Gunn’s Range

After critical acclaim for his uniquely textural, broadly influenced sound, Steve Gunn hits the road with Wilco

When Wilco plays Taft Theatre on Tuesday, the opening act will be a singer/songwriter and guitarist whose textured, ethereal, slightly dazed and bluesy Rock sound is earning him comparisons to The War on Drugs and Kurt Vile.

He is Steve Gunn, a now-Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Philadelphian who has actually been recording albums since 2007. But until 2013’s Time Off album, his small-label records had been instrumental and often shared with collaborators. With the relatively traditional song structures, vocals and fuller band sound of last year’s Way Out Weather on the amusingly named Paradise of Bachelors label — an album that placed on many “Best of the Year” lists — things have started to happen for him.

Gunn has been booked at some of the hippest music festivals, like Raleigh, N.C.’s Hopscotch, Knoxville, Tenn.’s Big Ears, Chicago’s Pitchfork and the Green Man Festival in Wales, and respected indie label Matador Records has signed him for his next release. (In the meantime, Gunn has released a new collaborative EP with Americana band The Black Twig Pickers on the Thrill Jockey label.)

It’s no surprise that Wilco would want Gunn and his three-piece band for its current tour.

“They heard my record and really liked it, which was such a huge compliment coming from them,” Gunn says of the headliners by phone during a break from touring. “We’re really looking forward to it.”

Gunn infuses his propulsive and rhythmic yet dreamy and wistfully lyrical acoustic and electric guitar work with references that touch on everything from The Grateful Dead and North African Gnawa music to Delta Country Blues and the sounds of contemporary psychedelic explorers like Bardo Pond. And on Way Out Weather his deep voice, with its yearning, drone-like quality, adds mystery to songs like the title composition “Milly’s Garden” and “Tommy’s Congo.” That provides a questing dimension to his lyrics.

He especially loves exploratory late 1960s/early 1970s acoustic guitarists like John Fahey, Sandy Bull, Leo Kottke and Robbie Basho, musicians who were trying to reach the same kind of artistic breakthroughs that Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia (also influences on Gunn) wanted to achieve with electric guitars.

Gunn started playing as a teenager and soon began discovering the elders who had come before him.

“I discovered John Fahey’s music and saw how he incorporated Blues, Classical and Indian ragas,” he says. “It all clicked with me in terms of linking my tastes and interests and how I wanted to play. I didn’t really have aspirations to become some virtuosic guitar dude. I wanted to get different sounds and incorporate my different influences.”

While attending Temple University in Philadelphia, Gunn became active in the Indie music scene, seeing Bardo Pond play in lofts and getting acquainted with the local Siltbreeze label, which a transplanted Ohioan named Tom Lax had started to issue records by underground New Zealand bands. Gunn also credits the late Jack Rose, a Philadelphia-based acoustic guitarist with a keen interest in all things experimental (he was also in an Art/Noise band called Pelt), as a teacher.

Gunn started playing live, often with collaborators. (He also played briefly in fellow Philadelphian Vile’s touring band after the latter released 2013’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze.) Eventually, opportunities started coming to record for small labels. He welcomed them.

“For me, being a good player was the primary goal,” Gunn says. “I felt like if my playing is inspired, it will come through in a recording. I always tried not to feel too precious about recording my music. I feel like there’s not enough time for that. I really think being a traveling musician and playing live is something I’m trying to capture while recording.”

Gunn says he always wanted to sing the songs he wrote, but “it just took a while for me to work through the guitar-playing stuff I was doing.”

The recordings on Way Out Weather have an unstudied, naturalistic yet somehow extraordinary sound, as if played live in the deep woods under Northern Lights. There are dynamics — spare lead-guitar parts do emerge out of the soundscape on a song like “Fiction” — but nobody would mistake his music for old-fashioned guitar-hero Rawk or overly-processed conventional AltRock. There is a sense of mission to the group sound, but it’s presented with humility.

Gunn and his bandmates did preliminary versions of the Way Out Weather songs in advance, trading and discussing digital files. That had them focused when they got into the studio.

“We got everyone into the studio for a short window of time and kept working,” Gunn says. “We would work something out and play it out loud a few times and then just do takes until we’d get one we were satisfied with and move on. Then we’d listen back and discuss if we wanted to do overdubs. Eventually I’d come back and redo vocals or make small additions.

“We were trying to keep it in the spirit of playing live. If we were doing an overdub, try to do it right away. Try to take one song, bang it out and then move to the next one.”

Live, Gunn and his band members are exploring how far to go with making their sound more forceful without destroying the delicacy. He likes the egoless nature of it now, but also seeks ways to keep growing musically. That could mean individual playing needs to emerge more often and be prominent.

“Where the band is at now, we’re pushing the sound out more live,” he says. “There are still obviously a lot of things we like to flesh out texturally and not overrun the song with too (many) crazy lead (parts). We’re trying to get a little more spontaneity and volume.”

“A lot of it for me now is just about working at it, playing live, getting better,” Gunn continues. “The ultimate goal for us is just making music we want to hear. We are such appreciators of music, such record maniacs. We listen and talk about music all the time. We want to make music we like. Of course, it’s important other people like it too. But to be able to sustain this music and improve, and to make music other people enjoy, we have to like it.”

STEVE GUNN plays the Taft Theatre with Wilco Tuesday. Tickets/more info:

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