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Steve Gunn Unfurls His Acoustic Roots

Inspired by blues, jazz and folk, a Philly guitar phenom reared on punk expands his repertoire

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WHO: Steve Gunn got loudfastrules out of his system early, hitting the road as teenage bassist in a “pretty terrible hardcore band” for a long-forgotten summer tour. The virtuoso guitarist now burns in an entirely different way, with gently smoldering layers of folk, blues, raga, jazz and more plucked on his 1970 Guild acoustic. On last year’s Time Off album, the Philadelphia-born musician unfurled songs of relentless, understated force, while emphasizing something new: his voice. “I was kicking around various underground circuits until I really decided I wanted to work on singing,” says Gunn, whose contemplative vocals mingle with intricate finger-picking melodies in “Lurker” and “Waterwheel.” “It’s a multi-faceted style, and to sing over that is challenging. It took me a few years to get over that fear.”

MIND EXPANSION: Gunn was still in high school when he first looked beyond punk for musical inspiration, and discovered pre-World War II blues from Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and particularly Blind Blake, whose complex finger-picking style sent Gunn hurtling down a new path. “It was completely mind-boggling how one person could be playing bass and rhythm with melodies on top and also singing,” he says. Another crucial discovery was folk experimenter Sandy Bull, whose multi-cultural repertoire extended to oud and banjo: “He was the first person who cross-pollinated all this stuff that was accumulating in my brain. It was an awesome discovery.” Gunn’s hometown helped, too. “There were some really great record stores in Philly with generous people who had been around for a long time who were eager to teach me about a lot of stuff,” he recalls. “Sun Ra’s band were in North Philly, and they would play quite a bit. I would see them and my whole world opened up.”

BUSY SIGNALS: Gunn likes to keep busy. Right now, his top priority is his new album, Way Out Weather, due out tomorrow. But he also has a new record with the old-timey Black Twig Pickers coming later this year, along with a full album recorded with Kurt Vile. In June, he and U.K. guitar vet Mike Cooper – another key Gunn inspiration – released their collaborative album, Cantos de Lisboa. “I never want to be like a hired gun,” says Gunn, now living in New York. “Collaborating with people brings out a whole different way of playing and coming up with things.”

PLUGGING IN: Gunn’s main instrument remains his acoustic guitar, but he’s been adding stirring bits of electric on his recordings and live performances, and toured last year as part of Vile’s band the Violators. For those moments, Gunn picks up a handmade Telecaster-style electric crafted from knotty wood harvested from New York bowery demolition sites. “I’ve been using effects and turning it up a little bit more and stretching out,” he says. “It opens up a different window.”

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