The annual South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, is all about getting bang for your buck — something former Dream Syndicate leader Steve Wynn is about to learn the hard way, as he plans to perform, by his count anyway, 14 sets with three different bands over three days this week.
Slicing Up Eyeballs caught up with Wynn last week while he was rehearsing in Athens, Ga., with one of those bands — The Baseball Project, which features his wife, Linda Pitmon; Scott McCaughey of Young Fresh Fellows; and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck — on the eve of a spring tour that will hit both SXSW and a bunch of spring training games in Arizona.
Wynn — who graciously put up with our lousy connection (“You must have AT&T!”) — just released Volume 2: High and Inside, the second Baseball Project album. He talked about that band, as well as his work with The Miracle 3 on last year’s Northern Aggression — plus his decision to revisit a pair of classic Dream Syndicate albums live in concert.
The Baseball Project tour kicked off over the weekend; check out the full dates.
Read our complete Q&A with Steve Wynn after the jump…
SLICING UP EYEBALLS: I understand you’re in rehearsals right now the Baseball Project. Going well?
STEVE WYNN: Going very well, actually. We’re just starting into it. We don’t play together that often, so it’s always surprising how fast things come back, songs you haven’t played for a year. Your hands know where to go. Your hands know better than the brain.
EYEBALLS: Is it the whole band? Is Peter there with you?
WYNN: Peter arrives today. He’s been gone until today – we’ve been playing without bass for the last couple days.
EYEBALLS: Pretty impressive that you can get him to rehearsal on the day R.E.M.’s new album comes out.
WYNN: I know! And also on the day their album comes out, we’re rehearsing in Athens. The do an event here every time they have a new album, kind of a listening party for people in Athens where they auction off various items for charity. And they did it last night, two blocks from where we’re rehearsing – but we didn’t even go because we’re so busy. But up the street, people were celebrating an R.E.M. record, and we’re sequestered away working on our songs. It’s pretty funny.
EYEBALLS: Now I know you’re about to start your tour, but first up is South By Southwest. How many shows are you playing there?
WYNN: A whole bunch. Actually, between the Baseball Project, the Miracle 3 and The Minus 5, we’re doing, I think, 14 sets in three days. We’re all variously involved in all of those bands, so we’ll be playing quite a bit.
EYEBALLS: What kind of plan of attack do you have to put together to handle something like that?
WYNN: (Laughter) Not sure yet. I guess we’ll find out when we’re there. Just sort of closing your eyes and looking straight ahead and not stopping until it’s done.
EYEBALLS: Have you done South By Southwest before with this many different bands?
WYNN: Not with this many bands. I’ve played there with the Miracle 3 three times in the past few years. It’s been a while, though. 2001, 2003 and 2006, I believe. And each of those times we would do multiple shows, up to five or 10 shows each time. But this will be different because it’ll be different bands, different combinations of people each time. It’ll be fund. It’ll be a lot of fun to play it that way.
EYEBALLS: New bands go down to Austin with an agenda – getting a label or finding a booking agent or publicist. As an established artist, what do you hope to get out of it – or is it just enough to get your music in front of a lot of people?
WYNN: Yeah, it’s a chance to play to a lot of people at one time. We all love touring, we do quite a bit of it, but you can’t get everywhere you want to get. But playing South By Southwest, you’re able to play in front of a lot of people from around the world at one time, so it’s a pretty good way of getting people on to what you’re doing right now.
EYEBALLS: Quite a bit different from the tour you just finished in Europe.
WYNN: Yeah, actually a couple (of tours). I was out in Europe in the fall with the whole Miracle 3. That was the rock tour, and then I went back in January and February and did a duo acoustic tour. So they’ve all been pretty different and pretty fun.
EYEBALLS: Does mixing it up like that help keep you going?
WYNN: Yeah, completely. For me, the most fun I have, whether I’m writing songs or touring or making records, is when I’m working with other people. It’s very inspiring, so changing up the touring partners or the setlists is great. It makes things a lot more fun. I like having a guitar in my hand and being in the back seat of a van going somewhere new. But at the same time, if I toured with the same people and played the same setlists year after year, I’d probably go nuts. This tour we’re doing right now, between the South By Southwest thing and mixing it up with different bands in the same city, it’s going to be a blast. You gotta keep on our toes and remember who’s playing with you.
EYEBALLS: And you’re going to be playing actual spring training games, too, right?
WYNN: We are. We’ve been talking about doing that for a couple years now. It’s an idea we have had from the beginning of the Baseball Project. Why not go to spring training, where so many teams are playing so close together – where there’s 10 games at the same time within 30 miles and we can be the band on the scene playing in front of the stadium, in the park or at the bar down the street. Just being everywhere.
EYEBALLS: Makes sense.
WYNN: With the Baseball Project, I was thinking – with all the bands that have been around since the beginning of time, you get the feeling that everything’s been done into the ground. No matter what you do, it’s been done before. But what we can say with the Baseball Project is we’re doing something nobody’s done before. We’re a rock band playing the music we love, but playing nothing but songs about baseball. So it’s kind of exciting to do something like this. It feels like it’s all new territory and all that territory belongs to us. So it made sense. Why wouldn’t we want to go down to spring training and be the official baseball band in Arizona?
EYEBALLS: Are you finding that the people listening to the Baseball Project are coming to you because they already were following you, or because they’re baseball fans? Or maybe some of both?
WYNN: I think at the beginning we were mostly getting people who already liked our music or who were fans at one time or another of all of our many bands. But as time has gone on, we’ve really become embraced by baseball fans and especially the whole baseball community, like as far as teams and people programming music at stadiums and broadcasters and sportswriters. We’ve been written up in Sports Illustrated and been on “This Week in Baseball” and had our music played before and during games. This is fun stuff for us. I think going down there to Arizona gives us a chance to be in the middle of all those people. It’s great promotion to be picked up by the baseball powers that be – but it’s also fun for us. We are baseball fans, so if we can parlay this band into a bunch of free tickets, that’s pretty great.
EYEBALLS: Do you and Scott write the Baseball Project songs together or do you bring stuff in separately?
WYNN: We mostly write on our own. There’s one outtake from the first record called “Blood Diamond” and there’s one song on this album called “Fair Weather Fans” that we all wrote together. For the most part, we do write on our own, and that’s largely because we live 3,000 miles apart, so it’s hard to write together. I think as time goes on, we’ll do more stuff together.
EYEBALLS: Are Peter and Linda as big of fans as you and Scott or did they sort of get dragged into this?
WYNN: Linda is as big a fan. She’s a huge baseball fan, always has been. And then Peter grew up watching baseball, playing baseball. And I think before the band was more of a fan of baseball from more of a literary perspective, like he loves reading books about baseball history, and how it relates to the overall American fabric. But since the band’s been going on, I notice he’s watching more games. I’ll get more texts from him while games are going on during the World Series. I think we’ve been dragging him in.
EYEBALLS: What makes a story or player a good candidate for a song? Obviously some of these songs have broader themes than just a certain ball player or event. Do you look for that or does it just happen?
WYNN: I think for the most part we’re trying to write songs that have some sort of universal theme, and the songs just happen to be about a baseball player. A lot of things we write about work on a non-sports level, like “Buckner’s Bolero” on the new record. Scott’s essentially making the claim that maybe at the end of the day, it’s better to be remembered for something you screwed up than to be totally forgotten. Or with “1976,” about Mark Fidrych. It’s a song about his life and his short career and his death, but it’s also about how your memories and your youth kind of fades away as you get older We try to find the baseball story that tells a broader story. That’s the starting point.
EYEBALLS: When you’re working with a fixed story like that – it’s history, it’s something that happened – is that more liberating than your normal songwriting?
WYNN: Sometimes, oddly, limitations are very freeing, and that’s what I love about the Baseball Project. When it’s time to work on a record, you know what you’re going to write about. You’re not going to write about your love life or your financial situation, you’re going to write about baseball. I like having that kid of limitation, that specific territory you’re writing about. And then once you’re in that mindset, there’s a million things you can write about. When we’re doing solo records, or Scott’s writing a Minus 5 record, there’s a certain element of, “What’s interesting enough in my life to write songs about? And hopefully will be interesting enough to people listening as well.” With this band, there’s no guesswork. You know where you’re starting.
EYEBALLS: Were you working on the Baseball Project album at the same time you were recording ‘Northern Aggression’?
WYNN: Exact same time. They whole process of writing, recording and mixing was happening simultaneously. It was very fun. They’re very different records. They both have me and Linda, they were written at the same time, but there’s a different vibe entirely. I think it helped me hone in on the things that are special about each record, and not aim down the middle.
EYEBALLS: Obviously, lyrically, you knew which songs were for which album. But what about musically? Did you have to figure out what songs went to which project?
WYNN: That’s a good question. But no, that never happened. There’s never a case where I was strumming some chords and tried to decide which band it applied to. Really, I kind of knew when I was writing for one band or another. The stuff I do with the Miracle 3, the stuff I do with my solo records, those are the general sit and strum a guitar and write a song kind of thing. But with the Baseball Project, it’s almost like being a journalist or writing on assignment. The concept comes first, that’s the difference with the Baseball Project, knowing, “Oh, OK, I’m going to write a song about Mark Fidrych, or about beans balls. Generally, when I write, I find some music that brings out an emotion in me, and then chase down the words that fit that emotion. So it’s easy to figure out which songs belong to which thing.
EYEBALLS: The Miracle 3 album is more aggressive, a little more all-out rock.
WYNN: It is. A little more than I expected, I think.
EYEBALLS: How come?
WYNN: We knew from the start with Northern Aggression that we were going to make this record in this studio in Richmond, Va., that I really like. I’ve used it before. It’s just outside of Richmond, but you fell like you’re back in the woods, living off the land. I think the setting of the studio and the whole southern, woodsy atmosphere made me feel, going into it, that we were going to make our pastoral, country rock record, our Harvest or something like that. And it didn’t turn out that way at all. Maybe because the atmosphere is so alien to a bunch of New Yorkers like us that it just reinforced our urban grit. That’s where we got the title. We went down to the south, so it’s almost like the Civil War, 150 years later. The northerners came down and laid stake to their territory.
EYEBALLS: The first track, “Resolution,” and another one toward the end, “On the Mend,” really stand out as these big, rocking jams. But the song that really sticks in my head is “The Death of Donny B” – which I understand is from an anti-drug film?
WYNN: Yeah, that’s a really funny thing. You can find it on YouTube if you type in “The Death of Donny B.” You’ll probably get two things – you’ll get our own video from the record, and then this old film. Jason Victor, our guitarist, he somehow came across that video. It’s from 1970, very black and white, a very gritty anti-drug film. And he turned me on to it. It’s one of those things where you get into something and watch it 20 times a day and hear the song in your head all the time. So we went into the studio and it was fresh in our minds. And late one night at the end of a 12-hour session, we were just kind of jamming and noodling around before dozing off and he started playing the chords, and I said, “Let’s play that song. Let’s put it down on tape.” We had one of those great moments where you play something once and that’s it. You’re done. It’s the first take, and, to be honest, it’s the only time I’ve ever played that song in my life. We recorded it and put it away, forgot about it for a few weeks and have yet to play it live. I’ve got to do something about that.
EYEBALLS: Last year, you reissued the Dream Syndicate’s ‘Medicine Show,’ and played that album live alongside ‘The Days of Wine and Roses.’ Does revisiting those particular albums inform you’re doing musically today?
WYNN: You know, I’ve never stopped playing those songs. I kind of go back to those records quite a bit because I know people like them and they meant a lot to me, so there’s never that big a surprise to me. I don’t always play them in order from start to finish, so that’s when you get in that mood doing it, but I don’t think so. I think because those songs have never been that far from me, they’re always part of what I do, part of my history. But I’m generally more excited about what I’m doing right now. I don’t spend a lot of time listening to my old records. What I’m into at any given moment or what my bandmates are into is more motivation than my old stuff.
EYEBALLS: Will we a full Miracle 3 tour after this run of Baseball Project dates?
WYNN: I think what’s going to happen probably is that after this South By Southwest and spring training tour and a handful of other shows with the Baseball Project, we’ll probably take a short break. And then the idea is later in the spring to do a double bill with both bands together, which will be really fun. We didn’t really promote Northern Aggression in the U.S. and I want to do that because I really like that record. We’ll find a way to do that, for sure.
PREVIOUSLY ON SLICING UP EYEBALLS
- Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn to release ‘Northern Aggression’
- Dream Syndicate’s ‘Medicine Show’ includes ‘Not the New Dream Syndicate Album’
- Dream Syndicate reissuing ‘Medicine Show,’ Steve Wynn playing albums live
- Peter Buck, Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey plan triple-bill band-swapping tour
- Steve Wynn to perform Dream Syndicate’s ‘Medicine Show’ in NY, LA