Penthouse View

Luna's Dean Wareham says he's not really an "aristorocker"

By Cynthia Joyce

Published May 7, 1996 1:57PM (EDT)

To earn artistic credibility, musicians have often had to be either strung-out or down-and-out -- and preferably both.

But Luna frontman Dean Wareham has never fallen into either category, and ever since he broke up Galaxie 500 in 1991 to form a band with former members of both the Feelies and the Chills, he has been slapped with a string of increasingly contemptuous labels, starting with a bitter Village Voice article that called him "a Harvard trust-fund semipopster." Last August, New York Magazine followed suit, crudely summing him up as "an educated and privileged but feckless misanthrope."

Wareham swears that his financial umbilical cord was cut long ago, but his repeated protests have only worked against him, most recently earning him the title "New York's Most Reluctant Aristorocker," in a New York Observer story entitled, "Angry, Young and Funded by Dad: Rich-Kid Rockers Take the Stage."

But Wareham weathers the stubborn persistence of such false rumors with a certain amount of resignation. He knows his credibility lies in his songwriting, not in his wallet, and has stayed true to a sound he has been cultivating for more than 10 years. With that sound, reminiscent of the hypnotic riffs of his biggest influence, the Velvet Underground, Luna has successfully secured the devotion of music critics, aficionados and even Lou Reed himself, who invited them to support him on his European and American tours. Wareham spoke to SALON on the tail end of that tour.

A lot has been made recently of your Dalton/Harvard education.

Yeah, especially in that one article in New York magazine. Ever since then, there's been hints and other little pieces in the press that suggest that I'm filthy rich, which is not true at all. It's kind of infuriating. Someone else wanted to do a piece in the New York Observer on really rich kids who are in bands -- it was going to be, like, John Curly from the Afghan Whigs, whose dad owns USA Today or something. I refused to participate.

You could take any band, and somewhere in there you'd probably find money. I mean, I have a slightly bourgeois upbringing, I guess. My parents paid for me to go to school, which is nice, but I haven't gotten a dime since then. I have no trust fund. I wish I did.

We're going back into the studio in September. We can't really take a break. We'll go broke if we take a break, because we're not independently wealthy. And we can't get paid until we make another record. These are the very real pressures of being in a band. It's the dual nature of it -- people say, "You shouldn't let money affect that process at all," but it does. It's your livelihood.

Did you feel in some way that your "fortunate" circumstances made you suspect in the eyes of other musicians?

No, I don't think so, I mean it's music we're talking about, after all. All kinds of artists come from all walks of life.

But it's certainly not irrelevant. The fact I have an education forms my lyrical style, I'm sure. I studied the social sciences, history, stuff like that. I have an interest in politics, which maybe works its way into the songs in small, subtle ways.

It must have been somewhat intimidating for you to support Lou Reed, who has had such an influence on your music, on his last tour.

Lou really likes us. After we did the Velvet Underground tour in Europe, I guess he couldn't think of anyone else he liked as much, so he asked us to do this one as well.

Your albums seem intended to be listened to as a comprehensive work, not as a showcase for a few singles that are surrounded by several throwaway songs. Is that how you initially conceive them?

Well, we thought we had some singles on "Penthouse," but we were sadly mistaken. As usual.

Still, the most exciting thing for me is making records. I definitely like to keep an album to ten songs and under forty-five minutes. I don't like sixteen-song CDs for that reason -- you can't get a grasp on them, and you can't sit down and enjoy them from beginning to end.

Sometimes I do make an effort when listening to music. I listen to one through five on a CD and come back and start at number six. But it seems like you really have to front-load the CD with the best songs, which is unfortunate, because oftentimes people just don't get to the end of them -- ever.

Does commercial success -- or lack of it -- change your own opinion about an album?

Well, I've never had a million people like the records, so
no, not at all. I don't expect much, these days. "Penthouse" went to number one on college radio -- a totally meaningless statistic, at least for sales.

But I love the record, we got great press on it, and we played to a lot more people live. I think we're good live, so people come back to see us. Every time we go out on tour, we play to more and more people -- a lot more than we did two years ago, but we're not selling more records.

It's just difficult to get this in at alternative radio where it seems they've got their formula. Some of my favorite bands, like Television, never got played on the radio.

Who are some of your other favorites?

All the great ones from the '60s -- the Stones, the Velvets. And the Stooges, and Love -- I still listen to those. I don't really listen to the radio anymore, but some of the more contemporary people I like are Stereolab, Spiritualize, Yo La Tengo and Bedhead. There are other things too, like Pavement. They're a great band, with really good lyrics.

But generally I'm not overwhelmed by the state of indie-rock.
Sometimes, you'll put something on, and the music will be fine. Then the singer opens their mouth and you're like "Oooh, how could he say that?!"

I noticed that your press release is signed "Bucky Wunderlick."
What's that about?

That was actually a friend who wrote that -- Bill Whitten, who plays in the band St. Johnny. Bucky Wunderlick is a character from out of "Great Jones Street" by Don DeLillo. It's one of my favorite books.

Who are some of your other favorite writers?

Paul Auster, I've read everything by him in the last year. Also Pynchon.

Did you do much writing while you were on the road?

The road, lyric-wise, is a trap, and a bore. Maybe it's interesting to me, but I don't think it's a connecting thing with other humans. What is there to write about? Truck stops, hotels, clubs? It's like when poets or novelists accept jobs at universities, and the trap they fall into is writing about "life on campus," "affairs with students" -- that kind of stuff. Then you find everyone's writing about the same thing.

There's a discussion in Table Talk now about how hard it is to
actually find appropriate band members through "musicians wanted" ads. But apparently you hooked up with your guitarist, Sean Eden, through them. How did that happen?

We were playing for a while with this guy called Grasshopper, of Mercury Rev from upstate New York. But he was just on loan to us, so we placed an ad. We hardly existed at that point, so our ad said "Luna needs guitar player--Galaxie 500, Feelies, Chills, etc." -- something like that. That kind of did it.

It was ridiculous. We had people who came and said, "I can play any style -- anything you want, I can do it." Or, "Oh, you guys are going on the road? I would really love to get out of town." It sounded like the kind of guy we really needed in our band. [laughs]

Sean knew who we were, and he claims not to have read the classifieds himself. He said a friend told him about it. He doesn't like to think of himself as one of those people who rushes out every Wednesday morning and sits there looking through those ads.

You can sift through them after a while. You don't pick up your phone, you just listen to your messages and you can tell who you can even talk to.

Many people never got over the breakup of Galaxie 500. Liz Phair, in the song "Stratford-on-Guy," muses, "I was pretending I was in a Galaxie 500 video." What do you make of all that?

I thought it was very nice. I pointed it out to our video director, who hadn't heard it. Those videos do create a strange, sort of trippy world.

But especially in England, people never forgave me for that [the break-up of Galaxie 500.] I see people on the Internet who say things like "Is this going to be like the fourth Galaxie 500 album?" Some people are obsessed. The records are out of print, so that probably contributes to it. I think it's nice, but...

Do you think...

These people should get a life? [laughs] will be nice when the records come out again. I'm proud of them, and I like most of what's on them. Maybe there will be less mystique about it then.

Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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