Music

Steve Gunn’s background in improvisation informs his approach to songwriting

By July 23, 2019 July 27th, 2019 No Comments

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
Margaret@pittsburghcurrent.com

The last time Steve Gunn was in town was for the opening of Kim Gordon’s art exhibition at the Warhol back in May. Along with Gordon, guitarist Bill Nace, and drummer John Truscinski, Gunn helped shape an hour-long improvisational piece.

His next visit will be different: Gunn is promoting his latest solo record, The Unseen In Between, a collections of glittery psychedelic indie-folk tunes.

In a conversation with the Current earlier this year, Mr. Airplane Man singer/guitarist Margaret Garrett mentioned The Unseen In Between as a particular source of inspiration, and described a sense of longing to “just live inside” Gunn’s songs.

STEVE GUNN with PAIRDOWN. 8 p.m. Wed., July 31. Club Café, 56 S. 12th St., South Side. $15-17. www.clubcafelive.com

It’s not so much a wish to enter the poetic narrative, though there’s plenty of short-story romance to enjoy on that front – the lyrics to “Vagabond,” for example, could have been written by Springsteen. But there’s a magic in the New York-based musician’s iridescent melodies, which take odd, unexpected turns. As catchy little fragments surface and then drop back out, the listener may wish to slow down time in order to enjoy the moment just a little longer.

In a recent New York Times piece, Gunn noted the influence of guitarist Sandy Bull, who he discovered via his interest in Indian classical music. “I was trying to figure out how to use that influence and I knew people in the ’60s used that style,” he explained. “When I heard [Bull’s] piece called ‘Blend,’ I kind of emulated that for a number of years.”

Bull experimented with traditional Eastern instruments but used a finger-picking style similar to that of godfathers of American primitive guitar like John Fahey and Robbie Basho. His resulting sound was rich and warm and complex and intricate, never tipping into overstuffed showboating.

Gunn’s music shares those qualities. The Unseen In Between is dense, but Gunn knows how to leave breathing room, a skill honed though years of improvising as one-half of the Gunn-Truscinski Duo (the quartet configuration for the Warhol opening came out of a co-headlining tour Gunn-Truscinski did with Body/Head, Gordon and Nace’s experimental duo.)

When Gunn met Truscinski years ago, not only did the two have similar taste in music but, he told the Current before Gordon’s exhibit opening, they were both trying to be the same kind of musician, musicians who really focused on practice. “He and I came up with these sort of wild, loose long-form pieces,” he recalls. “Looking back on it, it was pretty insane to memorize ten different parts with all different time signatures. And it was a bit of a departure from what we were doing with others. It was a lot more open improvising and there wasn’t any real structure.”

Gunn didn’t start pursuing straight-ahead songwriting till long after he began playing with Truscinski. And while his songwriter side is taking up most of his time these days, one component bleeds into the other. “Whether it’s apparent or not, improvisation is sort of an important element of a lot of things in my life. Especially music,” he says. “Structurally it might not sound that way, but musically I’m always kind of on the edge of improvising.”

 

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