Features: An interview with Steve Wynn

(photo from http://www.stevewynn.net)

NewBeats turns 11 this month. So from our archives, here is an interview with former Dream Syndicate singer circa 2003:

Steve Wynn: Music for Troubled Souls
By David Chiu

“I wanted to have written a novel more than I want to write a novel,” said veteran singer/songwriter Steve Wynn. “I think I will someday. It’s a whole different discipline.” Given his knack for writing introspective moody songs in a journalistic fashion, it would only make sense that he would write a book. If he ever decides to do that, Wynn certainly would have enough material given his 20-plus years of experiences in music career.

In fact, any survey of alternative music in the last two decades would be incomplete without mentioning Steve Wynn. He had established his name in modern rock as the founder of the Dream Syndicate, the Los Angeles band that was synonymous with the Paisley Underground movement of the early ’80s. The band that was heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground in time would inspire another generation of garage rockers in the ’90s. While the Dream Syndicate has been somewhat of a distant memory since its break up in 1990, Wynn continued to plug away, first with the super group Gutterball, and later as a solo artist.

His 2001 double-record, Here Come the Miracles, reflected a music-making change of direction; rather than recording the album either in Los Angeles or in his adopted hometown of New York City, Wynn and his band recorded Here Come the Miracles in sunny hot Tucson, Arizona. The result was some hard and punchy songs, bone crunching guitar, and Wynn’s jaded vocals and wordplay. Described as a “party record” by the artist, the album garnered rave reviews not since the Syndicate’s classic debut The Days of Wine and Roses.

“It wasn’t really until Here Come the Miracles that I made a record that got the same kind of respect and attention as I had received 20 years ago,” Wynn explained. “It’s a great feeling too because I like the record a lot. I think it’s the best record I’ve ever made.”

So how does Wynn follow-up such success? By releasing his latest album Static Transmission. “The mood of the records is very different as well,” he said of both the new album and Miracles. “I think [Static Transmission] is a more intimate, contained shorter record, and melancholy, sweeter, and sinister all at the same time.”

Given the way albums are now marketed, it is somewhat remarkable that Wynn was able to make another record in a short amount of time. Wynn view it as a natural part of his consistent work ethic. Combining both his solo and band output, it totals about 17 albums. “I became a fan of music at a period of time when people made three records a year,” he said. “People say ‘God your prolific.’ To me if I can’t get it together to write ten to fifteen songs a year and to record them, I don’t know what I’m doing.”

For his fans from his Dream Syndicate days and of his current solo work, Static Transmission offers the classic elements of Wynn’s sound, particularly the heavy full-on rock songs like “Candy Machine,” “Amphetamine,” and “Keep It Clean” that conveys an almost sinister feel. “”Amphetamine” is complete lose control of yourself-hardcore, speed, frenzy, insanity,” described Wynn. “On this album, I just wanted it to be a moody record. If I was going to do one more record in my life, it would be a frenzy rock record.”

There are also flirtations with sunny pop as on “California Style,” and R&B on “The Ambassador of Soul” and the gospel-like “What Comes After.” The latter song shows an intimate side of the artist. “I think it’s the kind of record I would put on at 3 am in the morning after a couple of drinks,” Wynn mused. “It is a mood record.”

The former Los Angeles native pays homage to his original roots on the song “Hollywood.” “In the last two records, I ended up writing a lot about California and Los Angeles,” Wynn said. “I think I’ve been gone there long enough, been ten years now. It’s just easier to write about. It’s a place I know better than I’ll ever know any place, including New York. I think that song is a little bit autobiographical, somebody going back and looking at the wreck one left a long time ago and trying to figure out if he can place himself back in that scenario and make some sense of it.”

Probably the most poignant song that firmly established the feel of Static Transmission is the meditative and somber “Maybe Tomorrow.” Wynn acknowledged the song was written with September 11, 2001 in mind, though it wasn’t about that day. “It’s more like the mood that I was feeling and people all around the world were feeling. It permeated what we did in this record. What felt right in the studio was probably a giant hangover from the event. I think the fact we got this deep, worried, soulful moodiness had a lot to do with what was in the air.” (Wynn wrote a moving account of the event that happened not far from his place entitled “72 Hours in New York City”-it can be found on his website stevewynn.net).

Obviously he is the star on his last two albums but Wynn was more than willing to credit the fine work of his backing band the Miracle 3 (whose name appears on Static Transmission). The group consists of guitarist Jason Victor, bassist Dave DeCastro, drummer Linda Pitmon and keyboardist Chris Cacavas

“I work best by collaboration,” Wynn said. “Even though it’s my name on the record and I’m writing most or all of the songs, once I’m making the record, I feel like I’m part of the band. We played a ton of shows in the last two years. We played more shows together than any line-up that I’ve ever played with.”

If the enthusiasm of his music comes naturally on his records, it’s expands ten-fold when it comes to playing live. Having played in more shows in recent years than when he was in the Dream Syndicate, Wynn promises that the tour in support of Static Transmission will be no less different.

“I’d play in Baghdad tomorrow,” he remarked. “Playing new places is great. It’s a very cool thing to be able to do that in my life, going to amazing places that I would never have been. It blows my mind to be in Oslo and talking to people in Norway about parts of the country they haven’t seen. There are not many jobs where you can do things like that. You’re either a musician or missionary-which is the same thing.”

Wynn’s sense of pushing those emotional buttons while simultaneously rocking with reckless abandon, as he did at SXSW, comes as no surprise given his reputation. When he first started out with the Dream Syndicate, Wynn was compared musically to the likes of Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, the Stooges, and Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

“They were hugely important because it was a real formative time,” he said of those aforementioned artists as he was making his mark on a professional level. So it was natural to ask him who in turn influenced him growing up? “It was definitely Credence, the Who, the Beatles, and the Stones. I was fortunate to listen to music when there was great radio in the late ’60s and early ’70s. It was a pretty exciting way to learn about music.”

The story of the Dream Syndicate-particularly the original lineup of Wynn, bassist Kendra Smith, guitarist Karl Precoda, and drummer Dennis Duck–needs no further reiteration except the fact they as influential on modern rock as R.E.M. and Nirvana was. Their arrival came at the height of the early ’80s Paisley scene in Los Angeles at its fertile and most exciting. Although they wore their influences on their sleeve, Wynn knew that his band was something more than just a copycat group.

“At the time a lot of people thought the band was doing a tribute to the Velvets, which we were very influenced by Velvets. But if it were Velvets by the numbers, it would have been kind of silly. I think it was a lot more than that. We were very cocky and arrogant, an unpleasant thing in daily life but a very appealing thing in the music.”

Unlike some solo musicians who seem dismissive of their erstwhile band’s past glories, Wynn was very agreeable about speaking of the Syndicate today, now over a decade after the band split. When Rhino Records re-released The Days of Wine of Roses with bonus tracks in 2001. (Wynn also produced the reissue and wrote the introduction to the liner notes). He explained why after 20 years that remarkable debut still holds up. “A lot of records that are good and sound good, five years after they’re made, are good because they are very natural and very believable,” he explained. “I think The Days of Wine and Roses happened in a very believable, honest, and spontaneous way, and that’s why it sounded good.

Still, in the unpredictable world of rock and roll that even saw the reunion of the Velvet Underground in 1993, Wynn sort of hinted that the band’s name might live again, although remotely. The dilemma for him would be deciding on the line-up. There had been various members that have come and gone from the band since the original configuration of Wynn, Precoda, Duck, and Smith. ”

Just the idea of I wouldn’t know which one to reform keeps me from doing it,” he explained. “I wouldn’t rule it out completely. It could happen someday but it would be a long time from now.” He joked that perhaps it might be possible in their early old age when they are senile enough to forget why they split in the first place.

He closed his past this way: “On the other hand, I’m very proud and honored that The Days of Wine and Roses is a record that means a lot to so many people and it has stood the test of time. But at the same time, you don’t want to be defined by something you did at the age of 22 for the rest of your life.”

Even after being in music all this time,, Wynn doesn’t seemed surprised he would be in the position that he is in right now-continuing to record and tour. “This was something I wanted to do. When we were making Days of Wine and Roses, I was looking way ahead because I was happy about it. But I don’t know if I thought it would happen.”

When I mentioned to him that he came a long way from working at the Rhino Records shop in Los Angeles in the early ’80s while making The Days of Wine and Roses, Wynn, always forward thinking, wryly commented, “I hope they have a job for me just in case.”



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