"There's nothing better than being out [in the world] doing what you love.”
GUNNAR was presented with a choice in a USC fraternity’s backyard. GUNNAR is a Southern California boy, a lifelong USC football fan. On this August night, GUNNAR temporarily subbed in for quarterback Caleb Williams as the big man on campus. Or, at least, that’s how GUNNAR felt. So, when a police officer arrived around 12:30 a.m. to shut his gig down, GUNNAR kept playing the defiant, rock-charged “Bad Idea” from his February 2023 debut album, Best Mistake. The officer politely tapped GUNNAR on the shoulder. GUNNAR looked him dead in the eye, singing, “You’re the best mistake that I ever made,” shrugged, and shredded his guitar.
“It was our last song, and we probably had a minute left,” GUNNAR says days later over the phone. “I was just in that state of mind where I couldn’t turn it off. I was going to accept the consequences. The energy of the show, there’s no way I was stopping in that moment. The crowd loved it, so I’m glad we didn’t stop. I have no regrets.”
Luckily, GUNNAR didn’t face any consequences for defying orders in that instance. But he is all too familiar with the consequences of following orders given by the wrong people.
GUNNAR grew up surfing, a meditative outlet even after it turned competitive in high school. Music also started as a pure space to express himself, from getting his first cherry-red guitar aged seven to playing with his friends in a garage band. But after releasing his 2018 bubblegum pop debut single, “Ocean Blue,” the joy was stripped away and replaced by clinical industry directives. (When I merely mention “Ocean Blue,” he reflexively blurts, “Those words make me wanna vomit.”) It’s not that he regrets his past. Because of his turbulent teenage years, he knows better. His voice is his — and only his.
“There’s so much of me that wants to be resentful, but the reason that the album is called Best Mistake is: All of these things that happened that could be looked back on as mistakes or the wrong choices, it was because of them that led me where I am now, which is having the most clarity in everything I’m doing,” GUNNAR says.
GUNNAR was forced into overdue introspection at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. Before, his workaround for being pushed by his former team to make songs he didn’t want to make was to put his spin on them on stage. When live music was sabotaged by the pandemic, GUNNAR lost his portal to authenticity.
“You took away the live show, and all I had left was looking at myself in the mirror, and it put me in a really dark time,” he says. “It made me doubt a lot of things. I almost quit multiple times. I was so unhappy with the lack of art in my music that I had been desiring to have for as long as I can remember. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t make music for anybody else other than me ever again. And that’s when the process truly began.”
Best Mistake was a roughly two-year process, including eight months of writing every day with “people who understood me,” at the iconic Henson Recording Studios. Eventually, Grammy-winning rock producer Brendan O’Brien (AC/DC, Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen) agreed to produce the album — inevitably validating, but GUNNAR’s compass remained internal.
“No longer was I taking music that didn’t feel like me and turning it into me at the live show,” he says. “With [Best Mistake], when you turn it on in your car, it sounds like GUNNAR. The live show could explode into the next level and really become music and showmanship from my soul.”
GUNNAR staged the live show he’d always dreamt of as the tour opener for Maroon 5 across the UK and Europe this summer. Night after night, he felt empowered while delivering mesmerizing guitar riffs and truthful lyrics. He was the rock star he’d wanted to be, not the popstar others projected unto him. Standout tracks “Keep You Around” and “Cinnamon” center around breaking free from being controlled. It sank in for GUNNAR that he’d reclaimed control at London’s The O2 on July 3.
“At the end of every show, we’d go out to the merch stand and say hi to people, take photos, sign stuff, and London was fucking crazy,” he says. “I’ll never forget it. My band and I felt like we were The Beatles for a minute.”
But GUNNAR doesn’t want to be The Beatles, or anyone else. He partially has Maroon 5 guitarist James Valentine to thank for trusting he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be. At breakfast toward the tour’s end, Valentine acknowledged Maroon 5 had “made it” — iconic venues, private jets, luxurious hotels — but was more interested in regaling GUNNAR with stories from when they were his age.
“He’s like, ‘The memories I cherish most are the experiences that you guys are going through right now,’” GUNNAR says. “Cramming into a van, driving 15 hours to the shows, wanting to punch each other in the face. Not the top, but the climb.”
And GUNNAR plans to keep climbing. His goal is to perform 100 shows between February 2023 and February 2024. As of August 30, he’d done 55. He values any opportunity to better connect with people, whether in a fraternity’s backyard or at The O2.
“There’s no better way to grow as an artist than to be out on the road,” he says. “I want to do it the way bands back in the day did it. … There are artists who have millions and millions of streams but maybe have a harder time selling tickets than someone who’s never been on the radio but is playing to two-, three-, four-thousand people at sold-out shows. If I had to pick, that’s what I want to do. There’s nothing better than being out [in the world] doing what you love.”
Originally published inside Volume #48.