Steve Gunn and Joshua Abrams on Starting Out in New York Versus Chicago

Plus, the collaborators dive deep on Steve’s new re-interpretive EP, and much more.

Guitarist/songwriter Steve Gunn has built an incredible catalog over the past 15 years, expanding and refining both his playing and compositions — often by working with other artists. His latest full length, Other You, features folks like Mary Lattimore and Juliana Barwick, among others. A companion EP takes things even further: Nakama reimagines songs from Other You with help from other players. These aren’t remixes or new versions, but something else entirely. Two tracks heavily feature Joshua Abrams of Natural Information Society, a genre-crossing bassist and composer whom Gunn had long admired. For Talkhouse, they had a chat about working together on this project, as well as influences and composition. Gunn has a bunch of tour dates coming up, some with Jeff Parker, another musician in his sphere who gets talked about here as well. All those dates can be found at Gunn’s website
—Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor

Steve Gunn: I think one of the first times we hung out was in Chicago when I had a Gunn-Truscinski Duo show. We did a show together at the Hideout, five or six years ago.

Joshua Abrams: Yeah, I think we did a show with you solo at some point, too. I became aware of some of your music around the same time that the first Natural Information Society record came out. Maybe that was the same time that the first Gunn-Truscinski record came out.

Steve: I remember when your record came out on Eremite, it was the first time I guess I saw your name on a record, and then kind of started piecing together a little bit of the musicians that you played with over the years. I remember buying it and listening to it a ton — and the first Sam Prekop record.

Joshua: The Precambrian age.

Steve: And then over the years kind of following you and people in your community and seeing what other kinds of things were coming out of it was definitely something I was tracking over the years. And I think the first Natural Information Society record was just this really interesting vision that you had, and it really correlated with a lot of the stuff that I was thinking about and listening to. So that was really inspiring. Before it was more of the jazz stuff you were doing, and that seemed like you were playing with older players in Chicago as well as the people in your kind of camp or group, rather. This net that was cast was super interesting to me.

Joshua: Man, that’s cool that you picked up on that. Jim O’Rourke had a hand in those first two records that you mentioned. He assembled the wider group of people who played on Hoffman Estates. And then he also produced that first Sam Prekop record too, and engineered it.

Steve: When I first moved to New York and I was going to Tonic and seeing a lot of shows, seeing people like David Ware and William Parker, I could kind of sense that people like Jim O’Rourke were conduits of bringing people together. I’d be there one night and they’d be hanging out with Tony Conrad, and then another night they would be hanging out with someone else who was from a different kind of school or something. There were older jazz musicians, and younger people, and improvisers, and songwriters, and people who were my age playing different kinds of music. And it just was this really interesting place and time. And it’s cool to understand that Jim was somewhat of a conduit for you meeting those people too.

Joshua: Definitely for meeting Alan Licht and being introduced to Loren Mazzacane Connors’ music. Bringing a big swath of improvising musicians together who didn’t know each other at that time, like Darin Gray.

Steve: Was that recorded in Chicago?

Joshua: Hoffman Estates [a suburb], actually. There was a really great engineer named Phil Bonnet who worked at this old studio up there that I think was an old commercial studio, and Jim and he were good friends. It was a good sounding room at a good rate, and Jim would bring his sessions up there; that Sam Prekop record was recorded up there as well. That was a fun time in Chicago as well. There was an openness that people from different scenes and communities wanted to check out music and collaborate and there were venues where that could happen.

Steve: For me being pretty young, and being totally interested and open to music, I experienced that. In Philly, I went to Temple and I studied film and art and stuff, but I also listened to the radio and went to tons of record stores and went to a lot of shows. But by the time I moved to New York, it was like every week I was seeing just legendary people, or new music that I didn’t know. It was all kind of happening. The scene that seemed to start in the ’60s and ’70s in New York, this more kind of open-ended improvised music, was still vibrant. And a lot of these musicians were still around and playing gigs. So I was really happy to be able to experience that at that time.

Joshua: Yeah. Here too. The Velvet Lounge here. That was Fred Anderson’s club, and you could easily hear so many luminaries, like, “Oh, Malachi Favors is playing this weekend with Fred Anderson, let’s go!” 

Steve: And it’s interesting to me that you guys were able to go to places like the Velvet Lounge and work, but also learn and play with older folks, actually do gigs with them, and really kind of just play a ton. It seems like Chicago was this sort of super kind of unique and fruitful community.

Joshua: Yeah. And you could pursue apprenticeship… Maybe apprenticeship is too strong because that implies like one person, but you could learn on the gig. At first I was into playing straight ahead jazz, like standards and stuff. There were gigs you could do at clubs playing with older musicians, playing that tradition. And then that also led to me working at The Velvet, there was a jam session every weekend, and eventually I was in the house band. I used to play every week at a BBQ spot that was right down from the street from the Rainbo with Rob Mazurek and Jeff Parker. That’s where I met some of the people in Tortoise. A lot of people were coming together around that scene in Wicker Park, but at The Velvet, you had a mixing of north and south sides of Chicago, you’d get all these different generations of musicians coming from a variety of backgrounds. You could seek out different music of interest to play with, and you wouldn’t be pigeonholed. It wouldn’t be like, “Oh you’re playing with this group, so now you’re not accepted in this other scene anymore.”

Steve: And you’re playing with these people who you’re learning from and you’re getting… I hate to use the word chops, but you know, that’s like years of working and getting better, and learning all this stuff for other things you guys want to do and explore.

Joshua: Totally.

Steve: And it seems that there was a certain level of discipline with it, which I sort of missed out on when I was living in New York in my 20s, I was more anti-discipline. And I was practicing kind of privately but meeting with people, and it was great, but having these open-ended things happening where it was more experimentation and sound… I was practicing on my own, but I never had a situation where I was thrown into this other level of discipline. I discovered that that was important a little later, and it’s really interesting and so cool to hear about that kind of community, and also to get to know you and Jeff Parker, and to see people from that community expanding on what they do, and keeping it all going, is inspiring to me.

Joshua: I notice you seek out working with elders these days or collaborating, and that’s so cool. Just having intergenerational connections, there’s so much to be learned and to be shared that way.

Steve: My closest friend who was really almost like a mentor of sorts was this songwriter Michael Chapman, who passed away late last year. He’s older than my parents, but I felt like there was a lot to learn from him. And he welcomed me into his world and taught me a lot, and told me a lot of stories and introduced me to all different kinds of music and ways of playing. I felt like my friendship with Michael was my own way of living a tradition, a folk tradition, I guess you could label it. For me, the folk tradition is actually really getting to know these people and absorbing what they’ve given and and using it. And for me, knowing someone like Michael… He cultivated that friendship in that way too, where he saw something in me and was very supportive and always kept in touch with me and invited me to his home.

Joshua: Folk is people, it’s a living thing. I think as jazz has become more and more of a school phenomena, sometimes the social apprenticeship or the social relationship between generations can get lost.

Steve: That’s interesting. In Chicago, there’s a certain level of skill obviously involved and schooling and knowledge of music, but there’s a point the music kind of transcends any kind of trappings of jazz for instance. Or maybe in my case it’s songwriting or folk music, where Jeff Parker, as an example, he and I just did a tour together, and it was so interesting to watch him play because he’s playing a few standards, which are amazing. And then he’s playing his own compositions. And he also even plays a composition written by Chad Taylor. He kind of transcends the trappings of being a quote unquote jazz guitar player. He’s pushing the limits of certain things. He’s doing a Monk tune and using effects in this very skillful way, but offering the music in a different way where I don’t necessarily think someone who goes to a conservatory for jazz would have that ability.

Joshua: There’s technique in how you navigate certain structures or technique in speed, but there’s also the technique of just creating sound and creating a sound that’s yours, which comes over time and work. And I think in Chicago there’s a tradition of trying to find the things that make the music feel vital again and new, whether that’s a little shift or finding new ways for different ideas to live together. 

One thing you and I did when we got together was re-arrange “On the Way,” and I remember being struck that you just jumped into that, especially the singing of it. We re-harmonized it, we re-structured it a little bit, nothing too drastic, but then you just were able to sing it a whole new way, and that made me think about the tradition of singers who don’t necessarily have to sing a song the same way every time.

Steve: Yeah, it was interesting. First off, it was really cool to be in your studio, and talk about rearranging the song, and tossing ideas out there and you kind of playing the line that would coincide with what I was doing because it was steering something. I think when I wrote that song, I wrote it just kind of on my own, and made demos and shared them with the people who I made the record with, and we would go back and forth. But it was never this real exchange, it was never two people in a room talking, communicating with their instruments. I was really open to that, and whatever structure that I had built around that song, I really kind of let it go, and I was comfortable in seeing where it could end up with, being in the room with you. What’s so cool about that exchange, and that’s something that’s important to me on a higher level just as an artist in general, is being open to that, and not doing something the same every time. And that could either be something where we step in the room without any ideas and just see what happens, that’s also something that I’m interested in doing, but also to have this one little thing of structure to cut up was helpful. It felt very natural to me, and it happened fairly quickly, and there was a level of momentum with it.

Joshua: If you had just presented me this song, if you’d never recorded it before, my first impulse would be, “Oh yeah, these are the chords…” I’d be inclined to honor what you presented and help realize it. But because you already had a version of that, I was thinking, “Well, how can we get at some other things here?” It was really interesting how you approached it, like, “OK, now we have a new harmony and a new structure for the verse.” how you approached the singing. There’s certain foreboding overtones in the song that maybe this version brings out.

Steve: That’s really true. I think the other version is pretty bright. And I think the record is kind of a bright sounding record, but for me there’s this kind of coexistence of dark and light where I’m constantly singing about sort of hopeful things, but also hopeless things at the same time, and kind of riding that line. It is a pretty heavy song, so to step into more of the other sentiment felt really good.

Joshua: As a singer, do you worry about the content of the lyric when there’s a change like that? Do you worry about the lyrical content or just more flowing with the music and finding these new routes for the melody to exist?

Steve: There is an intent there with meaning, but I also really like to play with that meaning, and I like to keep it very open ended, and offer it for interpretation. And to me, the beauty of writing words is to see how they come back. I never have a hard intent per se, most of the time, so really with this one, it was trying to find a place to sit in the music. This song had a certain kind of feeling when I wrote it. And perhaps that wasn’t as palpable with the other version, but this one, I was kind of feeling it a little more.

Joshua: I’m seeing my daughter come to this place where she’s gaining more language, and there are certain words she gains through singing. Like she might sing that new word, or even the way she speaks the words is melodic. She started saying “Cool.” She says it the same way, with the same melody every time. But I think as we get older, and maybe it’s a societal thing, we put such weight on meaning. But so much of the meaning comes through the word’s relationship with music, so that’s interesting to hear you talk about that.

Steve: I’ve always tried to use language to set a mood and to set a feeling — to not be so overly specific about myself or be overly confessional. And sometimes people who write about my records, or my music, are like, “Dude, what is this song about? It’s so kind of obtuse, or I don’t really understand, what’s the story here?” And I’m like, “Well, do you want me to tell you exactly what I was thinking? It’s not important. What do you think it’s about? And did it strike some kind of chord, or inspiration, or some kind of thought process that perhaps you wouldn’t have had before?” To me, much like visual art, I let language open myself up, and to learn from that, and to be able to learn how to trust that process. To me it’s an important part about being a creative person. And just being in the world. It’s interesting to hear about the intention of language with your daughter, it’s really cool.

Joshua: I forget if it’s people who have had strokes, but after people have had some debilitating experiences where they lose language, sometimes they can retain song. Or even retain the words and use them like language, because through the act of intoning them, it’s accessed by a different part of your brain. It’s interesting.

Steve: Yeah. Also, to get back to this project, I was excited when I was asked by Matador to do it. It was a perfect opportunity for me to bridge these musical interests of mine, and my practices where I do a lot of improvisation stuff, and I do stuff at home and I write songs. It’s genre-less in a lot of ways, and it’s beyond that. My musical life is more meaningful than categories and things like that. And for me to get asked to do this, and to be able to come to Chicago and hang out with you… Usually when I see you it’s at a gig, which is also great, but to be able to hang with musicians in that way, and friends that are inspiring across the board, is sometimes a part of the process that’s harder. So to treat it that way was really important to me and really nourishing.

Joshua: We’ve been playing a bunch of gigs together, and there’d often be a point at the gig where we’d be like, “Yeah, it’d be great to hang out more,” but need to split. And so this project became that occasion. That was so nice.

Steve: And the EP, I was having trouble deciding what I wanted to call it. And I was like, “I really would like to call the EP Companion,” but that wasn’t exactly right. And then I discovered this word Nakama which in Japanese means companion or friendship. It sounded better, and to me it’s more of a meaningful word universally. And I felt like it was a proper title because it felt like this was something where I asked friends to re-interpret my music, and it was like a gracious response and it was extremely rewarding. It was really great to be able to pull from these different sources of inspiration.

Joshua: I’m glad to be involved. It just occurred to me that the title makes sense as a translation in that we’re translating the tunes, we’re translating your song. So it would make sense to have a translated title.

Steve: Yeah. I didn’t think about that. That’s cool.

Steve Gunn is a New York-based guitarist and songwriter. With a career spanning nearly 15 years, Steve has produced volumes of critically acclaimed solo, duo, and ensemble recordings. His latest release, the Nakama EP, is out now on Matador.