Steve Wynn—he of the unavoidable Dream Syndicate connection, but suffused with 20-plus years of fine solo work—is back again. Backed by the Miracle 3 once more after his critically lauded 2008 solo salvo, Crossing Dragon Bridge, his hot streak of fiery, night-stalking rock continues on his latest, Northern Aggression (Yep Roc), a cycle of tasteful guitar-snaking with a bad taste in its mouth. Wynn also recently oversaw the reissue of the Dream Syndicate’s underrated 1984 sophomore album, Medicine Show, released earlier this year. For a lifer known more lately as a scrappy roots-rocker with his successful Baseball Project and the Danny & Dusty reunion (a pairing with his old Paisley Underground cohort, Dan Stuart of Green on Red, that released its first album in 1985), it’s good to see Wynn back slithering down rainy alleys again with the Miracle 3. I caught up with him on the phone in Madrid two days after having just finished a European tour.
So that first song on the new album, “Resolution,” is kind of a menacing tune. I was wondering if those “when I slide” lines are a reference to T. Rex’s “The Slider.”
Steve Wynn: Oh that’s great! No one’s mentioned that, and I hadn’t thought about that. But that’s how it is, things stick in your head. I’m always realizing years later that lyrics that I wrote came from something I loved as a kid. That was one of my favorite albums. I bought it was when I was 12 years old, so that’s going to stick in your DNA forever... The last couple records have been very intense, driven, menacing, neurotic records, though.
Seeing where the music industry is these days and just finding a label to put anything out, I’d imagine can get you pretty disillusioned and you have to convince yourself that it’s worth doing—and maybe that gets into the songs?
SW: Not really for me. I’m really fortunate that I’ve been around long enough that I have a good following and people support what I do. I feel pretty secure that at any point I’ll find a way of getting music out there. And all I’ve wanted to do from the beginning is to just make music I like and get it out to the world and have people enjoy it. I’m on a 30-year run so far, so I have no complaints. Things change. After the second Dream Syndicate album, we were faced with what these CD things were and how that was going to change things. That was over 20 years ago, and things survived. People still write songs and make records, even though there are many different ways of getting them to people. The one thing that will never change is that it’s all about live music and what kind of band you have and how you take it to the stage every night. Fortunately, I like doing that. So the tension in the music on these records isn’t from worrying about my place in music so much as my place in the world in general.
Talking about dealing with CDs, Medicine Show finally got reissued. Wasn’t that one of those records where it didn’t originally come out on CD until two years after it came out?
SW: Even longer than that, after the band broke up, maybe six or seven years later. That was the last record I made that was primarily a vinyl release.
What was the time drag of getting that reissued? Days of Wine and Roses was reissued in the usual 12 to 15 years later manner. What happened with Medicine Show, and were you involved in that reissue?
SW: I was very involved in the reissue. It’s been one of those funny things. A lot of powerful managers, label people, and publicists have made it their personal crusade at various points over the last 15 years to get that reissued again. But it just reached a brick wall. Part of the problem is that the label it came out on, A&M, got swallowed up year by year by bigger and bigger companies. It became Universal and then became, I don’t know, Chrysler?! So it wasn’t so much a matter of being rejected, but finding someone who had the time and position to let it happen. About a year ago, the guy that I had worked with at Water, which is part of a bigger label called Runt that does a lot of reissue stuff, was approached to put it out, and he asked me if I wanted to be involved, and I said, “Oh yes!” So I was involved from the remastering to the liner notes to the packaging—everything. It was done really well, so I’m happy after all that time.
So there were no extra tracks to put on that reissue, right?
SW: Not at all. It’s hard to fathom, but we spent five months making a record with eight songs—and with nothing beyond those eight songs! During the two weeks of tracking we recorded “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” everyday in radically different versions. I wish I had some of those other versions, but unfortunately a couple years after making the record, the recording studio, the Automat in San Francisco, burned to the ground.
And (Medicine Show producer) Sandy Pearlman didn’t have any sort of back-up? Were you in touch with him at all?
SW: Every so often he’ll crop up. He’s a mystery man. He is an odd guy. He was eccentric in 1983 and he’s eccentric now. He’s an interesting guy that I run into from time to time. And when I see him now, it’s like time standing still.
You were putting together Northern Aggression after you dealt with the Medicine Show reissue, right?
SW: It was right around the same time. I was essentially making four records at once last year. I was also working on the new Baseball Project record, and we were doing a new song every month for ESPN’s website. So there was a six-month period when I was working on all four of those things at the same time, which I like. I think I work better when I’m working on a lot of things at once. There’s something about not dwelling on things too much and just going with your instincts that works well for me. And Northern Aggression was definitely like that. We went down to Richmond, Virginia and spent a week there. I had about 20 songs put together, but we hadn’t played them live and barely rehearsed them, and the idea was to let them to take shape in the studio. It was a great environment for doing that. It was outside of Richmond so we barely left the compound of where we were living and recording. We had the rare opportunity to record day and night. 3:00 in the morning, noon, 5:00 in the afternoon—it didn't matter. It was a pretty intense week of flying fast and not looking back too much.
I know you’re a big movie fan, and on Northern Aggression you do a cover of the theme song from The Death of Donny B (a remarkable, gritty, totally obscure anti-drug public service film from 1969). How did you come across that movie?
SW: Wow, you’re the first person I’ve ever spoken to that’s known about it! Jason, the guitarist from Miracle 3, had seen it and turned me onto on it. We were both obsessed with it around the time we started making the record. The visual part of it is great, and that song is incredible. There wasn’t a ticking clock while we were making this record. One night we were goofing on the riff of that song, and what’s on the record is the first take.
The making of the last album, Crossing Dragon Bridge, was more elaborate and widespread: mixed in Seattle, recorded in Slovenia...
SW: Actually recorded in Slovenia, overdubbed in New York, strings done in Prague, and mixing in Portland. It was all over the map!
So was Northern Aggression a reaction, like hunkering down in one place and to make a slightly more scaled back record?
SW: Yeah, they’re two really different records, and I like them both a lot. I had never made a record like Crossing Dragon Bridge before. I had never made a record in my life that wasn’t the sound of a band playing in a room together. Everything I’ve done from Days of Wine and Roses—even a record that took as long as Medicine Show—began as a band performance and then things were added and subtracted and whatever else. Crossing Dragon Bridge was the one record where it was piece by piece by piece in a slow methodical construction. The funny thing is that nowadays everyone that plays music—unlike 30 years ago—is accustomed to recording at home. Every musician has Garage Band or ProTools, where they are essentially the whole band. It used to be, if you had a new song, you’d plug in your $20 Radioshack cassette recorder and that was your demo: some scratchy recording you made at 2 o’clock in the morning. Now everyone has a fully realized rock performance of the song before the band even hears it. It’s kind of cool. Everybody is a producer now.
Well, there’s something to be said for writing songs and fleshing them out over some time with a band. Today you see people getting signed for their elaborate solo demo, and then suddenly they have to get a band to go out and play it.
SW: Yeah, well the whole art of playing live is different than it used to be. Like you said, it used to be what you did first and then you got a record deal and made a record. Now what comes first is what you do in your bedroom with a computer. Not that it’s any less valid, it’s just a different way of working. We come from an era when what you did onstage was the main thing. I think that’s one advantage that the Miracle 3 has: we know how to play on any size stage and in any situation and pull something cool out of it.
Is anything happening with Danny & Dusty? And you mentioned the Baseball Project, so what’s happening with that?
SW: Well, with Danny & Dusty, I’m amazed we even did a second record! I wouldn’t have seen that coming, but Dan was up for it and really that’s all that took. He hadn’t made a record in years. He moved to Staten Island about 10 years ago, and we started hanging out together. Just like the first record, the album evolved out of our friendship. So we put out the record and did some touring, and by the time we did all that, he remembered why he quit.
Now the Baseball Project is the other end of the spectrum. If there’s anybody who likes recording and touring as much as I do, it’s Scott McCaughey. And Peter [Buck] too, and Linda [Pitmon] as well, so you have four people in a band that all love making records, love being on tour, love the whole deal.
Doesn’t Peter Buck have a new REM record coming out?
SW: He does. But Peter and Scott are both very interested in Baseball Project, so there may be more Baseball Project shows than REM shows in the next year. That’s about as much as I’m going to volunteer on it on that level. The Baseball Project was probably my most successful record in the States in a long time, so between that and Northern Aggression being received so well, I’m sure I’ll be doing a lot of touring in the States next year. As cool as it is to be playing Madrid and Rome, you want to do well on your own turf as well.
It’s hard to explain to people when you come back from a tour and you moan about how tired you were in Madrid, and they roll their eyes at you.
SW: I make a point to moan as little as possible. I was talking to a guy who works for my concert agency in Spain. We were talking about how you don’t get a lot of sleep in the touring world and you push yourself to incredible limits. But when that happens and you are at the end of your rope, you have to think back to when you were 20 years old and imagine how thrilled you’d have been to doing this—playing music all around the world, and that your livelihood would be music, and your day job would be what you love doing. That’s the way to pull yourself through the days when you haven’t slept in a week and are on your twentieth ham and cheese sandwich in a row.