The Dream Syndicate: After 29 years, they find themselves … where?

The Dream Syndicate (Photo by Chris Sikich)

One day in 1981, singer-guitarist Steve Wynn, guitarist Karl Precoda, bassist Kendra Smith and a drummer named Dennis Duck got together in the basement of Wynn’s dad’s house on Sunset near UCLA and jammed on “Suzie Q” for a full hour. That is how the band the Dream Syndicate was born.

One day in 2017, Wynn, Duck, Mark Walton and Jason Victor got together in a Richmond, Va., recording studio and jammed on a new song Wynn had written. And that’s how the Dream Syndicate was re-born.

The song’s a mere 11 minutes, not 60. But it’s still epic, as it goes from a loose swirl of guitars, bass, drums and electric piano (played by long-time band friend and associate Chris Cacavas) into a powerfully solid rocker. It’s like space dust coalescing into a galaxy, and then flying apart again. The words, too, address questions both cosmic and personal, as summed up in the title: “How Did I Find Myself Here?”

It’s fittingly the title track and centerpiece of the first new Dream Syndicate album in 29 years. Technically, the band was reactivated five years ago for some shows around the 30th anniversary of its 1982 debut album, “The Days of Wine and Roses.” But it’s with this new release that things are brought fully to the present, though with strong ties to the past (there is even an appearance from the reclusive Kendra Smith, who left the band in 1984) and the many changes have happened in the meantime.

Not to get too cosmic, but everything leads to this moment that you’re in.

The literal, geographical “here” in the title is New York, where Wynn moved in 1994 from his L.A. hometown, and then a few years ago from Manhattan to the ‘burbs of Queens with his wife, ace drummer Linda Pitmon. The original Dream Syndicate had been very tied to L.A., one of the key indie (and then major) bands of the early ’80s, part of the Paisley Underground scene with the Bangles, Rain Parade, Green on Red, Three O’Clock and others — influencers of many of the young guitar bands populating today’s indie scene.

 As for the existential “here” … well, it’s all mixed in with the change of locale, and it all converged in Wynn’s consciousness as the group members came together at his home before heading together to Richmond to make the record. Walton, who took over on bass from Smith, had flown in from Las Vegas. Duck (nee Dennis Mehaffey) had come from L.A. — the only member still in the band’s original home. Victor is a native New Yorker, who has been Wynn’s lead guitarist since 2001 and embraced the DS role, more than filling the feedback-filled shoes of Precoda (who also left in ’84) and his successor, Paul B. Cutler. Cacavas, a frequent contributor to Dream Syndicate and Wynn solo projects since his days in Green on Red, was on his way from his home in Frankfurt, Germany, to co-produce these sessions, Wynn waiting to meet his train.

“I was standing on Roosevelt and 75th, Jackson Heights, right under the 7 train,” Wynn says. “Gritty New York feeling, like right out of ‘The French Connection.’ It was raining. Mark and Dennis were in my pad waiting. Chris was coming on the train from JFK, and I was thinking, ‘How did I find myself here? How did I get to this point in my life, waiting to make a record with a band I started at 21?’ That song is about where you are in your lives. Not to get too cosmic, but everything leads to this moment that you’re in.”

||| Stream: “How Did I Find Myself Here?”

Whatever nostalgia he might be feeling, he’s loving the moment he’s in, with excitement building for the album’s Sept. 8 release — via Anti- Records, the highly regarded L.A. label that’s been home to such other vital veterans as Tom Waits, Merle Haggard, Nick Cave and Mavis Staples. Speaking from his Jackson Heights home, Wynn was at once reflective and ebullient as he examined how, well, he found himself here.

Buzz Bands LA: For many, the Dream Syndicate was very much an L.A. band, the city woven into its fabric. Is it a New York band now? 

Steve Wynn: I’m still doing interviews and talking to people who say, “You’re talking from L.A., right?” Man, you gotta read up. We have only one Angeleno now. In some ways we were definitely an L.A. band, defined by where we lived, the Paisley Underground and all that. But the reality is the bands we got compared to and that we loved were New York bands — the Velvet Underground, Television, the Dylan stuff from when he was in New York. Dark stuff. Our heroes were more Norman Mailer than any L.A. counterparts. We were in some ways a New York wannabe band.

Clearly the title song is the centerpiece here.

Longest ever! Eleven minutes! Longest song I’ve ever released with any of my [studio] projects. And with the Dream Syndicate, we’re known for long songs. We had about 20 songs going into this record, could have gone different ways. But we wanted one thing that represented how we stretch things out, the open-ended jam thing. So it’s like when you haven’t seen a friend for a long time and want to catch up on everything in 10 minutes. We thought, at one time, “Let’s get as many songs on as we can.” But then we chose to go the other way, make a record with just eight songs, get really loose and languid and stretch things out. That’s what we did when we started. It was our thing. Even live, the highlight for many would be the 15-, 20-, 30-minute things. People would say, “I saw you live and ‘John Coltrane Stereo Blues’ was 25 minutes!” And it was a good thing. When we reunited the band five years ago with Jason, right away we really embraced that thing. Jason and I had been playing together for more than 10 years, and I never had a guitarist I had that telepathy with, so we made it part of this band. (The Dream Syndciate performed the song at a Norwegian festival in June with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones sitting in.)

Where is the line between the Dream Syndicate and Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3, your band for more than 15 years now? Jason is in both, you are the primary writer and frontman for both. And you’ve always played Dream Syndicate songs with your other bands.

The thought about how do you make a Dream Syndicate record but not an imitation was equally important. Didn’t want someone to say, “Hey, it’s a Steve Wynn album with a different name!” But it really never was an issue. Something about the way Dennis and Mark play together is the Dream Syndicate.

I asked friends, “Has there ever been a band that reunited and made a record you like?” Wire came up a lot. Redd Kross. If you sound nothing like what you were, then what’s the point? But if you slavishly recreate it, then it’s forced and stilted.

But there is clearly something different in this album than on the original DS albums, a denser, lusher sound maybe.

I don’t know how much of that was conscious. We went in for five days in the studio, after having played about 50 shows together with this lineup. This is what came out, what we sounded like. Easy to define things in hindsight, but in the back of my mind I wanted to have a record that would be like “The Days of Wine and Roses” if it was made now. Same sensibility, but sounds nothing like it. In some ways this has more in common with what we were doing then, but doesn’t sound like it. It’s true to what we were, but at the same time brand new.

Tricky thing when bands reunite and make a record. I asked friends, “Has there ever been a band that reunited and made a record you like?” Wire came up a lot. Redd Kross. If you sound nothing like what you were, then what’s the point? But if you slavishly recreate it, then it’s forced and stilted. It sounds like we had a blueprint and sat in the lab with beakers and slide rules. But really we just played and tried not to think about it. And it worked.

There are some clear reference points on the new album to the old DS records. “Filter Me Through You” starts the album with the same kind of song, built on the same kind of single-line guitar riff, that you had with “Tell Me When It’s Over” opening “The Days of Wine and Roses.”

I do that a lot. I like guitar riffs. I can crank those out easily, those D riffs, that open D. That, I think, was the last of the five days tracking in Richmond. We had a bunch of songs, could easily have been a different record. But at one point Dennis said, “I’m digging this, but we’re missing that one song that you know is a Dream Syndicate song from a mile away.” That definitive riff like “Tell Me When It’s Over” or “Still Holding On To You” [from the band’s second album, “The Medicine Show”]. So I took an hour and wrote it. Really was an exercise, but it felt good. Wasn’t that we were avoiding that kind of thing, but we didn’t have anything like it. We went back and forth about it as the lead-off track. It’s not, in a way, a representative first song for this record. But we thought it would be nice to have a fuzzy welcome mat to take a first step into the house of horrors. (laughs)

The second song, “Glide,” does have a very different sound, particularly in Jason’s guitar, kind of in the mode of Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera with the distortion.

Jason would love to hear that! I’m going to tell him. I can hear that. This is kind of a Manzanera guitar line. I’ve tried to rip off [Roxy Music’s] “Manifesto” so many times. One of my favorite songs. I was such a big fan. One of our very first Dream Syndicate songs, “Some Kinda Itch,” was Roxy’s “Editions of You” kind of rewritten. That was a common denominator with us back then and probably now too.

||| Stream: “Glide”

“Out of My Head” draws on the well-established DS common denominator, the Velvet Underground.

It is kind of a prototypical Dream Syndicate freakout, but a one-chord song. I don’t think we ever did that the first time around. I wrote back then like a pop writer or folk writer. Like the Velvets — Lou Reed wasn’t writing avant-garde songs, but pretty pop songs and then they trashed the hell out of them. For this one I provided the platform from which the band could elevate. Didn’t want to get in the way of that sonic piece by adding a chorus. That would have been anathema to what we wanted to do. Don’t get in the way of the noise.

“Like Mary” is another kind of fugitive driving song, someone running … away? To something? 

It is a sad song, a pretty bleak little song. The music and title go back to ’82. Omnivore did a reissue last year of “Days” and the original version of this song was on there. You can hear the riff on the new song. A few elements survived 35 years. I liked the song, wanted to try it again, so I wrote new words. I kind of thought about the lyrics after the fact, and even if you’re not trying to make a statement, you’re in a certain head space. A lot of songs on this are about people hitting a point in their lives where things are not making sense, trying to break from something into something new and it could be positive or could be destructive. Nearly every song has that one way or another. I don’t like to say what songs mean. But this one character finds release through dying, and her death frames who she is. That’s a positive thought! (Laughs)

We shouldn’t be worried about you or anything.

Everything’s great! Everyone has problems, of course. In the current world everyone really has problems, macro and micro. But these are more interesting things to write about. I mean, making “The Medicine Show” was a hard time and those songs reflected that. But I like those kind of songs. If you’re sad or confused or frustrated or angry or disappointed in even just one percent of your daily existence, you can tap that for a song.

Perhaps the most unexpected character to turn up here is Kendra Smith, who co-wrote and sings on the album’s closing coda, “Kendra’s Dream.”

I’m so happy about that! So nice that she did that. We’ve been writing back and forth. This was one of the things I was doing in the coffee shop on GarageBand, writing the riff, a moody song I had called “Recurring.”  Same hook line: “I keep having the same dream.” We recorded it, but I wasn’t liking my words. Felt very academic, like I was trying to say something, make a statement, but didn’t have anything going with it. But I loved the music, the vibe of it, the way it developed.

I had a spontaneous idea, “What if Kendra wrote new words and sang it?” Went from a whim to contacting her and she was very positive, but said, “I really don’t do this any more.” I kind of kept on her — “Kendra, it would mean so much to me and Dennis. You would be perfect for the record. Fans would love it.” She got more and more open to it, but I felt she wasn’t going to do it. And a week before we went to mixing, I said, “If you have any thought, this is the chance.” Two days before mixing, I got an email with an attachment of her vocal. And I put it in and that was it! I was so happy. On so many levels it makes it a better song. And an emotional thing, too. That’s why I like it as the ending song, like the closing credits, the closing circle. Back where we started, and she’s there with us.

Is it the closing of the circle, or …?

It will be unbroken! We will keep going. Jason has said that every guitarist in the Dream Syndicate had two records and he wants a second. We’ll probably do it soon. Can’t imagine a record I’d make as an 87-year-old. Everything is right now.

||| Also: Stream “Sure Thing” from the 2014 Omnivore release

||| Live: The Dream Syndicate headlines the El Rey Theatre on Dec. 15. Tickets.

||| Flashback: Here’s a video from 1983 at Club Lingerie.