Like a lot of bands and other incendiary devices, the Dream Syndicate began in a basement.
In the final days of 1981, Dennis Duck, known in the LA scene as the drummer of post-punk stalwarts Human Hands, met up in Los Angeles for a subterranean rehearsal with Steve Wynn (guitar, vocals), Karl Precoda (guitar) and Kendra Smith (bass), three scruffy and noisy kids of no particular renown. Despite mostly consisting of long jams on CCR’s version of “Susie Q” and a few embryonic Wynn compositions, the rehearsal left the quartet feeling they were on to something that, if nothing else, was the sound they had been seeking and most certainly not finding on the local scene.
That sound was long songs of feedback and drone and psychedelic rave ups centered around cheap guitars plugged into broken amps. Guitars! Long Songs! Psychedelic garage music (well, basement, technically)—not things that were in fashion at that moment of time.
“We fully expected to be hated,” said Wynn. “But we also figured that if we liked this music as much as we did that somebody else would have to feel the same. We set out to be a band that could be somebody’s favorite band—even if for only a handful of people. Love us or hate us—that was our gauntlet at first.”
But that gauntlet was met by more people and more quickly than expected. Within 3 weeks the band recorded a four-song demo tape for $100 that ended up being their first record, a self-released EP on Wynn’s Down There Records label. The record immediately got press locally and nationwide, airplay on Rodney Bingenheimer’s “Rodney On The Roq” program and other similarly outlier stations across the country, hitting various indie charts along the way. It was only a matter of months before they were offered a record deal by Slash Records to make a debut album for the label’s Ruby imprint. Nine months after that basement jam session, the band was labelmates with the likes of X, The Blasters and The Germs.
That debut record, “The Days of Wine and Roses” was recorded in three consecutive midnight-to-8am sessions—“because the rates were cheaper during the graveyard shift,” Wynn states. “We would finish in the morning and go straight to our day jobs and then go right back to the studio.” Fueled by adrenaline, junk food and the knowledge that they were making the record they’d always wanted to make, The Dream Syndicate made an album that continues to make all-time Best Album lists and influence bands to this day.
A lengthy US tour followed in early 1983, the band finding themselves welcomed as outsider heroes by fans who had also been looking for something else, that something that the Dream Syndicate had imagined in that first basement session. It felt somehow gratifying, startling and inevitable all at the same time. The band came home, wide-eyed conquering heroes but only a few weeks later, Kendra Smith left the band to concentrate on a new project, Opal (which later became Mazzy Star) that she started with David Roback.
Smith was replaced by Dave Provost on bass just before the band left for a three-week cross-country tour with U2 who were exploding with their breakout “War” album. The chance to play much larger venues to many more people put the band in the spotlight and a bidding war ensued with the band signing to A&M Records in the summer of 1983 and going into San Francisco’s Automat Studios with Sandy Pearlman (Blue Oyster Cult, The Clash) a few months later to record their second album, “Medicine Show.” This one took a little longer—five months to be exact. There are enough stories to fill a few books on that session but the album that came out in May of 1984 showed the band in a new, expansive light and got great reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.
Dave Provost left the band and was replaced by Mark Walton, a local bass guitarist and acquaintance of Precoda’s. An eight-week tour with REM followed, forging a friendship and collaboration with the Athens band that continues to this day for Wynn in The Baseball Project. Following a triumphant European tour, the band came home and, once again, the burn and grind of the road took a toll on the lineup. In the final days of 1984, only three years after that first rehearsal, Wynn broke up the band only to reform a few months later with Paul B. Cutler, of 45 Grave, on guitar. It was a fresh start and began four solid years of constant touring in the US and Europe as well as two more albums—“Out of The Grey” and “Ghost Stories,” the latter produced by Elliot Mazer of Neil Young fame—that showed the band’s sound and Wynn’s songwriting evolving and picking up new fans along the way.
Despite playing more shows to larger and larger audiences, the band split up at the end of 1988. “It just felt like we had done everything we had set out to do. It was starting to feel a little rote, a little redundant and even a little perfunctory,” says Wynn. “Maybe we were just tired and worn out but it felt like a good time to stop.”
In the years that followed, Wynn made many well-received solo albums and also performed as part of Gutterball and the aforementioned Baseball Project while Walton founded the Continental Drifters, a band that built quite the groundswell of love and cult following of their own over a ten year career. Duck reformed Human Hands and also kept active on the Los Angeles avant-garde Los Angeles Free Music Association scene which he had been part of before the Dream Syndicate. In the meantime, the three remained friends, occasionally joining each other on stage.
In 2012, Wynn was asked to perform at the prominent Walk On Project Festival in Bilbao, Spain by a good friend who annually organizes the charity event. “I tried to get my band or the Baseball Project to do it but they were both busy. I really wanted to play the festival so I said, ‘hey, how about the Dream Syndicate?’ He thought I was joking but I wasn’t. It felt like time to give see what the Dream Syndicate meant and would sound like in a whole new era and setting.”
Neither Karl Precoda nor Paul B. Cutler were up for the reunion and Wynn immediately thought of Jason Victor, who had played in his solo band since 2001 and had played most of the Dream Syndicate catalog on stage at one time or another. “Jason not only knew the material—and was actually quite the student and expert of the band—but he also had that perfect mix of freakout noise and dissonance mixed with a whole lot of talent and ability. He was like everything I loved about both Karl and Paul’s playing but with a whole new twist. He was the perfect ingredient to bridge us from the past to the present.”
The reunited band took everything in baby steps. A few shows here and there—a couple of European tours, sporadic US dates (the first being a still talked-about set at Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival)—“We were playing just enough to become a band but not enough to spook the giddy reality that it was actually happening.” The shows were exciting---for both the band and the eagerly awaiting fans, many of whom weren’t even alive when the band were around the first time. The next step was to see if the excitement and newfound chemistry would extend to the studio.
“It just felt like a good idea to see how it would work in the studio,” says Wynn. “From the start we said we had to love what we recorded or else we would make sure that nobody ever heard it. Nothing in between.” Steve, Jason, Mark and Dennis retreated to Montrose Studios in Richmond, Virginia with old pal and Green On Red founder Chris Cacavas on keyboards and acting as co-producer with the band. From the first day of recording it was apparent that the band was making an album that would live up its history and take their story into the present.
Wynn says, “In a way it feels like if "The Days of Wine and Roses" would have been made in 2017. Which is to say that it's true to what we did before but it's also a whole new thing. There's no doubt it's a Dream Syndicate record and yet it's not quite exactly like anything we did before. I guess a lot of that has to do with the "new guy," Jason Victor who joined the band on guitar in 2012. He's just incredible and really shapes the sound much in the way that Karl Precoda and Paul Cutler did in the previous lineups. It makes for a good push-and-pull, jousting 2-guitar adventure like our old records and also like many of our favorite bands--I guess you could compare it to other Dream Syndicate lineups but I'd just as soon compare it to Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry.”
And to continue the thread from the past to the present, the closing track “Kendra’s Dream” was co-written by none other than original bassist Kendra Smith who also sings the lead vocal on the track. “I felt that she was exactly the element that the song needed and I just felt so good about her being with us on the record. I’m so glad she said yes.”
And is there a concept? Is there a story line to the record?
“I tried to imagine the characters and personalities and narratives on "The Days of Wine and Roses" and then wondered, "well, what ever DID happen to those people? What are they up to now? Did things work out for them?" I just took where I was at and where the band was at back then and turned the hands of the clock forward about 35 years. You know, just like real life.”
Real life that began in a basement in 1981 and now feels very much above ground and ready to continue the tale in 2017. And the circle never ends.