Although he is simultaneously also touring with the Dream Syndicate, Steve Wynn is rereleasing two albums from the nascent days of his solo career in the 1990’s: Dazzling Display and Kerosene Man on Omnivore Recordings. Americana Highways was able to talk to Wynn the other day about all manner of things, from revisiting those days of the early ‘90s, to definitions of Americana music, to his current career that finds him juggling a variety of musical ideas and connections.
“How have things changed in the music world since the 1990s?” I asked him right off the bat. “If you recall, in 1990 the debate was whether to keep the “long box” on cds. (laughs) Things have changed a lot. My own perspective at the time was that I had been in a band in the 1980s –the Dream Syndicate – that was known as an underground garage, psychedelic, counter-culture subversive challenging indie band, that probably was influential on a lot of things that were happening in the 90s and even now.”
“And in 1990 despite the fact that the band could arguably be at its peak, I decided to break up the band, because at 28, somehow you feel like if you don’t do something now, you’ll never do it. Instead of being in the guitar feedback noise band, I said “I’m going to make kaleidoscopic pop music now and see where that goes.” At 28, you think you’re an old man. I felt like I’d been doing the Dream Syndicate forever, so my whole take on the 1990s was that I upended everything I had been doing.“
“In 1990 there were a lot of musicians like Bob Mould or Stan Ridgeway of Wall of Voodoo or Peter Case of the Plimsouls, who all said around that same time, that we wanted to stop being in these indie bands and I want to start being a songwriter. We were all saying “Let’s see what the singer-songwriter thing is all about, but instead of being James Taylor and Lynda Ronstadt, lets see what we’ve learned as punk rockers and doing what we do, and how that translates as songwriting.””
“Very soon after that Nirvana came along and wiped the slate clean. Music started coming back to where I had been ten years before that.”
“In any decade, I make music that makes me happy, I follow whatever whim I have, so that’s no different now than it was in 1990. I’ve enjoyed operating in a bubble for a long time, but I think when you’re out of step for a long time, maybe you’ve created your own steps.”
How do you write songs? “Songs come to me “music first.” I take lyrics very seriously, but it has to have a good feeling to it. I think the music suggests the words. Regarding lyric writing, no matter how literate you are, you’re still trying to make the words feel good within the music, that’s still the main point. You’re not Shakespeare. You’re not Keats or Shelley. The beauty of Bob Dylan isn’t just that he’s a great poet, it’s also that he knows how to phrase things to make them feel great in a rock song. I think he learned as much from Chuck Berry as he did from T.S. Elliott.”
To what extent had your music radically changed when you released these two albums, and to what extent is your identity still recognizable in them? “When I released Dazzling Display and Kerosene Man, my music had changed a lot at that point but really the intention comes from the same place. People like David Bowie or Dylan, who’ve changed styles, their stuff is still all filtered through a mood or way of looking at life. You can see the similarities throughout their music, and it’s the same thing with me. It’s like movies too, like Francis Ford Coppola made a lot of different types of stuff from gangster movies to Apocalypse Now to The Conversation but you can still see the overriding themes of what he does, its like “this is what is on his mind.” And no matter what he does, you are still going to recognize the person who made it.”
How shall we define Americana music, and how does your music fit within that definition? “I’ve always had a mixed relationship with the Americana camp, and that term, because I’ve always been peripheral to it. On the one hand, I’m American and I’m working with the paint box of American music history, which includes jazz, blues, rock, and punk rock. But I get frustrated with Americana when it’s limited to a beer commercial at a hoedown in the back of Texas honkytonk. With a cowboy hat. (laughs) I think: “wow, is that it?” To me Americana is the Ramones, it’s Ornette Coleman, it’s John Coltrane, it’s Lead Belly. There’s so much music that’s indigenously American, that’s not Mozart, it’s not King Sunny Ade, which is all amazing stuff, but there are certain things we have our stamp on as Americans. I’d say one of the things the U.S. has gotten right pretty consistently is music genres and stand out artists. Say what you want about the U.S.—you could certainly say a lot these days — but at least we came up with Miles Davis and Joey Ramone so that’s pretty good.”
“One of the things that’s truly American is the striving of the individual, the John Fort westerns, that is the thing that defines Americana music—the maverick individual performer. It’s Muddy Waters moving from the Delta up to Chicago and saying: “This is the kind of music I’m gonna make now. I’m doing it my way.”
It’s funny when something that begins as a really brash idea gets swallowed up into kind of a generic term for a bunch of middling things.”
“I was fortunate enough to have been on a really great label in Germany called Blue Rose for the last 20 years, it’s very well known in the Americana world in Europe. They put out probably 7 or 8 of my records. The owner of that label Edgar Heckmann is a real mainstay in that world, he has a lot of credibility. He likes my music, which I always thought was funny because I sometimes feel very alienated from that world. I’m a psychedelic, noisy, I’m so many different things, but I guess I am Americana too.”
So let’s return to discuss your two reissues. “I made 2 records — in 1990 and 1992 — that were unlike anything I had ever done before or since, they are 2 out of my thirty that just sorta don’t fit but I love them for that. I love that they’re getting reissued. They are something I did in an effort to be a songwriter first and a band member second. They are probably as close to defying genres and as close to true singer-songwriter records as I’ve ever made.”
“Having been in the Dream Syndicate for all of the ‘80s I played with the same 4 – 6 people all that time — and some I still play with again now by the way – but when I went solo I was like a kid in a candy store, I had a lot of friends in the scene, and I was like: “I’ve always wanted to work with you, and you, and you and you.” So I brought them all on for these two albums. D.J. Bonebrake from X, Steve Berlin from Los Lobos, or Johnette Napolitano from Concrete Blonde, or Steve McCarthy from the Long Ryders, or Cris Cacavas from Green on Red, Howe Gelb from Giant Sand, Fernando Saunders from Lou Reed’s band, Julie Christensen who worked with Leonard Cohen, Peter Buck from REM, Vickie Peterson from the Bangles, Flo & Eddie from the Turtles, Kirk Swan from Dump Truck, people who are really, then and now, renowned in that world, and for me it was a blast. It was exciting, I wanted to try new things and I went for it. Fortunately at the time I had a label, Rhino Records, who gave me some budget to work with so I could hire people pay them and go down all sorts of blind alleys.”
“If you look at records I’ve made, like on All Music, most of my records at that time would have 25 people each, including these two. It was like living a dream. As a fan, for the sense of community, and as a songwriter, I had no limitations, that was exciting. That kind of freedom could have been either terrifying or exciting, for me it was exciting.”
In addition to celebrating the reissues, what are you up to this spring and summer? “My main focus lately has been the Dream Syndicate. We reunited, we have a new album coming out in April also, along with the two solo records, for Record Store Day.” Plus another album due out in the fall!
“I always want to do new things, but also my history gets recycled regularly and at different intervals. So when something like these two Rhino Records reissues comes up, it makes me want to revisit that time also. I’d like to play with the band I did that material with as well, maybe in September. I’m always playing solo shows, just got home from Europe.”
Saying that we will have to check his website for tour dates and more info, Wynn commented: “It’s funny that this is an area where being online actually makes things harder than print. Online you have to know how to navigate and where to look to find a calendar of bands you want to see in your, whereas a newspaper would have weekend lineup all in print. But I’m on tour, always touring!”
Check for Steve Wynn’s tour info, and get your hands on the reissues, here.