Long before recording began, guitarist-songwriter Steve Gunn knew he wanted his new album The Unseen in Between to have a vibe similar to early Dylan and Neil Young records. “They all have that feeling like you’re in the room with them. It’s loose, spontaneous and it gives the music a kind of heightened energy,” Gunn says by phone from his Brooklyn home.
But there was a problem. Neil Young had Crazy Horse. Dylan had the Band. When Gunn and his producer started talking through the album, he didn’t even know who was going to play on it. It’s one thing to want a “loose, live” energy for an album, and another entirely to have the band to pull it off.
Though he rose to attention as the guitarist for Kurt Vile’s band the Violators, Gunn’s solo work (now a staggering 15 albums deep) has long been in the tradition of artists like Dylan and Young, a breed of folk music that is pensive, kaleidoscopic, full of soft psychedelia and a subtle, unfurling melodicism. And while 2016’s Eyes on the Lines had a certain breezy looseness to it, what Gunn was looking for this time was something more visceral.
That’s when an unlikely encounter with a guy named Tony Garnier, who was hanging around the studio, led to what is arguably Gunn’s strongest work to date.
“There was another session happening before we started working on the record, kind of like a ‘who’s who’ of folk music doing this compilation of songs,” Gunn says. “And Tony, one of the bass players, was in there for a few of the days.”
Garnier, though far from a household name, has an impressive resume. In 1989, after a stint in the Saturday Night Live band, he joined Dylan’s band as bass player. As of 2018, he is now the longest-running collaborator of Dylan’s career, having become the band’s unofficial musical director.
“We just started shooting the shit, and he was just like, ‘Hey man, if you need a bass player, I’m around. I would love to come in.’”
Recorded over a few isolated sessions in 2018, The Unseen in Between—which was released last month—is calm, confident and made up of Gunn’s best songs thus far, the whole thing buoyed by the assured performances of Garnier and drummer TJ Maiani.
“We didn’t want to overthink it—it’s not this complicated thing. It’s all about the feel. They weren’t necessarily that familiar with the music, but they were like, ‘What’s the key,’ played it a few times, and kind of got the feel for it,” Gunn says, describing—almost to the letter—the kind of session he had always intended for the album.
Adding to it all is Gunn’s own performance, which was captured entirely live.
“The way I made albums before, it was always like adding other guitar parts after the fact, doing vocals after all the tracking was done,” he says, describing the normal process for most contemporary musicians.
This time, however, Gunn sang and played the songs in a single take with his band, putting on tape the song exactly as it was played.
“We did overdubs, of course, but the core of the songs, it’s like a performative approach. Before the sessions, I was going to my little studio and sitting for a full day and playing. Playing and playing and playing. Getting them up to speed, and getting them ready.”
As a result of that preparation, the playing on The Unseen in Between is close to impeccable. Diverse in mood and feel (and, at times, spare), there is a vitality to the performances on the album that lifts Gunn’s already distinctive songwriting, in a live, loose sort of way. On songs like opener “New Moon,” Gunn’s pendulous baritone emerges from within the performance, bobbing to the top of the mix like another instrument. “New Moon” is followed by “Vagabond,” which plays like a New York folk version of the Smiths’ “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.” A descending lick Gunn plays on the acoustic at the end of each phrase of the verse is worth the price of admission alone.
“All releases adhere to kind of a schedule now,” Gunn says, before we hang up. “It’s been a lot of waiting, but now I’m ready. It’s exciting for me and the band to get out there and play.”
Steve Gunn performs at 9 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 10 at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Drive, Santa Cruz. $15 adv/$20 door. 479-1854.