Steve Gunn makes road music, transfixing guitar rock that gathers momentum as it heads out on an open-ended journey.
The 39-year-old blues- and jazz-schooled songwriter casts an exploratory spell on the new Eyes on the Lines (***1/2), his eighth solo album and first for prestige indie label Matador.
"You were lost on the road from a different way / Pushed too far, miles away," Gunn sings on Eyes' opener "Ancient Jules." "Slept in the grass, sky turned gray / Set out in the other direction and found a way."
The song's video finds Gunn traversing green hills and dales near the England-Scotland border until a flat tire runs his motorcycle aground. He's rescued by Michael Chapman, the 75-year-old British folk guitar great who's a Gunn collaborator.
Eyes has already taken Gunn across the Atlantic. He'll wrap up a tour in France on Sunday, then head home to Brooklyn to play the Northside Festival on Thursday before venturing to Bonnaroo in Tennessee next weekend. From there, a U.S. trek will - like one of Gunn's patient, ambling songs - wind its way back to the city where he began when he headlines Union Transfer on July 9 with his band, the Outliers.
Gunn grew up in Lansdowne, the same burg that spawned his old friend and label-mate Kurt Vile, whose band he briefly played in. On a recent rainy afternoon, Gunn hunkered down in his hometown to talk about the Philadelphia musical education that eventually led to Eyes on the Lines.
He sat down to lunch in a cafe on Lansdowne's main thoroughfare, across from Todaro's Music, where his parents bought him a bass when he was 13, and an upgrade to guitar a year later. Behind the Lansdowne Theatre next door is the bus yard where a teenage Gunn used to while away his skate-punk days "hanging out, drinking a lot of iced tea from Wawa."
Gunn wore a Philadelphia Record Exchange T-shirt and occasionally illustrated his points by playing Skip James or Django Reinhardt air guitar.
"Just a suburban kid," Gunn has memories of teenage summer vacations at the Shore, where his parents were regulars at Jerry "The Geator" Blavat's dance parties, which made their way into the song "Wildwood" on his 2013 breakthrough album, Way Out Weather.
"I didn't come from an artistic or well-traveled family. I just think that, as a kid, I was into experimenting and trying different things. Almost all kids have that sense of adventure, but for me, it carried me into exploring music."
When he was 13, his older sister took him to see his first rock show, punk-metal band Danzig at the Pulsations nightclub in Glen Mills, where his parents now live. Two years later, he went on a brief East Coast tour with a punk band called Reveal. "I may have shed a tear to get permission," he remembers. "We went to Connecticut, Boston, Rhode Island, in a van with gear. The music wasn't very good. Any human with motor skills could do it. But it was really exciting. I felt like I was traveling around the world."
The open-minded, post-hard-core band Fugazi, whom Gunn remembers seeing at Drexel University in the early 1990s, pointed a way out of punk's musical rigidity. "The thing about hard-core . . . it was a similar climate as the jocks in high school, just a lot of posturing. I was interested in musicians."
Gunn studied film and media at Temple and binged on jazz, listening to the university radio station WRTI-FM (90.1). He remembers a life-changing evening when he heard both John Coltrane's A Love Supreme and Iggy Pop and the Stooges' debut album for the first time.
He lived in a group house in West Philadelphia where former tenants had left Sun Ra albums in the common room. Early '90s indie bands like Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 and S.F. Seals would crash when they came through town to play J.C. Dobbs and the Khyber Pass Pub. Woodshedding all the while, Gunn soaked up music "like a sponge."
A job at Bassetts Ice Cream at Reading Terminal Market brought him in contact with Jack Rose, the fingerpicking blues guitarist who worked at Old City Coffee. Rose, who died in 2009, went to school on blues masters such as Skip James, Blind Blake, and John Fahey. Gunn immersed himself in them, as well.
"He was super-inspiring," Gunn says of Rose. His death "really had a profound effect on me. I said to myself, 'I am going to take this as far as it can go.' "
Gunn has never made visual art, other than dabbling in photography. But after a stint at a University City video store, the film and media major worked for a while at the Institute of Contemporary Art in West Philadelphia, which in turn led to a job at the prestigious PaceWildenstein gallery in Manhattan, where he quickly gained an appreciation for the minimalist artists the gallery represented.
"My first day on the job, I was installing a Donald Judd show," he recalled.
In 2002, he moved to Brooklyn, where he now lives with girlfriend Heidi Diehl, an author and creative-writing teacher at Brooklyn College.
He and Diehl recently took a working vacation to see Judd's work on display in the remote, high-desert town of Marfa, Texas, where Gunn's trance-inducing music must have melded perfectly with the wide-open landscape. He describes the experience as mind-blowing.
Gunn's technical command of his instrument is obvious, but he strives for a simplicity of approach shaped by favorite visual artists such as Judd, Sol Lewitt (for whom he worked as an assistant), and installation artist Robert Irwin. He cites Lawrence Weschler's Irwin bio, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, and Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost as books that impacted his creative thinking while he was recording Eyes on the Lines.
The minimalists he admires make art that "is never ornamental," he says. "They're meditative. They live in the space and work in an environment that encompasses everything around it, rather than make a shiny object.
"That really coincides with a lot of my thinking about music," Gunn says. "I've never been like, 'I want to be a songwriter that sounds like Bruce Springsteen,' or 'I want to make a free-jazz record.' I was always absorbing everything and settling into ideas."
Confessional songwriting is not Gunn's cup of iced tea, either.
"I do like albums like that, but I don't want to be that kind of musician," says the axeman. "Like, 'Here's my life and I'm in love with the woman who works at the bagel store. Let me tell you about it.' Who cares? I don't care about some privileged, 35-year-old white guy who lives in Brooklyn. So I try to mask things so I'm telling my own story through someone else's story. I think that kind of character-based content is a folk tradition and kind of a lost art."
As you might expect of titles such as "Nature Driver" and "Night Wander," Gunn says he "wrote most of these songs while I was traveling."
"The lyrical content reflects where I was and where I was going, and there's a propulsive effect with the music that goes hand in hand. I was trying to be loose and visually descriptive in my language, with even the title being open to interpretation. It's like, 'What's that about?' I don't know. What do you think it's about?"