Steve Wynn – Out of Syndication
Steve Wynn could have disappeared from the face of the Earth upon the release of The Days Of Wine And Roses, the 1982 debut album by his former band the Dream Syndicate, and his small piece of rock lore would have been etched in the stones and soil left behind. The album, a mix of manic drama with an anarchic splattering of guitars, captivated a small army of believers a generation too young to have witnessed the Velvet Underground (its obvious, and glorious, reference point). To this day, it’s an essential listen from that decade.
But Wynn persevered, as fortunate artists do. And it’s as if he’s been chasing such ghosts ever since. Even with plenty of solid, honest moments spanning what is now sixteen albums, including eight solo efforts, his records have never been, well, The Days Of Wine And Roses.
But one day in 2000, Wynn traveled from New York City to Tucson, Arizona, to roll tape on Here Come The Miracles, a double-CD released in 2001. And it’s as if everything changed. It was the same old Wynn — songs were frayed, exhilarating, smart, and simple — but this time he delivered an epic, madly confident (and admittedly more mature) album that made a listener’s skin quiver like Wine And Roses once did. The chief architect of one of the classic college-rock albums of the ’80s had found his way home again.
Two years later, Wynn challenged the rock gods again by returning to the same Tucson studio with the same group of musicians and collaborators to make Static Transmission. Wynn didn’t match the supersonics of Here Come The Miracles with its sequel — but that’s because he didn’t try. He looked beyond.
“[Miracles] was really kind of a very confident, arrogant, swaggering, determined, bragging, boasting, show-off of a record, and I loved that,” Wynn says. “And [Static Transmission] is really more inward, more melancholy, a little sweeter, and also more insecure type of record….I keep calling it claustrophobic, it really is a small, contained, mood record.”
Yet there is a common ground between his two most recent albums, something that separates them from their predecessors. “Up until Here Come The Miracles, with all my records, there were always moments where I listened to it and I’d say it sounds like I’m trying to do something,” Wynn explains. “Like I’m trying to get this effect or I’m trying to write a song like this or trying to reflect a certain record in my collection that I love a lot.
“And I think that with the last two records, it just feels very honest, very natural, very transparent, very believable. And these are the things I love in music. I’d much rather listen to a song like ‘Louie, Louie’ or ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ that’s very simple and just captures something very simple in a very honest way, than listen to a prog rock record or a rock opera or something that’s taking on huge things and showing every bit of the effort. That doesn’t excite me that much.”
The music bears witness to Wynn’s assertions. And of his two latest records, Static Transmission is perhaps the more vital, a trip the 43-year-old rocker has never taken before. It’s at times contemplative, tender, vulnerable, even occasionally happy.
Wynn chose Tucson on the advice of his longtime friend, Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb. After recording three albums in New York, where Wynn has lived for the last decade since relocating from his native Los Angeles, he was looking for a fresh take. “There was just this unsettled feeling, like, ‘Man, I want something that’s gonna go beyond what I’ve done before,'” he says.
Gelb suggested Wavelab Studios and producer/engineer Craig Schumacher, who for years has been in the Giant Sand/Calexico camp and also worked on recent efforts by Neko Case and Evan Dando. Wynn headed to the desert with guitarist Chris Brokaw, keyboardist Chris Cacavas, bassist Dave DeCastro and drummer Linda Pitmon.
Wavelab, which Wynn describes as somewhere between “lo-fi” and “a super-high-tech $5,000-an-hour gold-coffee-table kind of place,” fit the bill. The environs of Tucson took a little getting used to: “Lizard-like, baked in the sun, doused in beer and weed [and] the complete antithesis of life in New York,” he summarizes.
As for the end result, Wynn says, “When I finished [Miracles], I had the same feeling I had when I finished Days Of Wine And Roses, which is, ‘This record is everything I want it to be. There’s nothing I would change about it.’ It was easy to say that Days Of Wine And Roses was the best thing I’d ever done at the time because it was my first record. But I felt the same way with Here Come The Miracles.”
Many critics agreed, calling the album Wynn’s “big payback,” “the culmination of four decades of music making,” and in multiple cases, a masterpiece.
Wynn says it was the appropriate reaction. “One thing about that record, this goes to the idea of it being a comeback; it was designed to be that. I really wanted to make a record that would stand out from the other things that I’d been making. Part of it was making it a double album, part of it was just trying to summarize everything I’d done before in one record. And that’s what it was. And when people responded so positively to the record, it didn’t surprise me, because I felt the same way.”
Thus, when time came to consider a follow-up, he looked no further than Wavelab. He returned in 2002, with the same band — now dubbed the Miracle 3 — in tow, save for guitarist Jason Victor in place of Brokaw. Only this time, he wasn’t sure what he had in mind for a follow-up recording. “I just had a lot of songs I liked, and wanted to just let it go and go where ever it went,” he says.
Wynn did have some ideas, prompting him to give each band member a copy of Sly & the Family Stone’s landmark 1971 album There’s A Riot Goin’ On. No, he wasn’t discovering his inner funk; “I said, ‘Look, I’m not trying to make an early ’70s soul-funk record, but the thing about this record that I really love is that it feels like it was made in a very small room with very close air and no windows and in one three-day sleepless binge. It just feels like one long moment captured in time.’ And I wanted to make that kind of a record.”
Then there was this other issue: September 11th. Wynn does not consider this a record about the terror attacks, but he cannot deny their impact. Before 9-11, Wynn says, “it was easy to say, ‘Man, I’ve got all the answers; step aside, I’ve got to do my thing.’ All of the sudden, arrogance and blind ambition and unbridled confidence didn’t feel the same anymore. Suddenly, you couldn’t be sure about your life, about your future, about what was really important.