Feature interview: The Dream Syndicate at Ace of Cups

Andy Downing

In 1982, following three nights of midnight to 8 a.m. sessions at a Los Angeles recording studio, singer/guitarist Steve Wynn and his Dream Syndicate bandmates emerged with a cassette tape containing the final mix of the band's sophomore album, The Days of Wine and Roses.

“When we left the studio … I played it in the car, and even at that moment I knew we'd done something good, something that would stand up to most of the records I liked,” said Wynn, who brings a reformed Dream Syndicate to Ace of Cups for a concert on Sunday, Dec. 3. “In a way, it's nice that 35 years later it's still an album that means a lot to people, and to people who weren't even born then. But at the same time, we knew it was good.”

The Dream Syndicate ended its first go-round in 1989. At the time, Wynn had toured for nearly seven years nonstop, and he was starting to feel restless, believing there were new musical frontiers to explore. “It felt like, ‘I'm an old man. It's time to do something different.' But of course at 28 I was a kid,” said Wynn, now 57.

In years since, Wynn has performed and recorded both solo and with a smattering of bands, including still-active concerns such as Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3, Gutterball, and the Baseball Project, a hardball-themed group where he plays alongside the likes of Peter Buck (R.E.M.) and Scott McCaughey (The Minus 5), currently recovering from a serious stroke. But all along, Wynn never completely abandoned the Dream Syndicate, continuing to perform its songs in concert and remaining open to a reunion, which finally came to fruition in 2012.

“It was an unfinished band, and it's nice to come back to it with everything we've learned since then and everything that's changed in the world, with this newfound energy and sound,” said Wynn, who's joined in the current incarnation of the group by original drummer Dennis Duck, bassist Mark Walton, who joined the band in the mid-1980s, and newest member and long-running Miracle 3 guitarist Jason Victor.

Wynn entered into the reunion with little sense of expectation, and early shows were accepted on an as-they-come-basis.

“From the beginning, we took things a little tiny bite at a time. Let's go to Spain and play five shows. If that's good, maybe we'll do a little more,” Wynn said. “We kept doing a little more here or there … and after two years of that we started to think, ‘This is actually really good. It feels new enough and familiar enough at the same time. Let's make a record and see what happens.'”

But even these recording sessions were low-pressure affairs; the bandmates gathered at a father/son-run studio in Richmond, Virginia, with the understanding that if the music wasn't up to the group's standards, the sessions would be scrapped. “But it was good from the first day, the first hour,” Wynn said.

Band reunions can be tricky, with relatively few reformed acts creating music as vital as that first go-round. Mission of Burma comes to mind. As does Wire. And Wynn entered into this rebirth with a full understanding of these stacked odds.

“I'm a big music fan, so I think about these things a lot. If you don't sound anything like you did the first time around, there's kind of no point in reuniting. Why even call it that? But if you sound exactly like you did back then, it sounds almost like a parody,” said Wynn, who managed to strike the needed balance onHow Did I Find Myself Here (Anti-), released earlier this year. “When you hear us play now, we sound like the Dream Syndicate. It's not like we took the old name and now we sound like a techno band or a folk band. But I think the new record and the shows we're playing go some cool new places, and in a way it feels like a new band.”

Even so, there are numerous ties to the past onHow Did I Find Myself Here. Wynn noted many of the songs are, in a way, about the Dream Syndicate — “Who we were, what we became and where we are,” he said — and even the album title is a reference to the current state of affairs, as in, really, howdid we get here? Additionally, original band member Kendra Smith turns up to sing the hypnotic, album-closing “Kendra's Dream,” which Wynn described as a full-circle moment. And the album track “Like Mary” first originated during band rehearsal 35 years ago.

“We rehearsed [‘Like Mary'] one time back in '82, I think, and Dennis and I found a cassette of that rehearsal and it was like, ‘Why didn't we finish that one? That's a good song,'” Wynn said. “When we started this record that was a song I wanted to try because, again, it felt like unfinished business. It was something from then that had potential, and I liked that connection to the past. I like that something that began in a Hollywood rehearsal room in '82 is now on a record in 2017.”

Now, with the reunion record officially out of the way, Wynn & Co. feel increased freedom to pursue their musical muse wherever it might lead, free from the constraints of the past.

“When I talk about the next one, I keep saying we're going to be making our second record, and that's the way it feels,” Wynn said. “In many ways, it feels like a new album with a new band. We just happen to have the same name as this band from the '80s.”

Ace of Cups

8 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 3

2619 N. High St., Old North

ALSO PLAYING: Elephant Stone