For patient fans, The Dream Syndicate’s slow burn of a reunion — sporadic bursts of shows here and there since first getting back together five years ago — is about to pay off in a big way, with the release this September of the legendary Paisley Underground act’s first new album in 29 years, and weeks worth of shows to promote the record.
Bandleader Steve Wynn talked to Slicing Up Eyeballs earlier this week about the new album, though he admits he’s constrained about how much he can reveal (such as the title, which remains under wraps) without spoiling the marketing plans of the band’s just-announced new label, Anti Records.
A bit more, er, pressing, would be the double-vinyl reissue of The Dream Syndicate’s 1989 document Live at Raji’s by Run Out Groove, which pits prospective releases against eachother and lets fans decide which title actually will come out. The Complete Live at Raji’s beat out reissues of Golden Smog and Howard Tate albums, and there’s only one day left to pre-order it — so act fast if you’re interested.
Below you’ll find our interview with Wynn, in which he discusses his love of vinyl, the recording of the very belated follow up to 1988’s Ghost Stories, and the magic of the current Dream Syndicate lineup, which features original drummer Dennis Duck, bassist Mark Walton (who joined after 1984’s Medicine Show) and guitarist Jason Victor, who plays in Wynn’s band, The Miracle 3.
Also, he talks about the unlikeliest part of the new album: the guest vocal by founding bassist Kendra Smith, who left the music world decades ago and has sat out the ongoing reunion, but agreed to appear on a song that Wynn has called “the perfect coda to the record.”
(The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: There was a few things I wanted to talk to you about, but to start with, how’d you get hooked up with Run Out Groove? Pretty interesting what they’re doing.
A: It’s very cool and, I’ve got to be honest, I did not know about the company or what they do. They approached us about doing a live album, and I started looking at their whole thing, the cage matches between bands. We voted got voted on, and the outcome was kind of exiting. I was glad that the fans chose our record to be reissued. That was very cool.
Q: Was that particular record, or that show, even the whole tour, special to you?
A: It is. I like that record a lot. The Dream Syndicate made four studio albums, and I really like all of them in different ways, and they’re very different from each other, but at the same time, we really were a live band. I think that’s kind of what we’ve always done best is be on stage, and things change night to night, and things happen in the moment. We recorded that record at Raji’s on the fly. There was no mixing afterwards, there was no chance to go back and fix anything. It was exactly as it went down. It was a wonderful, magic night. The club was right, the recording was right, the sound, the way we played, we didn’t play it safe. We took chances. We went out on a limb and it worked every time. That doesn’t happen every time — especially when the tape is rolling.
Q: I’ve always wondered, with recording live albums, what the odds are that you choose this night to record. What if it’s not the right now?
A: The thing is you can record a lot of shows, (because) so many things sure can go wrong. You can also psych yourself out. It’s very easy to say, “We’re recording this.” Don’t do the wrong thing or say the wrong thing and don’t play that song that you know never works. I think we just let it fly that night. I say, in all fairness, we were pretty consistently a good live band in those days and still are.
Q: Is it nice seeing Raji’s get a vinyl reissue? Where do you stand on the whole quote-unquote vinyl resurgence?
A: Yes. I guess I’m trying to remember now… It came out in ’89 the first time around. An ’88 show, and we put it out in early ’89, right about when we broke up the first time. At that point, CDs were this kind of weird, mysterious, magical thing that you only, I remember for me, I would only buy a CD if it was one of my favorite records, because it’s a special thing. And, of course, they sounded like crap. The earliest CDs were terrible sounding. You had the feel that you were at the advent of some new futuristic technology that had to be handled with care. I think deep down we knew back then that vinyl sounded better. It still does and I think CDs have improved a lot since then. I think they sound pretty great, but, still, this is a record that is meant to heard on vinyl. This is really an old fashioned, classic double live album, no interruption, ‘you are there’ moment, and this is something you want to hear on a 12-inch slab of black vinyl.
Q: Are you going to be able to put the new Dream Syndicate album out on vinyl?
A: Yes, absolutely. That’s an essential thing these days. I’m actually pretty proud. I think I’ve made about 25 to 30 studios album in my life, and as far as I can tell, and I’m pretty sure, I think only one of them didn’t come out vinyl. That’s not a bad track record. It’s great that the pendulum has kind of swung back to where vinyl is the thing. And it really is now. But for me, it always was.
Q: Do you have a release date for the new record?
A: On the new one? Yes. Sept. 8. I can’t wait.
Q: It seems like it’s been done for a while now. I saw you posting about it a while ago. Obviously you were shopping for a label, and ended up choosing Anti. In this day, you can certainly self-release music pretty easily. What are you hoping to get out of having a label relationship still in this era?
A: Well, it’s a good question. You can always put stuff out by yourself. The fact of the matter, our very first record, the first EP that we put out right in the beginning, was self-released and did really well. It got us off to a great start. I think that, you know, we really had a first choice from the start. I really like Anti and I’ve known Brett Gurewitz for a long time. I think he is great, the roster is fantastic, the way their whole approach, to be very artist friendly, and also encouraging people to be artists, who they are, and then if you do your thing, then we’ll find a way to get it out there. It made sense with what we are doing. They were the first label we approached. In my book they were the one we really wanted and they said yes and that was that. We didn’t have to have a Plan B.
Q: That’s good.
A: It’s very good.
Q: I know you played at least one of the new songs, because there’s video of it out there, “Out of My Head.” That’s quite a jam there.
A: It seems like it’s connecting pretty well. That really is the feel of the record.
Q: When are we going to hear more from the new album? I know with a label and all there’s probably a marketing plan. When do you expect to put out the first track for people to hear? Because people, I think, are excited.
A: And we’re excited to get it out there. You’re right, they have plans and dates and strategies and it’s really nice to see that, to know, but staying back and saying, “You guys know what you are doing.” The first track they’re putting out is on June 20th. It’s the day they’re going to announce the title of the album, the release date and the first track. I really feel like I can’t talk about it just yet, but I will say they are definitely not playing it safe with their choice, which I think is great. I know you will see what I mean. Of all the tracks they could have chosen, it’s the one I kind of was hoping they would choose. They’re definitely not pulling it safe.
Q: When I last talked to you, in 2013, you were just starting to talk about recording a new Dream Syndicate album, and you were saying that you had this idea that you saw it as filling the gap between ‘The Days of Wine and Roses’ and ‘Medicine Show.’ Is that where you ended up, or did it go somewhere else entirely?
A: You know, that was kind of a weird little “rock fan of my own band” kind of idea that needed to exist. As it turned out, as things often turn out, it was nothing like that at all. It is its own thing that I don’t any of us expected. It really, what I have been saying, and this doesn’t tell the whole story, but I feel like its what it would have happened if The Days of Wine and Roses were made in 2017. It feels like the Dream Syndicate, I think it sounds like the Dream Syndicate, it’s our aesthetic and fearlessness and desire to be as freaky and visceral and all that, but yet it sounds kind of nothing like anything we ever did. That’s the weird contradiction. It sounds like the prototypical Dream Syndicate album, and yet nothing like the other four.
Q: That’s great.
A: If I just read the quote I just said a year and a half ago, and knew that’s what we did, I’d be very happy.
Q: You see so many bands reunite, and sometimes, a lot of times, they don’t do new music. But when they do, to me the far more interesting ones are the ones that go somewhere different with it. Like the Afghan Whigs. I’m a big fan of them, and they’ve put out two albums since getting back together, and they don’t sound lik the albums the did in the ’90s, and that’s a good thing.
A: I think it is a good thing. In fact, as music fans, the four of us will play this game, and I’ve talked about it with other people, where you say, “Name a band that has reunited that made a record that was as good as what they did the first time around.” I think you’re right, the Afghan Whigs have done that a little bit, and Wire is one that I always come back to. In those cases, the records feel like the band, they represent what the band was all about, but it’s not just an attempt to duplicate something. I think that’s what we’ve done. I think -– like I said, it is, and represents everything that I love about the band, and then some, And yet, it’s not just like, here let’s not be the Rutles to our own Beatles, let’s not do that.
Q: I imagine, too, your songs — especially the sort of guitar freakouts — are one thing on record, but a whole different beast when you play them live.
A: Yeah, it’s still all about live.
Q: You must be pretty excited about having a whole batch of new songs to take out on the road.
A: Yes, I’m really excited. Actually, you were talking about the new song we played live last week. We actually played three new songs. One of them got out there, but we played three new ones and they felt like, the way they felt for us, and the response we got from the audience, it was like they fit right into the set, and they were as welcomed as anything else we played that night. I can’t wait to load up the set with new songs. I think people are really going to dig it. Again, I’m being as cagy as I can, or don’t want to be right now, but this first song that Anti is putting out, the first single as it were, is going to be a live staple of the set for this year and beyond.
Q: Since reuniting a few years ago, it seems like this has been sort of a very deliberate and slow-paced reunion, just playing some shows here and there. Do you think that contributed to being able to make a new album, just testing the water a little bit? It seems like this wasn’t predetermined to happen, but something that sort of evolved naturally.
A: I think what you’re saying is right. I think that we not only took our time, more than took our time, we just didn’t ever load up the plate with too many things at any point along the way. We just did a few dates here and there, some short tours, and then when we went to the studio, we didn’t make a big fuss about it. We just said, “Let’s go someplace where we’ll find the answers ourselves, make sure nobody’s looking, make sure we have the freedom to bury it deep if we don’t like it. I think that was a big part of it, too. I think if we’d have looked for a label, or somebody to back it, before we made the record, I think we might have felt, “OK, this better be this or that.” We went in almost, I wouldn’t say it was secretive, because we did tell people about it, we did post a few things online. But we really did go in with the escape hatch of you know this thing will be six feet under and then some if we don’t like it. And then we just let loose. Like making Live at Raji’s, we just didn’t approach it with any kind of nervousness or fear or preciousness or it has to be this or people are expecting that. We just did what we were all about at that moment. And that’s kind of what the band always was. I think in some ways the same thing that kept us a cult band is the same thing that makes this so exciting now, where the four records we did before were so different because we just evolved all the time. We didn’t worry about what things meant. We just existed in the moment, and when that moment was gone, it was time for a new moment. That’s true for a lot of bands I’ve always liked and you can do things like hammer home an idea and a sound and an image until you just want to die and people get sick of it. And that’s usually when things start catching on. And that’s never appealed to me. I’ve always liked people who change with their own excitement. You hear something or feel something or go to a new place or play with new people and your music, your writing should reflect that.
Q: I imagine you as well have sort of your own different outlets in that you can always go play with one of your other projects, go do, say, The Baseball Project for a while.
A: That helps, yeah.
Q: In terms of the recording, how did this all work? Do you write songs and bring them to the rest of the band? Or is it more of a group jam in the studio?
A: I wrote a lot of songs for this project. I kind of went on like a year-long writing binge where I just wrote songs that I wanted to play with Dennis and Jason and Mark. And as it turned out Chris Cacavas who was there in the studio with us on keyboard and co-producing the record. I just came up with things for that, and we went in with about 20 songs, and then took them wherever they would go. I’ve been making solo records for about 25 years, so it’s like I had to kind of think, “How is this not a solo record?” And the way it’s not a solo record because it’s played by these people. It’s funny because I went solo in 1990 because it was the easiest way to move forward and do what I want to do and not be restricted with who I play with or when I made records. But the reality is all along I have been a band member. There is maybe an exception or two, but there no record that I have made that wasn’t a case of me playing with a band and seeing what happens. I played with the Miracle 3, it has got my name first the two words you see, but I’m really just the member of a cool band. This wasn’t that different, except that the thing is, when I play with Mark and Dennis, it sounds like the Dream Syndicate. It’s funny how, I mean, Jason and I have played together for 15 years now and we have a really great interplay, we have this thing we do. We’ve been doing it, we’ve playing Dream Syndicate songs in my solo projects. But the thing about playing with those two guys, playing with Dennis, playing with Mark, and it’s automatically, it’s instantly, we’re back at Raji’s, we’re back in a Hollywood basement in 1988. It feels like that. You have that kind of framework, which is great. Then you can bring any song to it’s going to feel like it belongs there.
Q: Because you know what they’ll bring to it.
A: I’m not going to say to them, “Hey, I wish you guys would play more like this other band I have,” or, “I wish you guys would play this more like The Baseball Project.” I’m not going to say that. You do what you do. I can’t even define what you do, but I love it, so do more of it.
Q: Also, the last time I talked to you, you mentioned that you were barely in contact with Kendra Smith. But here we are, four years later, and she’s on the record.
A: I’m so happy about that. We were never not friends. When she left the band, it wasn’t any kind of personal thing or anything ugly. She just wanted to do something different, and, at the time, I was heartbroken because Kendra and I were such good friends. She was a big part of the band, but she had to do something else, and that’s the way it goes. She lives a pretty remote life. She is not in any big city. And so we’ve been friends, but I would go years without hearing from her. We were recording the record and had everything we needed for an album and had chosen the songs we wanted on the record. There was one in particular I really liked, and I liked to perform, and I’d actually written words, and sung a vocal on it. It was cool, but it felt like it wasn’t what was right for the song. I started thinking, what would make this song better, because I liked it so much. And I realized, what would be great would be if Kendra would sing it, and write her own lyrics. And that’s kind of fantasy rock band stuff, because I didn’t think it would be possible. I got in touch with her, and at first I think she wasn’t completely sure she wanted to, for various reasons. She hadn’t been doing records in a while, and also, none of us were really into the nostalgia trip. But I told her it wasn’t that. It would be great to work together. She came through, and I think it was on a weekend, she said, “I’ve tried something, I’m going to send it to you.” She recorded where she lives, she recorded herself and sent me the track. I woke up on a Sunday morning with these six .wav files sitting in my inbox and it was Christmas morning. I couldn’t wait to plug them into the song and listen, and I went, “Wow.” That is real. That was it. That was what the song needed. That’s Kendra. Besides being just musically right and sounding great, just what the song needed, it is Kendra. It is like a nice full-circle kind of thing. It was a way of sort of going back to that moment where we split apart, and maybe the sadness or the melancholy that went with that, a kind of way of healing that void a little bit.
Q: So how much touring are you expecting to do this year. I know you’ve got some European dates announced. Will we see a full-blown U.S. tour once the record’s out?
A: Yes. We’re doing three weeks in Europe, in October, November, then two or three weeks in the States in December, with other shows scattered about, too. We’ll get out; I think the last tour we did in ’88, the very last tour for Ghost Stories, if I’m not mistaken, it was about five straight months without a break. I think we went straight from Europe to America and took one day up. When people ask why the band broke up, that’s way up there, that’s a lot. That will bruise or break you. We’re not about to do that kind of thing, but we we will go out there and play shows, and eventually hit all the places we want to play.
Q: That was my round-about way of asking if you’re going to ever come to Denver.
A: I hope so. It’s funny because I don’t play Denver that much because the geography of it, but I always love playing there. We had great shows. I hope we do, and I’m sure at some point we will. We’ll eventually get everywhere.
Q: You were here a couple years ago with The Baseball Project, and even played a place in my neighborhood, the Oriental Theater.
A: That place was great. I loved that place.
Q: I was out of town on a road trip. I couldn’t believe Steve Wynn from the Dream Syndicate and two of the guys from R.E.M. were playing in my neighborhood and I missed it.
A: Sorry, but that was a really fun show. Dressy Bessy and the Minus 5 played that night. That was great. And, of course, if I’m not mistaken, my last show in Denver was a stadium show. We played Coors Field that same trip, the next day I believe. You probably don’t know about that show, but we were asked by the Rockies to play the party deck before a pretty big game. It was Todd Helton’s retirement weekend. We played the middle of it, three nights, the Saturday, and we played at 4 o’clock, did our full set for people coming in. What happened that night was, we finished the set, got our gear stashed in the van, and got ready to kick back and have some hot dogs and beer and watch the game. But there was a sewage problem (It was a water main break. — Ed.) and they had to shut down the whole stadium and cancel the game. There was no game. They canceled the game because of a faulty sewage line. So we were the headliners that night. We brought down the house.
Q: So you opened for a ballgame that never happened.
A: We blew that ballgame off the stage.
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