Sunday, 13 February 2011

Pat Thomas grills Dennis Duck of The Dream Syndicate

Dennis Duck - Gothenberg, Sweden - November 1986
Photo by Christer Stromberg

Sitting on yet another article all these years, we got hold of its writer, Pat Thomas, to see if he was happy for us to run it. Not only did he comply with our request, he volunteered to update it, making the whole thing that much more valid now that it's some 23 years since it was originally prepared. There's definitely some good folk out there and Pat's one of them.

From 1983 to 1987, Pat himself was drummer with Absolute Grey, during which time they released two albums, "Green House" and "What Remains". He rejoined in 1989 for another studio album, "Sand Down The Moon" and a live album "A Journey Through The Past" was also released before the band folded in 1990. A solo album on his own Heyday label, "It's A Long, Long Way To Omaha, Nebraska" came out in 1989 and a number of others followed including, in 1995, "Fresh" which also featured The Dream Syndicate's Steve Wynn (and Green On Red's Chris Cacavas).

Since 1997 he's been pecussionist and band-leader of "psychedelic post-jazz collective" Mushroom who've released some 10 albums, most recently 2010's "Naked, Stoned And Stabbed".

Photo - Pat Thomas
For the life of me, I can’t remember where or when I did this interview with Dennis Duck. It may have been when I visited Los Angeles in the summer of 1987, which would make sense, as I spent an afternoon at Dennis’ house and we must have talked about something! At that point in my life, the Dream Syndicate was not only my favourite band, but had been an integral part of my life. Steve Wynn was becoming a close friend and musical confident. We’d exchange tapes of each other’s latest recordings and critique each other’s work. Some 20 yrs later and we still do that! Over the years, with the exception of Karl, I got to know everyone in the Syndicate pretty well – countless hours hanging out in dressing rooms with Steve, Dennis, Mark Walton and Paul Cutler. Kendra Smith and I still keep in touch from time to time as well. Anyway, this interview was due to be published about 20+ yrs ago by Chris Seventeen, but he got a little side-tracked! When he dug it up recently, he and I agreed that we’re run as it was – with all the original content included. However, I thought it would be interesting to treat this as a ‘reissue’ and I’d make additional comments in places. When I do, these appear in italics.

"Besides Steve Wynn, Dennis Duck is the only other original member left in the Dream Syndicate. I decided it was time to take some of the focus away from Steve and allow Dennis to speak his piece. Dennis has a long musical history that begins long before the Dream Syndicate: Human Hands, Dodoettes and the LA Free Musician Society – to name but a few. Here we focussed on Dennis' involvement with the Dream Syndicate – for those who want to check out his earlier stuff, grab a copy of Nigel Cross's interview with him in the John Coltrane Stereo News fanzine. At the end of our talk, Dennis speaks of one of his fave current LA bands, the Need: shortly afterwards, they changed their name to Divine Weeks and released an album on Steve Wynn's Down There record label, with Dennis sitting in on drums. The Dream Syndicate recently recorded some new demos produced by Vitus Matare, with Green On Red's Chris Cacavas helping him out on piano and organ. A new album is expected in Spring/Summer 1988.

Interestingly, those demos I mention above did not get released as the ‘new’ Dream Syndicate album at the time, but came out a couple of years later, when Steve Wynn and I decided to release them on CD and LP with the title “Three and a half” on the German label Normal Records. I got to see Divine Weeks play live while I was in LA visiting with Dennis, by then they had found a permanent drummer – and the thing I remember about that gig was – for the encore, the band played a Tommy medley – sounding just like The Who circa about 1972 when they band had cut the entire opera down to about a 15 minute thing.

PT – How did you come up with the name “The Dream Syndicate”? Are you a John Cale fan?

DD – When I joined the band in December of 1981, it had not yet been officially named. Steve thought we might call it “15 Minutes” after his self-produced single of the same name . Personally, I felt that was a little weak for a band with such a unique sound, so I began searching books and records for a name that would somehow reflect the sound of the band in words, as well as one that would look good in print and inspire curiosity. I found it on an album by Tony Conrad, who, as well as being a film-maker, used to play with a German group called Faust. His album was called “Outside The Dream Syndicate” because he'd formerly been in a group of that name, along with Lamonte Young and John Cale. When I saw those words on the record cover, a bell rang inside my head, and I knew that was the name for this band. At first the rest of the band was reluctant, but we soon all agreed that it was right for us. I remember telling some of my friends the name we'd chosen; several advised me to change it, and I think most people at least thought it rather strange. At this time, remember, there was no such thing as the “psychedelic revival” or “paisley underground”. No one other than record collectors were talking about'60's music, and there were no bands around with names like that, so I guessed it might stand out from the rest. Most bands in Los Angeles at that time had short sophisticated names, rather than long, cryptic ones. Since the songs were long and somewhat cryptic, that seemed like the right thing. Yes, I am a John Cale fan; I especially love “Paris 1919”, “Fear” and “Helen Of Troy”.

I also liked Lamonte Young although I haven't really heard anything about him in10 years or so. People might be interested to know that he was one of the first minimalist composers, and exercised a tremendous influence on such artists as Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, some, or all of whom, I believe have studied under him.

At the time, Tony Conrad and Faust didn’t mean shit to me, now I’m a major fan of both! With my band Mushroom, I got the chance in 1999 to play with Faust and in 2001, Mushroom got to collaborate with Faust on a studio project.

PT – Is it true the band originally formed to play Rolling Stones covers?

DD - Steve and Karl got together because they loved to jam with each other on guitar. They'd start playing, one playing rhythm, the other taking the lead, and they'd trade back and forth. He important thing was the sound of the two guitars crashing up against each other, and since there was essentially no structure other than the rhythm, they took full advantage of this freedom, to let the music go in whatever direction seemed interesting at the time. I know they talked about doing all sorts of things musically, but I think their hearts were always rooted in spontaneity and sonic exhilaration. The Rolling Stones idea was just a way to make money at frat parties. It never actually happened, and my guess is that it wouldn't have lasted more than one night, if that. In any event, by the time I showed up, Steve had written about half a dozen originals that ended up on the first EP and the first album. The main reason I joined the band was because I thought Steve's songs were quite special. As a performer, he possessed a certain assured naivete that one rarely sees in singers these days. I believed, and still do, that I had met a person of raw, intuitive genius. That's what fascinated me about the band. If I'd walked into a rehearsal session for Stones covers, I'd have walked right out again.

PT – What is your favourite line-up or period of the band?

DD – I have two favourite periods of the band actually, and each for different reasons. The first line-up with Karl and Kendra was incredible. I honestly thought at that time that it was one of the best and most unusual bands around. I always said I was the biggest DS fan, and that if I wasn't in the band, I'd be in the audience at every show.. For about a year, I listened to nothing but tapes of our shows and rehearsals – I couldn't get enough. I must have driven a few of my friends crazy at the time, as the band was about all I ever talked of. I've always liked, even loved, the bands I'd been in previously, but this feeling, this obsession was new to me. It was a bit like being in love with someone. When Kendra left, it was such a shock – a disaster. I knew she'd been thinking about it for a few months before she left, and I'd tried to talk her out of it, but when Steve called one day and said she'd quit, I couldn't believe it. Now I understand that it was the best thing for her. She was looking for a kind of music we weren't doing, and I don't think she felt confident about contributing to the band. Her departure closed a unique chapter in the band, one that will never be repeated. What we lacked in musical ability, we made up for in sheer audacity and the willingness to take chances n stage every night, in front of people. Some of it was boring, but boy, some of it was amazing too! After Kendra left, David Prevost joined on bass, we spent 6 months recording “Medicine Show”, toured America with a keyboard player, toured Europe and Japan as a four piece, and split up. I now see that period as a test of determination; I don't think any one of us was completely satisfied with what we were doing, each for his own reason, I guess. I loved the songs, but missed the spontaneity and aggression of the old band. When Paul (Cutler) joined, some of that was re-gained. But he also brought with him a discipline and consistency that Karl didn't have, as well as a keen sense of melody. These attributes, together with Mark (Walton)'s gutsier bass playing have given the band new life. So this is definitely my favourite other period. Most of the bombastic jams have gone, but the group is more musical than ever now, and I think Steve's song writing and singing are more assured than ever. This is beginning to sound like a review! I only mean to tell you why I love this phase of the band so much.

PT – Why did the band leave A & M?

DD – When the band reformed with Paul, A & M wanted to hear some of the new songs and sent us into the studio to make some demos. In the space of one day we recorded five songs and handed them over to the label. Apparently they weren't satisfied with what they heard, and asked us to let them know when we had some more new songs. A few months later we went back into the studio with Greg Edwards (John Cougar's engineer) to do demos of more new songs. They weren't thrilled with these either, but finally sent us into the studio to record three songs for the album, with Greg Edwards producing. We did “Now I Ride Alone”, “Out Of The Grey” and “Blood Money”, and A & M said theses weren't quite what they were looking for. They kept talking about something called “The Next Step” which, if you're walking down the gangplank, as we felt we were, is not necessarily something you feel good about. It finally came down to the fact that we'd spent the better part of a year not making a record, so we asked A & M to let us make the record we wanted or let us find someone who would. They chose the latter, which was, in some ways, quite generous of them, since it involved erasing a sizeable debt.

PT – Was leaving A & M the reason the new album was released in June 1986 and not earlier?

DD – That was part of it. Also, working out the details of the agreement with Big Time took longer than we'd hoped. By the time the album was finished, we were all in a hurry to get it out. In retrospect, we should have waited until August to release it. Summer is a bad time to release a record because colleges are out until September, which makes touring difficult for a band like us. I'd expect the new album to be out during August.

PT – How do you feel about the “Out Of The Grey” album?

DD- I am very happy with it, though since it was recorded, the band has toured for 4 months in Europe and America, and consequently sharpened and solidified its sound. I think it would sound quite different if we recorded it now. But it's done , and I like it a lot. My favourites are “Boston”, “50 In A 25 Zone”, “Now I Ride Alone”, “Dying Embers” and “Drinking Problem” which is only on the cassette and CD (and on continental European copies of the record – Ed) Naturally we always look back and say “I wish we'd done that differently”. I can't wait to see how the next one sounds – should be pretty different.

Drinking Problem” was released around that time (1986-1987) as part of an EP of other unreleased Out of the Grey era songs – later on (early 1990’s) when I reissued “Out of the Grey” on CD for Normal Records, I added on those EP songs as bonus tracks.

PT – Who are some of the drumming influences?

DD – My all time favourite rock'n'roll drummer has got to be Charlie Watts. You can't beat him for simplicity, looseness and spontaneity. He always sounds like he means it when he does a fill, or hits a cymbal, and his playing has real personality; a real, human feel, almost sloppy, kind of behind the beat sometimes, but always right. Even when he's playing against, or with, a drum machine, as in the later Stones records, he manages to make it sound like Charlie Watts. I also like Stewart Copeland quite a bit. Unlike Charlie he is very precise, seamless. He has a marvellous sense of tone colour and an incredibly delicate use of space, especially on the “Synchronicity” album, where his work on songs like “Wrapped Around Your Finger” and “King Of Pain” is exceptional. And unlike other drummers with an arsenal of drums and gadgets, he knows when not to play. I also have a great deal of respect for Chris Franz. His strengths are economy and steadiness, playing just enough to punch the song through, but never showing off or trying to be noticed, true also of the other band members too. As for jazz drummers, you can't beat Max Roach. He's one of the very few drummers who play melodically as well as rhythmically. I have an album of his that is just drum solos, and you would not believe how beautiful they are. Not many people could do an album of drum solos and not bore you by the second cut. The drums themselves have a warm rich sound that reflects the care and love he puts into his playing.

I must also mention the first jazz drummer I ever listened to, Tony Williams. His work on the Miles Davis albums in the 60's was ground breaking. The only other drummer I've heard who even come close to Williams is Jeffrey Watts in the Wynton Marsalis band. And I should also mention Elvin Jones who always tried to give Coltrane a run for his money.

As a follow drummer, I love that fact that Dennis is NOT too cool to mention Stewart Copeland, who is often considered un-hip because of his membership in the Police (not because he was in Curved Air !?!) It took me another couple of years past this interview to discuss the magic of Tony Williams.

PT – How did you get into playing drums?

DD – I always loved music, and really started out with The Beatles. I thought they were magic, almost gods, in a sense. From that time on, I always dreamed about being in a band. I learned to play trumpet in the Fourth Grade and always assumed I'd be like Herb Alpert, who was my musical hero at that time. By 1973, I'd long since lost interest in the trumpet. It certainly didn't have much to do with rock'n'roll anyway. I did try to teach myself guitar for a while, and probably imagined I'd be a guitarist some day. One day I happened to be at a friend's house with some other guys. One of them had a cheap electric guitar which was plugged into his stereo amplifier. Another had an acoustic guitar with all the strings missing, save the lowest string, so he played bass. I grabbed some pencils and arranged some cans, boxes and a metal lamp shade – a cymbal, I guess – in front of me, and we just played. I really loved it, but didn't think too much about it until a few days later when I saw an ad in the paper for a used drum kit. Since most of my friends were guitarists and none were drummers, I reasoned that at least as a drummer I'd be more in demand, which is still true even now. I immediately drove to the address and bought the drums. The next day I set them up in the living room, and, along with a friend who'd just bought an electric bass and amp, tried to play our favourite song, which at that time happened to be “Brontosaurus” by The Move. My mother did not like the idea, and I had to hide the drums from my step father who would have been furious. He wanted me to go into business.

PT – Are you a big jazz fan? What music do you listen to? Did you spend a lot of time listening to Crazy Horse and the Velvets?

DD – It's true, I love jazz, especially from the 60's; Coltrane, Art Ensemble Of Chicago (who are still great), Dolphy, Coleman, Sun Ra. There was a time in the 70's when there wasn't much good rock music coming out, so I bought mostly jazz records. There are fewer people that I like in jazz now. Marsalis is very good, Miles is still very good. My listening habits have changed over the years. It used to be that once I got into a band, I'd get all their records. Now I have very little faith in bands as such, with a few exceptions, such as REM and Green On Red. Most bands don't have a strong identity, or if they do, it's manufactured, affected rather than genuine. It is true that I didn't spend a lot of time listening to Crazy Horse before joining the band. I liked CSNY but always thought Neil Young was a lousy singer on his own. It was quite a shock to find that my new band mates considered him a hero of sorts. Steve played me records by him and Credence, who I really didn't like, that made me realise how great these people really are, or were, and how much good music I had missed. At that time, I was really into European groups like Can, Amon Duul, Kraftwerk, Neu and Faust; and since our songs were long and kind of mysterious, I approached them on a kind of trance level. It really doesn't show in the music; I suppose it comes down to the frame of mind I was in.

Dennis was way ahead of his time with his love of Krautrock! It took the rest of us at least another decade to catch up! Along with the Dream Syndicate, my other fave band of the era was Green On Red as well. Although I started to lose faith in them when Chris Cacavas and Jack Waterson left.

PT – What are some of the bands that you've seen or heard that have caught your attention?

DD – As I said before, there aren't many I have faith in. Bands make good and bad albums. I try to find the good ones and avoid the bad ones. I think Green On Red are my favourite band right now.

They just keep getting better and better. “Let It Be” by The Replacements was great. I heard Volcano Suns in New York and liked them. There's an LA band called The Need who are pretty good. Of course REM are wonderful. Phranc the folk-singer is good. There's another LA band called The Romans who have a record out on Down There. I'm afraid I don't make a great effort to keep up on new bands sometimes. I rely on friends to keep me up to date. I have a 4 month old daughter who loves music. If a record's good, she stops crying and her eyes light up. I hope she likes our next album!"

Pat Thomas
on America’s west coast waiting, February 2011

As an extra to the articles and interviews folks wrote for us back in 1987, we also asked for their top tens. Here is Pat's.

Pat Thomas 1987 Top Ten

Originally my Top Ten list had no comments, I thought it would be fun to now make a couple of comments about these and what I think about them in 2011.

Russ Tolman – Glory Holes & Totem Poles
Still one of the best things Russ Tolman ever did – very raw and loose, which is just how I like Russ

Barbara Manning – demo tape
This demo tape with some additional songs and remixing became Barbara Manning’s album “Scissors” which I released on my Heyday Records label – still one of the best LPs of the 1980’s.

Brad Bradberry – Keep Passing The Open Window
This was a cassette only release – Brad passed away several years ago, a pretty decent singer/songwriter from Northern California with great musical taste. I miss talking to him.

Steve Wynn – KCRW Radio broadcast (w. CC, Mark Walton and Robert Lloyd)
If I’m not mistaken, when I produced and compiled the reissue of the Dream Syndicate’s “Ghost Stories” album on CD for Rykodisc several years ago, I included a song or two from this radio session, I still love it.

Tim Hardin – Best Of
I’m still waiting for Tim to be rediscovered by the 20 year olds with beards I see walking the streets.

Sandy Denny – Who Knows Where The Time Goes (boxset)
Nick Drake – Fruit Tree (boxset)
Sandy and Nick – what more can I say, except that even back in 1987, Nick wasn’t nearly as famous then as he is now – this is pre-Volkswagen TV commercial!

Eddie Ray Porter – When The Morning Falls
Wonderful lead guitar playing by Chuck Prophet on every song. Sort of a cross between Green on Red and Bruce Springsteen by way of Van Morrison in terms of singer/songwriter stuff. Eddie was wonderful, he died about 2 yrs ago and many of us were bummed out when that happened. Impossible to find on CD, but there’s still some vinyl floating around – seek it out.

John Martyn – London Conversation
Another man done gone. I miss him too – even though I never met him.

The Silos – About Her Steps
A couple of years later, Walter Salas Humara and I became pals and I jammed with him a couple of times and got drunk in some German restaurants with him as well. He wouldn’t like me saying this, but I wish he’d kept Bob Rupe in the band. I recently dug this LP out after many years of not listening to it – it still holds up.

And to finish, here's Pat's first band, Absolute Grey doing a Dream Syndicate song, "Tell Me When It's Over".

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