Living the dream
June 22, 2001
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
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."
* * *
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.