Poetic Justice interviewed Steve Wynn on his epic box set Decade, an 11 CD set that chronicles the guitar-driven albums Wynn recorded between 1995 and 2005. Read our review here, and read on for an additional interview with producer Pat Thomas.
Poetic Justice: How did you feel putting this box set together, and looking back at a busy and productive ten years?
Steve Wynn: It’s always gratifying to be able to look back at a period in your life and realize you were productive and doing good work. At the time, you’re just moving forward and getting from day to day without seeing any kind of context. And sometimes what you think you’re doing at the time ends up being something completely different in retrospect. This box set told the tale that I may not have been able to tell or fully understood at the time.
Poetic Justice: I understand the title Decade is partly a reference to Neil Young’s compilation of the same name. Was Young an influence in these years?
Steve Wynn: Well, Neil was always an influence since I was a little kid. Not just his songs or guitar sound or voice or albums but mostly because of the spontaneity in his approach, his fearlessness and chances he would take. I put him up with Miles Davis in that regard. On the other hand, during the 10 year period of the Decade box I was listening more to what was new music at the time, hearing the new guard and getting excited by things I hadn’t heard before. Retreating into the old favourites wasn’t foremost in my mind at the time.
Poetic Justice: There is an impressive amount of bonus material on Decade, as well as on other of your releases. Are you always happy to release this?
Steve Wynn: Only when I approve it! But Pat [Thomas} and I took the time and care to sift through dozens of hours or outtakes to find the ones we liked most and best told the story.
Poetic Justice: Many of the demos on Decade are from “Studio G”. Why do you enjoy recording your demos there?
Steve Wynn: Actually, I only recorded there once but it was a productive session that helped me bridge the gap from Sweetness and Light to My Midnight a year later. I worked there because it was the studio that was owned and run by Tony Maimone whom I knew would be playing on the next record, It was right by the Williamsburg stop on the G train, hence the name. At the time, that was no man’s land, nothing like the trendy outpost it is today.
Poetic Justice: Writing about Here Comes The Miracles in Complete Lyrics 1982-2017, you describe the clarity you felt when deciding it should be a double album. Had you considered releasing a double album before?
Steve Wynn: Not really. There were times where I had more material than I needed for an album, but it always became clear that certain songs belonged on the record and helped tell whatever story I was trying to tell than others. But I knew from the first time I heard all of the Here Come the Miracles songs together on the last night of the session that they all fit together like finishing a jigsaw puzzle.
Poetic Justice: What qualities did Pat Thomas bring to this project?
Steve Wynn: Well, he encouraged the concept, found the label, worked with me from start to finish on choosing songs, the context and presentation, mastering, promotion and artwork so I’d say he brought a whole lot to the project. It was, needless to say, the most ambitious thing I’ve ever done and there’s no way I could have done it alone. On that note, my wife and drummer Linda Pitmon was also invaluable in the same ways.
Pat Thomas is a producer, writer and musician; he produced Wynn’s box set Decade. Wynn has previously said of Thomas (in SF Weekly, 12 March 2008): “If Pat Thomas didn’t exist, someone would have had to have invented him. Imagine a hybrid of Ralph Gleason, Miles Davis, Soft Machine, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Albert Grossman, and Stokely Carmichael. Hurts my head to think about it. But Pat does all that and more, in a way that’s effortless and natural.”
Poetic Justice: How and when did you first meet Steve Wynn?
Pat Thomas: I met Steve originally in the summer of 1984 at a soundcheck, as detailed in the liner notes to the recent Record Store Day release of The Dream Syndicate’s Out of the Grey. Our friendship grew over the years and I’ve been closely involved with Steve’s career, for both new and old music, on and off now for thirty five years or so.
Poetic Justice: How did this particular project begin?
Pat Thomas: Decade started about two years ago , when Steve decided it was time to digitize all of his tapes; he had reel to reel and DAT tape cassettes, and spent quite some time and money digitizing everything – we then began talking about the idea of this box set. He had the title Decade, and really then it was about deciding which would be the extra tracks, the bonus and unreleased material. So right off the bat, we got rid of all basically almost all of the live material, which is hundreds of hours of live shows – that’s a different thing. Instead we focused on studio demos and outtakes. There’s also one or two radio pieces on there. Steve came to L.A. and for two or three days we listened to maybe 50 hours of material. I suggested what I call “The Gong Show” approach. The Gong Show was a TV show in the ‘70s, on American TV, where someone would come out and sing a song. If you didn’t like it, the gong was hit and the performer would be pulled off the stage. Steve often let me be the judge of the tracks as he was telling me stories about the songs, some of which I’d never heard. We whittled things down and then I listened to the tracks again by myself, took out a few tracks, and then Steve reviewed the selection again and suggested some inclusions. There wasn’t much left out, with something like 50 bonus tracks. It then made sense for Steve to annotate the tracks – ultimately he was there, and made the music. I think the notes are great.
Poetic Justice: Were there any disagreements as to what to include or leave off?
Pat Thomas: Both of us had a power of veto, and there was no big battles; it was a very organic process, unlike the Biden Trump vote.
Poetic Justice: Does it help to be a musician when producing a project like this, or indeed when writing about music?
Pat Thomas: Not necessarily, but what helps is my relationship with Steve – I’m his biggest fan and his strongest critic. He knows that when I say that I love something, he knows that really means something, because I’m not afraid to state the contrary. I started as a fan. Over the years the relationship has evolved to me being a key part of his creative process. We bonded early on. I was the first person to hear the Ghost Stories album, right after it was recorded. He was not necessarily looking for my stamp of approval back then, but he knew I was a fan. There’s a new Dream Syndicate album that just got recorded that I’ve heard which I can say is great, and something to look forward to.
Poetic Justice: You recently edited a book about Lou Reed, My Week Beats Your Year: Encounters With Lou Reed. How did that come about?
Pat Thomas: That’s a very cool book. I co-edited it with a friend of mine, Mike Heath. It includes fifty interviews starting from the moment Lou Reed became a solo act until he died. It contains an infamous Australian television interview from 1974. Of course sometimes Reed is incredibly acerbic, but sometimes he can be very warm.
Poetic Justice: You also have a long association with another Paisley Underground musician, Chuck Prophet.
Pat Thomas: I don’t serve the same role with Chuck, but I know there’s amazing outtakes and demos for his albums. And one of these days, hopefully, Chuck may put out some reissues, but generally speaking he doesn’t like looking back.
Poetic Justice: Do you have any new projects coming up?
Pat Thomas: There’s a Dream Syndicate Out of the Grey box set I’ve worked on with Fire Records with tons of unreleased material which should be coming out. I’m also involved (via Fire) in putting out some very incredible and rare Sandy Denny material. And then there’s a brand new album by (one of) The Last Poets named Abiodun Oyewole, not exactly rap, not exactly hip hop, but contemporary poetry set to music – that should be an exciting release.
Label: Real Gone Music
Release Date: 23 OCT 2020