Given the fact that The Dream Syndicate claims a nearly 40 year combined career as well as the distinction of helping to jumpstart the so-called Paisley Underground movement of the early ‘80s, any new album they offer ought to be an auspicious event. Known for their uncompromising attitude, the band has never lost sight of the progressive posture that propelled them early on.
When the group reemerged in 2012 after an extended hiatus of 23 years, the remaining members, guitarist/vocalist Steve Wynn and drummer Dennis Duck — with longtime mainstay Mark Walton on bass, newer recruit Jason Victor on guitars, and former Green on Red keyboardist Chris Cavacas now onboard — it almost seemed as if time had stood still. The lush textures and teeming psychedelia still loomed large in the band’s signature sound.
Even so, the group’s new opus, The Universe Inside, (read our review) is something of a departure for the band. While The Dream Syndicate has always been known for its progressive posture and ease with experimentation, the current effort boasts five tracks, the shortest of which clocks int nearly eight minutes long and the longest is over 20. It’s suggested that it sounds very much like a spontaneous jam in many ways.
“That’s exactly what it was,” Wynn reflects. “When we were making the last record, These Times, we reached what was supposed to be the end of one our usual 12 hour days. We were working on songs, overdubbing, working on the arrangements and all the stuff we normally do. It was about 11 p.m. or 11:30, and one of our friends, Stephen McCarthy, came by the studio, and though we were pretty tired, we said ‘Why don’t we go make some music?’ The six of us, and our producer and engineers were still hanging out, so we went back into the studio and played for 80 minutes straight, starting around midnight. I don’t think I’ve ever done that in my life. It was the kind of thing you live for — everybody connecting and having fun, not knowing where it was going. Every time it seemed like we didn’t know where else to go, somebody in the band would pick up on a riff, and it was like, ‘Here we go again.’ “
Wynn says that he work seemed to resonate, even when he listened later.
“The next morning we listened to it and really enjoyed what we heard,” he remembers. “We thought maybe we’d hold onto it for the archives. But the following year, I found myself listening to it hundreds of times. Every time I played it through, I really enjoyed it, and I started discovering little things I hadn’t noticed before. So after listening to it for like the 400th time, I thought, ‘Well, this could be turned into something,’ We could have pressed maybe 500 albums for record store day, but I thought this was something we could play around with, edit down, find some structure where maybe structure wasn’t intended. And that’s when it got interesting. I started writing lyrics, finding verses and choruses. It was like an archeological dig, and I was the scientist looking for clues. It was a lot of fun writing that way.”
As Wynn is quick to explain, that new attitude is one of the things that distinguish the current incarnation of the group from the seminal ensemble. It’s reflected decidedly in the outcome of the album.
“It’s a bit of a cliche because every musician says it about their latest album, but I do think this is the best thing we’ve ever done,” Wynn reflects. “Everyone else in the band feels the same way. That’s rare in a band. There’s always someone who says, ‘Ummm, no. I’m not too thrilled.’ Likewise, with every record we’ve done, I’ve always been able to pick out the influences. With with this one, I don’t know what the hell is going on there. I hear things that we would never be compared to — Miles Davis, Can — it’s all in there, but it still sounds like us. We’ve made three albums in four years because we’re excited. It’s like a new band. We know we’re the same band that made Days of Wine and Roses and Medicine Show, and we’re proud of those albums; we still play many of those songs in concert. But in reality, we could change the name of the band because we’re doing something entirely different now. It’s convenient to have that name because me, Mark and Dennis have been playing together for 39 years now. We have a history and there is that success. But what we’ve done in the last five years… we’re kind of dumbfounded by the high rung we’re on right now.”
At the moment, Wynn is speaking on the phone from his Queens New York apartment in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. He says he lives only a block away from the city’s Elmhurst Hospital, an epicenter of triage in the current crisis. He mentioned that he hears the ambulance sirens day and night.
It’s bad enough to think that the situation is affecting his daily life . However, with a new effort out, it’s also curtailing any ability to get out and promote.
“We normally do around 100 shows a year,” he explains. “We didn’t have that much booked for this period, so we kind of lucked out there. But we did have a few shows planned at South By Southwest. We were scheduled for a short U.S. tour in April and a festival in Norway. Normally I might have been cancelling 40 or 50 shows, but I was only cancelling 20, maybe. Everybody has challenges and stories far worse than I’ll ever have, but the thought that we might not touring for the rest of the year is a real bummer. Chris and I did a tour last November in Germany, and to think that was only four months ago is shocking. It seems like another lifetime.”
Of course, the fact that the band’s history reaches back nearly four decades also instills a sense that Wynn’s tenure in The Dream Syndicate could, in reality, actually consume another lifetime. He reflects on the fact that early on, the band wasn’t always understood. The most frequent analogies tossed their way suggested that they were a cross between the Velvet Underground and Crazy Horse.
“At the time I didn’t love that comparison,” Wynn replies. “We knew what we were trying to do. We were doing something that nobody else was doing. In 1981, the Velvet Underground was a band that not a lot of people really knew about. Their records were out of print, Lou Reed had a few hits, but they weren’t on a lot of people’s radar. So we knew we wanted to pick up on things we really liked, like the Velvets, like Crazy Horse, like Television. All those things we wanted to put into our music. Sure enough, when the first record came out, the critics picked up on it. But after awhile, everything we put out was compared to the Velvets. And I thought that was just lazy. ‘I’m not saying you’re wrong, but you’re not putting in the work. Listen more carefully. This is Black Flag, this is something else. I can tell you song by song.’ So that kind of rankled me. Now, I looked back and think that’s okay. The other day I tackled that new Bob Dylan song. I kind of wanted to do something like Bruce Springsteen did with Nebraska. So those that heard it said it was kind of a Lou Reed take on Dylan. But that’s okay. Lou Reed was amazing, the Velvets were amazing. I’ll take that. I always get compared to other things. Nowadays however, I get compared to some record in my history before I get compared to somebody else’s.”
Nevertheless, when The Dream Syndicate emerged int he early ‘80s they were part of a musical community all their own, young upstart outfits revivalist that shared a common sensibility with their own. Wynn remembers it all fondly.
“At the time, that one year, ’82, the beginning of ’83, there was that feeling in L.A. that we had this group of like-minded bands — the Bangles, the Salvation Army which became Three O’Clock, Green on Red…we felt like we were making a kind of music — ‘60s sounding, psychedelic, guitar-based, whatever you want to say —that other people weren’t as much, and that exciting to us. We would go see each other’s shows and we were aware when somebody stuck a new song in the set, what they were trying to do. It was very real. At the same time, looking around the country, we saw similar things happening elsewhere — a band in Georgia called R.E.M., Sonic Youth, a band in Minnesota called the Replacements, Husker Du. It was like, ‘Oh man, there’s something going on around the country that wasn’t going on a year ago,’ and we felt like we were very much a part of. It. That was exciting, being young, being happy, going from not having ever made a record to having a record people were talking about. It was a heady rush.”
Still, Wynn admits it wasn’t always easy.
“There was a lot of distraction the first time around,” he reflects. “Every band encounters that. We were doing what we liked and trying to stay creative and make good records. Bu we had to put out a record every year, because that was the routine in those days. Also, we were young and we hadn’t done this before, so it was like, ‘Oh shit, if I don’t succeed in a certain way and don’t do it in a certain way, I won’t be able to do this anymore. If this record doesn’t do well, I might not be able to do this anymore. I don’t feel that way anymore. This is what I’ll do until I die. Back in the day you had to make an attempt to please the record label, maybe not whole-heartedly, but I guarantee there wasn’t a band that didn’t at least have it on their mind. It was part of the whole structure.”
Fortunately, things have changed for both the band and the indie universe in particular. “Nowadays, there’s not that pressure as much anymore,” Wynn insists. “You can do whatever you want and nobody’s going to tell you otherwise. We were on four different labels back then. Our current label, ANTI-, not only encourages us to do our own thing, but also encourages us to go as far as we want to go. They told us they’ll put out as many records as we want to put out. That’s in contrast to a previous label that told me, ‘We’re not interested in selling 50,000 records. We want a giant hit or it’s not worth our time.’ It wasn’t said in a snotty way or a malicious way. It was just their philosophy. So I suggested it was time to part ways, and he agreed, and we did. That was an eye-opener. All along, my goal was to make music I liked, music that excited me. To match the feeling I get from hearing a record I really like.”
To Wynn, that means more than commercial credence. “I don’t see us overtaking Taylor Swift anytime soon,” he jokes. “When we started, we had this credo of sorts. All we want is to be one person’s favorite band. We didn’t care if a lot of of people just kinda liked us. We had songs that were over an hour long, filled with noise and distortion. We knew we weren’t for everyone. I still think of us that way. I feel like we won the lottery. I get to make a living doing what I like to do. I’ve had permission to play in my sandbox for 40 years and that’s just great.”