The Dream Syndicate opens its second run of European reunion concerts tomorrow, but bandleader Steve Wynn already is thinking bigger, raising the possibility of recording new music with his old band with a very specific goal in mind: making the “missing” album that bridges the gap between 1982’s The Days of Wine and Roses and 1984’s Medicine Show.
Last week, Slicing Up Eyeballs caught up with Wynn to talk about his decision to reunite The Dream Syndicate, why he thinks the new lineup is the “best possible” mix of players to resurrect the band’s sprawling sounds, and the prospects of making the group’s first new album since 1988′s Ghost Stories.
“There should have been a record between Days of Wine and Roses and Medicine Show,” Wynn says. “We evolved a lot during that time. We went through a lot of changes, and we didn’t necessarily show our work on paper. … So one thing I’d like to do is make the record that should have happened between those two records, and this would be a good band to do it. It’s kind of method recording.
“If we do a record, that would be the idea.”
The Dream Syndicate — Wynn, original drummer Dennis Duck, bassist Mark Walton (who joined after Medicine Show) and guitarist Jason Victor, who plays in Wynn’s current band, The Miracle 3 — open a nine-date European tour in Belgium tomorrow, followed by a slot at Wilco’s Solid Sound festival in North Adams, Mass., on June 22. Full tour dates are posted below.
Read our full Q&A with The Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn:
SLICING UP EYEBALLS: So you’re off to Europe next week.
STEVE WYNN: The tour starts… you know, I haven’t even packed my bag yet. The tour starts on Thursday, I think. We’re rehearing over in Holland for a couple days then getting started.
EYEBALLS: Have you guys played since the Spanish shows last year?
WYNN: No, not as the Dream Syndicate, no. We played those five shows over there and that was the last time we’ve all been together.
EYEBALLS: Why’d you pick Spain to launch this whole reunion?
WYNN: Well, that’s kind of how the whole thing got started. There was a festival in Bilbao put together by a friend of mine. I’d played it the year before and he wanted me to come back over and bring one my bands, the Miracle 3 or the Baseball Project, to do a show, and none of them were available. I really wanted to do the festival and I just sort of had this spontaneous impulsive decision to throw the Dream Syndicate out there without really thinking about it much.
EYEBALLS: He must have been surprised.
WYNN: He loved the idea. I thought, ‘Why not.’ I’ve been in contact with Dennis (Duck) and Mark (Walton) over the years. We’ve remained friends, and I’d talked to Jason (Victor) about the idea of sometime playing together in that form. I thought he’d be the perfect guitarist for the band. It took a catalyst of some sort to make it happen, and it was this festival. And once the festival got booked, other people in Spain wanted shows and all of a sudden we had a tour.
EYEBALLS: How’d you feel about the reception?
WYNN: It was great. And that’s the thing: It’s been a long time since the last time we played together, a long time since the last Dream Syndicate show, and you just don’t know if people are going to remember or have certain expectations or what they’re going to be looking for. And that’s why we just booked the five shows. I didn’t want to go beyond the Spanish shows for the first tour. I wanted to see how it sounded, how it felt, if felt exciting. If it felt, you know, both familiar enough to be the Dream Syndicate and new enough to be worth pursuing – and it was both of those things.
EYEBALLS: You’ve obviously been playing a lot of these songs in recent years with the Miracle 3. But what feeling did you get onstage performing them with some of the original players?
WYNN: Well, for one thing, there were a lot of songs I hadn’t been playing. I focused pretty heavily over the years on The Days of Wine and Roses and Medicine Show, and had done those albums all the way through a few times. But there were a lot of songs I hadn’t played in years, and going back and playing those, that was kind of a new feeling.
The one thing I realize the more and more as I get older is that the combination of people you play with changes the kind of show you play instantly form band to band, and you can change one member of the band and all of a sudden you have a whole new thing.
The way I play with Mark and Dennis is just a very unique thing, which is the sound of the Dream Syndicate. It turns out that even though I’ve played a lot of these songs over the years with Jason Victor, having that rhythm section, those people the way we played back together in the ‘80s, the way we played on record and the way we played together hundreds of times back in those days, it really is a familiar fit once we hit the stage.
EYEBALLS: You feel Jason is playing differently in this configuration?
WYNN: Yeah. And, in fact, that’s one of the things I wanted to see how it would be in Spain. Look, I know Jason is an amazing guitarist. I know he and I play well together. I know he knows those songs inside and out. We’ve played them together over the years. But I was curious how that would fit in the context of the Dream Syndicate and if it would feel like something, if it would feel more like the Miracle 3 than the Dream Syndicate. And he really kind of tailored his playing just a little bit, and the way he interacts on stage to make it a new thing, it feels definitely like the Dream Syndicate.
I hate to put too much analysis into this, but I think he really has found a way to completely find the best things about all the guitarists who’ve played in the Dream Syndicate – Paul Cutler and Karl Precoda – and mix those together in a real cool way, and, at the same time, going somewhere else completely new.
One thing that was always very important to the Dream Syndicate, of every lineup with every show we did, was the potential for anything to happen each night, a lot of improvising, a lot of spontaneity, a lot of just going with the mood of the evening, of taking extreme chances sometimes to the point of self-sabotage, and other times to the point of complete nirvana. Not the band.
And we’ve allowed ourselves to be almost a free-form jazz band, trying to be as much John Coltrane as we were trying to be the Velvet Underground. We wanted to really stretch it out and improvise and Jason and I really have that chemistry together. He and I have played together probably as well as any guitarist I’ve ever played with – and that works great in the context of the Dream Syndicate.
EYEBALLS: How many different songs are you rehearsing?
WYNN: Quite a few, actually. Right now we’ve got about 25 songs down. And when I saw quite a few, that’s a lot, considering the band only recorded about 40 overall over the years. We’re gradually getting to most of the songs we did, and I think we’re adding a few on this tour. Hopefully, as we go on – and I think we’ll keep doing this for a while – we’ll eventually probably have all of them down.
EYEBALLS: On some reunion tours like this, you’ll see a band figure out a pretty rigid set and stick to it. But I take it you’re mixing things up.
WYNN: Yeah, we do. The five shows we did in Spain were completely different, and a couple of the shows on this tour we’re doing the Days of Wine and Roses album straight through, with other songs, and other shows we’re just playing any combination of things. I think we’ll take it night by night.
One of the things I’m enjoying playing with this band, and I enjoyed with the old version, too, is “John Coltrane’s Stereo Blues,” which was always just an open canvas to do whatever we wanted. And this band plays it really well. We were really stretching it out. We played a version in Madrid that was, like, “Man, we’re flying and going wherever we want to go.” It was exciting and over before I knew it. Man, I could have just kept going. Somebody asked how long it was, and it was like 22 minutes.
EYEBALLS: What’s the longest you’ve ever played it?
WYNN: I’m not sure, but I do remember the original lineup played a show in Santa Cruz back in 1982 and we went up there thinking, “Oh man, Santa Cruz, it’s a hippie town. Let’s be the Grateful Dead for one night.” So we opened with “Mr. Soul,” which was like 3 minutes, maybe 4, and closed with “When You Smile, which was maybe another 3 or 4 minutes. And in the middle we did a 45-minute version of “John Coltrane’s Stereo Blues” – and that was the whole set. And I think they liked it.
EYEBALLS: Obviously you kept in touch with Mark and Dennis, but was there ever any effort to put the original lineup back together? Or are Karl (Precoda) and Kendra (Smith) out of music entirely?
WYNN: Neither of them are playing very much. I really have no contact with Karl, and very little with Kendra, so that wasn’t ever a possibility. I have stayed in touch with Paul Cutler, the second guitarist, and we’ve remained really good friends, but he wasn’t interested in doing any kind of reunion or a tour. We always get together for dinner and beers when I come to L.A., but we don’t play together. He didn’t want to do a Dream Syndicate tour.
So, really, if it was going to happen, this is the way it was going to have to be, and it goes back to why we tried the short tour in Spain. Because who knows? Even though it should work on paper, maybe it wouldn’t have worked. What was really exciting is I really do believe this is the best possible Dream Syndicate lineup there could be right now, in terms of representing what we did, what we were all about back then. It’s closer to the excitement, the sound, the ideal, the improvisation, the weirdness, the confidence, all the things I loved about the band.
EYEBALLS: Now, after this European tour, you’ve only got one U.S. show booked: Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival. And it’s being billed as your only U.S. appearance this year. You seem to be taking things slowly over here.
WYNN: I think more will happen down the line. We really wanted to do the Wilco festival because it’s a great festival. We wanted it, and they wanted to have the exclusive for the first show we were going to do (in the U.S.), and that was fine by me.
EYEBALLS: It’s a good fit.
WYNN: Yeah, we’re fans of the band, and Nels (Cline, Wilco’s guitarist) and I are old friends. Nels and I were actually working together at Rhino Records in L.A. when Days of Wine and Roses came out, so it’s a nice kind of full circle thing to be able to play a show with them. Once we get through this show, we’ll probably do more down the line.
EYEBALLS: I’m sure there are fans around the country that would love to see that.
WYNN: Where are you based?
EYEBALLS: I’m in Denver, so that’s a long haul (to Solid Sound).
WYNN: We had some really fun shows out there. I remember some really cool shows. It would be great to do more. It would be natural to do a New York show and an L.A. show and take it from there.
EYEBALLS: What about a package tour with the Miracle 3, the Baseball Project, maybe the Minus 5?
WYNN: Those bands do play together a lot, and we’ve had package tours. But I think we’re going to keep (the Dream Syndicate) pretty separate. At this point, there’s a blurred line between all the bands you just mentioned, and in the midst of all the Dream Syndicate stuff, all of those band are fully active. I’m going to end up doing a show right after the tour in Norway, a Baseball Project/Minus 5/Peter Buck Band/Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3/Steve Wynn Band combo thing that’s really just eight or nine people wearing different hats throughout the evening. And that’s really fun. I love the variety show approach to bands. But I think the Dream Syndicate will exist as its own very limited thing.
EYEBALLS: What about making new music as the Dream Syndicate? You’ve said you’re open to it.
WYNN: Yeah, actually, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think it would be fun to do a new record. One of the biggest regrets, probably one of the only regrets, because I’m pretty happy with how things have gone over the years, one regret is that we didn’t make more records than we did. It was a time in the ‘80s when things were very deliberate. You made demos and waited and waited and, you know, there was a distant time table. I think that band should have made at least two or three more records. In particular, there should have been a record between Days of Wine and Roses and Medicine Show. We evolved a lot during that time. We went through a lot of changes, and we didn’t necessarily show our work on paper. It’s a giant sonic, stylistic leap from the Days of Wine and Roses to Medicine Show. But while we were on the road, it was very gradual and understandable progress.
So one thing I’d like to do is make the record that should have happened between those two records, and this would be a good band to do it. It’s kind of method recording. If we do a record, that would be the idea.
EYEBALLS: How do you get yourself back in that mindset?
WYNN: You know, every time I go play these songs on stage, I’m back in that mindset. Every time I play with Dennis, who is the one person I played with the entire duration of the band, I’m back in that mindset. It’s easy to fall into that way of playing and that way of thinking.
EYEBALLS: Have you started writing new Dream Syndicate music?
WYNN: The songs are being written in my head, very slowly in my mind. It’s a jumble in here with Baseball Project songs as well. I’ll let them duke it out.
EYEBALLS: I’d think with Baseball Project songs it’s easy to keep them separate, given how topical those have to be.
WYNN: Exactly. The thing with the Baseball Project is, I know what I’m writing about all the time. The subject matter is very focused.
EYEBALLS: Has doing those Baseball Project records changed the way you approach writing other songs? I imagine it’s sort of a writing exercise.
WYNN: It is. It’s definitely a writing exercise. And, in fact, Scott (McCaughey) was just laughing about something, we were talking about the new songs, and when he has a song, I’ll say, “So what’s your angle?” It’s almost like we’re having an editors’ meeting for a newspaper. He’ll say, “I’m writing about Hank Aaron.” And I’ll say, “Great, Hank Aaron. So what’s the angle?”
I was a journalist and a sportswriter when I was in my teens, before Dream Syndicate and all that, so there’s always a bit of who, what, where, when and why, the solid lead, the development and then a snappy ending in the back of my mind, and that really plays into the Baseball Project. They’re all like little articles, short stories or whatever.
But then if I’m doing the Dream Syndicate thing, that process wouldn’t apply at all. Almost with the Dream Syndicate, it’s what kind of songs would allow us to do our big, beautiful, sprawling mess as well as possible. That was always the thing. I mean, sure, they were songs that worked well as folk songs on the back porch with an acoustic guitar, but really, the Dream Syndicate songs that were best were the ones that allowed the band to do its thing.
If I wrote a sweet little bubblegum song, a Tommy Roe song or something like that or an Archies song, it wouldn’t get the most out of the band. Something with two chords for 25 minutes would be the best kind of thing for the Dream Syndicate.
But it has to be the right two chords.
The Dream Syndicate tour dates:
May 23: Het Depot, Leuven, Belgium
May 24: Dingwalls, London, UK
May 25: Rockefeller Music Hall, Oslo, Norway
May 26: Stadtgarten, Cologne, Germany
May 28: Hana Bi, Ravenna, Italy
May 29: Bloom Club, Mezzago, Italy
May 30: Mylos, Salonica, Greece
May 31: Stage Club, Larissa, Greece
June 1: Gagarin 205 Live Music Space, Athens, Greece
June 22: Solid Sound Festival, North Adams, MA, USA
PREVIOUSLY ON SLICING UP EYEBALLS
- The Dream Syndicate to play ‘first U.S. show since 1988’ at Wilco’s Solid Sound festival
- Video: The Dream Syndicate reunites for 30th anniversary concerts in Spain
- The Dream Syndicate reuniting to mark 30th anniversary of ‘The Days of Wine and Roses’
- Q&A: Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn on Baseball Project, ‘Northern Aggression’