Under the Spell of the Dream Syndicate

by Nigel Cross
issued on Bucketfull of Brains #8 Spring 1984

photo of the Dream Syndicate by Debbie Leavitt

When I arrived in Los Angeles last September, one of the disappointments was that the Dream Syndicate weren't going to play any shows during my visit, in fact they weren't even in town but up in San Francisco recording their second album. As luck would have it, I made a flying trip up to that city by the bay and through the help of scene-maker Spock, among others, I was able to meet singer/guitarist, Steve Wynn. After a couple of phone calls, he picked me up from Jim Keylor's BSU/Army Street Studios and we embarked on a crazy tour of the city. Any hope of an interview quickly evaporated: instead I got the unique experience of seeing Steve in the studio listening to playbacks of the scratch mixes for The Medicine Show, acting as DJ on a local college radio station and I also had the opportunity of chatting with him in a relaxed way before my tape recorder reared its ugly head to restrain the conversation. At one point as we sped towards the Automat, he was grilling me about how much improvisation the Soft Boys allowed on stage, at another we were talking about one of San Francisco's foremost journalist/writers, Ralph Gleason. Wynn is an excitable, animated guy: we drove half way across town that night just so he could watch a German TV video of John Coltrane at an acquaintance's place. However one of the most vivid memories remains, staring across a table at him, both of us well gone on a bottle of Scotch, in a Mexican bar on the edge of China Town at 3 a.m. as he poured out this tale about Creedence Clearwater Revival having reformed, turned up unannounced on the campus of the University or Berkley only a couple of weeks before, played an amazing set, then disappeared… how I wish I could have got all that down on tape.
Anyway I didn't get my interview: instead Steve promised to call for me the following Sunday when we were both back in Los Angeles. At 10 p.m. on the Sunday he materialized at Byron Coley's Hotel for rock 'n' roll degenerates where I was staying and off we went on another long and interesting night that ended in a 24 hour doughnut house!! First stop was the outside bar on the end of Santa Monica Pier to conduct the ensuing conversation: it turned out to be closed so we had to make do with the noise of the drinkers in the inside bar and the dreadful piped muzak. As Steve remarked "You're missing the whole reason I like this place, the quietness, the ocean". Well I had to take his word for it but at least we got the interview done.

A couple of embarrassing historical questions first of all: I get the impression that you're very down on the whole Suspects' period?

Well the period is not very important to anything. You've heard the record; it's far from being worthy. It's important only because I met Kendra… and Russ and Gavin. The world will end and the Suspects will not be mourned when it ends.

About Steve Suchil, the bass player with the Suspects, what happened to him?

He was about to pass his exams in law at the time: he's now a practising lawyer. When we go to Sacramento, he comes to the shows. He plays in a jazz-fusion band for fun to keep his chops up. He never was that serious about it. He was the first person to ever play me the Velvet Underground! He played me White Light, White Heat! I was nineteen years old.

The other question is about your first release on Down There which was under the name of Fifteen Minutes…

I'm proud of that. I had access to a 4-track recorder for a while and at the same time I had a strong distaste and cynicism for everything in music. I'd been in about ten different bands, everything from backing a transsexual to playing pop to playing avant-garde jazz, everything! Then I was in a band where I had to compromise everything I did. I wanted to do anything else but music. I decided before I left I'd do one record I'd be proud of and call it Fifteen Minutes, my fifteen minutes of fame. So I went down to the basement, set up the 4-track and recorded these tracks: they were made up on the spot, it was entirely self-indulgent. I made 500 copies and said to myself: "That's a record that'll stand, I'll give it to my grand kids". Then that was it, end of story, end of music career. Sell the 4-track, sell the guitar, sell the amp and do something reasonable but I never got around to doing all that because I met Karl.

Who else played on that record?

On the A-side, I played everything myself. On the B-side, two friends of mine played bass and drums, they're from Alternate Learning. The bass player Carolyn O'Rourke was my old girl friend but the drummer's not the one who's now in True West. As you can see, everything does connect.

The Dream Syndicate played a gig under the name of the Fifteen Minutes, tell me about that? Didn't Sue Hoffs from the Bangles sing Pablo Picasso from the audience with you that night?

That was a strange set, that wasn't the Dream Syndicate, that was a failure!! At that point, it was back when I was naive about things, I wanted us to play a real small club as another band and have no expectations, just play as though we weren't the Dream Syndicate, play anything at all. People would show up and we could have a great time. It was ridiculous, it came off as pompous, unimportant and stupid, at best we got a good jam session out of it. We've done better versions of Pablo Picasso though.

Do you still have many connections with the Davis music scene?

I'm a still friend with Russ.

Tell me about your involvement with True West…

They gave me a plane ticket and a sandwich and I produced the record, that's all there is to it. The way I produce, I just say: "Turn up the guitars, make it weird", it's all from a fan's point of view. I love producing but I don't know the first thing about it. Russ wanted to make that record way too safe, he wanted the guitars quieter, the vocals standard, he wanted it like a standard pop band. I just came in and told them to give the voice a lot of mid range, make it sound like it's coming through a telephone and to turn the guitars up. I was a real troublemaker, that's what they needed.

On their single Lucifer Sam you play guitar, is that the same version that's on the Bring Out Your Dead 12" EP?

Yes, I play the reverb lead stuff. They'd already recorded it and I came up to mix it. They needed another guitar part and Russ told me to play whatever I wanted.

You weren't involved in the final sessions for their French LP, Hollywood Holiday?

Right I didn't do any of them. In fact I only did four tracks for the EP, I didn't do I'm Not Here. I did another song which didn't come out, it was horrible and Russ'd tell you that too, I'm not talking behind his back, I slept through it!! The rest was real good; I had a good time. I might be producing a band called Phil Blues.

You mean the band that features Ward Dotson from the Gun Club?

Right, they're real good. We played a show with them and I talked with Ward and Mike Adder, their other guitarist from Middle Class - they're good guys. They're the sort of band I want to produce. I wanted to produce Green On Red, I was going to co-produce with Chris D. but we went on tour and I got left out of that. It's a big regret.

Tell me about your record label, Down There.

The whole Down There thing, the label's meant to be as permanent as the record… it was an excuse label. I did everything myself outside of the cover of Fifteen Minutes, which a friend of mine Ed Horneij drew. It was done in a basement; I lived in a basement so it was "down there". I had no dreams of being a label mogul; I didn't want to do that at all. There was no ambition behind it, it was just something that I could look at and be proud of.

You seemed to be in about a dozen different bands at that time. Weren't you rehearsing with Kristi and Kelly from Wednesday Week?

Fifteen Minutes was after that. I'd already played in a dozen bands before Kristi and Kelly. We have this thing here called "The Recycler"; you look through there if you want to form a band. They're the worst listings: if you wanted a guitarist, all you'd find will be "into Rush, into Led Zeppelin", I'd have to go for that because the pickings are so small, you'd go for anything you can get. That's what I mean by compromise because I'd figure I do like Jimmy Page so I can get away with it. It's no way to form a band.

What was Go Dee Dee?

That was Kristi, Kelly and David (Provost) for one week. That's how we met through that band; you see everything pays off. I've got a very short attention span, that's why it didn't happen. I was very impatient, I still am but I've got a band I like a lot at the moment, so it keeps my interest.

You actually rehearsed with Sid Griffin when he left the Unclaimed, didn't you?

That was kind of fun. That was at the exact same time the Dream Syndicate were forming, before Dennis. I wanted to do two bands at once, I thought it would be great. I could have one band where I could write the songs and sing, it would be really weird original stuff, and I could have my sixties band. I thought it would be fun to play sixties garage covers. But I couldn't do both. After I'd been playing with Sid and Barry for a couple of months I realized that the Dream Syndicate was working out really well.

Was the Dream Syndicate your idea?

It wasn't an idea; you've heard all the hot rock stories, they're true. We just wanted to make a bunch of money. Karl and I had equal contempt for the music scene and if you'd been here then, it was contemptible. There was no reason to form a band. Why should we form a band just to at best be part of a circle of people who go to an after hours club called the Zero. At best you'd be hip enough to go to the Zero, who needed that? All we wanted to do was make a bunch of money and/or bunch of noise.

How did you run into Karl?

I don't even know! I don't remember! Somehow we ended up playing guitar together. The first memory I have is of us playing Suzie Q for hours and hours. All we had was this agreement between us that if we played a song together, we had equal time for solos. I'll play rhythm for you and you'll play rhythm for me.

How did you rope in Dennis?

(Laughs) How did we rope Dennis into this horrible thing? That was all Kendra. She'd been doing the hard sell on him for a while, saying "I know these guys who play this wild stuff" so he finally came to a rehearsal one day. I knew Dennis, the Human Hands were a respectable band out here, they were popular and made records. We didn't know what to do; here was this guy who'd come down. So we said we'd do Suzie Q and asked him if he knew it. He said he knew it and I told him to just play a beat and that eventually I'd give him a cue to do something. We'd played it for an hour and he'd look at us as if to ask, "Are we going to stop?" We'd played for a long time, he taped the whole thing then went home and we figured that was that, that's the last we'd see of him. Four days later, merely out of courtesy to ask what he was going to do, I phoned him. He said: "Well since I was with you, I've listened to that tape about five times a day - incredible, I can't believe it, I'd like to play with you guys some more". At that point we still weren't taking it seriously, we still didn't have a name, and we weren't planning on playing or recording. It was then that we decided that we might do something because he's a motivator. We were and still are lazy. Dennis is a good motivator.

So had you written a lot of songs or did the songs evolve as the band evolved?

They evolved as the band evolved. I've written a lot of songs, I always write songs. I'll write something for a particular day or time. I don't like digging up old songs. The only song we did dig up was That's What You Always Say which we stripped clean; we gave it all new words and parts, everything.

You said it still wasn't serious when Dennis joined?

The first thing was to make a record. We made the EP during our third week. I think bands should do that all the time. I'm always seeing bands at their first gig that are better then go down hill all the way, bands that are better right away. We just said, if we think this is good, then someone else has to as well; it's raw… we just wrote the songs last week, let's do it because there are so many bad records out, this can't be worse. We didn't expect it to be a big deal, we figured it would sell a thousand copies and it would come close to breaking even. You can sell a thousand copies of anything.

When you recorded it, did you put up the money yourselves?

Yes. The 4-track, I was telling you about, I sold it and that's how we financed the record. That's the way it works, always selling one thing to get another.

Were the songs on the EP written pretty much on the spot?

They were already there.

What about a song like When You Smile?

That's written - it's real song. There were no plans, we didn't say: "Let's do a spare song with drama and eeriness".

I read that you thought Sure Thing and Some Kinda Itch were complete and couldn't be bettered so they weren't re-recorded for The Days Of Wine And Roses. Was that a glib quote?

Everything I say is a glib quote! In fact I'm not too glib any more. I think they could be bettered; Some Kinda Itch is better now. Sometimes the first thing you do is the best way to do it. I don't think That's What You Always Say on the album is any better.

I agree. I think When You Smile is best on the EP.

I like that more on the album, I think it's too fast on the EP.

So you decided to carry Down There on after the EP came out?

There was no decision to carry the label on. I did it because Green On Red are my best buddies, I thought they're God's answer to everything and could single-handedly stop every evil in the world. They were too drunk and too poor to get it together; they said they were going to make 50 cassettes of this record and get them around the stores. We'd already started to get money back from the last record so I offered to put up half the money to put it out. It wasn't a money making move but it did make money, it's sold 2,000 copies. Good for them!

You once asked for bands to send in their cassettes to that P.O. Box Number, are you still interested in that?

I'm hardly ever home now. If I see something that's really that great, I'll do it. I've offered it to both the Long Ryders and the Del Fuegos; I've told them both that I think they're great and that if they want to be on Down There, then fine but I feel that they should get something better. I'm a lousy label chief, I told them: "I think you're great, I don't want you on my label". The Long Ryders are better off on PVC than on Down There.

What about the Del Fuegos?

I think they'll do better. The label is there if anybody needs it. Green On Red couldn't get anything better at the time; they couldn't get a better deal because nobody knew who they were, they weren't playing around very much. I felt they needed to put a record out.

How did you get to be friends with them?

We played a show with them at the Cathay De Grande: they played upstairs, we played downstairs. We finished the show at one in the morning and got drunk. Dan Stuart came up to me, threw his arms around me and said: "I love you! You remind me of William Faulkner". A friendship was born, that's all it took. I thought, I like you. They're my friends: I'd do anything I could for them.

Do you feel part of this new L.A. scene?

No, absolutely no part of it at all. At best some of the people on the scene are good people and they have interesting bands. We have nothing to do with it.

So it was coincidental that the Dream Syndicate started at the same time?

Purely coincidental. We happened to do some shows with the other bands. At that time there were either bands that were unoriginal or uninspired, there were older bands that were good but had moved on to better things or were on their way down. Or there were these new bands that at least had the spunk to do something. All we shared in common with the Bangs and Salvation Army was that we were new and innocent and naive. If there is any "Paisley Underground", we're not part of it. I was nine years old when the sixties ended; I couldn't care less about the sixties. There's no reason to go back. If you repeat the past, you're condemned to be forgotten. "Paisley Underground": it's cute, it's a nice idea but it's no more substantial than any other fad that's happened. The good bands will go on and the bad bands will be part of history. At the same time my favorite bands have always been disposable bands, there's nothing wrong with being disposable. The Gods' Radar Eyes - an amazing song, a song we used to do - the Gods matter nothing to history, they never changed the rock music world. The best versions of Who Do You Love weren't famous, the Preachers, the Woolies.

What do you think you'll be doing in 10 years time?

The same thing as I'm doing now.

You don't think you'll become a burnt out wreck, which is what most pop stars become after a decade in the ring?

Do they? I don't think they do.

Why's that? Instinct?

Instinct? Do you mean savvy? I think in 10 years time I'll be writing songs and playing them.

Are the Dream Syndicate now geared to becoming big stars?

I was reading what Tom Waits was saying in an interview in the paper today. Here's a guy who's made over eight albums, been around for over ten years and never been a big star, just a cult secret. He's still been around all that time and made some great records and he can still afford to live off what he does. He said, "Look I see what stardom's all about and you don't have any privacy; I don't know if I want that". You don't have to be a big star to survive. Ask me if I want to be then sure I do.

I think you're entering a new phase, which is geared to a higher level…

Sell out? Sell Out? You think sell out?

No, not at all. I mean you're signed to a big record label for instance…

That's not the motivation for the change. The change led to big label. Four months ago no label wanted to touch us. We made tapes of these new songs and they got around; that's what helped. We don't want to be a sixties band, we don't want to be the Velvet Underground.

I think that from what I heard of the basic tracks at the Automat, last week, the band has changed dramatically. Do you think Dave Provost's arrival has changed things?

Immeasurably. His personality is different to Kendra's. Kendra's was spunky, inspirational, and wild which made us more like that. With Dave, he's really solid. When you talk about the bass being the bottom of the band, Dave is that bottom. We can fly around but he's always there. He's the most dependable, knowledgeable bass player I've ever worked with. It's got to change you. The more tools you work with, the more things you want to try, the more things you want to build.

The rhythm section now sounds awesome. Before it was a little understated…

It wasn't a rhythm section before: Kendra sometimes was a solo instrument. Dave's more a r'n'b bass player. He's played a lot of rhythm 'n' blues and soul - we all like soul music but there wasn't any soul in the music before. The Days Of Wine And Roses has no soul per se; it's got heart and emotion. Now there's a little more soul in it.

Whose idea was it to bring Sandy Pearlman in to produce it, the new LP that is? It's an interesting combination.

What do you think of when you think of Sandy Pearlman?

I think about the Blue Oyster Cult and the Clash.

I think of the Dictators.

It was a band decision then, not A&M telling you had to have such and such a producer?

He was already part of the package when we went label shopping. He's been with us since early May; he actually started thinking of working with us when Kendra was still in the band. He saw us at Kendra's last show. We had mutual friends; he came down to the show and talked to me. I think the second Clash album's great. I think he made them sound great. He's got more feeling for emotion, heart and soul than anyone else I've ever worked with. He's got real strong feeling for things that affect him and hit his mood, rather than just sound.

I'm really dying to hear the results. Don't Fear The Reaper by the Cult is one of my all time faves so I'm curious to hear the changes Pearlman will wring, especially as I like Chris D.'s production on your debut LP. Maybe you could say something about that?

Chris is a very raw producer. The Green On Red record sounds so great and raw. It reminds me of the Tonight's The Night Neil Young band - it sounds like it was cut at 4 in the morning right between being drunk and having a hangover… Chris is good at getting that feeling where you're still a bit high but you're just beginning to come down and do some very sick things. He gets that with every record he does, he did it with the Gun Club. It's a nice line between exhilaration and realization of sickness. Sandy's more of 11.30 to midnight producer whereas Chris is a 4 in the morning producer; Sandy's right when you've had your fourth or fifth drink and you feel you're the greatest person that's lived, you get up and you'll be standing in the middle of the bar and you yell and you get into a fight with someone. Sandy gives you this feeling while you're playing and what you feel is real strength.

The material for the Medicine Show sounds much stronger than that on the last LP.

Song for song it's going to be better than the last album. I've got nothing against the last album but it's going to be difficult not to put it down when I start talking about the new record. I love the songs on the last album but I think you've got to get better or forget it. If you're just treading the same water, forget it.

Do you have any vivid memories of the recording sessions for The Days Of Wine And Roses?

It happened in six hours. I remember it was midnight when we went in and 6 a.m. when we went out. We dubbed the vocals the next day.

So it's mostly live in the studio.

Oh it is. When You Smile is entirely live. It was all eye contact and right there. Karl and I had to look at each other because the headphones were so bad we couldn't hear what was happening. On the title track it sounds like there's interplay but the only interplay was we watching each other's hands. I'd look over at Karl and he'd be playing on E chord on the twelfth fret so I'd say "OK he's doing that" and I'd have to imagine what it would be like. I'd do a contrasting figure on the seventh fret. I couldn't hear a thing he was doing; it was all eye contact.

The Days Of Wine And Roses is an amazing track…

It was a blur at the time.

Not only do I like the guitar playing but also the lyrics and emotion appeal to me. You sound like you're on the edge, like you're the guy in the song.

It's a semi true story. He's very tense, he doesn't know what to do, he doesn't know which way to face, he's got his girl on the ledge and he's got his contacts from all these outside sources and he sits there and doesn't know which way to turn, it's scary… And I'd never seen the movie until after the album came out, with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick - it's a film about alcoholism. In short Jack Lemmon is a businessman who likes to drink and meets Lee Remick who's a sweet girl, he gets her into drink slowly, she hates to drink at first… they become alcoholics and it follows them through their life, how they become drunks and lose everything, going from a good business life to just a shack. I can't describe it; it's a very painful film… The new stuff is just so different. I can never imagine doing an album like The Days Of Wine And Roses again - that's the type of thing you do when you've never done a record before. It's naive, it's all guts, no tampering with the mind. There are people who say, and I used to say it, that's the way to record - all guts, all sex and passion and no mind. It's the mind that fucks you up. That's kind of true, it's great when you do things through passion. An example would be if you're a Rolling Stones fan: you'd say The Rolling Stones Now is the best thing they ever did because after that they got too brainy about it. You'd say Let It Bleed is ok but when they went on from there, they got more and more brains and less and less guts. It's a balance, that's why I think Let It Bleed may be the best Stones' album because that's where they still had the sex, they could still get the erection but they started to think what they could do with it! (Laughter)

What about a song like Tell Me When It's Over?

That's the most optimistic endemic thing we've ever done. In short it's the whole attitude of you wanting to do something and somebody is telling you that it won't work, "I've been there and it won't work". If you want to be a writer and that person's saying "You can't write like that, I've tried and it failed", you say "I want to make my own mistakes, tell me about them when it's over". That whole idea didn't get across because most people complained that the band was bitching about something on the first track, so it was a downer, nobody wanted to know. I think people should do things on their instincts and fail on their own, they'll get more from failing than they would by compromising with what has been learned before. Once you fail or succeed on your own terms, you can go on and start learning lessons.

Changing the subject, I'd like to ask you about all these cover songs that you've done… You've got quite a reputation for doing them.

We needn't do covers; there's no thought pattern. We'll learn something on impulse; we drove to a show in Fresno and Werewolves Of London was on the radio. We said, "That's the greatest song". We'd heard it before but forgotten about it, it was when Kendra was in the band, it's only 3 chords. We got to do the sound check in Fresno and I played the 3 chords and that was it, we've done that cover for about 8 months now. That's how they come.

Was it a big shock when Kendra decided to leave?

No, she hated touring, I knew she hated it and I knew she cared about David (Roback) and wanted to do things together with him. The answer was that we weren't going to replace Kendra, we were going to start over again. We still do the old songs but they're not the same.

Can you say a bit about Dave Provost's background? Was he an obvious choice?

I'd been friend with him for a couple of years. When Kendra quit the band, the first person I called was Dave. If he'd said no, I don't know who I would have gone to. My first thought was Dave and he was surprised. We hadn't talked to each other for a year, not since the Syndicate had formed. He was very excited because it was right up his alley and he was playing with Wednesday Week and the Droogs both of whom he liked but this is what he wanted to do.

Let's talk about some of the songs that are on this new album?

The new LP is a mean hard record.

What about a track like Burn?

It's another mean hard song. I think the lyrics are better, I hope there's going to be a lyric sheet this time. On the first album I liked the lyrics but they weren't really mature - isn't that terrible? What am I going to say about this album in a year? (Laughs). Burn is a very personal song; I don't want to talk about it. It's all there in the song. The motivation for a song is a whole different thing.

Still Holding On To You - what about that?

It's my first real love song, love beyond death, love beyond any element at all.

Are you looking forward to going to England and Europe?

I'm excited about that, I'm curious how a band like us will do there. They smashed X, they smashed the Blasters, they smashed Wall Of Voodoo, that's the L.A. record for you! They loved the Gun Club, I guess.

The Medicine Show will be out in America on A&M in late February, sadly there's no release date for it in England yet. If you haven't already done so, get your paws on a copy of the band's recent Rough Trade 12" 45. The A-side is Tell Me When It's Over, which you've just been reading about, the flip-side is more interesting as it features the Dream Syndicate in full flight, live, taken from a KPFK radio broadcast in 1982. Every time I play it, I can't help feeling some sadness in that the music belongs to the past now, to a band that we'll never have the pleasure of experiencing on stage in Europe. However the performances are dynamite specially the way they've reworked Some Kinda Itch and Sure Thing from the Down There EP. As a bonus there's one of the group's infamous covers, this time a version of the Buffalo Springfield's Mr. Soul plus you get some hilarious liner notes, written in a mock intellectual fashion (at Wynn's request) by Byron Coley and the artwork is a spoof on an old Tony William's Blue Note Records' sleeve.
Right now I'm just waiting for them to set foot on English soil to blow our minds.

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