Interview with Steve Wynn, guitar, vox with Dream Syndicate, Gutterball, Danny and Dusty, the Baseball Project, and many more. Interview takes place over the phone on June 24, 1993.
(M)att: Do you think there is such a thing as selling-out?
(S)teve: I think it’s a misunderstood term. I think most people who view people as selling-out generally have no idea what they’re talking about. I think there are times when people will change their music for financial gain, or change their music because it’s only a small compromise for a greater return later on, and they’re usually wrong.
M: Do you feel comfortable naming anybody you think has done that?
S: Here’s why I wouldn’t. There have been times when people have said to me, especially early on in the Dream Syndicate, that we were selling-out. We made an album in 1982 called The Days of Wine and Roses, which was very popular critically in America. It established them quite a bit. We then went to A&M and made a record called The Medicine Show which, when it came out, we were accused of, in this country anyway, of selling-out, of making an expensive record. At that time, things were very different than they are not. At that time if you went with a major label, if you had a large budget, you were automatically selling-out. Of course now everything from Sonic Youth to Nirvana to Butthole Surfers are on large labels with huge budgets. But at that time that was considered to be a selling-out thing.
And this album, The Medicine Show, was very dark, I think much less accessible than The Days of Wine and Roses. And a very disturbing record about a lot of subjects that I thought hadn’t been dealt with on records much, like arson, murder, necrophilia, you name it, it was an ugly record.
I was consciously trying to make a more challenging record. People said it was selling-out. If I was to sell-out, I would do it in a completely different way. I wouldn’t have ten-minute songs.
But I think people have knee-jerk reactions about what is selling-out. It used to be, if you were an indie rocker, if you went to a major label you were selling-out. Now of course everyone goes to major labels.
I think the only thing that is selling-out is if you don’t do the music you want to do. You do some other kind of music because someone else tells you it’s a good idea. That’s pretty much the whole definition of it.
M: Did you put out The Days of Wine and
S: No. It was on Slash.
M: The one I have says Ruby Records.
S: Ruby, Slash. Same company. At that time it was an indie. Now Slash is with Warner Bros.. Again, accused. . .by the time we were on A&M and being accused of selling-out to A&M, the label we’d come from was signing with Warner Bros., an even bigger company.
It’s generally a hollow-type thing. If you are doing anything at all in your music because you have made compromises to some sort of big structure, then you are selling-out.
M: When you’re thinking of an audience. . .there’s a mass audience and then there are sub-audiences. . .
S: Right. Zero to forty-million. And unfortunately. . .There’s a lot of people who have very comfortable audiences. Like myself where I’ll sell between 80 and 100,000 records each time out. And for me that’s wonderful. It means I can pay my bills. It means I can have all the freedom I want. I can do the records I want. I know people will come to the shows. It’s a good level to be at.
But a lot of people will be at a level like that and thing, “It’s good, but I need more.” If they sell a million records then they think they should be selling five million. If they sell five million, they think they should be selling ten. People always want more.
It’s weird because if. . .A good example: A band like the Knack, who sold millions of records. And by the third record it slipped down to maybe three or four-hundred thousand copies. They were considered failures. The band just completely lost it all and never made a record again. I think they made a comeback record. But they were finished.
I don’t think all my records combined have sold as much as their failure. But it’s something about the perception that if you have done really well, you have to stay there. And there’s a certain comfort to being a cult artists because of that.
M: Cuz you can’t go down in sales?
S: No. Because you’re not expected to reach a certain level. If I made a record next year that was really weird and sold 1,000 copies, I could still make more records. But if somebody, if Nivana’s next record sells 500,000 copies people are gonna be saying they’re finished. It’s a shame.
I think. . .when you say. . .is there something you can do to reach the masses, I think you have to do what you want to do, and let other things take care of itself.
M: When you were in the Dream Syndicate, those were in the hardcore days of California in which there was a very anti-industry stance among the band. As you said, you took a lot of shit for going to Atlantic.
S: Oh, we did at the time, absolutely.
M: How were you thinking about it when you did it?
S: At the time there was a real definite, definite, definite difference-line drawn between indies and majors. Indies were for cool people and the majors were for the uncool people. And it was drawn that way. Which I didn’t buy at the time. I didn’t feel that way at all. Because before that, the music I’d been into in the seventies, when the Stooges and the Velvets were on major labels.
I personally found Slash to be more of a dishonest, corrupt, thieving, sleazy label than A&M. I thought that A&M was actually more honest and. . .they said what they would do and they did it. And there was entire freedom on the record.
M: Do you think major labels are in a position where they can allow their bands more artistic freedom than an indie might?
S: I don’t think. . .Each situation is different. And, of course, now is a whole different thing, too. I feel sorry for a band like that, because they’ll be expected to live up to a certain thing that Nirvana has established. And the people who run labels, they see Nirvana and say, “That’s great! Now any band that has long hair and plays electric guitars can do that.” It’s not that easy.
I would never, and I felt this way back then, I would never say, “Indies are this and majors are that.” And at that point in time, right then in the early eighties, people didn’t see it that way.
There wasn’t much of a difference. If you can make the music you hear in your head that you want to make, and find somebody who will take it from you when you finish the tapes and get it out to stores, then you’re happy.
I see what I do for a living as two things. One of the things I do is I make records. When I do that I’ve never had a label get involved with what I’m doing, and they shouldn’t. There should be nothing in that process that has anything to do with record labels, with radio, with press. It should just be the thing that you want to do. That’s one of the jobs. The other job I do is I promote these things that come out. And that’s when I have to deal with the labels.
So for the first part of it, it doesn’t matter whether you’re on an indie, whether you’re pressing yourself, or you’re on a major label. You just hopefully can do the record you want to do. The second part of it, you’re very much at the mercy of the label.
This is interesting cuz I just got the reissue of Badfinger Straight Up, which I liked quite a bit when it came out. And it’s interesting now that Big Star is getting a lot of. . .
You know about Big Star, right/ They’re getting a lot of attention right now. I was really into Big Star for a long time, I was a big fan.
M: How old are you?
S: I’m thirty-three.
No one knew about them, they did not get across at all. Badfinger, at the time, was a huge hit band. They had hit singles, they had Gold Records, they were very popular on AM radio.
Now, twenty years later, I think that Big Star probably is more popular, they’re still playing shows. I guess Badfinger did some stuff. But they’re actually considered in retrospect to be the better band. To have had the more lasting impact.
When you compare the Velvets, in ’67, with a band, like, maybe, the Electric Prunes or a band like that, who probably sold many more records and had more of a. . .but who had more of a lasting impact?
M: Have you ever had a situation between you and a label in which there was conflict about songs on an album?
S: Not really. I’ve been very lucky in that respect. Throughout all of the records I’ve done I have not had much involvement. . .the closest I’ve come to that was being on Rhino of all places. But then that was largely because my A&R man, Gary Stewart, who had been a friend for a long time, he was a person I talked to music with for a long time as a friend, I would play him songs and he was like a sounding board. But even then he would give advice, but I wouldn’t. . .
Every other record I’ve done has been completely untouched by the label to extremes. Usually just finish them and turn them in. It’s a very lucky thing. I think it’s flukish that I’ve had that much freedom. I think usually it’s more of a battle. And maybe it’s because I’ve changed labels with almost every record. The first record is always the honeymoon.
M: How many did you do with A&M?
S: Just Medicine Show, and then I did a record called Danny and Dusty.
M: And then the live one.
S: And the live thing, too, that also. I don’t count that just because with live records things are just captured. But we did two studio records with them.
M: Were you pretty much the leader of the Dream Syndicate?
S: I was the songwriter so I set a lot of the tone of the band. But I definitely wasn’t the dictator. I think by the virtue of having written the songs and having been one of the two people who were in the band the entire time, I guess I had some extra say and some extra. . .I knew the direction.
But the way that Dream Syndicate operated was very much, I would bring the songs in, and whatever happened, happened. It wasn’t me telling anybody what to do.
M: Why did Dream Syndicate end?
S: It came to the point where I felt we had done everything that we could do that was interesting. It wasn’t a typical break-up. We got along very well and actually I thought that we were making very good music at that point. But it started to feel kind of stale. And there were a lot of things I wanted to do that I felt I couldn’t do with the band. Which I ended up doing. My two solo records were very different. It just seemed like seven years was enough time to be in a band.
I like to do solo more. I’m playing in a band again now, and remembering that I didn’t like playing in a band. I like the people in the band, I like the record quite a bit. I’m remembering how much I liked the opportunity to do whatever you want to do and jump from here to there at any moment. There’s a lot more freedom being solo.
M: Why did you decide to do a band again?
S: I didn’t decide. We just got together to jam in a barn with a tape recorder running and made a tape that was really wonderful. And we became a band because of the tape. The tape was just done for fun and everyone liked the tape so much that we decided we were a band. We’re just a band in as much as we made a record and we’ll do some shows behind it. But we’re not really a band.
M: What label is that on?
S: Mute/Electra. Indie and major. Something that’s happening now a lot is the indies are being taken over by majors. And there are very few independent indies anymore. At this pint all that indies are is, for the most part, for bands if they can’t get on a major. Cuz everybody can get on a major. There’s no kind of band that couldn’t.
The only band. . .There are bands like Fugazi that choose not to be on a major. And if they want to be on a major, every major would be handing them checks with a lot of zeros. But there are very few bands like that. Superchunk is like that. A few bands choose not to be on majors. But for the most part every band can and should be on a major right now.
M: Why should they?
S: If they want to get their records out there. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t. But you do what you want to do. That’s one part of the job, and you just hope it gets out as much as it can.
Once my record is done, once it’s an actual record and it’s in the stores, I’m as much into promoting it as is Bon Jovi. I’ll do the interviews, I’ll go to record stores, I’ll do radio things, I’ll do all that stuff. I want to get it out there. I very much want my record to sell a lot of copies. I want them to get on the radio. But that’s the second part of the process. The first part is doing what you want to do. So I think being on a major label at this point helps you get out more. That’s all there is to it.
M: What about someone like Steve Albini who would say that major labels are just leeches that are taking all the money that you deserve from making the music.
S: I have found that indie labels take your money much more readily and pay you much more slowly and not as well. There are indie labels that are fine, but I’ve had much better experiences with major labels. I don’t agree with Albini as far as that goes. I think indie labels can be cool. The nice thing about indie labels is they’ll treat you very well. Sometimes they’re very happy to have you there. Given the difference between being on an indie label where they love you and you get a lot of attention, and a major label where they don’t care about you, sure, I’ll choose the indie label. But I’d rather be on a major label where they love you and care about you. At this point they’re much more able to get the job done.
M: And indies are hooked up with the majors anyway.
S: For the most part. There’s nothing indie about. . .At this point if you’re on Matador you’re on Atlantic. If you’re on Mute you’re on Electra. I’m not against indie labels. I think they’re very cool. I like them. But I don’t believe that there’s anything inherently good about indies or bad about majors. And when he says that they’re all leeches. . .I don’t believe whether it’s politics, or sociology, or music companies that say that “all people of this type are like this and all people like that are like that.” That’s silly. It doesn’t work that way. I know people who work at major labels and they’re big fans, and they love music. And then there are lots of old creepy guys who, like, buy cocaine and prostitutes for radio stations. There’s good and bad. I know lots of indie people, and some of the indie people hate music. Some of the indie people just want to hang out and be cool. You can’t say there’s one type or another type. It’s just ridiculous. He’s right. Some major labels are leeches, some of them. . .And a lot of these people who are signing million dollar deals right now will be dropped so fast in two years and be broke. It will happen. But I don’t’ like saying one is good and one is bad.
M: Do you think it did when you started?
M: Do you think the punks were wrong, too, as far as their ideas about the business?
S: Back then indie labels were cool because there was a lot of music that couldn’t get on record. If you were. . .The early days of punk, all those bands were on major labels, too. The Pistols, the Clash, the Talking Heads, Television to Richard Hell and the Voidoids to the Dead Boys. All those original punk bands.
M: But what about the L.A. hardcore scene, the early eighties?
S: Circle Jerks, Bad Religion, Black Flag. Those were all on indies, that’s true. SST did a lot of good things. SST made a lot of good music available. I own a lot of indie records. I’ve got no knocks against them. They’re still very useful. But right now, indie means nothing. Until two years from now when the whole glut of. . . If it doesn’t pan-out the labels will drop all those bands and we’ll go back to indies. And it will be useful again.
If I was twenty years old and starting my first band I would be happy to be on a major label. It would make sense. If I was 20 and you said to me, “Would you prefer to have four years of fast money and a lot of buzz about you, or would you rather have a forty-year career and be a cult artist?” No question. I think the cult artist thing is totally happening. I think much more noble models are people like Leonard Cohen or Townes Van Zandt, or Miles Davis or Max Roach. People that just kept going and going and going.
Townes Van Zandt is a good example. He’s a guy that many people in the world have never heard of. A lot of people have. He probably doesn’t sell that many records. He tours a bit. When he play L.A. he plays 150 seat clubs. But he’s been able to keep going and trying to get better and better. That’s really cool. That’s really noble. He’s written folk and country stuff for years. Like twenty-five years. His most famous song is “Poncho and Lefty” which Willie Nelson did. He’s a real big inspiration for people like Jimmy Dale Gilmore.
Or Leonard Cohen had made, maybe, eight records in twenty-five years. Now he’s kind of accepted as a great American treasure. But even ten years ago he made an amazing album. You couldn’t find it in America. Various Positions is an incredible record, and it’s still out of print here. It’s a crime! It’s ridiculous! But the thing is, he just keeps going. He does what he does. And it’s great. I think that’s much cooler. That’s what I’d like for myself.
I guess the one thing I’d agree with, and maybe this is what Albini meant, it would be bad if you were a young band and just staked everything on fast success with the major labels and find yourself out of work three years later. But an indie isn’t going to guarantee that you’ll do any better either.
M: Would you be comfortable if one of your albums went huge, Platinum?
S: I’d be very happy, comfortable. But let’s say, money aside, I’d almost rather go Gold that double-Platinum, if I had the choice. Yea, if I went double-Platinum I could afford to buy a nice house. That would be very cool. But if you sell a lot of records, there are certain problems that go along with that. There are going to be things, there will be new pressures. You will be expected to keep up a certain level. That’s tough.
M: Do you see a difference between, say, bon Jovi and REM in the way they got to where they are?
S: Absolutely. REM did it the right way. Bon Jovi probably thinks their music is the greatest in the world. I’m sure if Bon Jovi could make a Captain Beefheart record they wouldn’t want to. They probably would be happier making Bon Jovi music. But I think REM has done it in a very cool way. And they’ve also done it in a very real way. It’ll be much harder for them to fail now. They have a real good following, a lot of integrity. But there’s probably people who se REM as sell-outs. And they’re the exact opposite. And, of course, it’s my personal taste, but I’d rather hear REM than a band that got all their influences from Black Sabbath. There’s nothing hip about Soundgarden or Pearl Jam. To me that’s music I thought was shit when I was a kid.
The only thing with REM now that they’re selling millions and millions of copies, they have more responsibility that goes along with that. If they want to make a record that’s very uncommercial, they would have to. . .it would be seen as a bold step. It would be seen as thumbing their noses at the music industry, rather than just being seen as what they want to do right now. It would be seen as a statement. They’ve handled that kind of power very well. I think U2 has also. In fact U2 is a band I’ve never liked very much until their last record. Partially because I think they went completely against the grain. And it worked. I think REM is very, very cool.
M: Do you think it is possible for a young band to consciously construct a career similar to REM as opposed to a Bon Jovi career?
S: It’s harder now. I’m glad I started when I did. Now there’s too much placed on fast return, on things happening quickly. I think right now there’s too much emphasis on making something happen right away. It could be tough.
There’s also. . .when REM started and when I started, there weren’t that many people doing what you would call now “alternative” music. There weren’t that many people doing that kind of thing. Whenever the new modern rock, new wave band came to town it was exciting. There weren’t that many bands doing it. It’s definitely harder to stand-out now.
M: Is it possible for it to go back, or do you think rock is stagnant?
S: I don’t know, but alternative rock is the new corporate rock.
M: Alternative is just another category now.
S: Right, and it’s not really alternative. It is largely corporate rock. It is approached the same way. It is a part of the machine now. Eventually the best ones will come out and they’ll stick around and the worse ones will fade away.
Now you don’t think of U2 or Talking Heads or REM as New Wave bands. But they were then. Now they’re just bands. So certain ones will stick around. I don’t know who.
M: It seems to me that alternative music now is probably not, musically, rock. It’s probably techno or something.
S: They need another name for it. It’s weird to think now that a band would form and want to sound like Nirvana to get rich. That’s gonna be the one thing that’s kind of weird now.
Before, the situation was if you wanted to make a lot of money you rehearsed for a year straight and id you best to sound like Foreigner. And if you wanted to keep you integrity and never play to anybody but just live like shit you’d play music that sounded like Neil Young or the Velvets or the Stooges. Now it’s a form of success and it kind of blurs the issue. Because now there are a lot of bands that sound like all the right things that have no heart. And that’s a big problem. Ten or fifteen years ago if I would’ve saw a review in Flipside and “These guys sound like the Velvets, these guys sound like Robin Hitchcock” or “Soft Boys” or “these guys sound like Big Star,” I would’ve said “I gotta check that out. Now it means nothing. Now it means these guys have a smart manager.
That’s one frustrating thing right now that I think will change because probably it will self-destruct just like power pop did in the late ‘70s. And then certain bands will stick around.
But it is a weird thing now that bands are. . .to the point where. . .I used to play a Jazzmaster, a Fender Jazzmaster guitar. . .I played it in the early ‘80s and, I always traded my guitars for other guitars. And recently I was thinking about going and getting another Jazzmaster. I went to the guitar shop and. . .they were the cheap Fenders. They were $250 or $300 for a Jazzmaster. Now they’re all over $1,500, up to $2,000.
Why is this?!
They guys say it’s because Dinosaur Jr. and Nirvana and Sonic Youth play them. In L.A. and Hollywood that means that all these guys who five years ago wanted to be Joe Satriani want to be Thurston Moore now. And not because they think he’s a wonderful lead guitarist, that’s the way to make money now.
It’s a little bit disturbing. I think everyone can handle it when the way to be a rock whore was to be like Bon Jovi, was to be like Foreigner. Now when the way to be a rock whore is to sound like things that are really cool, it’s very confusing. Because it’s very hard to tell the difference between a very sincere cool alternative band and a band that sounds almost identical but isn’t a good band.
M: I think Nirvana are probably sincere guys.
S: I think their next record is going to be amazing.
SIDE ONE OF THE TAPE ENDS
S: . . .and I thought it was amazing, all at the same time. I think that’s all it was. I think it was so good, and at the time so different and so exciting. And of course right now if Nevermind came out by a different band now, it wouldn’t have the same effect. At that time is was so eye opening. I remember the month or two when it first came out is was so. . .everybody was talking about it. Not talking like, “This is a big hit”, or, “This is gonna do something,” but, “This is a great record!” Everybody. All kinds of people.
M: Everybody from the most alternative. . .
S: Young to old, to people who remember the Sex Pistols to people who had no idea. They were all saying, “This is so great!” It was something amazing that doesn’t happen that often. And I think that’s why it happened. I don’t think it even had anything to do with the record company. It was just a weird phenomenon.
M: So that’s the good thing about popular music is that there is something that’s not explainable.
S: And that proved it, too. I think at that point there was kind of a felling of, “Well, what’s gonna happen now? We’ve seen everything.” And that really changed so many things. It’s amazing how much that one record changed. . .
And the one negative thing about it, probably the one thing they feel, too, is that it opened the doors for a lot of people playing this cool music who weren’t doing it for the right reasons. And that sounds very elitist. And. . .It’s a tangent, but I think a band like Big Star, who are great, if you read about them, they were largely in it for the money. They were not saints, they were not, “I’m an artist,” who had a vision. Alex Chilton was the biggest money whore there is. I think he would’ve done any kind of music to have a hit. Big Star’s music was just a version of what was popular through a perverted mind, and ended up being something very cool.
So it’s not a matter of being elitist as much as the best music comes from the worst people. Ike Turner is a good example. He wrote amazing stuff, amazing records in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
I think, unfortunately, there’s a lot of stuff that’s come out of that that’s just garbage. And after awhile you go to a record store and you hear all the new stuff and it blurs your mind after awhile. To the point where certain records. . . later on if you hear them enough they end up being pretty good.
So I think something else will happen that will be completely different again.
M: Do you think it’ll be rock?
S: I think the one constant thing through all music that keeps it happening is that it has a lot of individual personality. Whether it was Nirvana or James Taylor. It was the sound of some person, some voice speaking directly to you. It think that’s been the constant. So it’ll be that. And whether it’s techno or folk or orchestra, it’ll have less to do with genres that it will with personality. That’s the thing.
If Nirvana only happened because it was punk rock, it would’ve happened years ago. And you could say it was a matter of the times, sure it was a matter of what was happening at that moment. Yea, that’s fine. But it happened largely because there was such an identifiable person and personality in that band. Not just Kurt Cobain, the whole sound of i9t was so direct and touched you in a way.
That’s something that only happens occasionally. And it’s not punk rock and it’s not grunge and it’s not guitars or long hair, it’s just a certain thing you can’t even define. That thing will be in the heart of any music that happens.
M: What do you think about what’s been going on with their new album?
S: It’s what we’ve just been talking about. The things that come with selling 4 million records. That’s the negative thing. I don’t know enough to say, just what I read like anybody else. But if in fact they had to make consideration about their music based upon how popular they are, that’s a real shame.
I’ve heard different arguments. For all I know they probably didn’t like what came out of that studio and wanted to fix it. If somebody said to them, “You can’t release this record or a lot of people will be out of work,” that’s a shame. That’s a shame to have to carry that burden.
M: Do you think that can happen?
S: I think there always is that type of thing. I think people come to you all the time. . .I had that happen to me even at my lower level. People saying, “This is not a good idea. You shouldn’t do this. You should do this tour, do this tour, do this type of thing.” Sure they say those things.
I turned in the Gutterball record complete and people came back and told me I should take off this one song. “It doesn’t fit the record. We don’t like it on the record.”
I said, “No. What’s the point? You can skip it.”
In this case it was a very minor argument. And it wasn’t brought up again. But there could be that type of thing where they say, “You gotta do this. You gotta remix this. Do a single here.” That type of stuff is gonna happen.
If you’re small-time, and you go against it, it’s not as big a deal as when a lot of people’s jobs are riding on it. If Nirvana’s next record is a failure, a lot of people will lose their jobs.
It’s a shame. I’m coming from a time where my musical awakening was the ‘70s, when someone like Neil Young would follow a huge hit like Harvest almost immediately with a total down record, Tonight’s the Night, and people would say, “Okay, that’s just a step in his career,” and wait for the next record. Now there’s a lot more pressure for everything to be right there. There aren’t a lot of second chances anymore. Terrance Trent D’Arby, who had a huge first record, made a second record which was pretty good that flopped. Now he has this new one, which is pretty mainstream, but I don’t think is gonna do much. Probably because he got his chance, he let it slip, and you don’t get another chance. It’s a very different world. And in a way it’s much safer to travel the world of the cult artists, stay in a ditch, and let things go by. And just survive.
M: At the same time, you’re not doing that on purpose.
S: I just do what I do, and if it sells or not sells that’s fine.
M: And your mind might change if you sold a couple million, maybe?
S: It would have to change the way I look at things. It couldn’t not change.
In fact, I think that whatever Nirvana has done is because they sold 4 million records. Even if it is to make a more punk rock inaccessible record. It means they were affected by the sales.
I chose, after Days of Wine and Roses, because we had all this critical acclaim and signed to a major label, I chose to make a much darker, weirder record. That’s what I wanted to do. And I did it partially because people were so into the first record. My feeling was at the time, You like this?” Cuz at the time I thought it was cool to change, to pull a major curve. So I figure, “Great, that’s how you feel about that record, I’m gonna really surprise you now.”
That’s reacting to success. People think that it’s really bad if you get successful and then you sell-out to make more money. But it is just as bad to be successful and then change your art to react to being successful.
That’s pretty tough.
I do think that if a band like Nirvana made a different record, this next record would have to be a different record than if they hadn’t sold 4 million records last time. If the last record would’ve only sold 100,000 copies, maybe they would’ve made a much more poppy record this time.
M: Did anybody ever want to call you “Steve Wynn and Gutterball?”
S: Not really. Though I considered making a solo record when I first heard the tape. There’s a sticker on the record saying what band everybody was in. Again, that’s a compromise that comes after the record is done. I don’t mind that.
M: What other bands were they in?
S: Long Ryders, Silos, and House of Freaks.
M: Any last comments?
S: No. You’ve touched on some things I’m pretty passionate about. So what is this for?
M: It’s a PhD dissertation on unsigned bands and how they go about getting signed. There’s something magic in there somewhere concerning why a band gets signed, why a label promotes certain bands over others, and why people even buy certain records.
S: There’s a lot of politics in there. One of the things I’ve always had in my favor, like Bob Mould had in his favor, being responsible and knowing enough about the business, knowing how things work, and having a definite idea about what you want and how you’re going to do it. It’s amazing how much that is respected.
I also think that if you’re delivering a record that you’ve done all yourself, showing up with the thing, “This is my record, this is what I’d like to do, this is how I’d like to tour,” I think they actually like that.
M: You mean taking it to the label yourself?
S: If you can do that. The Gutterball record was a cheap enough record that we were able to bring it finished and say, “This is a finished record. Do you want to put it out?” That’s a great position to be in. Gutterball cost about $5,000. My last solo album cost about $90,000. I couldn’t have made that one by myself.
M: Are you going to be touring?
S: Yea. But more around here than around there.
M: You sell a lot in Europe, right?
S: Yea. Europe has largely paid for me to be a cult artist for the last couple of years.
M: That’s what Rick Rizzo was saying about Eleventh Dream Day.
S: They’ve had the same thing going. There’s a lot of people like that: Green on Red, Giant Sand, Russ Tolman, Cris Cacavas, a bunch of people.
M: It seems like blues does that, too.
S: They like American music that more roots type stuff, even if the roots in punk rock roots. I think it’s just an exotic thing to them.
M: There’s a lot of blues guys here in Chicago who tour and play festivals in Europe, and her they play at small clubs.
S: I went to a show in Norway once, there were thousands of people there, and the band was a blues band whose claim to fame was the bass player once played in Stevie Ray Vaughn’s band. He had no records or anything. They billed it as that: “Former bass player with Stevie Ray Vaughn.” People packed the place.
Part of it is that it’s authentic from another place.
M: Kind of like white middle-class college kids buying NWA records.
S: In a way it’s a similar type of thing.
M: I teach classes here and a lot of the white kids are way into the hardcore rap stuff. That’s where most of that rap is being sold.
S: Yea. I read an interview with Ice-T where he says the same thing. That’s probably true.
M: Looking for the authentic black experience.
S: It’s cheaper and easier than actually going down. . .
M: . . .to the hood.
S: I know a lot of Europeans who are really into coming to America and go on these trips where they go to all these authentic music landmarks. They’ll skip New York City, they skip the Statue of Liberty, they’ll skip Sears Tower. They’ll go straight for the clubs and Graceland and all that.
I think it’s a way to feel in touch with that. A band like eleventh Dream day, or someone like myself, almost does better in Europe than somebody who would sell a lot of records here. For instance, the Replacements, the Dream Syndicate, and probably Eleventh Dream Day, would always play bigger places to more people, partially because there’s an attraction there to the American cult artists.
Jazz was the same way. Charlie Parker, who couldn’t even play here. . .the feeling that they were actually embracing something that even American’s didn’t get. I think it’s a little bit of snobbery, too, but it’s snobbery I can definitely accept.
M: How does it feel to you that Americans don’t get what you’re doing, but Europeans seem to get it?
S: I don’t have much of a problem with it. I do well enough in America when my records come out here. I can tour now and then.
M: Do you make most of your money from European sales?
S: Definitely. Given the choice of touring America and touring Europe, I’d rather be there. Because it’s fun. Cuz I generally have a better time being in Paris and Amsterdam and Oslo than I do in Cleveland and Detroit and Iowa.
M: But for some reason your songs bring out the spirit of Cleveland and Dubuque.
S: That’s the funny thing. The records I’ve done that were most popular in Europe were the most American. Certain records I’ve done are more American roots type things, and those are the ones that’ve been most popular in Europe. When I do things I think are more European, they don’t do as well. There’s a reason for that. They want to get the American experience.
M: I’ve always like bands like Green on Red, Giant Sand, Dream Syndicate, Meat Puppets. I don’t know how they do in Europe.
S: I’m not sure. They like the bands that give you a real pure glimpse of a certain type of class, certain type of place, a certain type of experience, more than just a mass popular band would.
I hoped that helped out.
M: It was real good. Thank you very much. I hope you come through town sometime and I can check out your band.
S: If I come through come up and say “Hi.”