Thanks to the hazy psych-pop he crafted with the Dream Syndicate in the '80s, Steve Wynn will always be intimately associated with California. But for his latest solo effort, Crossing Dragon Bridge, the 48-year-old (who now calls New York home) traveled to Ljubljana, Slovenia. Working with producer Chris Eckman (ex-the Walkabouts), Wynn has created an intimate moodpiece that's often a slightly shadier version of his usual rock fodder. "Wait Until You Get To Know Me" is a loping C&W number, while "Manhattan Fault Line" conjures the midnight daydreams of drone-poppers Luna, and "I Don't Deserve This" is an inky, spooky dirge that's reminiscent of Nick Cave. When reached in New York City on a recent morning, Wynn is chatty and amiable but "sort of on Martian time"; chalk it up to a late evening at a concert the night before and readjusting to the Eastern time zone after a European tour.
Annie Zaleski: Can you really put into words what Slovenia is like?
Steve Wynn: Yes and no. It's beautiful, it's small, it's wrapped up in history, it hasn't succumbed to multinationalism. There are no Starbucks or Burger Kings or Subway sandwiches over there. When you're there, you're immersed in a very particular environment, a particular culture. And that was a great place to make a record. I was there by myself, outside of Chris Eckman, who was working on the record with me. I spent a lot of time alone, and just soaked up everything around me. That's a good way to make a record, 'cause you get lost in one particular, focused thing. You can hear that on the record.
Listening to the songs about America on [Bridge]...there was a little bit more homesickness and wistfulness in the songs.
You're probably right, even though I wrote all the songs here in New York before I went over there. With the exception of a couple: "Slovenian Rhapsody" and "Love Me Anyway," I wrote over there. The thing is, I've done this before with records where I knew I was going to record in another city. I wrote the songs here with the idea of what it would like to be there. I put together an idea of what it would be like to make a record in Ljubljana — and hit it. The record has a lot of minor-key songs, a lot of songs in waltz time, a lot of eastern European moods and sounds to it. That's writing in character, writing in imaginary character. It was Method acting before the method came around.
OK, good, I wasn't off base, then.
Not at all. Every record I've made in my life up until this one, I've recorded with a band. From Dream Syndicate to solo records to Gutterball, everything I've done has been in a studio with three or four or five other musicians around me, just hammering it out and then fine-tuning it after that. This was the first time I've made a record where it was just made piece by piece by piece — and with me playing almost everything. You're just going to get more of your personality in it that way. You're not responding to the people around you, which is what usually I do. You're responding to what's going on inside your own head and the things that you did five minutes ago. When I hear this record, it feels much more like a personal record, a reflection of what was going on in my head at the time.
There's no reason you can't make great records in the same city with the same players for your whole life. But that's not the way it works for me. For me, being surprised, having things shaken up, works really well. I get most of my ideas — and get most excited — when things are surprising to me. Going to another city and working with new people is the best way to do it.
What prompted you at this stage in your career to be like, "OK, I'm going to do this completely different thing."?
Just 'cause I need that. The longer you've been doing stuff, the more you need something to shake yourself up, the more you need new ideas to not get stale. I'd wanted to work with Chris Eckman for a long time. I like what he does; I really like in particular the way — as a member of the Walkabouts and also in records he produced — the way he mixes rock music with classical elements and [is] true to both camps. It doesn't feel schlocky or tacked on or grafted onto something where it shouldn't be. He puts those two things together really well. Not a lot of people get a chance to do this, but there's something about being in an unfamiliar place by yourself for a long period of time, that really gets you to rethink things, to not skim the surface on things, which you might otherwise.