One challenge of singer-songwriter Steve Wynn's 19-year recording career has been figuring out what works best for him. In the case of his new double album, "Here Come the Miracles," that isn't necessarily the way he's always done things.
Wynn, who will perform Friday at the Knitting Factory Hollywood, says he wanted to "shake things up a bit." He decided not to record "Miracles" in New York City, where the California native and longtime Angeleno moved seven years ago, but instead retreated to a small Tucson studio. The atmosphere there nurtured a sense of creative freedom that Wynn thinks evokes the spirit of his work nearly two decades ago as the leader of the seminal L.A. rock band the Dream Syndicate. At a time when plastic synth-pop ruled the airwaves, the group's psychedelic guitar-rock helped fuel a movement--dubbed the Paisley Underground--that drew from classic '60s garage and art-rock such as the Velvet Underground.
Though not a huge commercial success, its 1982 debut album, "The Days of Wine and Roses," had a nationwide impact on college radio, back when that format was the petri dish of future rock innovation.
At first, however, the change of pace while making "Miracles" found Wynn fighting his own instincts.
"I have that New York work ethic thing, where I'd go in the studio for 20 straight hours and work until I dropped," he says. "The first day in Tucson I completely panicked because of the two-hour dinner breaks and friends dropping by to show off their new dogs." He laughs. "But it was that kind of spirit that made things happen. The band was relaxed enough to follow things wherever they went."
The studio, Wavelab, also contributed to the album's expansive, sometimes experimental sound. "It was like a big play land, with a bunch of old stuff and weird instruments that were half-broken lying around," he says. "Usually I get the sound down first and hope to play the songs as well as possible in the studio, but this time, we would look for some weird amp or old keyboard to make the centerpiece of each song, and then see what happened."
The result is a freewheeling yet self-assured balance of Wynn's own voice and the influences long associated with him--the darkness of the Velvet Underground, the spaciousness of Neil Young and the oblique introspection of Bob Dylan. Such tunes as "Sunset to the Sea" and "Southern California Line" also reflect his affection for his native state.
"Somehow, moving away made it easier to write about it," he says. "Now more than ever it's a romantic and exciting and historical place. All the things that make great noir novels is the way I see L.A. now."
Most songs on "Miracles" are as dark as much of Wynn's work, but he thinks the musicians' creative playfulness makes the collection feel inspiring.
And it ends on a hopeful note with what he calls his first gospel song, "There Will Come a Day."
"After 80 minutes of darkness, retribution, despair, frustration, and disorientation," he says, "the happy ending is, things will work out the way they should. When you're in your deepest, darkest moments, the idea that some kind of order exists that will see you through is a pretty optimistic statement."
To him, the new recording also shares a kinship with "The Days of Wine and Roses," which had been out of print but was recently re-released by Rhino Records.
"If not similar in sound, they're kind of coming from the same place," he says of the two recordings.
Back in the '80s, "people thought we were so retro because we played guitars, and they wondered if we were trying to make a statement. I was like, 'No, this is the music we love."'
Nine years later, he notes, along came Nirvana and Sonic Youth, et al., "which almost was the vindication of the guitar." But in those days using guitars just confused people.
Now, he says, "We're back in the same place again, [with people asking,] 'Why would you use analog tape when you can use ProTools?' It's not just about getting the job done; it's about doing it with soul and style and guts and heart and emotion, not just clinical efficiency."
Wynn is so pleased with how "Days" has held up that he's been performing the entire album as the second set during this tour. "A lot of bands cite it as an influence," he says, "which means a lot more to me than if we would've sold a million records or been on the radio all the time."
Such favorites of his as the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, the Modern Lovers and Gun Club also opened up paths for other groups to follow, he says, "so for us to become one of those bands as well feels great."
Steve Wynn, Friday at the Knitting Factory Hollywood, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 8 p.m. $12. (323) 463-0204.