July 9th, 2009 | Interviews

shea M gauer

Stream: The Dream Syndicate “Merrittville”


(from Medicine Show on A&M)

The Dream Syndicate found whatever was in Sister Lovers and Tonight’s The Night still breathing in L.A. in 1984 and used it to make Medicine Show, still a nervous and wild local classic. Guitarist-singer Steve Wynn will perform the album in its entirety tonight with his band the Miracle 3. He speaks now from a quiet park in New York. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

What’s an easier cover song for you to do at an instant’s notice? Flamin’ Groovies, Roxy Music, Modern Lovers or the Ghostbusters theme song?
Every one of those. Every single one. They’re all fair game. I’d play any of those right now. I could do a medley of ‘Roadrunner,’ ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Shake Some Action.’ That would work out pretty well.
What was it like growing up in the Hollywood Hills while Manson and friends were on the prowl?
I was nine years old at the time and that was a nice introduction to the more sinister side of life. I remember being absolutely certain that they were coming for me, that they were going to be knocking on my window. Because if you remember, they weren’t caught right away. I think there were several months between the Tate-LaBianca murders and when they were arrested. During that time, I’m sure a lot of people thought this way. Definitely being a nine-year-old kid living up in the hills where you hear all kinds of sounds all the time-you’re sure it’s Susan Atkins and Tex Watson knocking on your window. It was a scary time. I’ve written a lot about these kinds of things and maybe that was my earliest influence. The Beatles, Creedence and Charles Manson.
Was that the first time you encountered the concept of evil?
Well, it’s funny. When I was growing up Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were killed and I was just barely old enough to grasp that-but something about that was more abstract. I didn’t quite understand their importance and impact and what they represented. Then you hear something like the Manson killings and you think, ‘Well, that seems like something that could happen right here.’ The Robert Kennedy assassination didn’t seem quite as immediate. It seemed terrible and I had the sense that something very bad had happened and I kind of understood the overview-but at that age you don’t fully grasp that. But you can completely understand the concept of someone coming into your house and killing everyone savagely. That was definitely my first sign that there were people out there who would do very bad things for almost no reason.
You said once the best serial killers all came from L.A.
It’s a little glib to say the ‘best’ ones because they’re all pretty awful. That’s something I said a long time ago but yeah, it’s interesting. Most of the well known serial killers seem to be in L.A. or Florida. What does that say? Beautiful, full of sunshine and full of open spaces-well, not L.A. but California anyway. You’d figure they’d all be in Detroit where they’re miserable. Maybe people get bored in California and Florida.
Maybe they really are cold blooded. They need that nice warm weather or they get sluggish.
Maybe that’s it. I lived in L.A. for years. I feel like I know L.A. probably better than any other city I’ll ever know in my life and L.A.’s got a lot of secret places. As anyone who lives there knows, it’s got the shiny, slick veneer and when you flip on the lights all the cockroaches start running around. There are a lot of very seamy things hidden by a very shiny exterior. Living in New York, the grit’s right there staring you in the face the whole time and nothing really surprises you. I think maybe that really shines a light on the difference between the beautiful and the horrible. Maybe when there’s that kind of a contrast, there’s no limit to how horrible you can get.
Is that uneasy coexistence between the beautiful and the horrible sort of the same thing we get on Medicine Show?
I think it’s definitely on Medicine Show. When the Dream Syndicate started the thing that we were all intrigued by in the band was taking very essentially straightforward hooky pop songs and just destroying them-having no reverence for them. At the time, most bands either played pop music or punk music or roots music and there was no mixing it up too much and our obvious reference point was the Velvets-but a lot of other bands as well-who would do that sort of thing, who would take a beautiful thing and then just trash it. That’s what we were doing on Days of Wine and Roses. I think on Medicine Show we kind of took away a lot of the beauty and went into the ugliness. It’s a very, very dark record but still catchy songs, still hooks, a lot of moments of beauty and elegance. It’s a much darker, disturbed record than Days of Wine and Roses.
You described it as the most ’emotional, frightening and unique’ of the Dream Syndicate records. Why?
Well, I love that record. It is my favorite Dream Syndicate album and, you know, among other reasons it’s because there is no other record like it. When I hear the other three Dream Syndicate albums, I like them, but I can hear things that came before and things that went after but I can’t think of any other record either before or after that was quite like what we were doing on Medicine Show and it’s a pretty unique little thumbprint of where we were at the time and all the good things and the bad things about being in that band at that moment in time. Having said that, I spent every day for six months making that album and it was not the happiest times for me and Karl. On the one hand, we were at a peak as far as what people thought of us and the interest in us and at the same time kind of a downslide in the way that we were getting along with each other. So it wasn’t a record I wanted to go right back to right away. As much as I liked it, it brought back a lot of bad memories. But especially in recent months when I hear that record I’m really proud of it. I don’t listen to my stuff that much. I usually only listen to my records when it’s time to rehearse for tour but I started playing that record in the last few months and I was very happy with what I heard. It holds up really well.
What was the cost or price of making this record happen? You said you were losing your mind when you were making it.
A lot. First of all, it’s not the way I liked to work then or since then. I don’t like spending that much time on a record. I think that once you spend that much time you start second guessing yourself too much-you start making decisions because you’re bored, you start not getting along with each other. That’s a hard process so I wouldn’t recommend that for anybody unless you’re making some mass-market pop hit record-maybe you need to do that sort of thing but it’s not the way I would choose to work. But the cost beyond that? Look, we made Days of Wine and Roses in three days and that’s amazingly quick-that’s beyond belief. And we made Medicine Show in six months, which was too long. Probably somewhere in between would have been good. I mean, Karl and I were both twenty-three at the time. A year before that we’d been working minimum wage jobs and hoping we could get a gig third billed at Madame Wong’s. It was a lot of stuff coming in very quickly and we reacted in very different ways. If that kind of thing happened now, or ten years ago, I would know how to deal with it but at the time we were just confused. It was pretty, pretty heavy stuff.
How did making Medicine Show change the way you made the rest of your music afterward?
Well, I wouldn’t change a thing about that record. I’ll say that right away. But at the same time, I think we could have made the exact same record in one month. I think all that push and pull and the doubt… and maybe there were reasons certain people had for having it take that long and that’s all I’ll say about that. But I guess the main thing I learned is that I won’t take that long to make a record again. I’d rather make a record in a month or less and knock it out and it is what it is and it’s a moment and then you make another one a year later. That’s one thing I took away. On the other hand, another thing I took away from that record is that it’s good to dig deep and go to some very ugly places either to get something you’re looking for or to put you on a path to get to something else. If you’re making music or art or writing books or whatever, you sometimes have to go someplace where you’re not comfortable going and we definitely did that making that record.
You had a quote where you said, ‘If I was one of my own subjects, I’d be dead.’ Is that what’s happening on Medicine Show?
Yeah, the people in those songs and in a lot of my songs, they push themselves to a limit with no regard for themselves and no regard for people around them-they maybe make a lot of bad choices and then they regret them and then they make more bad choices. That’s a common theme in my stuff. Like anybody, I’ve got elements of that in myself and I enjoy going there when I’m writing or recording but I’m not living that all the time. Having said that, when I was making that record I was a wreck. I was drinking a lot. I was drinking a fifth of whiskey every day.
What brand?
Jim Beam. I was a big fan of Jim Beam and I knew every liquor store in San Francisco that stayed open until two in the morning where I could go and get a bottle right before closing time. I was definitely a drunk and I was not happy because I felt out of control of the record we were making and I was afraid that something that was very, very exciting and meaningful to me-the Dream Syndicate and the music we were making-was being hijacked. Turns out in a way it was-because it wasn’t necessarily how we would have gone about doing things. But again, like I say, the end results were fantastic. When you’re twenty-three, you’ve only made one record in your entire life and that record took three days and now you’re working on a record every day for five months, you’re going to go through all kinds of emotional places. And when you add a lot of whiskey to that… and also on top of that I think that one thing with making that record that had a lot of impact is that we did it in San Francisco, away from home. We were away from all our friends and away from our families and away from the places we hung out and the clubs we liked and the bands we liked and we were kind of isolated. That was in a way a good thing because it maybe freed us up to go further but it also took away a little bit of the compass, a little bit of a reference point that we might have needed at the time.
It sounds like an echo-chamber effect.
Exactly. And beyond that, it wasn’t just with each other because Dennis Duck and Dave Provost, the rhythm section, they were gone after two weeks. They spent two, maybe three weeks and then they were gone and then it was just me and Karl for about two months and then he was gone and then for the last two months I was pretty much there by myself with [producer] Sandy Pearlman. It was definitely some sort of Patty Hearst Stockholm Syndrome-esque experience.
Are you saying that you and Sandy Pearlman had a Stockholm Syndrome relationship?
In a way. In a way. I still see Sandy now and then. He’s a great producer, did a great job on the record, but there was definitely a lot of… I wouldn’t say intentional. It wasn’t malicious, but a lot of definite mental manipulation being that close together for that long a period of time.
Was it sort of like a Phil Spector waving a gun vibe?
There were no guns. It was more psychological, but at one point I threw a whiskey bottle at him and he said, ‘You can’t throw a whiskey bottle at me. Mick Jones didn’t even throw a whiskey bottle at me.’ I took that as high praise.
When you were going through that kind of thing, what did you do to escape?
I was reading a lot. I think the same thing that influenced me on the songs added more paranoia. I was reading a lot of Faulkner, a lot of Flannery O’Connor, a lot of Harry Crews, a lot of Southern Gothic dark writers so that just compounded everything. And then on top of it I was in a zone where each day I would play Funhouse by the Stooges at least two or three times. I think at the time I was a lot older at twenty-three than I am now at forty-nine. I pictured myself sort of a vagrant gypsy type, just wandering the streets of San Francisco at all hours, looking for trouble, looking for bars, looking for people I could get into confrontational discussions with-just kind of looking for the darker side of things. I was living the record. I was living the songs and there was also some self-flagellation going on there. It was an interesting time. I was also watching the television preacher Gene Scott. I was obsessed with Gene Scott. There was a channel at the time in San Francisco that had him on TV twenty-four hours a day. I watched Gene Scott when I woke up. I wasn’t converting. I wasn’t sending any money. He just became sort of my alter ego. I think I sort of looked at him and thought that’s who I was. I was Gene Scott. I wanted to get a full-length fur coat and dark glasses and wander around the streets. I wanted to be Gene Scott. Since that time, I’ve seen that kind of early success followed by self-flagellation. You see it in a lot of people. You saw it in Kurt Cobain, you saw it in Eddie Vedder, you see it in a lot of people. It happens over and over. There’s a pattern there and who’s to say why it happens? But I think when you’re young and doing something that means a lot to you and maybe the same kind of vulnerability that makes you do the stuff in the first place-when you get that kind of thing where suddenly you’re successful and everyone’s watching you, you might not react in the most stable, sane way as you would if you were older and had perspective.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said when you get success really early, it really wrecks you.
Well, it’s why I’m really grateful that twenty-five years later I’m still touring and making records and doing better than ever so fortunately I’ve had both sides of it. I had that whole experience that was enlightening and horrific and now I’m able to kind of enjoy the good things that happen so I’ve had both ends of it. I’ve always said the one regret I have about Dream Syndicate is that I wish there had been one more album. I think Medicine Show should have been our third album. I wish we would have made one more record with Kendra and a couple more tours. Just because what we were doing on Days of Wine and Roses and on those first few tours was really exciting, a really great thing and I think we could have had a little more of that and then made the grand epic.
Was there anything that came between the two records that never made it out?
Nothing, nothing. It was really quick. Days of Wine and Roses came out in November of ’82 and by March Kendra had left the band and by the summer we were in the studio. It was all happening very quickly. I wasn’t writing as much at the time. Now I write a lot, but at the time, getting those eight songs on the record, that’s all there was. There were no other songs, there were no outtakes. That was it. Again, the pressure you put on yourself… Those are songs I still play all the time, songs I still love.
Did you feel pressure coming off Days of Wine and Roses and going right into Medicine Show?
Yes, but we handled it in different ways. You know, I was a very big music fan and I had my heroes and they were all people like Lou Reed and Big Star Sister Lovers. All the people I was into-also Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Neil Young, John Lennon on his first solo album-all people at their darkest, most confused, fucked up, plumbing the depths period-this is what I thought was cool. I didn’t like Radio City or #1 Record, I liked Third. I didn’t like Imagine, I liked Plastic Ono Band. I didn’t like Harvest, I liked Tonight’s the Night. I was going for that dark place, so I felt that I was carrying the torch to take us darker and weirder and make something very disturbing and that was an extreme reaction. Karl, on the other hand, saw it as our chance to be a stadium rock band and he said we’re on a major label now-we’re playing with the big boys and he wanted to take it to a more slick, professional, let’s be a big rock band kind of thing. And both reactions were completely heartfelt and noble but they don’t work too well together so we drove each other nuts. That’s why we drove each other absolutely nuts and you can hear it on the record. And what drove us nuts on a personal level, musically is interesting. I think the nice thing about Medicine Show is it is very disturbing, very dark and it’s also very big and regal and epic. It’s not a trashy little record. It’s a very grand record. There was sort of a push and pull between my record collection, my record label, my reality and my band mates that maybe added pressure. The thing I learned at the time, and I’ve seen this in a lot of bands since then, is that it’s just as much of a sell-out to make yourself more repellent than you need to be as it is to try and make yourself more glamorous than you need to be. They’re both somethings that may not be true to what you really are. So, self sabotage and selling out are sort of two sides of the same coin.
Do you think you would have agreed with that at the time?
Of course not. That’s the thing, you get perspective and that’s why I say I don’t have any problem with any of that, but it’s something that I’ve learned since then. It’s natural to go there. And it’s something I’ve always admired about R.E.M. Maybe it’s because they were all such good friends, maybe it’s that they all lived in Athens, whatever it was-they really managed to kind of keep a pretty even keel in a way that a lot of other bands didn’t. If I look at most bands from that period of time, whether it’s the Replacements or us or Hüsker Dü or the Long Ryders, they all had a lot of inner turmoil, a lot of mercurial moves musically, career wise… and R.E.M. didn’t seem to do that and that’s probably why they’ve had such long term success. Then there was no road map. Now you come along and Pitchfork writes about you and you can look back and see a lot of bands around you or that came ten years before and see how they handled it. There was really no road map for us. There was no such thing as indie rock. Yeah, there had been punk rock, but that was kind of a very isolated thing and kind of imploded very quickly. We were the first band of our ilk to sign to a major label-before R.E.M., before Replacements, before kind of anybody we were the first ones to kind of go that route and it was ‘What now? What do we do now? Are we the Scorpions now? What can we base this whole thing on?’ And then you would tour around and if you were any of the bands that I mentioned you were going cross-country playing in cities where they didn’t really get what you were doing. Even when we toured with R.E.M. a few months after Medicine Show we would play cities like Boisie, Idaho and the headline in the paper the next day was ‘New Wave Comes to Boise.’ Are you kidding? New wave? I wish I would have saved it because it was the most amazing thing. We saw it and our jaws dropped. But as much as New York and L.A. got it, it was still this mostly completely mysterious thing. Are you a punk or are you new wave? We were still getting that then. And the other thing we’d get then was, ‘Now why are you playing guitars? Is that some kind of statement? Because guitars are dead.’ And it was mystifying. Also it was kind of the era of the producer. We just hit a point where bands just didn’t go in and make their music and have it documented. Producers were meant to manipulate bands to make them ‘better.’ And so the producer became the star. Like, ‘I can take ten seconds of what you’re doing, mess it around and make you a much better band.’
The producer as alchemist, kind of?
Kind of, and the band was the tools. Of course I’m sure that Grizzly Bear and other bands now and Animal Collective have their own problems now and things they have to face, but they can at least say, well, here’s what the hot indie band did two years ago. Here’s how Arcade Fire handled it two years ago. So there’s a little more of a rudder to the whole thing.
It’s like everybody’s got somebody working for them now.
I’ve gone the exact opposite way. I’ve found a real freedom beginning about fifteen years ago when I started managing myself. I stopped caring about making it, which I did or didn’t care about at different times. And all I really want to do is make records I like and then go out in front of people and play them. And if the arc takes me one tour in front of three thousand people, another tour in front of thirty, it doesn’t matter. After this many years, it’s just kind of a continuous thing and when I’m ninety I’ll have made a handful of records and some will be my favorites and some will be ones where I kind of missed it by a few marks here and there and that’s great. That’s a good life. It’s a lot easier to do it when you’ve been around for twenty-five years and a lot easier when you’ve made a lot of records that people like. The thing I always liked about the ’70s for example, as opposed to right now, is that really good artists made some really bad records and I think that’s great. I think that’s a great thing. I don’t think people give themselves as much freedom now to make really shitty records. I’m not sure if it’s because people aren’t making as many or that there’s so much importance on it, but I love that there are some really bad Neil Young records and some really bad Bob Dylan records and some really bad Lou Reed records and it’s great because I think sometimes you have to get through a really huge misstep to get to something really good.
There’s not the freedom to make those kinds of mistakes anymore?
Or maybe they just don’t allow themselves to. I mean, they have the freedom to because these days you could make a record in your living room and have it out a couple weeks later but maybe people are more savvy now. People are a little more self-conscious, a little more aware. And everything that’s good about having the road map, everything that makes it easier also makes it a little bit harder to completely go off the deep end. And on Medicine Show, that’s a record where we went way off the deep end. We went to this crazy, extreme place that no one had gone to before. I keep going back to this but when I hear Days of Wine and Roses I can hear a lot of bands in that record, before and after. Medicine Show? You tell me. I mean, I hear certain Nick Cave things that came after, but there’s this kind of weird mixture of things, very dark, very big at the same time and I think it’s pretty unique.
What do you think about the fact that that much of your personality and mind state came come through in Medicine Show?
Well, I think that the people who were really affected by Medicine Show-and it’s important to remember that in the U.S. there was really a backlash because people wanted Days of Wine and Roses, but in Europe it was taken to be the best record of those couple years. People freaked out over it and still do. So on one side of the Atlantic people were saying we dropped the ball and on the other side they were rolling out the red carpet, so I think I found it more amusing than upsetting. But the people that that record touched, over here especially, were people who really enjoy that dark ride. One thing I heard that really flattered me was I saw an interview with Greg Dulli where he said he moved to L.A. because he heard Medicine Show and that’s great. And he’s a pretty fucked up, disturbed guy too, so it was definitely a little mating call-a little radar signal to the malcontents and the wackos out there. It goes back to what I said about loving Tonight’s the Night, and Plastic Ono Band and Big Star Third. I think those kinds of records aren’t for everybody but the people who are touched by those records, those are their favorite records. They think, ‘That was made for me.’ There’s no grey about it. It’s black and white. You either get it or you don’t.
You know that famous story about some kid coming up to Lou Reed and saying, ‘Man, I started using because of you. You were the guy who turned me on to it.’ Have you had that ‘what have we really made here?’ feeling?
Fortunately no one ever came up to me and said they set fire to a field because of me, so I guess I’m ok on that front. I’ve never incited arson or any of the things that happen in ‘Merrittville’ so I think I’m ok on that front. Look, I think the Dream Syndicate has the same very flattering legacy that a lot of bands like the Velvets have where people started bands because they were influenced by us and I think that’s great. That means a lot to me. I didn’t plan out everything to the letter, the way it all worked out, and I don’t think I ever would have imagined I’d be where I am right now doing things the way I am right now, but it is interesting that the career we had kind of mirrored the bands I was in to. I wasn’t looking to be the next Beatles. I was looking to make those records that really were challenging and difficult and would mean a lot to the people who liked them. The thing I used to say at the beginning of the Dream Syndicate, and I think we all felt, was that it’s most important to make a record that could be at least one person’s favorite record of all time. It’s better to do that than to make a record that a lot of people will say, ‘yeah, that’s ok. I’m fine with that. That’s good background music.’ If one person in the world could say that’s the best thing that I’ve ever heard in my life and it changed my life, then you’ve done something right.
How often do you think to yourself, ‘I must have been crazy because I did this or didn’t do that’?
All the time, man. Like anybody, all the time. I try not to get bogged down in it too much because it’s much better to just do something new, do a new record or a new tour. But again, and I think a lot of people in that situation would say the same thing, is that I wish I would have enjoyed it a little more.
That’s youth.
Yeah, why is youth wasted on the young? Blah blah blah. But being twenty-three and opening for R.E.M. and U2 and making a record with that much money at your disposal, I think that the forty-nine year old Steve would think, oh, I can have fun with this. And I did have fun. On the R.E.M. tour I made friends with Peter and Mike especially, who are still great friends to this day. And I have great stories to tell of the debauchery.
Can you give me a few tales of R.E.M. debauchery for the readers?
Absolutely, absolutely not.
Is there still a room in L.A. that you know you could walk into that you know hasn’t changed a bit since you were last here?
You know, that’s a good question. A lot of my favorite clubs and bars I used to love are gone. There were so many great ones. I miss Raji’s. I miss Al’s Bar. I miss what the Whisky was. I miss Moby’s Dock, a great bar at the end of the Santa Monica pier. I miss the Tap ‘n’ Cap on Sawtelle. I miss the Firefly on Vine. And there are a whole new generation of those things that are probably amazing that I don’t go to that often. I love Chez Jay. It’s a great bar by the beach that will probably never change. That’s my favorite haunt. It’s been there since before I was born and it’s still the same as it was back then. That’s a great hangout. It’s the first thing I could think of as far as an L.A. constant.
You never ended up at a bar with Warren Zevon, did you?
No, and I really wish I would have known him. I met him once backstage at McCabe’s and I’m a huge fan. I know people who have hung out with him and have a couple stories about him, but no. I wish I would have known him either when we were both at our worst or when we’d recovered from that. Both would have been interesting. Kind of on that level, I remember I used to DJ at the Cathay de Grande. That’s another place I miss a lot. I was a Monday night kind of blues/soul/garage DJ there and they used to pay me in alcohol. I didn’t get any money but I used to drink as much as I could stand and I remember DJing and drinking my screwdrivers up in the booth and watching a very drunken Tom Waits come stumbling in with Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs and that was kind of a very L.A. thing.
How do you feel reminiscing about this stuff? Do you recognize yourself as the same person in the songs or is it like coming back to a country you haven’t been to in awhile?
That’s interesting. We toured a couple years ago and did The Days of Wine and Roses, the same as we’re doing with this record. It was very easy to fall into that mode for some reason, the sort of wise-ass, cocky confrontational guy that made that record and did those tours and I was actually having fun method acting it. I don’t think I can go to where I was during Medicine Show. I can play those songs and it’s going to be a really good tribute and update at the same time, but man, I don’t know if I could be that person or want to be that person. We’ve been rehearsing the record a lot this week for the New York show and we’ll be getting into shape for the L.A. show and it’s going to be great, but I said really if I wanted to do it the right way I would just spend the next two weeks drinking whiskey nonstop and that would put me in the right mode but I don’t think I’m going to do that.