Interview with Dean Wareham (Dean & Britta, Luna, Galaxie 500)

After some twenty or so years in his chosen profession, Dean Wareham really should be better recognised for his importance to the leftfield rock world that he has helped to father and nurture. Even this writer, a self–confessed anorak on all things American, alternative and rock-shaped to have bubbled-up under the mainstream during the late-‘80s/early-‘90s, somehow missed-out on the melodic magic sprinkled all over Wareham’s CV. Embarrassingly, it took last year’s masterful 2CD Luna retrospective on Beggars Banquet (Luna being the dreamy guitar-pop ensemble led by Wareham between 1991 and 2005) to really jolt this listener into a proper appreciation of the man’s consistent body of work. This was followed by an overdue re-acquaintance with two criminally underplayed compilations from Galaxie 500 – the group Wareham shared from 1987 to 1991 with drummer Damon Krukowski and bassist/vocalist Naomi Yang, that fashioned three highly-influential albums of gauzy reverb-soaked torch-songs. If this wasn’t enough, earlier this year along came Wareham’s second long-playing release with ex-Luna bassist – and now wife – Britta Phillips, in the form of Back Numbers – a record drenched in rich pop exotica which shows that an indie-rock veteran can convincingly change some of his spots, as well as some of his wardrobe.

Making-up for lost time then, once having belatedly sampled and stocked-up on the three strands of the Wareham back catalogue, it seemed that the next logical step was to exchange a few words with the man himself. Fortunately, Wareham was happy to oblige across the email ether, discussing the gestation of Back Numbers, the appeal of cover versions, the need for collaborators, the misunderstood work of Donovan, the dear departed Lee Hazlewood, appearing in horror films, Luna’s recorded legacy and the sonic deluge of the MP3 revolution.

How did your recent European tour treat you? How did you find one of my old university-era haunts; Leicester’s Princess Charlotte?
Some people say the Princess Charlotte should be bulldozed. It is legendary for its bad sound, both on stage and out front for the audience. Nice dressing room though… We didn’t stay the night in Leicester, as a friend put us up in Rugby.

After years of lengthy Luna tours, are you finding the shorter bouts of shows less draining, both physically and financially?
Short tours are nice. But they are still physically draining – there is no way around it. There’s a lot to do – load the van, count the T-shirts, write the set lists, drive.

How are you managing to translate the Dean & Britta material into a live setting, given how the records are far less straight guitars-bass-drums oriented than you’ve done before? Has it helped drawing on a few old Luna and Galaxie 500 songs?
It took a while to figure out how to play these songs, because they were built brick by brick in the studio – as opposed to being played by a rock quartet – but by the time we got back from Europe the band was sounding really good. We have an amazing drummer – Anthony LaMarca, 20 years old – and a very tasteful keyboard player – Ben Freeman. It’s most fun playing the Dean & Britta songs, but I enjoyed playing the Galaxie 500 songs too. I get an emotional charge from playing “Tugboat” and “Strange”.

Have you been pleased with the reaction to Back Numbers?

We can’t complain… we got great reviews. The most important thing is that we like it ourselves. And some of our friends liked it too.

Back Numbers sounds to me like a more cohesive and confident affair than the first Dean & Britta album L’Aventtura – would you concur? Does it feel far less like a side-project?
With the break-up of Luna it’s not a side-project anymore. Personally, I love L’Aventtura – it’s a record I’m really proud of, and I don’t always feel that way. But you are probably right – Back Numbers is more cohesive. We started recording it at home, then took it to Tony Visconti.

How instructive were he and Peter ‘Sonic Boom’ Kember in forging the collective sound of the new record? The latter’s remixes of songs from L’Aventtura on the Sonic Souvenirs EP seem to suggest that he brought in an extra layer of dreaminess to your recordings, with strings phased-out in favour of electronics. Whilst I imagine Visconti brought in more conventional ideas about song structure. But I’m just speculating…
Sonic Boom suggested two of the cover versions – “White Horses” and “Our Love Will Still Be There”, and “Crystal Blue R.I.P.” grew out of a guitar riff that he played for us. We have some half-finished songs like that sitting around, recorded when Pete visited us in NYC. And in the middle of our making the record with Visconti, Pete visited New York again. He came by our place one afternoon and quickly added some synthesizer parts to some of the songs – which we then took back to Tony, who sprinkled them through the songs. But Tony Visconti knows a thing or two about atmosphere himself and is always eager to experiment. He is also an excellent engineer, arranger and mixer – the whole package.

Despite the detailed studio embellishments, some of the songs – notably “Singer Sing” and “Wait For Me” – sound so intimate that they almost feel like intrusive eavesdropping. Is that the atmosphere you were consciously aiming to conjure or was it just the inevitable by-product of home-recording?
I think it is more the latter. Britta recorded some of her vocals at home – which really encourages you to get close to the microphone and almost whisper.

Although Back Numbers ushers in a significant sonic progression for your songs, do you think there is also some logical continuity and a relaxed rapprochement with your past body of work? For instance, to these ears “Words You Used To Say” could have sat fairly easily on a latter-day Luna LP and “Crystal Blue R.I.P.” is arguably your most Galaxie 500-sounding song since the band dissolved…
Yes, “Crystal Blue” finds me singing in that upper register, which I think is why it sounds more like Galaxie 500. I don’t think I’ve ever been one to completely re-invent myself.

My favourite cover on the album is the Lee Hazlewood-penned/onetime Ann-Margaret-sung “You Turned My Head Around”. What drew you into recording the song and do you think that you managed to improve upon it? Personally, I find the original version almost unlistenable in comparison, despite being a huge Hazlewood fan myself…

I still like the original, but it’s an odd recording, goes from whisper quiet to crazy 60s psych. I happen to think Britta is a better singer than Ann Margaret, at least for this kind of thing. Ann Margaret is better suited to show tunes.

Would it be fair to say that the self-penned “Say Goodnight” is your affectionate nod to Hazlewood’s duets with Nancy Sinatra and Suzi Jane Hokum?
Britta wrote that one – though it also contains elements of “Romantica” by Luna, but rearranged in a different time signature, and I agree it sounds rather Hazlewood. Tony played double-bass on that track, and I tried to make my electric guitar sound like a ukulele.

“Teen Angel” is the third time – by my reckoning – that you’ve covered Donovan in the studio – what do you like so much about his songs?
That was a B-side for Donovan – hard to believe. We had one other Donovan song we almost recorded for this album too – “Sadness”. Maybe we’ll do that next time. I think there is a period of a few albums where he was one of the most inventive people making rock music, a pioneer of psychedelic folk-rock, but he doesn’t get the credit he deserves.

Sticking somewhat provocatively with Donovan, one thing I remember from a slightly stumbling and consequently unpublished interview I did with Damon & Naomi a good few moons ago, was them expressing their dislike of Donavon. Could this have been the secret reason for the break-up of Galaxie 500 – a “Donovan-divide”?!
I didn’t know that. I think sometimes you can hear the wrong song by somebody – certainly Donovan has written some bad songs too – and hearing the wrong song can turn you off. For myself, Donovan is an early musical memory – my Dad had an LP called The Golden Hour of Donovan and I remember hearing “Catch the Wind” and “Universal Soldier” and “Colours”. Some people first experience Donovan in the Dylan film Don’t Look Back, which doesn’t make a good impression.

Throughout your work, why do think that you been so comfortable, prolific and successful at tackling other people’s songs? Do you think that you’ve managed to impose a certain Johnny Cash-like ‘make-it-your-own’ philosophy into rock snob circles that sometimes see cover versions as cheating or a compromise?
It used to be that everyone recorded covers, before The Beatles came along, and perhaps this was a better world – today there are far too many bands writing songs, and frankly so many of them have no aptitude for it. I find it liberating to make an album that is half-covers and half-originals. Because you can concentrate on writing half a dozen good songs – [which is] much easier than writing 12 – and then pick a handful of good songs by other writers. I also find I can put more emotion into singing someone else’s song, perhaps because I’m not still struggling with the writing, or unsure of my own lyrics.

So, did the impetus for the dual-release of the Luna Best Of and the Lunafied covers collection come from the feeling that recording other writers’ songs has been as important to you as laying-down original material? It seems to me that Luna’s transcendental takes on Beat Happening’s “Indian Summer”, Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” and many others, were as crucial to the Luna story as versions of Jonathan Richman’s “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste” and Yoko Ono’s “Listen, The Snow Is Falling” were to Galaxie 500 – would you agree?
The impetus was to release a Best Of with special value added for our fans… so they weren’t just buying it for liner notes alone. Rhino wouldn’t do the second disc in the States but luckily Beggars Banquet were up for it [in Europe]. In the US, a record company has to pay a mechanical royalty on every single song, so they don’t want to put out a CD with 30 songs on it. In Europe it’s a flat rate that is divided by however many songs are on your album – this is the reason that UK/European compilations are longer than American ones. We always loved doing the covers, but usually did not include them on the albums. Instead, we would record them in-between albums, or as B-sides – always in situations where there was less pressure on us, and we were just having fun, which is what recording should be anyway. As you say, these covers form a crucial part of our recorded output – from “Indian Summer” and “Ride Into the Sun” on to “Bonnie & Clyde”.

Compared to your past projects, you seem to be having fun in emphasizing the visual image and the musical format of an ‘exotic pop duo’ – for want of a smarter term – as Dean & Britta. Is it something that you’ve given a lot of thought to; in order to make it convincing without being kitsch and to be newly-focused without forgetting how to be subversive?

It’s easier to play up the visual image with just the two of us, especially with Britta being so photogenic. And I think photographers enjoy photographing two people instead of a four-piece rock band. I don’t think I’ve really thought this stuff through, other than deciding to dress-up a little for this one photo shoot. Perhaps we wanted to tip our hat to certain older things – without being completely retro or kitsch.

Paddling in the same thought-pool here, I love the videos you have on your website, especially the one for “Word You Used To Say”. Was it a deliberate homage to the rare film (which recently cropped-up on DVD) made to tie in with every song on Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire De Melody Nelson album; albeit with you lip-syncing far better than Serge and Britta not dancing as weirdly as Jane Birkin?!
Credit should go to Richard Agerbeek, who made the video and designed our album and artwork. He was definitely inspired by the Gainsbourg videos, as well as the films of Kenneth Anger. We agree with you about Jane Birkin being a goofy dancer. That’s the way it is with models some times – they are good at standing still but can’t dance. I recommend the 2DVD set of Gainsbourg videos. He didn’t perform live during his most creative period – because his early attempts at performing live were not well received – but he made really inventive videos instead. By the time he came back to performing live, he was in his reggae period.

Do you enjoy being in front of the camera? I read in MAGNET magazine that you’ve appeared in a horror film….
Yes, [in] Pumpkin Hell I play a creepy guy who looks after a pumpkin patch. In a short called Lola I played a writer who invites a girl on a date and then rapes her. And in Piggie I was a junkie and a thief. I don’t mind being in front of the camera – as long as I don’t have to do ridiculous things, like run around a corn field with a plastic pumpkin on my head…

Were the Luna retrospectives and the farewell tour documentary DVD released in 2006 the final acts of closure on the group? Do you have any inclination – or indeed power – to preserve and expand the back catalogue, especially with albums like The Days of Our Nights and Rendezvous becoming so hard-to-find and given the wealth of extracurricular material merely hinted at on Lunafied?
Well we’d like to get some more things out there, [we] could do expanded editions of the CDs at some point, or put out a disc of rarities and B-sides, but with the way the music industry is going it may not be easy – companies like Warner Music Group are not really interested in putting out a record like that. They are trying to concentrate on things that will sell millions of copies – like Led Zeppelin rarities. The record companies are scared now. I have a friend at Sony who describes the industry as a slowly sinking ship.

One thing I loved from the bittersweet Tell Me Do You Miss Me documentary DVD was some of the incidental instrumental music you all contributed. Might that ever be made available separately?
Sean [Eden, ex-Luna guitarist] wants us to put those tracks out, maybe with the live tracks from the movie too. I think those incidental pieces were great – everyone in the band contributed something nice, and they play under my favourite moments in the film – the sad and wistful moments. Lee [Wall, ex-Luna drummer] scored the Tokyo montage, Sean did Barcelona, Britta did London, Britta and I together wrote the piece that plays when my son and I spend the day in Central Park.

In the film, you suggested that Luna might have folded sooner if Britta hadn’t filled the space vacated by Justin Harwood. If Britta had not become involved with you, do think you would have just gone solo or do you think that you would still need a regular collaborator?
I need collaborators. I can write songs on my own, and play the guitar, but other people are much better than I am at arranging, engineering, mixing. Britta does most of the engineering here in our home studio – she’s much better with keyboards and computer programs than I am.

 

On the same tack, do you think that you are underrated as a ‘democratic’ artist? For instance, rightly or wrongly, Luna has nearly always been seen as ‘your band’…
It was my band, in that I was the only person there on every single album, and it would be silly to think of Luna without my voice… and I think equally important to a defining Luna is the way Sean and I played guitar together… I have never been a dictator in band situations – because it’s not my personality, and because I need the help, as I mentioned above. And everyone had a hand in writing songs and making decisions. But being involved in such a small democracy is a double-edged sword. It can be great when you’re 22 years old, but as you get a little older, with more responsibilities, it is hard to live a life by committee.

You both seem to have your fingers and arms in lots of creative pies – with film scores, acting et al. – has dissolving the duty and responsibility entailed with a full-time band made multitasking and seizing new opportunities a lot easier?
Absolutely – simply because there isn’t the constant pressure to go out on tour.

Does living in New York also help keep you well-connected with such creative opportunities? Could you imagine living or working anywhere else?
I would love to live in Tokyo or Barcelona or Paris or London – but New York City, warts and all, is great. The big problem here is the cost of living – it is not artist-friendly like it used to be in the 60s-70s.

What things are you currently working on, with or without Britta?
I have almost finished writing Black Postcards, a memoir about my time in Galaxie 500 and Luna. It is due out in March 2008. Britta and I are working on a remix EP, or rather, other people are working on it for us – Sonic Boom, Richard Formby, Fuxa, My Robot Friend and others. It may be a digital-only release.

As somewhat of a ‘veteran’ in the independent music trade, how big of an impact has the Internet had upon your existence? How has it helped and how has it hindered?
You hear stories of people who have become huge due to the internet – like Lily Allen – or those guys with the video of themselves dancing on the treadmill (their name escapes me). Of course the internet has made it more difficult to sell records – even for people who have hits at radio. It’s not so much the downloading – though that hurts – but the internet has just changed everyone’s daily routine. I don’t think people buy records and sit at home listening to them anymore. Instead they sit in front of a computer screen for hours, watching YouTube, chatting to their Myspace friends. As Simon Reynolds recently pointed out, music is ubiquitous and omnipresent, but it’s not as central to people’s lives – it’s a background activity. People collect all these tracks and put them on their MP3 players. The music is instantly available, when you’re jogging, or riding the subway, but this is not the best way to listen to music. I really do find that my ear tires of listening to MP3s. Having all this information out there can be great. It’s nice to be able to find old Lee Hazlewood videos on YouTube. On the other hand, it makes it difficult for a label to compile his videos and release them on a DVD – because they’re already available for free.

Is there anything else that you have the ambition to achieve artistically, be it inside or outside of the music world?
I feel like I am making some of the best music of my life right now – really I would just like to keep making records, so long as they are good.

Ten For A Starter – Recommended Dean Wareham Album Acquisitions:
Galaxie 500 – On Fire [1989]
Galaxie 500 – Uncollected Galaxie 500 [2004, rarities collection]
Galaxie 500 – Peel Sessions [2005, BBC radio recording compilation]
Luna – Bewitched [1994]
Luna – Penthouse [1995]
Luna – Romantica [2002]
Luna – Rendezvous [2004]
Luna – Best Of/Lunafied [2006, Europe-only 2CD ‘hits’ and covers retrospective bundle]
Dean & Britta – L’Avventura [2003]
Dean & Britta – Back Numbers [2007]

Suggested Links:
Comprehensive Fansite: www.grange85.co.uk/galaxie/index.php

Official Dean & Britta website: www.deanandbritta.com