communication is difficult. Getting things done can be such a hassle, and some people just drop off and you don't hear from them for months and months. But Cory's always been on top of it. I'm looking forward to keep working with him in the future.
What's your favorite Three Lobed Recording?
He did a Jack Rose record called I Do Play Rock and Roll. That was an awesome record for him and for Jack. It was at a point where Jack was stepping into a different realm as a player. There's a piece on there called "Sundogs." It's different than what you'd kind of expect from a Jack Rose recording, but it's really powerful. I've actually seen him perform that piece alongside my friend Marc Orleans. I always thought it was a bold move by him. It hearkens back to his days to his days in Pelt.
That's one of my personal favorites from Jack Rose's catalog, too. What he did on his short time on Earth is not only this noise and drone music, but he also re-invigorated an interest in acoustic guitar music. He did for me. To have him do a long drone piece alongside the more "conventional" acoustic guitar music was kind of mind-blowing at the time. People didn't think of those musics on the same level. I think that's why people thought so highly of Jack Rose. Like John Fahey, he envisioned all of this exploratory music as one thing.
It's true. And that particular piece was a statement. It's a good example of how he was as a person because, you're right, he was a purist as a player, but was also an appreciator. He was into people who were real about what they were doing. He could tell right away who was putting themselves into the music. It was not so much about technicality; it was about the spirit of the music. He would walk into a show and see someone playing any kind of music and would have an opinion about it, which was always something that I valued.
He also — as you said, he was the reason why you got into that type of playing. It's the same for me. I grew up in Philly, and he was a little bit older than me, and he was in Pelt. I got to know Jack — he worked at the same market in Philly. He worked at the coffee shop; I worked at the ice cream place. Then he lost his job and he started woodshedding with his playing. He actually played a show at my house, in my backyard, and I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that he turned that corner. His dedication, seriousness and level of expertise — and not even just the playing, just the kind of person he was and how he conducted himself and presented his music. He didn't take any crap from anyone. He definitely was a huge inspiration to me and a friend. He had a lot of supportive things to say to me and it really meant a lot.
Not the Spaces You Know, But Between Them comes out sometime in July on Three Lobed Recordings. The four-vinyl-LP box set includes exclusive material from Sonic Youth, Eternal Tapestry, Bardo Pond, Comets on Fire, Mouthus, D. Charles Speer & The Helix, Wooden Wand and Sun City Girls.