The Dream Syndicate issue their third album in eight years, The Universe Inside, on 10 April via Anti- Records. The record is the product of chance. While working on the group’s 2019 effort These Times, the band received a late-night visit from Stephen McCarthy of the Long Ryders, which led to a jam that lasted 80 minutes, which Dream Syndicate co-founder Steve Wynn found himself returning to again and again in the months that followed.
Following his creative impulses, Wynn eventually added lyrics and sculpted the initial piece into five separate parts, each moving seamlessly into another. The opening “The Regulator” is a 20-minute meditation that demands repeated listens, never feeling like it has worn out its welcome. That track was issued as the first single from The Universe Inside with “The Longing” serving as the second cut culled from the larger body.
One can hear elements of so-called classic rock floating in the air, particularly in the breezy guitar figures and the late-night rhythms that support one of Wynn’s best vocal performances to date. The Dream Syndicate are a Ground Zero element of the Paisley Underground. But they prove that nearly 40 years after their formation, they continue to evolve and explore, accentuating their avant and jazz roots and expanding on a story that is singular in nature. There is simply no other band quite like this one and “The Longing” demonstrates how at home this collective is in a world where Pharoah Sanders and Creedence Clearwater Revival coexist.
“We came to the end of what became ‘The Regulator’ and dissolved, disintegrated at the same time. Whatever happened at the beginning became the melody of this song, this little keyboard line Chris plays, it all fell into place and has its own mood,” Wynn recalls, speaking with PopMatters from his New York City home.
“Lyrically, there was a friend of mine from our days at A&M who said, a few years ago, ‘You ought to write a song about longing.’ They were so emphatic about it, and it stuck with me,” he continues. “It’s a really primal feeling that overwhelms you. When it hits you, it’s paralyzing and transformative. You think you’re tough. You think you’re a badass, but there’s always something that will bring you down. It’s usually missing someone or something or reflecting on a thing that went away.”
The last time you and I spoke was about the LP These Times.
I went back to that record because I was putting together a playlist for somebody the other day, and I looked at those songs and thought, “Those all seem like they’re in the moment right now.” The things I was writing about on that album were modern panic and paralysis and exhilarating and denial. Those were all in play then, but I think there are even more so now.
I seem to recall that, when we spoke last year, you had said there was extra material sitting around. Is that material this?
We had a lot of material left over from the last two albums. If I had to guess, I’d say we recorded 25 songs per session. How Did I Find Myself Here?had eight. These Times had 10. I had been playing down the fact that this new album had been recorded during the last album sessions because we love the album so much and didn’t want people to think that this was a placeholder. It’s as much a new record as anything we’ve ever done.
When we were making These Times in Richmond, Virginia, we were there for ten days. On one of the evenings, Stephen McCarthy of the Long Ryders came by around 11:00. We were done for the day and were about to crack open a beer for him. Then we said, “Hey, the engineer is still here, so is the producer. Let’s go in the studio and jam.”
We went out there, fired up the machines, the amps, maybe around midnight. We played for 80 minutes straight. We did not talk about anything, did not give any instructions, did not write anything down. We didn’t have any game plan. I think there was a defiant thing of, “I don’t want to be the first one to stop.” Any time the music would start to drift toward an end, somebody would start a new idea, and off we would go.
In the 80 minutes, there was one short break where Mark Walton put his bass down, went into the other room to get a bottle of tequila, and pour shots for everyone and brought them back out. We somehow managed to keep playing and have a sip of what was given to us.
It was really us doing what we love doing: Playing, communicating through music, and seeing where things would go. When we finished it, we thought, “Wow, that was really something.” We listened back to it the next day and then forgot about it.
Over the next year, I found myself listening to it all the time and falling in love with the entire thing. We were locked in the way that you want to be locked in whenever you get together and improvise. We thought, “We should do something with this.” I started adding lyrics, thinking of arrangement ideas and edits.
I went back down to Richmond last September, brought in Steve to add a few things on vocals, brought in Johnny Hott for percussion. Then there was this great trumpet and saxophone player, Marcus Tenney from a band called Butcher Brown in Richmond, came in, and I said, “Get in there and jam with the band. Pretend you’re in real-time with what we did.”
It was as exciting as any project I’ve ever worked on because to see it take shape was like sculpting. It sounds nothing like a jam now. It sounds like a composed, arranged piece of music. Our biggest challenge now is going to be figuring out how to play it live, which we want to do.
There’s a wonderful, spontaneous feel that lasts throughout the entire record.
I’ve always had this conflict between records that take a day to make, like The Days of Wine and Roses and records that take months to make, like Medicine Show and all the points in between. I wouldn’t say that one way of working is always good and that the other is always bad. It’s not that easy. But, when you do work fast, you do things subconsciously. You do things because you’re feeling them, not thinking about them. There’s a lot to be said for that.
It was all done so quickly that we did things we would never have done had we planned on them. You can talk to lots of people about overdubbing. You start thinking about what you’re going to play and playing it in proper rhythm and no wasted notes, and you start using your taste and skills to shape what you think is perfect, and usually, it’s not perfection. It’s overwrought.
I hear this record and think, “Why did I choose to play that guitar line right there? I would never do that.” But I did. “Why did I sing it that way? What the hell’s going on there?” There’s something to be said for working in the moment and the excitement of what’s happening.
This has its own character that’s distinct from the last record and yet it still sounds like the Dream Syndicate.
The band we are right now is its own thing. We’re not just a continuation of what we did in the ’80s. I have a lot of love for those records and a lot of great memories of those times. That was my training wheels for what I’m doing now. I was learning how to tour and how to be in a band and make records. But these last three records are their own thing. We reinvented who we are, and this record is the extreme next step.
One thing that will probably be mentioned as the reviews start rolling out is the Krautrock influence. That’s something that was always there but may feel more pronounced here.
Dennis, our drummer, was a fan of all that stuff before anybody else I knew. He’s six years older than I am, so when we started the band, he was 27 and I was 21. That meant he was a guru. He knew everything. I would say, “Tell me more about what those bands did in 1974, Dennis. Tell me more about seeing Roxy Music at the Whisky a Go-Go. Tell me more about seeing Miles Davis at the Troubadour.” He had these great stories and a record collection that reflected that.
He had a lot of records by Can and Faust and Neu. Bands that I didn’t know. Maybe I knew the name at the most, but they weren’t the hipster touchstones they are today. They were kind of forgotten bands at that point. They weren’t even cool in the underground.
When we first started playing together, we didn’t have a name. I had done a single under the name 15 Minutes. We considered that but decided we didn’t want that. The name I proposed to the band was Big Black Car. Big Star’s Third was my favorite record at the time. Dennis shook his head and gave me a look that I still know very well: That doesn’t do it for me.
He said, “I’ve got this record in my collection by a guy named Tony Conrad [ex-Faust] called Outside the Dream Syndicate. I’ve always loved that idea. Why don’t we call ourselves The Dream Syndicate?” We said, “Sure. That’s who we’ll be with this band that will last a few months.”
The thing that we built ourselves on at the beginning was a groove that went around and around and around and just seeing what things developed out of that. Things appear where they didn’t appear before. That’s psychedelic. That’s what we were when we started. That was us back then. The longer the song lasted, the better. That was a badge of honor. “Tonight that went on for 30 minutes, and that was the best show of all-time.” I like that we’ve come around full circle to that.
We went through phases, just by curiosity, what was around us, where we drifted into Americana or drifted into straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll. At this point, we’re the psychedelic, avant-jazz, freak-out, weirdo band we were always meant to be.
It impresses me that, today, there’s a younger generation of musicians that says, “We love Can and Neu and the Grateful Dead’s extended jams.”
Yeah! It’s great! You can say a lot about the current times and how people process music and about whether it’s more of a background thing or if it’s disposable or musicians do or don’t get paid. But the accessibility we all have is exciting. It reflects what you’re talking about: Younger people are aware of so many things.
Back when we were starting the band, I was a pretty hip dude. I was working at the coolest record store in L.A., and I was a record geek who knew some stuff. But I didn’t know half of what kids today know. They know the most obscure band from an obscure region of Thailand. You can say, “I’m into Thai pop”, and they’ll say, “Which neighborhood? Which zip code?”
I got into Neu in the late ’80s. I think I started with the third album. I was in Germany, around 1990, my first solo tour, and went into a record store in Berlin. I said, “Do you have any records by Neu?” The guy gave me a funny look. I thought maybe I was pronouncing it wrong, so I said, “N-e-u?” He said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” These things were completely obscure.
So, back to the record, how did you think about the individual pieces as you brought this down from an 80-minute jam?
What you hear on the record is what we played in order. We brought it down from 80 minutes, but other than shortening things here and there, things were not moved around too much. It is the sound of what we did. The part that involved sculpting was adding lyrics and vocals and the horns. All we added was air.
It’s shaped in a way to emphasize things that were already there. On “The Regulator”, Steve McCarthy plays a sitar line a few minutes in, and it repeats four times. That became the hook. That became what the sax player picked up on, that became the signal for where I was going to start singing.
I was walking around in Manhattan one day. I always keep a lot of random lines, and I had some that I knew would come into play on the record. I had an idea of how I would approach what became “The Regulator”. I had this Ken Nordine/Captain Beefheart idea. I said, “I’ve gotta hustle home and record this while the idea’s in my head.” I got back to Queens, grabbed the first cheap mic I could find, took a look at my phone, with all the fragments of lyrics, and read them off in random order. That became the final vocal.
Maybe because I was so excited by the new idea and because I was listening to the music and because I was responding to the cues that were right there, it was perfect. I couldn’t have done that if I had spent a week trying to do it in the studio. There’s a lot of responding to what was there and taking it further.
So, with ….
You can tell that I’m really excited about it. It’s something I’ve never done before. It’s what Miles Davis was doing in the early ’70s. If you get those On The Corner or Jack Johnson or Bitches Brew boxed sets you realize, “Oh god, they were just jamming.” Teo Macero and Miles, I guess, would take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and use what they wanted. Somehow it became a record.
My head exploded when I heard that Bitches Brew box.
Because it was so good or because it demystified it?
I read that a lot of musicians on those sessions didn’t want the boxes to come out because, they said, the music wasn’t meant to be heard like that. It was meant to be heard the way it was [introduced]. It would be like if you took a sculpture at the Met, disassembled it, and made it a bunch of rocks. It is what it is because of the way that it was shaped and developed. Would we ever put out the complete, 80-minute raw session of this jam? Maybe but probably not because it’s not the same thing.
I’m a sucker for process. Every time there’s a new edit of Apocalypse Now! I have to punish myself and wade through it.
And listen to the commentary?
Yeah. And I say, “I know why you left that scene out now, but I’m glad that I saw it. I know why you thought it was garbage.”
But I’m glad I have that experience.
I’m right there with you on that. I love reading songwriters or directors or producers talk about how things shape and develop. It’s interesting, the choices you make. Everything, from music and movies to the Coronavirus, involves a million choices. Any 27 of them might be right. At least in art. The tricky thing is when you don’t say, “I’ve got it. I’m done.” It’s when you say, “I think I’ve got it, but I could keep going.”
There’s a phrase that I used on the last album, this story about Miles Davis and John Coltrane talking. Do you know it?
I don’t know if it’s legend or truth, but the story goes that John Coltrane said to Miles Davis, “Sometimes I’m getting into a solo, a certain headspace, I’m just playing and playing, and I don’t know how to end.” Miles said, “Take the horn out of your mouth.” It’s a really good metaphor for so many things! A lot of the fun is the process and, also, leaving room for the listener to bring some kind of interpretation to it.
I remember talking with Irmin Schmidt from Can about 15 years ago and he told me that Modernism, the artistic movement at least, is about creating something that is finished but incomplete. That the creator makes it, but then it requires the listener to add to the conversation with their interpretations, their ideas about what it might mean. That’s when the art really thrives.
That’s perfect. Whether it’s conceptual art or my not-so-guilty pleasure of Steely Dan, where they give you just enough to feel like you’re getting it but not quite. I like the idea of music being like when you walk up to a speakeasy when the windows are all fogged-over, and you’re standing on your tiptoes to see inside. You almostcan make out some shapes. But you can make out enough to know that something really wild is happening, something that’s a little bit scary and weird. That’s the way that I think it is with the best music. I hope that when people hear this record, they feel like they’re there with us. Maybe they’re wondering, “What the hell was happening there?” With the records, I love the most, I feel like there’s a moment. It happened one time and one time only.
On a lot of those old Blue Note jazz records, they’d list the recording date on the cover. They were recorded on one date. You couldn’t do that with Tusk or Sgt. Pepper.
I think about “So What” from Kind of Blue. How did they know not to rush? You couldn’t write that piece out.
I don’t think so. It’s like this record. I still listen to it for fun. Before we went back to Richmond to add things to it, I must have listened to the raw jam several hundred times for pleasure. I’d listen back to it and say, “Why in the world is this happening right now?” There’s a moment in “Apropos of Nothing”, where we just started speeding up. It doesn’t feel like somebody started, and the rest followed. It just feels like we knew what to do at the same time. That’s exciting to hear. It doesn’t happen at every session. It doesn’t happen at every show.
There’s a funny thing about this record: We’d already been playing for 12 hours that day. We’d had a full day already after recording for ten days straight. I’m just glad we decided to take our beers to the studio instead of sitting on the porch.