In the spring of 2003, Steve Gunn spent two months drawing lines on a wall in Beacon, New York. He was in his twenties at the time, not long out of college and still years away from his current life as a highly respected singer-guitarist. The lines were part of a long-term installation by conceptual pioneer Sol LeWitt at Dia:Beacon, the airy temple of modern art that would open later that year in a former Nabisco factory overlooking the Hudson River.
“It was an amazing time,” Gunn says on a recent Saturday afternoon at Dia:Beacon, a few weeks before the release of The Unseen In Between, his excellent new album of folk-rock reflections and starburst-vivid electric jams. “Everyone was racing to get this place done for the opening.”
There’s a modest crowd here today, some wandering in quiet contemplation, others taking selfies with Dan Flavin’s radiant light sculptures and Richard Serra’s weathered-steel hulks. Gunn makes his way through the galleries slowly, searching for the room where he spent that spring.
LeWitt’s most famous works consist of written instructions to be carried out by others’ hands: When you see a colorful geometric tangle next to his name in a museum, it’s merely a copy of the intangible original, drawn or painted or otherwise made real by an assistant. This was Gunn’s job. Working with several other LeWitt assistants in teams of two, he traced the intricate graphite grids of Wall Drawing #1085 for hours each day while music by Steve Reich and John Coltrane played on a boombox.
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“You find the center of the wall, then you get these exact measurements and stretch thread with pins to make all these perfect straight lines and perfect squares,” he says. “That’s where the mathematic, rhythmic patterns happen. If you make a mistake, you have to start over, which is days and days of work. You have to get into a meditative state, or you’d go crazy.”
In retrospect, Gunn sees this as a pivotal time in his creative life. Born and raised outside Philadelphia, he’d studied art and music at Temple University before moving to New York and stumbling into a job at a major art gallery, which in turn led to his work with LeWitt. After each day’s shift at Dia:Beacon, he’d stay up late in his hotel room playing acoustic guitar, trying to tap into the “pattern of concentration” he was learning from the line drawings.
That sense of meditative focus helped win him an audience among devotees of far-out folk and experimental music over the next decade; a brief stint in Kurt Vile’s backing band in 2013, followed by a deal with Matador Records in 2015, raised his profile further. Today his catalog is deep, to the point where a fan might cite any one of a half-dozen LPs, made on his own or with the instrumental Gunn-Truscinski Duo, as his best. For the most part, though, Gunn remains an artist’s artist — someone who’s admired by peers like Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan, but whose streaming numbers rarely hit the millions.
The Unseen In Between could be the record to change that. It’s the most immediate set Gunn has ever made, a leap forward that’s thrilling to hear. From the Nilsson-esque soul of “New Moon” to the ecstatic solos of “Lightning Field” and the outer-space dream of “Paranoid,” its nine songs set the bar for guitar-based transcendence in 2019.
“He’s got a really unique style that I like,” says Tony Garnier, who played on The Unseen In Between during time off from his job as Bob Dylan’s bassist for the last 30 years. “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.”
Walking through Dia:Beacon, Gunn points out works by playful minimalist Fred Sandback (“He showed up with one assistant, a manila envelope of yarn and a ladder”) and Spiral Jetty artist Robert Smithson, whose estate arranged for heaps of sand and broken glass to be carted into the gallery while Gunn was working nearby. Another display brings to mind Walter De Maria, an early bandmate of Lou Reed and John Cale who later became an influential sculptor, and whose 1977 work The Lightning Field — an array of 400 stainless steel poles in the New Mexico desert — inspired Gunn’s song of the same name. “De Maria was a prankster,” he says. “You go to this remote town; you have to stay in these quarters with other people; you’re probably not going to see any lightning. But he got you out there to see this thing!”
Gunn recorded The Unseen In Between at Brooklyn’s Strange Weather studio, working with a core crew of multi-instrumentalist James Elkington (who also produced the record), jazz drummer T.J. Mainani and Garnier on bass, after an intensive demoing period to ensure the songs were ready to go. “In the past, I was unsure of myself,” he says. “I wanted to be able to walk in there and play and sing, with a solid band behind me to push the music through.”
A serious Dylan fan, Gunn could hardly believe his luck when he met Garnier through the studio’s owner. “He said, ‘Maybe we’ll just try a day or two,'” Gunn recalls. “Then he ended up doing the whole record with us. He brought in these two basses — an upright and a Hofner. He picks up the upright and shows us that it says Charles Mingus on the side in script: ‘Yeah, this was Mingus’ bass.’ What the fuck!”
The bassist, for his part, was impressed by Gunn’s presence of mind in the sessions. “You’ve got all this wild stuff going on,” Garnier says. “Sometimes you can’t even tell what key he’s in. But he’s got this calmness. Not too much is going to faze him, and it shows in his music.”
With its concise, eloquent portraits of such figures as Gunn’s late Vietnam-veteran father (“Stonehurst Cowboy”) and a local bodega cat (“Luciano”), The Unseen In Between feels, too, like a narrative breakthrough. “I came into songwriting in a weird, reverse trajectory,” Gunn says. “I was into complicated guitar playing, and I never stopped to consider what the process is to write a simple song, or how difficult it is.”
We turn a corner into the room where he followed LeWitt’s instructions as a young man, only to be surprised: The wall drawings that Gunn helped make have seemingly vanished at some point in the 16 years since then. As disappointing as this is, it’s only fair. In a 2006 essay about Wall Drawing #1085, former Dia curator Lynne Cooke wrote that “since the work is the idea … the life of a drawing when executed may, and almost always will be, contingent and temporary.”
Gunn looks closely at the blank wall, just to be sure, then shakes his head. “I could have sworn they were there,” he says, and keeps walking.