It’s safe to say that we are massive Dream Syndicate disciples here at Niche Appeal, forever bowing to the altar of the paisley underground’s darkest stars. Therefore it was a distinctive honor to have lead Syndicate Steve Wynn drop in to answer a few of our fawning questions just after the release of their jammy, pulsating new record, The Universe Inside. It’s as good as anything they’ve ever done. Definitely check it out, plus the interview below to put it is some context.
Quite a few Dream Syndicate diehards tend to gravitate to the more jammy passages on Wine & Roses, songs where you guys stretched it out and gave the songs some room to breathe, and much to our delight you’ve come roaring back with monster swirling jams like “Black Light” and the new single. Was it a conscious decision to give the songs some air or is this something that came about naturally when you guys started playing together again?
SW: It’s how we started back in 1982 and it’s where we’ve ended up: establish a groove, stay there, don’t lose the groove, don’t throw in a bunch of distracting variations, allow yourself to get hypnotized and then begin to sneak in shocks and events that bristle at the repetition. Calming and soothing brushing up against jarring and surprising. We got called a bunch of things the first time around–guitar rock, indie rock, Americana (Never thought we really fit in that camp but I was glad they liked what we did), paisley, college rock but deep at heart we were always about the groove. You can hear it on every song on The Days of Wine and Roses and it’s really at the heart of the three albums we’ve made since we reunited,
With that in mind we went into the studio two years ago to make These Times and I had a bunch of songs. I had been really prolific and wanted to get them all on tape. But we also allowed ourselves time each day to just jam and let things go where they may, something we always do live but not so much in the studio. The song “Whole World’s Watching” on the last album came out of one of those jams. But we also locked into an epic unconscious sprawl late one night when Stephen McCarthy of the Long Ryders showed up to say hi and was recruited into playing with us. It was one of those magical moments of easy and natural connection that you always hope will happen when you don’t have a road map. That one jam provided all of the material that was later reworked and amended to become the new album.
Dream Syndicate was no doubt a bit darker than the other “paisley underground” bands on the scene, more in line with The Doors or The Velvets dark side of the hippie spectrum. This helped you gain underground popularity but do you feel it hindered your mainstream exposure? Could you have been The Bangles if you’d just “walked like an Egyptian”, so to speak, for one single back in the day? Not to suggest you wanted that, of course.
SW: We were who we were. We weren’t designed to be a mainstream band. Are you kidding? Long songs with lots of feedback that go to some dark places lyrically sung by a singer who, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, was not born with the gift of a golden voice? We were friends with The Bangles and REM, hung out together, were mutual fans but those bands were built for success–pop songs and vocalists with dulcet tones. Not that we didn’t try–and sometimes, bizarrely enough succeed, to get on the radio and MTV here and there.
The new video makes modern day Disneyfied Times Square feel as gritty as when it was all porn theaters and heroin dealers. You played NYC quite a lot in the 80s, and have played here in modern times after you got back together. What’s your opinion on what has become of our gentrified, whitewashed paradise of glass and steel condos?
SW: I actually consider The Dream Syndicate to be a New York band now. I mean, only one of us lives in LA at this point. Jason is a New York City native and I have lived here for 25 years. My LA pals hate when I say that but this city is the sound of our music. And even in my 25 years I’ve seen plenty of changes. I often wish I could have lived here and made music here in the mid to late 70’s. But the truth of the matter is that I still get most of my inspiration from just walking around Manhattan–it doesn’t matter that I’m walking past a Red Lobster instead of a porn theater–it’s still the same overall setting that inspired George Gershwin 100 years ago (I actually could see the apartment where he lived from my previous bedroom window but that’s another story). I got really tired of living in a car city and wanted to live somewhere that allowed for endless random strolling. And there are many horribly sad and challenging things about the last two months but I’m really missing the chance to get outside and walk randomly and freely and at length in the city.
This stellar new record was culled from a continuous 80 minute jam session. How did you go in and chisel it down into an album?
SW: Once we knew that was the plan we just had fun and re imagined what it could be. I started the process by writing lyrics and figuring out where singing would fit into the overall picture and then I went back to Montrose Recording in Richmond, Virginia where we make all of our records and spent a week with the studio engineer Adrian Olsen and various guests like Marcus Tenney from Butcher Brown and Johnny Hott of House of Freaks along with Stephen who lives in Richmond, just being playful and not imposing any rules besides creating a fun listening experience. Add, subtract, copy, paste, remake, remodel—it was all fair game.
Speaking of the new record, I love that album cover. Where did that come from?
SW: That’s a really great young Ukrainian artist named Alex Aliume who lives in Brooklyn. A gallery owner in Austin who sometimes shows my paintings knew I was a fan of black light art and sent me an article about Alex. I was so intrigued and went to meet him at his studio just to check out his work. It was right around the time that we were finishing up the record and I immediately knew his art had to be the cover and entire package. He was up for it and it was just one more thing that fell into place on this record without a whole lot of thinking. It’s nice and truly unexpected when that happens.
Right back atcha.
The Universe Inside is out now on Anti-.
Tina Romano & Daniel Falatko