Fans of odd time signatures, off-balance phrases and destabilizing rhythmic hiccups often look to math rock, metal or fusion for their particular abacus-worthy musical pleasures. But guitarist, singer and songwriter Steve Gunn has plenty of tricky uneven patterns, displaced beats, sneaky accents and shifting stresses on his excellent psychedelic, folk-inflected 2013 album "Time Off." Gunn and his trio will open for Lee Ranaldo and the Dust at The Spaceland Ballroom in Hamden on Jan. 9.
Gunn spoke with CTnow from his home in Brooklyn recently. It may have appeared that Gunn came out of nowhere when his record was released last year on the eclectic new North Carolina indie label Paradise of Bachelors. But Gunn, 36, had been at it a while, releasing low-profile limited-release albums of non-traditional acoustic music. Gunn also joined long-time friend Kurt Vile (they grew up in the same town outside of Philadelphia) to play in Vile's band and to open on parts of their 2013 tour.
"I've been playing all different kinds of stuff," says Gunn. "For the past 10 year I've been playing improvisational music, more on the experimental side, but I've always been interested in songwriting. This is the first real songy album that I've ever put out."
For Gunn, the songwriting was not exactly of the strum-a-few-chords-and-sing-out-a-line-from-your-journal variety. Gunn's material is cyclical, with lots of hypnotic and repetitive patterns that unspool, overlap and crosshatch against one another. The guitar work has a flowing quality that brings to mind Jerry Garcia and Bert Jansch, rooted in folk, but also versed in jazz and wider exploratory modes. A familiarity with Indian raga and American primitivist guitar styles can be heard as well.
"I'm self taught as a musician and I listen to a lot of meditative music, and I also use music playing to step out of my reality," says Gunn by way of explaining both his approach to practicing and songwriting but also as a broader context for his style and goals.
The songs tend to emerge from the larger looping frames of the music, with phrasing and melodies presenting themselves in response to the groundwork of the string work.
"That's my process: I primarily am a guitar player, and I play guitar all the time," says Gunn. "I've been trying to work differently. This particular album was mostly a lot of just riffing and jamming."
One of the ways that process paid off is in the natural, organic feel that the tunes have, even when they contain gnarly clusters of tricky extra beats and lopsided rhythmic phrases. The album opener, "Water Wheel," has a head-nodding groove, though there's no backbeat smacking the structure squarely into place, and when you try to get your sense of where the patterns start and end, a listener can be pleasantly at sea. It's a mild kind of disorientation, one that has its own head-scratching appeal. That sense is compounded and enhanced by the excellent playing of Gunn's long-time collaborator, the percussionist John Truscinski, whose loose jazzy drumming keeps Gunn's music open and forward-moving at the same time.
If the songs contained complex structures, Gunn didn't necessarily have a better way of mapping out their contours beyond just practicing and soaking up the internal logic.
"All bets were off in terms of readable or discussable structure," he says. "We basically just had to play it."
Steve Gunn plays Spaceland Ballroom in Hamden on Thursday, Jan. 9, along with Lee Ranaldo and the Dust. Call 203-288-6400 or visit theouterspace.net.