With a reissue of a key concert album documenting an early Dream Syndicate show just out, and rumors of a new studio album from the band being floated, it’s as good a time as any to revisit this story from the editor’s archives.
BY FRED MILLS
Ed. note: Earlier this month The Day Before Wine and Roses (Live at KPFK, September 5, 1982) was reissued. Of that CD, which captured L.A.’s Dream Syndicate in full flight just prior to recording its landmark long-playing debut, our reviewer noted, “It may not get the same spins as more accomplished Dream Syndicate records, but it’s still an essential document of a great band at the beginning of its journey.”
Back then the group consisted of Steve Wynn and Karl Precoda on guitars, Kendra Smith on bass and Dennis Duck on drums; meanwhile, in 2014 the lineup comprises Wynn, Duck, Mark Walton on bass and guitarist Jason Victor (also a member of Wynn’s Miracle 3 combo), and the past year has seen an definite upswing in activity for the revived Dream Syndicate. You can hear that incarnation via a hot-sounding download of the May 24, 2013, London concert, watch a video of the band in Cleveland on Nov. 22, or read about ‘em at the Paisley Underground reunion bash in San Francisco on Dec. 5.
With that in mind, we present the following interview with Wynn conducted by yours truly a few years ago, which was occasioned by the long-overdue 2010 reissue of the group’s second album, 1984’s Medicine Show. While the conversation centered primarily on the making of that record, Wynn touched upon all aspects of the group’s career up until that point. As such, it remains instructive to any fan or student of the band’s music and sonic aesthetic. Enjoy.
2010: The reissue earlier this summer of the Dream Syndicate’s Medicine Show was greeted — justifiably — by the sort of critical hosannas typically reserved for some long-overdue artifact from Bob Dylan, Neil Young or Van Morrison. Steve Wynn’s character-driven lyrical narratives and the band’s adventuresome arrangements and muscular playing were enhanced by jawdroppingly fine remastered sound, and the package itself boasted fresh liner notes and a raft of live bonus material, making it a prime candidate for one of the year’s most essential reissues, too.
It was also one of the ‘80s most significant records. Recall how by1984 the Amerindie underground had mostly lost its innocence, swapping many of its occasionally quaint notions of DIY for a more professional approach to music making (owning decent gear, recording in actual studios, networking among club owners and college radio deejay, etc.) to reflect the growing realization that, hey, we might actually be able to earn a living at this. The term “careerist” no longer carried the same whiff of disdain it might have a few years earlier, and it wasn’t necessarily a crime to try to land a deal with a major label, either. The majors still controlled the means of distribution and promotion, so while signing with a major didn’t automatically guarantee you’d wheel into town for a gig and find plenty copies of your new album in local stores, at this point in time it was still your best option, and there wasn’t a band on the planet that wanted to not sell records. If nothing else, it was a matter of pride.
Arriving stage left: the Dream Syndicate. Two years earlier the Los Angeles foursome had issued their epochal long-playing debut The Days of Wine and Roses, a record that not only pushed the group to the forefront of the aforementioned underground in terms of dues-paying, punk-rocking credibility (that it came out on L.A. punk label Slash is no trivial factoid), but also brought a measure of cerebral musicality to the dialogue that would ultimately ensure the album “timeless” status. To this day, TDOWAR pops up on music critics’ best-of lists, and when Rhino reissued it in expanded format a few years ago, the critical hosannas were pretty much unanimous in locating it alongside classic screeds by the likes of Television, Patti Smith, Pere Ubu, R.E.M., Gang of Four and others from the punk and post-punk era.
As the saying goes, the band had built up a reserve of rock ‘n’ roll capital: now it was time to spend some of it. The Dream Syndicate – comprising founding members Steve Wynn (guitars, vocals and the chief songwriter), Karl Precoda (guitars) and Dennis Duck (drums), plus bassist Dave Provost on loan from fellow L.A. psych/”Paisley Underground” outfit The Droogs, who’d been drafted to replace original bassist Kendra Smith – signed with A&M Records and hooked up with noted producer Sandy Pearlman, who while having made his reputation back in the dinosaur-rock era by helming Blue Oyster Cult’s early ‘70s releases had also produced proto-punks the Dictators and honest-to-god-punks The Clash. It seemed like a good marriage of what’s suggested in the first paragraph above: taking advantage of a decent-sized budget in a decently-outfitted studio and tapping the experience of an industry veteran while not completely jettisoning those DIY values that helped get the band to this point in the first place. The album was to be called Medicine Show, after one of Wynn’s greatest compositions, and it was supposed to be the record that would put them on the aboveground radar.
Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke tells the tale in his copious liner notes to this new, expanded Medicine Show, noting how the recording regimen, spread across five months and three San Francisco studios, “was hell.” But it produced a genuine masterpiece, one which didn’t necessarily eclipse its 1982 predecessor but rather stood wholly apart as an entirely reinvented Dream Syndicate – an album that, according to Fricke, “confused underground purists… [but is] actually more seditious in its charge and hazy morality… Pearlman drilling down to the emotional fury inside Wynn’s songs and the rock & roll classicism in [the group’s] garage-band fundamentals.”
Listened to now, track-by-track, Medicine Show has, if anything, grown stronger since its original release. It’s long been my favorite Dream Syndicate album, a fact I’m hard-pressed to pinpoint exactly why. There’s a balancing act going on between the old-school rock of my youth and the punk-powered music that galvanized me as a young adult, and there’s a sonic ambiance that alternately baffles and delights me; the record’s like a foreign film that I don’t fully comprehend but which leaves me deeply haunted for weeks after seeing it. It’s also a bit of a period piece thanks to Pearlman’s reverb-heavy production – but that’s not to mean it’s dated in the same sense as, say, a Duran Duran album is. (Will Rigby of The dB’s once told me, in response to an observation I made about the ‘80s-specific sound their Like This sported, how they were actually eager to take advantage of the most recent studio technology, with digital reverb in particular being one of up-to-date studios’ popular new toys.) The production actually lends a striking measure of clarity to the proceedings, an overt crispness that, combined with a fat, booming bottom end and precisely positioned vocal tracks (both Wynn’s echo-lined leads and the massed-choir style backing vocals), creates a credibly arena-worthy vibe. Sorry, all you underground purists out there.
The album also reveals the sound of a band pushed in the studio by their producer to excel and to play outside their collective comfort zone. The Duck-Provost rhythm section is taut and muscular, while session keyboardist Tom Zvoncheck brings a crucial array of new textures contributing to that big-venue feel. (Also guesting, on vocals, are Sid Griffin and Stephen McCarthy from the Long Ryders, Gavin Blair from True West and Paul Mandl.) Lead guitarist Precoda was never better than on Medicine Show, bringing an arsenal’s worth of effects and fretboard flourishes that might’ve had those purists going “Oh my!” at the time but, with hindsight, now come across as powered by a deeply felt jazz and psychedelia sensibility. And with Wynn operating as an instrumental foil to Precoda, chopping and slashing and unleashing terse, brittle bursts, the album’s guitar sound essentially finishes the job that Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd set out to accomplish years earlier in Television.
Wynn’s songwriting hits an early peak on Medicine Show, too, serving up emotional confessions (“Still Holding On To You,” “Daddy’s Girl”) alongside stream-of-consciousness Beats swagger (the lengthy, nine-minute “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” – the most Television-like, dueling-guitars tune on the album – which is so outrageously brash and horny that you’re tempted to adopt the singer’s titular come-on of “I got some John Coltrane on the stereo, baby, make it feel all right/ I got some fine wine in the freezer, mama, I know what you like” and try it out yourself on some sweet young thing down at the bar.
The album also delves deeply into the noirish character sketches that would continue to mark Wynn as a songwriter over the course of his long career (which has included, not surprisingly, a friendship and collaboration with hardboiled novelist George Pelecanos). The song “Burn,” musically a blend of the edgy and the seductive (it suggests a cross between Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” and Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper”), charts the darkness men find hidden within their souls – “just a few things that can’t be told,” sings Wynn – against a backdrop of short-story vignettes, one of them involving a guy who burned down a field one night and then, upon being questioned by the cops about his motivation, simply replied, “Guess I just don’t know.” Another track, the piano-fueled, Springsteenesque “Merrittville,” finds the protagonist having to contend with the sorry fruits of his even sorrier labors, pursued by thugs and surrounded by shady types who may or may not have his worst interests at heart. And the bluesy, hypnotically pulsing “The Medicine Show” is even darker, lined with a bone-chilling, visceral malevolence so profound it screams to be turned into a David Fincher thriller:
“I got a Page One story buried in my yard/ Got a troubled mind/ Goin’ down to the medicine show/ If I’ve gotta choose between doin’ penance/ And doin’ time/ Goin’ down to the medicine show…
It’s hard to be a reasonable man/ When you stop findin’ reasons for everything/ But tonight I’ll get some answers, baby/ Aw, at the medicine show.”
Jeezus. Who is this guy? What’s he hiding – who, or what, exactly, does he have buried? What’s going on down at this medicine show he’s talking about – drugs? sex? religion? Maybe we don’t need to know.That song, and the album as a whole, will leave you questioning yourself and your own motives. It’s like a novel set to music – a white-knuckled page-turner at that, one which reveals additional layers and nuances, new pretexts and subtexts, with each successive read (listen).
Medicine Show Mk.2010 corrects a long-standing sin of omission by putting the album back in the bins – A&M reissued on CD in 1989, but it’s been out of print for ages – and plugging a glaring hole in the Dream Syndicate’s back catalog. In addition to the 12 page booklet with Fricke’s notes, it also includes as bonus material the five-song mini-album This Is Not the New Dream Syndicate Album… Live! that A&M issued in late ’84 to further stoke the fires for the band, who had been making modest commercial inroads touring the U.S. (including a stint opening for R.E.M.). Recorded at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom on July 7 for a live broadcast over WXRT-FM, TINTNDSAL! features a proud version of Wine and Roses track “Tell Me When It’s Over” (it opens with a delightfully faux-pompous piano intro courtesy Zvoncheck, who had joined the touring lineup), but the focus, for obvious marketing reasons, is on four key Medicine Show numbers, most notably the title track and “John Coltrane Stereo Blues.” Both tunes are heard here en route to earning longterm tenure in Wynn setlists: “The Medicine Show” is all slash ‘n’ burn, Wynn’s unadorned-by-studio-effects voice taking on a trembly urgency that underscores the song’s already established sense of creeping, heart-of-darkness dread. And “JCSB,” with its heady swirls of organ, searing Wynn-Precoda guitars and relentless rhythm section throb (Mark Walton had recently replaced Provost as permanent bassist, and he and Duck are clearly simpatico), firmly establishes itself as a concert tour-de-force, equal parts hard-psych bop and Television-styled outré punk. As a live document of the band circa mid ’84, the mini-album is absolutely essential. (The 1989 A&M CD for Medicine Show also contained several of the live tracks, but not all of them due to length restrictions for CDs at that point in time.)
“Medicine Show sounds unlike any of the other [albums],” writes Wynn, in his addendum to the reissue’s liner notes. “The record is beautiful, unattainable, right and wrong in all the best ways. Karl wanted to make a big, panoramic rock record to justify our move to a major label and the plethora of attention we had received [since] The Days of Wine and Roses. I wanted to make a ‘beautiful loser,’ button-pushing, over-the-top emotional catharsis in the tradition of most of my all-time favorite records. We both got our way.”
That’s for sure. The record IS panoramic, massive, yet it’s also a soul-purger in the most primal, essential sense. And when Wynn cites as among his favorite LPs Big Star 3rd, Tonight’s The Night and Plastic Ono Band he’s not succumbing to hubris by implicitly ranking Medicine Show alongside those, but getting at what a lot of us Dream Syndicate watchers have always known for more than a quarter-century.
Although the lineup that recorded Medicine Show would eventually splinter following a lengthy national tour, Wynn remains justifiably proud of the record and has very distinct memories of what went into its creation. And he was more than willing to settle in for a conversation one balmy July afternoon to reminisce at length. “Of all the records I’ve made,” he offers, “that one’s the hardest to pin down; it’s its own beast.”
Let’s see if we can tame it, then…
BLURT: In an earlier interview, you and I were talking about how Medicine Show is the final piece of the back catalog, the last hole that needs plugging, considering everything else had already been restored to print. So finally you’re able to do that.
STEVE WYNN: Oh yeah. It’s been frustrating. I’ve been trying to do that, really, for going on 15 years now! I remember when I started the crusade, and it has not been easy. Well, it was not easy, and then suddenly it became very easy! Part of the problem was A&M kept being swallowed up by bigger fish year by year — it was like Apocalypse Now, going up to find Colonel Kurtz! [laughs] Trying to get to the heart of the matter! You’d find one lawyer, and then talk to another lawyer, and it was just surprisingly difficult.
Was this final round of negotiations you and the Water label working together to get the record? Give us a sense of how a band is able to pry an artifact loose from the label behemoth [in this case, Universal, which currently owns the A&M catalog].
Well, Water stepped in just recently. It’s been various people championing it along the way. I remember when John Silva, my old manager, was trying to pry it loose, and he, this guy with some serious clout at the height of the Nirvana-Beastie Boys-Beck things going on, couldn’t get it done. Later on Jim Barber, who knew a lot of people, made an effort to get it. And various lawyers tried. I can’t explain exactly why it was so difficult.
Years ago I was interviewing Holly Beth Vincent, from Holly & the Italians, whose first two albums were finally getting reissued, and she outlined what a torturous path it had been. Her feeling was that for a long time the major label that owned those albums preferred to keep the tapes locked up and have no one make any money from them rather than license them for less than their asking price. She had tried for ages.
Right! And the point I kept trying to make was that I’m not trying to get rich; in fact, that record is quite unrecouped! I won’t see royalties, ever. I just wanted to see it out there. My feeling was that, yeah, they could see some of the money back. My theory is that the Dream Syndicate was too popular just for them to let [the tapes] go, but not popular enough for them to want to bother with it.
That’s a pretty damning limbo to be stuck in.
That’s my guess – right in the middle of that. Because you know there are things in their [Universal’s] catalog that just get licensed or put out by them. They didn’t want to let it go but they didn’t want to keep it either. This went on for a long time.
Then all of a sudden Filippo at Water Records called me up and told me, “I saw Medicine Show on a list of things that are available for licensing.” I said, “You gotta be kidding me.” That’s what he specializes in. One thing he does is goes around and cherry picks stuff that’s out of print on other labels that Water wants to put out. So he had the opportunity with this, which was great because I’ve worked with him in the past on some of my solo stuff and he let me be real involved with the reissue.
Water always does a quality job. Sound, liner notes, packaging. And that’s what people want from a reissue. I don’t have to tell you how shoddy reissues were early on, when LPs first started getting put out on CD in the ‘80s. Horrible sound quality from 3rd or 4th generation tapes. Double albums that would have tracks eliminated so the entire thing would fit on a single CD. So you were really involved with overseeing the remastering, the whole process?
Everything. The mastering, the liners, the packaging, pushing for digipak over jewel case – every aspect. Because I wanted it to be done right. See, this will probably be the last CD release for Medicine Show — maybe there will be a 3D hologram version in two years, I dunno! — so I wanted this to be done properly.
One thing of note is the remastered sound: the depth and clarity is phenomenal.
Oh yeah, man, it sounds like what we were listening to when we made the record, what was coming out of the speakers in the studio. It never sounded that good before, because even with the vinyl, we had the problem where both sides were too long, [a fidelity] issue. That was the concern. Now it’s a bit easier, but back then it was a real concern. For example, we were editing “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” down from about 14 minutes to the final version, about 8 ½, and we were doing that not because we were trying to make a “hit single” but to make it fit! Just chopping off parts of intros, verses, solos. Making it more economical, and it probably did serve the song well, but it was because we wanted to make sure the record didn’t skip [due to excessive length].
That’s something a lot of the generation nowadays might not be aware of. The studio rat equivalent of having to walk five miles in the snow to school each morning…
“Lemme tell you the way things used to be, kids”… yeah. You know how it was. I’ve always thought about how the medium dictates the art. It’s funny to think about how certain records mean a lot to people, yet a lot of the decisions that were made on them were based around really weird parameters. “Yeah, that song’s shorter because we were trying to keep it from skipping.” Something weird about that.
I think the original vinyl Medicine Show was really good. The CD [A&M’s 1989 reissue] was terrible. I don’t blame that on the mastering, because Bill Inglot, who mastered it, always does a great job. It’s just that CDs sounded like crap back then. So [during the remastering] I remembered how exciting it was making this record and hearing all the stuff as we were going along, and how happy I was. And I haven’t had that experience of hearing it that way until now.
I’ve had musicians tell me that the experience cuts both ways – that when they go back and revisit an earlier album, both good and bad memories can come back. I understand making the record was also a period of stress for you.
Mmm-hmmm. Some of it wasn’t a happy time for me or, I’m sure, for Karl. It was exciting because we knew we were doing something special, but we took five months to make it, and during those five months we went from being pretty good friends to two people who didn’t speak anymore. That’s no fun. Also, just being 23, various bad behavior, various doubts… if I could’ve told myself back then that 27 years later I’d still be making music and having fun, I think I would have relaxed a little bit. But you put this incredible pressure on yourself to come up with the goods when you’re first starting out.
Whereas now, I think I’m making the best music of my life, and I’m trying a lot less. That doesn’t mean it’s not important or that I don’t make sure everything is the way it’s supposed to be; it’s just more natural because I’ve been doing it for a long time. I’m sure you’ve experienced that in writing.
Yeah, that’s true. I feel like I can do things easier, with a lot less effort, and still come up with something better — and have more fun doing it in the process. That’s probably true with any discipline.
Of course, the flipside is that all the frustrations and neuroses that go into making the record come out in the record, and you can hear it – in a good way. Because making a record is a very intense emotional experience.
That’s fueled so many great records, like the ones you namecheck in the Medicine Show liner notes — Big Star Third, Tonight’s The Night, etcetera. In the review I wrote of your album, I pointed out how it confuses me sometimes, that I’m not sure what I’m responding to and it’s like watching a French movie. Some of the sounds are a little weird, very ‘80s sounding, yet very seductive too. So why is this album, for me, instead of Days Of Wine and Roses, the Dream Syndicate record I respond to the most? It’s very hard to explain. The album a key artifact of the Amerindie underground of that era, yet it sounds unlike other records from that time period.
That’s a great description. I think there’s a little mystery to it. Of all the records I’ve made, that one’s the hardest to pin down; it’s its own beast. I can’t think of any of the other records that sound quite like that. The closest thing that it reminds me of might be some of Nick Cave’s records that came afterwards, which were damaged, and wrong, and often uncomfortable, but make a strong impression. And I think…mmm, I think Medicine Show has its own mystery and a lot of things. Your comment about a French movie is a really good one, because if you go to see any basic Adam Sandler movie, you know the story and you can walk away and say I know what that was about and what the subtext was, and I got from A to B and I either enjoyed it or I didn’t. But there are certain more oddball films where you walk away and go, I don’t even know what that was about, it was stilted and unknowing at times — but I can’t stop thinking about it. And those are the things I’ve always liked.
That would make Daughtry the Adam Sandler of rock ‘n’ roll… Okay, so you started writing Medicine Show not long after the first album, and then Kendra Smith [original bassist] left the band. Take us back to that point, when she announces she was splitting and you say to yourself, “Uh-oh…”
I was really sad about that because Kendra had been a good friend for a real long time. We were in bands when we were 18 back in Davis, California. And I knew how important she was to the band and the sound of the band. But being that age, I didn’t know how to deal with it, so I just said, “Okay, good luck.” We knew we were going on to something else anyway, and she sensed that, and I think that may have been her hesitation about going on. We’d gone from being a goth-y psychedelic band to more of a guitar band and a band that would tour a lot.
And when she left, I think it was February of ’83, we were only one year past our first gig. A lot had happened in that time, a lot of very heady stuff. There was a period of time when I knew if I walked past the newsstand, any music magazine that I picked up would have us in it. I just assumed that, and it was exciting, but also when you’re that young and starting out, it can do weird things to you, and do different things to different people. I think for her it was a combination of maybe seeing us heading in a direction she didn’t like, and also because she was dating David Roback at the time I think they wanted to do things together [as Opal]. The whole touring thing wasn’t as much fun for her as it was for us. So when she left I knew we were going to be a different band.
You got David Provost in to replace her — he’d been playing with the Textones, right?
I was a fan of theirs and used to go see them, and I would see him around a lot too. He’s great – you know, he played with Al Green! Just a fantastic bassist. I just saw him recently, in Portland.
Did you already have the A&M deal cooking when he joined?
No, not then. The reason we had to get him in the band fast was because of the U2 tour. We needed someone who could learn the songs and jump in the van and go. The same thing happened a year later when he left and Mark Walton came in – we had to do a tour.
We were being offered deals by Geffen, EMI and A&M. It was great! I got a lot of nice meals out of that, a lot of ego stroking! Meetings with the presidents of labels, very exciting, very heady, and a lot of fun. I think A&M won out because they seemed more of an artists’ label. The whole vibe of them, and the fact that they were run by a musician, Herb Alpert, and that we’d be able to do what we wanted to. And we did! EMI, for example, we met with Gary Gersh, their A&R guy, and I remember him saying, “Well, you know, when you come with us, you’re not going to have just a label. We’re going to collaborate. We’re going to get involved with the songwriting and the way you make the records.” He was telling me this as a selling point! [laughs] “Check please!” I wanted no part of that. Geffen was great, though, so that was a hard decision. But even Geffen was more of a “corporation” compared to A&M being artist friendly.
And it was the right decision. Because A&M, in the five months of making the record, they never bothered us while we were doing it. They just signed the checks and said, “Keep going.” Which to this day amazes me.
Can you tell me how much they spent on the album, or is that privileged information?
I can tell you that it was something around a quarter of a million dollars…. yeah.
How many Steve Wynn records can we make with a quarter of a million dollars?
Everything I’ve ever done! I can tell you, and I’m pretty sure I can verify this, the time and money it took to make Medicine Show, I could fit everything else I’ve ever done. [laughs] Maybe not the time, but… to me it was a lesson, because I’ve always said about Medicine Show that we could’ve made the same record in a month. But at the same time, we didn’t know what we were doing. We were looking for something and not knowing what it was until we found it, and that was sort of the way Sandy Pearlman [Medicine Show producer] was too. And he’s always been that way: if you talk to people in Blue Oyster Cult, the Clash, the Dictators, you’ll get the same thing from them about Sandy. He takes a long time, and you kind of go on the journey with him.
Everything that happened was for a good end because we got that record. But some producers might have come in and said, okay, do this, this, this, and we’re done. He said, “Keep doing it, and I’ll know it when I see it.” And we said the same thing.
Did you seek out Pearlman, or was he suggested by the label?
He knew our manager at the time, Tim Devine. We were on tour with U2 and played a show at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, and our tour manager was quit or fired and we suddenly found ourselves without a tour manager or soundman for a very big show. Our manager suggested Sandy to do live sound. Most studio producers will not do that. But he did, we met him, and we liked him. It’s funny too – Karl was sold on him because of Blue Oyster Cult, and I was sold on him because of the Dictators. We both had our Sandy favorites, so he was a good choice.
He definitely pulled something out of us that we didn’t know was there. He pushed us to an extreme. He really, in every way, wanted something beyond just the normal rock band experience. It’s funny: his favorite movie, and one he had the poster for up on his wall, was Apocalypse Now. And it was the same thing. That documentary about the film, Heart of Darkness, all the psychological adventures that Coppola and Martin Sheen and everyone went through making that movie – I’m not saying it’s totally analogous, but that’s what we were doing as well.
If cameras had been rolling in the studio with you guys, what might they have caught on film?
They would have caught me throwing a whiskey bottle at Sandy for making me sing the same song 20 times in a row! And him saying to me, “You can’t throw a whiskey bottle at me! Mick Jones didn’t even throw a whiskey bottle at me!” [laughs]
In the new liner notes you write about how Karl Precoda wanted a big, panoramic sounding kind of record, whereas you were going for a kind of “beautiful loser” document. Were there discussions among the band members to that effect, about what you were going for, or was it strictly the intuitive search you suggested a few minutes ago?
It was intuitive. It’s funny, Karl’s mantra was, “We’re in the big leagues now.” He was very affected by that. He felt this was our time to make the big move. And I guess I felt the same thing, but my big move was just to fuck with people’s minds and do something really crazy. I was looking at things like Fun House and Miami by the Gun Club.
We never talked much about business or our career while we were making the record. Sandy Pearlman got very involved in arrangements, though. He had a lot to do with the arrangements on that record, and going against our safety zone. For example, “Merritville” on that record, when I originally wrote it, it was a very fast, almost country punk kind of song. Totally different from what it ended up being. If you imagine that being like something off the Gun Club’s Fire Of Love – “Preachin’ the Blues,” “ For the Love of Ivy,” that sort of song. Sandy just said, “I’m not getting the song here. Slow it down.” And he kept having us slow it down until the song came out. And that was very exciting. It was a new approach to us. Our approach had always been explode. Explode and see what happens. Slap it against the wall and see what happens.
That song is significant, too, for how important the keyboards are in the arrangement, compared to all the earlier Dream Syndicate material. At what point did Tom Zvoncheck come in to add piano to the arrangements? Did Sandy suggest that or was it something you’d been thinking of all along?
I think it was there almost from the start – we knew we wanted keyboards to be part of the record, the sound we were going for. And there’s a lot of keyboards on Sandy’s stuff too; that’s a big part of his sound, the Blue Oyster Cult stuff. We all agreed that was to be part of it. And at the time, I was looking at what Green On Red was doing, what [GoR keyboardist] Chris Cacavas was doing, and I liked that element. So we had never had keyboards in any way in the Dream Syndicate, but given what we were into and the way the songs were, and knowing Sandy’s sound, I don’t think there was ever any question.
“Merrittville” in particular is dominated by Tom’s piano, and it’s a beautiful, elegant tune. Yet I can hear some punk purist and devotee of the first album sniffing, “Oh, they want to be Springsteen….”
Yeah, and that was there. A lot of things about the record were misunderstood at the time. People said it was overproduced — which it was.
“Corporate rock,” yes! Which has nothing to do with anything. So the keyboards being reminiscent of Springsteen, or the drum sound — which, admittedly, is a bit of the time.
But all those things don’t stand out now when I hear the reissue. Now, it is what it is. Like a lot of records: over time, you just accept how they sound. The thing about Medicine Show that was kind of frustrating but also kind of funny at the time was the perception of the record in the States versus in Europe. I mean, the “selling out” part was ridiculous; it wasn’t a sellout in any way. But in Europe there was no real history of the band. Various collectors may have had [1982’s] Days of Wine and Roses, but Medicine Show was recognized as just a completely different and exciting record from an exciting new band. And the same thing happened that I described earlier: how everywhere you’d go, people are going to be writing about it and loving it. We got that [in Europe] on a year delay with Medicine Show. And still, to this day, I think that is the record that has more notoriety and more fans than Wine and Roses.
What you’re describing is something that one supposes has happened to a lot of bands. Howe Gelb from Giant Sand told me a similar thing, how his band was wholeheartedly embraced in Europe. Their record finally comes out overseas, and the foreign fans don’t really have any context or background so they just take it at face value without any baggage that might have existed back home where people had been listening to the group a few years. Or at least this was true in the pre-Internet era.
Sure, and that follows from your local scene, where you’ve been playing and they think they have certain rights to you, to your country, and it expands from there. Someone like Howe has probably experienced that in Tucson. I remember the first time I met Howe through Dan Stuart’s [Green On Red] perspective; they’d gone a long way back so my first impression of him was of this guy from the same scene as Dan’s and they had some history.
The way a person is perceived outside the scene is totally different from the way people inside it perceive the person. What’s ironic is that I first learned about Giant Sand by reading a British magazine, Bucketful of Brains. Yet later, when I lived in Tucson, I realized the whole scene there was different from the way it had been portrayed. It wasn’t this mystical center of desert rock at all.
L.A. is like that a lot. I’m like Randy Newman – “I love L.A.!” But it’s not a very healthy place to be a musician. In the past at least, everything was against the backdrop of the music business: who got signed, who got dropped, where you’re playing, what it all means. I always hated that. You don’t get that in New York at all.
And for the Dream Syndicate, you got a little acclaim, and the knives came out in jealousy from some quarters. That social climbing aspect of L.A. plays a part.
Sure. I think we “climbed” really quick and a lot of people resented that. And a lot of people who claimed to love the band didn’t really know what we were all about. That’s probably true of a lot of bands, where they arc and they start off as kind of a cult band, then have a little success, and finally ease back to where they would normally be. You look at that one moment when you’ve spiked, and it’s exciting, but it’s not all that realistic. Like the whole Nirvana syndrome, where all these people suddenly love Nirvana but would otherwise have hated stuff like that. It’s kind of a funny thing. People would be talking about the Dream Syndicate: “Really? You like this? You like this half hour of feedback?!?” [laughs] And we made a point of testing that too! [laughs]
I bet you did. And yet then you turn around and do something so different like Medicine Show. Nowadays people expect a band not to just repeat the previous album, but for a long time it’s almost like there was an orthodoxy that was a holdover from the initial punk era – so those folks who’d come to expect a half hour of feedback wound up getting this Springsteenian song with a piano. And that disconnect was expressed in a lot of the reviews too, right?
Yeah. And the funny thing, too, is that when you and I were growing up [in the pre-punk period] it was also the way where you’d expect people to change with every record – Dylan or Neil Young or David Bowie. Or even the Velvets, speaking of someone to whom we got compared to a lot: each of the four Velvets albums are radically different, and they’re each definitive for what they are.
Then punk told you that you would have to dress the same way and act the same way and sound the same way or you were out of the club.
Yeah. What was acceptable and what wasn’t. But also, then a lot of money got involved – a lot of money got confused in the ‘80s. The ‘80s became, sadly, the era of the producer and the studio and that kind of stuff. And it kind of got away from what you were recording. It was really weird in the ‘80s, how you saw, top to bottom, every band I knew, we – the musicians – were interchangeable random elements to be used by producers. We dodged that the best we could
Let me ask you about the songwriting. You have always had a reputation – for lack of a better term – for being cerebral. Or maybe “literate” is a better way to put it. Anyway, you stood apart from the whole punk “one-two-three-FOUR!” approach to songwriting. Were you consciously going for the storytelling approach, or consciously going against the grain? Even rebelling against the “baby, I love you” pop style of songwriting?
Well, not necessarily the “baby I love you.” I think Wine and Roses is the sound of a post-teenage group of people who are in their own head, who have their own concerns about how to deal with the world and new things. It’s very much an internal, neurotic record. And in the year after that came out, we went through a lot of stuff. We were seeing the world, traveling to every corner of the country, meeting new kinds of people. And I was reading a lot of things that went along with that. For example, I was seeing the South, so I wanted to read more Southern literature; I was reading Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, things like that. So we were reflecting what was happening to us, reflecting just seeing more and knowing more and pulling out our own thoughts. The subject matter of that second record is very different because of where we were at.
A lot of songwriters go through that and turn around and write their proverbial “road album,” very first person. But instead, you turned those experiences into characters, and that seemed to set you apart as well.
I think it was a very character-driven, third person storytelling kind of record. But most of the things that are happening on that record are very personal. Like, I was talking recently to someone about the song “Armed With an Empty Gun”: that couldn’t be more simple to figure out what that’s about. What I was feeling at the time was, wow, I’m moving fast and there’s all this excitement and hubbub, and I’m doing my best, but occasionally I feel like I’m bluffing and wondering how long can I pull it off.
That’s something I look back now and I can actually say — [conspiratorial voice] I think I was pretty good at it. But everybody goes through that. You have that “impostor syndrome” and the feeling that people are loving you but you’re not worthy of all that acclaim. You get all these self-loathing sorts of second records. Look at the difference between Nevermind and In Utero. There’s so much venom sent inward on that [latter] record.
A lot of people who play music believe in themselves and like what they’re doing and kinda hit that zone and are happy when they do it. But when other people start telling you, “Yeah, I love what you’re doing!” – especially when you’re young – you go, “Are you sure? Really? Are you gonna change your mind tomorrow?”
There is a distinctive element of someone trying to run away from a lot of stuff on Medicine Show, too.
Because Medicine Show is such a narrative-driven album, that’s what draws a lot of people to it, I suspect. And much of it scans like this noirish, desperado record. Lots of guns. Violence real and implied. How about the song “Burn”? Is that a metaphorical tale, or did you read something in the news to provoke that particular imagery, of this fucked-up guy burning a field down?
Without getting too much into it… there were a few disappointing things that had happened in my life, things about my family, things that, um, didn’t work out as they should’ve. There’s that feeling of when you think you have everything figured out and you think you have a strong foundation around you, and then it gets pulled out and away from you. I think there’s the key line in it: “Just a few things that can’t be told.” Like when suddenly things don’t make sense anymore.
“Guess I just don’t know.” That’s another line.
Yes. So then I threw all that into fields and fire and all that kind of stuff, which was written to be about that feeling, “I can’t express this with words or logic, so I just have to have some very violent, explosive behavior to wash it away.” And then, that’s the kind of thing I still have in my songs, just that emotional catharsis for things that can’t be understood.
But you know, the catharsis for that record was other people’s problems. Because it’s easier to write that way. I think of Randy Newman, he’s always writing about himself, even though he’s not. If you listen to every Randy Newman record back to back, you understand him even though they’re all stories, ironic and detached. Eventually you see the connection between all of them, about life and other people and what’s good and what’s bad.
So — the album comes out, you and Karl aren’t getting along too well, and you have to hit the road to promote it, lots of touring, including a long jaunt with R.E.M.. How did things start to unravel for the band?
I guess we just had that rift that never got healed. Looking back, I think it was us just not talking much. Me jumping on the R.E.M. bus whenever possible and hanging out with Peter Buck instead of my own band. It was too frustrating and all that. The reality is that there were a lot of good times too. But we weren’t grown up enough to deal with it, and our friendship soured. We did tour a lot. We did two months with R.E.M. and another month or so in Europe, and then we went to Japan. So in the next six months we toured quite a bit, and I remember that in all that time, the one thing we could talk about was baseball. Karl was also a huge baseball fan.
Did R.E.M. fans like Dream Syndicate? I saw the Greensboro, NC, show on that tour.
It was mixed. At the time the tour was seen as a really big deal because it was two bands who were getting a lot of attention. Of course they were bigger, but we were kind of the standard bearers for the new American college rock or indie rock, whatever name it was that year! So a lot of their fans were predisposed to liking us, and a lot were kind of mystified at the very different thing we were doing from what they were doing. We went on tour and took Tommy Zvoncheck with us because we wanted to do the album, and I’m glad we did, but it probably would have been smarter to go on tour and be a four-piece band again. Just as far as not confronting people – it’s one thing to confront an audience with a new record and let them settle into it, but doing it live you don’t really have that chance to rethink things or reassess.
Yet as you said, this is also the touring period where once you got to Europe you found an entire new audience that was specifically your own.
Yes, because they hadn’t had American bands like us come over there. I could be wrong, but I think we were the first of that era. Maybe Television had gone over, and of course the Ramones and a couple of others. But really, if you think of the post-punk American bands, hardly anyone had been over at that point.
You were fortunate enough, too, to have the patronage of a major label so you could afford to do it.
Oh man, the best decision I ever made in my life – I remember having a meeting with the A&M head of A&R, and he said to me, “Okay, we’re going to give you a choice here. We can either make a video, or go to Europe. We’ll finance one or the other.” I’d never been to Europe in my life, so for selfish reasons I did it! And that has turned out to help keep me going.
Otherwise you’d have been at the mercy of the whims of some MTV exec, where you’d spent all that money on a maybe — maybe I’ll get played on MTV. “120 Minutes” or something.
I know. It was obscene the amount of money you would spend back then just to be seen at 2 a.m. in the morning in the middle of the week. It just didn’t make any sense to me so there was no question.
So finally, after we made it all through that, even though things were going well and having great tours and success in Europe and…
…you break up. How did Karl tell you he was leaving?
He didn’t. I broke up the band. By the time I’d finished that whole six months of touring… the advice I’d give any young musician is, don’t ever make any decisions about your band or your life within two weeks of the tour. Go home, unplug the phone, go out and walk in the park. You’re really in a different state, physically mentally and other things, when you come off the road. But I was thinking, I can’t stand anymore being around people I can’t talk to, have fun with. Where there was this tension and this anger all the time. So that was that. I didn’t know what was going to happen.
Did you tell A&M what you were doing?
Yeah, but I don’t remember how quickly I told them. But I did tell them fairly quickly. And I remember calling Karl and Dennis and just saying, “That’s it!” And then it was unintentional, unplanned, that we reformed three months later. It was a matter of, I still like Dennis, I still like Mark, and I still like playing, so it’s natural that I would play with them. So we looked for somebody who could come into the band. Paul [Cutler] was very much the obvious choice; he was an old friend and I loved his playing, so that was that.
The lineup with Paul was really powerful. I remember seeing the band in 1986 and watching him hunched over at the edge of the stage, tapping his guitar strings with a tuning fork to get these unearthly sounds.
To this day, I wish I could reunite that final band’s lineup. I’m still friends with everyone. But Paul is very definitely retired. He wants no part of it. Mmm… it’s too bad.
Yes, all that money that’s being dangled in front of bands to reunite…
Ohh… you don’t know the half of it! [laughs]
With the touring industry taking such a beating lately, big tours like Limp Bizkit and Christina Aguilera getting canceled and scaled back, I’m curious to know if touring remains a good proposition for you? Is it still worth all the logistics and effort?
It goes up and down. The one thing I’ll say for America, as opposed to Europe, is that in America I just go out and hit the major cities and that’s it, whereas in Europe, these towns you can barely find on the map, we’ll have shows that are great. But yeah, in the big cities in the States it’s as good as it’s been in the last 20-25 years.
And you know, I’ve been living under the radar for so long that everything is relative. I remember talking to Mike Mills one time and he said, “What have you been up to?” And I said, “I’ve been touring Europe a lot; that’s kind of my bread and butter.” And he said, “I know what you mean – we can’t get arrested in America!” And I go, “Mike. Your idea of not being able to get arrested is my idea of winning the lottery!” Last time I saw them they sold out Madison Square Garden. So you see how it is all relative. And some artists like Limp Bizkit’s idea of a bad turnout, I’d be fine with.
I don’t mean this in a pretentious way, but I look at what I do as more like going to see McCoy Tyner down at the Blue Note, me and 75 other people digging it. I guess we’re all jazzbos.
Have you considered releasing one of the live performances your band the Miracle 3 did covering Days of Wine and Roses and Medicine Show? [Wynn and his band performed each album on successive nights in Atlanta on May 14 and 15, 2010.]
I really liked doing that. The Atlanta performances were a lot of fun. But I don’t want to say anything I can’t promise. I will say that 2012 is the 30th anniversary of the Dream Syndicate, and somehow it will be commemorated. I’m just not sure how.
Postscript: Well, here in 2014, we know how that played out—quite well. The Dream Syndicate has been performing selected dates for two years now, and in a recent email exchange Wynn told me that the band is playing and sounding stronger than ever. So strong, in fact, that — drumroll, please — he’s seriously thinking about taking the band into the studio this year to record a new album…
Photo Credit (top) of current lineup: Juan Carlos Quindos