The Paisley Underground is the kind of scene that makes for a good verbal secret handshake. While its myriad branches snaked into the mainstream eventually thanks to Mazzy Star, the band that most transcended its range was The Dream Syndicate. While their 1982 debut full length The Days of Wine and Roses seems to owe its debt to the noisier end of psychedelia, the subsequent three albums took off across a range of American and European rock traditions. It had seemed like 1988’s Ghost Stories was going to be the final word, but now, 29 years later, comes How Did I Find Myself Here?, due out September 18th. Founding member and vocalist Steve Wynn sat down with Aquarium Drunkard to discuss the band’s reformation, the new album, the LP’s Aquarium Drunkard connection, and why hearing Kendra Smith’s vocal track was like Christmas morning.
Aquarium Drunkard: I found an interview you did back in 2013 with Slicing Up Eyeballs – back when the Dream Syndicate reunion, reformation or whatever you want to call it first happened. You said that your goal for making a new record was that you always thought there should’ve been an album between The Days of Wine and Roses and Medicine Show and that you wanted to try and tap into how the band was evolving during that period. Was that an idea that stayed with you during the making of this album? Did that end up coming true to some extent?
Steve Wynn: No, but that was a definite, solid idea I had back then because I always wished there had been a record between the two. Just because those records are so different and the progression from The Days of Wine and Roses to Medicine Show was actually pretty logical, if you lived it in real time like we did. For a lot of people, they didn’t see all the steps in between. So I thought about that for a long time, and when we reformed the band and people would ask about a new record, that was kind of in the back of my mind.
But in the years since – like you said, that was 4 years ago – this particular lineup really evolved from show to show, tour to tour. We did about 50 shows before making the record. It is the Dream Syndicate, very much in the spirit and history of the Dream Syndicate. It’s got me and Dennis [Duck; drummer] who were there from the start, and Mark [Walton; bass] who almost goes back to the start and Jason [Victor; guitar] who is probably the leading living scholar on the Dream Syndicate in some ways [laughs], who really understands what we’re all about, knows our music and keeps us on the straight and narrow about who we were. It’s a reunion, but it’s the Dream Syndicate. But as time went on, I realized this is just a really good incarnation, tradition-bearing version of the Dream Syndicate, so the motivation changed to where I really just wanted to document this band.
I sort of feel after awhile when we’d tour and talk to people about the band, people would ask ‘let me get this straight, who are the original members and where did this person come from’ and those are all reasonable questions. I’m the kind of person who reads Aquarium Drunkard and likes archival material and cares about the history of music and the details. But also this is the band right now. Every time we’d play a show, people would leave saying this is a really good band. That became the motivation for making a record – just to be able to say, this is who we are right now and we think you’re going to dig it. On top of that, I wanted to keep playing shows and touring, but didn’t want to be confined by being a nostalgia act and only playing old songs. All that was kind of in the back of my mind, more than that original and very real but forgotten concept. [laughs] We’ll do that one next time.
AD: In listening to the new record – and to be blunt and a bit crass at the same time – this record is loud as fuck. I was listening to it on my laptop speakers, which of course is not the ideal way to listen to anything, but it still came across so loud in the best way possible. It reminded me of the feel of The Days of Wine and Roses or some of the live material from around that period. So that’s why when I read that interview that I wondered about some of the intention around the way the new album sounds.
Steve Wynn: You’re right. It’s closest to the way we are live. We wanted to be very immersive. I think from the beginning, we wanted to be psychedelic, but not in the bell bottoms and tie-dye sort of way, but something that would give you a head trip and take you somewhere else from where you started. We always felt that our heroes were psychedelic artists which ran a big gamut from things like John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders and the early 70s Miles Davis records all the way through Neu! and of course the Velvet Underground and Quicksilver Messenger Service – bands that went for a long, freaky journey and took you out of your objective, rational experience in hearing music. So volume goes well with that. [laughs] It just does.
AD: In terms of who ended up being in this version of the band, did it mostly have to do with the people you thought felt the most correct or was there a desire to try and put together the original version of the band? I know Karl Precoda [original guitarist] hasn’t really done music for a long time and Kendra Smith [original bass player] has been doing music, but not actively for some time, so was doing that ever even an option?
Steve Wynn: Well, there were times over the years where people would want to get the original lineup together. We were offered a spot at Coachella about 10 years ago, and it was a nice offer and to be able to play a festival and they seemed enthusiastic, but they wanted the original lineup. And that wasn’t going to happen. Karl doesn’t play that much now, and to be honest we just don’t talk anymore. Kendra is still a really good friend, but she hadn’t done a lot of music in awhile. And the band evolved over time. Really The Days of Wine and Roses lineup was only together for about a year and three months. And I’m not downplaying that, because I know that’s a lineup that means a lot to people and it means a lot to me. That record and the live record and the EP are all just really good records that are a frame of reference for people. But the fact of the matter is that the band after that, mostly with Mark on bass, went on for another six years, and doing a lot of shows all around the world. After awhile, the lineups all mean different things to me.
For me, I wanted it to be me, Dennis and Mark because the three of us were in the band most of the time there. I had talked to Paul Cutler [guitarist who replaced Karl Precoda] about doing the reunion at the various points. He and I are still friends, but I think he just didn’t want to do it. So, in a way, that kept me for awhile from doing it. I thought well, if Karl and Kendra aren’t going to do it, and Paul doesn’t want to do it, then we can’t do this. So it wasn’t until 2012 when I got asked to do this festival charity event I wanted to do, that I had had the idea of just ‘well, to hell with it. Let’s do it and see what happens.’ I think the fact that we didn’t bill a whole tour, it wasn’t publicized as the reunion, and we just did a show in some faraway place that we wanted to do, and Jason made the most sense to have in the band – he’s been playing these songs with me and he is everything I loved about Karl and Paul plus a lot more – and we decided to give it a try. And like everything with the reunion, and these shows and this album – well, we’ll try it and if it’s not good, we’ll stop right there.
AD: You had an exit plan.
Steve Wynn: Always have one. [laughs] And the funny thing is, we all feel that way. When we did that first show, with each tour along the way, with each thing along the way up until the record, we always have the out to just stop it right here. Because if it’s not good, we don’t have the motivation. We all have lots of other things going. I’ve got three or four other projects that I all like a lot. But the funny thing is, this is now the longest running lineup of the Dream Syndicate. It’s five years now and suddenly this is the workhorse, veteran lineup. And that’s the thing I like. We’re really proud of the record and I feel like by the time this year is over, it’ll be accepted as the Dream Syndicate.
AD: So, this leads me to the question of how did the song on the album that Kendra Smith is on come to be on the record?
Steve Wynn: That’s a nice thing to have on there. Like I said, we’ve stayed friends, and she’s so important to the history of the band and the soul of the band. If we’d had a manifesto from day one, a lot of it was me and Kendra staying up until three in the morning talking about what we did and didn’t like in music. That was really a lot of how the band started, so it’s nice that she’s there.
We were making the new album in the studio and there’s this song called “Recurring.” That’s the music to that track. There was a different lyric and vocal to it. I liked the music, but wasn’t really digging the words I’d written or was singing. But I’d done it enough at that point that I wasn’t sure I could think of anything different. I was trying to think, how can I salvage the music and the track and get rid of all the stuff of mine I didn’t like. And I had the thought: what if Kendra did it? And I didn’t expect that she would. I don’t think she’s done any sort of recording that’s come out in 20 years. But we’re friends, so I brought it up to her and her initial reaction was: ‘Great track and I’m really happy you guys are doing this and I wish you the best, but I’m not really doing this anymore and I’m not sure it’s something I want to do. So good luck and go get ’em.’ I kind of kept at it saying how I felt that she was so important to who we were and it’d be such a nice full-circle thing to have her on the album and it’d be nice for me, for Dennis, for the fans, to have that kind of completion and to bring it all back to where it started. And gradually she started thinking about it more.
And about two days before we went in to do the mix – I’d told her we were running out of time if she wanted to do it – and I checked my email that day and she’d sent the vocals. And it was like Christmas morning for me. I remember it was a Sunday morning and I was nervous, what’s this going to be like. And I put the vocal on the track and I was like, oh, man, it’s beautiful. I was so happy.
AD: It’s really good. And it’s a tremendous finish to the album. It feels very much in place being the last track on the album. Did you always have that song in mind for the end, or did her vocal contribution change your mind about that?
Steve Wynn: It was her vocal that did it. It felt like the perfect wrap up to what we were doing, especially on the heels of the title track which is such a trippy throw-back to where we started, but in a different way. So that one-two punch at the end feels like we’re going back in time and you won’t know where you are anymore and we’re going to strip away your sense of bearing about where you are and what year this is and leave you on some distant doorstep somewhere. I love it. And I haven’t talked to her about it, but I think in some way this song is about us. I think it’s about the Dream Syndicate and me and Dennis and Karl and maybe her dream about what it was and what it meant to her. But that’s me guessing as much as you would. [laughs]
AD: How did you end up settling on Anti Records to put out the new one?
Steve Wynn: They were our first choice. We self financed the record. Didn’t do crowd sourcing, didn’t get a label, because we wanted the freedom to say ‘eh, it’s not working out.’ But once we started looking around, they were our absolute number one choice and they were up for it. And they’ve been wonderful. And, I wanted to mention this, the album package was done by C. Campbell who does most of the artwork for Aquarium Drunkard. I’m such a fan of the art on the website – I said, god, I love all this stuff. It has such a similar vibe to it, so I did the research and found out it was him and he was up for doing it. It’ll look really good in full size. It’s kind of something between an avant garde jazz record and blaxploitation. It’s so good. words / j neas