There is, they say, nothing more terrifying to a writer than the blank page. Steve Wynn knows this, and the solo artist and onetime frontman for semi-legendary 1980s jangle-poppers the Dream Syndicate appreciates how easy he’s got it with the Baseball Project.
“It’s a great band to write for because everything is very definable,” says Wynn. “When you have your band, whether it’s my band or the Young Fresh Fellows or Minus 5 or R.E.M. or whatever, you set out to make a new record and you can write about anything. You could say that’s liberating, but it’s also daunting sometimes: ‘Am I gonna write about romance or politics or garbage collection or what? What's the topic this time?’ With the Baseball Project, we know. It’s gonna be about baseball.”
That doesn’t mean that the band’s songs are sepia-toned reveries. They’re emotionally sympathetic takes on often complex topics that just happen to revolve around the national pastime. The Baseball Project (which plays the House of Blues Foundation Room on Saturday) doesn’t just chronicle the interesting characters, events, and idiosyncrasies of the game. Wynn and company do what good songwriters do, which is work to identify why they’re interesting.
“We try always to personalize the songs,” he says. “We try to write about something — a player, an event, an aspect of the game — and make it universal, so that even if you don't care about baseball, you can still find something in there to grab onto.”
The seed of the band’s genesis goes back to 1992, when Wynn and Young Fresh Fellows/Minus 5 kingpin Scott McCaughey met in a Seattle club. Specifically the men’s room. The conversation turned to baseball — “You’ve gotta talk about somethin’, ” Wynn says with a chuckle — and the two became friends.
A decade-and-a-half later, the two hatched the idea of writing baseball-themed songs together. Each brought on an additional player — guitarist Peter Buck from R.E.M. (with whom McCaughey had played since 1994) and Wynn’s drummer/wife Linda Pitmon — and an album was done within three months.
Despite the seemingly limited subject matter, Wynn insists that the idea behind the band isn’t as gimmicky as it may seem on first blush. “I feel like baseball is really well-suited to this kind of thing,” he says, “because the game is so individual-oriented and so much like the great American myth of one man against the world. When you’re in the batter’s box, you are the guy, and there’s nobody else who’s gonna help you out of this one. I think it lends itself to great stories and songs.”
Naturally, plenty of those great stories involve the Red Sox. The debut paid raucous tribute to the Splendid Splinter’s bluster (“Ted [Expletive] Williams”), while the sophomore album featured a trio of Beantown-centric tunes. “Twilight of My Career” chronicles Roger Clemens’s fall from grace from the inside, while “Tony (Boston’s Chosen Son)” salutes the tragedy of Tony Conigliaro’s injury and attempted comeback. “Buckner’s Bolero,” meanwhile, effectively absolves the first baseman of wrongdoing, potential fighting words in this town.
Regardless of the risks, Wynn’s looking forward to singing the national anthem at Fenway Park, which he calls “hallowed ground for baseball fans.” And Saturday’s show will feature the keyboard work of Sox organist and occasional collaborator Josh Kantor, who’ll run across Lansdowne Street to the House of Blues between the games of a doubleheader. Like Wynn. Kantor sees baseball as being rich enough to sing about.
“I think that a lot of times with baseball, the deeper story, or the story within the story, may be something that audiences are better able to relate to,” Kantor says. “I think that the lengthy history of baseball and the way that the story of players is tied from generation to generation, and the story of fans is tied from generation to generation, make it more suitable for what the Baseball Project is doing.”
In addition to Kantor, R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills will be, as the marketing inevitably puts it, “pinch-hitting” for an absent Buck on Saturday. (Wynn expects both to be on board for album number three.) Hold Steady frontman and Twins fan Craig Finn, who contributed “Don't Call Them Twinkies” to last year's “Volume 2: High and Inside,” offers his take on why the band has no problem attracting outside help.
“I think a lot of musicians are drawn to baseball, in that it’s sort of like being in a band,” says Finn. “Not every show’s going to be great. You aren’t going to win 162 ballgames. But if you win two out of three, things are going pretty well.”
For Wynn, the appeal of the Baseball Project is much simpler, at least from his perspective. “When somebody says, ‘What were you trying to say when you wrote this very emotional, meaningful, melancholy song on your last record?,’ it’s hard to talk about that kind of thing,” he says. “You can't really put it into words. But talking about baseball’s a blast.”Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @spacecitymarc.