'[It's] a full circle back to where the biggest thrill is the music': The Dream Syndicate's Steve Wynn Looks Backward and Forward On His Band's Legacy
By Chris Bay
The first phase of the Dream Syndicate’s career was based in the Paisley Underground scene of Los Angeles in the ‘80s, from 1981 to 1989. In 2012, the band reunited for a festival performance in Spain, and continued to play sporadically scheduled shows across the U.S. and Europe afterward. As their momentum and love of playing together was rekindled, the appetite for performing and writing only grew. The Dream Syndicate released its first album of new studio material in 29 years in September of 2017, and embarked on proper tours of Europe and the U.S. shortly thereafter.
Listen to Chris Bay's interview with Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate below, or keep scrolling for the transcript.
Chris Bay: You're listening to 88.1, KDHX. I'm Chris Bay and I'm joined by Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate, the band has just released a new record, How Did I Find Myself Here. The first album of new studio material in nearly two decades and they'll be in St. Louis at Off Broadway on Wednesday December 6th, with Elephant Stone. Thanks so much for taking a few minutes to join us Steve.
Steve Wynn: You bet Chris. Good talking to you.
CB: The band reunited in 2012 I believe, with new member Jason Victor added to the lineup and you did some limited touring in those first post-reunion years. How did you go from doing mostly festivals and long weekends and sort of one off dates, to making a new record and then doing more solid touring this past year?
SW: From the time we dipped our toes in the reunion waters back in 2012, our whole thing was, let's take it one step at a time. Let's not do too much. Let's not get ourselves set up with too much stuff that we end up regretting. We would book a show here and a show there, maybe a week in Europe or a few days in Spain or maybe a long weekend. We went to St. Louis actually, a couple years ago. We did one-offs here and there just to see if we were digging it. To see if even the fans were digging it, everything. Each time we did that one short, small thing, it was great and we kept doing more. After about two years of that, we realized, okay, we don't have to be careful anymore, we like this. Let's make a record. Even then we said, "Let's go in the studio, under the cover of night. Let's go on our own dime, on our own time without making a big fuss about it and if it's not good, nobody will know about it." It went great.
CB: You were just trying to avoid the pressure and the anticipation of what a new Dream Syndicate record might look like by approaching it that way?
SW: Yeah. I think we're all very proud of the band, the history, what we were doing then and what we're doing now and we know, as music fans, all the pitfalls of reunion records, how they can can and how they usually go wrong. You go in and you don't have the magic that was there the first time around or you're so slavishly like the original was, it's seems almost silly or you're so far from the original it seems like, why did you even bother doing this? Why are you calling it that? There are a million ways that kind of thing can go wrong and we were bracing ourselves for all of them until the first hour. We went behind the studio and we looked at each other and we said, "This is feeling pretty good. I think we're onto something."
CB: Yeah. That's great. The fact that you released that and you're touring so heavily in the aftermath shows that you feel good about the product, which is exciting too.
SW: It's a really good feeling. In fact, we've been out on the road. We did a European tour already. We toured about 21 shows over there and now we're just getting started on this US tour. We, from the beginning of the European tour, decided we're going to play a lot of the new record, to see how it goes and you know, you want to play your new stuff but you also know that sometimes with certain bands, too many new songs and people are already kind of tapping their toes and checking their phones while they wait for their old favorites. But it wasn't like that. The people came to the shows, the fans were there, wanted to hear the new stuff. They knew the new album. They already knew the new songs and that's what they came to hear. That was a great feeling.
CB: Yeah. That's really cool. I'm excited to hear some of these new songs live for the first time. Of course, love the older stuff that we've gotten familiar with; Boston, Days of Wine and Roses, John Coltrane Stereo Blues, all that stuff. Of the new stuff, are there any songs that have taken more prominent roles in your live set?
SW: We've been playing all of them. The only song we haven't been playing is the last song on the record, Kendra's Dream and that's because Kendra hasn't been with us. We've been tempted to try out our version of it, but everything else we've played live and it's funny, they all did the show really well. The one that's probably, in a way, most exciting is the title track, How Did I Find Myself Here, because it's one of those Dream Syndicate songs where we have the basic outline, a basic structure but it can go anywhere every night and that's always been the thing with this band that we do best. That kind of free form, I don't know. I never thought of us as a jam band per say but we have done improvisational things well and that song is a good framework for us to do that.
CB: Fantastic. On the topic of touring, you and Jason have been touring pretty regularly over the last several years, decade plus in various projects. Steven Wynn Miracle Three for example but Mark and Dennis seem to have, at least from what I can tell, have had a little bit more subtle lives over the intervening years. If you look back at touring as a band, back to when you were last doing this with the Dream Syndicate, early to mid 80s and touring now, how do those experiences feel different to you?
SW: It is a lot different. It's funny. When we toured together in the '80s it was, of course, a blast and a blur. In those years, when you're out there touring for the first time, first of all, it's such a novelty you want to do everything and experience everything and that also means when you're young, you want to get ... you know, get wild and stay up all night and that's a whole lot of fun. There's a great rock and roll tradition of that kind of thing. The big difference now, and in fact, I was just having this conversation with Chris Cacavas, who's playing keyboards for us on this tour. He and I were just talking about, you know what's really fun these days? Going on stage and playing music and walking off at the end and saying, "Man I never heard it quite like that before. We hit some new places we never hit before." Kind of a full circle back to where the biggest thrill is the music.
It's a luxury that bands have on stage that they sometimes forget which is, they can go onstage and do anything that's possible and that's exciting. Whatever you do, you'll walk off stage, you'll dust yourself off, sleep the night in some hotel and do it again the next day. That's a thrill because they shouldn't be the same night to night and on the nights where you hit some new place that you never did before, you did it, you know it, you feel it in your bones and that's what keeps you going.
CB: Maybe you remember it a little more too, right?
SW: You maybe remember it. Exactly. Like I say, I'm not here to say that other way of touring is no good, it's a lot of fun. It was fun for the Stones in '72 and it was fun for ... I can name a million bands but that was the first one that came to mind.
CB: Sure. Sure. Sure.
SW: For the Beatles in Germany and Hamburg, whatever. When you're young and you're wild and you're doing whatever stimulants and doing whatever drinks and whatever lifestyle things, we're never just plain ole, just watching the sun come up every morning and that kind of thing. All of that is a blast. It's part of the job description. After you've been doing it for a long time, it all comes full circle back to being that nerdy kid in a basement with a guitar, jamming along to your favorite record and imagining that someday, you might do it in front of people. That's where we're at right now. We're back at the same place as we were maybe as that 12 year old kid with the Fender Telecaster knockoff from Sears that you saved up for on your paper route.
CB: Yeah. I have to say too, when you last played in St. Louis, I did get this sense that you were all just kind of feeling a little bit younger, feeling just the fun of it all without a lot of pressure and just having a blast onstage. That was pretty tangible from my perspective at least.
SW: I think we're at that point. That was a really fun show, the 25th show. It's generally like that now. Not just in the dreams, again, not just in music but in any job, in anything you're doing, sometimes when you're starting out, you have that anxiety of like, well where's this going and how do I keep this gig and what happens if it stops and what happens if I do it wrong and I regret it for the rest of my life? Then you hit a point in your life where you don't think those things anymore. You just think, "Man I'm going to go out each night and do it and I'm going to do the best I can and make sure I stay awake for it."
What I mean by that, make sure I stay awake for it, make sure I experience it and I remember it, that I take it all in and then I'll do it again and that's kind of where we're at right now. We walk out each night and we say well, we were the Dream Syndicate last night, we're the Dream Syndicate tomorrow night and isn't that a blast? Let's make sure tonight, when we're the Dream Syndicate, we're an extra good Dream Syndicate. That's pretty cool.
CB: For sure. For sure. I want to change topics a little bit to something even more recent than the new record and something a little bit of a potentially sad thing to talk about, you're obviously very close with Scott McCaughey. You two played together in The Baseball Project and have obviously crossed passed over the last two or three decades, pretty heavily, and for folks who might not be aware, he recently had a pretty massive stroke while on tour. I don't really have a specific question, I'm just wondering; how did that feel to hear about the news of Scott and how are you taking it and some of the friends and family to the extent that you know, you're able and willing to speak about some of those issues?
SW: It was devastating. I was very close to ... First of all, Scott and I have toured together extensively for the last 10 years with The Baseball Project and we travel together and been very close friends, spent a lot of time together. It's very hard. On top of it, he was on tour with Alejandro Escovedo on the West coast with my wife on drums, Linda Pitmon. I was getting the way you are when you're the rock widow back home, which Linda and I take turns being. She was out there rocking, I was getting the texts and the emails like, "Hey, we had a great show. We played a Minus Five set and the Alejandro set and man, it was so good. Tonight we're going to go eat at this Mexican restaurant we love." Just enjoying the tour vicariously through them and then when I got the news, all of a sudden of what happened, that Scott had a stroke, it was unreal. The way it is when somebody close to you goes down like that.
For people who know him and who've hung out with him, he's such a bundle of life. He's hard-working, he loves music. He loves his music. He loves other bands. He's the guy standing at the front of the stage for the opening band, check out what they're doing. He's just a great guy and it's just shocking. The great thing is, it's like anybody in that situation, it's a hard road back but he's working at it and doing what he has to do and I feel like he'll be rocking again before too long.
CB: Well that's great news. I know we're all thinking about him and playing his music and trying to just hope for the best.
SW: Good. Good. That's the best thing you can do. He's so amazing. He has made so much great music and he's going to make a lot more so there's nothing ... There's a big GoFundMe thing for him on Facebook, to raise money because we all know how difficult it is with the healthcare system in this country and he needs a lot of it. People rallied around him so incredibly generously and so quickly. It was really touching and it's going to help a lot.
CB: That's great. Well, while we're on the topic of Scott and the Minus Five, I've always wondered if there's ... The Minus Five track, The Days of Wine and Booze, is there an explicit connection there to the Dream Syndicate song, The Days of Wine and Roses?
SW: You know it's funny you ask that and I'm surprised it's never come up before. I played that song onstage, many times with Scott in the shows we do together, I never asked him. I've never asked him if that was a nod to us or to the original movie or what so I have no idea. You've made me realize I have to ask him.
CB: Well hopefully someday, when Scott's back out on the road, we'll get the answer, I hope.
SW: Yeah. Maybe I'll find out by tonight.
CB: Thanks again for taking the time out of your busy schedule, Steve, to talk with us. We're really looking forward to the show. Once again, the Dream Syndicate in St. Louis, Wednesday December 6th. Elephant Stone is opening up and they'll be a great band to see as well.
SW: They are great. We're doing most of the tour with them. I don't know if you've seen them or play their records but a great band.
CB: Fantastic. Yeah. We play them here a lot at the station and I got the chance to see them in Austin a few years ago. Super excited about that.
CB: Yeah. We'll let you go and let you get back to your tour prep and we'll see you soon in St. Louis. Thanks a lot Steve.
SW: All right. Great talking to you.