In the European Solo Tour 2016, Steve Wynn performed in some small towns that hardly ever see great international artists. We met Dream Syndicate leader in Circolo Hemingway, a live club in Latina, 60 km from Rome. We spoke about music, memories, projects, politics, and a great old band that is coming back . . .
Hi Steve, I met you in a particular moment for your career. Dream Syndicate will soon return with a new album. Tell us how it was to go back in studio with your old band. And who in the band insisted more to get back together after so many years.
Well, we reunited and started doing shows again around 4 years ago. We've probably played about 50 shows since then.
So, we already have been playing really well together and, most importantly, taking on our own identity for this particular time and place. It feels like a living, breathing, very relevant band and not just a nostalgia show.
Who in the band insisted more to get back together after so many years.
We all agreed it would be a good idea to make a new record that reflects where we are right now.
We had the freedom and luxury to know that if it wasn't good enough, if it didn't live up to what we did before AND what we're doing now, then we would just shelve the whole thing. Guess what? It might be the best record we've ever made. We're pretty happy.
Can you give us a schedule program (new album issue date, if you will go on tour, etc.) for next Dream Syndicate steps?
I think it will be out in the Spring and we'll do shows right after it comes out.
That's the plan right now.
Your excellent solo career has often suffered a little bit, victim of the weight and importance of Dream Syndicate. Even today, fans at your shows hope to hear songs of your historical band. And those songs are often the most acclaimed. Is this a source of pride (for what you’ve done in the past) or frustration?
That's not a bad weight to carry. I'm proud of my old band. And I'm always happy to throw in songs from the back catalogue when I play. But I also think that the records I've made since the Dream Syndicate broke up, especially the ones in the last 15 years or so, are some of the best I've ever made.
So, the nice thing about the Dream Syndicate reuniting is that I can play fewer of the old songs when I play these days with my solo band. The set list changes depending upon if I'm playing with the Dream Syndicate, the Miracle 3, the Baseball Project or on my solo tours.
At least one generation has grown listening to your records. When you wake up in the morning, do you ever feel the father of a generation of musicians?
Oh, that feeling goes well with a strong cup of coffee.
Thanks to Paisley Underground movement, in late 80’s major labels started to look at new American alternative rock scene. For the first time they saw a great economic interest in that scene. Without those conditions, there would never have been Nirvana and Sonic Youth under Geffen label?
It's all part of a cool, evolving and connected thread. Charlie Feathers, the Sonics, Big Star, the Stooges, the Gun Club, Nirvana, new bands like 75 Dollar Bill or Elephant Stone?
We're all part of that jagged little line, hopefully with a good secure, unbreakable part of the thread.
In the early 90s, while grunge band made money, you recorded “Dazzling Display” (1992) and the intimate “Fluorescent” (1994), two albums less electrical than others recorded in your past. Was it your personal way to stay out from the grunge scene, so electrically intense?
I didn't think of those records that way. I was actually digging the new sounds around that time, bands like My Bloody Valentine and Primal Scream and Dinosaur Jr and more. But I was also really conscious to not making records that sounded like the Dream Syndicate. It's a style of music that I love but I thought it would be pretty silly if I broke up a really good band just to make the same music with other people, especially since I actually liked my bandmates in the Dream Syndicate.
We didn't break up because of personality issues. It was just time to move on. And playing more of a singer/songwriter kind of music seemed like the way to go. For a little while, anyway.
In your recent italian solo tour, you played in some small towns (Eboli, Teramo, Latina) that hardly ever see important international artists. You have spent a night in Sermoneta, a fantastic medieval small town. In the United States there are not places like these. How does it feel? Tell us your personal emotions, playing in small venues, and visiting these particular places.
Wow, Sermoneta was amazing. I'm really lucky to be able to visit cities like that. I feel like my career is the perfect one for the way I like to live.
I'm popular enough where I get to go to so many cities where most touring musicians don't go. But at the same time I'm not so popular that some manager or agent is looking over my shoulder telling me I should spend more time in Cleveland. Ha! Ha! That was a cheap dig. I actually really like Cleveland.
I was at your highly emotional solo show in Latina, and I would ask you why a musician with so many important songs to play (as you) decides to end a show with a cover (in your case a marvelous acoustic version of Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning”). It’s the same thing that – for example – Pearl Jam do: hundreds of their shows end with Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World”. Is it better to sacrifice your own songs to play cover songs?
Yeah, I have about 350 songs of my own that I've recorded. And there are so many of those that I never play. So covers could be seen as a perverse choice.
But they're fun to play, show a little glimpse into the things I love and how I connect to them and they're also a way of touching some very personal, shared nostalgic nerves with the audience. I like that.
Can we hope to see you soon again in Italy or Europe?
I did 26 solo shows in Italy this year (and another 60 or so around the continent) so I think I'll take a year off from my solo shows and concentrate on my bands, particularly the Dream Syndicate.
It's all a balance, everything is a reaction to what I did before. I think I've always been that way. Sometimes I dig the lonely troubadour thing, sometimes I need my gang. Feels like it's time for the gang.
After so many years, records and projects, do you ever think that you would have deserved a bigger success worldwide? Or are you happy this way? Sometimes have little success is the price to pay to have more artistic freedom?
Ha! Ha! What did Clint Eastwood say in "Unforgiven?" "...deserve's got nothing to do with it." But it's kinda true. You play the music you play and try to get closer and closer to some kind of truth and purity and transcendence and that measures your success, not numbers.
Anyway, I've had a 35 year career of playing and living from my music. Who gets to do that? I'm pretty fortunate. And I'm just getting started.
In 2004 "From A Man Of Mysteries" was a great love act from so many artists, and a very big surprise managed by your wife, Linda Pitmon (that often play drums with you!). How do a so young artist feel to hear a tribute to himself?
Hmmm.....that IS a good question. The tribute record was a huge surprise and a real thrill. It was presented to me at a surprise event at my favorite local bar, the Lakeside Lounge which, sadly, is no longer with us. I miss that place.
Anyway, the party went until 4am and THEN I went home and listened to the tribute record until the sun came up. It made me teary-eyed that so many friends and people that I admired would not only give their time to record my songs but also that they each added their own unique twist and interpretations. To be honest, I like some of those versions more than my own!
After this new Dream Syndicate album, will there be opportunity to hear new songs from Gutterball too?
I kinda doubt it. We played a show last year, our first in 15 years. It was a blast. But those guys rarely like to step outside of the Richmond, Virginia city limits so a tour doesn't seem likely.
Too bad: it's as good as any band I've ever played with.
I love Baseball Project albums. Is the project in stand-by? You are writing something new? Can you give us some anticipations?
Every couple of years we do a new album. Usually Scott McCaughey and I each write half of the songs.
But now we have Mike Mills writing songs too. So, a new album could come together easily at any time.
It's a weird band, isn’t it?
Right, a band that sings about nothing but baseball. But if you pay close attention the songs are about much more than baseball.
That's just the starting point. I hope we can come over and tour Italy someday.
Do you usually like to read articles about you in the press?
I've never been asked that. Well, I do see some of the articles. You know, I was a journalist when I was younger--mostly sports and some music writing. So, I'm aware of the process and I guess I'm curious sometimes how journalists approach what I do.
I think music criticism is valid and can be an art form of it's own--Lester Bangs, for example. And I like when someone comes up with an intelligent and interesting take on my music.
Many music magazines are closing and almost all music information now goes on web. Do you like this, or you are alarmed? Is it a sign of the times?
Yeah, everything is changing. Everything! There weren't even iPhones a decade ago. Less than 10 years! And it will keep changing. Music. Journalism. Politics. Everything. And it will change faster than ever before. But you know what? People will always need music, especially live music. And personal, creative expression.
The ways of getting out there will change. I've thought about it a lot. We had about 30 years of the '78. And then another 30 years of the LP. And then another 25 or so of CDs. Now it's downloads and streaming. Who knows? It's still music, people still hear a song and fall in love or get motivated or burst into tears. That won't change.
Are you curious to discover new bands? Do you follow the contemporary music scene? Where do you take the information? Pitchfork? Friends? Radio? Videos on YouTube?
All the usual places. You find the filter that works for you. 0I like Uncut. And Aquarium Drunkard.
And a few stations like KEXP and WFUV and WFMU and WWOZ. And friends. You can't go wrong with friends.
Which are your favorite contemporary bands and solo artists?
I like a good song, people like Bonnie Prince Billy or Bill Callahan or Courtney Barnett or Phosphorescent. And there are some good new psychedelic bands like Elephant Stone or, of course, Tame Impala.
Wilco's always doing something interesting. OH, and I like Ryley Walker. He's great.
Today a songwriter could still become a Steve Wynn hero? Or do you think you are not so young anymore for these things?
Yeah, I still love hearing something new and getting excited. But it's funny. Music hits you in different ways when you get older. Or maybe it's that music hits you differently when it's what you do for a living. So, if I had to make a list of my 20 favorite albums (and, believe me, I have done stuff like that), most of the albums would be from the 60's and 70's. Just the way it is.
But it doesn't mean I don't keep looking for that new thrill whenever possible. Then again, it might just be a jazz record I didn't know about or a guitarist from Mali.
For example: what do you think about artists like Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) or Matt Berninger (National), that bring in new millennium their new visions of certain styles: “Americana” (Wilco) and “wave” (National)?
Like I said, I do like Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. You know what record I really liked this year? “Day Of The Dead” album, the Grateful Dead tribute record.
It felt like a movement, a statement from that whole genre of slightly outside singer songwriters. And it all felt like it fit together even if you didn't care about the Dead.
Do young bands leave demos at your shows? They ask you to help them in some ways?
They do. A little less than they used to. I always hope that I'll hear something great. Sometimes I do. I try to help with advice when I can but these days the only advice I can give is "make the music you love, get it out there, have fun." Really, that's it.
Maybe you'll get lucky. But "lucky" can just mean loving what you do. Hey, it's all we were trying to do in the Dream Syndicate. I'm not kidding.
These are hard times for rock bands. The only way to survive is to be always on tour. This is fantastic for fans, that can see many shows. But for the bands?
Nah, you can guess. Maybe you'll be right. But, lucky for me, I still love touring and playing live--both as a musical expression and as a way of living. It's fun, it's challenging, every show is a reset and a chance to write the book all over again. How exciting is that?
And, hey, if I have some new songs that I've recorded, it means I can bring them directly to the people who come to see me play. I am my own best distributor!
In these days Bod Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Do pop/rock songs finally have the status of art form?
Why did it take this long?
I hope that Leonard Cohen is next.
What a musician should do and should not do after many years of career?
Like I said before, a musician, a singer, a songwriter, an artist, whatever you do, should make the sounds and songs and record covers and live shows that they have in their heads.
What's that great quote? "Be Yourself. Everybody else is already taken."
You have played with hundreds of musicians. Which ones were the best for you?
Oh no! That's not fair. I love everyone in my current bands. Linda, Jason, Dave, Scott, Mike, Peter, Dennis, Mark, Chris.
That's 9. I'll go with those.
And with which of them did you have more fun?
I honestly have fun with all of my bands. I really do. And different kinds of fun. But I don't, and would never play with anyone I didn't like personally or enjoy hanging out with. I bet you're getting tired of these diplomatic answers. But they're true.
I will say that the 3 years of touring with Gutterball were a whole lot of fun. We were young enough to live pretty wildly and recklessly but old enough to know that we had to enjoy every minute. We did.
Tell us the name of a musician you could have played with but it didn’t happen.
It's a horrible story. The Dream Syndicate played in San Francisco on our last tour. Someone we knew came to sound check and said he was friends with John Cipollina and that he would like to play with us. But he wanted cab fare and 100 dollars.
To be honest, the money wasn't a problem. But the idea felt wrong somehow, paying someone to sit in with us. So, I said no. He's one of my top 5 all-time favorite guitarists. I sure wish I had played with him that night. Damn.
A couple of name of musicians you dream to play with?
Kamasi Washington would be at the top of the list right now. That would be incredible.
I'd love to just play in his band for one night. They're so great and they have so much fun.
What are your next challenges?
I'll probably write a book in the next year, some kind of memoir. And, let me tell you, that IS a challenge.
I've gotten pretty good and comfortable with making records, and I think I just finished one of my best ever, the new Dream Syndicate record. But a book? I think I'll do it well but I'm nervous to get started.
Election Day: Clinton or Trump? What do you think about the two candidates?
Oh, I think you know who I support. I'm lifetime liberal.
And I think that Hillary (isn't it funny that we always call her by her first name but call Trump by his last name?) will make a great president.
I think that we should all thank him for doing everything possible to bring down a very, increasingly evil Republican Party.
And what do you think about “Brexit”?
Yes, on that same note. The future will be about inclusion. And diversity. Not "circling the wagons", and just shutting out anyone who looks different or thinks different.
I live in a neighborhood of Queens, called Jackson Heights which is the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the US (maybe the world). 167 languages spoken in a population of 70,000. Crazy, right? And everyone gets along, works hard, has fun. It can work. It should work. I feel bad for the UK. This really can't go well for them at all.
In your songs you don’t like to speak about politics as (for example) Bono Vox. You prefer to speak about human being inner conflicts . . .
You're right. Although I sneak them in here and there in subtle ways, "Dazzling Display," the song I wrote about the first Iraq War comes to mind.
But anyone who knows me knows I'm not shy with my opinions. I guess I just to prefer to write about the personal, the small details, the micro over the macro. It's all the same at the end of the day. Everything's political.
Except yours, which are your five favorite albums of all times?
Five? That's tough!
Okay, for today? “Marquee Moon”, “Exile On Main Street”, “Big Star 3rd”, “Tonight's The Night” and “London Calling”.
Do you know any Italian musicians?
I've been lucky enough to meet and play with and hang out with some good ones. Antonio Gramentieri, the guys in Afterhours, my new buddy Federico Braschi, the great Cesare Basile.
These all come to mind. Good guys, talented players, for sure.
You love cinema and literature: give us the titles of three movies and three books that everyone must absolutely see and read.
Okay, let's see. Movies? “Network”, “On the Waterfront” and, of course, “The Godfather”.
Books? “The Quartet Of Rabbit Books” by John Updike, “Independence Day” by Richard Ford and “Why Are We In Vietnam?” by Norman Mailer. That one could be re titled "Why We Have Donald Trump". It's that timeless.