Ever since he was young, guitarist and singer/songwriter Steve Gunn has fostered a deep admiration for Sonic Youth and its members. For him, they stretched the rules of what a band could do, especially guitarist Lee Ranaldo.
Steve Gunn and Lee Ranaldo WITH: Meg Baird When: 9 p.m. Jan. 16 Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Tickets: $18-$20 Info: emptybottle.com
“Sonically what he and the band were doing was just unlike anything I had ever heard,” Gunn says. “And the fact that he has such control of what he’s doing. I was particularly drawn to all the feedback stuff he was getting into and I was curious with how he was doing it.”
“[Ranaldo] was the first person that I knew of that was interested in open tunings. For me that was more for acoustic musicians but those guys were detuning their guitars and experimenting with feedback and that was something that really blew my mind as a kid.”
Now, all these years later, Gunn is going on a short solo tour around the country with Ranaldo. The two New York-based artists had met each other a few times over the years but hadn’t thought of a tour until their booking agency Ground Control suggested it. But it made perfect sense to them.
“We have similar interest in guitar nerdism and all that kind of stuff,” Gunn says. “So, we thought it would be a cool idea to pare down what we’ve been doing. We’ve both been touring a lot the last few years. We came up with the idea to do a more stripped down, solo trip.”
The tour has given Gunn the chance to pick Ranaldo’s brain about his technique, among other things.
“It’s been cool to get to know Lee a little bit and ask him questions about things,” he says. “He’s really friendly and knows a ton about all kinds of different things beyond guitars. He’ll talk about everything.”
In addition to playing their own sets, the two are planning to collaborate with each other, as well as opener Meg Baird.
“That was sort of the whole idea of the tour is that there would be a large part of the show that would be collaborative,” says Gunn. “We’re going to present songs to each other and see what we can add to them. And, try new things as well and keep it open-ended.”
Gunn says he knows quite a few musicians in Chicago since he plays here frequently, so he may ask a few to join him.
“I probably will invite some other people to come that live in Chicago and perhaps play with me a little bit on a couple of things,” he says. “We’re trying to play a lot of cities where we know people live and there’s a point to invite local people to play with us as well.”
Gunn enjoys the flexibility that comes with touring solo. Some of his first solo shows were in Chicago, including many at The Hideout.
“It’s more of an opportunity for me to live in some of these songs and kind of do what I want with them and try different things and experiment and keep things open-ended,” he says. “With a band, you get sort of tight and certainly experiment in certain ways but playing solo the possibilities are sort of endless. So I’m trying to push certain things and try new stuff and try new songs and different sort of things I probably would have to rehearse with a band to get it right. I’m going to be happy to be rolling around with an acoustic [guitar] and small amp.”
Gunn is currently touring behind his Matador Records debut from last year called “Eyes on the Lines,” while Ranaldo is performing a variety of songs from his past work. Compared to previous albums, “Eyes on the Lines”’ songs are tighter, more concise, and shorter.
“I wanted the album to have more momentum than some of my earlier stuff,” says Gunn.
Instead of plowing quickly through songs live like on past albums, Gunn took his time getting the right takes. While he’s been a guitarist longer than a singer/songwriter, he values both equally.
“I’m constantly trying to push things and play in the moment and discover things spontaneously,” he says. “I think it’s important for me to work in both environments.”
At this point, Gunn hasn’t discussed further plans with Ranaldo but is certainly open to working with him beyond this tour.
“I know he does a lot of collaborative stuff and I do too. We live in the same city and perhaps we’ll talk about that at some point,” he says. “I think we’ll have more time together when we’re traveling together to discuss things and see what’s possible.”
Joshua Miller is a local freelance writer.