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The Glorious Drone of Steve Gunn

Talking with the singer-songwriter about developing his vocals and the wonders of the guitar.

“My favorite kind of music is meditative. And I still feel like playing is a way for me to meditate. Sometimes it’s very hard to get into it that way, but I’ve learned how to deal with it. It just takes practice.”

Steve Gunn is sitting in a loud Milwaukee restaurant, next to small plates of octopus, kale, and squash, and attempting to explain how he gets from here to there as a guitar player. It’s a process that can be laid out geographically, in terms of chords and technique, but Gunn is speaking in metaphysical terms. When the lanky 37-year-old Philadelphia-area native finishes his meal, he’ll amble across the street to a record store where a few dozen people are assembled for an after-hours concert. But the real journey for Gunn begins once he plugs in and his consciousness lifts off the ground, hopefully carrying the audience along with him.

“When I’m traveling and playing shows, the day revolves around the show and it’s a nice routine for me to have this build-up to it,” he says. “I’m really into trance music. I played a lot of — for lack of a better word — drone music. The drone is really embedded in the style I play.”

It is mid-September, three weeks before the release of Gunn’s mesmerizing new LP, Way Out Weather. I caught up with Gunn as he did a short jog through the Upper Midwest for three concerts with his friend and hero, the great British guitarist Michael Chapman. For years, Gunn never toured — for much of the ’00s, he jammed endlessly with pals and co-conspirators and studiously developed his guitar style, which is described reductively as folk but draws on a wide swath of music that includes blues, jazz, Indian classical, punk, and the Grateful Dead. He never wanted to be a traditional virtuoso who played wheedle-wheedle-whee-style solos. Rather, he’s a rhythmic player inclined to repetition and improvisation, more about appreciating forward motion than traveling to a specific destination.

Gunn also had to develop confidence as a vocalist — singing for people will always be more terrifying than playing guitar — though that initial tentativeness isn’t evident on Way Out Weather, his most straightforward and rock-oriented record. Gunn’s singing echoes his playing: It is relaxed and intimate, like a late-night conversation with a trusted confidant, and it gently draws you into the hypnotically beguiling songs.

Way Out Weather ought to capitalize on Gunn’s growing notoriety, both as a solo artist (coming off of 2013’s acclaimed Time Off) and as a sideman for other musicians, most notably Kurt Vile, a grade-school chum who invited Gunn to join his band the Violators as he toured in support of last year’s Wakin’ on a Pretty Day. Gunn has already had an active 2014 — he put out the beautiful and largely improvised records Cantos De Lisboa (in collaboration with English avant-garde musician Mike Cooper) and Melodies for a Savage Fix (with violinist Mike Gangloff), and he has LPs coming soon recorded in tandem with Vile and the Appalachian folk outfit Black Twig Pickers. Weather is the most conventional record of the bunch: Gunn made it with his band over the course of four days in upstate New York, keeping the focus on songs rather than exploration. Even relatively jammy numbers like “Drifter” and “Tommy’s Congo” never stray far from the melody or the backing of Gunn’s excellent band (anchored by drummer John Truscinski, his bandmate in yet another side project, the Gunn-Truscinski Duo). Compared with the spacier passages of Cantos De Lisboa or Melodies for a Savage Fix, Weather is practically a pop record.

“The songwriting thing is a relatively new process for me. I used to tear my hair out over songs and not trust my instincts and really play them into the ground,” Gunn says. “Overplaying this weird kind of virtuosic style and then trying to sing over it was, like, this real mindfuck. So after playing with other people, I realized I didn’t have to do that anymore. Maybe this is just being a bit more mature as a musician. You don’t have to come out with your guns blazing.”

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Gunn didn’t discover his most obvious antecedent, the legendary guitarist and archivist John Fahey, until he transplanted from suburban Lansdowne to Philly proper after high school. (He now lives in Brooklyn.) As a teenager, Gunn was into punk and skateboarding. He played bass in hardcore bands until he got bored and switched over to guitar.

“My taste was really all over the place,” he recalls. “I listened to rap, I listened to the Misfits and Black Flag, and then a little bit later in high school, I discovered a more localized scene where there were bands my age and a little bit older putting on their own shows and putting out their own records. It was more of a DIY thing. And then I discovered John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and jazz really opened up my brain musically.”

In Philadelphia, Gunn moved “into a house with guys who were 10 years older than me” and became a full-blown record nerd, obsessing over pre-war blues and the modernist players who transformed the music for contemporary audiences. Fahey was a touchstone, as was his more obscure cohort, Sandy Bull. Gunn also befriended the late guitarist Jack Rose, a pivotal influence on the current generation of musicians bridging the worlds of experimental and Americana music.

“I got really interested in the blues, and then I discovered that people were still interpreting it in their own way,” he says. “Particularly with Fahey, when I first heard his music, I thought it was extremely unique, the pacing of it. It was a bit like classical music. It wasn’t dangerous, per se, but it’s really — just to the ear, off the bat, without knowing much about him — it felt like really rich music, and it speaks for itself, I guess. It’s not rushed. It’s pretty learned. It’s not flashy. It has elements of all different kinds of things, which is something that spoke to me, because you can’t pinpoint what it is.”

As Gunn picked at his last bits of octopus, we chatted about some of our favorite Dick’s Picks volumes. (We’re both partial to Volume 1, from ’73 in Tampa — the one without Donna Godchaux and Mickey Hart, which isn’t a coincidence.) Eventually we made it over to the gig, cutting through humid air signaling the last gasp of summer in Wisconsin. Onstage, Gunn struggled at first — this was his first time playing a newly purchased guitar from eBay, and he kept getting feedback. I could see him trying to lock into that elusive meditative state: His torso swaying left and right, his hands meandering up and down on the guitar. Gunn was playing without accompaniment, but it still sounded forceful, blowing the dust off the LP covers. He was almost there. After several minutes, he locked into “Water Wheel,” from Time Off. When he reached the instrumental break, he drifted off again. And I drifted off, too.