If music were like baseball, Steve Wynn is easily batting .500.
That is to say that, over his career, the modern rock legend has a longer and stronger track record than most of his peers.
In the early 1980s Wynn rose to prominence as the lead singer and primary songwriter of seminal Los Angeles band The Dream Syndicate. Founded partly on Velvet Underground’s improvisational soundscapes, Television’s loud guitar dominance and the jingle-jangle of The Byrds, the Dream Syndicate are rightfully considered among the most notable bands of the so-called Paisley Underground scene, which also included The Bangles, The Rain Parade and others. Along with R.E.M, they are also one of the most important bands in the development and popularization of college rock.
With a constantly revolving line up, labels and experimenting in sound, The Dream Syndicate released a steady row of albums in the course of the ’80s. Their classic debut, The Days of Wine & Roses (1982), stands among the finest albums of the decade, while the blistering live album, Live At Raji’s (1989), captures their ferocious on-stage energy. The latter also turned out to be their swan song (though they reunited in 2012, with the possibility of new material on the way), paving the way for even more successful bands like Nirvana and Pixies without cashing in on the indie/guitar resurrection in the 1990s.
Steve Wynn has remained perpetually productive ever since.
After the demise of The Dream Syndicate, he immediately launched a solo career under his own name, as well as being involved in a series of different projects: Danny & Dusty (with Dan Stuart of Green On Red), Gutterball (with compadres from House of Freaks and The Silos), his own combo The Miracle 3, and the recent supergroup The Baseball Project (which includes his wife and half of R.E.M.).
No matter the musical constellation, Steve Wynn has always kept his signature in tact. Never compromising on strong, intelligent songwriting packed with funny wordplay and gritty storytelling, and of course excellent guitar playing and transcendent melodies. This pivotal artist has turned into one of the most reliable names of the last 35 years, always willing to reinvent himself in search of new sonic territory.
I sat down with the ever so friendly Steve Wynn for a deep-digging round of offbeat and revealing questions.
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Describe your perfect day.
If I write a new song it’s a great day. When I’m creative and producing things, I’m at my happiest. That’s joy to me. Also, walking five miles every day, preferably in a city I’ve never been before. And those two things go together. Walking and writing for me has always been a good combination. So if I’m in a strange city, walking a lot, thinking about an idea for a song, and eating a good meal… It doesn’t get better than that.
Growing up, what made you want to become a musician?
I was born in 1960, so I grew up through Beatlemania, AM radio, garage rock, protest music, acid rock and great things like that. It was just in the air, and I was thrilled by music from a young age.
I wrote my first song and played in my first band when I was 9. That’s all I wanted to do. I had an older sister who was just old enough for my mother to trust me to go out with her, but young enough to be into cool music. She could drive, she had her own house, and she took me to lots of great concerts. The first show I ever saw was Delaney & Bonnie when I was 9, who I still like a lot. I was a music junkie from the age I was 6, so when my sister said we’re going to see Delaney & Bonnie I said, “Oh great, I hope Eric Clapton is playing.” I knew what was going on. She took me to see Alice Cooper, The Who, Roxy Music… all these great bands.
I’m very glad I was 17 years old in 1977. To be old enough to leave home, driving a car, enjoying my freedom while punk rock was happening… That was the perfect blend, and it blew my mind. The most romantic period of all time for me was buying singles by the Clash, the Buzzcocks, Elvis Costello and stuff like that. I think that influenced me more than anything.
What’s the most unlikely album that has inspired your own music?
It’s probably not a surprise to those who know my music and my history, but a lot of jazz records. Out there albums like Albert Ayler’s later stuff, Ascension by John Coltrane, Dancing in Your Head by Ornette Coleman… These were all records I loved, and who taught me of improvisation. In the years before The Days of Wine & Roses, I’d practice my guitar not to The Yardbirds or “Stairway to Heaven,” but to free jazz. It made sense to me, to learn how to jam and improvise. So I would sit down with these freaky half-hour long jazz pieces and go at it.
There’s a fire in your house! What three things do you rescue?
Besides my wife? [laughs] That should be obvious. Let’s see… my 1960 Princeton reverb amplifier, which is the best amp in the universe and which I use every time I make a record. Made the same year as myself, and sounds like all the albums I love. Then there’s my paisley Telecaster, which I just got. It’s my favorite thing right now. This is just music stuff, but I have to add Bob Dylan’s really great bootleg, Ten of Swords, which you can’t find anywhere these days and is a collection of his early demos and recordings. I carried it around forever. Yeah, I go for those three things, after the wife.
If you could pick a fight with anyone – who would it be and why?
I’ve got a few problems with Dick Cheney. [laughs] I think he and George W. Bush had quite a bit to do with screwing up the U.S. and the world in general, for reasons driven by money and corruption. If not punch him in the face, I’d at least like to ask a few questions. I can do more damage with my words than my fist.
I’m a political junkie and have always been a newspaper fanatic. First thing on my radar used to be a copy of the International Herald Tribune [now The International New York Times]. When I came to new cities, the first thing I tried to find was the train station and buy a paper, cause I had to have the news. And that was a way for me to discover a new city. Now you don’t need that, it’s all there. Just like music: The biggest thing about touring was to choose which 20 cassettes to last me for the next 6-10 weeks. I would agonize on my record collection whether to bring Marquee Moon or Adventure. Now I’ve got the entire record collection in my pocket.
What’s the worst or best advice you ever received?
Whatever it was I didn’t listen to it. I don’t take advice very well. [pauses] Someone once said to me, “Be careful and be aware of things that are done in your name, because you will bare responsible for it.” I think that’s true. Sometimes, when you’re a musician, you think somebody else will take care of things, but at the end of the day it’ll come down to you. The things you put out there, you live with. That’s why I think I take such good care of the records I make, the shows I play and the way I treat people.
A role model has always been Bruce Springsteen, who I think is a pretty righteous dude in his approach to live music. Seeing him play in 1977 for the first time was another big life changer, because I saw how much passion he put into his show, treating it like it was the last time. Some will see you that night, some may never see you again, may never have seen you before, and that show may be the most important in that person’s life. You should treat every night and everything you do like it may be the only time you do it. Because for some it will be.
What’s your favorite sport, and why?
You didn’t have to ask that. [laughs] It’s baseball, of course. I’ve always been a big baseball fan. One thing we found from the Baseball Project is that a lot of musicians love baseball. It makes sense, because baseball is much like the music we make. It’s cerebral, it’s mental, and you drift away in your own imagination. There’s no clock in baseball. There’s a clock in football, both European and American, there’s a clock in basketball and hockey. Baseball is open, limitless, infinite, anything can happen. You’re living in the moment, but you’re also living throughout history. Everyone who loves the game can recite numbers and facts from the last 150 years. Which is what we do in the Baseball Project.
Strangely enough I have three favorite teams, and they all have to do with where I’m from and where I live: I love the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees and New York Mets. But these days, since I live in Queens, I’ve started to like the Mets a little bit more. Now I can just walk to a Mets game.
A funny thing, my old friend Josh Kantor is the organist in The Baseball Project, and also the organist for Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. It’s the greatest job, and he’s a really cool music fanatic. Typically in the past the organist would play old-fashioned songs or big hits, but he plays The Dream Syndicate, R.E.M and other really obscure indie bands to 50,000 people every weekend.
What’s a place you’ve never been that you want to go?
So many. Next year I’d like to go to South America. I think Bogotá is on top of my list right now. I want to go everywhere. It’s the greatest thing, finding a new city. My favorite place right now is Mexico City, with its great bookstores, cafés, restaurants – and rock fans. There’s a huge scene down there.
Can you name a book that you wish everyone one would read?
I could name a lot of them… I’m a big fan of a book by John Updike called Rabbit, Run, actually there’s a series of books about this character called Rabbit. It tells the story of 20th century America better than any history book. It explains a lot about America and why it’s the way it is and what happened in the second part of the 20th century. I recommended that one, and any of the books with Rabbit in the title by John Updike.
Criticize your own music from the perspective of someone who hates it.
Too much damn guitar!
What’s your greatest fear?
Probably being deaf. I wouldn’t like that. I love music too much.
Are there any particular of your own albums you hold especially dear?
I’d have to say Here Come the Miracles, I really like that for many reasons. I think it’s my best record; and I’m really satisfied with what I did on that one. It also came at a time in my life where I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I thought, I’m 40, I might be done or I might be out of ideas, or I might have nothing left to say. It came at the right time, where it showed me where I should go, and also that I could keep doing it. It revived everything, from the creative side to the career side. It was also the easiest record to make. There were no obstacles, no confusion, and everything was just obvious. Now that doesn’t happen every day. [laughs]
The world is ending tomorrow. What do you do before it’s all over?
Enjoying some time with my wife. That’d be Linda [Pitmon] by the way, my bandmate in The Baseball Project. When we met, we had both been touring a lot, so we knew all about that lifestyle. I toured with this other musician for several years, and once he and I were together in Rome. It was such a beautiful night, we had had a great dinner and stood on a square under the full moon. He laid his arm around me and said, “Steve, I love you man, but I’d much rather be here with my wife.” And I totally understood him. The thing about musicians is that we travel the world having all these great experiences, and then we go home to our wives or friends and try to explain what it was like. It’s nice to be in a band with my wife. We can share all those great memories together.
Originally published September 17, 2005 on read.tidal.com