Steve Gunn’s excellently titled new album is called The Unseen in Between.
The title of his most personal work to date has multiple layers of meaning for the Lansdowne-raised songwriter and guitarist, who headlines at Johnny Brenda’s with his band on Friday.
“I was pulling my hair out what to call it,” says the 41-year-old musician. “It refers to years of writing songs and trying to contextualize them for people. And also learning more about songwriting.
“I find myself trying to explain where I’m coming from, or what I’m singing about. A lot of my lyrics and my intentions are observational. I’m always looking beyond the surface, trying to be more fully aware of what else is going on as the world moves by.”
Gunn is a formidable guitarist, so good it overshadows his ability as a songwriter. He started as a Delaware County teenage skateboarder in the 1990s, educating himself on hard-core bands at first, and then growing more musically expansive.
Punk adventurers Fugazi led him to Sonic Youth — whose bassist Kim Gordon teamed with Gunn in recording a live score to Andy Warhol’s film Kiss at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh this year.
Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation in turn pointed him toward Philadelphia Record Exchange discoveries such as blues explorers John Fahey and Skip James, the Mississippi titan buried in Bala Cynwyd.
Since Gunn started as a solo artist with his self-titled debut in 2007, he’s been expert at making transfixing mood music that blends those influences — his love of jazz, blues, folk, and rock — into a satisfying whole.
But because his instrumental work is so commanding, and his lyrics have tended toward the abstract — showing the influence of visual media on Gunn, who studied art history at Temple University — it’s often been difficult to get a grip on what he’s singing about.
That changes with The Unseen in Between, his second album to be released on Matador Records, the prestige indie that is also home to Kurt Vile, Gunn’s fellow Lansdowne native.
“This record is pretty introspective,” Gunn said, speaking from his rehearsal space in Brooklyn earlier this year. (This story is based on two conversations with Gunn, one in January when the album was released and another this month.)
Unseen in Between is filled with songs that are revealing in ways that Gunn has never felt comfortable writing about before. “It’s the first time I let my guard down like that,” he says. “So the title is also appropriate that way.”
That more revealing approach is the result of life events, and Gunn’s determination to take the time to process them.
When Gunn released his previous album, Eyes on the Lines, in 2016, he felt that he reached a watershed moment in his career. It was first released on Matador after years of putting out music on smaller labels.
But two weeks after the album’s release, Gunn’s father — also named Steve — died of brain cancer after a long illness. He went on tour extensively in support of Eyes. “I put the record out and I really slogged it,” he says. “I was really out there for a long time, and it just became this long blur, with grumpy band members.”
When he got off the road, Gunn focused on songwriting, and reflected on where he came from, and where he had arrived. “This one has a little more perspective to it,” he says.
Thankful he had spent time with his father before his death, he wrote “Stonehurst Cowboy,” for his dad, who grew up in the far West Philadelphia neighborhood of Stonehurst, close by 69th Street and Upper Darby.
“He had this nickname, Stonehurst Cowboy, and he was always talking about how he was the toughest guy in the neighborhood. It became an ongoing joke all his life.”
The song is sung from Gunn’s father’s perspective first, and then his own, revisiting the neighborhood his father grew up in. “Dear house, near 69th, old street looks the same,” it begins. “Trees are strong, faces are gone, background still the same.”
Gunn recorded “Stonehurst” and the entirety of Unseen with producer James Elkington in Brooklyn, with Tony Garnier, who is Bob Dylan’s longtime bass player, playing on the album. Garnier got involved because he’d been working at the same studio with guitarist Marc Ribot, and when he heard Gunn’s demos, asked to play on them.
A big Dylan fan, Gunn was thrilled to work with Garnier, and in awe when the musician turned up with an upright bass once owned by jazz man Charles Mingus. “I don’t mean to be New Agey, but one of the great things about playing music and traveling is I get to meet all these interesting people and sometimes play with them,” Gunn says.
(The same kind of serendipity served Gunn well when he heard a public radio interview with Japanese guitarist Sachiko Kanenobu talking about her 1972 album, Misora. Soon thereafter, the two musicians met through a mutual friend, and it turned out that the 70-year-old Kanenobu was already a Gunn fan. She opened for him in Central Park last month, and he’s slated to produce her next record.)
“Sometimes you can’t even tell what key he’s in,” the bassist said. “But he’s got this calmness. Not too much is going to faze him and it shows in his music. … When we first started recording, I would look at the lyrics and go, ‘What is he even talking about?’ The way they hit your brain is totally different. There’s this big, cool mystery there.”
With “Stonehurst,” Gunn aimed to explore mysteries from his family’s past. “My father had a really big group of friends, a Vietnam-era, working-class crew,” he says. “Season tickets to Eagles games, tailgate parties at the Vet. They had a whole section, 602, of about 30 people deep. I was there as a kid.”
He had those good memories, but when his father became ill, “I really wanted to know more about his life.” Gunn’s father served in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea during Vietnam, but he had three brothers who saw combat.
“Back then friends, brothers, and me all got sent away,” Gunn sings in “Stonehurst.” “Came back feeling so undone, without much to say.”
“Particularly with parents and families affected by war, there’s a lot of undiscussed levels of pain,” he says. “Different levels of secrecy and suffering. I think that behavior and psychology got spread around the families. They all made lives for themselves. But I just became interested in that story, and I wanted to know more.”
“Stonehurst” also has a lighter side. The elder Gunn was a big boxing fan, and his son immortalizes him as having “the fastest hands in the West.” (Philly, that is.)
“It was a song I knew I wanted to write in honor of him, and it was really intense. It was really cathartic to write. But I also think he would have gotten a kick out of it. He was such a tough guy, but also so funny and loving. ... I was in a really emotional state when I recorded that, and I think it comes through.”