Steve Gunn’s Sweet Escape

by Ariela Kozin

We speak to the former Kurt Vile-bandmate on the eve of a hefty North American tour

Toss aside your ever-growing list of chores and commitments. Get into the car and don’t turn back, at least for the weekend. Let the sun comb your hair with the window down so Steve Gunn's new compilation, "Eyes On The Lines," can guide you into the unknown.

Available now, Gunn's latest album reminds you that the same world that has Snapchat and Pokemon Go! also has twisting roads with forks, bridges over water, and most of all, freedom.

Quite like J.D. Salinger did in Catcher In The Rye, Gunn gives permission to abandon structured societal norms in exchange for meditation and exploration. On the album’s opener, “Ancient Jules,” Gunn advises, "take your time, ease up, look around, and waste the day."

Though, the simplicity of this album didn't come without years of life and musical practice. Gunn began mastering his craft 15-plus years ago and has since collaborated with Jack Rose, Tom Carter,  and most notably, Kurt Vile. At one point, Gunn even served as guitarist for fellow Philadelphia-bred musician Vile’s band the Violators.

In 2007, a combination of his love of jazz, blues and psych music inspired his first solo LP, Boerem Palace. The compilation revealed the true power of his voice and guitar, and so the solo releases continued with releases like the acclaimed Way Out Weather (2014). Similar to Eyes On The Lines, each album invites listeners on a uniquely rhythmic trip of introspection and discovery.

After experiencing Gunn’s transformative catalogue, we sat down with the artist to discuss his influences, his creative process, and what the next step of his journey will entail:

On Eyes On The Lines' opener, “Ancient Jules,” you sing, “take your time, ease up, look around, and waste the day." That way of thinking is laced throughout the entire album. Do you live by that mantra?

That line in the song, which is somewhat in jest, is about trying to hold on to a practical and relaxed perspective in the midst of a ‘so called’ crisis. I don’t live by that mantra all of the time, but I do try to remind myself that it’s not worth it to get so worked up about unimportant things. For me, and most people that i know, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the little things that will drive you mad. In the 'story' of the song, the character 'Ancient Jules' advises me and the band on what to do when we are lost, and our van has broken down. We called him up, and took his advice without panic. We took the day off to sleep in the park and wander around. We eventually get the van fixed later that day, and end up in Jules basement till sunrise —listening to records and his long winded but interesting stories.

I don't live by that ideology of ‘wasting the day’ all of the time of course, but I think Jules’s underlying message is important—that one should sometimes simply take it more easy than usual, and not get so strained over the superficial things.

This narrative of taking life as it comes reminds me of Jack Kerouac or even Walt Whitman. So many artists throughout the years have argued for a return to more relaxed living—in nature and away from cubicles. However, our society continues to insist that structure is the key to happiness.

Why do you think there is such a disparity between American art’s themes and the American Dream?

The great difference between American Art and the American Dream is that being artistic creates important statements, but it’s never been a secure way to live in this country. In America there is a real fear of not being secure or not having structure, which is understandable, and for a lot of people being committed to a full time American Style job is a way to maintain that secure sense of being.

I think it’s important as an artist to embrace the sense of the unknown and to commit time to their own vision, even if it’s a sacrifice. It’s often a scary prospect when you are trying to maintain that sense of security in a difficult time, in a different way. I think it’s especially important for creative people to forge ahead and proceed during these unhinged times.

I'd guess you wrote and produced this album on the road. Can you elaborate on how this album was created?

I conceived most of the songs for this album while I was traveling, but there is only so much you can do when you are on tour. It’s often really hard to get some time alone and get a perspective on work outside of the day to day touring whirlwind. For this album, I gathered everything from my travels and started working through most of it when I was at home - making demos and sharing ideas with the band.

I also rely on the fact that I have a great, intuitive group of musicians that play on the records. A lot of decisions regarding the songs are made by exchanging demos , combined with in the moment moves when we’re in the studio tracking.

How have you applied all your previous collaborations and work to this record?

I think everything that I’ve done up to now shows itself in the music in one way or another. I never work on something or play something that I forget (except the things I make an effort to forget). All of the playing that I have done is logged into what I do. I like to hold on the different aspects of what I do musically while working on songs, they become applicable in certain situations throughout the recording process.

All the steps you have taken in your career seem like such a natural progression. Was it always your goal to reach this point?

To be the rock-folk frontman? I never really had a set goal with the music, and everything that i’ve done has lead me to the point where I am at now. I never would have envisioned myself being a ‘folk rock frontman’ years ago, but I suppose it kind of slowly panned out that way. I’ve got a great band and we’re enjoying it.

In what sort of setting would you most like your fans to listen to Eyes On The Lines?

I really like the idea of people listening to the album when they are driving, or on a train. The album has a very propulsive quality to it, and I’d like to think that it would provide a nice listen while someone is moving through time and space somewhere out there.

You can hear the fusion of your appreciation for punk, folk, and jazz on this album. Are there any up-and-coming genre benders that you are especially excited about?

Right now I am currently listening to a new album by harpist Mary Lattimore and Koto player Maxwell August Cory called Terelan Canyon. It’s an improvised album, and the instruments blend beautifully. There is a really interesting mix of classical and experimental structures, traditional Harp, and Japanese Koto music. I’ve never heard these two instruments together, and there is a lovely interwoven dialog between them. It’s a perfect soundtrack to a rainy afternoon in NYC as I write this.

Do you have any plans following this tour?

Yes, I am approaching a bit of a much needed break now, and I am planning on doing some camping on the West Coast. After that I’m going to a secluded place down south to work on some new songs.