This Friday in The Workmans Club, Dean Wareham will be performing a set of classic Galaxie 500 material. Siobhán Kane spoke with him about the past, present & future of his music & writing.
1987: the year that The Smiths broke down, but Galaxie 500 broke free. Dean Wareham, Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang collaborated to make three of the best and most beloved of records; Today (1988), On Fire (1989) and This is Our Music (1990), a swirling mixture of dreamy, jangling rock and pop, sometimes psychedelic; always atmospheric. Their influence can be felt in other bands work such as Low and their absence was acutely felt, it still is – but Wareham went on to form Luna almost straightaway after releasing the EP Anaesthesia in 1991, and Luna went on to become just as loved. Their first record Lunapark (1992) provided a salve of sorts, it was slower and hazier than what had gone before, and perhaps holds a special place in many people’s hearts because it reintroduced hope, that perhaps you can refuse all history and go forward, even a little, while carrying along the most desperate kind of heartache, deeply felt in songs like ‘Time to Quit‘, and ‘I Want Everything‘.
Sometimes it feels as if Wareham has always been caught between this state, with his restless spirit and his depth of purpose. You feel it in Luna records such as Bewitched (1994) and Penthouse (1995) and in a sense in how that band finished their collective journey, with their poignant farewell tour and the 2006 documentary Tell Me Do You Miss Me, which was a dignified response to the experience of being in a great band. In any case, Wareham’s own creativity has always taken him towards interesting collaborations and ideas, whether through working with Mercury Rev drummer Jimmy Chambers on the Anaesthesia EP, or The Velvet Underground’s Sterling Morrison (who features on Bewitched). The Velvet Underground have always been a huge influence on Wareham, as well as Jonathan Richman, which makes sense, particularly in terms of Richman; the wit, the warmth, and the refined sensibility amidst the indecision and the mess of life. It always gladdens the heart to hear Galaxie 500’s cover of Modern Lovers ‘Don’t Let Our Youth Go to Waste‘, because there is a genuine connection there, Wareham really ‘bleeding in sympathy’ with Richman.
Wareham has subsequently gone on to form Dean & Britta with Luna bassist (after Justin Harwood) Britta Phillips, and their three records L’Avventura (2003) and Back Numbers (2007) (both produced by the brilliant Tony Visconti), as well as 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (2010) are among the records he is most proud of (and the 2007 EP Words You Used to Say). Phillips and Wareham share an even greater kind of kinship, since they are married, but also in terms of the projects they have created together; whether through working with filmmaker Noah Baumbach on Squid and the Whale (2005) and Margot at the Wedding (2007), or their Screen Tests project that they have performed live, as well as on a collaborative DVD with the Andy Warhol Museum (who commissioned Wareham and Phillips to create music for the project in the first place).
Wareham has a serious-minded approach to life and music and art, and is erudite and frank (as well as charmingly grumpy) in his brilliant 2008 memoir Black Postcards, which portrays a more mistily innocent music world, unsullied by overwhelming technology, leaving plenty of room to be sullied by other, more interesting conceits, and it reminds us of just how hard it really is to continue on in an independent band, no matter how seminal. It also serves to remind us of how lucky we are to have experienced Wareham, in any incarnation, whether through his beautifully crafted songs, or when he pops up as a music critic in Jonathan Parkers 2009 film Untitled, or when he lovingly covered The Cure’s ‘Friday I’m in Love‘, as he did with Phillips for the Laundromat label’s 2008 tribute to the band Just Like Heaven. Perhaps it goes right back to that sentiment from Luna’s ‘I Want Everything‘ – ‘love is all around us, and the astronauts can feel it far away‘, that’s how Wareham’s music transcends as well – Siobhán Kane talks to the incredibly gifted Dean Wareham.
You have been doing some very interesting concerts in different incarnations; do you think that you might play some festivals, also? We just played the Belle & Sebastian-curated edition of ATP, and we are playing the Primavera festival in May, we’ll see if anything else comes up. Festivals are fun but the music always sounds better in clubs.
I really enjoyed your memoir Black Postcards. It must have been in the back of your mind for some time. Had you ever talked to anyone privately about it before you were contacted by Penguin? I had met with a couple of people: a literary agent, an editor at a smaller company, and I was slowly putting a few chapters together but honestly I don’t know if I would have done it without that email out of the blue from Scott Moyers at Penguin in New York. I sent him a few samples of my writing and when we met for lunch a week later he already had approval to offer me a book deal.
Did you find that you had to be extremely disciplined with the writing process for the book? It is such a solitary thing, and in some ways that makes it more difficult, because you are genuinely left to face yourself and all that you would like to say. Did you find that you had many moments when you were censoring yourself, but then pushed through to say what you felt like saying? Well first I procrastinated for a good nine months; I was very good at that and still am. It’s amazing how many little things around the house need cleaning when you should be writing. The hardest thing is getting yourself in front of the computer one day, or each day, and starting to write; but once I started I could go for six hours without even noticing. So anyway, I started slowly and then really submerged myself in it when Penguin put it on the release schedule.
As for the censoring, I decided to put everything in there and told myself I would come back and remove things that were perhaps too revealing. Though at first I did deftly skip over a year or so where my marriage was coming apart, because that sort of thing is not fun to write about, not when it’s still fresh in your mind. My editor pointed out something was missing from the narrative and urged me to tell that part of the story, and in the end I’m glad I did.
Did it give you a different appreciation for the songwriting process and the collaboration that being in a band can bring? It gave me a new respect for writers of nonfiction, as opposed to songwriters or poets, because it’s one thing to write, and hide behind, clever lyrics or poetry, but I think it takes a different kind of guts to figure out what you think about something, whether it’s the war in Iraq or the sex lives of bees or your favourite album of the year, and try to express it clearly, and then find your opinions up for discussion or vilification perhaps.
Do you think you would like to write another book, and if so, would it be another kind of memoir, or perhaps a novel, or other kind of writing? I would like to write another book, but I wouldn’t buy a novel written by me, because I’m not a novelist. If I’m going to read a novel, I’ll buy the latest Philip Roth, not Nick Cave.
Who are some of your favourite writers? Raymond Chandler – the most poetic crime writer ever, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, historian Eric Hobsbawm, James Ellroy, Vladimir Nabokov. My very favourite memoir in recent years is by Nick Flynn, a poet from Boston, his book Another Bullshit Night in Suck City takes place in the ’70s and ’80s in Boston, and he even mentions seeing Galaxie 500. It’s an amazing story; Flynn works in a homeless shelter, where his job is to go out on freezing cold nights and pick up the homeless, and that is how he runs into his own father, who has been missing all his life.
What is really interesting as well, is that in a sense you are writing about a period that has all but gone, were you conscious that you were writing about a certain kind of music, and that a spirit about that particular music culture you started out in had essentially disappeared? I don’t think I recognised this until later. I thought I was writing about the music business, but by the time the book came out the business had changed so much. Those major labels and their frenzied signing of bands and the ’90s as an era of super profits for the record industry, and the tour support and making expensive rock videos – well now it looks nothing like that.
It seems surreal that after Rough Trade had that strained time some years ago, and ended up bankrupt, that you had to fight through the courts to get your own rights back, especially because Rough Trade still owed you royalties, it must have been very stressful. Do you think that the shift of power in terms of labels is now a better thing for musicians? That there is more awareness, more democracy? Or do you think it is more a case of a different kind of devil? It wasn’t too stressful. Honestly I think Galaxie 500 did just fine from Rough Trade’s bankruptcy. First of all, the band broke up around the same time the label did. And though we lost a little money in the short run we were able to buy our own records back from the bankruptcy court for just a couple of thousand dollars, and have owned them ever since, and it is great to own your own albums.
There are good and bad things for musicians in the new reality. You can make an album dirt cheap and develop a following online maybe without having to get played on commercial radio, so in that sense there is more democracy, but in a world where young people don’t buy CDs, it’s going to be very difficult to make a living, to convince a record company to give you an advance, when an advance his based on predicted sales. The chief sources of income are playing live, where you can sell t-shirts, selling your songs to film and TV. Anyway, the truth is if you’re looking at making music as a reliable source of income, well, it has never been that.
It seems in some ways that Galaxie 500 has always been more appreciated in Europe, whereas in America, Luna seems more popular, what are your thoughts? And why do you think that might be? Galaxie 500 did have that initial surge of popularity in the UK and Europe, and we toured those places far more than we did in the States – because you go where you are being treated better, but we did okay in the States, on the level of college radio and fanzines, the blogs of yesteryear. I think people have this idea that Galaxie 500 was completely unknown in our own time and only became popular after we broke up, but we didn’t feel that way to us. Certainly Luna did better in the States than in Europe; we toured a lot, I think we were a really good live band and developed a following that way.
There has always been a dreamy quality to your music, and I have often wondered what inspired you on to make music in the first place? You were at Harvard, and met Damon and Naomi there, but was it always on your mind that you wanted to create a certain kind of music, you have created such swirling, intense sounds through very sparse instrumentation. Damon and I started out trying to be some kind of punk band. We all start somewhere, and when you form a band you often begin by copying the bands you like – the Black Crowes reportedly started as an R.E.M. cover band. So Speedy and the Castanets, our first band, covered the Clash, Sex Pistols, Cramps, Pere Ubu, Joy Division, but Galaxie 500 formed some years later, and by that point we were listening to more psychedelic music, investigating the ’60s, still doing a Joy Division cover, but also listening to the Red Crayola, Jonathan Richman, Big Star, Can.
Everything you have ever done seems like part of a natural process from Galaxie 500 to Luna to Dean and Britta – do you see things like that, or now do you feel that there was more of a conscious need to keep changing things up? It feels natural to me too; I have never been one for sudden changes in style or direction. But while I am still there playing guitar and singing, obviously if you are surrounded by a different band you get different results.
How do you find performing 13 Most Beautiful? It sounds like such an interesting project, and an interesting way to perform live. I remember reading that you sifted through around 150 of the 500 screen portraits of Warhol’s, and finally arrived at the 13; did you get a strong feeling of some more than others? Can you even describe that process? Some of those portraits are haunting, Warhol’s work generally really disturbs me, I don’t like him, but he was so interesting. Well I do like so many things he has done, from early illustration of shoes for department stores to some of the really late painting too, and I also think he is a crucial person in the history of rock and roll. I did look at a lot of these Screen Tests before choosing our thirteen subjects, but ultimately we decided to focus on the people who were important in Warhol’s life during that period – 1964-66, people who were at the Factory on a daily basis. We read all we could about that time period, and about these characters – actors, who weren’t really actors, poets, dancers, speed freaks.
I suspect as well, creating music with those screen tests gives another element of emotion, I have always thought the screen tests are quite sad in many cases, featuring a lot of damaged people, but your music honours the fact they are frail and human, and that their lives are not reduced to a screen test, there is an epic nature to each life, served well by the music. There is a definite sadness to the whole show — because six of the thirteen people are dead, and most of those died tragically, and too young, from Edie Sedgwick -drug overdose, to her boyfriend Paul American – hit by a car on the side of the road, to the dancer Freddie Herko, who took his own life, dancing out of a fourth-story window. And then we stand there on stage looking at these perfect, frozen, yet living, images, these time capsules from 42 years ago up there on the big screen, and that is part of the strength of the show. They are not acting; they are just up there looking at a camera, trying to figure out what to do with those four minutes.
You have worked with Noah Baumbach in different capacities for his films Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding – how do you find that part of the musical process? Working with someone like Noah must be so satisfying, because there is an obvious kinship there, and he is interested in getting into the nitty-gritty of some rather eccentric, but not unbelievable characters. Working with Noah was very rewarding, just because his films are so good, and you count yourself lucky when you get to work on a good film, believe me that opportunity doesn’t come often, for actors or composers or producers. His films always have a few moments of great beauty, moments that make you want to cry, and that’s what you find in the best songs too.
When you started revisiting your Galaxie 500 work, it must have been very emotional as it has been some years since you have performed them – how are you feeling about the work now? It just shows you never know what is going to happen; ten years ago you probably didn’t think this would be something you would revisit. There is a an emotional charge when you get up on stage and sing a song that you put away twenty years ago, it’s like going back to your old house, and I get an emotional charge from an audience; it’s fun to look out there and realise that people are excited to hear these songs that they never expected to hear live.
Obviously you are performing the work without your former bandmates, was that initially strange, or liberating? It must have been interesting seeing those different parts played by different musicians. Does it seem like a very long time ago now, almost like a different life? There is a strange poetry about playing those songs in this way now, a dignified way of dealing with the past, you are now revisiting Galaxie 500 songs, and also with the Tell Me Do You Miss Me film about Luna’s farewell tour – have you found it much easier to deal with goodbyes and changes as you have become older? Well it’s just the only way that it was going to happen. I can’t imagine actually re-forming the old band, we live in different cities and lead different lives, and I figure the band broke up once for good reasons and we should stay broken up, but in truth it doesn’t seem like so long ago, but yes there is a poetry that rhymes over time, it’s different singing ‘Don’t Let Our Youth Go to Waste’ at age 47 than at age 26, it’s odd to sing lyrics that I wrote twenty years ago and remember what I was thinking and feeling.
I watch the Luna documentary and I see myself as a person going a little bit crazy, which maybe is what happens when a relationship is ending, that’s how you work up the courage to end it, but I don’t know if I’m any better at dealing with goodbyes.
Do you view Galaxie 500, Luna, and Dean & Britta as completely separate projects and separate parts of your personality as a musician, or see a common thread throughout? Well the constant is me and my guitar playing, so there is that common thread, but each is a collaborative effort, and the different collaborators bring very different talents to the table. I am really proud of the three Dean & Britta records; that felt really good after seven albums with Luna to strike out and do something fresh and have it sound as good as anything I’ve ever done, at least that’s how I see it, and I don’t say that after I finish every album.
Apart from your live performances this year, are you working on anything else? I am slowly working on a solo album, but we have been touring so much the last couple of years it has been hard to sit still and write; and Britta and I just started work on a film score, an independent film called Price Check and it stars Parker Posey.
Dean Wareham Plays Galaxie 500 is this Friday, February 11th, in The Workmans Club. Tickets are available now from www.tickets.ie.
This concludes our two part series of Dean Wareham interviews (courtesy of the worst commissioning editor ever).