Steve Wynn: The Culture Brats Interview

In a world filled mostly with cold hard musical disappointments, you take your rare pleasures where you can find them. And it's one of those delightful surprises that catches my attention on a a dreary Monday afternoon: the news that The Dream Syndicate are not only reunited, but that they intend to play their first North American show in twenty five years at Wilco's Solid Sound Festival on June 22, 2013.

What's better than a summer that kicks off with the unprecedented return of a band that defined cutting edge alternative music, and influenced some of the best musicians in the world? Nothing! That's what!

Following a string of hugely successful and critically acclaimed shows in Spain last September where they blew people's minds and left them begging for more, it was clear that there was still more to accomplish, and no matter what happens when the band takes the stage on a warm summer day in June (and trust me, with their live shows, anything can happen), you can bet you haven't seen or heard the last of The Dream Syndicate.

So June 22, 2013 is going to be penciled onto the calendars of a lot of people living in North America. This is something people have really been waiting eagerly for, for twenty five years, and Wilco's Solid Sound Festival sounds like a great place to do it. Any chance you'll do more shows or will this be it for the States?
We've been taking the whole thing a little bit at a time. We played Spain last fall, the idea was if we have a good time and it feels like the music is still exciting to us and people we're playing for, then we'll do another little bit. So then we booked a tour of Europe for this May and of course the show at Solid Sound. I think each step along the way, if we're digging it we'll keep doing it and if not, we'll stop. And so far, it's been great.

I heard those shows in Spain blew the roof off, and it whet the appetite of those who have been starved for The Dream Syndicate. During your initial seven-year run, you produced some enduring music that really stands up when you listen to it today. The Days Of Wine And Roses exploded in 1982 and nearly everyone I talk to has you on their most influential or "best" lists. Did you worry about revisiting all this well-loved material live initially? And after last fall's excellent stage shows, was there an element of relief like "Damn, we still got it?"
I tell you now, at this point, the first round of the band seems like a long time ago, and not just as far as years and eras and decades and stuff like that, but as far as where we all were at the time, and what we thought about music and why we made it and what the process involves. And yes, you know, I think at this point all of us are just better at what we do and kind of have a lot of perspective about it. That's kind of why I wanted to reform the band, it was just kind of to see how our current state of mind would fit into the music and how that would work. It felt like unfinished business. What we did back then went by in a blip. It may have seemed like a long time back then, but really it was a short amount of time. I wanted to go back and make some of the music I wish we'd made and do some of the things I wish we did and experience it in a different way. Now all that is great in theory but it doesn't really matter until you go out onstage. The first show we did in Spain was a festival in Barcelona, and it just felt, from the very first song, like that daredevil high-wire manic adrenaline thrill that I used to have with The Dream Syndicate back when the band first started.

What was the initial spark that reignited the whole idea to reform the band?
We'd stayed friends, so there was no bad blood, there was no need to bury any hatchets. We were still good friends and Mark, Dennis, and I in particular still stay in touch. We actually made music together in different configurations over the years, just not all at the same time. There was no personal barrier to overcome. But the idea actually to get together and play a show came out of, as I think the case often is with reunions, a random chain of events.

There was a festival being done in Spai by a friend of mine and he wanted to have me play there and he asked me if any of my bands would be able to do it, so I checked with my solo band The Miracle 3, and I checked with my side project The Baseball Project, and none of that was available and I really wanted to do the festival. And I kind of had this brainstorm: why don't you do The Dream Syndicate? Everyone in the band was very excited about it and the guy from the festival was thrilled, and once we booked that one festival, other people in Spain wanted shows as well. Word got around and we booked a five-city tour and that was that. Kind of happened before we could even think about what we'd done, and what it meant to ourselves and to fans and people around us. That was a good way to do it, without a lot of major hubbub, just went out and did it.

Word of mouth spread like wildfire, as it's apt to do. But also people who were fans of The Dream Syndicate had also been fans of The Miracle 3, Danny And Dusty, and Gutterball. You have fans that have followed you closely for many years. Obviously, everyone in the band has led busy and full lives outside of The Dream Syndicate. You in particular have worked with many other artists like Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde and you've collaborated with endless artists.
Oh yeah, Johnette and I have been friends forever. We toured together, we worked together. She's a really good friend. I'm glad I have friends who are all really talented, really creative and inspiring. I like mixing and matching collaborating. I think it's kind of why it took me so long to want to do The Dream Syndicate, because I was having so much fun doing other things. For a long time, I sort of almost bristled at the idea of reuniting the band because, well, I like what I'm doing now. Here Come The Miracles is still my favorite record that I've ever made; I like that as much as anything, probably more than anything I've ever done. Each new thing to me was always exciting when I was into it at that moment. So the idea of going backwards and reuniting a band that had meant so much to me felt like something in the past and it didn't excite me until just recently. And I think just the idea about the unfinished business, like "What would it be like now?" I don't have really any regrets in the years of making music but the one thing that has frustrated me is that there weren't more Dream Syndicate records. That we didn't do more. And I think that we were making records at a time when you didn't have a chance to record that often. You sort of had to wait two years between records, you had to belabor over things, that was the way it was in the '80s. And that we didn't do more is the one drag. This is a chance to go back and see how much more we can do, to kind of find the missing gaps in what we were doing and just live it twenty five years later.

The legend of the Dream Syndicate sometimes eclipses the actual reality of the band itself. When I tell the kids today that you guys were critical darlings with a rabid and loyal fan base but weren't as commercially successful as they would assume, they don't believe me because they revere you as alternative royalty. Most of them weren't alive in the the time frame of '81-'89, so I guess that's to be expected, but how do you feel about this legendary status and is there anything you'd say about the reality of being in a band during that very interesting time in music history that people aren't aware of?
Well first of all we really took the approach with the reunion of "do no harm." We don't want to do anything to bring down that myth. Or to bring down what people think about the band. So that's kind of why we we've been careful about how much we are going to do, because it would be a drag to reunite and have people come out and say, "Oh, they weren't that good" or "I wonder what all the fuss was about?" and I can see how that might happen with a lot of bands. And like I said, fortunately, from the first round of shows, that's not the case at all. Everything about the band that I like is still there.

You know, it is true. When all these bands like ourselves or even to a greater degree the bands like R.E.M., we were all starting out, we were kind of in the the wilderness. There were no rules, there was no name for indie or alternative rock yet, it was just bands who didn't like what was happening in the mainstream world and didn't even like what was happening in the hipster cool world and they said, "We're going to try something different and see if this works." I think that kind of zealous approach, that naivete, that combination of just not caring what came before but also being rabid fans of what came before, that sort of weird hybrid of being a nihilist and also a geeky fan, kind of made that scene what it was. And I think that is what all those bands had in common.

Now I think it's a little different because, and believe me there are a lot of current bands I really like, but now you have the playbook. Now you can go onto Wikipedia, AllMusic, and Pitchfork and YouTube and you can design your own history. You can custom make your own genre. And it's a lot easier to know what to do and what not to do and what pitfalls to avoid. We didn't have any of that. With The Dream Syndicate in particular, we were just hellbent on defying any perception of what we were supposed to be and what was expected of us. We were as much into challenging non-fans as we were into challenging our own fans. We just wanted to challenge everybody and ourselves and everything around us. Being younger and being a little bit snotty about things and persnickety about stuff, we just wanted to make a big mess and then sift through the pieces after it was all done. We were very good at that, and I think that's what made us good and also meant we didn't last very long.

It was a beautiful mess, but it worked. You look at these people who have the easy-to-follow rule book, but then again look at the music industry today. It's morphed into something completely different than it was when The Dream Syndicate was making records. How do you feel that the changes that have taken place in the whole industry impact people making and marketing music for people just starting out, or has it even impacted you at all? You have made music non-stop.
That's the way I love to work, and I've been that way for really about twenty years now where I will just do different things and randomly going where I want to go at any given time. And it's not because of a career move or an industry because it's hot. I like to work. At this point, I just make music I like. The great thing now is how things are becoming in general in music. I think because things just don't sell as much because there are a million different things going on and a million ways to have access to those million things. I think people are free to just do what they want. And like I said, there are more records I've loved in the last years, than I have in a long time, I think it's because people are indulging themselves. People are saying, "I had this crazy sound in my head, I'm just going to do it" and somebody somewhere in the world will be the ones who listen and love this crazy sound in my head and will allow me to make another crazy sound a year from now, three weeks from now, or six months from now.

It's a real freedom and it's kind of the way we were when we started. You know we never even imagined we'd make a second record or have a career or be talked about in the 21st century. That wasn't even an issue. We were going to do something that was a record that we wanted to hear, something we thought was cool, something that our closest friends would be amused by, that we would get off on. And I think that is kind of the way it is now. My favorite record right now sounds like it's directly from the inside of someone's head with no filter from the outside world and I love that. We would do things in The Dream Syndicate, it's easy to look back and say look at The Days of Wine And Roses or The Medicine Show and say that this is what this band is about, but we were different every night. We'd go onstage sometimes in front of an audience that was ready to hear a record they loved and had bought and we loved too and we would turn around and play John Coltrane for forty five minutes and say goodnight. And we thought that was the coolest thing to do.

I remember one show in particular. We played a show in Los Angeles after Days Of Wine And Roses came out, it was at the Roxy and it was very high profile, with the media there and the record labels were there. We came out and we played probably the straightest show we'd ever played. We played the songs the way they were on the record, very well, for whatever reason; that's just what we did. And I walked off stage probably more depressed than I ever had when we played back then. I thought, "Man, we just dropped the ball and did the normal thing." That's how it was back then, the last thing we wanted to do was the normal thing on any given night.

The Dream Syndicate had a reputation for that very thing. The word was you never knew what you were going to get when you saw the band live. Your reputation preceded you. But then you go from the chaos and thrill of an unpredictable performance to your well put together and beautifully recorded albums.
Like anybody who has made a lot of records you have certain things you like to hear and don't like to hear. Things that sound a way that annoy you. It's funny that the first record The Days Of Wine And Roses, we made in three nights , three midnight to eight sessions and our second record Medicine Show, we spent six months making. And everything I've done since then has fallen in between those two time frames.

I think all I really want to do when I go into the studio is try to capture a moment. Try to give the feeling of one inspired moment that happened right then that could never have happened before or after. You're glimpsing, you're a voyeur or a tourist, a visitor to this one thing that happened. That's the way I feel about my favorite records I've made. I feel that way about Here Come The Miracles, I feel that way about Gutterball, I feel that way about Days Of Wine And Roses. It's as if you captured a moment in time where everything worked. That is kind of what I'm hoping for. It doesn't always work that way. You can have the best intentions in the world. It's one of the misconceptions that people have about musicians and records, it's that well, if they tried hard enough it would be a great record. They look at old favorites, whether it's someone like David Bowie or Lou Reed and they say, "Well that record wasn't that good, I guess they didn't care enough, or they didn't try." Sometimes things work really well when you've got nothing, with your second rate songs, and no money to work with and you're in a bad frame of mind and then you capture something you didn't expect would happen. Conversely, you could have it all going on for you and the whole thing planned to the hilt and then "Why didn't that work?"

It's all random. We were lucky with Days Of Wine And Roses that what came out of that completely, not very conducive to great work kind of session. I mean, God we were all working day jobs and then we had to go work midnight to eight, three nights in a row. That's something you'd bet on not getting your best results but we were in the right place in our heads and in our music. It worked out great.

I have to ask, is there any chance after all this that we could possibly see some new music from The Dream Syndicate?
We've been talking about it. Like I said before, what we are thinking about right now are the upcoming shows in Europe and the show at Solid Sound and then probably after that summer we'll think about what to do next. I think we are having a really good time playing together and the music is really good so I'm sure we'll do more. There would be no reason not to. I would love to do a new record, I would love to do The Dream Syndicate album and I think it would be really good but we'll decide that after June.

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