Steve Wynn of The Dream Syndicate on Finding Order in The Universe Inside

Photo by Tammy Shine

It’s safe to say The Universe Inside is unlike anything The Dream Syndicate has ever released, even in a catalog that goes back almost 40 years. It’s the neo-psych alt-rockers’ seventh studio album since their founding in 1981–the third since their rebirth in 2012–and their first to fall headlong into kaleidoscopic krautrock and unrestrained improvisation.

It all started simply enough; an after-hours studio visit from their Paisley Underground peer Stephen McCarthy of The Long Ryders kicked off an 80-minute jam session that just so happened to unleash the band’s best unconscious impulses. Listening back later, frontman Steve Wynn was able to mold that tape into a finished record, bringing in brass and unearthing song structures by reacting to his bandmates long after the fact.

Their experimental opus opens with “The Regulator,” a long-form piece with a killer bass groove and electric sitar twang. There are drum machine breaks, guitar freakouts, and jazzy sax runs, all while Wynn’s low, raspy vocal cuts in and out like a voice in a dream, lucid and just beyond logic. The rest of the album unfolds in kind, with poetry-slam verses and moody, spiraling jams.

The band’s frequent visual collaborator David Dalglish directed a full 60 minutes of video to accompany The Universe Inside, interpreting it as if it were a feature-length soundtrack. With montages of found footage and original clips, Dalglish transforms the record into a multi-sensory psychedelic odyssey.

Before the release, Wynn spoke to The All Scene Eye about how The Universe Inside flipped his songwriting process inside out–and gave him the space to work through the aftermath of a close friend’s crisis of health. While live performances are on hold as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s been continuing to perform for fans online via Facebook.

You recently did a livestream hosted by [Germi] in Milan. What was that experience like for you?

I really liked it. You know, I was nervous going into it–I’d done things live on the internet and had shows that went out over Facebook, but I’d never done that thing where I was just sitting at home and looking at a screen, watching myself play [laughs] and watching comments come up in real time, which was pretty exciting and also distracting. It’s really nice given the current situation because none of us are seeing that many other people, so I felt like I was hosting a party, or playing a gig, or just spending time with a lot of friends.

Is that something you want to continue to do?

I do–I’ll probably make it a weekly thing. Not only for fans out there and friends, but for me, just to keep playing. I was, right now, supposed to be playing up in the arctic circle, a city in the north of Norway called Vadsø. It’s a festival there called Snow Station Vadsø, and a bunch of us were meeting up: my bandmates from The Baseball Project like Scott McCaughey, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and my wife Linda Pitmon–Howe Gelb, Peter Perrett from The Only Ones. We were all going to be up there having a combination getaway, winter camp, gig-hangout thing. It’s a collaborative thing that we’ve done twice before. 

I would be coming right back and starting a U.S. solo tour right after, so all these things were in play, doing what I love doing: playing music live in front of people, travelling, figuring it out day by day. That’s the ongoing adventure that I signed up for, and that’s shut down now. I’ve seen a lot of musicians out there doing this kind of thing, and you could say, “Well, there’s a lot of reasons for it. It’s a gig still,” but also, I think, just a way of connecting. I think if you play music live, you have a certain hunger to connect with people–connect with an audience, connect with your bandmates, and solve that minute-to-minute problem of how to make it all work. Without that, I guess we turn to technology to make it happen.

Your latest album with The Dream Syndicate is called The Universe Inside, and that takes on a different meaning in self-isolation. Can you tell me about what that title has meant to you?

It’s so funny because everything involved in this record was easy. Everything, from the recording, to the overdubbing, to the album package, came easily–except the title. We went back and forth for weeks, the rest of the band and myself, just arguing it and changing our minds, and we settled on this, which was one of the first choices to begin with. It turns out it was the perfect title, given the way things have happened. The universe inside is where we’re at, so I’m glad this is the one we chose.

The title came from this really incredible Ukrainian artist who lives in Brooklyn named Alex Aliume. He did the artwork on the cover, inside the package, and everything. He does black light, 3D, very mystic, psychedelic art, and one of his paintings–not one of the ones we used–was called The Universe Is Inside. We adapted that for the album title.

Your last album, These Times, came out in 2019. When did you first start talking about making another Dream Syndicate record?

Well, we’ve been playing this down because we all love this record, and the last thing we want people to see this record as is some kind of a stopgap. It’s far from that, but the reality is we recorded it during the These Times sessions. We made that album a year and a half ago in Richmond, Virginia, where we do all of our recording. There’s a studio there called Montrose Recording, and we were doing the typical thing. We had a bunch of songs and we were recording 12 hours a day, experimenting, trying to find our way through the material.

One particular night, around 11:00, we were knocking off for the evening, and our friend Stephen McCarthy from The Long Ryders dropped by the studio to have a beer with us–he lives down there in Richmond. Even though we were pretty wiped out, we looked around and said, “You know, we’re all here. The studio’s right there, the engineer and producer, Adrian Olsen and John Agnello, they’re still there, so let’s go jam for a little bit. Let’s take our beers out in the studio and have some fun.” We started at maybe 1:00 in the morning and just played for 80 minutes straight. We just kept going, almost daring each other–the first person who would stop was the party pooper. It was the kind of thing that you love to do: just jam with your friends.

The next morning we listened back and said, “Well, that was cool,” and kind of forgot about it, but over the year that followed, I listened to that recording more than almost anything I’d ever done. I fell in love with it and was addicted to something about the way we played together–the chemistry of it, the spontaneity. The kind of thing you hope will happen every time you improvise, it all happened. One thing led to another in really beautiful ways, and over time, I kept thinking, “This should really come out somehow,” you know, “Maybe we’ll press 500 copies on vinyl and it’ll be a special little curio.”

I remember I was on a promo tour in Europe for These Times, and I had a flight from Paris to Berlin, which was exactly the length of time that the jam lasted. I remember sitting by the window, looking out on the trip, and it felt all of a sudden like, “This shouldn’t only be released, but it could be something else entirely.” That was the first time I thought, “I’m going to write words to this and maybe turn these into songs.” 

You mentioned Montrose Recording in Richmond. How did you first find out about this place, and how did it become the home studio for The Dream Syndicate?

I’ve been recording there for 25 years now, amazingly enough. I have a real special connection with Richmond, Virginia; I was part of a band called Gutterball in the early nineties with members of House of Freaks, Stephen McCarthy from The Long Ryders, and also Bob Rupe of The Silos. We were all from different bands and we had about a three-year run where that was my main thing. We were writing a lot of songs together, doing a lot of touring, and we made two records which I really love. 

The story about Montrose is pretty wild. It was this guy named Bruce Olsen, who ran a really popular studio in Richmond in the eighties called Flood Zone, and at a certain point, he decided he had gotten tired of the studio business. He came from a family that was involved in ranching and breaking horses, so he went back to–he lived in kind of a Confederate outpost from the Civil War. Jefferson Davis lived there, and it was called Montrose–a very southern, Tara kind of place. He put his gear into the horse barn. [laughs] His assistant was a studio assistant and also a stable boy, essentially. It was just a makeshift studio so he could keep his gear somewhere, and we recorded the first Gutterball album in this horse barn.

From that point on, I would return there and record over the years. I’m giving a long-winded story–a shaggy horse story–but Bruce’s son Adrian, who was five years old when we made that first record, grew up interested in recording. He went to school at Berklee College of Music to study engineering, and his dad said, “Well, if you want, we can turn part of the property into a studio that you can run.” And he said, “Absolutely.” That became the more formal Montrose Recording, on the property of the [laughs] Montrose estate, or whatever. 

I talk about it as this well-kept secret, and I should stop talking about it because it won’t be a secret anymore, but it’s a great studio. You’re just outside of Richmond, surrounded by nature, and you can live in the house just ten feet away and cook your own meals. The whole band can sleep there, and it’s got a giant recording room with high ceilings, everything you could ever dream of. 

Great vintage gear, but also, you have the advantage that the dad is still involved and the son is running it for the most part, so if you wanted to, you could record any time of the day. Bruce gets up early, so if you want to record at 6:00 in the morning, he’d probably show up and do it for you. Adrian, being younger, is a late-night guy, so you can just let the impulse to create guide your day. 

You want to record for four hours, take a three hour nap, and eat a big bowl of pasta? Do it. The clock is not ticking. You’re working on your own terms, which allowed us to say, “You know what? We’ve worked all day long, but let’s go another two hours and see what happens.” It’s a perfect place for anybody, but especially The Dream Syndicate, being a band that doesn’t always like to follow the normal constraints of time and space.

Once you started thinking you could make something out of these sessions, where did you work on finishing it?

A lot of it, just on my own–writing lyrics, experimenting here and there, and doing some recording at home, some of which ended up on the record–and then finally returning to Richmond, where Adrian Olsen and I finished it over a five-day period, bringing in Stephen McCarthy to do backing vocals and bringing in Johnny Hott from House of Freaks and Gutterball to do some percussion. The real ace in the hole was bringing in a guy I didn’t know before named Marcus Tenney from a band called Butcher Brown to play saxophone and trumpet and completely transform what we were doing.

One thing that really set the whole thing in motion is that the morning after the jam, John Agnello, who produced and/or mixed the last three albums, he got up early to sift through what we had done. He listened to the whole thing and divided the 80-minute jam into six songs. He even gave them kind of funny placeholder names so that it would be easier to listen to and digest–maybe just to amuse himself. He made six songs out of this formless, meandering jam, and I think that gave us all–definitely gave me–the idea that, “Oh yeah, this could be broken into different sections, even though it really is one thing.” 

The final version of the album is just shy of 60 minutes, so there was some editing. Nothing was moved out of place or sequence, but things were added, other things were muted. We were kind of playful with what was there.

You made an inspiration playlist for this album, and I read a bit where you talk about David Byrne and Brian Eno being studio archaeologists. Is that how you looked at taking these jams and solidifying the form of them?

I think it was something between studio archaeologist and forensic scientist at a crime scene. [laughs] Looking at some weird, hieroglyphic, raw material and making sense out of it, implying order where there was–well, I wouldn’t say where there was none. We were responding and creating and making hooks in real time. We just didn’t realize it. 

To write lyrics and melodies to what was not meant to have them was exciting because I would look for any clues I could find. Like, “Oh, if Chris Cacavas, the keyboard player, played a little riff there three times, I guess that’s the intro because he set up the motif. When he stops playing that motif, I’ll start singing. When Dennis Duck, the drummer, does a certain fill, that must be signaling the chorus somehow. When a new instrument comes in, that must be the solo.”

I tried to listen to everything as though it was signaling what I was going to do as a singer. I guess you could say it’s a backwards way of working because in traditional songwriting and band-playing, the band responds to the singer. “Oh, he’s done singing? Great, I can take a solo now.” [laughs] This was the exact opposite, like, “They’re somehow subconsciously signalling me to start singing there.”

Two really big influences on this record would be, yeah, Remain In Light–I think most of that record revolves around jamming and then Brian Eno and David Byrne turning the jams into songs. A very similar process. The other collaboration would be Miles Davis and Teo Macero with all the records they were doing in the early seventies. Miles would put a bunch of people in a room, give them one vague instruction, one riff, or nothing, and say, “Just play.” They would later on chop it up, add things, do whatever they did, and it became a record.

You’ve been doing some form or other of that reverse lyric-writing on the last few albums. How have things changed as you’ve transitioned into writing that way?

I don’t think I ever did that kind of thing before these three Dream Syndicate records. In the past, whether it was The Dream Syndicate, my solo records, The Baseball Project, or Gutterball–all the things I’ve been involved with over the years–I would go into the studio with songs. Maybe a few lines were missing, maybe a few things got edited or changed, maybe a melody got adjusted, but mostly I’d go in and say, “Here’s a song. Let’s do it right.” [laughs] Or “Here’s my demo. Do it like that.” 

The two previous records, I went in with chords and verses and choruses, but not lyrics. There were very few finished lyrics when we recorded How Did I Find Myself Here? or These Times. The difference is with both those records, I kind of knew the structure of the song going into it, like, “I’m going to play this progression four times, then we’ll shift to that progression, then come back again.” We knew as we were playing it where vocals were going to go. The only one that was completely freeform was a song on the last album called “The Whole World’s Watching,” and that was the hint of what this album became. That was a jam to the same drum machine that we used on “The Regulator,” a Maestro Rhythm King from the early seventies.

It’s a different way of working, and I really like it. The Dream Syndicate has always been a band that likes to jam on stage, that likes to stretch things out, and when we’ve played live, we’ve let loose a lot more. We say, “Let’s play until we’re bored with ourselves and then we’ll stop.” We never brought that kind of freedom into the studio like we did on the session that night.

One place on the album where the vocals really stand out is “The Slowest Rendition.” The start of that track, it’s very open, and there’s a hole dug out for you to speak. Can you tell me about putting that section together?

There were a lot of holes, and almost too many holes. Like, “How am I gonna fit words into this thing with no groove, with no real structure?” That one took a lot of time, to write the lyrics, to map them out, and to get it right. That was probably the most labored thing for me on the record.

Adding to the pressure of wanting to get all that right, I was writing about a subject that was very emotional to me. My friend Scott McCaughey, who I play with in The Baseball Project, had a stroke a little over two years ago. It’s been written about a lot, and it was pretty debilitating and frightening for a long while there. Obviously, as a friend, as a bandmate, and also as a fan of what he does, I was devastated. I was hearing stories about his rehabilitation, what he was going through while it was happening, and I just kept thinking, “What is he feeling right now? Is it confusing? Is it frustrating?” All the things I was trying to empathize with–and it came out in these lyrics. I didn’t think I’d be talking about this because it feels like I’m infringing on his privacy, but I did ask him if it would be okay to talk about, and he gave me full encouragement. 

It’s one thing to write random, nonsensical, or subconscious lyrics, but to talk about something that specific was tricky. I’m trying to have the audacity to imagine what he might have been going through while trying to fit it in this random open field of bleeps and bips. It was challenging, but it was exciting when it worked.

Has he heard that song yet?

He has. I think he liked it, and it meant a lot to him, so I’m glad. And he’s doing great. Since that time, Scott’s made five or six records and been touring. We’ve been doing shows together and we’re planning a new Baseball Project record, so–it’s been hard work and it’s never quite over, but he’s doing incredibly well. 

It was a really intense, frightening time. My wife Linda and also my friend and bandmate Peter Buck were with him throughout all this, and I was hearing reports back from where it was happening. You felt helpless, in a way. I think that’s a horrible, brutal, and disorienting thing for anybody, but also, if you’re a creative person, and that part goes away–because it’s all weird. Why do people create? Why do people write? Why do people paint? Why do people interpret music, as a journalist, for other people to understand? 

We just do it because of something hardwired in us to make sense of chaos–to be the regulator. To put some kind of order where none exists. The world would go on without songwriters–without all kinds of things–but somehow, you have this need to do it. And what happens when you unwire things that are hardwired? Do you still want to do it? Are you still able to do it? That’s all scary stuff.

There’s a video out for “The Longing,” directed by David Dalglish, who you’ve described as your resident visual interpreter. How did that relationship develop? 

He did a video for a band that I like and that I’m friends with called Eyelids–a great Portland band. They had a video online, and I thought it was incredible, so I wrote to the singer, Chris, and asked him who did it. He said, “Oh, this guy in Scotland. We don’t know him. He’s just a fan and he wanted to do a video for us.”

So I contacted the guy, David Dalglish. He knew who we were and he liked our music, and we had an EP out then called How We Found Ourselves…Everywhere!, a collection of outtakes and live material that followed the–I call it the first album because that’s the way I see it at this point. There was a song on there called “Steve’s Dream,” which was an alternate take with me singing the song “Kendra’s Dream.” He did the video for that, and it was fantastic. At that point, every time we wanted a video, I would approach him, and he said, “Sure.” He doesn’t do this for a living; he’s got a regular day job. I don’t even fully know how he works. I know he uses mostly found footage, but I don’t know where he gets it. I think he does shoot some of it himself. To be honest, pretty much everything about him was a mystery. He was a guy that I wrote emails to, and two weeks later, had a video. It was bizarre.

We finally met him last October. We have yet to play Scotland, so he decided to fly out to Berlin to see us, and we gave him a hero’s welcome. We were so excited to meet this guy, who at that point had done five videos for us, and he was great. Very friendly, enthusiastic, and a big music fan. He came into the gig with a huge sack full of vinyl LPs he had bought down the street from the venue, so his excitement matched ours.

We’d just finished mixing The Universe Inside. I had in the back of my mind that I’d like him to do something for the record, but the band, we’d talked about, “Wouldn’t it be great if he did the whole album?” And I was thinking, “That’s really putting him on the spot, to ask him to do a 60-minute video. I don’t want to put him in a position to say, ‘No, man, that’s too much.'” Luckily, Mark Walton, our bass player, isn’t shy about such things, and was very direct. [laughs] I guess he just walked up, took David aside, and said, “Look, here’s the deal. We’ve got this wild record, and we had this idea of you doing, essentially, a movie-length, 60-minute video.” He said, “Hm, yeah, I’d like that.” And that was it.

To complete the ouroboros, how does it feel to have somebody take this thing that you’ve made and create a one-to-one interpretation of it?

Well, it’s great when it’s this good. I think we’ve all had experiences with bad videos over the years where somebody just used your music as a cookie-cutter thing to throw in a bunch of models and stuff like that. That was years ago, that kind of thing would happen, but what he does is he somehow connects to the soul, the lyrics, and the mood of the song so well. I love watching what he does.

“The Longing,” just take that one on its own. He captured the feeling of longing, the feeling of nostalgia, the feeling of loss, the feeling of disorientation in the song. The best music and the best movies are always the ones that resonate with you in a way where you feel like somebody was spying on you inside your head and understood the things you thought only you were feeling. When you can get that sort of universality, you’ve really nailed it. I know the attempt to do that as a musician, and I know the excitement of that as a fan, when somebody else does that well. 

He managed to do that with this video in a way that not only captured the song, but captured where we are right now. When I saw it for the first time, we were already into the period of shutting down, social distancing, fear, and separation. I watched that video and just broke into tears. It just destroyed me. He, of course, didn’t know what was coming when he made the video, and we didn’t know what was coming when we made the song, but that something can feel so of-the-moment, so prescient to a certain time, is what you’re hoping you can do. When you roll the dice and come up with something, you hope it’s going to connect in that way.

Longing is something I think we’re all getting more intimately familiar with.

Definitely. Things we didn’t know we could feel. Being shut in with my guitar, my books, and my records–I can do that for a long time. [laughs] I work well with isolation, but when it’s thrust upon you like this, all of a sudden you realize, “Oh, man, human contact is the thing that keeps us engaged and excited about things.” We’re all feeling that.


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