Less Is More: An Interview with Steve Gunn
Steve Gunn. Photo: Shawn Brackbill
In its simplest form, we live in a time of technology and progression, advancement, as it is referred; the idea that all things need improvement. A thing is taken and seemingly improved, but there is always a value in the simplest form. Let’s take something like barbecuing; man, fire, and meat — it can be done anywhere, a backyard, in the mountains, it is the simplest form of cooking. In comparison, the acoustic guitar is rich and of the same condition. Blues, folk, bluegrass, all forms of music that only need man and guitar, not even necessarily a tuned guitar, but a guitar. The acoustic guitar magnifies form and tone, the value of a song in its most stripped presentation. It is a beauty to watch one wield tones from a formed piece of wood and string, it is the most human aspect of communication in song; there is nothing to hide behind. On Monday, June 19, Steve Gunn will open for Lee Ranaldo at White Oak Music Hall and also accompany (the magnificent) Meg Baird on an acoustic tour. It will be a revelation of the grandest proportions.
“For me, I’ve kind of come full circle in where I learned to play guitar,” notes Steve Gunn, “by being obsessed with [John] Fahey and being obsessed with playing the blues and stuff. When I first started really getting serious in learning guitar I was friends with Jack Rose and people who were sort of playing in this certain style. It appealed to me because I was listening to a lot of different kinds of music, a lot of music from around the world, it was sort played on — at the time for me — kind of exotic instruments and I tried to understand, just by ear, the kind of trying to recreate the kind of sounds that they were picking. I found that with playing acoustic guitar in different tunings, you could kind of fake it and kind of figure out the scales and things to mess around with. I really did learn my knowledge of guitar by playing acoustic and a little bit later when I started writing songs. I started playing electric guitar and everything and it had gotten a bit more complicated with the full band and effects, but all of that kind of guitar knowledge came from me playing by myself and really learning.”
Playing acoustic isn’t just a matter of amplification, it is also a knowledge of chordal arrangement and tone, of manipulating notes, picking styles, variations in speed and pressure all to create a fullness and richness in sound. It is a stylistic choice, but one that a musician understands. The tradition of music in history is bringing the song here now, the direct connection between man and instrument. In its simplest form. The bombast and spectacle are not sacrificed, the effects are not eschewed. There is no lack of, there is taking all of these things and transposing them. The rhythm and the lead, the bass and treble, the power of only salt and pepper as a seasoning, the simplest form. It also an exercise, a test, if you will; addition and subtraction as parallels, the sum of the parts.
“This last album [Eyes On The Lines] was so dense, there was so much going on. There’s so much depth to the music that you might necessarily know who’s playing what or whatever. For me to kind of get the opportunity to play these songs in this kind of stripped down way is something that I was really looking forward to because I wrote all these songs in my practice space on an acoustic. It was like so and then I would share these songs with the band and then we’d kind of come up with these arrangements,” notes Gunn. “For me, playing solo is like presenting these songs as they were written in their simplest form, so for me it’s kind of cool to present and also to have people sort of react like, ‘It’s so cool to hear this stuff stripped down.’ Essentially it’s kind of the core of what I do and luckily these guys that I play with [on the records] are kind of sympathetic to my style and where I’m coming from. So for me to kind of step out there on my own, I think it’s reassuring, definitely reassuring to me, but I think it’s also cool for someone who’s been enjoying my record kind of seeing me play in different ways where, when I play solo I kind of touch on a lot of different things that I do, and I think people really respond in a positive way.”
As a fan of not only the players, but the song form, this is the rare opportunity of seeing the construction, the clay and the rock. But again, the term stripped down is not one that I prefer. The walk to the store is no less exciting than the drive, only quicker, but the scenery, the feel of the wind, the feel of the ground beneath your feet, the smells in the air, the forms on the sidewalk, the sounds of the outdoor all drowned out by the air condition and car radio; it is just different. There is no less, only different, and we all appreciate new routes to a destination. At times the journey is what satiates the voyage more than the journey’s end, it is to look from a different lens to gain another perspective of the picture. My bag is packed, I will meet you there.
Steve Gunn performs at White Oak Music Hall on Monday, June 19 with Lee Ranaldo and Meg Baird. Tickets are $20 with doors at 7 pm.