Throughout the course of last year, I wrote quite a bit about the Los Angeles-based psych rock act The Dream Syndicate. The act, which is currently comprised of founding members Steve Wynn (guitars, vocals), a critically applauded singer/songwriter and solo artist and Dennis Duck (drums), along with the band’s most recent members Mark Walton (bass) and Jason Victor (guitar) can trace its origins back to the early ’80s. At the time Wynn along with fellow Dream Syndicate founding member Kendra Smith and future True West members Russ Tolman and Gavin Blair founded and played in one of Davis, CA‘s first New Wave bands — The Suspects, Wynn also recorded a single with another band 15 Minutes, which featured members of Alternate Learning.
After returning to his hometown,. Wynn spent a brief stint researching in another local upstart band, Goat Deity with future Wednesday Week members Kelly and Kristi Callan. And while with Goat Deity, Wynn met Karl Precoda, who had answered an ad seeking a bassist. The duo of Wynn and Precoda started a new band with Precoda switching to guitar. Wynn’s college pal and former bandmate Smith, along with Duck, who was then a member of Pasadena-based act Human Hands joined the band, completing The Dream Syndicate’s first lineup. (Interestingly, as the story goes, Duck suggested the band’s name as a reference to Tony Conrad’s early 1960s New York-based experimental ensemble, best known as the Theatre of Eternal Music, which featured John Cale.)
With the release of their Paul B. Cutler-produced debut EP, The Dream Syndicate received attention locally for a sound influenced by The Velvet Underground, Neil Young and Television, with aggressively long, feedback-filled improvisations. In 1982, The Dream Syndicate signed to Slash Records subsidiary Ruby Records, who released the band’s 1982 full-length debut, the attention-grabbing and influential Days of Wine and Roses. Building upon a growing profile. Rough Trade Records released Days of Wine and Roses‘ lead single “Tell Me When It’s Over” as the A-side of a UK EP, which included a live cover of Neil Young’s “Mr. Soul” that was released in early 1983. Shortly, after that Smith left the band and joined the David Roback (best known for his work in Mazzy Star) in Opal. Smith was released by David Provost.
Their Sandy Pearlman-produced sophomore effort Medicine Show was recorded and released through A&M Records in 1984 — and as a result of being on a major label, the band opened for R.E.M. and U2. Attempting to build on a growing profile, the members of the band released a five song EP This Is Not The New Dream Syndicate Album . . . Live!, which was noteworthy as it was the last recorded effort to feature Precoda, who left soon after to pursue a career in screenwriting — and it was the first to feature Mark Walton on bass. The EP’s commercial failure led to the band’s first breakup — although a temporary one. The band was then dropped by A&M Records after the label rejected the band’s demo for “Slide Away.”
During the band’s first break up, Wynn along with Green on Red’s Dan Stuart wrote and recorded 10 songs with Duck and a number of other musicians, which was released by A&M Records in 1985 as Danny and Dusty’s The Lost Weekend. After the release of Lost Weekend, Wynn, Duck and Walton teamed up with Paul B. Cutler to form a then-newly reunited iteration of The Dream Syndicate that recorded two full-length studio albums — 1986’s Cutler-produced Out of the Grey and 1988’s Elliot Mazer-produced Ghost Stories. The band recorded a live album Live at Raji‘s which was recorded in 1988 before the release of Ghost Stories but released afterward.
The band broke up for the second time in 1989 — and a batch of previously unreleased material was released that included 3½ (The Lost Tapes: 1985-1988), a compilation of studio sessions and The Day Before Wine and Roses, a live KPFK radio session, recorded just before the release of the band’s applauded debut album were released. After the breakup, Walton went on to play bass in the Continental Drifters while Wynn went on to become an acclaimed singer/songwriter, who restlessly explored a variety of different styles and sounds while leading a number of disparate projects including Steve Wynn and The Miracle 3, The Baseball Project and others.
Wynn led a reunited Dream Syndicate to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their full-length debut that featured Walton, Duck and Jason Victor, Wynn’s longtime Steve Wynn and The Miracle 3 guitarist at an appearance at 2012’s Festival BAM in Barcelona Spain. The reunited band went on to play a handful of other live sets, including two 2013 Paisley Underground reunion shows that included The Bangles, The Three O’Clock and Rain Parade. September 2014 saw the band playing a handful of shows in which they played their first two albums in their complete entirety — and those shows marked the band’s first shows in the Southeast in almost 30 years. Between their first reunion show and 2017, the band played more than 50 shows together.
2017’s How Did I Find Myself Here was the band’s first reunion-era effort and the band’s fifth full-length album overall. Recorded at Montrose Studios, the album featured a lineup of Wynn. Walton, Duck, Victor and Chris Cacavas (keys) with Kendra Smith contributing lyrics and vocals to the album’s final track “Kendra’s Dream.” The band closed out that year with three songs, which landed on the 3 x 4 compilation, a collection of tracks that featured new material from their Paisley Underground counterparts — the aforementioned The Bangles, The Three O’Clock and Rain Parade with each of the four bands also covering songs by the other bands.
Last year saw the release of the John Agnello and The Dream Syndicate co-produced These Times, the band’s second reunion-era effort and sixth overall. Interestingly, the album’s material is a noticeable sonic departure for the band. “When I was writing the songs for the new album I was pretty obsessed with Donuts by J-Dilla,” the band’s Steve Wynn explained. “I loved the way that he approached record making as a DJ, a crate-digger, a music fan wanting to lay out all of his favorite music, twist and turn the results until he made them into his own. I was messing around with step sequencers, drum machines, loops—anything to take me out of my usual way of writing and try to feel as though I was working on a compilation rather than ‘more of the same.’ You might not automatically put The Dream Syndicate and J-Dilla in the same sentence, but I hear that album when I hear our new one.” Additionally, Wynn changed his process for writing lyrics. Instead of the song’s sound being dictated by previously written lyrics, he wrote all of the album’s lyrics after the band finished instrumental tracking, so that the lyrics were influenced by the sounds being played.
Slated for an April 10, 2020 release through Anti- Records, The Dream Syndicate’s third reunion-era album and seventh overall The Universe Inside will reportedly be one of the most mind-bending efforts they’ve released to date — and for the first time in their lengthy history, every song on the album is a group songwriting effort. Musically, the material draws from each individual member’s eclectic interests and passions — Dennis Duck’s love and knowledge of European avant garde music, Jason Victor’s love of 70s prog rock, Mark Walton’s experience in Southern-friend music collectives, Chris Cacavas’ interest in sound manipulation and Wynn’s love of 70s jazz fusion. Recorded in one session, the band recorded 80 continuous minutes of soundscapes. “All we added was air,” Wynn explained. So, aside from vocals, horns and a touch of percussion here and there, every instrument is recorded live as it happened.
Interestingly, the album’s first single is the sprawling and epic “The Regulator.” Clocking in at just under 21 minutes, the track sonically is a a sort of seamless synthesis of Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson-era Miles Davis, motorik groove-driven prog rock and 60s psych rock as the track features droning eclectic sitar played by The Long Ryders‘ Stephen McCarthy, a sinuous bass line, soulful sax flourishes by Butcher Brown‘s Marcus Tenney, Wynn’s vocals fed through vocoder and ghostly effects buried within the trippy and funky mix.
“’The Regulator’ is a microcosm of the entire record,” Wynn explains in press notes. “It was just a formless, trippy mass as we all started playing together. There was an early 70’s drum machine—a Maestro Rhythm King, the same model used on There’s A Riot Goin’ On—with Dennis locking in and setting the pace. Stephen grabbed an electric sitar because it was the first thing he saw. Jason and I were kicking pedals on like lab monkeys in a laboratory and Mark was a lightning rod, uniting all of those elements into one tough groove. I collected a list of random, unconnected lyric ideas that I kept on my phone. I tried them all out in random order in my home studio just to see how they would feel and that one-take test run is the vocal you hear! There’s just so much lightning-in-a-jar, first take excitement on this record.”
Directed by David Daglish, the recently released video for “The Regulator” is a psychedelic journey through New York that’s equal parts panoramic, somnambulistic, political and hallucinogenic. Throughout, the video accurately captures the city’s frenetic and maddening energy, its lunatics and crackpots, its bold dreamers and hustlers, its sublime beauty and its gritty soul — it’s essentially a microcosm of our world.