The Baseball Project's Steve Wynn on the Twins, Dream Syndicate, and origins
Photo by Mary Winzig
The Baseball Project is a supergroup of four veterans of American underground rock and punk. Combining talents from R.E.M., the Dream Syndicate and Minneapolis's Zuzu's Petals, each member contributes 30 or more years of experience, and they are also huge baseball fans.
The band features Steve Wynn, Scott McCaughey, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Linda Pitmon. Their second record, Volume 2: High and Inside, is a selection of hits that play up baseball history, players and teams they're fans of, ballads such as "Here Lies Carl Mays," commentary, and yes, songs about the Twins, such as "Don't Call Them Twinkies," written and sung by guest artist Craig Finn, and "Fair Weather Fans," where Pitmon sings about the Twins in the '70s and today.
Gimme Noise spoke with Steve Wynn while they were taking a lunch break on the road to play Rock Island Brewing Company, in Rock Island, Illinois. From houses to stadiums, everything about this band is unusual. You can catch them tonight at the 400 Bar -- a bar which is like their second home.
How did it feel for the Baseball Project to perform at Fenway Park singing the National Anthem for the Red Sox vs. the Yankees double-header?
Steve Wynn: It was amazing! Fenway Park is one of the two great old stadiums in baseball - Fenway Park and Wrigley Field in Chicago. Now we've sung the anthem in one and threw out the first pitch in the other one. These are really the great fringe benefits of being in the Baseball Project. You get to do things you never imagined you would do. We did a good job, too! It's not the easiest song in the world to sing, I'll tell you that much! (laughs).
You've played at stadiums before.
SW: We did shows after the ballgame in Philadelphia and Milwaukee; we threw out the first pitch in Chicago. We've done bits and pieces here and there. But it was the first time we did the National Anthem at a Major League game.
Are you going to a Twins game?
SW: We are indeed! Yes! That's what we do! It would be pretty funny if you had a band called The Baseball Project and you actually hate baseball. We are all big fans, all four of us. We try, whenever possible, if schedule allows us, to see in a game. As it turns out, we will be able to squeeze in a Twins game between soundcheck and our show at the 400 Bar. So we will walk on to the stage of the 400 fresh from whatever happened at Target Field.
Tell me about the formation of The Baseball Project.
SW: The band began on the night before R.E.M. was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame five years ago. There was a big, lavish party. Great food, lots of celebrities, drinks were flowing and a good time was had. At the end of the night, with all that behind us, Scott McCaughey and I were propping up the bar at about two in the morning, and we started talking about baseball. I know Scott really well but I didn't know that he was such a big fan, and I don't think he knew that about me. We started talking about how each of us had always wanted to do a record about baseball. And I think when we knew out there was another guy out there threatening to do it; we figured we had to do it together so we wouldn't be the second one in line. (laughs)
Photo by Renata Steiner
And then Peter Buck and Linda Pitmon joined you two...
SW: Linda Pitmon is my wife and also has played with me for the last 15 years. She plays in my band, Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3. And she's a Minneapolis native, and a Twins fan besides. She's a huge baseball fan. She comes from a family of many generations of big Minnesota fans, Twins fans and Millers fans back a hundred years. So that was a natural.
And Peter and Scott play together in about 50 different bands -- the Minus 5, Robyn Hitchcock, all kinds of different things. It was kind of a natural band to put together quickly. I should point out that once we decided to do something... it wasn't a plan to make a band that would last through the ages or have many records. We just wanted to get together, write some baseball songs and get them down on tape. It really has been a nice surprise to the band to become popular and last so long. It was just meant to be a quick little thrill ride and be done.
So there wasn't a lot of deliberation over how we would do it, who would be in the band. It was just like, "Hey! Peter, you play with Scott all the time, and Linda, you play with me all the time. Let's make a record.
What's Linda Pitmon working on currently and next?
SW: She's played with a lot of people: Freedy Johnston, Amy Rigby, Golden Smog - she keeps her Minnesota roots going as well.
Who writes the songs, and do you research for them?
SW: Scott and I write the songs, about half each and we almost never collaborate. Maybe that will change in the future. We each generally sing the songs that we write. We're both really big fans and so we write about things we know about and are excited about. We watch games, read books about baseball we've been following since we were kids. So it doesn't take a lot of research. But every now and then we have to go back and use the internet to make sure we're getting our facts straight. Because one thing you don't wanna do in a band like this is get our facts wrong. One wrong statistic and you know, one thousand baseball fans will come knocking on your door, telling you, you got it wrong. But we do know our stuff.
I saw that earlier in your life you were a sportswriter.
SW: I was! That's what I wanted to do with my life. When I was a teenager, I was writing sports out in L.A. I was already playing guitar, and writing songs and playing in bands. But that was a pipe dream. That's the kind of thing you don't imagine you'll ever be doing, so sports writing was my thing. That was the thing until punk rock came along and sidetracked me. And next thing you know, it's 30 years later and I'm making records for my life. The funny thing is, with the Baseball Project, I get to do both things - be a musician and write about sports at the same time!
Yes, I imagine that's pretty fulfilling.
SW: We have a good time with it. The nice thing is we all still have our other various bands and still make records with those. So this band is almost like a vacation, like fantasy camp or something like that. We get to travel around, sing about baseball, and see games... meet people who love baseball as much as we do. It's a fun thing.
Last night we played a show in St. Louis, and the promoter of the show made us these beautiful baseball pennants with our names on them for the show. Other times people make baseballs with our names on them. Just this crazy thing, you don't normally see. Between, Linda, Scott, Peter, myself and now also Mike Mills who's on tour with us right now, we've been doing this for a long time. A lot of records, a lot of shows, a lot of traveling. And you begin to feel like you've seen everything. It's like, "Man, I've been every variation I can be." And then we're doing the Baseball Project where we're doing stuff we never imagined! Which is a real kick.
I see your former band The Dream Syndicate is reuniting to do a short tour of Spain commemorating the 30th Anniversary of the The Days of Wine release. What do you look forward to the most about this?
SW: I'm really looking forward to that! It's something I've thought about over the years and I never had the right time, or right reason or was in the right frame of mind to do it. We were asked to perform a festival in Bilbao, Spain. It just seemed like the right time to make that happen. And once we said "yes," then all these other festivals wanted us to do it as well. So we decided to do this for a week, road test it and see if we have a good time with it, and if we do, take it further from there.
But, no matter what you do, whether its your job, hobby or school history, you reach a point in your life where you want to check up on your old friends, see how everyone's doing, see how things have changed, see how you interact together in different ways. The same is true for bands, for musicians. I'm really looking forward to getting together with my old buddies and making some music and revisiting songs I haven't played in a while.
Will the Baseball Project make a new record?
SW: We go in the studio next March and do our third one. And three being kind of a magic number in baseball, whether its strikes or outs, I think will be a good omen for us.
What was one of your favorite parts of the tour so far?
SW: This was a short tour; we are only doing five shows. We've done Madison and St. Louis so far and they were both great. The show the tour was built around was the show in Madison. It was the Northern League All-Star game. And it was during the Home Run contest. So we were playing and fans were listening to and watching us while hitters were hitting home runs over the fence one after the other behind us. You do that kind of thing, you think, "This is just the most surreal thing ever. You don't get to do this kind of thing every day!" This is what we live for. We all enjoy doing that thing you never imagined doing and getting a kick out of it, and telling the story later on.
Mike Mills is pinch-hitting for Peter Buck. Is it because of availability?
SW: Peter made it clear early on he can't tour all the time; he's got a lot of other things going on. So when Peter couldn't tour for the first time, it was really a natural thing to ask Mike because of course he's a great bass player, a great friend and of course bandmate of Scott's and Peter's and, in addition, Mike's as a big a baseball fan as all of us. Peter I think enjoys the game in theory, but when it comes down to absolute 100 percent geekiness, Mike is so, so he's a natural fit. And it turns out we're doing more and more shows with all five of us, with both Mike and Peter. I really enjoy that. It is a great combination, so I think we'll probably do the next record that way as well, as a five-piece and, with any luck, get that band on the road too. You'll see Mike tomorrow night. You might even hear an R.E.M. song tomorrow night!
Are there any other unusual experiences you'd like to share?
SW: To be honest, this band is nothing but unusual experiences. Everything we get to do is always fun. We've had many favorite places. We loved our last show in Minneapolis. The only downside is, we were playing at the Varsity Theater the exact same time as the memorial for Harmon Killebrew. It kept a lot of baseball fans from seeing our show. And it kept us from going to the memorial. So we're looking forward to tomorrow night to play for a lot of people who might have missed the last one. I can guarantee we're going to play the song, "Don't Call Them Twinkies," that's for sure. I can't promise anything else because our shows change every night, but that's one song we'll play tomorrow night for sure.
Maybe "Fair Weather Fans" too?
SW: That's a regular song, too. That mentions the Twins, too. So any songs that mention the Twins we'll likely do tomorrow. (laughs)
Wynn notes the band take the stage 10 p.m. sharp. Get there early! The 400 Bar, 8 p.m. Friday, July 27. Click here.
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