A Conversation with Sarah McLachlan, This Time For Real
Mike Ragogna: Sarah, how did you approach coming into Shine On versus your other albums?
Sarah McLachlan: I approach all my records the same way, which is to try not to “eat the whole whale at once.” The approach to songwriting for me is slow and laborious and I just have to let things take their natural course. I attempt to work every day, I try to write, but certainly when absolutely nothing is happening and I’m banging my head up against a wall, I kind of have to let it go. But when I am feeling fruitful and things are happening, I just let the song dictate how it wants to go, and I try not to edit myself too much.
MR: Were there any particular scenarios or adventures you had that led into some of the topics that popped on this album?
SM: It was just sort of natural, things I wanted to talk about. I do write from a personal emotional place. I’m typically telling my own story, but within that, there’s always other people’s stories that come into play as well. That’s creative license; you have to tell a story in a unique and special way that’s different from all the other stories, when you only have the words that we have, and only, for example, seven words to stick into a particular frame, and they have to rhyme at the end. Musically I could make the effort to try to do something a little different. With the last record I did some [inaudible at 3:16] and I wanted to do more of that and try to have a bit more of a rawer sound, so that was one of the reasons for wanting to work with Bob Rock, and I think turned out very well. He pushed me in that direction a little more than I would have naturally gone on my own. I think there’s a directness, lyrically. Again, I’ve always written from an emotional point of view, and my stories are always in there, as are others’, but I think that with this time, I felt the story was strong enough on its own not to cloak it with other people’s stories. I’m thinking of “Song For My Father” and “Surrender and Certainty,” which are both sort of about my dad. Those were powerful stories for me that I really wanted to tell, and I just wanted them to be simple.
MR: There’s a piece, “In Your Shoes,” that was inspired by young Pakistani activist Malala [Yousafzai]. What was that process for you, internally, to get to that point?
SM: I had started writing that song months before that happened, and the first line came out in its entirety, “Turn the radio on / play your favorite song and cry,” and I then wondered where that came from, and what I wanted to say about it; it reminded me of when I was a teenager and I disappeared into music because I didn’t have very many friends and I was picked on a lot. So I thought I’d write a song about bullying, which is a hot topic these days – I’ve got two young daughters who luckily haven’t experienced that yet. But I couldn’t finish the song; I tried to think about bullying and I wrote my own story, and it wasn’t strong enough. And then the story of Malala came on the news and she’s so incredible, such a powerhouse. She was at the time 15 years old, and to have that strength of character to stand up for herself and what she believed in, and then to have that horrific thing happen to her and to survive it and become an international heroine… I thought she’s an amazing role model, and the perfect heroine for the story, so the song became easier to finish after that.
MR: What do you feel is at the root of bullying? Is there a basic thing here that we’re just not getting?
SM: I’m really baffled by the whole thing. There are things you can certainly point to that are very different from when I was growing up. When we were growing up and we got bullied, we got thrown into the locker, beaten up, etc. and you just sucked it up and kept on going. No one I know ever killed themselves. But now it seems to me that’s happening all the time, and I don’t understand what has changed. In some ways I would think we have way more support for that kind of thing, but at the same time, with the internet, you’ve got an amazing campaign that can be launched against a kid that’s incredibly destructive. Not just within their own school, but they can change schools and this stuff follows them; it becomes unbearable. That vindictiveness has always been there; kids are cruel. I think the magnitude of it has really gotten a lot bigger, but I don’t know what the answer is. Honestly, I think all of us exist just barely on the right side of chaos at all times. And it kind of amazes me that everything runs as smoothly as it does. You turn on the news every night and there’s kids bringing guns to school and killing themselves and their friends. These horrible things are happening, and I think that as a culture and a society we’re heading away from spirituality and away from communication and connectedness. Most of people’s friends live in the virtual world, they’re not real friends; people don’t have real conversations anymore, they’re living on their devices. It scares the crap out of me.
MR: It seems like what’s happening is that kids are possibly re-expressing what they’re learning in their homes. Maybe there’s something embedded in the psyche of our culture. And you wee bullied, right?
SM: I was bullied every day. I was beaten up, teased, ridiculed. I went to my mom and she told me I was lying because she couldn’t handle it, so I was completely on my own. I didn’t have any friends. But I never even considered hurting myself. Here’s where I go to “Music saved my life,” because it did. It was the one thing I had that I knew I was good at. It was a friend to me. I could always go to music. I’m so lucky because of that.
MR: Beautifully said. Also, I think a lot of people have been lucky because they’ve been able to identify with the topics of your music, and also your recordings; it’s solace. They’ve found a friend in Sarah McLachlan, I think.
SM: That’s what music is for me, it’s comfort. At the best of times it’s comfort, it’s solace, but even more importantly it’s that connection of, “Oh my God, somebody else understands me, someone else hears me and feels what I’m going through because they’re talking about it in this medium and they totally get me.” That’s what we want. We want to be connected, heard, seen. Again, I think that’s part of what’s wrong with our society; you’ve got two parents working nonstop trying to pay all the bills to survive, and kids are struggling. Adults are struggling. Everybody’s struggling. The world is moving so fast, and we’re all trying to so hard to keep up with it. Like I said, one step away from chaos at all times.
MR: I feel like “Sarah Mclachlan” represents something a little bit more than just your typical recording artist who’s had a successful career, evidenced but in everything we just talked about. I think people do find comfort in your music, and that you have contributed much so that you’ve beome iconic in a lot of ways.
SM: I think whenever you’re in the spotlight and are recognizable and a large group of people “follow” you, you have even more of a responsibility. We all have a responsibility to be a positive influence in the world. That’s certainly always been my goal, which is why I’m so incredibly happy and grateful that I’ve been given this gift, and that I can do something good with it. It’s a really amazing validation for me to know that something I created goes out there in the world and helps someone I don’t even know. It’s a beautiful thing.
MR: Sarah, what are some areas where you think artists should be careful or stay aware of?
SM: [laughs] That’s a long list! Surround yourself with people you can trust; though that in itself is a loaded statement, because how do you know who you can trust? I think it’s about managing and understanding people’s agendas, and having good-quality relationships. What is a good-quality relationship? It’s reciprocal. There’s giving and receiving. When and if you can find people in your life who can help you and are in it for the right reasons… it’s such an intimate dance; it’s like reading a parenting book and saying, “Okay, that’s how I’m going to raise my kid.” It’s far too complex for that. Human relationships are so complex, and everyone is unique and different. So to give advice on a particular relationship without having all the facts, you’re never going to have enough information to really accurately give good advice. Even if you do have all the information, the advice is based on your experience, not theirs. It’s a matter of taking people’s advice, not with a grain of salt necessarily, but just getting a lot of different opinions. Don’t just take one person’s answer at face and say that’s the way it is. The bottom line is we have to educate ourselves and be our own advocate. And in order to do so, we need to ask a whole lot of questions and not take everybody’s answer at face value. When you’re your own advocate and you can have a well-rounded understanding for the reasons you’re doing things, you can look at yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and be proud and say, “I did these things, and I did them for the right reasons, and with a certain degree of responsibility.”
MR: Beautiful. Sarah, before we end, did we miss anything?
SM: I’m excited to come on the road for the Shine On tour! Bringing these songs to North America and play them live and we have a great band, and we’re starting rehearsals next week so I’m very excited!
Transcribed by Emily Fotis
Another Awesome Conversation with John Waite
Mike Ragogna: John, your latest is titled Best–not a “Greatest Hits” per se, but more of an overview of what you felt was your best material on your terms. A lot of the package is made up of live renditions and a couple of re-records. What motivated you to do a project like this?
John Waite: Last December, I was wandering around Beverley Hills and it was raining and it was Christmas, I was doing some Christmas shopping and I got caught in the rain. I walked past a Richard Avedon photography exhibition and I went in, to get out of the rain, really. I’m more of a David Bailey guy when it comes to sixties photography. I worked with David for one of my album covers. I’ve always been interested in art and photography and painting, a lot of different forms of art, so it was great to get out of the rain. I thought, “Avedon, I’ll give it a shot,” you know. It was very high fashion, very sixties, very period, you know, and there’s this one wall that was covered in small framed protraiture, really, everybody from Janis Joplin to Mick Jagger to Elizabeth Taylor to Jean Shrimpton, all sorts of different people. I was stood there looking at it and it just came to me, “What would it sound like if that was music?” If it was a history of my work, what would it sound like? From there on I was making mental notes about how to go about it.
I went back to Britain to see my mum for Christmas and took a sketchbook and filled it full of different lists of songs, every day I would spend five minutes on it and I more or less had the same eighteen songs; I didn’t have anything that didn’t make it on here. But in the mean time I’d been thinking about re-recording “Missing You,” “Back On My Feet Again,” and “Change.” I flew back on New Year’s Eve and almost immediately went into the studio. “Change” I couldn’t do anything with at all, it’s just a period piece that rang the bell really hard in 1981 or whenever, ’82, but it was a complete piece like it was supposed to be and it had a great live version ready to go. But with “Back On My Feet Again” I pulled back all the production and made it as current as I thought I could. I really felt that it would benefit from being stripped down. I’d written the lyric to that song the morning I sang it. It was originally called something else and then the band had cut this track–The Babys–and I hated the track and didn’t want to sing it, so the morning I was supposed to sing it I got out of bed and wrote “Back On My Feet Again” and re-wrote the entire melody and the words and went in and sang it. I only really had, truthfully, about three hours from conceiving it to singing it. Thirty five years later you’ve lived a lot of life, you’ve listened to that song a lot and it was great to get another chance to sing it, and I think I sang it better! With “Missing You” it was the same thing. It had been mixed in a glossy way which was of the time, but the rest of the record wasn’t, it was very hardcore avant garde over the top, a very risky record with no brakes. The single “Missing You” had been mixed with view to it being a single, so it had all the gloss of the eighties on it. It was also the same thing, I’d written the lyric about five days before I sang it, so it was incredibly new as well. I wanted to go back over those two songs and put the thirty years plus or whatever it was that’s happened to me into the songs. I think if I’d have sang it with a hoarse, burnt out voice it would probably sound just as engaging, but I seem to be pretty much in my moment as a singer, I seem to have gotten stronger. It’s got a hint of cowboy in it somewhere. I was thinking about Jimmy Webb–the Wichita Lineman–when I wrote the song, and I was thinking about a Free song called “Catcha A Train,” I was just channeling those two songs really, but there is kind of roots of blues in “Missing You.” Nobody ever really got that. I tried explaining it on a morning show once in New York City. If John Lee Hooker sang “Missing You,” you’d think it was a blues with three more chords. It’s a bit more complex than a blues, but the phrasing and the intensity behind it is blues!
MR: Well, its storyline and sentiment, the topic, is, I think, the blues. To me, it’s all about what’s going on in the lyrics that’s the biggest hint.
JW: Yeah! Absolutely! When I got those two songs, I tried to get “Change,” I had the original guitar player and the original bass player and I just couldn’t sing it the way I’d sung it before, I’d learned too much. a lot of people go back and re-record their masters and I don’t know how they do it because it means singing it like you don’t know what you know today. I got about two bars into it and said, “F**k it.” I gave up the record immediately. The live version is wild, so I’m quite happy with that.
MR: You mentioned the thirty year difference. You know, I used to be a purist, not liking artists re-recording their material. But now I realize now that an artist should be allowed to grow over the years and has every right to look their work and go, “You know what? This really could be a little better here and that could still be a little better there.”
JW: There is a purity, though, when you hear that original sound on the radio, the sound of the drums coming in, you are taken back to a time and there’s enormous nostalgia attached to that. I’m quite a nostalgic person, but as a musician, not as somebody who had written the thing in the first place. It was the need to finish the story somehow. To sing it again at another time in my life. I respect the past and I have quite a strong sense of nostalgia, but after seeing that exhibition and so many people putting out ten songs as “The Greatest Hits” and that’s all you’re going to get, I felt I’ve developed so much more as an artist and I wanted to get that across. If it was the last thing I did, I wanted to have that as my testimony. There’s “Bluebird Cafe” on there and “Sucicide Life,” which are two extremely unlikely songs to put on what you would regard as a greatest hits record, but as a singer and as a writer I don’t think I did anything better. So I wanted to put “Bluebird” on there and I wanted to put “Suicide Life” on there, and that’s where things got sexy, because then it was no longer about songs that had charted or that you knew me for, they were obscurer songs. I just felt like it was the artist’s way. There’s two ways of going, there’s one of making a dollar, and one of just being an artist I guess.
MR: Right, and it’s also the element of revealing more about you than just your hits.
JW: Yeah! I was hoping people would see the roots, because I was raised on western music, Frankie Laine was huge with me; Marty Robbins, they were gods to me; when I was about five, I was wearing a cowboy outfit and running around listening to that. Years later, I got to play the Opry with Alison Krauss and that to me was more meaningful than being number one in the rock world because that was my first inkling of music; country. A lot of things in my life have come full circle, they really have.
MR: Isn’t that funny, how you mentioned it just now? That was more important in your life than having a number one record.
JW: I can’t even begin to tell you how nervous I was backstage. I went out on stage with my band and Alison and it was broadcast. I’d recorded a Vince Gill song about seven years before that called “Whenever You Come Around” and Vince was backstage and as I went out on stage and we went into the top of “Whenever You Come Around” I turned around and Vince was plugging in about fifteen feet behind me, plugging into this old amp he was just trying to get turned on. We played the whole thing live on the air and that was just like Christmas. I can’t imagine a higher moment than with Alison Krauss at the Opry.
MR: It seems you’re digging deeper into the reality of the songs and who John Waite is. It’s really a theme with you, huh?
JW: Yeah! Well, I’ve grown up. I’m not really classic rock, Classic Rock Magazine in England barely write about me. I took a full page ad in the magazine this month because we just got back from Milan, we went ove rand played the Milan Frontiers Rock Festival and we went down like a storm. We just blew the place apart. But I don’t fit into their perception of what a classic rock guy is, and I’m very opinionated and I say what I mean about music and a lot of classic rock is complete crap. It just is. It is, and there’s people who can’t think of anything else to do but repeat the past. I have this weird kind of thing going on where I’m not mainstream, I’m not classic rock, I’m not country and I was saying to Jim Ladd the other day on this Deep Tracks show, me and Jim go back years, “That’s what’s what,” and he said, “Yeah, but you’re a singer-songwriter,” and I thought, “Wow, I guess I am in some strange way.” If you look at “Suicide Life” and you look at “Bluebird” you would consider that singer-songwriter.
MR: I think he’s right. But you’ve always been a singer-songwriter because you’ve had great songs. I guess it’s just the clothes one puts on the musical body, the image, that differs.
JW: I agree, there’s a way of putting on the table. As Steely Dan once said, “You’ve got to learn how to put it on the table,” and I think I came at America with a very good tailor. I really wanted to engage people visually, but I think I was toying with the idea of the whole thing. It was like a game, but behind it all it was deathly serious. I was trying to write a song so that it would last thirty years and apparently I’ve managed to do that. I felt, honestly, making this record, that it needed to be done now because I wanted to get on with something else. I needed to explain myself to people in these songs and then move on. I might even make an acoustic record. I’ve got half of the album and it’s really out there, but it’s very spartan and lyric-driven. I wanted to draw a line in the sand, I wanted to say, “This far and no further.”
MR: Look at Robert Plant, what he did was he presented himself as he saw himself, not just as Led Zeppelin.
JW: He probably did that when he set off. But you do get trapped into a logo. I think I took a left turn after “Missing You,” I made a quiet record, I didn’t go and try and immitate “Missing You.” I’ve always tried to do something that people didn’t expect, but I don’t know what’s going on anymore, I’m not listening to other bands like I used to. I couldn’t tell you who’s number one right now.
MR: It’s pretty difficult! I asked Glenn Hughes how he felt about what’s going on in the music scene and he scratched his head. Now more than ever for you to have a huge, huge hit means record companies are putting a lot, a lot, a lot of money behind you. It almost seemes like they are taking no chances and you have to act exactly like your brother and sister records.
JW: Absolutely, everything’s compartmentalized. But you know, that doesn’t mean that people aren’t making great art. I just got off the phone with somebody who said they expect a hundred thousand new people to arrive in Nashville this year. A hundred thousand people. And I’m worried about what happens to Mister Bluegrass and what happens to Larry Sparks and Del McCoury and Ricky Scaggs and Alison Krauss. I’m worried about those people, the real people.
MR: I often wonder what the motivations are for young people who are going in to music now. Is it to make art? Is it to make music because they don’t know any other way? Or is it for the American Idol illusion?
JW: You beat me to that! I was going to say at the end of that road is American Idol. It’s not the satisfaction of bringing the house down at the Ryman, or writing a song that stops people breathing for a second. I don’t want to come down on what’s going on around me, because there’s still great songwriters out there, it’s just that the whole focus has shifted on to showbusiness, which is great, too, because all the idiots are going to be in one place at one time.
MR: [laughs] What advice do you have for new artists?
JW: I would just go your own way! Steve Marriott once said, and I may have used this as my answer twice now, “The first idea you have is the best one.” There are so many people involved in making a record when you’re at a record label and the money is so tight, they’re so scared of releasing anything that’s cutting edge that everything’s like three minutes and everything’s aimed at a demographic, as they say. That doesn’t mean–when you look back to Tracy Champman doing “Fast Car” somebody, somewhere at a record company saw her and went, “She’s the real deal.” And then they backed it up with a tremendous video because they understood how deeply she felt all of that and how real she was so they so they gave her the video too. There was nobody saying, “Put this dress on and sing about this.” It’s a threatened business. Artists are much, much bigger than the business. People that chase after artists, that’s what they’re meant to do, but the artist is going to be the uncompromising guy on the end like Dylan or somebody who just changes the world with three chords and starts singing something. It’s like that great moment in Llewyn Davis movie where he’s singing that song to the agent, and then he stops playing the guitar and he sings the rest of the song with just his voice and it’s heartbreaking and you think you’ve got this reaction out of F. Murray Abraham and then he says, “I don’t see any money in it.” It’s just a great moment, but that’s the world.
MR: What ever’s going to happen to that level of talent?
JW: It will be okay. It’s always going to be okay. There’s always going to be somebody who takes a step to the left and then everybody follows them. It just takes that one percent. It’s more fun to go your own way anyway. I think once you get on the wheel you’re kind of sunk. I’m very positive about music, I think it’s a beautiful thing and it’s always going to be constant and people are going to want quality. I guess all kids that want to be in the music business, there’s going to be a percentage that are going to be brilliant, but everybody seems to be in it at the moment.
MR: Well, I hope some of those hundred thousand descending upon Nashville are coming from the house of brilliance.
JW: Oh man. Just oh.
MR: We mentioned classic rock earlier. You have one of the great classic rock songs, “Head First.” That became an anthem, maybe because sports arenas played it, it got endless airplay, all that.
JW: Although there was soul stuff and blues stuff, it wasn’t fully The Babys direction, really. Whatever it was, it was come upon honestly. There was no uniform to wear, there was no club to join, back then it was just great rock radio. It was before MTV. You had to fight to play, really, it was like the underground. I thought The Babys were exceptionally great, but I have a hard time calling that classic rock, it’s not like the guys running around giving high fives on stage and wearing spandex still. I don’t understand any of that, I don’t. Speaking of Glenn Hughes before, he’s got a tremendous voice, he’s an incredibly great bass player, a very musical guy and a nice geezer, and I’m sure he’s puzzled as much as I am when he looks to the left and the right of himself and sees how people want to compartmentalize music.
MR: Yeah, his group California Breed doesn’t really fit into one particular thing.
JW: I haven’t heard that yet, but I’ve heard it’s good! He’s always swinging, he’s always comging out of his corner fighting.
MR: Speaking of The Babys before, I recently interviewed Tony Brock recently. They’re releasing a new album as well. John, I’m imagining you have an affection for The Babys and what you did during that period, too.
JW: Oh, absolutely. “Isn’t It Time,” “Head First,” there’s a few Babys songs–we do a live version of “Every Time I Think Of You” on the record. Pretty much The Babys would’ve done it, just a three piece band, maybe some Hammond organ, although we had no organ, but we had a backup singer, Debby Holiday. It’s bluesier. I don’t know if we finished as well as we started, because we were a five piece by the time we finished. I think we might have lost a thread when I stopped playing bass, but my favorite Babys stuff is probably the first three albums.
MR: Yeah, but it’s a nice place in history.
JW: You know, there’s a great beauty in the fact that we didn’t make it completely to the top. There’s something ironic about it, but there’s something ironic I just love about the fact that people are still playing it. We might have just been ahead of our time.
MR: That reminds me of The Move versus… or Free versus… hmm…
JW: Yow!! [laughs]
MR: Maybe that’s a little grandiose, sorry.
JW: No, that was great! God! I wouldn’t have made that comparison. I still listen to Free and just sit there and go, “How did they do that?” It’s three guys and a singer in a room and basically they’re playing live. But they were that good. Bands in the seventies, the bands that really influenced me, that I went to see at the local university on Friday nights, The Who and Quintessence and Family and all the great bands that I saw there, they were three piece bands that had a Hammond organ player on the end. It wasn’t big productions. If I know anything, after Bad English I was so disgusted with myself I went back to being completely a singer-songwriter. Temple Bar was a songwriter album. My life began again at that point.
MR: Bad English seemed like an excursion.
JW: Yeah, I think it was a detour. It had its year and then it was kind of done. We were done. We couldn’t top anything we’d done.
MR: It’s like The Firm, or a couple of other bands that happened around that time.
JW: Yeah. It brought a smile to a lot of people, it was good fun, but it was high time to leave when it was time to leave.
MR: What’s the future for John Waite? What do you want to do?
JW: Well, I think I got very close in ’96 when I did the When You Were Mine album, “Suicide Life” is off that, and that was dark and it was lyrical and it was way out, and “Bluebird Cafe” was on that record, too. I think I’m going back to that. It’s in my nature to keep taking a left turn and taking a right turn and trying to get out of the maze of where I am and find somewhere new, but I think I was on ground there that was really truthful. The songs that I’ve written so far for the new record are pretty extreme, they’re pretty out. That doesn’t mean to say I’m not going to go out and sing hard rock and do “Missing You” and do all theo ther things as well, but I might tour smaller places just for a few months, just coffee houses or something just to get that vibe back of being on the acoustic guitar. Everything about my life comes from the acoustic guitar, and I’m a rock singer and I’m influenced by western music and blues, so I haven’t a clue. And I’m glad I don’t! I take it as it comes. There’s so much more to do and I want to do it while I can still sing full out. My voice is in incredible shape for some reason, and I’m enjoying the hell out of my life and I’m enjoying the new record. Tomorrow’s pretty bright.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Steve Wynn
Mike Ragogna: The album Sketches In Spain collects a certain period of your music. What’s your perspective on that album’s material now?
Steve Wynn: Sketches In Spain is a compilation that Omnivore is putting together from two collaborations I made in Spain in the last decade. The first was a record with a band from Spain called Australian Blonde, we did a record called Momento in 2001. The second record is a collaboration called Smack Dab, which is me, my wife and drummer Linda Pitmon and also the leader of Australian Blonde, Paco Loco. That came out in 2005. So that’s the basic facts updated.
MR: So you like to collaborate.
SW: I get off these days more from collaboration than anything else! I like going to new places, new cities, new countries, new studios with people I’ve never worked with before and seeing how they do what they do. I still do my own solo records, I still have my various bands, but that’s the thing that’s always fun, that always gives me that rush. It’s like a first date, it’s like that kind of feel. A blind date, even. The excitement of having to come up with your best stuff quickly before the other person loses interest. This is probably one of the more successful versions that I’ve had, where I was working with virtual strangers in Spain, these guys from Australian Blonde, they were friends of friends, they were a really popular band that had a number one single in the nineties, kind of a grunge-pop-indie band that really did well over there. We got hooked up on one of these musical blind dates and it worked great. We spoke the same language literally and metaphorically, because I do speak Spanish pretty well. We collaborated on this record not by email, but by FedEx, sending tapes back and forth the old fashioned way. It’s funny, it was just fifteen years ago but it was a very different way of working.
MR: Did you end up in Spain for creative reasons?
SW: I do a lot of touring over there, ever since my earliest days with the Dream Syndicate I’ve had a good following there. I tend to get over there at least every other year for shows. The guy who ran my label over there, a label called Astro Discos, had formerly been in Australian Blonde. He knew them really well, he knew me really well and he just felt we’d hit it off. Around that same time I was wroking on a series of song of the month installations for the website eMusic. I was trying to make each month be a new collaboration, a new setup, a new way of working with different people like I was talking about earlier. I suddenly had a whole in my schedule for March of that year and htat’s when I got in touch with this guy, Paco Loco from Australian Blonde and I said, “Let’s try something.” We did a song called “The Last One Standing,” it’s one of the songs that ended up on the record. It’s funny how these things are quick sometimes. It’s just like dating, or like a business transaction, go down to the market and look at the produce, whatever. The day where you hit it, you hit it right, and the days where you don’t it doesn’t work at all. On these collaborations in Spain it was just effortless, which is always exciting.
MR: So Dream Syndicate versus the Steve Wynn solo career… What is the creative difference between the two? How do you approach each of them?
SW: I really do what I do period. I think that’s the best way of putting it. Each time I have a batch of songs or a project I’m working on, whether it’s a solo record or a record for whichever band I’m playing with at the time, it’s generally a collaborative situation. I’m not a tyrant in the studio, I get more excited by feeling what people are bringing to the session and what people I’m working with might be good at and the way they react to what I’m doing. That kind of gets me to respond in the moment. The more preconceived notions I bring into a session the worse it is. It’s probably not a good way to do a lot of things, I’m sure. If you go to an interview and say, “Here’s what this is all going to be about, I’m going to get this thing out of the way as fast as possible” you may not get anything surprising out of it. I don’t know if that’s true for anyone, but I like to be surprised. I like to have my expectations turned upside down. So when I go into a project I kind of get my feelers out to see what people are bringing in to it.
MR: That’s really smart. That’s a good point, and that’s really true. So you’re more of a spontaneous creative person. I’m imagining however that when you have your solo projects, something like Crossing Dragon Bridge, do you get motivated to do them when it’s time to do a new album, or are you motivated because you’re getting hit by the muse and you need the vehicle?
SW: That’s changed over the years. I think say twenty or thirty years ago things were different. Back in the eighties you were expected to have your one project and hit it every couple of years as hard as you could with a new record and tour and you would focus on the idea of “It’s time to do something new,” and that was great, but I think now it’s different. If a situation comes up, I come up with songs for it. So if I know I’m going to Slovenia, for instance, for Crossing Dragon Bridge and I’m going to work with someone like Chris Eckman, who’s a really good producer there and the leader of The Walkabouts–great band–and I know what he does, I come up with songs for the situation and then show up ready to change and adapt once I’m there. I think more and more these days I’m just looking for things I want to do. At any given time, even right now there are about five or six different records that I could make in the next half year, that I want to make in the next half year, and whichever one I choose, that’s kind of going to dictate the bag of songs that I bring to the session.
MR: Wow. Now we’re in 2014, you surely are working on something, is it another album?
SW: Well I just put out a new record with The Baseball Project. It’s kind of the focus for me because it came out a couple months ago and we’re going to tour all summer. That’s one thing I’m doing now, I’m also working on a new solo record, and I really want to do a new Dream Syndicate record, so that’s something I think I might try to do later this year. We haven’t done a record together since 1988. It’s interesting, I think there was a time where I might not have wanted to do another Dream Syndicate record, I would’ve thought there was too much weightt on the record–for me, I’m not saying for the world–but for me, what would it mean, what would be the natural progression of the record, what would be the context?” and the more I think about it, especially since we’ve been playing together and touring lately, it’s just another step along the way, another record, another little postcard from far away.
MR: At this point in your career, where are you energy-wise? You sound like you still like to tour a lot, you still like to record, where are you as far as long range? Do you have a long range plan with this stuff?
SW: Not really. I just like being busy, I like writing songs, I like working with people and I like being on the road. I’ve been doing this now for thirty years, I’ve played a lot of shows, made a lot of records, and the idea of a long range, where I want to be in ten years, I hope that in ten or twenty years I’m doing what I’m doing and doing it better, and that in fifty years I’m alive and in a hundred years I’m preserved somewhere in a museum. Who know? You just can’t make plans at this point, especially given the way music is changing so much and the way people hear music and get music, I think more than ever I just take it day to day and project by project. That’s kind of the way it should be. You’re deluding yourself if you think you know what’s going to happen ten years from now. I was at a baseball game the other night and they were advertising on the Jumbotron a Styx and Foreigner concert at Caeser’s Palace and I was thinking, “I wonder if these guys thought thirty years ago that they’d be playing a casino in Atlantic City together in 2014.” Maybe they wouldn’t maybe it would be a horrific thought, or maybe it would be kind of exciting, but you just don’t know. I think each time you’re in one of those situations you say, “Here’s where I am, how did I get here, how did this happen? Why at this moment am I doing this? I didn’t see this coming, but what can I do with that?”
MR: If you had the opportunity to play in Caeser’s Palace, would you turn it down?
SW: I wouldn’t turn down anything that appealed to me. That’s a very obvious statement, but I just take every situation and say, “Do I want to do this?” It’s a lie when people say they don’t do things to keep doing this, especially now. Again, it’s a big change, you see lots of musicians doing commercials or doing private shows or casino shows or whatever it is and they may not even consider twenty years ago, but you’ve got to do what you do so you can keep making more music and keep surviving. You have to take each one along the way and say, “Is this something I want to do? Is it reprehensible? Is it something that I’m going to regret years from now?” There’s no hard and fast rule. All bets are off now, you do case-by-case what you want to do and what makesa sense. For me, I’ve just always enjoyed being out there and playing. It’s funny, you hear people say a lot these days, “Well now that record sales are down, people have to be on the road all the time,” as if that’s a sacrifice or a hardship. It’s what I love doing. It’s what I’ve loved doing from the start. I love touring, I love playing every night, I love the nightly rebirth you get when you finish a gig and it’s history and you have another one to look forward to the next day. That’s great. Nothign has changed for me. I’m still writing songs, putting them together in some kind of context and going out there and telling people about those songs all around the world.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
SW: I think that the advice is no matter what you hear, what you’ve read, what you think, what people tell you, at the end of the day you’re always right. No matter how crazy your impulse is, no matter how wrong it seems, you’re right. Trust yourself. Do it. You’re going to have to live with it and probably the more people that tell you, “Things don’t work that way,” the more you’re on to something.
MR: Is that how you did it?
SW: In a way. I think that one of the main reasons The Dream Syndicate caught on so quickly is that we were doing something that seemed like the exact opposite of what was going on; we were playing raw, feedback-laden guitar music at a time when everybody wanted to hear synthesizers and wear frilly coats. I think it seemed like the exact wrong thing to do at the time and I think that’s why people liked it. And it wasn’t even calculated like that, it’s a matter of what we wanted to hear. There was a philosophy we had back then that I still hold today: If you’re making music htat would be somebody’s favorite record, even your own favorite record, you’re doing okay. If you’re trying to make music because you think, “A lot of peopel are going to like this, this is what people want to hear these days,” eh, you might make it, you might not, but you’re not going to have a lot of fun. It’s kind of going back to that extreme thing. I think self-indulgent is a good word. I think it’s good to be self-indulgent. It’s good to indulge yourself, when it comes to making music anyway. That’s the idea. Who else are you going to indulge? If you do that, if nothing else you’re going to make one person really happy, and that’s yourself. And maybe, maybe out of millions of people in the world you’re going to make somebody else happy, too.
MR: Yeah, and you’ve made a lot of people happy all over the world, too, because you even have a tribute album! Dude, a double-disc tribute album to Steve Wynn! How do you feel about having something like that in existence?
SW: It’s great. That’s actually one of the most flattering things that’s ever happened to me. Some of them were friends, a lot of them were bands I admired, a lot of them were both, and they did great versions of my songs with a lot of love and a lot of understanding of what the songs are all about. That was fantastic. There’s a lot of things that are great. It’s great when you make a record, when you collaborate with new people and it works, when you play a show and everything clicks, it’s great when you write a song that moves you in some way and connects that with other people, but it’s also reallygreat when other msuciains say that you inspired them somehow. That’s a very real thing, that’s a thing that everybody understands. I understand because there are so many people that I have met that can say, “I heard that record when I was seventeen and it just changed everything that I wanted to do.” It happened this week, I’m doing a show in New York next month, a tribute show to the Nuggets collection, the show is being put together by Lenny Kaye, who put that collection together, he was in the Patti Smith group and he put out the original Nuggets. I said to him, “First of all, I’m really happy you’re asking me to do this, and second I’ve got to tell you, the Nuggets compilation changed my life when I was seventeen. That just re-wrote the rulebook for me.” He’s become a friend over time, but also I have to remind him often what he meant to my life. When I meet a musician in Italy or Norway or Japan or whatever who says, “I heard your record and it made me want to start a band,” that’s great. I get that. I’m happy, I’m flattered, and I completely understand what you’re talking about because I’ve been there, too.
MR: What do you feel The Dream Syndicate’s place is in music history and pop culture?
SW: I think we were a link between all your Velvets and Stooges and Big Star and all of the bands that came after that and became the textbook for indie rock. We sort of passed the baton from the groovy bands of the sixties and seventies to what it all led to. It’s a genre, it’s several channels on Sirius Satellite Radio, it is a corner stone of a certain kind of music. College kids plug a guitar into a fuzzbox and gettin’ loose. I think we were a nice middle point in that line. The thing is, I look at what we did in the eighties and what we meant to people in our inner circle and outside of that, but now that we’re together again I think, “What do I want to be now?” I like the idea that what we are now is kind of a living, breathing, modern band that has that connection at least in name, at least in catalog and probably in intention as well to what we did in the past but is hopefully going somewhere else as well.
MR: When you look at music now–and this isn’t a “Hey, kids, get off my lawn” question…
SW: “Get off my lawn,” that’s a good one. On certain days, I feel like that, too.
MR: [laughs] Do you think there’s something missing from the pop culture-powered education of the last couple crops of creative people?
SW: It’s just different now because there’s a lot more out there. It’s a gigantic tower of Babel with everybody shouting from different rooftops of every kind of music and you start to feel like everything’s been done. There are days where you feel like, “Well, there’s nothing that can surprise me, there’s nothing new, everything is a rehash of something, and then you’ll hear some new record with somebody doing something that has been done a million times but has been done in some unique way with a unique voice and some weird thing about the way a singer might phrase their vowels or some weird thing about the way a guitarist hits their open D chord, and you say “I’ve heard that a million times but I’ve never heard it like that,” and you get excited all over again. It happens to me all the time. You can define something by all the ingredients that went into it, the same way as when you’re cooking something on a stovetop and it comes out better than you’ve ever made it before, you can define it easily, but you can’t define it because it’s a human being that did it and in some way it’s a finger print. In some way it’s never been done before. Again, the advice I give to everybody is just do your best to try to find that thing yourself and then push as hard as you can. Exaggerate your own individuality. Do your own thing. Indulge yourself. All of my stories are baseball game stories, not to hype my other band, but I was at a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway parks a few weeks ago and between innings at one point they played “Roadrunner” by The Modern Lovers. I know they’re pushing that to be the state song of Massachussetts, and it should be, and it blared out of the PA system and it sounded so beautiful and everybody in the park responded to it like it was the biggest hit of all time, like it was the national anthem, and I thought, “This band, The Modern Lovers, made that record for almost no money, almost no attention back in the early seventies.” It’s a record that by the late seventies I had and maybe five thousand other people had in the whole country, and now it’s a standard. I think of all the records that came out in the same time that were huge hits on the charts, big stadium-filling bands that are forgotten by now. Now, having said that, there are a lot of people who would rather cash in, play a stadium, count their money and be done with it. That’s fine. More power to you, but for making lasting music, making something you can do your whole life, like I have, which I think is truly winning the jackpot, if you want that you’ve got to do your own thing, go your own way and not be afraid of what people are going to say of you.
MR: You’ve had your solo career, your bands, your guest appearances… What’s left? What is it that you still want to conquer?
SW: I feel like the Sketches In Spain record is a good indication of the kind of thing I really enjoy doing most these days, finding new people and new combinations. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t sit alone in a room with an acoustic guitar and write songs and sing them that way, that’s exciting, too, but I do like working with new people. I like seeing how things work in other places. In the next year I’m probably going to do a record in Mexico with a band over there, another record in Spain and possibly a record in Italy along with everything else I’m doing. I’m not going to say those things are my favorites, but they are the most surprising, generally. Everything is going at full speed, in the next month I’m playing a show with the Dream Syndicate, one with my band, Steve Wynn & the Miracle Three, one solo show and one with The Baseball Project. They’re all different catalogs of songs and different inside jokes and personalities and all that. I love it that way.
MR: Nice. Do you blend all that stuff when you do a solo show?
SW: Depends on which solo thing I’m doing. It could be me by myself, or me with four other people. Like I said before, the beauty of it is that every night is unique and every combination is unique, which is great. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
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