Dean Wareham – While I Can Still Hit The High Notes

Ian Maleney spoke with former Galaxie 500 frontman Dean Wareham ahead of his performance of Galaxie 500 songs at the Workman’s Club on February 11th.

There are few bands that so perfectly fit the role of “cult favourites” as Galaxie 500. This group of three Harvard students spent four years together, mostly under the radar of anyone who wasn’t an religious John Peel listener, and released three albums to little fanfare. They played pretty, jangly pop music that was bathed in reverb and filled with the kind of semi-ironic, sometimes sentimental hooks that appealed equally to the indie club dance floor and cardigan-clad, bedsit dwellers.

Over the course of the twenty years since they broke up, the critical acclaim lavished on the band has grown steadily along with the amount of new fans that have been drawn to the band’s quietly epoch-defining sound. Last year, Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, drummer and bassist respectively, lavishly reissued the band’s three albums on their 20/20/20 label, with the help of Domino Records.

This re-awakening of interest in the band led to former front-man Dean Wareham being asked to perform a set of Galaxie 500 songs at a small festival in Spain last January. He agreed, and since then has been intermittently playing the classics in venues across America.Together with his wife Britta Phillips and drummer Jason Lawrence, they are now about to embark upon a European tour.

Over the phone from New York, Wareham gives us the details on the tour.

So what prompted these tours? Why choose now to go back to the old songs?
“The records were being re-released on Domino and I thought, now that I’ve learned a lot of these songs again, maybe this would be a good time to go at them. Sing them while I can still hit the high notes.”

But it can’t have been easy going back to songs written over twenty years ago?
“Well, certainly at first, it’s strangely emotional, I don’t know, like opening up old diaries or smelling something you haven’t smelled in a long time. It takes you back. If I haven’t heard one of my songs in a long time and I put it on, it’s like going back to an old house. It’s been fun singing them after years.”

From a technical point of view, Galaxie 500 were never the most obviously dextrous of bands but your ability to make the tiny variables of a chord progression or melody into the driving force of a song was one of the factors that separated you from so many of your peers. This undoubtedly threw up some problems when revisiting the songs?
“Yes, it was difficult to relearn them. I thought they were all sort of easy songs and I mean the chord structures are very simple but it’s hard to make them work. We had some songs that were stretched out to like eight minutes, they had their own ebb and flow. It takes a little while to get right, it’ll take some touring to get right frankly.”

There must be complications with having a whole new rhythm section involved too?
“Yes, one of them is my wife, Britta. She’s great, she listens better than I do. She can analyze what the songs need much better than I can or why they’re not working at a certain level or why they are. Jason has been playing the drums and he really studied those drum parts very closely, which is what you want. With any other instrument you wouldn’t come in and just play whatever you want but sometimes drummers will do that, they’ll be like “Oh, I’ll just get in the groove and I’ll just play”. No! There’s certain drum parts that make the songs work the way they did, it’s compositional drumming I suppose. Like Ringo for example.”

So fans can expect a pretty accurate recreation of the songs then, no extended codas or noise jams?
“No, we’re not really adding anything. We actually had been doing it as a four piece but now we’re going to strip it down to a three piece. More work for me but I know it can be done, because I did it once before! The important thing also is the sound, getting someone to listen and get the atmospherics right, get the effects on the vocals right. Sometimes you see reunions with extra musicians and all that stuff, it’s cheating. This isn’t a reunion anyway, it’s more fun!”

What kind of crowds are you getting at the shows? Old fans, new fans?
“Yeah, it’s mostly people who never saw the band. I mean, not a lot of people saw the band. We never went to Ireland, that’s for sure. We did tour England quite a lot. But yeah, it’s mostly younger people who never saw the band and then one or two that saw the band back at the time. The crowds have been really good though, I get the sense that some people have been waiting a long time to hear the songs. Sometimes you look out there and you see people crying. You expect that in Japan!”

You have to hope it’s a compliment.
“In fairness, I do take it as a compliment. I don’t stop if they’re crying. I’ll stop if there’s a fight, but I won’t stop for crying!”

You surely don’t get many fights?
“No, we don’t get too many! Though we were playing in Los Angeles and there was this girl standing right in front of me, looking like she was in a dream or something and then, after the third song, she just collapsed and had to be taken out. I heard that she hadn’t eaten all day and then she had a drink or something. I don’t know if I believe that.”

Sounds a little sketchy alright. So what are the plans for after this tour?
We still got two things we’re doing, Britta and I. One is this show and the other is that we were hired by the Andy Warhol museum in Pittsburgh to write music that we perform with these short films by Andy Warhol, his screen tests. We’ve been doing that for just over two years, and it keeps going. It’s fun, it’s very different to playing in rock clubs. We’ve gotten a bit spoiled because we get treated really well when we do this, we play in places like the Syndey Opera house or the Barbican centre or churches. We get treated so well that when we come back to doing these shows in these rock clubs, it’s quite a comedown. We have quite a bit of touring up until June and then maybe I’ll make another record.”

A solo record?
“Yeah, I think I am going to make a solo record, I think that’s the plan.”

And will there be any more soundtrack work in the future?
“We just got hired to work on a soundtrack for a small, independent film starring Parker Posey. So we do have that. It’s funny, I remember when I quit my last band, Luna, I got this letter from a fan saying that’s what the rest of my life would consist of, it would be just the occasional soundtrack, the solo career that goes nowhere. It was a funny letter.”

Prophetic?
“I hope not!”

Dean Wareham Plays Galaxie 500 will be in the Workman’s Club in Dublin on the 11th of February with special guests to be confirmed. Tickets are available now from www.tickets.ie, City Discs & Ticketmaster outlets nationwide.

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