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Five Minutes with Steve Gunn

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I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Gunn (Matador / Paradise of Bachelors) on the ins-and-outs of what influenced his sound today, playing his first concert at age fifteen, and meeting Danzig.

Enjoy the rest.

By Stephanie Nicole Smith


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Where did you grow up and how did that influence your taste in music?

I grew up in Lansdowne, PA, a small western suburb of Philadelphia. It's the first suburban area just outside of the city, so when I was old enough, I'd take the train downtown to see bands or check the record stores.

My parents were heavily into soul, R&B, and rock and roll when they were young. Philadelphia was booming in the ‘60s musically. This is the generation of American Bandstand, The Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War, and music played an important role in most people’s lives who were living through these times. The love of music that my parents had, filtered down to me as child. There was always music playing in the car and around the house.

There was also (and still is) really great radio in Philadelphia—with DJ's like the incomparable Jerry Blavat, who is the encyclopedia for early soul, rock, and R&B. He still DJ's to this day (in his 77th year), and has a radio show, “Geator Gold Radio,” that is just phenomenal. I suggest checking it out

I expressed interest in playing guitar at an early age, and my parents were very supportive. Taking lessons was one responsible thing a kid could do in those days, and I was lucky that there was a great guitar shop in Lansdowne, called Todaro's Music. The shop is still there and going strong. I was just in there a few months ago.

What is one of the first concert experiences you remember?

My older sister had really cool taste and hip, punker friends who I thought were the coolest people on earth. I took many cues from her and her friends, borrowing tapes and eavesdropping on what bands they were into. I discovered bands like the Misfits, Black Flag, The Cure, The Smiths, etc. I remember borrowing my sister’s Joy Division t-shirt and wearing it to a Chili Peppers concert when I was thirteen. I recorded the concert with a handheld tape recorder.

I also saw Danzig later that same year at a club called Pulsations. It was a pretty scary scene for a thirteen year old. My friend and I waited around in the back parking lot to meet the band. They finally came out and were surprisingly very friendly. It was riveting to meet Danzig's band—especially Chuck Biscuits, who was in Black Flag. Danzig never came out to say, “Hi.” This was my first encounter actually meeting a band.

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What was your very first band performance experience?

A bit later in my teen years, I got into hardcore music and discovered a DIY scene in the PA/NJ/NY area. Around age fifteen, my friend got his driver’s license and we started going to more shows. That summer I was asked to fill in on bass in a band and go on a small tour. I begged my parents, producing small tears, and they let me go. The band was terrible, but it was a formative moment for me.

Where did you spend your "coming of age" years?

I moved to New York City in my early twenties, and maintained by working freelance jobs. At the time there was still a flourishing underground jazz and experimental scene at clubs like the Cooler and Tonic—which are long gone. I remember seeing these concerts early on and sensing their profound effect on me. It was music that had such validity, emotion, and force. Not every show was equally profound, of course, but what I was moved by affected my playing a lot. I started playing more freely and experimenting. Bands such as TEST, No Neck Blues Band, and musicians such as Loren Connors, Joe Morris, Arthur Doyle, Joe Mcphee, and David S. Ware were among those who were flooring my young mind at the time.

This was also a time when older folk musicians from the UK came back to the states after not being there for decades. There was a renewed interest in the ‘60s folk scene from overseas and I gravitated towards players like Wizz Jones, Michael Chapman, and Bert Jansch. These guys became heroes of mine around this time. I was lucky enough to meet Bert and Michael—badgering them after their gigs. I also discovered the music of Bridget St. John, who I later found out lived in NY. I see her around occasionally and she is still playing incredible shows.

During those first few years in NY, I mostly kept to myself as a guitar player and absorbed all of this stuff, and practiced alone a lot. I was also collecting records, of course. I met a lot of very informative people at the annual WFMU record fairs, who turned me on to so many different records and artists, including the ones mentioned.

What instrument did you first pick up?

My first instrument was the bass. I basically thought of it as a guitar with four strings. I played bass for a while and then got a guitar. I liked it more because I could get more sounds out of it. I took lessons in my teen years and got some fundamentals down, then went down my strange, self-taught path.

Which artists were your main early influences?

My very first guitar influences were Prince and Jimi Hendrix. I adored Prince, Jimi Hendrix, and Michael Jackson as a small child. I watched a lot of MTV back then—so, maybe I thought Slash was cool, too.

After getting my first guitar, I think my first real influence was Gregg Ginn from Black Flag. I remember first hearing his playing and feeling perplexed by how loose and powerful it was, especially when blasted on cassette through those little, foam headphones. I had that First Four Years on tape and listened to it over and over. I didn't know how to play at all, but I could blindly strum and jump around and make noise pretending to be like him. I listened to many other hardcore bands, but Ginn's playing really stuck out to me—it was unique, wild, and super heavy.

Another early influence was Johnny Marr (Smiths). I borrowed a Smiths cassette from my older sister and really couldn't decipher any of the guitar playing. Johnny Marr’s arrangements mystified and transfixed me. I felt that they were something I’d never be able to figure out. It wasn’t until later when I looked into his influences that I then came to understand his playing and arranging—especially in partnership with Morrissey. Plus, Johnny looked so damn cool playing that Rickenbacker.

 

A fews years after that, I got really into John Fahey's guitar playing. Discovering this stuff had almost the opposite effect than Ginn's and Marr's, in that it was a bit more tangible. I think I first heard about John Fahey in an article about Sonic Youth, where they mentioned that his open tunings and songs were influential to the band. Fahey had this gentle complexity that served as a great guide for me. It was very simple, but at the same time very challenging. His arrangements became really helpful for me, because they were unadorned and laid out to be deciphered (if you really felt like trying to figure it out). He had such a unique approach and an interesting mix of guitar styles, which was very appealing to me. I taught myself many of his songs which became very helpful maps for playing and experimenting.

I also discovered Sandy Bull and Robbie Basho through the Fahey thread. They became equally important to me as unique players.

What was your first instrument?

My first was a guitar, an Alvarez acoustic that my parents bought for me. I still have it. My first electric was a Silvertone guitar, the one with the case that has a speaker in it. I wish I still had that one.

What are you currently playing?

I currently have a Marin 000-18, Guild D 35, Kelly Bowery Pine Telecaster, Fret Sounds Strat, and a 1930's Hawaiian Guitar rebuilt by Old Style Guitar Shop.

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What is your favorite performance setup like?

Lately, I've been playing solo and using an acoustic guitar with three outputs—Condenser Mic, DI, and amp. It's a bit overkill, but it helps me find the right balance of the electric/acoustic sound.

Do you have any favorite equipment that you use?

My favorite pedals are by Earthquaker Devices, Catalinbread, and Strymon. I bought a Fender Princeton amp from 1970 that I also cherish.

Do you have an opinion regarding analog vs. digital recording?

I don't think the saturation sound that tape provides can be replicated. For my last album, I ran the bass and drums through a two-inch tape machine, and it made a world of difference. I think a mix of both can be really great . These days, microphones can be more important than tape vs. digital thing—I think.

Where are you recording right now?

Right now, I am working on a new record at a studio called Strange Weather in Brooklyn, and have been enjoying it immensely. I am working with a great engineer and partner there, Daniel Schlett. It's my first time tracking in a larger-sized studio. Daniel has a great, pragmatic approach to recording. The studio is comfortable and has a great selection of gear.

Which players should aspiring musicians study and learn from?

I think the best players to learn from are the ones who are not flashy, but have an original sound. Keith Richards would be my pick. He rarely plays lead guitar, but has such a great sense of rhythm and arranging. That's why most of those Stones songs sound so good. He and Charlie Watts make an incredible team.

What are you currently working on?

I made an instrumental drums and guitar record with my longtime mate John Truscinski called Bay Head. This will be coming out on Three Lobed Recordings in November. I self-released a live solo record called Dusted, which is available at my shows and on my website. I'm currently working on a new album that will come out on Matador next year.

 What was a memorable tour for you?

Years ago, my first really long tour in Europe was fifty days straight. It was such a daunting prospect. Right before the tour started, I quit my other job—forever. It's was a bit of a frightening leap for me. I had the best time on tour and felt surprisingly refreshed, even after day fifty.

What is in your record player today?

Rhythm & Sound - Showcase (with Paul St. Hilaire). Ernie Graham - s/t 1971 LP. Jah Wobble, The Lago Years. Sousoume Tamacheck- Mdou Tamacheck.

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Feature photo by Victoria Stevens

Find Steve Gunn on the internet at steve-gunn.com for tour dates and to purchase his music. Listen to Steve Gunn's discography wherever you listen online, we like Spotify. Follow him on Instagram @stevegunnstevegunn for daily musings.

The Five Minutes With series is brought to you by Stephanie Nicole Smith, a visual artist and make up artist in Los Angeles, CA. You can find her work at stephanienicolesmith.com and follow her @stephanienicolesmith

This feature is brought to you by Original Fuzz, the creativity outfitters. We believe it's not what you do, but how you do it. Read more articles in this month's magazine.


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