A few weeks ago, guitarist Steve Gunn found himself, unexpectedly, with some time off. He showed up for the Woodsist Festival in Big Sur, on the central coast of California, where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean. And unintentionally he went off the grid — causing him to miss a scheduled phone interview.
"I didn't know, but once I stepped into the Big Sur area, it was no bueno for any kind of service: phone, Internet, anything," he apologizes, then chuckles. "It was kind of nice, actually. I didn't look at my phone or at a computer for almost two days. I hadn't done that in so long."
Even though Gunn lives in Brooklyn, last year's "Time Off" is similarly redolent of a respite from the city in the great outdoors. Its languid tempos suggest the lazy currents of back-woods rivers. Its cascading melodies imitate rolling hills. Its metaphysical lyrics, too, allude to a relaxed sabbatical, whether Gunn's cooing about water bumping a water wheel into motion on "Water Wheel" ("The water wheel's constant turn / Open views and days to burn") or seemingly imploring listeners to "Find a spot / Kill some time / Look around" in the vagrant anthem "The Lurker."
But the title isn't a reference to unregimented rustic time, he says. Rather, its source is internal, a hint to the time Gunn spent working toward developing his songwriting voice, combining variegated pieces he'd accumulated for more than a decade.
"I kinda wanted to do something different than just being, you know, a guitar player," Gunn says. "And I felt like I got to a certain point with my guitar playing where I wanted to switch it up a little bit. Even some of the instrumental stuff I was doing before, I'd wanted to sing over it. But it took me a while to get comfortable with it."
Gunn had developed a reputation as a guitarist beyond reproach, one who cribbed from myriad styles — the free-jazz freakouts of Sonny Sharrock, the choogling Brit folk of Pentangle, the stormy acoustic workouts of John Fahey — without carbon-copying anyone. In certain circles, he's best known for his work as a member of Kurt Vile's Violators backing band. In others, it's for his work with free-folk trio GHQ, a band known for its improvised psychedelic raga. His solo material, which he's developed since 2001, displays an even broader range: the stark and meandering post-Takoma acoustic guitar drones of "Sundowner;" the blistering, psych-blasted squall of "Ocean Parkway," a record cut as a duo with avant-garde drummer John Truscinski.
On "Time Off," his first album as the leader of a trio, Gunn weaves thoughts of disparate influences — including Americana, folk, blues, psych, improvisation and drone — into superlative folk rock built more on a loose vibe than virtuosic playing. "Old Strange" starts off as a quiet Delta blues meditation before swerving into a swampy "Bron-Y-Aur" stomp. "New Decline" offers deep, choogling blues boogie á la Creedence.
"Time Off" also proves Gunn a comfortable and compelling singer and songwriter, his low, barbiturate voice a hypnotic mumble that goads closer listening to his impressionistic character sketches and story-songs about friends, acquaintances and some stranger denizens of his Brooklyn neighborhood — "people I wouldn't necessarily invite over to dinner," Gunn says, laughing.
"I wanted to not write selfish songs," he says. "I feel like songwriting can be a selfish endeavor, like many things. I was more interested in singing about [people in his neighborhood] than, like, finding the girl of my dreams at a record store, or taking a cross-country trip in a car. I think that's sort of boring to me."
A heady and elliptical travelogue, "Way Out Weather," due in October, finds Gunn furthering his cosmic evolution. His band is larger, his arrangements lusher and more expansive, his lyrics covering even more impressionistic territories. Gunn and his assembled crew of incredibly talented players — among them No-Neck Blues Band's Jason Meagher and Black Twig Picker Nathan Bowles, not to mention longtime collaborator Truscinski — cut the record in just four days. It's a far cry from the protracted battle that led to "Time Off."
"This was a really new thing for me where the songs are all new," Gunn says. "Part of the problem before, or part of my frustration of being a songwriter, is I was just obsessed with songs, and I would really kind of play them into the ground. And with ["Way Out Weather"], I just really trusted my instincts and said: 'OK, I trust myself. I'm not going to scratch my head and think about it too much.' I kind of let everything just kind of flow." S
Steve Gunn plays with Kevin Morby and Patrick Bates at Strange Matter on Sunday, Aug. 31. Doors open at 9 p.m. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 day of show for people 18 and older.