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Just Say Wynn 

A free-spirited guitarist forges a distortion-drenched legacy.

Steve Wynn has a soft spot for Cleveland punk.
  • Steve Wynn has a soft spot for Cleveland punk.

"More distortion pedal, less chorus."

Steve Wynn is describing his preferences in the British shoegazer bands that followed in his Velvet Underground-inspired footsteps after the breakup of his seminal '80s L.A. band, Dream Syndicate. He might just as well be describing his own maverick ways since going solo in the early '90s. Like his hero Neil Young, Wynn has explored a variety of influences and styles, gaining and shedding fans while remaining true to his own vision.

"I just keep cranking it out and making records I hope are good, and people come and go all the time," Wynn says with a laugh from his New York home. "There's always new people coming along and digging what I do, but there's also people who maybe liked something I did 20 years ago, who will show up for a couple records. It's like having an open house, and the snacks are always there. People can come by and have a bit whenever they want."

Part of Wynn's fascination is his wealth of interests. While still in college he played in a new-wave band, fueling an interest in the jangly power pop of bands like Big Star. When he graduated from UC-Davis, Wynn fell in with L.A.'s so-called "paisley underground" (around the time that R.E.M. was starting up), but Dream Syndicate began working along the distortion-drenched lines of the Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs," with careening edifices of overcharged guitar embellishing muscular hooks. As Dream Syndicate continued, Wynn migrated from the Velvets toward a rootsier crunch that recalled Rust Never Sleeps-era Neil Young. Since going solo, Wynn has cycled through influences ranging from gritty, New York-style punk to throbbing, distortion-drenched psychedelia to raw, rootsy jangle and guitar-driven power pop.

"Some of it may have been an odd choice at the time, or something out of step with what people expected or wanted, but I really like all the records I've done. Whatever I was into at the moment, I dove into it all the way and forgot about everything I've done before and after, and had a ball," Wynn says.

For some, Wynn's itinerant nature might be off-putting, but of late, Wynn has pursued something really new: consistency. He's had the same backing lineup for the last five years and three albums, which he's recorded in Tucson with producer Craig Schumacher. It's arguably the strongest stretch of work in Wynn's career, for which he gives Schumacher a lot of credit. "He's the last guy who will ever tell you, 'That's not going to work,'" Wynn says. "He'll just say, 'There must be some way to do it, we'll try it.' It's great and a real freedom."

The stretch began with 2001's Here Come the Miracles, a double album that might be Wynn's greatest achievement to date.

"When I finished that record, it was a 10-day session. We did rough mixes in one night. I sequenced it right then and there. I listened to it and said, 'This is really exciting.' I just knew," he recalls. "Something happened. I don't how it happened; I don't know what things aligned to make it happen, but something really good happened. And sure enough, I spent the next two years hearing people tell me the same thing."

Miracles also marked a strong return to the punky crash-and-drone guitar that has characterized much of his best work and has resonated most with his fans.

"A lot of people who listened to the Dream Syndicate in the '80s and kind of lost track are coming back now with [the latest] Tick . . . Tick . . . Tick and the albums I've been doing the last few years. They are perhaps surprised to find my heart's in the same place as when I did my first album 25 years ago," says Wynn.

With its homage to the Velvet Underground's banana cover (replaced by a hot pepper on a black background), Tick . . . Tick . . . Tick is a start-to-finish scorcher, standing out from 2003's moodier Static Transmissions because of its fiery attitude.

"This is a touring album, and it comes out of playing with one band for five years," says Wynn. "The last record kind of like this was Melting in the Dark, where I said, 'I want to write a record that will fit this band.' In that case it was Come; this time it was my band."

Bubbling with live energy, the album delivers a roar that is unrepentant rock. One of its best tracks is the catchy garage rave-up "Bruises," during which Wynn sings, "I fall down easy/But I get up slow/ I really hope the bruises don't show . . . This is how you learn to fall." It may be an appropriate summary of his career.

"You kind of take your hits. Things happen that knock you down for a while, and you get up -- and when you get up, you're better than before you fell down. I think whatever frustration and misfortunes have happened in my career, it's done me more good than bad, because you learn from that. Falling down is a very liberating and enlightening experience," he says.

He recognizes that his iconoclastic approach isn't for everyone -- a fact brought home recently when he met with his young nephew, a rising hip-hop artist. Wynn's music-industry advice fell on deaf ears.

"I said that you should follow your heart and instincts, and don't let other people change your mind. Whatever you think is right, is right," Wynn recalls. "And he said, 'That's great for you, Uncle, 'cuz you're an artist. I just want to make a lot of money.' And I was like, 'You know, I got nothing to tell you, but good luck.'"

Wynn's looking forward to playing Cleveland, one of his favorite towns for its music history.

"The one thing the whole band has in common is, we love the James Gang. I think Joe Walsh is one of the most underrated guitarists -- he's one of my guitar heroes. And I'm a big Pere Ubu fan, but really love Peter Laughner. Talk about underrated talents," Wynn says. "I saw Rocket From the Tombs last year, and it was amazing. Cheetah Chrome and Richard Lloyd in the Peter Laughner role. That's the stuff that really blows my mind, and to see David Thomas digging deep into his primal stuff and finding that Rocket From the Tombs stuff -- that was great."

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