The band’s seventh studio album, The Universe Inside, jams with joy.
“I can hear the 7 train from my window. It’s faint, but I can always hear it. It makes me sad. It sounds like freedom. It sounds like the connection to other things. So I’m looking forward to when I can get back on it–but I know it will be a weird feeling,” says Steve Wynn, front man for legendary alternative rock band The Dream Syndicate.
Wynn is calling from his home in New York City as he self-isolates during the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond feeling cooped up in general, Wynn is also wishing he could have more freedom for a more specific reason: The Dream Syndicate has a new album, The Universe Inside (ANTI—)‚ that was just released, but this pandemic makes it impossible to plan tour dates with any certainty.
VIDEO: “The Regulator,” the lead-off track to The Dream Syndicate’s The Universe Inside.
Still, Wynn is sure that this album fits well within this quarantined world. “In a way, this feels like the right record for right now. It’s very much ‘in your head’ – it is called The Universe Inside: a pretty prescient choice for a title!” he says. “You are your own universe. You create your own landscape. It’s no longer what you see walking down the street or getting on a plane. It is what’s going on in your head. And I think we made a nice little soundtrack for that.”
And beyond that pandemic-specific perspective, Wynn feels that The Universe Inside is one of the best things he’s done since he started his music career 40 years ago. “This new record is easily one of my three or four favorite records I’ve ever made. I’m so proud of it,” he says, though he admits, “It’s not an easy record. There are five songs, and the shortest one is seven minutes [long]. That’s asking a lot of people. But we knew deep down that it was what we do very well, which is longer, more expansive songs.”
Wynn first became revered for his songwriting skills when The Dream Syndicate released four highly acclaimed studio albums throughout the 1980s (and another four releases, including this latest one, since the band returned from an extended hiatus seven years ago). However, he admits that he did not follow his “pretty traditional” writing method this time. Normally, he says he crafts a song before taking it to the rest of the band for further input—but these new songs were entirely spontaneous and improvisational.
“We were in the studio, and sometime around midnight a friend of ours, Steve McCarthy from The Long Ryders dropped by to say hello,” Wynn says. “Given the choice of ten things to do at that moment, everything from ‘Let’s watch an old movie’ to ‘Let’s talk about baseball to ‘Let’s make up limericks,’ whatever, the thing we chose [was to] play music together. And we played for 80 minutes straight without stopping. You can hear that joy in the record.”
Because they were just jamming for fun, Wynn says that “It was a band just playing randomly together,” without any preconceived plan or purpose. But later, when he listened back to the recording they’d made of the session, he realized that there was something special going on. “I just kept playing it for pleasure. Not as a project, but just because I liked listening to it. Free, unvarnished, raw material.”
Then Wynn noticed that there actually was a certain logic to what they’d played and the way they responded to each other, and that it would be possible to mold that seemingly freeform session into album-worthy material. “As a songwriter, I had to look at this 80-minute mass of music and think, ‘How could I turn this into song structure?’”
Wynn carved out five tracks and put lyrics on them—but for the most part, The Universe Inside is comprised of that original jam session. To Wynn, the whole thing has seemed serendipitous. “I’ve made a bunch of records now, and I know very well that when you go in the studio there’s always some snag, or some challenge that has to be fixed, or you get to a dead end and you don’t know how to get out of it. And then every so often, like one time out of thirty, everything goes perfectly. You can’t make it happen. You just get lucky now and then. This was that kind of record.”
Even though the lyrics came last in the process this time, writing them wasn’t a problem for Wynn, who says that his longtime hometown has often provided inspiration in that regard. “I moved to New York 25 years ago from LA and I love it here. I would say the most inspiring thing for me is just getting on the subway, getting into Manhattan and walking around for 3 or 4 hours and looking at things. Being in a very crowded city but feeling alone, like a voyeur to what’s going on. Somehow that’s been the main inspiration. A lot of the lyrics for this record were written just walking around. That’s something I can’t do right now, which is frustrating.”
Wynn also hopes to regain his freedom soon so that The Dream Syndicate can share these new songs with people face-to-face. “For me, playing live is an essential part of who I am,” he says. “I love getting up and playing music and seeing people’s reaction and meeting people. And anything that you do that’s part of who you are, it’s frustrating to not do that.
“I’ve been through a lot of things—touring after 9/11 or after terrorist attacks, and [then] I said, ‘This is what I do, and people need distraction.’ Now if you’re defiant and bold and fearless and say, ‘I’m going to tour—I’m a soldier on the front lines of entertainment,’ [or] however you want to look at it… that doesn’t apply anymore: you may be putting other people in danger. It’s a whole different thing.”
No matter how long it takes The Dream Syndicate to get back on the road, no doubt they will find their particularly passionate fan base still waiting for them. Although this also means that Wynn’s writing comes under intense scrutiny with every new release, he says he doesn’t mind the high expectations—although he admits that he wasn’t always so at ease with his position.
“When I was starting out, I felt pressured just because I went from being a college dropout and a record store clerk to suddenly being in a band that people loved and got signed to major labels and was on the radio. And this all happened fast: The Dream Syndicate took off really quickly. We all paid dues in previous bands, but the Syndicate paid no dues. We went from zero to 60 immediately. It was fun and exciting—and I had this feeling of, ‘One false move and it’s all over. What if this ends tomorrow?’ When I made records back then, there was a bit of that nervousness, and ‘What if people don’t like it? What if this one doesn’t take hold?’”
But by now, The Dream Syndicate’s solid status as a longtime and beloved band grants Wynn “freedom that allows me to make a record like [The Universe Inside]. There are no obvious singles. You have to enjoy this on our terms, or not at all. And I don’t worry about that. If somebody says, ‘Man, I love what you do, but I cannot handle this new psychedelic free jazz afrobeat krautrock thing you did,’ I say, ‘Well, that’s fine, there will be another one next year, don’t worry about it.’”
Making music that pleases the band members themselves, first and foremost, has always been The Dream Syndicate’s approach right from the start, Wynn says. “It was a feeling of, ‘We’ll try to create the music we want to hear. It was a very honest and sincere thing to do. [1982 debut album] The Days of Wine and Roses was the record I was dreaming of hearing but nobody was making, so we did it. That was the reason to do it. And then, fortunately, it’s become my job, so I just try to find interesting ways to do more of that.”
Now, Wynn says, “I think we’re making better music now than we did back then. I think we’re a better band now. I know the importance of nostalgia and history. But I know what we’re doing now, we would have killed to be doing then.”
Still, Wynn says he is not focused on writing much new music at the moment, even though the pandemic—which has ravaged his own particular neighborhood acutely—seems like it should provide him with plenty of songwriting fodder.
“Times like this, whenever there’s something cataclysmic that happens, thinking about 9/11 and other times in history like that, you feel this paralyzed feeling where you want to address it as a creative person. You feel like if you don’t address it creatively, you’re in denial and ignoring something, that it’s your mission to bridge things together. And sometimes it’s just too big a piece to bite off. The things that affect you the strongest and have the biggest impact are sometimes the hardest ones to communicate.”
As one of the most revered songwriters in the alternative rock world, it seems likely that Wynn will eventually find a way to contextualize and chronicle what’s happening right outside his window, and across his beloved city. Until then, listeners can take a journey with him into The Universe Inside.