Nine Songs: Steve Gunn
Halfway through our conversation, Steve Gunn realises something. “I’m working on a similar thread through all of these songs.”
That thread is artists who bring a story to life, be that through their words, music or backstory, where like his own songs, a dark lyric can meet its match in a beautiful melody.
As we chat over a beer on a wintery night in London, two other things quickly become apparent; Gunn is excellent company to spend an hour with talking about music and he’s an encyclopaedia of musical knowledge. London is his last stop on a short tour of Europe that’s taken in Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and Madrid and he explains his travels are also an opportunity to discover new songs. “I travel all the time and my bandmates, my tour manager and I are all record freaks, so whatever city we’re going to we either know where the record store is or we’re “OK, where’s the record store?”
The songs he's chosen take in musical mavericks, from Mark E. Smith, Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel and Neil Young, as well as musicians who didn’t get the acclaim they deserved in their lifetimes, but whose songs and influence have endured, such as Arthur Russell and Sandy Denny. When I tell Gunn that Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake also chose a song by Denny, the music fan in him pauses his explanation of why he loves it to ask which song it was.
Explaining his selections and how he came up with them, Gunn laughs and says “It was really difficult. I’ve been thinking about the songs every day for the last three days. I could have gone so many different ways; I could have chosen genres or eras of my life, but I was thinking about what I’ve been listening to lately and what songs I’ve gotten stuck on. It’s as simple as that, these are the songs I keep going back to.”
“It’s funny with Arthur Russell, I’d heard his name so much and I’d listened to some of his instrumental music but it never really clicked with me. I didn’t know his story - and it’s a very sad story - I didn’t know about his genius and how prolific he was, but as I learned more about him I got so deeply into it. I saw the documentary Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell and I learned about his life and the circles he hung out in. I’m fascinated with the old New York and certain people in that scene, some of whom I’m sort of friendly with now. I live there and I’m always daydreaming about what it used to be like.
“I was really drawn to his personality and work ethic. I know a guy called Steve Knutson, who runs the Arthur Russell archive and they put out a collection of his country songs, Arthur Russell’s boyfriend said “There’s a whole box of tapes, do you want to go through them?” and they found these country songs that he’d shelved. They’re working on a whole albums’ worth of stuff now.
“He was such a deep listener, always walking around with headphones on and doing field recordings. I think he was one of those people who was a very, very talented, giving, but private person. Some of his songs are devastating and there’s something about his voice and the way he sings that almost makes me want to cry when I hear it. He was a unique artist and so ahead of his time, but he never really got the credit. He was also secretly making these disco hits on Sleeping Bag Records, cracking out records that made the clubs go crazy. He’d show up at these clubs, standing against the wall and people would say ‘Who the fuck is this dude?’
“When you see pictures of him in the studio he’s surrounded by tape reels and wires, he exuded such beautiful music but his life was so tragic - he died of AIDS, his parents rejected him and then they came back into his life. It’s a very sweet story and when I hear this combo of two songs it encapsulates what I love about him so much, ‘That’s Us/Wild Combination’ is listed on the album as one song and they meld into each other.
“It’s super atmospheric with really beautiful singing, sentiment and delivery. It also has this pop appeal and it’s a genius pop song - the way he used melody and structured chords was beyond what anyone else was doing. If you played this to someone who doesn’t know it, it could be made this year. His music still sounds new and it's constantly inspiring to me.”
“I went to New Zealand recently and opened for The Chills. Martin Phillipps is the sweetest guy, I really like his demeanour and, similarly to Arthur Russell, he exudes this private sweetness. He’s not posturing, he’s not ‘look at me’ or dressing up like The Beatles, he’s just a normal guy writing incredible songs and his lyrics are amazing. New Zealanders are really friendly people, I was so excited to play with The Chills and hang out with them, but it was also really cool to see their fans in their hometown, they come out and pogo around and it was inspiring to meet them.
“With all of those early ‘80s New Zealand bands on Flying Nun it was about how isolated those people were, they were on this island and their sound was unique. I was talking to Martin about it and there was an aesthetic with those bands - the saying is someone got a Velvet Underground record in the mail, it took six months to get there and then they shared it with their friends. That’s kind of true, but those bands inspired lots of bands as well. The way they fused punk rock, an appreciation for bands like The Velvets and their own take on it - a kind of bleakness, but also a certain sensibility that’s really gentle.
“Ever since I first heard it years ago, I was always “‘Pink Frost’ is one of the best songs.” It’s one of those songs that just cuts through, I don’t know how it does, but in my opinion it’s the perfect pop song. It’s almost a template for a pop song - you have the choruses, the verses, and it moves in the right way - but what I love about it is the timbre of the vocals and that it’s so dark. When you listen to the words, everything changes.
“I can listen to ‘Pink Frost’ every day. I’ll never get sick of it, it’s the way that it sounds, it’s perfect.”
“Sandy Denny was a very tragic character. She was a hard-living woman, she had a lot of psychological problems and she went out with Jackson C. Frank, which is a crazy factoid in that whole nerdism. She had such a beautiful voice in modern music and I think her voice is one of the greatest voices in English folk music by far.
“She started as a solo artist but then joined Fairport Convention and got kind of pushed around. Then she started Fotheringay with her then husband Trevor Lucas, who was such a strange dude; he too controlling of her and he was on this ‘Nashville sound’ shit. I feel she never got put in the right place, but whenever I hear her voice it’s one of my favourite voices.
“This is a song that for a while I just knew that she sang it, but then I found out that she wrote it when she was eighteen and it’s such a heavy tune. It’s a beautiful song, it’s mind-blowing. I’ve heard so many other people cover it, but the fact that she could sing as well as she does is amazing. Sandy Denny died so young - she was thirty one - and for her to write this song when she was eighteen, well imagine being that young and writing it?
“When you hear ’Who Knows Where the Time Goes’, it sounds like someone who lived a hard life, who’s in their ‘40s or ‘50s reflecting on their past, reflecting on pain and suffering and death and lost love, everything like that. It’s a beautiful song.”
“I’m a huge Go-Betweens fan and this is the stone classic. They’re another band that have a pop sensibility and really edgy lyrics that aren’t afraid to get dark, but they’re also sunlit and beautiful. The line “This town is full of battered wives” is so fucked up, sometimes I’ve been really tempted to cover it and then I’m ‘that line is so heavy!’ The way that they deliver those lyrics, if you don’t catch them right away they kind of pass you by, which I really like.
“It’s similar to ‘Pink Frost’ in that I keep going back to it. As a songwriter I listen to how they walk you through a place almost in real time, the way that it’s almost super-simple, but - and I don’t want to sound cheesy - it takes your mind there in the descriptive language; it’s not an easy town, but it’s their town, and they’re walking through it.
“This is a Grant McLennan song, but I love Robert Forster’s songs too. I’ve met him a few times and he’s really friendly. He was playing a festival in France and my bandmate and I were ‘We’ve got to talk to him.’ We went up to him and he said “Hey man, I know your music, I really dig it,” and I was like ‘What the fuck!” It was amazing. A year later I played a show in a club in Brisbane, there was a tall dude in the audience and I was ‘Fuck, he’s here.’ I didn’t get to talk to him, he split after my set, but it was super heart-warming that he was there.
“’Streets Of Your Town’ is one of those songs I could listen to all the time. There’s something about the way that it sounds, it just shimmers.”
“This is from an album called Walkin' My Cat Named Dog. There’s a song on side B of the album called ‘A Street That Rhymes At 6 A.M’ and the first time I heard it I put it on again and again and then I shared it with my friends.
“Norma Tanega lived in upstate New York, she was mingling with people at Woodstock in the ‘60s but she wasn’t really in the spotlight. I think she was an educator, she made this album with a session band, but’s she playing acoustic guitar and singing. There’s a YouTube video of her playing it, it’s in black and white and she’s this super beautiful woman with this great smile and she’s playing this song, but the words are so fucking dark. She’s saying ‘It’s 6am and I’m looking for a street that rhymes’, and she’s talking about dying.
“I’m realising now I’m working on a similar thread through all of these songs. The vocals are kind of upbeat and it has a folk-rock sound, maybe there’s an upright bass on there and a decent rhythm section. She has a really friendly singing voice and it sounds great, but the song itself and the lyrics are like she’s singing about the end of times, like the world’s ending. It’s super dark, they’re really dark lyrics, really amazing, poetic and dark lyrics.”
“When I first listened to Charles Bradley it was because of the Daptones guys. I always check out whatever they’re up to and I really admire their production sensibility, particularly on this album Changes.
“I love Charles Bradley and his story is amazing. I wasn’t listening to his albums incessantly or going to see him all the time, but there’s something about this cover that’s such a cool look for him. I’m a huge Black Sabbath fan and it’s amazing Ozzy Osbourne wrote it, it’s such a beautiful song. It’s not my favourite Sabbath song by any stretch, but this is such a different take on it - it’s the way that it moves and how soulful his singing is. It hits me every time I hear it.
“I live in a neighbourhood in Brooklyn where there’s a bar called The Tip Top that’s been there since the ‘60s; it’s an amazing bar, it’s like you’re walking back in time. About fifteen years ago, a little bit before my time in New York, Charles Bradley was a James Brown impersonator and some of my friends in Brooklyn saw him play there and said he was the real deal. I think he had a day job as well, but at night he was doing these James Brown impersonations at this bar. He was getting notoriety and I assume some of the Daptone guys checked him out and were like ‘You should do a record with us.’ Similarly, there’s a few other artists on Daptone, like Sharon Jones, who were entertainers in that respect but built their careers later.
“I once met Charles Bradley in an airport. We’d all played at a festival in London and were going back to the States and he was the sweetest man, he was really gentle and friendly, with an amazing voice. ‘Changes’ is a song that if I’m driving somewhere in my car then I’m going to listen to it at some point.”
“I chose ‘Razor Love’, because for me songs like ‘Needle and the Damage Done’ and ‘Like a Hurricane” are the canon. When I was eighteen and walking around, smoking some reefer and thinking about my life, those songs informed me so deeply. With the songs I’ve chosen I’m thinking about things that have moved me in the last year or two, not to say that these other ones go way back, but ‘Razor Love’ is similar to the Charles Bradley song, in that it’s relatively new.
“I’ve always discredited a lot of the newer Neil stuff. I get it, I understand that he’s moving through inspirations and doing different things and I admire that, but I was never going back and listening to certain records of his. I always want to hear the hits, but this harkens back to his brilliance and genius and it was the first time with his newer stuff that I was like ‘Holy Fuck, this is one of my favourite Neil Young songs’.
“It’s on Silver & Gold, which isn’t an album that I’m even familiar with and that’s another thing about songs - and Neil Young has the ability to do this - where you can’t even explain why you like it so much. There’s a mystique and a simplicity to it, it’s all about his delivery and the sentiment and it’s not necessarily about the lyrical content.
“It took me by surprise, the first time I heard it I was ‘Yeah, it’s cool…’ but I kept coming back to it and there’s something really sweet and also very sad about this song. It’s one of those love songs that almost makes you feel bad that you’re not a better person. You’re like ‘Shit, maybe I should be nicer to my partner or I’ve got to call my Mum’. Maybe it’s that his voice is so unique and the fact that he’s singing about love and the way that he’s singing it. It’s very emotional, it’s beautiful.”
“I first heard this in my early twenties and its template for me. Eddie Hazel is one of my favourite guitar players; he was his own person - he was big on Hendrix and you can hear that - but he was on a little more acid and maybe a little bit more fucked up. My three favourite guitar players in that realm are Hendrix, Eddie Hazel and Prince, they’re all very similar in that their playing is very bluesy, but it’s also so soul-searching and untouchable. Stevie Ray Vaughn can play the shit out of the guitar but he had nothing on these people, sonically they were reinventing the way to play a guitar.
“Also, Eddie Hazel was rolling with the Funkadelic guys - think about that for a second, imagine being in that crew when that band first started in Detroit. I’ve heard some of those live recordings and they’re mind-blowing and his playing, particularly in this song, is amazing.
“Apparently Funkadelic were tripping when they recorded ‘Maggot Brain’. I don’t know if this is correct, but if it is, it’s mind-blowing, George Clinton said to him “I want you to play the guitar as if your Mother’s just died.” When I learned that it kind of made sense, Eddie Hazel’s playing on this is so deep. I try to imagine that session, being in the studio while they were making this track and trying to put myself in that place.
“This song definitely puts me in a place and it informed me through Eddie Hazel’s playing, it’s the way it sounds and how immersive it is. You might not necessarily know that from hearing my music, but I’ve listened to all kinds of heavy shit that comes out through my music. I could go on and on about Coltrane, Sun Ra and all that stuff, but that’s a whole other discussion!”
“I saw The Fall a few times. Do you know the story about a show Philadelphia, where Mark E. Smith got into a fight with Brix Smith? I wasn’t there, but I think it was the last time they were onstage together. He was pushing her and saying ‘Fuck you, Fuck this…’, the show ended after two songs, he took a train to New York, went missing for a couple of days and that was the end of that era of the band.
“I saw them later. One time I saw them and Mark E. Smith had injured his leg, it was in the basement of a church in Philly. He was hobbling around and there was a room at the side of the stage so he took a chair and the mic and started singing inside this little room for the rest of the show, it was nuts.
“As much as people talk about how much of a dick he was, I think he was so brilliant and such an amazing lyricist, particularly when I hear ‘Hip Priest’. I first heard it I was nineteen and what struck me was it combined so many things of my favourite bands, like Velvet Underground and Can. It’s so rhythmic and that repetition propels him into this verbal state, I can’t think of a better lyricist in a punk band.
“When you hear a song like this, it’s not cut and dried - it’s poetic and also so snarky. He’s well read, referencing literature and art and combining things; a lot of bands who were less smart than him didn’t know how to do that. It was also how loose and improvisational they were, improvisation was a big element of The Fall and I think that all of those things combined was why they were such an important band.
“’Hip Priest’ is so anthemic. Sometimes when I listen to Mark E. Smith I’m still deciphering what the hell he’s saying. It’s almost like it dosn’t matter, but it’s also the fact he’s spewing all this stuff out and you’re creating your own interpretation of it. "I got my last clean dirty shirt out of the wardrobe" is such a brilliant line because we’ve all done that, I still do it.
“He plays on language and has such a control of it, he’s using language in the same way he uses his attitude, which is its own artform in itself. When I think of The Fall, I think of this song.”