"If I Can't Get What I'm Looking For, I'm Going to Do it Myself": A Chat with The Dream Syndicate
One of the most seminal acts of the noted Paisley Underground scene finally gets to see the warm up to their masterpiece get released in all its glory, and Steve Wynn tells PopMatters about the band's formation, live efforts, and oh so much more.
Young bands on their way up in a local music scene can have a kind of ego and brash self-assuredness that in the right group and in the right hands can be very appealing and a lot of fun to watch on stage.
It helps when they can back it up by making great music.
The Dream Syndicate had just formed as a band about nine months before they appeared on Los Angeles's KPFK on September 5th, 1982 for a 2:00am performance as part of host Andrea 'Enthal's "12 O'Clock Rock" radio show and that live set, released first in 1995 as The Day Before Wine and Roses and now being reissued by Omnivore Recordings, captures the band at just this magical moment.
"We were pretty lucky because we got so much attention so quickly," says Dream Syndicate songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist Steve Wynn. "The Dream Syndicate, from day one, we were popular. We were being written about and by the time our first EP came out, which was only three months after our first gig, we were already a band people wanted to see. So, we kind of lucked out. We never had to scrounge for gigs. People wanted to put us on bills and other bands like the Minutemen and X and Wall of Voodoo were supportive of us from the start. It might have been tough for lots of bands to get footing out in L.A. but it wasn't for us."
The band continued to make music into 1989 (and have re-formed recently for a number of very well-regarded live appearances), but The Day Before Wine and Roses captures them close to the beginning, when everything feels possible and while national tours, major label expectations, and line-up changes were still only in the future. The band is beautifully confident, still rough around the edges, and totally unencumbered. Putting it another way, The Day Before Wine and Roses is a total blast to listen to.
"We had been through so many things by the time we made that record," says Wynn. "We had really gained a lot of confidence. When we started the Dream Syndicate, I'd never sung lead in a band. Karl [Precoda, guitarist] had been primarily a bass player. Kendra [Smith, bassist] had really only played bass in one band for a few months. The only member of the band who had really done what they were doing was Dennis [Duck, drummer]. But we were so un-schooled in what we were doing and so when we started, we sort of had to figure it out as we went along."
The album's title is a reference to the show's proximity to the recording of the Dream Syndicate's highly-revered and still ear-popping first full-length, The Days of Wine and Roses, and features all four songs from the band's initial EP and the title track of their eventual debut record (both of which made it into the Village Voice's 1982 Pazz & Jop Critics Poll). "We were starting to get a feel for what it took to do a cool show while retaining that, 'anything is possible' attitude," says Wynn.
The set is notable as well for a remarkably visceral song called "Open Hour", which ultimately became "John Coltrane Stereo Blues" from 1984's Medicine Show, and a staple of the band's live show. In the liner notes to The Day Before Wine and Roses, Wynn writes that this was their first performance of the song and it's an almost unbelievable claim given how completely the song jumps off of the record. Wynn writes, "All I had was the riff and the mantra of 'It's Gonna Be Alright' and the will to take the song wherever it wanted to go." Guitarist Precoda, who gives a jaw-droppingly forceful and relentlessly aggressive performance throughout the set, may be at his best here. Some bands can deliver hooks and some can bring noisy guitar freakouts, but the Dream Syndicate distinguished itself early on by being able to work both sides as needed.
The band is wonderfully loose throughout their set with Wynn bantering with the crowd, commenting as his then-girlfriend is led out of the room for drunkenly goading the band, and mourning as a pick-up on Precoda's guitar craps out. After ripping through a Bob Dylan cover, he catalogs his stage attire in response to 'Enthal's advice to describe the scene for the audience at home; "My shirt is white, my jeans are blue, my shoes are black. My complexion isn't as good as it was a while ago but it's been hot weather." It's hard to imagine many rock frontmen who would own up to having zits. "I don't know any other band that was doing that back then," says Wynn.
"And that's something that I really do think set us apart and it wasn't like I did it for a reason. I was aware that I wanted to break the wall down between being a performer and the audience because I didn't feel like I was a seasoned rock veteran or a guy who had the birthright to be on stage. I felt just like a fan who lucked out and got to play the music I loved and play it well in front of other people who might dig it. So when I went on stage I really enjoyed actually staying the person I was when I was off-stage. I think that now you see that and in indie-bands it became more popular later on, but back then I don't know anybody who was doing that. And I don't say it like I'm some mad genius but just because that was our bent on things. And a lot of people liked it and a lot of people hated it."
And Wynn and the band get away with it because they were playing with so much horsepower. It's part of what allows them to veer from goofily playing the opening riff to Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" in response to an audience member's request, to ripping directly into eight minutes of bracing improvisation. The overall impact is remarkable.
The set also included three L.A.-leaning and almost hilariously unfashionable (for 1982) covers; Buffalo Springfield's "Mr. Soul", Dylan's "Outlaw Blues", and Donovan's "Season of the Witch". "We were equally fans of noise rock, punk rock, free jazz, AM radio pop, and everything," says Wynn. We sort of took it all in and it was all fair game and I think back then, it's so hard to imagine now, but you know, Neil Young wasn't cool. Donovan wasn't cool. Bob Dylan wasn't cool. What was cool back then was horrible crap like Flock of Seagulls and Haircut 100, Spandau Ballet; kind of synthesizer things. That was what we were being told was the future, that cool people were into.
"So, to say, 'Well that's great, but I'd rather listen to Zuma, you were thought to be, I don't event know what, a hippie, or an out-of-step kind of person. It was almost as much of a statement to play a Neil Young song as it was to be ironic. Like, we would occasionally do like the Replacements did and play something that was on the radio at the time, like a Bryan Adams song or something like that. It was all considered a slap in the face to the 'underground,' and that was great."
From early on, the Dream Syndicate were tagged as being at the forefront of the Paisley Underground scene, a loosely-grouped crop of '60s-leaning bands thoroughly schooled in '70s power pop, based in Los Angeles. "It's something that's amazing to think of now, how much all the bands I loved back then and still love now were really not just underground but I mean, they were off the radar. They didn't exist. If you were into the Modern Lovers or Big Star, or bands that were current at the time like the Only Ones or Gun Club, all bands I loved, not to mention bands like the Stooges and the Velvets who are seen as almost mainstream things now, you were part of a very small society. I mean, you couldn't buy Velvets albums. I remember the third Velvets album was impossible to find, let alone Big Star. My god, you couldn't find that stuff at all. So, you know, it's almost like a secret society. If you met people that were into that kind of music, you know, they were immediately your friend until proven wrong."
The Paisley Underground included the Bangles (who covered the Merry Go Round's "Live" on the debut record and Big Star's "September Gurls" on their mainstream breakthrough, Different Light), True West, Rain Parade,tThe Long Ryders, Green on Red, the Three O'Clock, and a number of other bands. "Over time, a lot of other bands have been included in the scene and you know, who am I to say who should or shouldn't be," says Wynn.
In December of 2013, the Dream Syndicate performed along with the Bangles, Rain Parade, and the Three O'Clock as part of two Paisley Underground Revisited shows. "We felt the shows we played were kind of the actual center, or the main bands of that scene. That's at least how I saw it. And there were other bands on the periphery who were fantastic. I just think that what made the other bands, to me, the essential bands to the scene was that we came up a little earlier. It's funny now to say that because that means we came up two months earlier. When you're 21, two months is like a whole different era."
"I think that the whole Paisley Underground kind of evolved around a love for music and almost coming at it from a fan's point of view, and making the music we wanted to hear because we loved listening to it. It wasn't for money and it wasn't out of boredom, it wasn't even necessarily a social or political rebellion, or anything like that. It was just that we were music fans and wanted to make records. I think what happened with me and with the Dream Syndicate and probably a lot of the other bands, was that we'd all been really excited by what happened with punk rock and new wave and it kind of dissipated, probably much the same way rock and roll faded out in the early '60s for a couple years, and went into different scenes and got more segmented and there was some of that naivete and passion missing, and so all of the sudden you had all these people who were looking for something, like ourselves, like R.E.M., like Sonic Youth, like Hüsker Dü, like the Replacements, all over the country, going, 'Well, if I can't get what I'm looking for, I'm going to do it myself.'"
Wynn has stayed unceasingly active since the Dream Syndicate initially disbanded in 1989, releasing a number of records under his own name and with the Miracle 3, as well as with side-projects the Baseball Project and Gutterball. In 2013, a reunited Dream Syndicate (Wynn, Duck, bassist Mark Victor, and Miracle 3 guitarist Jason Victor) played their first North American shows at Wilco's Solid Sound Festival, after a series of shows in Spain.
"I feel very fortunate that I have enough of a following and enough desire to do what I'm doing that I can keep having the chance to go out and do new, fun, things," continues Wynn. "For me, and probably a lot of people that have been around a long time, and it's almost the same thing that jazz musicians always had, is you can go out and do a million different projects. Like, I'm making a record with a band in Mexico City and a record with a band in Spain in the next half year, as well as doing my own projects and you can do those sorts of things and try this and that and see what feels good and what doesn't feel good. Back in the '80s, you were kind of meant to be in one band and that one band had to either sell a million records or zero and nothing in the middle mattered that much and you made a record every few years and hoped for the best. And I'm kind of glad that's gone now. I think where we're at now is, discounting things like sales and money and all that, where we're at right now and where bands were at in the '50s and '60s, it's much more exciting because you have the possibility to keep cranking out music all the time. Which is kind of what it's all about."
At the beginning of The Day Before Wine and Roses, as the band is still gathering itself on stage, Wynn jokingly suggests there is a signal being broadcast along with the show to foil any attempts by people at home to bootleg the show. "Home taping is ruining the industry," he says, a reference to the '80s record industry-campaign aimed at discouraging the practice. It solidly places the show in the era before the World Wide Web and it serves as a reminder for people that were alive in that era of a time that's getting increasingly hard to remember; when it took some real digging to find out about a band like the Dream Syndicate and when a scene like the Paisley Underground had at least a little time to ferment before being overrun.
"I remember it used to be a fun, obsessive, hunt to find things you liked," says Wynn. "Now it's easy and look, for a music fan, which I still am, it's great. You discover new things all the time. And as a band it's great as well. It's part of the reason that now when I play Dream Syndicate shows I see people who weren't even alive when we made The Days of Wine and Roses coming out and being completely hip to what we're doing. On one had it's a little sad that the idea of having a new record means a little less now than it used to. It still means a lot and it's still exciting but it means a little less as far as being an event. And I'm not sure where that heads and how that will matter in the years to come.
"On the other hand, playing live is as great as it ever was. Being on a stage and doing something that may never happen again and having people share that with you is still completely relevant and vital. In 1982, between the fact that I was a rabid music fan and I worked in a record store, I felt like I knew every record that came out. You were aware of every band out there and now that's just not going to happen. But for me as a musician, it means somebody is going to pick up on something I do once every five years, like somebody is going to hear the Baseball Project and say, 'I didn't know you were still making records,' and that's great. Or somebody's going to hear a solo record or come to see a Dream Syndicate show. They're not going to hear everything I do and that's fine. My god, even my mother doesn't do that."