Music For All Times

Photo courtesy of Chris Sikich

by | May 5, 2020 | Culture, Features

Steve Wynn averages 100 shows a year — whether with his band The Dream Syndicate, several side projects or solo — so staying home for an indefinite period is a new experience.

The musician and UC Davis alumnus is adhering to quarantine, like millions of people staying home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He had a very different plan for this spring.

Wynn’s band The Dream Syndicate released its seventh studio album, The Universe Inside, on April 10 to a public that is largely inside. And that’s ok, said Wynn.

“Even when we made it, we felt like this is a record best appreciated when you can drift away for a little while — put on headphones, turn out the lights and listen,” Wynn told UC Davis Magazine. “And everyone has more time for that now.”

The Universe Inside is arguably the band’s most experimental album to date. Created from a jam session with band members Dennis Duck, Mark Walton and Jason Victor, it features five songs ranging in length from just over 7 minutes to more than 20.

The Dream Syndicate’s The Universe Inside

Photo courtesy of ANTI- Records

Music plays a big part of Wynn’s history at UC Davis.

In 1977, he arrived as a freshman from his native L.A. at the age of 17. His extracurriculars ended up being life defining, especially working as a DJ at student radio station KDVS and writing songs for and performing with his first band, The Suspects.

In the early 1980s he headed back to L.A. with fellow Suspects member and UC Davis alum Kendra Smith and formed The Dream Syndicate. The band broke up at the end of 1988. Over the years, Wynn has played in several bands and fronted his own.

He’s lived in New York for 25 years, but said Davis comes up a lot, as part of the story of his formative years.

“I never have those nightmares of failing at a gig or something going wrong as a musician, but for the longest time, I’d have nightmares of being on the air at KDVS and the needle getting to the end of the record and not having anything cued up,” Wynn said. “That one didn’t go away for a long time, so I guess it must have been pretty big in my psyche.”

Here, Wynn discusses the new album, halting tour plans and why his new music wouldn’t have been played on his KDVS radio show back in the day.

Steve Wynn in 2014

Photo courtesy of Charles Cherney

What has it been like to release new music to a public that is largely at home?

Everything about this is different. We’re all trying to make sense of it. As people, we are just living through it, first and foremost. As a band putting out a new record, yeah, it’s pretty wild. And it’s challenging because we’d like to be out there playing the music live and hanging out together and celebrating the success it’s having. On the other hand, this particular record is really well suited to some of the conditions we’re in right now — being stuck inside with a lot of time on your hands and the ability to dig into something without a lot of distraction. We didn’t make it with that intention, but it does work that way.

This time every song on the album was a group writing effort. How did that come about?

It began as a late-night jam. We had been in the studio working on other material for a full day in Richmond, Virginia, where we do our recording. About midnight a friend of ours came by to say hi, and we still had some steam left in us so we went in to jam for fun, not with a goal. We didn’t stop playing for 80 minutes. Nobody wanted to be the first person to end it so we kept going. That became this record. The six of us were tapping into something inside ourselves we didn’t know was there. It couldn’t be any more co-written than that.

Will you go out on tour when this is all over?

Definitely. [Before the pandemic] we were thinking about the band and how we would go out and play it live. It’s kind of funny because this record is so different for us — it’s pretty true to who we are, but it’s pretty indulgent. Even though it’s got five songs, it’s really one listening experience. It’s very elaborate and arranged, even though it came out of a late-night jam. And we all decided to really learn to play it as it is [in performance]. We had decided not to tour right away, to let it settle in, let people get to know it. And then we’d go out and play the album all the way through. Well, as it turns out, those plans we had became not only an idea, but a necessity. We aren’t going to be playing until probably early next year. And it will be fun. We’ll be bursting at the seams to do that.

Going back a few years, what made you choose UC Davis for college?

I grew up in West L.A., very close to UCLA. That was the natural thing to do — finish high school and go to UCLA. I wanted, for whatever reason, to major in rhetoric. At the time, I had designs on being a sports journalist. That was my big dream. I thought being a rhetoric major would be a great way to build a foundation for learning to use language in useful ways. The only two schools that had a rhetoric program were UC Davis and UC Berkeley. I thought Berkeley would be another version of where I grew up. So instead, I’m going to go to this small town to see what it’s like in that kind of environment. I’m glad it did it because being in Davis for those influential years, it was a great place to be.

Steve Wynn in 2008, when he released the solo album Crossing Dragon Bridge

Photo courtesy of Guy Kokken

What was it like to work at KDVS and The California Aggie?

When I came to Davis, I went down to The Aggie, with fire in my eyes and with clippings from my high school paper and said I wanted to write for the sports page. To me, that was the holy grail. And within a few weeks I was covering the varsity football team, and I became the sports editor after one quarter. I thought, “This is it. I’m set.” After about one year as a DJ and playing in a band, that became a little more exciting. I sort of lost the desire to be a sportswriter almost overnight.

You were part of The Suspects, starting in 1978. What was your biggest takeaway from that experience?

We were doing our own thing. I wouldn’t want to say anything bad about that time, because we were learning. We were kind of a chirpy little new wave band. But it was exciting to see what it was like to stand onstage, play songs that you wrote, and then go home and write some more and play them the next week. We started to get the fever for doing that kind of thing.

Do you remember your radio show at KDVS?

I remember it well. Ironically, my show was called “3-Minute Rock and Roll.” And I called it that because I was so enthralled by new wave and punk rock. Forget all the hippie music. A lot of that is stuff I love now, but at the time we were snotty-nosed kids who said out with the old and in with the new. My thing was no song over 3 minutes. I stuck with that. And ironically, look at my new record: There’s not a song under 8 minutes. I could not be played on my own radio show!