Michael Gungor's music evolution has been one of surprising twists and turns. Raised the son of a pastor in Wisconsin, he originally engaged in a musical ministry. He formed the Michael Gungor Band as part of his church in Grand Rapids, Mich., more than a decade ago. That group has since transformed itself into the alt-folk collective known simply as Gungor, which he leads with his wife, Lisa.
Along the way, the Gungors left the church with they were associated, moved to Denver, formed a progressive church community called Bloom and put aside what Michael Gungor calls the "metaphysical constructs I'd known all my life."
They continue to make music informed no less by faith but also inspired by a richer, more holistic view of the world. Not to mention a broadening musical horizon.
Gungor, the five-piece band, will return to Tucson for a gig at Club Congress on Thursday, Jan. 16. It will mark the group's second performance in the Old Pueblo; the first was at the Fox Theatre and reportedly attracted an audience of 800.
Although some online and off-line publications perpetually call the group's music "liturgical post-rock," that description, once employed by Michael Gungor himself, is woefully out of date. The term really only referred to the 2007 debut album, All I Need Is Here.
Some listeners might argue that Gungor make expansive folk-pop, mining the same rich vein as Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros or Sufjan Stevens.
But the band is more than that, as Michael Gungor explains.
"It's kind of trans-genre now. Some have said it's somewhere between folkadelica or alt-rock. I think our music is informed by a broad palette of genres and sounds. I studied jazz in college and later ... we invoked a little blues and bluegrass. Then a little hip-hop snuck in there and now we are really interested in electronics.
"There are little elements of all of that in our songs. I just kind of stopped believing in the restrictions of genre. I think good music is above and beyond all those distinctions."
Gungor's music can be moving when sticking to today's au courant folk-pop recipe. On the new album, I Am Mountain, that's especially true of "Long Way Off," which views human endeavor from a universal perspective, and on the rich title track, which sees "beauty in the dirt" and points out that human beings are part of nature, not outside it. It also has a great, open-throated "oh-oh-whoa-whoa" singalong chorus; it's as catchy as hits by Of Monsters and Men or the Lumineers.
But I Am Mountain also elides ambient and R&B on "Finally," explores explosive synth-rock on the anti-war "God and Country" and includes the funky prog-rock of "Let It Go." There's also Appalachian-style blues-folk stomp on "Wayward and Torn," spooky electronic atmospherics and Lisa Gungor's Auto-Tuned vocals on "Wandering" and the Philip Glass-style minimalism of the album's closing tune, the eight-minute "Upside Down."
And there's the gorgeous "The Beat of Her Heart," a musical interpretation of Orpheus' attempt to rescue Eurydice from Hades. It's an almost-baroque, mostly acoustic folk song that also benefits from the spooky addition of spaghetti-Western-style electric guitar.
That profound guitar sound resulted from the band's temporary relocation last year to a studio in El Paso, Texas, where I Am Mountain was mostly recorded. Gungor returned to Denver to polish and finish the album.
"I think the primary reason for the spaghetti-Western guitar sound on a lot of the songs was—beside being in the desert and that part of the country influencing us—was the Fender they had there in the studio that used to belong to Stevie Ray Vaughan," Michael Gungor says.
"Apparently it's the only one he had that is not in the family's collection. They also had a lot of vintage amps there, and when you have access to that kind of equipment, you can't help but use it."
Michael and Lisa Gungor met when they were freshmen in college about 15 years ago. "We were married within a year and a half," he says.
Originally, Lisa wasn't part of the Michael Gungor Band, but now he can't imagine the group without her. When you hear her amazing soprano, which can move from edgy to angelic, you'll probably agree.
"At first, I was just doing music in my church," he says. "We didn't start writing and performing together until about five years after we had been married."
Gungor acknowledges that he and his wife had to figure out how to work successfully together while being married.
"Writing and working with someone you're married to changes a lot of things, and you have to be ready for that. A lot the creative process is about saying no to lots of concepts and ideas until you find the right ones. But you have to be able to say no without it being personal. We learned how to do it, and how we learned how to do it helped our relationship."
The couple have a 3-year-old daughter, who travels with them on the road—"a real touring baby," her dad says—so the family is always intact. They also recently learned Lisa is pregnant with a second child.
The upcoming tour stop in Tucson also will be about family, Gungor says. "My mother-in-law lives there, so Lisa and I will be able to spend a little time with her."
Eclecticism and inclusion form an important foundation of Gungor the band and the people in it. Exploring all aspects of life and music and being open to different ideologies and philosophies brings rewards, Michael Gungor says.
"I just think that is a good way to live—interpreting and integrating different aspects as your world views change and your situation changes. It's about everything flowing and flowering together, and not throwing ideas out, like the baby with the bathwater. I'm the same person I was in high school in many ways, but I am so much more."