AN INTERVIEW WITH STEVE WYNN
The Dream Syndicate was one of the essential bands of the legendary Los Angeles Paisley Underground Movement back in the early 80’s, along with The Bangles, Green On Red, and The Three O’Clock. Always redefining their sound, the iconic band would eventually move away from all things psychedelic, remaining an intriguing sonic force of nature until their untimely breakup at the end of the decade. Founder Steve Wynn went on to front bands such as The Miracle 3, The Baseball Project, as well as a successful solo venture. Now 30 years after the release of their classic debut album The Days Of Wine And Roses, The Dream Syndicate has returned, ready to rock your world once more. After a short European Tour, the band will play its first North American show since 1988 at Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival in North Adams, Massachusetts on June 22. We recently had to opportunity to interview the ubiquitous Mr. Wynn to discuss all things related to The Dream Syndicate then and now. Read on…
It’s been 30 years since the release of The Days of Wine And Roses. What goes through your mind when you think about that album and the fact is was recorded 30 years ago?
I think that’s a real long time! That’s amazing! It just seems like yesterday. But I also think about how much I like the record – I liked it when I made it – and I think the whole band knew that when we made it, that it was a record that would reach people and would hit people in kind of a way that would hopefully stand the test of time. (We thought) it would be popular for a few weeks or a couple of months. And if I could have known 30 years later that people would still be getting turned on to it – new young listeners – people who weren’t even born when it came out would be getting turned on to it, I would have been very pleased.
The first time I saw Dream Syndicate was at The Whisky with Choir Invisible. You opened with a super long version of Halloween and closed with Too Little, Too Late. Describe that time period of being a musician in the L.A. music scene – and do you even remember that show?
I remember it very well actually. It was a very exciting year for us, because we became popular and hip in the way we wanted so quickly. We were pretty excited. All of us had been in bands where we had paid dues – there’s no doubt about that. We had been in plenty of bands where we played fifth bill on a Tuesday night at some terrible club and thought that was as good as it gets. We all had been through that, so there was no lack on dues paying. But I have to say with The Dream Syndicate, we didn’t pay any dues whatsoever. It happened and it happened quickly. Literally, within three weeks of the first time the four of us had played together, we were playing really good shows and people were talking about us and building some excitement. And I think it was just because we were doing something that wasn’t being done by anybody else in a way that a lot of people were missing. We felt like we formed the band that didn’t exist that we wanted to hear, so it was kind of inevitable that other people would feel the same way. And I do remember that Choir Invisible show quite well. And the funny thing about that is they seemed like the old guard to us at the time. They had probably been around for like a whole year or two, and we felt “Oh my God, we’re playing with the L.A. club rock royalty here! They’re famous!” To us, it was kind of a chance – on the one hand play to a different audience – but also in a way to further show what made us different. And that’s why we opened with an extremely long song and the ended with a ballad. We did that all the time. We were looking for ways to set ourselves apart from everybody else out there – including bands from our own scene – including bands in the Paisley Underground. We did that because we felt we WERE different from everybody out there. So what you saw was a good example of us doing that.
I guess another example of you doing that was the KPFK radio show. What do you remember about doing that show the most?
A lot of things good and bad and indifferent! That show was a great show – the Andrea ‘Enthal show. You didn’t start playing until 2 in the morning – that was pretty exciting! We were playing in front of a lot of our friends and fans. I think I was playing in front of a very recently ex-girlfriend who had to be carried out in the second song because she was heckling me too much. I remember that – and you could hear that on the record actually – clearly! I also loved playing live on the radio – I did back then and I still do – and I like the possibility that it gives you for trying different things. We chose that night to totally rework a song that had just been barely released – like Some Kind of Itch. Or to play a song that become John Coltrane Stereo Blues for the very first time. We had no game plan besides just play E for a long time to see what happens. And we did it and we enjoyed it, playing weird covers. And I think generally when we had a chance to play in front of the most people – to have the most high profile gig – whatever that meant – we would take the most chances. So there we were playing a show that I had gotten into six months before – I wasn’t in The Dream Syndicate and I would listen to that show religiously every week – and here we were playing on it! And rather than just “Okay guys, watch your P’s and Q’s and play everything right. No mistakes! Let’s give our 110 percent!” It wasn’t like that at all. It was kind of like “Let’s fuck ’em up!”
And of course it was finally immortalized on record and on CD…
Yeah, and we played that show and it became a record later on. We played that show just three weeks before we went in to make The Days Of Wine And Roses – and we were really happy with that. And I have to say, that became kind of a benchmark of what we wanted to do when we went into the studio. When we heard that back, we were like “That is exciting!” And I think that kind of put us into the mode to go into the studio with a lot of confidence and with no fear whatsoever – just to go in and play our live show without holding back. One thing that was kind of funny – when we made Days Of Wine And Roses – we recorded it in one day – did overdubs another day and mixed it a third day – so it was a three day session altogether. But all the tracking was done in one day. And I remember being in the parking lot of the studio with Dennis (Duck) till 8 in the morning and listening back to what we had done. And we thought the record was good –we were happy with what we had done. But we listened to the title track The Days Of Wine And Roses and we were so enamored with the version we had done at KPFK that we felt (the studio version) didn’t measure up to that. We were kind of a little bit despondent – we didn’t quite get that one. And we were almost going to insert the live version into the album, and then thought, “Ahh, that would be kind of weird. We shouldn’t do that.” And we went with (the studio) version. Now we listen back to the version on the record, and think we were insane, because it’s just fine – and I can’t imagine it being any better.
How surprised were you when Kendra Smith left the band and what did you think of her work after Dream Syndicate?
I was really saddened she left the band. I guess I was a little surprised, because we had been friends for a long time. She and I were really the allies that started the band. She and I went back to our time in Davis together. And that she would leave what I thought was such a great band, and I thought she thought was such a great band right when things were starting to get good kind of shocked me. Within a few months, I kind of understood. I saw where she was going – she wanted to make music with her boyfriend at the time David Roback and she had different things that she wanted to do than what we were doing. And it was great. My God, I love the Opal records, I love her solo record and Clay Allison – everything she did is fantastic. I would have loved to have played with her for a while longer. Really, I have so few regrets about anything that’s happened in the last 30 years – but the one thing that I wish is I could go back in time and just convince her to stick around for a little bit longer.
What was it like to perform Too Little, Too Late a few years later with her at McCabe’s a few years later?
I forgot about that! We did! Now that you tell me, I remember that at the Texas Records Benefit Show. That was great – I’m glad we did that. I had forgotten we had played that together. I knew she was there that night. It was great! It was funny – over the years I have sung that a little bit and then Linda Pittman, my wife and drummer for The Miracle 3 – she’s sung that a few times, and it’s a song I like playing. But I’m glad we got to play it one more time with Kendra – and I did forget about that till now.
That’s on CD too…
Oh my God, that show has been bootlegged beyond belief! That was the show with R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs and me and a bunch of people. I was at a show in Denmark once, and somebody was standing in the audience with a shirt that had the date on it. And I said, “What’s the significance with that date on your shirt?” And the woman said, “That’s the date of the fabled McCabe’s show that you all played!” So it seems like that reached far and wide.
Now according the Wikipedia, Kendra is now living in the forest in a place without electricity. Do you still keep in touch with her and is that even true?
I would never comment on anything about Kendra because I think she is a very private person. We are in touch now and then. That’s my shortest answer of the interview.
That is true! Well let’s move on and talk about Karl Precoda then. What was it like working with him and why did he leave Dream Syndicate?
It was great working with him. He was a great guitarist and really had such a unique style. What we did together was a combination that made the band exciting to people. I was writing songs and he was attaching a lot of dissonance and noise to them in a cool way and that we both really liked. I loved working with him – again, we were allies on a team together just with this mission and belief in what we were doing. Unfortunately, over time – and not over a lot of time – the success of the band kind of drove us in different directions. It was sad, but I think like in most cases, where being young and getting a little bit too much attention too soon added this weird conflict to the way we operated. We stopped being friends and that was sad. I think we had something really good together and we were really good friends. At a certain point, it just got to the point where we were not getting along – it was too miserable to be in a studio or a van with him – and I’m sure with him (he felt) vice-versa. And we stopped playing together.
Did Karl do any new band projects after Dream Syndicate – as far as you know?
For a while he didn’t do anything. And then he formed a band called The Last Days Of May. And they actually made like three albums and they’re good! They are kind of instrumental, psychedelic, fusion-y type records – experimental, long songs. You could definitely hear his style on there. They are very good – I think they kind of got a little bit of attention on the sort of underground, avant-garde scene – but that was a while ago. And since then, I’ve heard nothing about what he’s done. We haven’t spoken in more than 20 years.
And now let’s get to Dennis Duck. What do you think has made Dennis stay on for the entire Dream Syndicate run?
Dennis and I got along great. We loved playing together then – and since then and definitely now as well. He and I definitely work well together – I love the way he played and he just added this big groove to what the band did. Sure, you have the weird folk songs on the one hand and then the weird noise clash up against it, but it worked best of all because there’s a good solid groove going on at the same time. So I love playing with him – we got along great – always did – and we maintained – and it’s the same thing I said about Kendra and Karl – Dennis and I maintained that feeling that we were on a mission from day one until the very end. And we feel the same way now. Dennis and I are so excited to be playing together again, and to see how happy people will get when they watch us play. It was me and Dennis from the start to finish. I have no problems doing The Dream Syndicate in a different lineup that the first, second or third one – but I would never do it without Dennis.
Whose idea was it to reform Dream Syndicate and do the European tour and the one-off US show?
We’d all been in touch. Mark, Dennis and I had remained friends and remained in touch. Two or three years ago, we actually played together at McCabe’s with Paul Cutler – the guitarist who was in the band for the last four years. I had solo acoustic shows I’d booked – and I didn’t feel like playing it alone. So I didn’t know who I could play with, and I kind of had this devilish idea to ask the three of them to play and not tell the other ones until the last minute. And they all said yes. So we really did play what could be seen as a Dream Syndicate show, except we didn’t call it that. And I think when we did that, we got the feeling that this could be fun. And we enjoyed it – we enjoyed playing together. Paul made it clear that was a one-off for him – he didn’t want to do any more than that. He had fun – we stayed friends – but he didn’t want to do anything beyond that. So I kind of kept it in the back of my mind that we had to do it in some way. And I was asked to play a festival in Spain last summer – in September – and the guy had asked if I could play it with my other bands – The Miracle 3 or The Baseball Project – and neither bands were available. And right then at the moment, I said “How about The Dream Syndicate?” And he said, “Yeah! That would be great!” So I thought about it – and I knew I wanted to play with Dennis and Mark – we played well together and we got along great. And the real obvious choice was right in front of me – and that was Jason Victor, who I had been playing with The Miracle 3 for 12 years and who has played all of these songs. He combines every element I loved about Karl and Paul – the two guitarists from the band – and understands what the band was all about. He was practically a scholar in the hands-on and hands-off side of what The Dream Syndicate represented and what it was about – and he was the perfect choice. And from the first time the four of us played together – that was it! Yup, that IS The Dream Syndicate – it’s as much of The Dream Syndicate as the show we played at KPFK or the last show we played in ’88 in San Francisco.
Is there a chance of any other US dates for The Dream Syndicate or will it be just the one?
I think there will be more. We’re just not planning them yet. We’re did a Spanish Tour last September to try out the whole thing to see if it worked – and it did really well. We have a nine city European tour booked in the month of May and then we’ll be doing the Solid Sound Show. And at that point, we’ll kind of sit back and figure out what we want to do next. I think we all kind of agreed that we don’t want to get in the van for two months. We don’t want to play in every town. We want to keep doing it but we want to keep it special too. I would be surprised if we don’t do more US shows. And I would be very surprised if one of the shows wasn’t in L.A., because that makes sense to go back where it all started. But there’s nothing planned yet.
Is there any idea in your mind of maybe writing and recording any new Dream Syndicate material?
Yeah, I’d like that. I’ve thought about that and we’ve talked about that a little bit, and I think it would be really good. I think this band would make a really good record. I always kind of wished there was a record between Days Of Wine And Roses and Medicine Show. That leap was logical in our lives at that time because we were doing so much touring and experiencing a lot of changes, but you don’t see the leap so much between the two records. And I’ve always felt I wanted to make the record that would have come between those two records. And I could see this band doing that. You could have all the intellectual and theoretical ideas in your head, but when you go into the studio it could change entirely. But that’s sort of what I could see this band doing. I don’t know when it would happen, because everybody’s got things going on in their own lives musically apart from the Dream Syndicate, but I think it could happen.
What city do you currently reside in and what is the music scene like there?
I live in New York City. I’ve lived in Manhattan for the last 20 years. I just moved to Jackson Heights, Queens – which is just across the river. I love it here. I’ve always loved New York. I wanted to move here for a long time before I actually did it. It’s a great scene in general for everything – you name it – from food to movies to theater to just walking around and looking at things. It’s all fantastic! And the music scene here is cool, especially right now – it’s all happening in Brooklyn. There’s some great bands out there. There’s a band called the Parquet Courts who I really like right now. A lot of people have said that they have reminded them of The Dream Syndicate. I hear it a little bit. They remind me of a band I might have listened to when I was with The Dream Syndicate. They’re just great!
As The Dream Syndicate, if there was either one band now or from the past you would like to open for, who would it be and why?
That’s a good question! I think back then, we would have been very excited to open for Miles Davis. We really felt a lot of inspiration from jazz and from very exploratory, improvisational types of things. I think we would have been as excited to open for Miles Davis as we would have been to open for Bob Dylan or Lou Reed – which we wouldn’t mind as well. You know we opened for U2 on tour back in 1983 – I guess that would be okay for now as well. It would be fun to bring that tour back again.
What was it like opening for U2?
We did a three week tour opening for them in the US. Their album War had just come out, and we were touring for The Days Of Wine And Roses. They knew of our music – and through their manager and our manager, they put us on the tour with them. And I was really excited because it was right when that record was taking off –right when Sunday Bloody Sunday and New Year’s Day were all over the radio. You could feel the excitement of their career going into overdrive, and we were sort of able to ride along in the tail winds and get some excitement as well. So that was fantastic!
What could we expect from Steve Wynn after the Dream Syndicate shows are over?
We’re making a new Baseball Project record in August. And that will be out next February. That’s the most immediate thing. We’re excited about that, and we’ll probably do some touring for that next year. And then I’m way overdue for a solo record as well, so that will probably come not long after that. And then the mythical Dream Syndicate record, which right now is in theory, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
Do you have any messages for long time Steve Wynn / Dream Syndicate fans?
Just thanks for hanging in there and being supportive for everything I’ve done over the years. That’s the most direct message. It’s been a wonderful ride – a wild, unpredictable ride – and the fact that people have hung in there with me for that long is gratifying.
The Dream Syndicate 2013 is:
Steve Wynn – vocals, guitar
Jason Victor- guitar
Mark Walton – bass
Dennis Duck – drums
(Interview by Kenneth Morton)