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Dream Syndicate - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 16 / 9 / 2017

Dream Syndicate - Interview


John Clarkson speaks to vocalist and guitarist Steve Wynn about his decision to reform his seminal 80's alternative rock act the Dream Syndicate and 'How Did I Find Myself Here?', their first album in nearly thirty years which will come out in September

When the Dream Syndicate released their debut album ‘The Days of Wine and Roses’ in 1982, they attracted as many detractors as they did admirers. The group, a part of the legendary Los Angeles Paisley Underground scene, which also included the Long Ryders and the Bangles, created controversy, their duelling guitars and abrasive, feedback-driven sound a stabbing reaction against most other bands of the time who were experimenting with synthesizers and electronica. Now seen as massively influential and the natural successor to the Velvet Underground and Television and paving the way for many alternative rock bands of the 80’s and 90’s, the original line-up of the Dream Syndicate – Steve Wynn (vocals, guitar), Karl Precoda (guitar), Kendra Smith (bass) and Dennis Duck (drums) – didn’t last long. Smith quit before the band’s second album, the similarly intense ‘Medicine Show’, was recorded in 1984, and Karl Precoda shortly afterwards. A different line-up of the Dream Syndicate, with Wynn and Duck still on board, stayed together to record two more albums, ‘Out of the Grey’ (1986) and ‘Ghost Stories’ (1988), with a much more commercial sound and which were heavily influenced by Neil Young ad Crazy Horse. Since the Dream Syndicate broke up at the end of 1988, Steve Wynn has had a long, eclectic career. He has recorded albums with garage rock band Gutterball which also included Stephen McCarthy, the guitarist with the Long Ryders; Danny and Danny,a duo with Green on Red’s Dan Stuart, and the Baseball Project, an indie rock supergroup, which is also composed of Peter Buck and Mike Mills from REM, Robyn Hitchcock bassist Scott McCaughey and Wynn’s wife Linda Pitmon on drums. The prolific Wynn has also recorded both eight solo studio albums and three with his regular band Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3. Wynn reformed the Dream Syndicate after an absence of twenty-four years and recently announced that the group’s fifth album will come out on Anti- Records on September 8th. Its title, the appropriately-named ‘How Did I Find Myself Here?’ was revealed and it eponymous first song put online a few days after this interview took place in late June. An almost twelve minute epic of a song, ‘How Did I Find Myself Here?’ promises much for the rest of the album, combining familiar twisting guitar lines and a typically existential lyric from Wynn which comes in just short of the four minute mark, but takes the Dream Syndicate into the 21st century with its jazzy licks and extended running time. Pennyblackmusic spoke to Steve Wynn about the new album, and began by asking about his decision to reform the Dream Syndicate. PB: You broke up the Dream Syndicate in 1988 because you said that you needed to “undefine” yourself. That seems to have been something that you have done at every stage in your career since then. Was reforming the Dream Syndicate and bringing out this album another attempt to “undefine” yourself? SW: I had forgotten that particular quote (Laughs), but that is a good way of putting it. I think reforming the Dream Syndicate was more a way of redefining myself, a way of getting back in touch with myself about something which mattered to me a lot when I was younger and seeing how it fitted into and related to my life now. I guess that it is my form of going to a High School reunion or taking a journey back to the place where you grew up to see what has changed and what it still means to you. PB: You told Pennyblackmusic in 2002 that you split up because “we had done all the things that we had wanted to do. Everything after that would have been repetitive.” You’re not known for doing the same thing twice. With that in mind why get back together? SW: When the Dream Syndicate split up, that was exactly the way that I felt at the time. Even though we were a really good band and playing together really well live and we were drawing a lot of people and having great shows, I just felt, “Where do we go from here? We have done everything. Everything at this point is going to feel repetitious. There is so much else that I want to do.” Since then I have had twenty-five years of making solo records, of playing with various solo bands, of playing with the Baseball Project, of playing with Gutterball. I have had the chance then to sow my wild oats, to go out there and play with strings and horns, with people I admired and people I didn’t know and old friends I wanted to work with, and it felt like a good time to go back to where it all began. Having said that, that much thought didn’t go into it. It was a weird, almost random circumstance that got us back together again to play one show and then one show became five. Then it became ten and then fifteen and eventually it became a record. PB: In what way was it random? SW: What happened was there was a festival at Bilbao in Spain that I really wanted to play. It is a charity festival that I had played a few times, and it was really a fun event and also for a very good cause. It was the third time that I was going to play it, and the promoter asked if I could play with one of my bands, and both the members of my solo band and the Baseball Project were busy. So, I said, “How about the Dream Syndicate?” and he said, “Are you serious?” and I said, “Why not?” It was really that easy. It was just a matter of getting in touch with the members, and Dennis and Mark Walton, who took over on bass from Kendra, were very much up for it. I haven’t talked to Karl Precoda in years and we weren’t about to play together, and I checked on Paul B. Cutler, who replaced him, and he and I are still friends but he didn’t want to do it, and so I started thinking, “Well, if I was going to do a Dream Syndicate band now who would play the guitar now?” and the obvious person was Jason Victor who I have been playing with in my solo bands for years. I have with Jason the best telepathy and connection that I have had with any guitarist that I have ever played with. He loves the band and knew our history and has a great regard for the integrity of what the Dream Syndicate was about, so he fitted in perfectly. PB: You have said that his new album is “a bounty of gifts for everyone who’s been there since the old days and yet unlike anything we ever did before.” In what way will it appeal to old fans and in what way is it unlike anything you have done before? SW: I can honestly say that it feels like ‘The Days of Wine and Roses’ had been made in 2017. It feels like everything that I loved and we loved about the band way back then, but it feels new. It feels modern, and I don’t mean modern in some kind of trendy or bandwagon jumping way. It just feels fresh and immediate and as exciting and in the moment now as ‘The Days of Wine and Roses’ was in 1982. I think anybody who has loved the band will love some of the songs on here. PB: It is an album that was recorded with very little fanfare. You didn’t involve a Kickstarter campaign or anything like that. You just went quietly off to Richmond in Virginia to record it. Why did you decide to do that? SW: Well, really for one main reason. If we didn’t like it we didn’t have to put it out (Laughs). I think that life is too short to worry about this record or that one. You try and represent where you are at that moment and then you move on, but the Dream Syndicate meant a lot to me. We were broken up for a very long and I shouldn’t want to reunite and make something that wasn’t great, that wasn’t really good on stage or off. It is strange because I talk to people about this. I think of bands that have reunited and make records, and I can’t think of very many if any that have come back with a record that was as good as their best records before. I would say that Wire is the one band that definitely have. They have come back a couple of times, and they have done records that sound and feel like Wire but which don’t really sound like Wire records, and I think that is kind of what we have done also. You have great hopes when a band that you love gets back together, and if you are disappointed you still love the band but you wonder what went wrong, and I didn’t want to be one of those bands. When we went in to record the album, we thought, “Well, it is working onstage and we are playing together like the Dream Syndicate but like a new version of the Dream Syndicate and taking it to new places, so we shall see what happens.” We gave ourselves five days in the studio and went in with a bunch of twenty different songs, and tried them all and at the end of that it felt like a good record, so we stayed on. PB: Why did you decide to go to Virginia to record it? SW: It is a studio I have used a lot. I made the first Gutterball record there, the last Danny and Dusty record, my last solo record, the last record with the Miracle 3 all there. It is a studio that I know well, and I spent a lot of time in Richmond when I was playing with Gutterball and it feels like a second home. I got married there. I have a lot of friends there. The studio is just fifteen minutes outside Richmond, but you feel like you are out in the country. You feel like you are so far from any semblance of stores or restaurants or gas stations. In my fantasy world, it is where I would imagine that you might make ‘Harvest’ or something like that. It has this 70’s pastoral setting and it allows you to just get away from everything and to just make records, to make music around the clock. You live there in the studio. You can work at six in the morning or two in the morning or whatever you want, and it has the immersive kind of atmosphere there that I wanted for this record. I wanted us to indulge ourselves or get lost in what we are doing and not have any time for reality checks, to just go forward and to let it all loose. PB: You took five days to make this record which is very fast even in these times to make a record, but ‘The Days of Wine and Roses’ was, however, recorded in three late night sessions, wasn’t it? SW: Right, and it was a good lesson for me. I have found that as a rule, not as a 100% rule but sometimes that the faster that you work the better the music is as you don’t have the time to second guess yourself. People can spend a year making a record that is awesome too, but I always go back to ‘The Days of Wine And Roses’. When we made that record we thought that we were the best band on the planet, and you should, you should believe that. We felt we were the greatest band around, that no one was like us. We really believed that and I think that it was true. That was kind of put up or shut up time. The fact that we had three days to mix and record the record and because of the budget of the label we had to work midnight to 8 a.m.those three days it kept us from thinking too much about it. We just blasted it out and it captured us. I think the same thing happened on this record. It wasn’t recorded in quite such desperate measures or so short a schedule, but we did give ourselves not too much time to worry about it. We just wanted to see what it would be like to be in the Dream Syndicate in 2017 and made the record. PB: The new album closes with a track called ‘Kendra’s Dream’ which was recorded with Kendra Smith, who was in the first line-up of the Dream Syndicate. She has lived a fairly reclusive existence away from music in the last twenty years. How much contact had you had with her in recent years and how easy or difficult was it to persuade her to come back to do this? SW: When she stopped working with the Dream Syndicate we remained friends. I remember well when she left L.A. in 1986, and she moved off outside the city to the deep woods where she still lives. This was before email, and the only way we would be in touch for a long time was if she happened to pass by a pay phone she might call me now and then. Then we started being in touch through other means, through letters here and there and eventually email at some point I wouldn’t want to say she is a hermit or recluse. She is just living the life that she leads but we stayed in touch. It is not easy staying in contact with her, but we stayed in touch and friends. When we made the record, there was one song that became ‘Kendra’s Dream’. I really liked it musically. I thought it was a beautiful, moody, evocative track, and I wrote a whole set of lyrics to it, and I actually recorded a vocal that will probably come out one day. It was good but it didn’t feel quite right, and I couldn’t quite feel the way to approach it and then I just had the thought one night, “Wouldn’t it be great if Kendra wrote her own words and sang it?” It would be great if Syd Barrett came back to life too but that is not going to happen, but nevertheless I contacted her and her immediate reaction was “That is really nice and I love that you are doing this and I am really flattered, but that is not what I am doing right now. I haven’t sung in a while. I am not sure if I am going to be right for the track.” And I said, “Kendra, anything that you are going to do is going to be fantastic because you are part of our story,” and she agreed to do it and it was perfect. She recorded it out where she is, and - thank goodness for modern technology - she just emailed me the tracks. I woke up on a Sunday morning and the vocals were in my email. It was like Christmas morning as when I heard it for the first time. I said, “Oh my God, that is fantastic.” It is really emotional because Kendra is really a big part of the story of the band, and for me and Dennis, who was also there at the beginning and for the band, it is really a nice kind of completion of the circle to have her involvement in the record. PB: To talk about completion of a circle 'The Days of Wine and Roses’ is a very full-on and abrasive album. It’s an album which divides people. They either love or they hate it, but no one feels indifferent about it. Was that your intention with this record as well? SW: I am glad that you say that. Our mission was that people would either love or hate us, and we were really proud of that. We made it a point to keep it that way. We were extreme perhaps to our detriment. We were divisive and we were antagonistic and we almost wanted to force people to hate us, so that if they stayed on we knew that they really loved us. For better or worse, we made for sure that you knew which side you were on. As it has turned out, now you put on that record now and it doesn’t sound quite as radical because a lot of other bands have come along and done similar things to what we did, but this new record is equally bold and fearless. We decided not to hold back in any way. The guitars envelop you and attack you and I didn’t worry about with my singing being too cute or reserved. The band played like a band playing live, so in some ways it is equally abrasive, strange, confrontational as we were in ’82 but the world has caught up with what we did then and it fits in with a lot of the music that I like right now. PB: You will put the album out in September and are going to be touring Europe in October and November? What are your plans after that? SW: I would like to make another record as fast as possible. I think we are firing on all cylinders right now and I can feel it in the studio and when we play live, so I want to keep this going and make a record as soon as possible. PB: Thank you.

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Dream Syndicate - Interview

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