How Did They Find Themselves Here? The Dream Syndicate: Album by Album

In the late 1970s Los Angeles was a key hub for punk rock and hardcore music, spawning crucial bands like Black Flag, Germs and Circle Jerks. At the turn of the decade, just as that boom started to fade, a new generation rolled into town keeping the untamed punk spirit alive while reverberating echoes of the pre-punk era.

Eighties Los Angeles became a hotbed for pioneering alternative rock acts, leaning equally towards country and folk, in the form of cowpunk, and psychedelia, manifesting a scene known as the Paisley Underground. Man, it must have been a thrilling place! Standout bands like The Gun Club, X, Green On Red, The Rain Parade, The Long Ryders and True West are just some of the acts that planted cactus roots in the land of palms. But none were more thrilling or vital than The Dream Syndicate.

Even though they belonged to the same scene as the ones mentioned above, The Dream Syndicate didn’t sound like anyone else at the time. Originally based around Steve Wynn (guitar, vocals), Karl Precoda (guitar) Kendra Smith (bass) and Dennis Duck (drums), Syndicate was all about loud guitars and a boundless approach, creating a musical habitat equally leaning on the harrowing echoes of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the intricate guitar work of Television, the drone soundscapes of The Velvet Underground and the improvisational elements of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler.

The band cemented their legacy early on the seminal 1982 debut, The Days of Wine and Roses, a hands-down masterpiece that exhibits everything they were capable of. Although loud, psychedelic guitar rock was not the hippest of sounds in the ’80s, but it resonated surprisingly well for a subculture that later became known as college rock, which The Dream Syndicate pioneered along with the likes of their close friends in R.E.M, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr.

In 1983 The Dream Syndicate secured an opening slot for U2 on their U.S. tour, and the newfound national spotlight landed them a contract with A&M Records. Along with the record deal came a budget that allowed them to hire Sandy Pearlman (Blue Oyster Cult, The Clash) as producer, resulting in their much more expansive sophomore album, The Medicine Show (1984).

Being dropped from the majors due to disappointing album sales, on top of internal struggles and various line-up changes didn’t prevent two more albums to follow. After a temporary retirement, which allowed Steve Wynn and compadre Dan Stuart of Green On Red to join forces as the drunken barroom outfit Danny & Dusty, Syndicate returned with newfound energy on 1986′s Out of The Grey. Following yet another pause, they crafted the dark and dense album, Ghost Stories, produced by Elliot Mazer of Neil Young fame.

In just six years time, The Dream Syndicate had forged a unique and distinctive four-album catalog that earns them a place among the seminal guitar bands of the 1980s. They capped off the decade with Live at Raji’s, an ecstatic live album that fully captured their energetic shows, without any technical bonds and a statement most bands can dream of.

As the ’80s turned to the ’90s, the Dream Syndicate was put to rest. Steve Wynn continued on as the far most profiled artist, under his own name and in bands like Gutterball and The Baseball Project, while other members drifted in different directions. Their music maintained a strong cult following no one really expected their return.

Then, in 2012, The Dream Syndicate miraculously reunited for a Spanish music festival. Made up of Wynn, Mark Walton (bass), Dennis Duck on drums and newcomer Jason Victor on guitar, the magic was still there. The band has since played over 50 shows and toured throughout the U.S. and Europe.

In 2016 they headed into the studio to begin work on their first album in 29 years. Released on September 8 by Anti- Records, How Did I Find Myself Here? is a triumphant return for a band that never lost its spark.

We invited Steve Wynn for a look in the back mirror and guide us through their catalog while we anticipate their new album.

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The Dream Syndicate: Album by Album
By Steve Wynn

The Days of Wine and Roses
(Ruby, 1982)

Where it all began – to be specific, during three consecutive midnight to 8 a.m. sessions at Quad Tech Studios in East Hollywood in September of 1982.

We tracked all of the songs on the first night. And I sang them and did a few guitar bits and pieces the second night. We mixed the whole thing on the third and we all went to our day jobs in between.

I worked as a clerk at Rhino Records so it’s not like it was the most demanding job in the world. But I do remember going in and opening the store after we finished with a cassette of the mixes in my hand.

I played it to an empty store and knew that we had done something special, that we had made an album that lived up to our loftiest ambitions and intentions

Medicine Show
(A&M, 1984)

The first record took three days. This one took five months, working almost every day during those five months, usually about 12 hours a day.

On the same 8 songs. Yes, it’s almost impossible to believe.

Chock it up to the times, the ’80s became the Era of The Producer, a time when newfound technology and those at the helm felt that they were there for much more than the mere task of capturing art.

Chock it up to the actual producer we had chosen, Sandy Pearlman (Blue Oyster Cult, The Clash), who I later found out was notorious for going way over a deadline and most certainly over budget.

Chock it up to our ambition to make something deeper, bigger and most intense than our first.

Whatever, they were very different records but they fit together in my mind and this one is quite often my favorite. It creates its own world and I really feel like there’s no other record quite like it. Oh, and some of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written.

Out of the Grey
(Big Time, 1986)

The band broke up in December. Karl and I weren’t talking. It had stopped being fun. And the newfound excesses – of chemicals, alcohol, experience, ego, fame – didn’t work in our favor.

So, that was it.

At least that was it until Mark and Dennis and I realized that we liked playing together and we invited Paul B. Cutler (45 Grave and, the producer of our first EP) to join us.

It worked. It was a blast. It was fun.

And the giddiness of everything being fun again comes through on this record, the title track being the taste of rising up, phoenix-like, from the ashes.

It’s upbeat, breezy, things not normally associated with our band.

Ghost Stories
(Enigma, 1988)

By this time Mark and Paul and Dennis and I had spent a lot of time on the road, and you can hear it on this record. I think that in some ways we put it all together on this one.

It’s dark, it’s noisy, it’s bratty but it’s also quite self-assured and not undone by production – neither too little nor too much.

It’s just us.

Credit must be given to producer Elliot Mazer (responsible for Neil Young’s Harvest, for one) who went for a live immediacy and transparent, rocking sound. It doesn’t sound dated. It sounds like us and, although we didn’t know it at the time, it was a good way to go out.

Oh, and much of it features Chris Cacavas, who had become a fifth member and still is to this day.

Live At Raji’s
(Enigma, 1989)

Paul’s guitar was stolen and we were all broke and most definitely uninsured. So we played a gig at our favorite local Hollywood hangout, Raji’s, to make enough to buy him a new one. And what the hell, we thought, let’s record it as well.

Elliot was around and had the idea to record the show direct to DAT (remember DAT, kids?). He was upstairs with his gear and recorder while we rocked out in the basement.

Man, we were ON that night – no jitters or worries about being recorded. We let it all fly. You hear this record and you hear what we did night after night on stages around the world.

When the show was done, so was the record. Performed and recorded and fully mixed all at the same time.

Some people say it’s our best record. Who am I to argue?

How Did I Find Myself Here
(Anti-, 2017)

A 29-year gap between our fourth and fifth albums. Who does that? Has there ever been a longer gap between albums in a band’s history. I don’t know. But this feels both like a continuation of our saga and something altogether brand new.

We neither wanted to ignore our past nor slavishly reproduce it.

And then we went into the studio and didn’t think about any of that. We just played.

Five days of playing in Richmond, Virginia at Montrose Studios, aided and abetted by our new guitarist Jason Victor (who had played in my solo band, the Miracle 3, since 2001). We knew from the start that it was going well and we just kept going and followed the music where it wanted to take us.

It took us someplace very special.

And that’s how we found ourselves here.

See you on the road.

– Steve Wynn, September 2017

Bjørn Hammershaug

Green On Red: L.A Noir

Da jeg ble oppmerksom på den nye amerikanske rocken på midten av 80-tallet var det som å bli slengt inn i et parallellunivers som det viste seg å være vanskelig å komme ut av. Etiketter som Zippo, Enigma og Frontier, og artister som Giant Sand, The Dream Syndicate og Thin White Rope ble dyrket. Noen av de mange artistene som åpenbarte seg ble senere berømte (REM), noen lever fremdeles i beste velgående (Giant Sand), enkelte var kortvarige gleder (Naked Prey, The Long Ryders), mens atter andre raskt vendte tilbake til glemselens daler (Rave-Ups, Dump Truck, Rank And File).

Green On Red startet opp som punkbandet The Serfers hjemme i Tucson på slutten av 1970-tallet, men endret navn og flyttet tidlig i karrieren til Los Angeles. De fant sin plass i Paisley Underground-scenen, sammen med blant andre The Bangles, True West, The Rain Parade og The Dream Syndicate. Det betyr countryrock, psykedelia, ringende gitarer, storby og ørken i skjønn forening, der hele dere katalog fram til 1987 står som hjørnesteiner i en rik periode av amerikansk gitarrock. Deres beste album, Gravity Talks, får behandles ved en senere anledning.

Les mer:
The Paisley Underground: Los Angeles’s 1980s psychedelic explosion (The Guardian)

Green On Red: s/t (Down There, 1982)
Green On Reds første utgivelse på Steve Wynns Down There Records føyer seg inn blant etikettens stilige EP-debutanter. Dere med god husk minnes sikkert Naked Preys oransje, Dream Syndicates grønne og Green On Reds røde. Den er merkbart spinklere i lyden enn deres senere produksjoner, men forsterket av de samme psykedeliske overtonene og den angstfulle nevrosen som dels kjennetegnet bandet fram til 1987.

Gitarene ligger gjemt bak Chris Cacavas’ alltid tilstedeværende tangenter, og man hører deres new wave/punk innflytelser plassert langt fram i lydbildet. Uferdige og vinglete øyeblikk til tross, fyrverkeriene ”Aspirin”, ”Apartment 6” og ”Black Night” bidrar til at Green On Reds debut står som et av deres mest markante utgivelser, med preg av både skranglepop og surfrock som de egentlig aldri spant skikkelig videre på. Jeg synes bloggen Detailed Twang beskriver stemningen best: ’A cool trip through a flickering, late-night Los Angeles where speed is plentiful and troubles come in bunches.’ Slik blir det bra musikk av.

Gas Food Lodging (Enigma, 1985)
Fra bakgater til landeveien: Det er en stund siden jeg har hørt Gas Food Lodging i sin helhet, men den har holdt seg overraskende bra. Selve låtene er jo av tidløs karakter, og lydbildet er fortsatt slitesterkt. Dream Syndicate-gitarist Paul B. Cutler var hentet inn som produsent, og med ham på laget framstod Green On Red med mindre psykedelisk garasjepreg, og som noe røffere i kantene enn på sine foregående utgivelser. De skjærende gitarene som også preget tidlig Syndicate ble mer markante, og den æren må nok tilfalle nytilsatte Chuck Prophet IV. Chis Cacavas’ el.piano ble erstattet med en fyldigere orgellyd, Dan Stuart skrev noen av sine beste låter og hele kvintetten virket rett og slett i solid form. Bare et par år senere falt jo bandet fra hverandre i en salig blanding av pills & booze & rock’n’roll.

’It seems that no one has any faith anymore, but isn’t that what we invented heroes for…’ Slik åpner platen med ”That’s What Dreams” som en leksjon i realistisk booze’n’roll: ’Guess I’ll just be poor the rest of my life, but that’s better than giving up the fight…’ Sammen med den rufsete dagen-derpå slageren ”Hair Of The Dog” og honky-tonken ”Black River” understreker Green On Red et bemerkelsesverdig sterk debutalbum.

Det er likevel side 2 på Gas Food Lodging som er bandets magnum opus. ”Easy Way Out”, ”Sixteen Ways”, ”The Drifter” og ”Sea Of Cortez” er alle sentrale låter innen skitten amerikansk hverdagsrealisme. De fortjener å bli spilt sammenhengende, helt til versjonen av protestklassikeren ”We Shall Overcome” bringer oss tilbake rundt leirbålet, etter en tunge ferd fra Seattle til Mexicogulfen. Her viser Green On Red sin tilhørighet, og de bør med rette plasseres et sted mellom Velvet og Creedence, Neil Young og Johnny Thunders, Hank og Stones. Dan Stuarts predikerende klagesang bærer fortellerstemmen om drapsmenn, sosial urettferdighet, fyll og elendighet. Sinte, troverdige og mørke historier fra USAs bakgater rulles frem med en fandenivoldsk energi og en seig knurring med jordnære røtter. Det er fra slike frø det vokser klassisk rock.

The Killer Inside Me (Mercury, 1987)
USA, 1987: Reagan-perioden drar seg mot slutten, økonomien er relativt svak, kriminaliteten og arbeidsledigheten høy, klasseskillet økende. Dette er den politiske og sosiale virkeligheten som vibrerer bak Green On Reds mørke odysse The Killer Inside Me.

Stemningen illustreres på omslaget. Bilkøen som slurer avgårde mot kveldsmørket, mens solen sukker langsomt farvel over neonglorien langs motorveien. Tittelen er hentet fra Jim Thompsons kritikerroste krimklassiker ved samme navn, om den paranoide og schizofrene politimannen Lou Ford. Han er en tilsynelatende sympatisk fyr som beskyttet av sitt presentable ytre begår en rekke ugjerninger. Boken er skrevet i første person, slik at leseren kommer tett under huden på drapsmannen. The Killer Inside Me anno 1987 er også en under-huden historie om drapsmenn, helter og andre skikkelser fra den amerikanske hverdagen.

Green On Red er rufsete og rå i formen, med Dan Stuarts piskende stemme i rollen som samfunnets anklager og småkårsfolkets forsvarer. Chris Cacavas, Chuck Prophet og Jack Waterson har blitt en tight gjeng, og rocker langt hardere enn det Green On Red tidligere hadde vist på plate. Her kommer det fra, både røttene til Neil Young & Crazy Horse på midten av 70-tallet iblandet en dose Exile On Maine Street. med rølperocken til The Replacements. Produsent Jim Dickinson sjonglerer lyden av rock, country og gospel og unngikk stort sett å skru den flate 80-tallssoundet som har ødelagt så mange fine utgivelser fra denne tiden.

Vi beveger oss inn i Clarkesville ’where the rich get richer and the poor get less’ og småbyen som symbol på vrangsiden av den amerikanske drømmen. Sosial kritikk er et tema som er gjennomgående for hele albumet. Her handler det om ’cheap labour’, om å bli hengt ’for the color of your skin or for the church you go in’. Det handler om å være ’a pilgrim in a no man’s land’ og om mannen som ’painted flagpoles for a living’. Det handler om rotløshet, der Mexico er eneste utvei. Det tyktflytende tittelsporet er en mektig avslutter. Etter en tung rundreise på det amerikanske kontinentet er vi tilbake i Clarkesville. Bare håpløsheten og oppgittheten er tilbake, og illusjonene er fraværende. ’There’s a light in your eyes that always finds the darkness in my soul.’

’I haven’t been sober lately’ tilstår Dan Stuart på et sted her, og ble sørgelig nok heller ikke edru på noen år etter sitt katarsis. Bandet ble spådd en lysende karriere etter Gas Food Lodging (1985), men The Killer Inside Me floppet for et større publikum. Medlemmene gikk også hvert til sitt, selv om navnet fortsatt bestod i en noen år. Dette er for meg deres virkelige svanesang. Solen stod aldri helt opp igjen for Green On Red.

Bjørn Hammershaug