The Paisley Underground purveyors have gone from reunion to renewal
It’s been a conversation starter amongst us music obsessives, about how many band reunions and reboots have happened in the last decade. The least glamorous but most obvious reason may be that most bands from the very end of the century usually did not lead the overly hedonistic, drug-soaked lives of the mythological major label bacchanal of the 1970s and ‘80s.
Many musicians simply survived, skimped around on indie labels, lived through our healthier habits era, and woke up one day thinking, “Hell, I could still do that.” Then, once you’re out on that tour road again, the old temptations probably aren’t as readily available backstage, so that reunion can build steam.
So why does it sound like the Dream Syndicate have finally decided to drop acid?
After starting the band in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, singer/guitarist Steve Wynn had to deal with a few quick lineup switcheroos in the early days, but once he and the rhythm section – Mark Walton, bass; Dennis Duck, drums – settled in, the band went about expanding on their legendary debut, The Days of Wine and Roses (Slash, 1982), taking its Velvet Underground-gone-L.A. highway drive down rootsier roads, until their initial demise in 1989.
In the face of industry expectations (Billboard once called him “one to watch in the 1990s”), Wynn just kept writing, crafting an expansive, impressive solo career well into the 2000s. There’s a lot to dig into; I’d suggest starting with Here Come the Miracles (Blue Rose, 2001), but every solo album has its strengths.
An invitation to a big Spanish festival in 2012 had Wynn whipping up the Dream Syndicate again, which sparked a reunion idea. And further, a fun “Paisley Underground” show in 2014 – which included reunion sets from the main lights of that brief, mid-80s L.A. scene (Dream Syndicate, Bangles, Three O’Clock, True West) – had those bands conspiring an idea for a compilation of new recordings.
The whole shebang got Wynn grinding on the idea of a proper new Dream Syndicate recording. Having recent solo collaborator, guitarist Jason Victor, in tow must’ve made it an easy decision, as Victor is an absolutely stunning guitar reducer.
For those who missed Karl Precoda’s charred shards on The Days of Wine and Roses, Victor flails away just as intensely. But he also brings a wider, sprawling style that has imbued an even more exploratory edge to the root Dream Syndicate sound; as has Wynn’s twenty years in New York City, where he has developed a palette of storytelling that has wound from tales of terrorized individuals to sometimes scary terrains of psychosis. With the first redux Dream Syndicate album, How Did I Find Myself Here (ANTI-, 2017), Wynn’s lyrics intermittently battled and aligned with Victor’s crazy leads, all of which is most readily labeled “psychedelic,” but never gets noodley.
On the second album, These Times, out now on Anti-, Wynn’s words really bend into refractions of light and movement that still, like the best Dream Syndicate songs, wind themselves back to noir-naked truths and blunt final lines – not to mention those solid riffs and hooks that are never lost along the way.
So it might not be acid they’re dropping, but maybe their doctors are just off with the prescription medication directions? Who knows. All I know is that the recent Dream Syndicate show I saw at Mercury Lounge in NYC – the second of a two-night stand in May – was the best I’d seen them since the first time in 1984. In fact, the comparison felt immediately useless, as this has very quickly become a new Dream Syndicate for these times, as this exclusive conversation with Mr. Wynn signifies.
When the thought occurs – wow, this Dream Syndicate lineup has existed as long as the first incarnation — how does that feel or process in your mind, as the man who started it all?
Yes, almost exactly as long at this point, seven years in all. I really like that we’ve had the same lineup for the entire duration this time around—that really differentiates it from the ‘80s version of the band.
So obviously the momentum of How Did I Find Myself Here carried on. I assume the shows went well, the press was good, etc. But was there a moment when you all kind of had to sit down and decide, “Hey, should we do another record?” Or has everything just sort of settled back into “working band” mode again?
The last record was received so well, it felt like the first step to being a new, vital band rather than a reunion or retread. It gave us the freedom to go any direction we chose and not worry about keeping a thread to the ‘80s. That was exciting, and we couldn’t wait to get started. I’ve called These Times our second record at times, and I really feel that way about it.
How did Jason Victor came into your music life?
He was working at Venus Records on St. Mark’s Place. I shopped there all the time, and he was a fan of mine so he treated me really well, gave me great deals on trade-ins, big discounts on purchases. One day he said he was a guitarist and that he wanted to get together and jam sometime. I didn’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs, so I said sure. In one two-hour rehearsal, I realized that he was a great guitarist and knew all of my songs. We didn’t play together in a band for a few years after that, but I definitely filed away the information. A few years later when Chris Brokaw couldn’t do one of my tours I knew the perfect replacement.
Given the psychedelic album cover art, and the video for “Black Light,” some might assume the song is related to the classic purple bulbs we all had in our bedrooms in the late ’70s. But considering the increasingly spooky, moonlit-drive vibes of these latest Dream Syndicate albums, I think the song is more about the contradiction of lights on at night, lights that can seem black…
Exactly, it’s just about shifting perceptions, where we are right now. What’s white is black, what’s up is down. The polarity of sight. Nothing is as it seems, and you can’t take anything at face value. Sadly, I think things will just keep getting more that way in the coming years.
In general, the visuals, especially on These Times, definitely go into a psychedelic arena. And after a fairly fiery early 1/3 of the new album, the music gets a little trippier. What were some of the inspirations for his new angle?
It’s always been the sequencing format for the band. Side one contains the shorter pop songs, side two is where we stretch out. Maybe it’s the idea of seducing you with the pop songs and then pulling out the rug with the longer jam songs. On the other hand, we’ve been opening shows lately with “How Did I Find Myself Here” and I’ve really been enjoying that. Stretching out and getting outside has always been our strongest suit.
You really have sort of reinvented the band, with this new phase and these last two albums. Considering it’s really only one “new” member in this lineup, to what do you attribute the direction the band’s sound has gone? I mean you literally say in “The Way In” – “Trying to reconcile the past with the present.”
I’m reading a really good book about the Beatles right now. It’s called Beatles ’66, and shows how they made the leap from being a teen pop band to becoming important artists. And it really comes down to being curious, being aware, being fans. I’ve always been that way. I look for new things, for inspiration, and then I follow my enthusiasm. Staying the same has never been particularly tempting to me. I think the others in the band feel the same way.
Speaking of which, was there any attempt to have (original bassist) Kendra Smith sing again on a song on These Times?
It didn’t seem appropriate this time around. But I wouldn’t rule out us doing it again someday. It’s so nice to be back in touch and working together again. She’s such an important part of our history and, more important, such a good friend.
How did the shows with Mott the Hoople come about, how did they go, and can we assume Mott might be an inspiration for the next Dream Syndicate album?
Their generosity of spirit, their great music, their inclusiveness to both us and their fans are all big inspirations. But one of the things that inspires beyond anything is how energetic and rocking and completely engaged Ian Hunter remains at age 80. That is truly inspiring.
Can you tell me a good story from the most recent tour?
We were sound checking at the Hide Out in Chicago, before our show with Eleventh Dream Day, when we heard that Roky Erickson had died. We immediately decided to learn and play “You’re Gonna Miss Me” that night. We started working out the chords and EDD singer, Rick Rizzo, ran into the room. He had already written out the lyrics so that they could sing it in their set. We ended up playing it all together at the end of the night.
Whoa! That show at Mercury Lounge was amazing. What else is coming up for the band this summer?
We’ll be zig-zagging between U.S. and Europe shows for the rest of the year. The Mercury Lounge gig was a blast! I’d like to make that an annual event. It’s really our kind of club – almost feels like we’re playing at a NYC jazz club circa 1959. And that’s probably the band we were always meant to be.