Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #133. Subscribe to our print edition here!
Inspired by late-night FM radio and off-the-cuff DJ mixes, The Dream Syndicate tap into wild new territory on their second album post-reunion.
Words by Matt Doria.
Exactly 30 years since they first called it quits, Californian alt-rock pioneers The Dream Syndicate are stronger, sharper, and more serious about music than they’ve ever been. Sharing only a name and lineup with the band they were in the ‘80s, the Dream Syndicate of the 21st century is a truly unique beast; when they dropped How Did I Find Myself Here? in 2017, the music industry at large was stunned. It seemed like the kind of record that only comes once in a band’s tenure, if they’re lucky – lightning in a bottle, so to speak, the variety of which rarely sparks a follow-up.
So, two years later, in comes frontman Steve Wynn to defy the odds. These Times is arguably even more intense than its predecessor – in style, maybe not, but certainly in the listening experience. Informed by the work of hip-hop legend J-Dilla (RIP), Wynn set out to make an record unlike any his wisdom had been slicked on before – one that would truly redefine The Dream Syndicate.
What was it about J-Dilla’s work that struck a chord with you?
It’s a confusing reference point to a lot of people, because many people think of J-Dilla as a hip-hop artist, which the record Donuts – the one I had gotten into – isn’t at all. He made that record in the last year of his life, as he was dying – it’s kind of like his Blackstar, but unlike Bowie, who did it through writing songs and collaborating with a full jazz band as a live musician in the studio, J-Dilla did it as a DJ; as a music fan and curator, taking his record collection and saying, “How can I channel all of my favourite records into something that’s meaningful to me?” I just liked how [Donuts] created its own world.
I find that lately, when I listen to music – often late at night – I’m looking for something that will take me out of every bit of my present existence and throw me into another corner of the universe – which I think we all kind of need, now more so than ever, because there’s so much noise from all the horrible news out there, from social media, and from our short attention spans being pulled in every direction at once. I find that I’m gravitating towards music that invents its own world that I can drift into, and when I heard the Dilla record, I went, “That’s the kind of thing!”
So I wanted to make a record like that – not in the way it sounds, or the tools he was using, but in the way that he used this idea of a radio show to tell you about what he was going through.
So taking on this project with a new headspace, messing with step sequencers and drum machines and things like that – how did that all shake up the creative process?
Well, I’ve always been into that. It feels like there’s been 400 songs that I’ve recorded, and I’ve written plenty more besides that, so I find that I have to kind of trick myself to write now. These days, I need a new toy – y’know, a drum machine or some kind of software – something that will surprise me and make it all playful for me. And on this record, one of the big things was this step sequencer I bought, the Arturia BeatsStep Pro. And I just fell in love with it – it’s the size of two paperback books weighed end to end, and you can just turn knobs and play with things in realtime, and create these melodies and repetitious grooves that are just fun, y’know?
I was playing some of those things for the head of our label [ANTI-], AndyKaulkin, and he was the one that mentioned to me, “You’re kind of doing things that remind me of Dilla.” But I’ll do anything it takes to get a song that excites me – any toy, any collaboration, any headspace – and then once I do that, it’s up to the band to take my breadcrumbs and clues and figure out what to do with them.
You actually wrote the lyrics for this LP after all the music had been tracked, didn’t you?
I did! With The Dream Syndicate, I try to write just enough to get the band off and running, y’know? I’m just trying to be a catalyst – I’ll write chord progressions, or a bassline or a groove or whatever, but I don’t want it to be a case of the band, even subconsciously, saying, “Oh, this is his song about such and such, so we’re going to play a song that feels like such and such.” Like, nah, just follow the chord! Follow the groove, and take it as far as you want to go – I’ll catch up to you guys later on.
And the fun thing about that was... Well, I’m saying fun now – admittedly it was a little less fun at the time – but I had three weeks to write all the lyrics to all the songs, which was kind of crazy. But the good thing about that is that I think the lyrics all have a unifying thread to them, which I didn’t even know I was going for until I wrote them. It’s just where things were in my headspace in August 2018 – it was, like it is now and was before, a chaotic, not always pretty sight; I was just riding all of those emotions and putting them into words.
I feel like that adds a level of immediacy to the record. There’s no f***ing around with these overly perfected metaphors – it’s the raw thoughts that are coursing through your brain, and the ways you’d be processing them as a person. And because of that, the listener gets to have that same experience of reckoning with those themes in realtime.
That’s always the trick, I think – to write songs that let the listener in and find themselves in the words. To give just enough detail, and colour in things just enough so that there’s something to grab onto. I think when you spell things out too much for them, the listener goes, “Well, what’s in it for me?” I like lyrics that suggest a world that you almost feel like you’re a part of, but you don’t quite get you there.
A lot of my favourite records are like that: Exile On Main Street, for example – some of the words on that record are just great, and you almost feel like you’re inside the world of The Rolling Stones in 1971, which I’m guessing was a pretty crazy world, but you’re not quite there. You’re standing on your tippy toes and looking through a foggy window, thinking, “I kinda see what’s going on, and wow – I want a closer look at that!” And that’s a fun way to hear music.