How do you live up to — or down, such as the case may be — a uniformly, universally recognized classic debut album that becomes the artistic barometer for everything you write, record, and release from that moment on? (The easy answer is, you don’t). Singer-songwriter Steve Wynn has had this unenviable task for more than 30 years now, ever since he and his brilliant 1980s outfit, The Dream Syndicate, recorded 1982’s “The Days of Wine and Roses” and had an immediate late-night “college radio” classic (if not exactly a huge commercial seller) on their hands. The album was (and still is) nervy, nocturnal, and rife with the dark, droning dreams of aesthetic ancestors like The Velvet Underground and contemporaries such as The Feelies, The Clean, and a bit later, the Jesus & Mary Chain. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve put “Halloween,” a tune that will make you instantly feel cooler and more stealthy, on a mix tape or a compilation CD I foisted without mercy or restraint on friends. The only time I ever guest DJ’d in a public place, I felt absolutely compelled to pipe “Halloween” through the room. It gave me an absurd amount of sneaky satisfaction to watch, as much as hear, its six minutes and eleven seconds, at first slinking among the customers before building and then striking, coiled, at the collective canoodling-couples’ jugular in a beautifully brutal downstroke of fuzz and bliss. One hundred eyes jolted up from their cozy Appletinis. Yes! Mission accomplished! (I was never asked back).
Where were we? Oh, right. Thankfully, like his old band, Wynn’s pretty brilliant too, and has spent the last two or three decades making consistently excellent music — some of which (see story below) even rivals his work with The Dream Syndicate (which, as it turned out, even reunited for some shows last year). I’ve always loved talking with Steve (he’s a die-hard baseball fan much like me, which certainly doesn’t hurt) and have, so far, interviewed him twice. Both times Wynn had just released albums that were high points in his prolific solo career (2001’s “Here Come The Miracles” and ’05’s “tick … tick … tick”). The minute I heard each of those albums, four years apart, I excitedly reached for the phone to talk and he was happy to oblige. The piece below was first published as a profile feature in The Boston Phoenix on the occasion of 2001’s “Here Come The Miracles,” a stellar double-disc of restless, terrifically resonant rock & roll that reverberates for me even now, a dozen or so years after I first heard it. The album has been in my listening rotation ever since.
In anticipation of Wynn bringing an acoustic trio to the legendary Cambridge, MA. folk music club, Passim, this Saturday (August 10), I had a hankering to revisit his music and our conversations — one of which (that still-resonant and revealing Phoenix chat) I’ve included here. Hope you enjoy the piece, and why not throw on some of Steve’s music (loud, of course) while you’re at it?
On first glance, Steve Wynn seems preposterously out of place. Dressed in black, wearing aviator shades, and standing on what appears to be the dust-dry dirt of the Arizona desert with cacti sprouting like alien life forms behind him, Wynn looks like a guy who’s just been plucked from a New York City sidewalk and plopped down in the middle of an alternate universe. Which, of course, he has.
The occasion for this juxtaposition of worlds is Wynn’s terrific new Here Come The Miracles (Innerstate/Blue Rose), a 19-track double album that marks the songwriter’s richly productive return to the hallowed artistic ground of his Dream Syndicate days. (The disc also marks the revival of Wynn’s long-defunct Down There imprint). Remarkably, Miracles wasn’t recorded either in Wynn’s usual stomping grounds of New York City or Los Angeles but rather among the parched landscapes and wide open spaces of the Tucson desert, where he was joined by Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb and Calexico’s John Convertino, in addition to his usual cohorts (drummer Linda Pitmon; bassist Dave DeCastro; ex-Green On Red keyboardist Chris Cacavas; and, later in New York, Come guitarist Chris Brokaw).
Despite the disc jacket’s photos of Wynn looking bewildered amid his sun-blasted surroundings, Miracles offers a portrait of a man who’s anything but. It’s Wynn’s most assured work in years; a dazzling display of inspiration, intent and execution that, from the opening garage-fuzz guitar notes of the title track, recalls the nocturnal grandeur of his old band’s landmark LP, The Days of Wine and Roses (Rough Trade, 1982).
“This is the first record I’ve made where I’ve really just wanted to go back and take stock and have a record that went back to my roots and not be afraid of it – and not feel like I was just re-treading old ground,” says Wynn by phone from Cologne, Germany, where he’s in the final stretch of a nine-week, 50-city European tour. “I think (Miracles) sounds more like me than any record I’ve ever done. It’s such an obvious thing to want to do – to make a record that’s close to your own personality – but it’s also the hardest.”
You can hear Wynn grappling with the desire to revisit his history on “Shades of Blue”, where he sings, with ambivalence and humility, of being “drowned in wine and roses”: “Now I try to draw a line to here back from the better times / I lose myself in words and rhymes / And if we have our wits and want to travel back in time / We may amaze ourselves with all the things we’ll never find.”
In order to recapture the simmering psychedelia and noisy abandon that informed his early work, Wynn knew he had to break from a recording routine that had become professional, predictable, and safe. He knew he had to get out of New York. Tucson seemed an ideal contrast, as did the thought of working with members of Giant Sand, whom Wynn affectionately describes as “a great band but a chaotic band.”
“Letting things happen naturally is something I don’t always do that well, because I’m very manic and very work-oriented and always searching for something and using every bit of concentration and energy to get to it,” Wynn says. “This record wasn’t like that. This record was easy to make. This record had three-hour dinners and short days and people dropping by and hanging out and a lot of laughs. It was the most anti-work ethic record I’ve ever made. The funny thing is, for all that messing around, I end up with a double album (and) the most productive session I’ve ever had.”
Miracles was made in ten idea-and-improvisation-fueled days. Wynn went with what felt good and never looked back. “Sometimes it’s the mistakes that make a record great, which is why a lot of people make their best records when they’re starting: they have no idea what ‘good’ actually is, they have no idea of the way you’re supposed to make records. And because of that, you’re fearless.” The Days of Wine and Roses, he says, was made in five hours.
Wynn hadn’t planned on releasing Miracles as a two-CD set. It was only after the band had cracked open a bottle of tequila and were listening to what they had on the final night of recording that the idea hit him. “I spent the next month trying to cut it down to a single album, and every time I would reduce it to 12 songs it got worse rather than better. It had so many moods that making it a shorter record made it seem like it had no focus. But (as) a double album, it felt like it had this great sprawl. It felt like where we were – it felt like the desert.”
STEVE WYNN CLOCKS IN WITH ANOTHER CLASSIC WITH “TICK” (Originally published in Stuff@Night magazine, Jan. 2006)
By Jonathan Perry
Who would have thought that, some 25 years after he first became a leading light of the nascent American underground rock movement, Steve Wynn would be just hitting his stride? Along with the likes of R.E.M. and the Violent Femmes, Wynn’s much celebrated and short-lived outfit, the Dream Syndicate ushered in what was then called “college rock” that flew in the face of bloodless corporate rock (Asia/Styx/Toto) with *The Days of Wine & Roses*, one of rock’s few perfect debuts and an instant alternative classic.
Flash forward four presidents later to *tick … tick … tick*, Wynn’s latest work with his latest band, the Miracle 3 (who at this point, with three albums in five years, have been with him longer than the original incarnation of his L.A.-based Dream Syndicate. The new disc, the third in what he characterizes as “a trilogy” of recordings that began with Wynn’s 2001’s comeback masterstroke, *Here Come The Miracles*, sounds every bit as bristling, immediate, and mercurial as *Wine & Roses* did back in 1982.
“We spent three solid years on the road and the shows just kept getting harder and faster and louder and more seat-of-the-pants and frenzied,” says Wynn, whose band just polished off a 50-date European tour. “It was exciting and I wanted to get the feeling of the live show we were playing together on record.” Mission accomplished. Like *Miracles* and 2003’s *Static Transmission*, the new album was recorded in ten adrenalin-fueled days amid the desert heat of Tucson, Arizona, at Wavelab Studios. But Wynn claims he never intended to make a third album there.
“No, in fact I was determined not to go back to Tucson. I didn’t want to repeat myself or want it to become boring or repetitive” he says. “The songs this time were feeling more New York than Southwest, but I feel that, at this point, if I’m comfortable with the studio I can get what I want out of it. So it was really a New York record made in Tucson.”
If the Velvet Underground-inspired cover art (a chili pepper instead of a banana) doesn’t tip you off about Wynn’s New Yawk state of mind, the downtown sounds that recall the vintage bustle and nocturnal clatter of late ‘70’s/early ‘80’s Bowery post-punk hints at where his head was at. Whereas *Miracles* was marked by a marvelous sprawl and sense of space inspired by the desert, *tick* is something else altogether.
“I think there’s a claustrophobic sense of panic on this record, which is really the way things feel in the world right now,” Wynn says. “It’s a very brittle, angry, freaked-out, even vindictive kind of record. I’ve never done a lot of writing that’s political – even though I’m a very political person – because I’ve felt that not all but most rock writing that deals with politics oversimplifies things and reduces them to sloganeering and clichés. The best political songs are those that use a personal experience or a portrait as an allegory of something bigger, and that’s the way I prefer to write.” Wynn says the troubled track, “Freak Star”, for instance, “is about being overwhelmed by a presence that has no regard for reason or truth or implications down the line. And that can be a friend, a lover, or your president.”
While Wynn’s enigmatic post-Dream Syndicate ‘90’s work was always solid and occasionally stellar, his emotionally bracing, fiercely driven output in the new millennium has earned him unprecedented plaudits from all corners (*Uncut* just lavished *tick* with a four-star review). He’s heard the word “comeback” more times than he can count. And all because five years ago he finally felt ready to revisit his roots and embrace what made the Dream Syndicate’s *Wine & Roses* such a landmark. Remembering that the band had recorded it in five hours, flying on instinct and with lots of guitar, was a good start. Does he regret not having returned to the blueprint earlier? The answer is no.
“When I broke up the Dream Syndicate, the last thing I wanted to do was make more music that sounded like the Dream Syndicate,” Wynn says. “That would have been pointless. But after a certain point, it became fair game to do what I do best and, at the end of the day, what I like most: guitars, amps, distortion, drone, noise.”
Still, to shake things up, Wynn asked his friend, crime novelist George Pelecanos (whom he had first met after being tipped to the Dream Syndicate references in the author’s novels), to write some lyrics Wynn could put music to. Although he was initially reluctant, Wynn’s encouragement culminated in the Pelecanos-penned “Cindy, It Was Always You”– a dark poisonous track with a misanthropic protagonist, sung in the first person. “It’s a bit creepy, very unfiltered, but they’re his words so that made it easier to sing,” Wynn says with a laugh. “If all the songs were about me I’d be dead by now.”
Listen to the Dream Syndicate’s “Halloween” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0U8_DC-GLWc
Listen to the Dream Syndicate’s “That’s What You Always Say” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUjbeyZDmnc
Listen to Steve Wynn’s “Strange New World” from “Here Come The Miracles” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvpFMEpIXhU
Listen to Steve Wynn’s “Shades of Blue” from “Here Come The Miracles” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5E0Rdh4Itg
Steve Wynn’s official website here: http://www.stevewynn.net/