“You have to look at it a little bit to figure out what it is,” Steve Gunn says. “Some people think it’s a soccer ball, some people think it’s, like, a fake Buckminster Fuller sculpture, which I think it actually is. But for me, it was such an odd discovery. I came across that object and it really took me by surprise. I took a photo of it and had a really mysterious sort of experience with it, where I just wasn’t sure how it ended up where it was or what it was or who made it, all this stuff. It was totally unknown to me.”
Gunn’s referring to the object on the cover of his latest album, Eyes on the Lines. Like the mysterious pile of cloth and fabric that adorns the cover of his previous effort, 2014’s Way Out Weather, it looks like something you might pull over to the side of a country road to squint at — almost identifiable, but not quite.
In a way, it’s reflective of the music on the album itself: familiar but just outside of the grasp of definition. Is it blues rock? Americana? Psych rock? Gunn’s music highlights the inadequacy of those labels. They all almost fit, but there’s always something -— the appearance of a subtly jangling piano, some shimmering guitar textures — that evades an easy label.
Recently, Gunn spoke over the phone about his musical evolution and the value of collaboration and improvisation.
Weld: Eyes on the Lines has a very different feeling than Way Out Weather — it’s less atmospheric and more focused on the guitar as a melodic voice. What kind of shift did you want to make with this album?
Steve Gunn: The previous album was made in the same way, but we made it a lot faster. I think in four or five days, we did most of the tracking. This next one, we spent a little bit more time on. Some of the songs are a bit more concise. There’s a different approach to certain instruments. Way Out Weather is a bit more moody and wide-open. The new one’s a bit more of psych. Melodically, it’s a little bit different, too.
Weld: Your music is often described as ‘road-trip music.’ The title of Eyes on the Lines seems like kind of a sly reference to that.
Gunn: I like to have titles that don’t have a direct reference underneath it. As I was trying to figure out what to do with the record, I found multiple meanings for it. It could represent different things, if that makes any sense.
Similar t the title, I feel like the image… you really have to gaze at the photo and figure out on your own what it is and interpret it for yourself. And I feel like it reflects the music, too, because I like to have little options for what people get out of it.
Weld: Your music defies easy labels. What did you listen to growing up? What influenced you?
Gunn: I was just a normal suburban kid playing sports and running around. My parents were pretty musical people, and I expressed interest in playing instruments and they were really supportive. I had an older sister who was into music, and I was into skateboarding, so with the culture around all that, there were a lot of people I gravitated toward.
I borrowed a lot of music from my older sister and I had access to a lot of albums, and I picked her brain about certain bands. And in the ‘90s, rap was kind of exploding at the time, and I was absorbing all that and constantly listening to all different kinds of stuff.
Weld: A lot of your discography is built around collaboration. You’ve done albums with Hiss Golden Messenger and Kurt Vile, among others. What draws you to collaborating with others so extensively?
Gunn: For me, I really enjoy the exchange in playing with other people, and playing with my friends who are good improvisors. I feel like we push each other in certain ways that we couldn’t do on our own. That was always something that I [enjoyed], taking risks and letting your guard down [with another musician].
Weld: What about last year’s collaborative album with Kurt Vile? You had a brief stint as a member of his band, the Violators, but what made this record happen?
Gunn: That was more of a fun kind of project. My friend Cory Rayborn, who runs the label [Three-Lobed Recordings] basically did this series [of collaborative albums], and this was at a time when I was spending a lot of time with Kurt. Cory was wondering if we wanted to do a fun project, and it ended up being a cool opportunity for us to just have fun in the studio over a weekend, kind of messing around. We both chose covers and had fun. The record was just a result of that. It was a very low-pressure, low-stress situation.
Weld: You mentioned that one of your focuses for Eyes on the Lines was to make the songs more concise. There’s a lot less improvisation than there is on your earlier releases; the songwriting’s a lot tighter. What brought about that change?
Gunn: One thing is, you usually have to keep in mind a certain time frame when you’re making an album, if you’re thinking in terms of an LP. Basically, you’re working with two 20-minute sides. And also, for me, just developing as a songwriter, I’m becoming more interested in having things that are more precise, thinking about arrangements a little bit more and less on time. I’ve learned over a couple of years to shorten things, because I tend to just forget how long a song is and just play.
Weld: What about in a live setting? Does that give you more room to explore those songs and improvise onstage?
Gunn: It does. That wouldn’t necessarily make that on the album, certainly. There’s a song on the record called “Park Bench Smile” that’s like, three minutes long. Playing it live turns it into a whole other thing.
We don’t play the record note for note. We allow certain things to happen in the live setting. It’s a really interesting and fun way to work with the arrangements and try different things to get the sound right. It’s a really different sort of setting, obviously, from the studio to the stage. It’s a different way to present the music.
Steve Gunn will perform at SlossFest’s Blast Stage on Saturday, July 16, from 2:15 p.m. to 3 p.m.