Stage Times: Steve Wynn of The Dream Syndicate 

The king of the Paisley Underground walks us back through his career – from first finding Springsteen to playing Madison Square Garden with a day’s notice

“I didn’t see us lasting when we reunited!” laughs Steve Wynn, now a safe enough distance from The Dream Syndicate’s surprise second act to feel comfortable looking back on it. “When we came back in 2012, we just started playing all the old songs for all the people who wanted to hear them, and we had a lot of fun. But after about four years, we realised that’s not who we wanted to be. We’re not a nostalgia band. I’m proud of what we did back in the 80s, and I’ll never shy away from that, but it’s new music that keeps us going. That’s what gets us excited. And now we’ve lasted longer than we did the first time!”

Allowing themselves a rare reset after last year’s Ultraviolet Battle Hymns And True Confessions marked ten years of the band’s second life, The Dream Syndicate are taking the ultimate Paisley Underground show on the road. Supported by Rain Parade, and joined by Vicki Peterson of The Bangles, the band are bringing the best of the LA fringe scene back to Europe. 

“It’s funny,” says Wynn, chatting from New York ahead of the band’s UK run in March, “unlike a lot of other bands of our generation, we never toured the UK in all the years we were playing back in the 80s. We’d always just play London and then get out. So now that we’ve been reunited for 10 years and we’ve made a bunch of records it just seems like good time to finally do a UK tour. And as much as we’re trying to emphasise that we’re a new band making new records with a new direction, I have to admit, this is also gonna be a real Paisley love fest…”

What better time, then, to ask Wynn about his best and worst gig memories from his long career.

The Dream Syndicate, Featuring Vicki Peterson, Too Little, Too Late, Austin, TX, 3/18/2022

The one that made you want to play music

I started seeing shows when I was nine years old, because I had an older sister who would drag me along. I saw a lot of great shows as a kid, but I wouldn’t say any of them necessarily made me want to do what I’m doing now – they just made me love music. 

The show that really turned me around was Bruce Springsteen in 1978 at the LA sports arena. I went to that show and I was amazed at how he was able to connect so viscerally to everybody in the arena. It felt like you were just hanging out with him, you know? My God, I’ve never seen anything like it. I was so blown away. The very next day I saw that he was playing San Diego, so I drove down to San Diego and saw the show again with my college friend Kendra Smith. We saw that show and we literally looked at each other and said “Let’s start a band”. Three years later we were playing in The Dream Syndicate.

There are so many other shows that I’ve seen that had a strong impact, some which might be kind of cooler and hipper than saying “Bruce Springsteen changed my life”, but it’s really true! After that though it was Talking Heads. Around the same time they had released their first album and they were touring up and down California nonstop, playing to sometimes a dozen people a night. It was the exact opposite of the Springsteen thing. But when I saw Bruce, I said “I want to do that”, and when I saw Talking Heads, I said “I can do that”. They were like me and Kendra. They’re like, you know, just college kids who were obviously grooving on the music, but doing something exciting together. And that was the power of punk rock and new wave at the time. It felt real. 

The first 

I was 12 years old in junior high school, and I was in a band called Sudden Death Overtime. We mostly just did covers of the Stones and The Who. This was playing to a packed crowd of high school kids in assembly, all of who were forced to be there, of course. But they seemed to like us! But yeah that kind of gave me the fever for what I do now I guess. 

The funny thing is, then and since, to this day, I just don’t get nervous about being on stage. I’ve always just felt comfortable up there. I get nervous about other things. A lot of things make me overthink a situation, but being on stage just feels pretty natural for me. 

The Dream Syndicate - The Days of Wine and Roses (Live on KEXP)

The smallest

I have friends who have had the experience of playing to zero people, but luckily that hasn’t happened to me yet. But I’ve had some small gigs, for sure. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of solo shows in house concerts, which are becoming very popular here in the States. Those are really the smallest because they’re small by design. You’re literally playing in someone’s living room.

You know, one of the things about playing live music that I’ve always found very strange is that you stand on a platform and the people stand below you. You’re here in one place, and they’re there in another place, you know? They’re beholden to you to deliver the experience. And I guess that’s the beauty of rock ‘n’ roll shows. But sometimes it just seems so… pompous. You know? So something I like about these house concerts is that you’re actually in the mix with people. You’re face to face, you’re connecting second by second. I like that. 

The biggest

I haven’t played many arenas or stadiums, but I’ve played a few festivals over the years, and I’ve played to a lot of people. But I did happen to guest with R.E.M. one time at Madison Square Garden… So I had the experience then of being on a stage in front of, I guess, 20,000 people – even though I only ever saw the front two rows! Actually I’ll backtrack here on what I said about not being nervous, but that show was really something. It was Madison Square Garden. Also Peter Buck sprung it on me at the last minute, and I’d never even heard the song before. 

How did that come about?

Me and Peter had dinner the night before and he invited me and my girlfriend to come and see the show. We were going to be rehearsing about two blocks from the Garden, so I said “I want to, but I’m gonna have my guitar with me, so I might not be able to get in.” So he says, “Just bring it in and play with us.” And that was literally the day before. He actually threw a song at me that they’d never released, ‘Permanent Vacation’. This was in the days of Limewire (that’s how far back it is!) so I went online and found a version of them playing it so I would be at least a little prepared. I was like, “Peter, I’m only gonna play the Garden one time my life. I want to make sure I know the damned song!” 

The Dream Syndicate - Damian

The worst 

The fact that I have to think about this is a good sign… I’ve been pretty fortunate, and I guess sometimes things going badly can be the best thing to happen to you, because it forces you to think on your feet. 

I’ll give you an example. In 1986, The Dream Syndicate played an old Olympic Stadium in Athens to about 10,000 people. It was the first time we ever played there and it was a big event. About three or four songs into the show, the wires to the PA got cut. I don’t know if this was intentional or not, or if the thing just got unplugged, but suddenly the sound was out. So this could be the worst thing ever. But we suddenly had this idea to turn the monitors around to face the audience, so they could at least hear what we were hearing. We cranked up the sound, and suddenly we had a show again. I’ve been told this many times over the years, from fans and friends over in Greece, that was the moment where people fell in love with the band. 

The best

Well, there have definitely been a lot over the years. I think the one that just really felt the most unique was the Roskilde Festival in Denmark. We were on tour in Europe, playing clubs in Italy, and they called us two days before the festival and said their headliner, The Cult, had cancelled. “Can you guys come and headline the main stage?” I’m not kidding you. I mean, this really wouldn’t happen now. The Cult had cancelled, and for whatever reason they decided that a cult band like us, no pun intended, but an underground band like us, were the right guys to fill the spot. 

So we flew up, landed in Copenhagen, drove to the festival an hour before the set time, played to 60,000 people and had one of the best gigs we ever played. And that kind of led to us being popular in Scandinavia, to this day. It was just an amazing experience. I’m also actually glad that we showed up at the last minute because that meant we couldn’t overthink it. We just walked out and played like we would any other night. It was incredible. 

Get tickets to the Dream Syndicate’s March 2023 UK tour