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Guitarist and singer Steve Gunn is perched on the edge of a sofa. He's in a recording studio at the headquarters of public radio station WXPN in Philadelphia. But he's not close to the edge because he's anxious—he's not fidgeting. There's just some junk hogging the best part of the cushion. He'd ease back into it if he could; if there were time, maybe he'd nap.
In a few minutes, his new rock trio with bassist Justin Tripp and drummer John Truscinski will play three tunes from their new album, Time Off, out June 18 on Paradise of Bachelors. The performance will be recorded for WXPN's Key Studio Sessions. But first, Gunn must finalize the guest list for a concert he's playing later that night.
This is the hardest part of the day, jokes Gunn, struggling to remember who he needs to put on the list—parents, sisters, cousins, old pals. As he's been for the past two weeks of a bicoastal tour, Gunn's clocking a double-shift at Philadelphia's Union Transfer. First, he'll play with his trio; then, he's on guitar with Kurt Vile's band, the Violators. It's a big gig—the last of the tour for him, and a homecoming show. Like Vile, Gunn grew up in the Philadelphia area. (They attended the same elementary school, but didn't become friends until later.) Unlike Vile, Gunn moved to Brooklyn 12 years ago, where he's since worked as an art handler, freelancing with various galleries around the city.
After the WXPN session wraps, and the gear's loaded into Tripp's Honda Passport, we cruise to tonight's venue to unload the gear again, so Gunn can soundcheck with the Violators. Vile's soundchecks take a while—on most nights of the tour, they've gone on until the venue doors open, giving Gunn little downtime before his band's opening slot. He doesn't complain about the workload, though, and on the short ride over, talks about transitioning from a solo guitarist making instrumental music to the band-leading singer-songwriter he is now.
"I never wanted to be a solo guitar virtuoso or a troubadour," he says. "I love [guitar stud John] Fahey and all that shit, but I dislike the idea of the solo guitar god. It took a long time to build my confidence as a singer—I had to let myself go, and I'm still working on it. Now, with this band, I'm combining the pieces I've accumulated over the past decade. There's a story, I guess. But maybe it doesn't have a beginning or end."
If there is a beginning, it's GHQ, the trio Gunn played in with Marcia Bassett (Double Leopards, Zaimph) and Pete Nolan (Magik Markers) in the mid-'00s. They released several records—including on the Not Not Fun and Three Lobed labels—at the pinnacle of the free-folk moment. GHQ represented the grimier side of the scene, with outfits like Badgerlore and No-Neck Blues Band. It was exotic, deep-cult jamming—improvised, droning, savage-psych raga freakouts.
After dropping about a dozen recordings, GHQ dispersed in 2008. By then, Gunn had released three solo albums. His self-titled debut, like his GHQ work, was mostly raw, noisy free-folk; the third, Sundowner, showed Gunn moving toward the American Primitive guitar sound of Fahey and Jack Rose. The latter, who was a good friend of Gunn's, had recently undergone a similar stylistic shift, leaving his wilder band, Pelt, and focusing on fingerpicking virtuosity.
But Gunn kept moving. On his 2009 solo album, Boerum Palace, he sang. Then, after releasing two instrumental rock records with Truscinski, he decided to add a bassist .Turns out he had more in common with British musician Michael Chapman than with Rose. In the late '60s, as heard on his recently reissued Rainmaker and Fully Qualified Survivor LPs, Chapman outgrew the folk scene's coffeehouses and started a rock 'n' roll band.
"It's still folk, but not wimpy," Gunn says about Chapman, whom he cites as a major inspiration for Time Off, and with whom he's collaborated in the past. "His songs are sensitive, but there's an unmistakable roughness. Like him, I make folk music, but I don't want to be hushed or delicate. I want to rock and swing without overpowering the songs with fuzz pedals."
Time Off is Gunn's finest work yet. He's radically matured as a storyteller—you can hear the authority in his voice on vagrant anthem "The Lurker." He's also victoriously united his past musical selves, as evident on "Old Strange," which starts with a hypnotic acoustic phrase but swerves into a "Bron-Y-Aur" jam. Then there are the new things the trio format makes possible, like the stomping, bluesy "New Decline," where Gunn rips an electric solo while his band secures the groove. It's one of the year's most powerful folk-rock statements.
Back at Union Transfer, the Violators have just finished soundcheck. The band's still goofing off, playing a cover of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," when Gunn escapes backstage to relax a bit. His band goes on in an hour. The new album's called Time Off, but he doesn't seem to have much of any.