The names bestowed upon genre subgroups often raise hackles. Artists rarely like to be boxed in, and they particularly hate being boxed within an already existing box. Sometimes, they’re just being precious. In the case of the paisley underground, though, the frustration of the associated groups is understandable.
Coined in ’80s California as an umbrella term for bands with a Nuggets-y ’60s vibe and a sound encompassing garage punk and classic rock — groups like The Bangles, Rain Parade, Green on Red and The Dream Syndicate — the phrase woefully undersells the exciting edge that these bands had, making them sound terribly foppish.
But time has a way of making these gripes go away. In the case of The Dream Syndicate, the band were active between 1981 and ’89, before reuniting in 2012. They’ve now nearly been together as long post-reunion as they were pre-breakup. They’ve had solo careers and other bands, but they found their way back to each other. So the last thing frontman Steve Wynn is doing is complaining about labels. Rather, he’s focusing on the fact that last year the band put out their first new album in three decades, How Did I Find Myself Here?.
“I’m really happy with the way it came out,” Wynn says. “We set high expectations for ourselves because we knew other people would do the same for us as well. We wanted to make sure that it was something we could be proud of, especially after all that time. We were very happy with it.”
Thirty years is a long time in anyone’s life. We all change, grow and evolve as we carry on with our existence. So one would imagine it’s not particularly easy to tap back into a sound from a former life. Wynn says it’s about finding a balance.
“I think we wanted to have that balance between who we were back then, referring to what the band was, but also we wanted to take it someplace new,” he says. “We didn’t want it to be a tribute to an ’80s band. We wanted to see if we had something new to say. I think that was the litmus test we gave ourselves on the record. If it felt stale and obligatory, then we weren’t going to put it out. We’ve been playing shows for about three years. The way we’re playing now, there was no doubt it was The Dream Syndicate. It was a new band that in a way could have started two weeks ago and would have had a reason for existing.”
Wynn and The Dream Syndicate found that, as was the case with the likes of The Pixies and Stooges, the legend of the band grew while they were away. Other bands started citing them as a major influence, from Nirvana to Morphine, leading younger music lovers to discover them. So by the time 2012 rolled around, a reunion just felt right.
“We were ahead of our time and behind our time,” Wynn says. “We were most definitely out of our time. I think that’s why what we did doesn’t feel dated or like we’re an ’80s band, because we were so out of step with what was going on in the ’80s in general — what was going on in the mainstream and even in the underground. It was all 180 degrees from what we were doing. When we were around the first time, we felt like we were daring people to hate us. Knowing we had to somehow explain this weird music we were playing and where it came from, it almost felt like a nightly crusade. The big difference right now is that it doesn’t feel that way anymore. Maybe people caught up with us.”
He’s right, of course. The ’80s was the era of the Sunset Strip glitter and glam scene, and The Dream Syndicate couldn’t have been any further from that.
“I remember right when we started, seeing Mötley Crüe at the Whisky and thinking, ‘I thought this was supposed to be heavy — this is pretty wimpy,’” Wynn says. “What we were doing, and what was happening with other bands in the paisley underground, was when you look back now it was just a few brief seconds after punk ended. That was the music that really got us to do what we’re doing. I think that came through in the attitude we had toward playing live, and still does. Pushing things as far as you can push them and seeing what will happen, and taking the chance that things won’t happen the way you want them to. And that you always risk falling on your face at any moment.”
That element of “anything can happen” still exists, as fans will be able to see for themselves when the band play the Troubadour this week.
“What’s funny is we never played the Troubadour back in the day,” Wynn says. “It was really geared toward the hair metal the first time we were around. I grew up in L.A., so I grew up in awe of the Troubadour. I saw Tom Waits there when I was 16, and it was the coolest place on Earth. I’d read legendary stories of things that were happening there with John Lennon and Elton John. But I never played there. I barely even went there because it wasn’t my scene. So I’m excited to finally go back there.”
After that, The Dream Syndicate will continue to play shows throughout the year, before going back into the studio in December. This wasn’t a “one album and out again” reunion — this band is back for the long haul. And the new underground is all the better for it.
The Dream Syndicate play with Ford Madox Ford at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 20, at the Troubadour.