Steve Gunn has a trajectory worth talking about. Many people initially encountered his terrific guitar work as a member of Kurt Vile’s backing band, the Violators, but his solo instrumental work drew plenty of attention in its own right. Gunn has worked on countless collaborative projects, including one alongside drummer John Truscinski, one with hallucinatory drone project GHQ, and others with Magik Markers, the Black Twig Pickers, and many, many more. Like Vile, Gunn released a few unofficial CD-Rs under the moniker Moongang before putting out Boerum Palace, his first official solo album under his own name, in 2009.

A couple years later, the North Carolina-based independent label Paradise of Bachelors released Gunn’s wiry Time Off in 2013, quickly followed by the whispery and wispy Way Out Weather in 2014. These records served as remarkable examples of Gunn’s scope as a guitarist and a songwriter, and landed him a spot on the roster at Matador Records. His first for that storied indie label is entitled Eyes on the Lines and came out this past Friday, 6/3. It further expands his breadth and depth as a guitarist, bandleader, and songwriter, venturing into noisier, more tangled psych territory without losing any of the particular elegance that has always marked his craft. On a rainy day in May, Gunn spoke with me over coffee about the spirit of travel that informs the album, building out his earlier pastoral sound and preserving artistic wildness.
BK0615_fob_stevegunn_018Eyes on the Lines is such an evocative title, and there’s so much travel and transit imagery on the album, mentions of trip and transit. Was there a specific trip that you were on when you chose the record’s name?
I was in the road in Birmingham, England, at a rest stop and it was so drab, but I kind of fit in with the drabness. Something about the setting clicked with me. It’s a line in one of the songs, “The Drop,” and I really like it as a title because it has multiple meanings. It makes you think, and that’s what I like—when you have to interpret things for yourself. The song itself is not me per se, but someone else, maybe a trucker or something. On tour, to stay sane, there’s a lot of staring out of windows and vehicles and thinking. Staring at the lines on the road can be a sort of meditative ritual if you’re sitting in a van with bunch of annoying, smelly people. Maybe that’s your only respite, watching a pattern that’s calming. Not to get too esoteric, but that concept of lines can also coincide with minimalist artists and minimalism in general, or even other lines in the landscape, like electrical wires. Then of course, it also means the lines you’re reading or saying or hearing. I had a bunch of titles in mind and that one ended up making the most sense, because it is a travel record. That was one of the mechanisms for me to stay sane while I was losing it.

This record sounds a lot fuller and noisier than Way Out Weather. Was that a conscious shift for you and your band?
Yes, I wanted the album to sonically be pushing it a little. Everybody who is in the current band was really heavily involved with the recording, and the bass player, Jason Meagher, owns a studio in upstate New York called Black Dirt studio. I like so many different kinds of music, and my music doesn’t necessarily reflect my tastes a lot of the time. So I wanted it to reflect that I do like a lot of noisier stuff. I wanted to push it a little more. I also live in a city and I wanted to have more of a city feel to the songs and a little bit more grit across the board, both lyrically and musically. It was also the way we had started playing live. We were touring a lot for Way Out Weather, and by the end of the year, the way we played the songs sounded so much different than the album. By the end of the year, I wanted to keep it closer to where we’d gotten to as a live band. I was pretty precious with Way Out Weather, and I’m trying to let my guard down with my playing. Certain things would happen in the studio, like feedback, or we’d say “Let’s do some feedback.” Or, “That was so weird how the hell did you get that tone? Just keep it, it’s cool.” We were trying to work with spontaneity.

I wanted to have more of a city feel to the songs and a little bit more grit across the board, both lyrically and musically.

On “Conditions Wild,” I saw that you referenced Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guide For Getting Lost, which is a book I love too. As an artist who has been doing this for a long time, how do preserve wildness within yourself?
I struggle with it. That book and those concepts really resonate with me. I started thinking about it in terms of the unknown and trusting yourself within that realm. I was drawn to music that had an element of unknown, where you have to trust yourself and go along with what you know and navigate what you’re doing that way. It’s sort of similar to the process of improvisation, whether it’s music or life in general. For this album, I was trying to really tap into that more and trust the process of writing. I accumulate a lot of things. I come up with guitar lines and write a lot in notebooks. I take pictures and I keep mental notes. Even eavesdropping, I hear people say stuff and I remember things. I log all this stuff and when I try to start creating a set or body of work or songs, I gather it up and sift through it. I really feel that I want to be hyperaware of where I am and who is around me. Not just with physical objects, but also just sort of the way that environments are perceived and how people are hanging around in them. I try to hold onto that perspective. In a way, it’s almost like you have to not worry and not let your expectations lower in a negative way, take what’s coming to you and try not to have too many preconceived notions about what you’re doing, because sometimes that can limit what you’re capable of.
Eyes On The Lines is out now via Matador Records. Get it here. Steve Gunn & The Outliners record release show is this Thursday, 6/9 at the Music Hall of Williamsburg as part of Northside Festival. Tickets here.

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