Steve Wynn talks about the psychedelic journey into the sound of his longtime band’s trippiest set yet
The Dream Syndicate’s main man, singer-guitarist Steve Wynn, is a huge baseball fan.
He also plays in the world’s best baseball-centric rock band, The Baseball Project – Ok, maybe the only one – with R.E.M. alumni, bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck, Young Fresh Fellows guitarist Scott McCaughey and kick-ass drummer (and Wynn’s lovely wife) Zuzu’s Petals and Filthy Friends’ Linda Pitmon.
Wynn was a Dodgers fan growing up. He lived in L.A. from 1960 to 1994 with a three-year detour in Davis, California from ‘77 to ’80. He lived in Manhattan from 1994 to 2008, Queens since then, and became a Yankees and Mets fan. So, perhaps a baseball analogy is apropos in discussing his latest project with The Dream Syndicate, The Universe Inside.
This album is a major league fucking curveball. And the first Dream Syndicate album to sound … full-on psychedelic. It’s rock ‘n’ roll, but not entirely. It’s jazz and skronk and Ornette and Miles and Sun Ra and art-rock and Pink Floyd and it’s not the Velvet Underground – the most frequent reference point for classic Dream Syndicate, back when The Days of Wine and Roses came out in 1983.
That’s when I first saw the Dream Syndicate and met Wynn, that first album tour, where they packed Boston’s Rat club and brought it to a frenzied boil. Wynn was just about to turn 23.
Now, at 60, it’s time for, as Monty Python used to say, for something completely different.
Wynn has always been a busy bee of a rocker – solo records, collaborations, sporadic Dream Syndicate records and reunions. I can’t say I’ve more fun listening to a new disc this year than I have with this one. Wynn is joined by his partners in Syndicate crime, guitarist Jason Victor, keyboardist Chris Cacavas, bassist Mark Walters and drummer Dennis Duck.
When we were talking Baseball Project stuff a few years ago, you were explaining the song about Roger Clemens, “Twilight of My Career,” taken from how the Red Sox kissed him off, the Yankees grabbed him and he went on to more glory. You mentioned something I hadn’t thought of in listening to it. I’d been thinking exclusively Clemens, but you said, really, it could apply to all of us rockers or writers of a certain type. That we may peak in our 20s and 30s and then there’s a perception that it may level off, but it’s essentially a slow downhill ride from there. What are your thoughts now about that and Dream Syndicate’s latest revival, both live and on record?
It’s always a shock when you’ve been used to being the hot new thing and, suddenly, you’re not. The first time you get your premature gold watch, your “thank you for your service now there’s the door,” it can be a shock. I got a taste of that at various times when I was younger, but it just made me more determined to make better work and to keep producing. Sometimes it was under the radar, sometimes it was barely noticed, other times I was anointed with the periodic public conception of a “comeback” even though both my fans and I knew that I had never gone anywhere. I love the Richard Thompson quote, and I paraphrase: “My failure is the secret to my success.” It does free you up to be prolific, work harder, care less, have less interference and just have fun and amuse yourself.
The one regret I had was that the Dream Syndicate may had broken up too soon, not made enough records and that over our final records we had a hard time working with the abysmal production styles and methods of the mid to late ‘80s. I wished we could have rewritten a bit of the history and, well, now we can. It’s really fun to invent an alternate reality Dream Syndicate in which we take more control, have more fun, relax and stay true to what we love. And because of that, or maybe the other way around, we are a better band and being received better in general. It just makes us want to keep doing it as much as we can.
This is the third Dream Syndicate in four years. Do you feel like you guys are back in business full-time, or as full-time as it can be, given world we live in at the moment with COVID-19?
We’ve just made our best album ever and the other two are almost as good so why stop now? I was working closely with our A&R man at ANTI, Andy Kaulkin, while we were working on The Universe Inside. He likes wild, outside music and was thrilled with where we were going. And at one point I said this album related to the one we’ll do next is something like Atom Heart Mother to Dark Side of the Moon. He liked that. And I think that’s very much how it might go down.
Again, taking COVID out of this for a moment, does this mean the Steve Wynn solo career is on hiatus for a spell as Dream Syndicate works its magic?
There’s no taking COVID out of any equation. We survive and thrive from touring. Between The Dream Syndicate, my solo shows and the occasional Baseball Project shows, I play 100 shows a year, kind of the perfect number for me. Luckily, I had both The Universe Inside and also a solo record called Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1 in the can and ready to go when the virus hit so it allowed me to get new music out and promote it and spread the word. I’ve done a few of those quarantine concerts which are fun although not the same as being on tour by any means. But the trick is to take the obstacle and use it as the catalyst for something new and interesting.
If I were to drop the needle on the record blind, as one does or did, I’m not sure how far along it would go before I said, “Oh, this is the new Dream Syndicate album.” And you …? When do you think it becomes recognizable as that – if it does?
Good question. I read a review the other day where the writer heard us for the first time with The Universe Inside and loved it and then went back to our older records and was disappointed. I will say that this new record more closely reflects the music we all listen to for fun and with enthusiasm than any record we’ve made since The Days of Wine and Roses. I see it compared to Miles Davis and Can and Fela Kuti and just think…. “Yeah. Oh yeah. Fuck yeah.”
VIDEO: Dream Syndicate “The Days of Wine and Roses”
So, is this as psychedelic as this one-time Paisley Underground band has ever been? (Given, of course, you’ve had some different players.)
It’s definitely our most psychedelic record but the last two [How Did I Find Myself Here? and These Times] were heading in this direction. But at our best we’ve always been about groove and repetition and using those two things to create something in your mind that may not exist in reality and it doesn’t get much more psychedelic than that. Songs like “The Days of Wine and Roses” and “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” were mostly one chord with a minimal road map and they have been two of our most loved and most played songs over the years.
“The Regulator” is the first track. Several things are atypical. It’s more dance or beat oriented – I almost hear Roxy Music’s “The Bogus Man” in there – and it’s not centered around a wild guitar jam per se – not another “Days of Wine and Roses.” And it kind of swirls around and lands in all kinds of different places. Somewhere, in the midst, a saxophone, of all things, enters! And when I heard the sax wind its way through, I thought, again, of Roxy and Andy Mackay. And I know you do play in that Roxy/Sparks cover band, Remake/Remodel.
Well, push comes to shove, Roxy Music is my all-time favorite band and the rest of the band loves them as well. So weird, so catchy, so dark, so sexy, so funny—all of that in one well-dressed package. What more could you want? I can’t say enough about how much sax and trumpet player Marcus Tenney of the Richmond jazz band Butcher Brown brought to this record. I didn’t know him before but our engineer Adrian Olsen had worked with him before and I was looking for some horns to reinforce melodic lines here and there. And then he started playing. And played some solos. And I freaked out. I just kept having him play more and more and it was all great. Oh, and I do in fact play in a Roxy/Sparks cover band with my friend Sal Maida who actually toured and recorded on bass with both of those bands.
What were your thoughts about putting that song together? And what is this Regulator fellow going on about? – “Songs and sounds that soothe the savage soul.”
It’s all about pushing against the accepted limits and having your antennae out all the time for clues about where to go next. So, the lyrics are pretty much the same as the process and performing and writing of the song. It was mostly quick and first-impression/first-take, but came from a lifetime of listening and playing and building up some pretty strong opinions about what was good music and what was bad music.
And also, what about its placement: Song 1. In the old album days, you wanted your best tracks to start and end sides 1 and 2 and in the CD era you wanted to frontload your best tracks so the listener wouldn’t hit eject. By best, too, I guess what I mean is: Most accessible, most hooky, the potential hit songs, if there were hit songs.
Well, when your shortest song is eight minutes long you’ve pretty thrown the idea of opening with the short poppy song out the window. And it really is all from one unbroken performance that we edited down from 80 to 60 minutes, just like those early- ‘70s Miles records or Remain in Light where the band performance is just the raw material for a bunch of tomfoolery that happens later. But as it turns out it all is hooky. I was afraid at first to let people know that this came out of a jam. That would scare even me. But there are a serious bunch of hooks and repeated motifs all over the place. You could sing it in the shower.
Yes, your shortest song, “The Longing.” Your voice is certainly identifiable, but again, it’s not what I’d expect. Skittering sounds, kinda doomy and you’re singing, “All that’s left now from before/Is the final twitch and spasm/Like it happened long ago/Distant across the chasm/You think you know where it’s at/The longing is stronger than that/All that’s left is the longing.” You are, as I know and as you’ve said, a pretty optimistic and upbeat guy, but clearly, you’re able to crawl into some dark places to write.
Everybody has their dark place where they go, some spend more time there than others but nobody is immune. I find those are the more interesting catalysts for good songs for me than, let’s say the “Walking on Sunshine” kind of songs. And I love that song, by the way. But it’s not what I do best. I have a friend who a few years back took me aside and very seriously said “You need to write a song about longing.” So, I did. It’s a pretty universal feeling. And the feeling of going from thinking all is cool, all is groovy and feeling like you’ve got your shit together only to have the earth pulled out from beneath you is something we all know—especially right now!
We first got to know Dream Syndicate through the guitar exchanges – do I call them duels? – between you and Karl Precoda. How is this different playing with Jason Victor? Who’s been with you how long?
It’s very different but it all works out to the same basic plan. Just a commentary going back. We speak clearly and cantankerously and mercurially through our instruments. Karl and I got compared to Sterling [Morrison] and Lou [Reed] but we felt like we were Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. Same for me and Jason. But Jason is just flat out the much better player and, at the same time, not weighed down by wanting to show his virtuosity. And we’ve played together for 20 years now—you kinda learn how to play together after all that time.
Can you explain what you’re doing effects-wise on this album?
Jason’s a freak for pedals. He always has new ones and is always using them in ways that aren’t in the manual. He read in some gear mag about plugging in your wah wah pedal backwards for some surprising mayhem and that became the bonkers balloon animals sound on “Dusting Off the Rust.” I don’t know what he’s doing half the time. I usually just use a few favorites—my own signature “Wine and Roses” pedal from a company in Denmark and a delay, maybe a reverb pedal. But for this record I just kicked in a phase pedal when we started going and stuck with it so my guitar sounds different than it ever has before.
And speaking of sax, as we did, Marcus Tenney is not an actual Dream Syndicate member, but the deeper I get into this record, the more I feel like he is. And, back to Pink Floyd again, kinda like Dick Parry on Wish You Were Here.
Oh, that’s a great comparison. Yeah, as I was saying, he really ended up having a big impact on the sound and vibe of this record. I hope we can take him out on tour. I’m not even sure what he made of us, but he knew exactly what to do. After the day of recording his parts, we hung out and talked for a while. I figured he had to be hip to Soft Machine and King Crimson but he wasn’t. But he sure taps into that early- ‘70s British prog sound.
AUDIO: Dream Syndicate “The Bells”
In “The Slowest Rendition,” you’re muttering “I can hear those bells again.” Might this be a bit of an ode to Lou Reed and “The Bells,” also a long and rather scary track?
You may not know, but the first line on the first song on our first record is “I hear those bells again.” So, it was a playful little nod. The lyrics are about the stroke that my friend and bandmate Scott McCaughey had three years ago. Needless to say, it really freaked me out much as it did the rest of his friends and family. I just kept trying to imagine what he must be thinking and feeling as he put things back together again. And the music matches so well—it’s lurching and retreating and drifting and unsure only to rally at the end with one determined burst of defiance—bear in mind it was around 2 AM and we had been playing for 80 minutes straight at that point after a full 14-hour day in the studio. So, it’s about resilience and defiance as much as anything.
If and when the Dream Syndicate resumes playing live, how do you see working these songs into the set? And, obviously, it’d be a different scenario if you were an opening band on a major tour or headlining your own club show.
I think we’ll either play the whole album faithfully and in order or we won’t do it at all when we next go out—ah, when we next go out. Our plan before this all hit was to go out and do selected headlining shows in really good-sounding rooms or even jazz clubs where we could present the album as one piece, almost as an art exhibit. It will still happen.
Since everybody, myself included, considers you pretty much the nicest guy in rock ‘n’ roll, what’s the meanest, most vile, ugly-ass thing you’ve ever done?
Ask anyone I knew back in 1983. They’ll give you plenty.
I know you. I’m guessing the dirty deed done dirt cheap back then was this: A friend asked you if you had a duplicate of Sandy Koufax’s rookie card and although you did – in fact you had two mint cards – you lied and said no.
Oh, I wish it was that simple and that innocuous. Although … well, let’s just say that I still do have all of my baseball cards from when I was a kid.