Cult artist Steve Wynn discusses J Dilla, the legacy of Dream Syndicate, and why they were never destined to be the Beatles

All you’ve got to do is Wynn: Dream Syndicate.
All you’ve got to do is Wynn: Dream Syndicate.

The same year that the Dream Syndicate — the West Coast psychedelic-pining founding fathers of the Paisley Underground — released its low-budget debut record, The Days of Wine and Roses, Rocky Balboa had it out for Mr. T, Michael Jackson's Thriller was the theatrical petit four for a crippling nationwide recession, and the personal computer was elected Time magazine's "person" of the year.

In 2019, Rocky is still Rambo-ing, Jackson's dead (and canceled), another recession is nigh, and computers have wasted our time. As for the Dream Syndicate? They're still here, still championing the underground, and still transporting listeners from one point in time to another — only now, they're listening to J Dilla records.

Led by frontman Steve Wynn, from its conception the Dream Syndicate walked many a tightrope pulled taut between worlds: post-punk and '60s revivalism, mainstream success and cult status, retired and revived. The group formally disbanded in 1988 following the release of its fourth record, Ghost Stories, a pensive thrashing that ushered in a new era for Wynn, who spent the better part of the '90s and early aughts dedicated to solo work and collaborations. Dream Syndicate would reunite 25 years later, touring on-and-off before releasing How Did I Find Myself Here?, the group's first record of new music in nearly 30 years and the atmospheric predecessor to 2019's These Times, a record that is not bogged down by chaos as much as it is fueled by it. Like a cryptic play-by-play of the storm from within the storm, These Times is Dream Syndicate coming full circle.

Ahead of his upcoming performance Friday with the Dream Syndicate at Third Man Records, Wynn chats with Metro Times about the perks of being an underdog, why he can't wait to write a post-2020 presidential election record, and how J Dilla became the unexpected blueprint for the future.

Metro Times: What was the drive for you to return to Dream Syndicate? Did you feel like you had unfinished business that you couldn't accomplish with your solo work?

Steve Wynn: We've been asked about doing shows for a long time since we broke up in the late '80s, and I was busy that whole time doing solo records, side projects with other bands, and just never really thought about it. And it wasn't like I had any bad feelings about the band or you know, there's no bad blood. I'm proud of the records. All of a sudden, around 2012 we got asked to do a festival in Spain and just kind of as an impulsive decision like, yeah, why not?

MT: It's one thing to tour and dust off old songs and revisit muscle memory; it's another to crank out two new records within two years after a 25-year hiatus. Has it been a pretty organic process?

Wynn: Well, you know, when we first were reunited, the whole point was to be a nostalgia band, to just go out there and play with the old band and play the songs we played back then. And that was fun and enough for a couple of years. But after a while, we were having such a good time and realized we were still true to who we were but kind of taking on a new — I don't know, a new style, a new sound — and we wanted to show that in the studio. I think where the band is now with the 21st century Dream Syndicate, it's kind of a continuation of where we were when we started when we made The Days of Wine and Roses and even before that. And we began as a freaky, psychedelic art band who played long songs and were kind of confrontational and went against the grain of what was trendy and happening at that moment. And over time in the '80s, we became a little more of a pop band. For lots of reasons — because we wanted to be loved, I guess, because it was where our heart was at that moment. But I think where we're at right now, we give ourselves the freedom to just take it as far outside as we possibly can. And that's really the spirit of where we were at the very beginning.

MT: You refer to yourself as a cult artist. It made me think about how the Dream Syndicate straddled the possibility of commercial success for most of its career. Has being a cult act awarded you different freedoms that you wouldn't have if you had become superstars?

Wynn: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that for me, for what I like to do and the kind of music I like making and the music I grew up listening to, I'm the perfect middle ground of being popular enough to make records whenever I want and to tour the world, and play with interesting people at cool venues. But I guess not so big that anybody's Christmas bonuses depend on what I do. I think I have the freedom to do what I want. And I love that. You know, like you said, when we were around the first time we found ourselves on a major label, we found ourselves opening for U2 and R.E.M., and we were getting played on MTV. We were right on the edge of being accepted as just below the mainstream. And it was intoxicating and exciting because you think, well we're still playing our music but people are digging it, so let's go for it. Why not?

I think over time I realized that bands like R.E.M. or bands like the Bangles who we came up with were made for mainstream success. You can hear in a sound. We from the very beginning based ourselves on bands that never made it — like the Stooges, the Velvets, the Gun Club, Modern Lovers — you know, these were our heroes. Those were all bands who weren't appreciated until decades after they made their first records. So, you know, it was kind of silly to think we could be the Beatles. We were never made to be the Beatles.

MT: One of the most talked-about aspects of your latest record, These Times, is that y'all were listening to Donuts by J Dilla ...

Wynn: It's funny because I made a big fuss about that record's influence on the new record, and a lot was written about it, which I expected because that's what happens when you put it in the story of a record. But I think it was misunderstood. I think people thought, Oh, you know the Dream Syndicate wanted to make a hip-hop record. And it's frustrating when things get simplified like that. What that J Dilla record was to me was this incredible sound practice kind of panoramic immersive time spent in somebody else's life. It was as psychedelic as a John Coltrane record, as psychedelic as a Television record. Whatever it was, it was that kind of thing where you were going to let go of your world and enter his for an hour. And that excited me. I mean, I think that's something that I look for — music that can just take you somewhere else and take you out of your rational way of thinking. And that's something that we really try to do with our music, and that's [what] we really tried to do on the new album.

MT: To call the record These Times, in 2019, we can assume you are, in fact, referring to these times, which can mean so many things to so many people. Is the record a reference to these times, and how did you keep it in the present?

Wynn: It is, actually. We did all the music first without having lyrics, maybe a line here and there, but mostly I do that because I wanted the band just to concentrate on playing together and not on trying to follow the pattern of the vocal or the story I was telling. So we had some loose parameters. I kind of had to write all the words for the album quickly — I think three weeks between when we finished recording to when we started mixing.

So you know, when I see the words I wrote, when I look back on them, when I sang them, because they're all written in a short period of time, there's a certain tone to all of them. And they're not political commentary. They're not saying, you know, this is good or that congressional bill is messed up; it's more a reflection of the times we're in. And I think those kinds of anxiety and nervousness and defiance, looking back with trepidation, looking forward with hope — all those things come up on the songs. And those are, to me, 'these times' as it were. We're on tenterhooks, we're being held hostage to the moment to every tick of the clock and wondering where it's all going and trying to parse for meaning at what's going on there. And that's kind of the story of this record. That's why I felt it was a very topical record without saying a single word about any particular person.

MT: Do you feel a responsibility to say something in terms of the sociopolitical climate? A pressure to stand for something out of fear you will appear to stand for nothing?

Wynn: It's hard because you know because there's so much urgency right now. You feel like if you don't comment on what's happening, you're — in a way — in denial and not being true and not reflecting the world around you. But also obviously if you write about the moment, it will be dated — maybe not [in] your case because you could write a story and it could be printed the next day, but for me if I write something very specific, especially the way things are now, it would be so out of date by the time the record came out. So it's a hard balance. I was, at least on this record ... I somehow wanted to reflect where things are. And then I think we did it. I think the same anxiety and that same kind of ambivalence and nervousness that was here last summer will probably be here next summer, too.

MT: I think we're going to look back at this period and we'll be able to use music and art to tell the story of what really went on.

Wynn: Yeah, I mean, before your time, all the records that were released during the Watergate era, you look back now and you can see that kind of seething anger. I don't like to talk that much about lyrics because I'd rather people figure them out for themselves. But "Bullet Holes" is about imagining a world that would exist after a terrible crisis, after an unimaginably impossible bleak period. What it might look like when it's all over and the sun comes out and it turns out that life goes on, and I kind of want to write about that sort of feeling that I've seen all these bad times and, whoa, we're still here.

Dream Syndicate will perform at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Sept. 20 at Third Man Records; 441 W. Canfield St., Detroit; 313-209-5205; Tickets are $15-$20.

Get our top picks for the best events in Detroit every Thursday morning. Sign up for our events newsletter.