Steve Gunn | photo by Constance Mensh | courtesy of Matador Records
Interview: Philly native Steve Gunn talks Kurt Vile, Wawa, and new record Eyes on the Lines on Matador Records
For almost as long as I’ve been listening to music, Steve Gunn has been making it. The Lansdowne native first picked up a bass at age 13, and a guitar one year later. Since then, he’s morphed into one of the great—if underrated—American guitarists, capable of evoking a world of emotions, most of them breezy and warm, with a few nimble finger picks.
Over the past two-and-a-half decades, Gunn has done (nearly) it all. He started off playing hardcore punk in the Philly burbs, before discovering folk, alt-country, and classical Indian and Moroccan tunes. He played with the late finger-picking master Jack Rose, released two records with famed drummer John Truscinski, and even logged some time in Kurt Vile’s band, The Violators—all of which undoubtedly shaped his writing today. Since 2007, he’s released more than a dozen splits and solo records and has toured across the globe, sharing stages with the likes of Wilco, Vile, members of Sonic Youth, and more.
Early last year, he signed to Matador Records, who released his latest effort, Eyes on the Lines, this June. A dreamy, wandering record that seems made for road trips and Sunday mornings, Lines is arguably his best record yet, and his ticket to greater exposure.
These days, Gunn resides in Brooklyn, but this Saturday he’ll return to the City OBL, to celebrate Lines with a record release show at Union Transfer. Prior to the show, we rang up Gunn—to talk summers in Philly, touring with Wilco, and his fave spot to grab a hoagie when he’s back in his hometown.
The Key: So you live in Brooklyn now but grew up in Philadelphia. What was your favorite way to spend summers in Philly when you were young?
Steve Gunn: When I was a kid I hung out down the [Jersey] shore—I’d spent most of my summers down there.Mostly, we would go to Wildwood, plus Ocean City, Cape May—that whole area. My parents went there when they were kids and continue to spend summers down there to this day.
Otherwise, when I was a bit older and lived in the city—I lived all around Philly—West Philly, Northern Liberties—summers were just about being outside, wearing jean shorts, and drinking crappy beer [he laughs].
TK: That sounds about right. So having been a part of the Philly scene for many years, then away from it for just as long, and coming back now as a New Yorker, how do you think the Philadelphia scene has changed?
SG: I think it’s gotten a lot better. It was good when I was there but it’s grown a lot since I’ve left. There are a lot of awesome bands, cool venues, good studios…a lot happening now. It’s really cool.
TK: Any Philly bands in particular you’re into these days?
SG: There’s this band Spacin’ that I really love; they’re playing with us at Union Transfer [this weekend]. Those guys are great. Beyond that, there’s this girl from Philly named Rosali, who just released a new record called Out of Love on Siltbreeze Records—if you haven’t heard her yet, you should definitely check her out.
TK: So let’s talk about your new record for a sec. A lot of critics have noted, and I agree, that Eyes on the Lines has this sort of breezy, meandering feel. Did you deliberately set out to make a record with a particular feeling or theme, or did it just sort of happen?
SG: I think it’s a combination. All of the songs on the record I wrote on my own, and I definitely had some ideas I wanted to work on. But then in the studio, a lot of the songs were recorded pretty spontaneously, and stuff was thrown together. That’s not to say it was completely random—we all discussed things beforehand, and there were certain things we were going for—we wanted this record to be a little more upbeat, a little less meandering…
TK: Who is we?
SG: Me and the band and the engineer. The engineer is actually in the band; his name is Jason Meahger, and he owns a studio in New York called Black Dirt Studio. I recorded most of my albums there.
TK: So this was your first record with Matador. What about your process changed as a result of having a bigger label behind you?
SG: Working with a bigger label gave us a bit more time to work in the studio, which was nice; there was more of a level of opportunity than I had had in the past. Having more support was really helpful. Also, with this record the press has been all over it—they really do a great job getting the word out.
TK: So I’m guessing this is one of many interviews you’ve done?
SG: [laughs] I’ve done ton of interviews.
TK: You’ve spent a ton of time on the road these past few years—traveling all over the world, and sharing stages with big names like Wilco and members of Sonic Youth. How do you think all of these experiences have shaped your performing? What have you learned?
SG: I think playing with bigger bands is helpful because I can see how people operate on a bigger level. Getting to play larger and larger shows is exciting, but it’s also really intimidating playing bigger stages and to bigger crowds. It might seem like it’s easy to just go up there and do it, but it takes work to figure out even the little things, like how to set up your gear, et cetera.
The guys in Wilco were so helpful and friendly, and it was so cool getting to watch them do what they do every night—plus just getting to hang out with them, and pick their brains about performing, and gear, and being able to see how they work. They were all so willing to offer us advice. Getting to know those guys was a crazy opportunity for us on that tour.
TK: Being on the road for so long did you ever get burnt out?
SG: We had those moments for sure—but overall, the guys in the band all get along really well, and I love traveling, so I feel like I can never complain because I would sound like a brat. I could never be someone who is like, “Oh, I’m in Spain, and I’m tired.”I’m always just so psyched and grateful to be there and to have people listen to my music. I really love playing live every day, so it’s a routine I love getting into. I think it can be easy to burn out if you go hard all the time—the key is maintaining a balance: making sure you get enough sleep, and exercise, and not freaking out. There will always be difficult moments, but that’s part of the job. And at the end of the day, everyone is trying to work together.
TK: You used to play in Kurt Vile’s band, and have also toured with him. What is your favorite Kurt Vile memory?
SG: That’s a tough question, because I have lots of amazing memories of Kurt. I was always so impressed with him. One of my favorite memories though—hmm, let’s see. It was crazy because the first show I played with him [when we toured together] he was ending the show with a solo set, which I thought was such a bold and powerful thing to do; just coming out by himself at the end of a rock show. It just goes to show how good he is, holding a huge room of thousands captive with just an acoustic guitar. Being with him and seeing him do that was inspiring.
TK: It sounds like it! So let’s talk Philly a little more. When you visit Philly, where is your go-to spot for a beer or something to eat?
SG: Paesano’s on Girard Avenue is good stuff. I’m a vegetarian so I usually get their eggplant sandwich. My cousin also owns a restaurant in Philly, Jose Pistola’s, which is Spanish for “Joe Gunn,” which is his name. So I’ll probably be hanging out with him before my show on Saturday, eating some good food, then going to Union Transfer. I also always go to Wawa—I was addicted to it growing up and I love it still.
TK: So being a New Yorker now, I have to ask: do you still say hoagie?
SG: Of course! I’ll never stop saying hoagie.
TK: So I was looking at your tour schedule and it looks like you finally get a few weeks off in August. What are your plans for when you’re not on the road?
SG: I think I will probably just take it easy; maybe do some traveling without equipment which is something I’ve been looking forward to. I’m really into state parks in the U.S.—they are such incredible treasures of this country. I heard Yellowstone was just evacuated due to a volcano erupting, but there are a few others I want to visit.
TK: When you visit the parks, do you camp?
SG: I camp.
TK: Are you a tent guy or a trailer guy?
SG: I’m a tent guy—perhaps a tent guy who has a car close by. Car camping is sorta the suburban dream.
TK: Anything else you’d like to add?
SG: Just that I’m really looking forward to show. It will be good to be back in Philly and to see everyone.
TK: We can’t wait to see you!
Steve Gunn plays Union Transfer on Saturday, July 9th; tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.