THE MEDICINE SHOW’S HEART OF DARKNESS Steve Wynn & the Dream Syndicate Pt. 2

The songwriter journeys back downriver, more than a quarter
century later, to probe the making of a troubled masterpiece.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

Herein we continue our conversation with Steve Wynn, who
talks some more about what went into the making of the Dream Syndicate’s 1984
album Medicine Show (recently
remastered, expanded and reissued by the Water label), about the ensuing
six-month tour – including an extended stint opening for R.E.M. – that broke up
the band, and about his current activities. (To read Part One, go here, and to
read the BLURT review of Medicine Show,
go here.)

 

***

 

 BLURT: In the liner notes to Medicine Show 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?

STEVE WYNN: 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.”

“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.

 

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.

Oh yeah.

 

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.

 

 You were an early adopter of how to use and encourage
the fan community – your website, the message boards, being friendly towards
the taping of shows, releasing mail-order only titles, the whole deal. You’ve
been doing house parties as well. It seems like you were quick to get it – that
it made more sense to reach out to, say, 1000 really supportive fans instead of
putting forth a lot of energy aiming for 25,000 who are inherently more fickle
and ephemeral. The idea of surviving and keeping the career going rather than
going for broke: “Oh, if I can’t sell out a 25,000 seat arena than I’m just not
going to tour at all…”

Right, exactly. I think it’s given me a lot more longevity,
definitely. And it’s something a lot of people have been coming around to. But
I’ve been doing it for years. The house parties have done incredibly, for
example. I’m going with Jason [Victor, of the Miracle 3] next week to Wales to play a
40th birthday party for someone. We’re flying out Thursday and
coming home Sunday. One shot thing. Hop of the plane, fly there, do the gig,
play his favorites, and come back. It’s great.

 

 Before we wrap up, tell us a little about what
else you’ve been up to in the recent past. I read that you just turned 50, and
I know you just got back from Norway
where you did a classic rock set of covers with Robyn Hitchcock. And you just
recorded a new album with the Miracle 3 down at the studio in Richmond. So you’ve been pretty busy.

Yeah, and I think you’re going to like the new record. The
show with Robyn was a lot of fun, too. You’re right, I am pretty busy.
Balancing a lot of things. This new Miracle 3 album, which we’re going to mix
next month here in New York
– I hate to do hype, because everyone does that, but it really is the best
Miracle 3…

 

 “It’s
the best thing I’ve ever done!”

Oh, I’m not going to say that! I’ve got favorites, you know.
But I really like it, and I read a quote once from a guy talking about his
record: “Well, it’s better than our last few but not as good as the first two.”
[laughs] I thought that was a great
quote. So I think it is a really good record, and hopefully it’ll make it to
the finish line as much as I like it now. It’s been five years since the last
one. We’ve been playing in the meantime, and I love the band, but I’ve also
been doing different things and everyone had stuff going on so we didn’t do it
until now.

    And we have the
new Baseball Project too. [Wynn, Miracle
3 drummer Linda Pitmon, Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey
] It’s at the same
point, recorded but not mixed. We’re going to mix that in September and it’ll
come out in February. We recorded everything in Portland at just breakneck speed – it’s the
anti-Medicine Show! – doing the first
session, 12 songs, in a day and a half, and the second session, six songs in
six hours. That band works fast. I like that Rutles quote: “The first record
took 20 minutes, and the second one took even longer.” [laughs] We’ve also been doing a monthly song for ESPN, writing and
recording – I just finished this month’s song.

    So really, it’s
like I’ve been juggling three albums. Also doing the shows in Norway, doing
shows with both Miracle 3 and the Baseball Project. So it’s been a pretty busy
year.

 

 Tell me about the Hitchcock collaboration. [Norway acoustic show, July 1, 2010] Was
that planned out and rehearsed, the cover songs you selected, or was it more
thrown together? [Wynn and Hitchcock did
Dylan, Stones, the Who, Beatles, John Cale, Creedence, the Doors, Velvet
Underground and more.
]

We wrote back and forth with lists of stuff, but we didn’t
really get to rehearse it. We had a long soundcheck. We both arrived in the
city that day. And I’ve kind of gotten to know Robyn the last couple of years,
through Scott [McCaughey] and Peter [Buck] mostly. We were both playing this
festival, and to be honest I don’t know if it was Robyn’s idea or the
promoter’s idea. It just came to me that we were doing an additional show
together, and so we just started talking about different songs. He’s better at
that than I am; I don’t do a lot of covers these days, so that was really
bending my mind on a number of those songs. But it was really fun.

 

Have you considered
releasing one of the live performances 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.

       I do think that
after this Medicine Show reissue and
after doing those Atlanta
shows, I’m probably going to leave Dream Syndicate nostalgia for a couple of
years and save it for then.

 

 

Steve Wynn on the web:
www.stevewynn.net

 

Leave a Reply