Living the dream


June 22, 2001



When some veteran rockers have their midlife crises, they respond by taking comfort in sweet nostalgia, endlessly recycling the formulas they perfected in their more turbulent 20s. Not Steve Wynn.

At 41, the former leader of '80s cult heroes the Dream Syndicate is thinking a lot about his past, his future and where he fits in the current pop spectrum. The results can be heard on his strongest album in a decade, the sprawling epic "Here Come the Miracles," newly released on his own Blue Rose Records.

"This record touches a lot on the idea of that on/off switch in life, and which way do I flip it?" Wynn says. "The idea of finding a reason to keep living, to keep attacking everything out there, to keep having some excitement about life. That's something I may not have written about 20 years ago."

Wynn rose to prominence in 1981, when the Dream Syndicate emerged as part of Los Angeles' psychedelic "Paisley Underground." Unleashing a blistering guitar-driven sound that merged Big Star and the Velvet Underground, the group released several influential albums before disbanding in 1989. After that, Wynn went on to hone his songwriting on a series of rewarding solo albums for labels such as Rhino and Zero Hour.

When Zero Hour folded, the singer decided to go back to his do-it-yourself roots. "You get back to the point of where you were when you started," Wynn says. "When you feel like, `This is the music I'm making, and if you don't like it, you don't have to listen.' It's a real freedom, but it's hard to get back to that."

Recorded in the Tucson, Ariz., desert, Wynn drew the best from a solid band that included his longtime rhythm section, drummer Linda Pitmon and bassist Dave DeCastro, as well former Green on Red keyboardist Chris Cacavas, Come guitarist Chris Brokaw and special guest spanner-in-the-works Howe Gelb of Giant Sand. As always, Wynn encouraged his musicians to challenge him.

"I want to be constantly surprised onstage and in the studio, because then I react to that," he says. "The whole thing I love about music--and this is getting back to the psychedelic thing--is the interaction, the call and response, where somebody does one thing and it inspires you to do something else. We were recording in a strange place, experimenting, letting things fly, and going more by instinct than mapping things out. I think that gives the album a sense of time and place, and that's something that most of my favorite records have."

Wynn remains a vibrant and electrifying performer onstage, and he's touring with another guitar legend--Television's Richard Lloyd, who's also supporting a strong new solo album, "The Cover Doesn't Matter." Both artists stand as welcome proof that you can grow older in rock without growing duller.

"I like doing this now more than ever, and as long as I feel that way, I'll keep doing it," Wynn says. "People always say, `When I'm not having fun, I'll quit.' But it's a true thing, and I can't imagine not having fun doing this."

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Also maturing in an interesting way are Dutch noise-rockers the Ex. Hugely influential in the avant-underground, the long-running collective is as renowned for its socialist politics as it is for its percussive art-punk.

Recorded in France with Chicagoan Steve Albini, the new "Dizzy Spells" (Touch & Go) finds the band mellowing lyrically and expanding further into the more danceable direction introduced on 1998's "Starters Alternators." But the music and the message still pack considerable wallop.

"It's still the same idea--that things make you angry or happy, they stir some emotion in you, and you want to say something about it," says vocalist G.W. Sok. "We often saw that we had a point of view that we could not find in the mass media, so we thought, `OK, we'll tell our side of the story.' Not so much to convince people like a missionary, but more to say, `Make up your own mind about it, or at least realize that there's more to it than you read in the papers.'

"Of course, through the years, you find different ways of telling things. In the beginning, it was a bit more black and white, but that was also part of the times. In the early '80s in Holland, it was hard times, with a lot of confrontations between police and countercultural activists. So then we just wanted to say, `[Buzz] off!' But you don't want to just say, `[Buzz] off' all the time. You can try to find other angles of approaching a topic and stir some other things to the surface."

The Ex is playing two rare U.S. gigs Saturday and Sunday night (both sold out) as part of one of Albini's always-exciting Independent Arts Festivals at the Congress Theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee. Emo legends Fugazi headline, Shellac fills the middle slot. Doors open at 6 p.m. For more information, call (773) 539-9429 or (773) 252-4000.