Tone Glow 076: Steve Gunn
An interview with guitarist, songwriter, and improviser Steve Gunn
Steve Gunn is a guitarist, songwriter, and improviser from New York City whose music is by turns breezy and enigmatic, earthy and psychedelic. In the late ’00s he came to prominence as a member of the exploratory drone trio GHQ alongside Marcia Bassett and Pete Nolan of Magik Markers while simultaneously beginning to write songs that took cues from the more exploratory corners of ’70s British folk and American roots music. Over the past decade he has produced albums by Michael Chapman and collaborated with MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, Mary Lattimore, Bridget St John, Body/Head, The Black Twig Pickers, and countless others in addition to his long-standing free improv duo with drummer John Truscinski. His new solo album Other You is out now on Matador and was recorded by Rob Schnapf in late 2020-early 2021 in Los Angeles. Jonathan Williger spoke to Gunn on August 5th, 2021 about shared habitual behaviors, working with musical icons from a previous generation, the oblique influence of free jazz on his music, and embracing the Grateful Dead.
Jonathan Williger: Hey Steve, how are you doing?
Steve Gunn: Hey Jonathan, I’m good.
How has your day been so far?
Pretty relaxed, pretty chill. I’m in Brooklyn and yeah, the weather’s nice. I spent some time on my roof this morning.
You just toured recently. Have you been decompressing from that for a little bit?
Kind of, yeah. It’s been the first tour in a while, and it wasn’t even that long, but I have this routine when I come back. Just sort of really check out, sleep in, walk around. Take it easy. So I’ve been doing that for the past four days I guess, just decompressing.
Did the tour feel any different than usual? Or was it strangely normal?
It was kind of a weird combination of things. When I take a long break it takes me four or five shows to get into it and get comfortable, and I also have a bunch of new songs. By the time the tour was wrapping up, I was like “Ok, I finally have my set together.” And then the tour was done (laughs). But it’s all part of it, I understand that. A lot of it felt like, “Oh, this is what it was like.” There’s setting up the pedals, and carrying the guitars, and being in a van—some of those weird little details I missed kind of suddenly came back, like, “Oh yeah. Right. This is what it was like.” And also I was traveling with one of my closest friends and it’s always fun when you can drive five hours and listen to music and just talk shit.
What were the van tunes?
Well, we listened to a bunch of radio shows. We’re big WFMU fans and we listened to a lot of Ira Kaplan’s show, and they extend two to three hours. Usually pair off and play different things. We were listening to some newly released Sun Ra recording, and there’s this podcast I really like called Dogpatch. I don’t know if you know this one.
No, what is that about?
It’s two guys, they collect records. They basically do themed episodes and they’re all based on collecting. They have soundbites and they’re funny as hell, and some of the records they talk about are very rich as far as a narrative and character based. They had a new episode that came out right when we were on the road about music that was recorded in prison. They knew all about the sessions, and how they were recorded, and people who were in other bands, and obscure compilations that had come out. It was pretty fascinating.
Do you consider yourself a record collector?
Yes (laughter). I’m not elbowing people out of the way at record fairs, you know. I’m more of a deep appreciator. And I realized that I love the search, not even for records, but just junk and books. I’m a scavenger at heart and being on the road, a primary activity of ours is not “shopping” per se, but looking. I’m on Craigslist in different cities, and I’m looking for gear and looking through bookstores. My collection isn’t pristine and I’m not a Discogs hound, but I love looking. Lately I’ve been really into beat-up records. Not beat up-vinyl, but I've been looking for old mono copies of Blue Note records. If they’re in pristine condition it’s ridiculous, but you can find them with beat-up covers, and they usually sound incredible.
I’m a very habit-based person, and my own record collecting comes from that impulse. You mentioned earlier you have a routine when you come back from tour, too. Do you find yourself being a habit-driven person in general?
Definitely. And I’ve learned more about habitual behavior as I’ve gotten a little bit older and tried personally breaking out of patterns. Habitual purchasing, habitual everything. I think you’d be lying to yourself if you said you weren’t a habitual person. A key realization for me, and for a lot of people, is trying to observe that and work around it on a broad scale.
Do you practice guitar a lot? How have you tried to break out of musical habits and patterns?
When I get back from tour I kind of take a break, but generally I play a lot. I think now I set goals, get into one thing and then I perfect it, chipping away at it for as long as it takes. I get a little obsessive with certain things I do, but then I’ll move to something else. I usually have about three different projects that I bounce around in. I have songwriting, and recently I got invited to do this live film score in Belgium in October, so I’m immersing myself in that. I’ve also been playing a lot of classical guitar; I’ve been nerding out on that and locking the door for a few hours. I have a rehearsal space and I’ll go there for the afternoon and “log out,” as it were. I just play.
How did the classical guitar thing come about?
I’m really glad it happened because it changed my playing. A few months before the pandemic I decided I was going to get one. It wasn’t expensive, but I’m friendly with—do you know the store Chicago Music Exchange?
Actually, no, I don’t.
It’s huge, it’s like an institution in Chicago. It’s an amazing place, and they’re very knowledgeable and supportive. I hit them up and was like, “Hey do you guys have any advice? I want to get a solid, not expensive classical guitar,” and they’re like, “Oh, you gotta get one of these.” Cordova is the name of the brand. I had been listening to a lot of music from Segovia, a lot of Spanish guitar, and there’s a guitar player named Bola Sete—
I have his LP on Takoma.
That’s one of my favorite albums. That record has always mystified me, especially because of his history as a pretty famous bossa nova guitar player in Brazil, and the fact that he ended up in the Bay Area. He was an older guy then, playing a lot more open-ended stuff than he was doing in the past. [John] Fahey just stumbled in and put that record out. Anyway, that record’s a huge one for me, and it got me really thinking about getting a classical guitar. I had been playing for so long on steel string and electric, practicing fingerstyle guitar for a long time, and frankly getting tired and bored of it. So I was trying to change things, find different ways of playing, and I really settled into my abilities with classical and it just felt different tonally. Even the simple fact that the fretboard is bigger, I could get different sounds out of it. I just played that classical guitar incessantly during the pandemic, and I basically wrote this new record on that guitar and a little piano that I have at my place. Now I’m trying to upgrade. I've been combing Reverb and learning about luthiers, particularly in Japan, that make well-made Spanish style classical guitars that are, you know, five thousand dollars. When I made the new album I borrowed some gear from my friend who runs the store Old Style guitars in Silverlake and he lent me this Japanese classical. I should have purchased it from him, but I waited too long and somebody else got it.
There’s a very open sound to the new record that feels very gentle, and it makes sense you had gotten into that style and those records.
I think one of the differences was that the classical simplified certain things for me. Generally the chords rang out a little differently. I wasn’t being overly flashy or trying to come up with these really complicated things that I was attempting before. I would be open tuning with a capo on the 4th fret, and then I would write this song and record it on my little Zoom recorder. At the end of it I’d totally forget what tuning I had it in, what key or capo, and then I’d be fishing around in this murky territory trying to learn my own goddamn song. Such a ridiculous predicament to be in.
None of your music seems that flashy. There’s a lot of technicality to it, but I wouldn’t say that any of your records are shreddy in that same way—at least the songwriting records.
Flashy might be the wrong word, but with a steel string, I wouldn’t say I was overthinking it, but I could have simplified certain things. Using a different instrument like classical guitar completely changed my thought patterns and got me out of—talk about habits—the same kind of habits of playing, it kind of cracked me out of not just like falling into the same seven things that I would do.
You mentioned Bola Sete earlier. One thing I find interesting about his career is the development from the bossa nova stuff to his more expansive later period, and you’ve worked with people who have done similar things: Michael Chapman and Bridget St John are the folks who come to mind. I wanted to ask you a little about working on Michael Chapman’s records and what you might have learned from him, and then same with Bridget St John—what did she bring to the table for the new record, and what was it like working with people with accumulative knowledge of many years of playing this kind of music?
Yeah, I met Michael back when Jack Rose—who was also a big influence on me—when he passed away. I had been hanging with Jack and he talked about Michael quite a bit and they had recently become friends and they toured a bunch. After hearing Jack talk about him so much I got his records and was blown away by his early albums. Michael came to the states to play some tribute shows for Jack, and we became fast friends. Fast forward just six months later, I was in Europe meeting up with him to play gigs. We stayed up many nights talking. I learned a lot from him and I value that friendship. He also was very, very close friends with Bridget. Bridget lived in New York, and I saw her play a few times, but Michael tied me in with her a little tighter. It was amazing to witness their friendship and hear them talk about their early careers, especially what they went through in the music business. Obviously it was extremely different, but they got pushed around at a young age by big labels. Back then, a lot of labels were throwing a lot of money around, and a lot of people almost drank themselves to death.
What were some specific things you talked about in those late night sessions? What were some of the lessons you took away from that and may have incorporated into your own career?
Bridget and Michael were hanging out in London in the late ’60s, and they were around my heroes, as far as that music goes. I loved hearing them talk about hanging out at this famous club called Les Cousins. Do you know about this place?
Can you give me a refresher?
It was this folk club in London’s SoHo where they would have sessions that would go all night. It was around for a good amount of time. That’s where a lot of musicians, people who I was pretty fascinated with, got their start. People like Davey Graham, and then Bert Jansch, that whole Pentangle scene. Bridget played there a lot. Hendrix played there—Hendrix borrowed Michael’s guitar to play, apparently—you know, those are the kind of stories that I’ve heard numerous times but don’t mind Michael telling them to me over the years (laughs).
But I guess to answer your question, it was so reassuring for me, as an aspiring songwriter and musician, to befriend these people and to gain some of their knowledge, both musically and in life in general. These people are older than my parents. One thing that’s really cool about Michael is he was open-minded about music, and he was so well-read, and so smart. It was just sort of profound you know, and he did teach me a lot. He knows a shit ton about jazz. And also just guitars in general, guitar nerdery. He’s got a room full of guitars at his home.
A little glimpse into your future there.
But it was also so cool cause he was listening to current music. He’d be like, “Hey, have you heard this new album by Julie Byrne? I really like her music.” I was like, “Damn, yeah, I know her.” He wasn’t just sitting around listening to Django Reinhardt. He was listening to experimental music, and all kinds of new stuff.
Do you ever astrally project yourself 30 years into the future and think, “What am I going to be doing at that point? Am I still going to be making music? What kind of music am I going to be making?”
Yeah (laughs). The astral projection really brings along the traditional waves of anxiety. At this point, astrally projecting myself into next year is even scary. I’m committed to playing music and I’ll always do it. Sometimes I’m positive I’ll be playing songs in thirty years, but I don’t want to say I’ll be doing the same thing I’m doing now because I’m constantly trying to learn new things. And I always feel like I’m an aspiring musician and there’s so much to learn. I will definitely be playing classical guitar. I will have one of those at home and be fidgeting around with that, because I cracked into that just a little bit and there’s an overwhelming amount of things for me to learn which I think will extend past my lifetime. I’m hoping that I won’t accumulate so much that I can’t move around wherever I’m living at the time. I don’t know, I almost feel like I’m a 75 year old man now so I’ll probably just be the same (laughs).
I work at a record label and when I was looking at radio charts last year, I saw you on the Americana chart specifically. It’s interesting that some radio programmers are putting you in that box. I wanted to see what you thought of that—what is your relationship to the concept of Americana or folk traditions? A lot of people see you as coming out of some folky thing, but your music sounds different, more cosmic or psychedelic to me.
I have to admit, “Americana” is my least favorite categorization of music. I understand that, perhaps, particularly in England, that something like that can be labeled. And perhaps Americana, if I do understand the categorization correctly, it’s not something I particularly enjoy or like.
What’s that understanding?
I think that understanding is a pseudo troubadour-style music with a certain kind of drum style and a certain kind of production. Kind of the leather vest, cowboy hat thing. I don’t know if these details make any sense.
You’re painting a picture.
Look, no disrespect to anyone who rocks a leather vest and cowboy hat, but it’s just not my thing. I don’t know if that’s judgmental or strange, but I have trouble with that term. Particularly because I don’t ever want to say I’m proudly American. The tradition obviously makes sense, and folk tradition is important to me, but maybe it’s the modern take on the folk tradition that rubs me the wrong way. Us talking about Michael and Bridget, knowing people who have been around and learning from them, to me that’s the folk tradition. The archival recordings of Sam Charters and those collectors of that era—that music is very, very influential to me too. But to categorize and commercialize it is something I’m not quite into. I think some people would say, “Well, Steve, what does your music sound like?” You can call it whatever you want.
There’s a certain rigidity to the modern folk movement to a certain extent. This idea that “this is how it’s always been done and so this is how we must do it,” rather than what you’re talking about, which is learning what has been done, using these pearls of wisdom and then moving forward in your own direction based on what those may be.
Yeah. I also play different kinds of music as well. I’m really into improvisation and I’ve explored that as long as I’ve been doing songwriting, probably even longer. I’ve always been trying to incorporate those ideas into what I do as well. Sometimes in the studio that’s difficult. Certainly live, if I’m playing a solo show, I tend to kind of drift into an open-ended sort of thing. I know that’s considered “jamming,” or whatever you’d like to call it, but that’s an important process to me as well.
I wanted to ask you about that dichotomy a little bit--do you see them as separate or complimentary?
I certainly think it would be complementary just to my process, and I have to say, this new record is a good example of that. There’s a lot of open space in this new album, and there’s more improvisational moments. The people that I asked to be involved with the album are in that world as well, so that influence was creeping in more than usual. With this particular record I was feeling free to try new things.
I wanted to go back and ask you a little bit about your earlier career. I first started listening to you when GHQ was putting out records, and I was in New York at the time.
Where do you live now?
I live in Washington, DC now.
Oh, cool. What label did you work for?
I currently work for Smithsonian Folkways.
Oh, awesome, ok!
But yeah, it’s one of the two record labels here in DC (laughs).
The other one being Dischord? (laughter).
I just had this realization that Folkways and Discord are two of the most influential record labels in my life, which is like the folk tradition we talked about, but also the punk or DIY—I hate using that term—but Dischord was the label that definitely changed my young mind.
Yeah, it definitely shows in some of that early work which is scuzzy, lo-fi, and pretty raw, right?
Yeah, it’s true. GHQ was the first time I recorded music. I had been living in Philadelphia. At the time, Philly was such fertile ground to learn so much about so many different kinds of music. I moved out of my parents’ house, and I was playing guitar and going to shows—mostly punk and hardcore shows—before moving into one of those big houses where people had been passing through for years, a long time. So there were some older people, and some freaks, and music was at the core of a lot of these people’s lives. So suddenly I’m in a house and there’s hundreds of records in the living room and I’m like, “What the hell is this Sun City Girls record?” Then I went and saw the Sun Ra Arkestra for the first time and it completely blew my mind. Knowing they were living in the same city, suddenly I would see some of the members around.
All this stuff coincided with my early record-buying explorations, buying 7-inches through the mail. There were record stores where I could go through the bins, learn about bands from New Zealand, learn about labels that were putting out their own records. There were all these interesting venues in Philadelphia that were bringing in all kinds of improvisational free jazz. There were bands coming down from New York that completely floored me. There was a band that William Parker was in named The David S. Ware Quartet that was Susie Ibarra, Matthew Shipp, Parker, and David S. Ware, rest in peace, and that band just completely opened my mind. I went to the early Vision Festivals and saw the 3rd or 4th wave of the loft scene, the free jazz scene, and saw people like Milford Graves and Peter Brötzmann—people who completely cracked open any kind of traditional structure that I had known. I also felt the same excitement and enthusiasm when I went to see certain punk bands in the basement that were frightening and scary and I couldn’t wrap my head around what they were doing. That has nothing to do with what my music sounds like I guess (laughs).
Well, some of it perhaps. The feeling of improvising is connected to that wading into the unknown and not really knowing what’s going to happen or even, “How did that thing that I just did just happen?”
Yeah. And I also have to say, talking about my musical trajectory of sorts—I don’t really believe in people calling me out like, “Oh you’re talking about Mliford Graves or someone like that and your music doesn’t sound anything like it, how dare you!” My influences don’t necessarily correlate in a straight line into what I do. They aren’t all just music either: it’s visual art and poetry and strangers walking down the street. Sometimes I catch myself talking a lot about very challenging music, and I realize you could probably drive around in a convertible listening to my record and feel pretty good about it.
Well, especially with someone like Milford Graves, his work is so conceptual it doesn’t have to influence people in a straight line, right? Have you gone to see any of the Milford Graves exhibits that popped up, either at the ICA or I guess, well actually it was in New York too—
I didn’t, and I regret not going to the show in Philadelphia. I’ve been to his home and I’ve met him, and I’ve seen him play. Just recently I went to a memorial concert for him. He certainly is not about living in a straight line and one of his principles is knowing yourself and being yourself, and also incorporating your mind and body together with your practice. For me, all of those teachings are really profound and important. I guess it’s getting to what I’m talking about; being yourself and also having a bit of discipline in your practice and exploring that discipline. But at the same time, exploring that freedom.
That probably goes back to what you were talking about earlier in this conversation in terms of breaking your habits. And identifying those artistic tics or patterns you fall into, thinking critically about them, and opening yourself up.
Yeah, for sure. This record feels very open to me, particularly in the structured confines of songwriting. I also started changing my relationship to structure and I realized structure could be a good exercise, certainly for someone like me who can play the same five-minute-long riff for three hours and be satisfied. I think that constructing songs is a challenge and it’s something I really enjoy. I’ve learned to get a more simplified idea of what to do and also improve things like singing, for instance, and melody. It’s something that I’m learning about. At the same time, I still enjoy doing open-ended improvisation and deep listening. All that music is very important to me and stuff that I listen to quite a bit. I just worked on this improvised piano and classical guitar project that’s just like a conversation. We have a whole album nearly done. That was as challenging, as rewarding, as songwriting to me.
Did I answer your question about GHQ? Because I can.
I was just curious what that project felt like. It was a cool thing for me. The thing that roped me in was the split 7-inch with Ex-Cocaine on Not Not Fun.
Oh my god that’s amazing!
I bought that from Kim’s on St. Mark’s when I was in college.
It’s funny cause I was in Montana travelling a few years ago and I was in—what’s the city in Montana? Missoula?
I was in a record store in Missoula, Montana. We didn’t even have a gig there, we just went to the local record store. I’m flipping through a bin and this guy comes up to me and he’s like, “Hey man, are you Steve?” and I was like, “Yeah, yeah.” And he’s like, “I’m the guy from Ex-Cocaine.” I was like, “Holy shit! Like fuck! Wow, man.” Totally took me off guard.
They did a record on Siltbreeze too, right?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Talk about a Philly institution.
Well, that’s what I’m talking about. With Siltbreeze, I would go into the Philadelphia Record Exchange and learn about the bands that were on that label, both that lived in Philadelphia and elsewhere. I definitely missed seeing the Dead C in their heyday, and same with Harry Pussy, but I was aware of that music. With GHQ I was connected with Marcia Bassett who was in a band called Un that were on Siltbreeze. I was a big fan of that band. At the time, this was in my early twenties, I got really into Sandy Bull, particularly the piece “Electric Blend” with Billy Higgins, which is like the first time that I heard someone playing an Indian style piece on guitar. I started playing like that and at the time, and I was listening to a lot of classical Indian music. When GHQ formed and I connected with Marsha, and Pete Nolan who was in the Magik Markers, we just played a lot. I was playing acoustic through a lot of those tracks. For me it was a complete and total exploration of everything: sound, tone.
It is very textural music.
Yeah, it was textural stuff. But while that was going I was—when you asked me if I was practicing a lot—that’s when I was really practicing. For hours and hours and hours locked in my room. I became obsessed and got really into playing. During that time I also started working on my own music at home, and I started writing songs. I was always interested in writing songs because I loved punk music, but I loved pre-war blues stuff as much anything else. I also found the correlation with jazz and blues, with some of the stuff that had happened in England, including the players I mentioned before. That stuff became a focus to me and I quietly made my first CD of songs.
Was that the one on Digitalis with the John Martyn cover on it? The name of which I am blanking—
Yes! This was the time when Volcanic Tongue gave records Tip of the Tongue—do you remember this?
I followed all that stuff. Volcanic Tongue, Fusetron -- I discovered a lot of music through those distros.
Other Music was also big for me, because they would stock my CD-Rs. Even before that CD on Digitalis, I was making CD-Rs. I still have them tucked in my closet. I would go to Other Music and they would buy ten CDs from me, and Volcanic Tongue would review whatever I sent them. I got to know a lot of different people around that time. For instance, that label who did the first GHQ Record, Time-Lag Records, they released this Brazilian record called Satwa by Lula Côrtes which became one of my favorite records.
That was an interesting time especially because at that point in experimental music the guitar was the preferred instrument for so many, and that has changed a lot in the past decade, right?
It has, yeah. I definitely have to bring up the guitar soli stuff as well, the Fahey-influenced virtuosic scene that was happening. I wouldn’t say I was involved in that scene per se, but I was going to see guitar players and shows, and Jack [Rose] was definitely a part of that. Back then I was playing this incredibly experimental music, and also wanting to sing, so still at that time I was all over the map. It’s funny because when I released songs on CDs, people would be like, “Dude, I didn’t know you sang folky songs.” I was all over the place. I still feel that way.
I have another question related to that scene… Bands like Pelt, and even Jack Rose’s solo records, and perhaps starting with Robbie Basho and Fahey, in that scene specifically there’s a lot of veneration Indian classical music and other music from around the world, and primarily these are white dudes doing this.
I know. Yeah.
I wonder how those records are going to hold up, how history will judge them as we become more sensitive to the appropriative aspects of the music. I’m curious what you think about that too.
That scene, the fingerstyle stuff, it was a bunch of white dudes. Here we are playing country blues and Blind Blake tunes and putting our feet up on stools and being these virtuosic players. They were celebrating this music, which was great, but I definitely felt like it was an exclusive environment. It felt disconnected from the source and the history of the music. For me, that was lost. I also think that with Indian classical music, for instance a band like Pelt, I don’t necessarily think that they are completely trying to pretend to play raga, so to speak. It’s an influence, but those guys know the music. Mike Gangloff, who is one of the founding members, Patrick Best one of the other founding members, and all of them, they are very, very knowledgeable about what they’re doing. Whether it’s the experimental side of things, or the incorporation of the tones they’ve gained and learned about from other parts of the world. I have to say that I’ve learned a lot about music, particularly world music, from them. I remember hearing the music of Pandit Pran Nath for the first time while hanging out with Patrick. And Patrick originally was playing in GHQ when we first started.
Oh, I didn’t realize that.
Yeah, this was very early. So, I got to know and understand that they were combining this experimentation with these tonalities. They could see a correlation with the tonality of the Indian classical players, in this case the Dhrupad singers, with the kind of experimentation they were trying to do. I don’t think they were taking it and saying, “Look at me with a sitar, man.” It was more about tonality than anything else. I am certainly conscious of that, but as a listener and as a player, I felt that the music opened up my ears and my sensibilities to learn. It helped me break out of the confines of Mixolydian modes, and guitar nerdery, and set me on a path of exploration. I found that both with world music and other bands—like discovering Sonic Youth, for instance—all that stuff helped me learn to be a listener and to gain knowledge from listening, playing, and interpreting.
Pandit Pran Nath also opened it up to a lot of influential avant-garde composers in New York.
There’s that direct correlation between Pandit Pran Nath and La Monte Young that I learned later. La Monte Young’s whole take on minimal drone exploration, he learned that all directly from studying with him. I went and saw concerts at the Dream House. It wasn’t Pandit Pran Nath, he wasn’t alive, but I could see a direct correlation. Those were pretty profound experiences for me when I was first hanging around in New York.
I’ve been to one of those too and had a similar experience.
It was kind of amazing. To get back to your question, I think that you can get the basics of raga, but obviously it’s very complicated. There’s a long history and a discipline that most people in the States probably wouldn’t be able to handle (laughs). Learning more about it later made me realize it’s a whole different discipline and practice. Slapping a raga on your experimental CD-R can be a bit disrespectful. In retrospect I certainly agree with that.
It’s something that I’m constantly thinking about and trying to contend with in my own listening.
I think about that a lot too, yeah.
I know someone who went to go see you recently and they said you played “Wharf Rat,” so I wanted to ask you about the Grateful Dead.
Oh, was that at the Yo La Tengo thing?
I guess it was. Or maybe I was lied to! You mentioned the term “jam” earlier and you had a negative connotation to it, and I wanted to ask what you thought of the re-exploration of jam bands, the embrace amongst experimental music heads and indie music people of the Dead, and even Phish. Where do you see you and your music fitting into that continuum?
Ok, well I’m definitely not a Phish fan. Actually, I take that back. I’m just not that familiar with their music. However, I know exactly the moment where I decided I like the Dead. When I was a punk in high school I passionately hated the Grateful Dead because of what they represented at that time: the jocks, the party scene, the keggers, the jeeps with the Steal Your Face stickers on the back and stuff like that. It didn’t register with me because this was the “Touch of Grey” stadium era. I didn’t really understand the history of it until much later. I was going to the Philly Record Exchange quite a bit and listening to everything, buying German import CDs of Can and Ash Ra Tempel. Making these discoveries was profound back then where you buy an import CD for 25 dollars. I remember being in the record store and someone playing live Dead. I think it was the “Morning Dew” from Europe ’72, and I didn’t know what it was. I asked the clerk, “What the hell is this?” I ended up buying it and to me it sounded like Ash Ra Tempel, which, fast forward to now, you can hear a similarity. After that I got into the Dick’s Picks stuff, the live recordings, and learning more. I had the wrong take. Some of the recordings from the early ’70s were pretty exploratory. I was listening to a lot of krautrock at the time, and there’s not much of a difference. It was like, fuck. It opened up a different window into what they did.
The songs themselves are more accessible in a way that can lead to more regular listening than Can or Ash Ra or something like that.
That’s true. I guess what got me was the open-ended moments. Like a twenty minute version of “Playing in the Band.” I never knew to listen to the whole song through and to see where they were going with their set. Listening and then later discovering things like—what’s that famous soundcheck they did? What’s it called?
Right, yeah, Watkins Glen.
That’s called a jam, so I’m not necessarily against that word, per se. Did you ever hear that? The Watkins Glen soundcheck?
’73, which I think is my favorite year. That was one of those double discs I had. I also made the connection with Greg Ginn and Black Flag, knowing he was super into them. For what reasons? Why would a band that was one of the forebears of punk, a band that had brought their own sound system, why were they so into the Dead? It was eye opening to learn about the Dead creating their own sound system and customizing their gear. And also playing so much.
Have you engaged much in contemporary Grateful Dead culture? There are some bands around New York that are playing exclusively Dead songs and John Mayer is Jerry now. Have you gone to any of those shows?
No, I’m not there. I don’t think I’m that kind of Dead guy, know what I mean? I’m not going to go and see Mayer and pay seventy five dollars. I don’t think I’d enjoy that. I’m not nostalgic about it. I never was. I don’t take a road trip with my buddies and sing along to my favorite sets. You know those kinds of Dead fans?
I’m not that person. I’m more into what they did and what they accomplished rather than smoking a little weed and going to a stadium and seeing John Mayer. I’m just not interested.
(laughs). It is always disconcerting when you’re listening to “Deal” and all of a sudden Mayer starts singing.
I did see Phil Lesh and Friends play at Newport Folk Festival a few years ago with Warren Haynes. He sat in with them and it was nuts. I was standing on the side of the stage and he did this ten minute slide solo. That’s really the only kind of new Dead thing I’ve experienced (laughs). When you brought up “Wharf Rat,” that’s one of my favorite Dead songs. I played it years ago with Tom Carter. But then I played it again with Ira and William Tyler two years ago at one of the Yo La Tengo Hanukkah shows.
One last specific question about the new record—there are several songs where you sing about taking walks. Are walks a regular part of your everyday life? I guess being in New York it has to be.
I’m a walker, I love walking. That’s funny.
What about that practice is so relaxing?
That’s a good question. Partially the walking correlates with being open and exploratory. I do a lot of walking that isn’t to a specific destination. I’m just being receptive to what’s around me, being observational. I’m present in my current space. Particularly with this record, and the fact that it was a very isolated time, walking was really important for me. Being in the park close to where I live was a godsend and it was an important part of my process, an important part of opening myself up a little more.
I feel the same way. I’ve taken a lot of walks in the pandemic era. I have different routes I take around my neighborhood in DC. I do a lot of it at night, too.
Oh nice. Perhaps that sentiment is basically me trying to understand my own habitual behavior and observational behavior, being more present and, not to get too heavy-handed, but freeing up a lot of emotional baggage and stress, expanding my general consciousness. It’s easy to have tunnel vision with a lot of things. Even with this new record, I feel like I accomplished breaking out of all of that and had a wider perspective, a wider view of what I was doing.
Thank you so much for this conversation. I’ve been following your music for a long, long time.
This is so fun. It’s like talking to a friend. I could talk all day. Thank you, man.
Thank you for reading the seventy-sixth issue of Tone Glow. Let’s all recognize the habitual patterns we have.
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