As Steve Wynn of seminal rock outfit The Dream Syndicate picks up the phone, we engage in small talk without much of a hitch. I tell him I watched the movie Er Ist Wieder Da for the first time today, a disturbing German black comedy about Adolf Hitler coming back to our modern times. In the film, Hitler is a man out of time and people initially think he’s a method actor taking his job a little too seriously.
Despite being formed exactly a year before I was born, The Dream Syndicate in their current reformed incarnation are definitely not a band out of time. Their new opus How Did I Find Myself Here? finds Wynn and company hitting their stride at exactly the right moment. It goes to show that sometimes bands only start to make sense a decade down the line. Heck, a handful of bands (even take two decades)[http://drownedinsound.com/releases/19915/reviews/4150993) for things to completely click into place. And in some very special cases, it takes a whopping three decades before people understand how good they were. If the new record tells us one thing, it’s that The Dream Syndicate belong in that final exclusive company.
Wynn and I cover a lot of ground about the history of his band and his own life and times. Maybe it’s because we start this particularly worthwhile conversation about a Hitler satire film and Elvis Presley. Who knows? Unfortunately, just a fraction of our talk made it into this already sizable Q&A. One important question does make it in, however: just how did The Dream Syndicate find themselves in the here and now, managing to sound even more acidic, gung-ho and titanic than their supposed heyday?
DiS: Elvis died forty years ago today. What’s your personal association with The King?
Steve Wynn: Ooh, that’s a good way to start. I remember hearing it that day. At the parking garage, the attendant told us Elvis had died. I was 17, I remember it didn’t mean that much at the time, because I was into bands like Roxy Music and The Stooges. I didn’t think about Elvis all that much. He was already a faded figure by then. There wasn’t a revival of the later Elvis years. Funny thing now, if I put on an Elvis record, which I do a lot, it would be his late sixties comeback stuff.
I love that stuff now: it’s so big, blustering, and maudlin. It just sprawls all over the place. Elvis was considered embarrassing and kitschy when we were kids, but now his music is very believable and heartfelt. I’m always a sucker for a great comeback, which is no surprise. It was amazing to see him return from making mediocre movies in such fine form. The singing on those records, the musicianship, and the songs he picked. The conviction and belief he put – beyond all expectations – into those records, it’s fantastic. He sounds like he loves those songs as much as a peanut butter banana sandwich!
It’s just baffling to see such a huge, top shelf ensemble surrounding this one guy… and the spotlight never leaves him. That would be the best festival act ever now.
He got that voice, so it was no accident; the voice and the charisma. My sister kissed him once. In a lot of ways, she was a zealot figure for me growing up in a lot of ways. She married once to a Vice President at Columbia Records and United Artists Records in the late 60s and early 70s. My sister hung out backstage once and Elvis gave her a big old kiss. I guess that makes her rock royalty. My sister was also the very first person to hear ‘In The Ghetto’ by Mac Davis. I have never told this story in an interview before. My sister is fourteen years older than I am, and she found herself in all the right places in LA in the sixties. The cool clothing stores… when I write my book she’ll probably be in half the stories.
Her life has been incredible. Among other things, when she was hanging out in LA in the sixties, she became very good friends with Mac Davis, long before he became well-known. He was just a struggling songwriter back then. At one point Mac got divorced and started getting back into the dating scene, but he wasn’t very excited about it. My sister encouraged him to go on a blind date. Mac was kind of apprehensive about it, but my sister insisted: “Come on man, you gotta get back into the swing of things. Go on this blind date with this woman.” How bad could it be?
So he went. Then at two in the morning her phone rings: it’s Mac, blasted drunk. He slurred: “I’m so mad at you. That was the worst date ever, I had a terrible time! I can’t believe you talked me into that. But anyway, I just came home and had a few drinks, and I wrote this song. Do you want to hear it?” And she said: “Sure Mac, let me hear your song.” And right there and then, he sang ‘In The Ghetto’ to my sister.
Wow, that’s an incredible story. Makes me wonder how much of that bad date went into that song subliminally.
(Laughs) It might have taken a bad date to write a song about a kid dying in the ghetto. Puts a whole new light on the song, doesn’t it? That must’ve been a really bad date. I could ask him. I met Mac when I was nine years old at a party hosted by my sister. I started writing songs and playing guitar when I was eight. So I was already doing it back then. But Mac was there, and of course, he pulled his guitar out, singing songs to people attending the party.
So when this precocious little nine year old comes up to him and says: “You want to hear a song I wrote?” Mac said: “Sure booger, play me your song.” So I picked up the guitar and sang a song called ‘Sing My Blues’. I still know how to play it. He listened to it and told me: “I’m gonna get that song published, booger.” He never did. A few years later I ran into him again and I said: “Mac, do you remember me, I’m Samantha’s brother, I played you a song at this party once.” And he answered: “Yeah booger, I’m still gonna get that published!”
Another funny story: my sister married the vice president of Columbia right after Columbia bought Fender Guitars. So I managed to get my first Fender Telecaster when I was eleven for a very cheap price. That was one way I directly benefitted. I was the coolest kid on the block: an eleven-year-old kid playing a Telecaster.
So ‘Sing My Blues’ is still off limits for you? Looks like Mac’s got dibs on that one.
I think so. I gotta track him down, see if he’s still out there. I’m still waiting. In the meantime I’ve published 400 or so other songs,...but I’m still waiting for that one!
When The Dream Syndicate released LPs in the 80s during Reagan’s America, guitars were considered regressive by trend watchers. Now the same thing seems to be happening: technology once again has a huge grip on music, now even more so.
Yeah, you’re right. About the political climate as well, but now it has gone so much further. I guess some ways, music moves in cycles. In the early sixties, talking about Elvis again, Elvis was in the army. Buddy Holly died. Chuck Berry went to jail. Jerry Lee Lewis had that incident with his cousin. All those things happened. We were left with this world of Fabians and Bobby Rydells. Things were so easy-going and inoffensive, like wallpaper music. I’m sure people were thinking, what happened to the crazy rockabilly, and those wild puns. It happened again in the early eighties and the MTV era.
When we just started The Dream Syndicate, one question that came up a lot: We see you’re playing guitars, is that some kind of statement? Some kind of statement!? This is rock ’n roll, the tools of greatness! It was amazing how this was really a thing. How we were supposedly posing as the rebels that saved guitars. It was shocking to us. Believe me, there are tons of great bands today playing guitars. But you’re right, there’s a little of that going on again. EDM is now considered the be-all end-all. There’s a lot of great electronic music now, of course, but people are acting like that’s all that matters now. And the embracing of mainstream artists as well. Mainstream is mainstream, that’s fine. McDonalds makes burgers. Vin Diesel makes movies. But don’t pretend like it’s important.
How Did I Find Myself Here? poses as a question. The title track kind of pulls the rug from under you from the get-go. It starts with a snare instead of a bass drum, immediately challenging your selective hearing. There are more songs like that: ‘The Sky Lit Up’ by PJ Harvey comes to mind. That’s what psychedelic music and jazz music tends to do, allow your own ears to carve out this personal journey.
That’s what I love about jazz and psychedelic music. We’ve always been a band that enjoys playing long songs. The first time we even played together in a basement, we performed a long version of ‘Suzy Q’ by CCR. That’s what (drummer) Dennis Duck heard when we were auditioning him, that’s how we connected. I love lengthy songs that allow you to lose yourself and to give into worlds that aren’t compact or economical. That’s what you get when you listen to Coltrane, Bitches Brew, and music like that. ‘How Did I Find Myself Here?’ started as a simple, compact verse-chorus type of song, but we turned it into an 11-minute journey.
About five years ago, I started getting into live versions of ‘Eight Miles High’ by The Byrds of the late 60s. After David Crosby went ahead, with Chris Hillman, Clarence White, and Skip Battin, they played versions of ‘Eight Miles High’ which were 20 minutes in length, and they’d go off into this outer space expedition for the first 10 to 15 minutes. And then out if the blue, they locked into this song you knew so well from AM radio, this beautiful pop song. And I really dug that: that little treat at the end of this wild vertigo journey. This new record just feels like the epitome of that.
I read articles about how you put a little more pressure on yourself after The Days Of Wine And Roses, when you did ‘Medicine Show’. On that record, it was a bit more contrived in shaping the mood or general theme of the songs. But ‘Glide’, based on the lyrics, seems to tap back into your younger, more oblivious selves, letting things fly a bit more.
The lyric for ‘Glide’ came to me pretty quickly. It’s simple statement about starting a journey, taking a road leading to a certain outcome, questioning how that could happen. There was no roadmap: we went to the studio and recorded that song four times with no rules. Just to see what happens. It’s funny, because when The Dream Syndicate began, that was our thing. I talked earlier how we never fit in anywhere, not even within the punk rock scene. The underground scene was all about short, compact songs, a reaction to hippie music. To even further alienate the people we were hanging out with at that point, we played longer songs. I remember we played a show in Santa Cruz, California, at the epicenter of the hippie world, during our very first tour. We were just so excited: these are our people, we figured, they listen to The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers. They’re surely going to dig what we’re doing.
So let’s go on and play ‘When You Smile’, which is a 12-minute song, and finish with a cover of ‘Mr. Soul’ by Buffalo Springfield. And in-between, we’re going to stretch out ‘John Coltrane Stereo Blues’ for as long as we can. We ended up playing a 45-minute version of it. We were happy being on stage, committing ourselves to playing this one song like forever, something we haven’t tried before or since. So we were in heaven, happy as clams… but I don’t think the audience enjoyed it as much as we did! We thought it was the coolest thing. And it was always that way for us. The shows where we played our records straight-up, those were the ones that left me sad or empty. But when we take risks and dare ourselves to fall apart, those were the great ones.
Fortunately over time, people have come around to our way of thinking. ‘John Coltrane Stereo Blues’ all of a sudden got the best reaction. No matter how much we rocked, now matter how well we played our parts, no matter how much emotion we put into it, it was that song. The moment we let ‘John Coltrane Stereo Blues’ be this event people responded to, everyone eventually caught up to us. So with this new record, we were adamant about showing that side of us as well. That pitfall of meticulously writing songs and playing them really well is something we tried to avoid. Let the songs stretch out.
You said once that a Dream Syndicate show is very much informed by circumstance, time and place. Playing Santa Cruz might mean you channel some Grateful Dead, or a show in Scotland could inform some of that angular Postcard stuff.
That quote might have been about the same show I mentioned before. It’s weird, I had no real connection to The Grateful Dead when I was younger. Same with The Allman Brothers. But now I do, and I realize that in some ways, these guys are in some way a jazz band. I would say that The Dream Syndicate back then, and now as well, are kind of like a jazz band. But once you say that, you immediately feel pretentious. “Oh my god, here I am playing the academic scholar with the great jazz tradition.” No, it’s not that. I think the reason why we relate to being a jazz band is that every time we play, we hopefully soak up everything around us. Soak up each other, the audience. Or even a moment like the way we started this interview, talking about some movie we watched. Or the traffic jam we were in half an hour ago.
All those elements filter into your music somehow, second by second, moment by moment. And we do not impose preordained things to the music; allow it to be what it is within that moment. We don’t always do it… nobody really can. But you get that more in jazz, and that’s something worth aspiring to. But to say you play in Glasgow and declare: “Tonight we’re going to be Orange Juice”, well, that would be contrived as well. Maybe before going on, something someone says makes you think of the 13th Floor Elevators for some reason. And off you go. Just allowing that to happen is not always easy to accomplish, especially when you’ve been playing music for a long time. Which is why there are so many bad Grateful Dead shows. But by taking that chance, you might get somewhere really great once a week, or even once a month, that’ll make it all worthwhile.
Is it easier to juggle projects now with The Dream Syndicate back in action? You’re a pretty prolific songwriter too, someone who is open to a lot of collaboration. In what ways do you take chances within the confines of that?
Everything’s on the table at this point. There will be another solo record, definitely another Baseball Project album, probably next year. I played in recent years with Danny & Dusty and Gutterball, both those bands are very infrequent in what they do, but to me, they’re on the table as well. I just finished a recording in Norway with the guitar player of a band called Serena-Maneesh, who are great. We had one of those magical sessions, so that’s going to be a record problem. This is different too: in the 80s you were encouraged to do your one thing and tour it till you drop. And do it again. That made sense at the time, but it was really stifling.
When people ask me why The Dream Syndicate broke up, I think I invented a lot of my own reasons. And one was to make a solo record, because they told me I had to choose: “You’re either in a band or you’re going solo.” I’m like: “How? Really? That’s a hard one. I’ll choose solo because that’s something new.” So that was a big reason why I broke up the band; I gotta do a different thing or I’m going crazy. Nowadays you have that freedom to do five different projects at once. Heck, it’s encouraged even! The next three months is going to be all about The Dream Syndicate, there’ll be a lot more next year.
And yes, I really like collaborating now. My last solo record Sketches Of Spain, for instance, was inspired by a Spanish songwriter/producer named Paco Loco. He produces every cool indie record from there. He and I just hit it off, and we’ve done three records together now. He has a weird way of approaching things, which is the same with Serena-Maneesh and The Baseball Project, which in turn excites me. This might be true for a lot of people, like Neil Young or David Bowie – not to say I’m the same as them. But the artists who last the longest are often the ones who always follow their heart, even if they’re descending to a place most people don’t understand. Lou Reed probably had to make Metal Machine Music in order to make The Blue Mask. You sometimes have to work your way through something to get to that other place.
Do you feel the current state of the world pulling at your own creative impulses at times?
It’s a hard thing to consider. I have strong feelings about the matter, and I’m very politically aware. Like a lot of people, I read the newspapers, watch TV, and talk about it with my friends. I’ve never written overtly about politics; there are a lot of reasons why. It doesn’t mean it will never happen, but it is a really hard line to balance, between just sloganeering and find a very simple, trite way of saying things to actually get inside the matter. I think you can make a strong statement by presenting it as a very narrow, human portrait of something. That can potentially reveal a larger truth.
One of my favorite books of all time is Why Are We In Vietnam? by Norman Mailer. It’s a funny, insightful, and well-written story about a quintessentially American, off-the-rails kid from Texas. He’s ranting on about guns, and God and sex, family and country… all those things. He never talks about Vietnam until the very last page, which at that point, is where he’s headed. It doesn’t say the war in Vietnam was evil, or geopolitically hazardous work. It paints a human picture why that kind of thing would happen. I aspire to do the same, write something that makes people think how things fit together. To open the door to some kind of new realization.
Your friend George Pelecanos (prolific author and writer for David Simon’s HBO shows) also excels at telling human stories within a larger picture. He interviewed you back in 2001. One question you asked him then was: “Is it harder to write about that kind of thing as you get older and more settled in your life?” Well, now I’m asking you the same thing.
A whole lot, the world has changed a bit since 2001, that’s for sure. When I was 41, I felt like an old man, thinking: “I’ve been through the wars, now lemme tell you a thing or two.” And here I am 16 or 17 years later, and I guess at one point you say: “Well maybe I don’t know anything anymore.” When you ask me a great question, I might tell a tale about what preoccupies me this very minute. But I might say a whole different thing a year from now. And that’s good.
You also work on this Norwegian TV show called DAG. Has interacting with different media, music and art forms elicited new meaning to you?
I really enjoy reading books or interviews with creative people. There’s a really good book called Written In My Soul, which is a collection of interviews with songwriters about songwriting. And another book called More Songwriters On Songwriting. It features all the greats: Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young… and they’re all talking about writing songs. The guy who did the interviews, his name is Paul Zollo, and he got all these myths, these statues, to open up how vulnerable and difficult it is. And how they manage to make things click. I love stuff like that. Maybe it humanizes your heroes, but also shows how resourceful they are, how they figure things out.
You realize everybody deals with the same troubles. It’s an eye-opening thing. I wrote most songs in my life during my forties. I just cranked them out. Now in my fifties, I do a little less, and I wonder: how do you step it up? Then you realize a lot of these things just come in waves. When we started The Dream Syndicate in the 80s, and I was still in my twenties. And man, those songs were hard to come by! Maybe I was afraid, or too nervous about what I thought was the importance of my work. What they would mean to what I’d do next. The best writing comes when you just forget about all that stuff. You play with whatever tricks you have to get there.
Any tricks you took up yourself by reading those books?
One thing I remember: Bob Dylan talks a lot about changing keys to a song just to surprise himself. That might sound obvious, but you could play a song all day in E Minor. I’ve written a lot of songs in E Minor, and a lot of songs in D. He tells the interviewer, who’s also a songwriter: “That song you play in E Minor, try it in D Flat, you might get something different.” Changing one little thing could change your whole perspective on a song.
Like moving a coffee table to the wall on the right, and you might have a totally different living room. As you get older, it gets even harder, you get used to the way you do things. That goes back to what I said to you earlier, how collaboration forces you to change. It’s like Mac Davis’s blind date. Sometimes a stranger tells you to try something; it could end up being horribly frustrating, you might not connect to it… or you just might. And that thrill can get everything fired up and working again.
And just maybe, some precocious nine-year-old kid, with a running nose and burning hunger, will play you a song that’ll blow your fucking mind.
Well, I’ll get his song published, I promise!
How Did I Find Myself Here? is out on 8 September via ANTI Records. For more information about The Dream Syndicate, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit their official website.
Photo credit: Chris Sikich