Dean Wareham sits on a short list of original indie rockers who are still making powerful music today. From his breakout with the ethereal Galaxie 500 in the late ’80s to the bittersweet and bewitched ’90s band Luna, his music has been consistently understated, literate and emotionally complex. He’s more recently published what may be the great indie-rock memoir, "Black Postcards," and recorded with former Luna bassist (and now wife) Britta Phillips as Dean & Britta, which vaguely recalls duos like Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra. Reflecting their love of the Velvet Underground, the two played behind Andy Warhol’s screen tests.
Last fall, Wareham released an EP under his own name, and his new solo album debut, "Dean Wareham," has drawn raves; All Music Guide describes its “softly melodic, sweetly poignant, and often psychedelic sound with a somewhat regretful and sad tone… melancholy has always been Wareham's default musical disposition, here he delivers his sadness with a coy, charming half-smile.”
The New Zealand-born, Aussie-reared, Harvard-schooled Wareham recently moved to Los Angeles after many years in New York. He spoke to Salon right before embarking on a U.S. tour.
So you’ve just released your first solo LP, and your first real tour as a solo artist is coming up. And yet, it’s probably a little like being in Luna or another of your bands, right? It’s not like you’re busking on the street by yourself. How different is it? And what does it mean for you as someone who’s been in the business for like, 30-some years now, to make a debut as a solo artist.
Yeah, almost 30; don’t push me. (Laughs)
I think 1987 was the beginning of Galaxie?
Yeah, that’s right. So what does that leave me… yeah, coming up on 30 years.
What kind of meaning does it have for you, having done stuff under other names, and having done a lot of looking back lately? You’ve been touring on Galaxie’s music, you’ve written a memoir. Does it feel like you’re facing forward for the first time in a while?
Well, I think sometimes the record you make has something to do with the last one that you made, or the last couple. So in this case, the last one was a Dean and Britta record, and we made three of those. So it seemed like maybe a time to do something different, something more rock, something more male. (Laughs)
I think the Dean and Britta albums… I love them. The content there is duets and covers. I think there’s sort of a limit to how much of that we wanna do. I think this record sounds closer to Luna than anything else; I don’t know why, though, actually.
It has the same kind of emotional tone as Luna, is that what you mean?
Well just it’s more guitar-heavy. Am I looking forward or looking back? Hopefully I’m looking forward. It’s a very strange time in the music industry. But I put this record out now. It’s doing really well. Press-wise, radio-wise.
In terms of the method of making it, it’s kind of similar to the way I’ve always… I mean obviously I was in those two bands, Galaxie 500 and Luna, but in both of them I was the principle songwriter, and I was the one charged with, if not writing everything, with finishing the songs, which is always I think the most difficult part of it. It’s kind of easy for anyone to like, start a song, like “Oh I got this idea for a song.” But finishing it … putting the pieces of the puzzle together, that’s where the challenge always… that’s what keeps you up at night at the end of the process.
I want to come back to your song craft process in a minute, but let’s stick with the new record. One thing that’s different than anything you’ve done before is you had Jim James work on it. And it’s funny, My Morning Jacket has this sort of cosmic, really extroverted sound, it seems like the opposite of the shy, quiet, sometimes minimalist stuff that you’ve made. But you’ve been a fan of that band for a long time and he did a great job with this record. But what made him seem like the right guy to produce you?
Well, I think whatever else you’d say about Jim, I think that the My Morning Jacket albums sound great. He really knows what he’s doing. And his solo album too. I went out to dinner with his manager Mike Martinovich, and I went back to Mike’s office, and he played me some of the album. This was late at night, and I said, “Wow. This sounds great.” And he said, “Well, you and Jim should do something together.” And then it kinda moved quickly from there.
I don’t know, for me it was a slight roll of the dice because as you say we’re pretty different. But I mean, what we did first is we went, he invited me down to this festival he was curating, the Forecastle Festival in Louisville, and we said, well just after the festival, we’ll move into Jim’s house with the band for two days and record a few songs, and see if we get along.
So that’s kind of a low-risk way of easing into it. (Laughs)
And I guess that’s an important quality in a producer, too. Producers are often defined by the sonic character that they bring to something. But a lot of it comes down, I would guess, to personal chemistry, right? This is the first person who’s hearing this stuff. So you want somebody you trust, get along with and all of that.
Yeah, you do. And sometimes I’ve been in situations where you don’t have that. Where the producer torments the band… So it’s it’s a very important quality for producers to spread positive energy, that they bring positive energy. Because you know, when you’re in a band there can be a lot of doubt anyway, you’re writing songs… So you want someone to encourage you and Jim’s good at that.
He’s an excellent producer because he knows his way around the studio very well, and he plays an instrument; he’s just got good instincts about how to fix a song that isn’t quite working. And I would say we walked into the studio with a number of songs that weren’t quite working.
Yeah, let’s talk about songcraft again for a minute. What does your songwriting start with? Is it a melody, or a lyrical phrase, or a figure on the guitar?
Yeah, it’s usually a figure on the guitar or sometimes, you’re just sitting down… playing someone else’s song. “The Dancer Disappears,” the lead track on this record, I was sitting down, figuring out how, I was playing “Mary in the Morning,” this Glen Campbell song, and I was getting better and better at it. And then I was giving it a different feel, playing it with harmony chords, putting in a slight disco beat on it…
Ooh. That’s dangerous.
Yes. Well, Jim got rid of that when we got in the studio. I’m trying to think if I even had the words…
How do they typically evolve from being a little guitar riff?
I practiced for two months, once or twice a week with Britta and our drummer Anthony. We just sat in our room and we just played these things again and again, and as you play them, it’s just kinda the work of going through these things again and again; they begin to change shape and then you start singing. You have a microphone there and you start singing. The melody comes pretty easy. But then, again, there’s the difficult work of taking lyrics, which are often written in a completely different, they’re written on the side, they’ve got nothing to do with it. Then you’re taking those and you’re trying to fit them together.
So you’ve typically got the melody and the chords pretty well worked out before the lyrics come in?
Yes, I do. And I think this is actually probably the wrong way to do it.
Do not try this at home, we have to tell all budding songwriters that this is not the way to do it.
Because I wind up having to like fix the number of syllables due to the melody… so that makes it more challenging. Maybe a smarter way, I’ve been told anyway to take, is to write yourself a poem and then write music around it.
You were a Les Paul man for a long time. What do you play now, and why this change, and give us a sense of how your effects and pedals and stuff like that has changed, if it has, since the Luna days.
Yeah, I’m actually, I’m gonna go out with a Les Paul again. I have been playing this great Fano guitar, a kind of a copy of a Gibson Firebird, with P-90s in it. That’s pretty great sounding. But I just picked up a Japanese Les Paul, and I’m kinda liking the sound of that right now, so I will see.
They’re about 80 pounds or something, aren’t they? It’s like wearing an iron wheel over your shoulder or something.
Yeah. It’s 10 pounds, and you wouldn’t think that the difference between 10 pounds and 7 pounds is much. But in the course of an hour and a half on stage, night after night, it can. But I’ve got a real wide strap, I’m thinking I’m gonna try it.
And do you use a lot of effects these days? Pedals and stuff?
I’ve got about six, let’s see what have I got? I’ve got a compressor, overdrive, tremolo, a vibrato pedal, because I really loved my magnatone amp. Vibrato is pitch shifting, whereas tremolo moves the volume up and down. People often confuse these.
But you use both tremolo and vibrato.
Yeah. Not usually at the same time. But yes, in different situations. Delay. All the usuals.
I think the first time I spoke to you, which was 1994, we got off on a tangent about "Great Jones Street," the Don DeLillo novel. I wonder what about that book -- you named a song for that too a little later I think, what about that book hit you? What are your other favorite books about rock music?
At the time I read it, I felt like that was the only good novel about rock 'n’ roll. Since then I’ve read a couple other funny ones. "Kill Your Friends" by John Niven. He’s a British A&R guy who wrote a book, but it’s from the perspective of the A&R guy. Which is a good way to go at it, I think. I don’t know. I think you have to have been there. You have to have been on the road, you have to have traveled around in the van, to be able to authentically write about it. Although I guess DeLillo hadn’t, but he states at the outset it’s about fame. It’s about an enormously famous rock star.
What I think defines that book is the way the rock star is turned into a kind of commodity. Turned into a cross between a god and a commodity.
His life is no longer his own. Maybe that’s something that struck you.
Right. I’ve never gotten quite to that stage obviously.
But there’s this whole sort of conspiracy moving around him, and he becomes this sort of deity and pawn at the same time.
Yeah, all these people place their hopes in him, and there’s this drug being smuggled, right? It’s a while since I’ve read it.
It’s a strange book. Very '70s. Let’s talk about covers for a second. You only have one cover on this record, but you often play covers live; you’ve been doing covers since the Galaxie days. Most of them are unexpected, oddball. On your EP, you have a wonderful Everly Brothers cover, a song I don’t think most of us knew at all. What kind of cover is right for you in terms of hitting your taste, but also hitting your vocal range?
I think that’s the important thing. The first thing is your taste, you’re like “Geez this would be great, because I love this song.” But sometimes, you try to sing it, and you’re like “Oh god, this doesn’t suit me at all. I can’t… ya know. Bobby Darin can pull this off, but I cannot.”
So. But you know, you kinda know right away. That Everly Brothers one, that’s perhaps a little high for me, I struggled with it. But that turned out really well. What else did I do on the EP?… There was the song “Air,” originally by the Incredible String Band.
Right, right. Future Scientologists, I guess.
Yes. This was right before they went into the Scientology phase.
But you almost never pick something that’s pretty well known. You don’t seem interested in playing songs that we’ve heard a lot of times.
Yeah, I guess you wanna do something either that people have never heard, or something you think you can improve on a little. Well, I guess there are exceptions to what you just said. Luna, we did “Sweet Child of Mine.”
That’s the one sort of famous song you did. But it’s somehow different in your hands.
Let’s talk for a minute about how musical life has changed since you started. This is a bottomless pit, but I’m curious: Your memoir "Black Postcards" talks about a lot of things in your early Galaxie days, your Luna days, but part of what I’m struck by is the huge amount of time and money spent trying to make a perfect record in the late ’80s and the ’90s. The record companies had a lot of money for it and, conveniently, the expenses were all passed over to the bands. And records sold maybe not as well as the labels hoped, but people were buying records at a really different rate. Radio was different; there were still record stores. Everything was different. Tell us what it’s like now, decades later. I guess budgets are lower and sales too.
Yeah. I mean, everyone’s in this situation. Everyone’s in this boat right now. Everyone’s saying, “Good lord, it’s easy to get attention.” Or maybe not easy, but you can get attention. You can get on the Internet, you can be all over the place, and connecting with people. It’s hard to sell music, sell any physical product. Now it’s getting harder to sell downloads as well. And it’s not just me saying this. Apple and iTunes will admit as much also. I don’t mind smaller budgets for recording. I don’t know. I think you can make a great-sounding record for, I don’t know, $20- or $30,000, you can do it. But, whatever, for some people it’s hard to come up with that money too. so, I don’t know. Back when we were on Elektra, they would give a lot of money, but they would expect you to spend a lot of it on making your record. And you would go in a studio that cost $1,500 a day, or $2,000 a day. I’m kinda glad I don’t do that anymore.
Yeah. I think the pressure of that would not be good for the creative process.
It’s true. I can think back to being at like Right Track studios, tracking Luna’s "Bewitched" album, and that studio costs something like $2,000 a day, and that doesn’t give you the freedom to just experiment because you’re like, “The clock is ticking, the clock is ticking.”
But with this record, we recorded at Jim’s house and he’s got nice equipment, and his engineer brought in great microphones and mic preamps, and it's just such a relaxing way to do it. You can set up the drums in the living room. And it sounds great.
But I do think you gotta spend some money to make things sound good. And I’m definitely a fan of working with engineers who know what they’re doing instead of trying to do it all myself at home.
Yeah, I imagine engineers and producers are probably some of the casualties of this digital wave and the decline of the labels.
You probably knew a lot of good people who have been flushed out of the business or are earning about half of what they used to.
Yeah, earning less. There are still plenty of bands out there who want to record. But I guess the budgets have shrunk. There’s no longer the big... there’s no longer the projects where a major label was putting a band in the studio for eight weeks solid. That’s kinda disappearing. And certainly a lot of those bigger recording studios have gone out of business.
Yeah, probably as, probably parallel to people who design record jackets and work on the graphic design side of the record business.
But if you have a little recording studio that you own and work out of and bring bands in, you can probably find people; people still need to record.
You’ve done a little acting for Noah Baumbach. What drew you to that, and what’s it like?
Working with him is fun because I mean the films are so good, the scripts are so good, I don’t know, any actor would tell you, to work on a good film, you count yourself fortunate. Mine have just been small roles in these films. Gone in for a couple of days. Yeah, Britta and I were both in "Frances Ha." That was just one night, one long night. He has since cast me in two other films that he has made, that are not yet released. He cast me in one, first as a pediatrician, and then he shot this other film that stars Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, and I play this shaman in an ayahuasca ceremony.
Wow. A pediatrician and a shaman, really showing what range you have, man!
But anyway, acting’s easier than writing songs, 'cause they write the words for you.
And does it make you want to do more and work with other people?
Oh, I would do more. I’d be happy to do more. It seems like as a career that’s even worse than being a musician because you’re more at the mercy of other people. But it’s certainly fun, and I’m kinda good at it. All I really try to, you just look at these things and you say, I just need to make this, figure out how I can be myself as much as possible, and just make this as close to me. Because obviously I’m not trained.
What do you listen to these days? Does pop music seem like it’s in a healthy phase to you? Where’s the good stuff and do jazz or classical music or experimental music speak to you at all?
Yeah. I find myself listening to more classical now. I don’t know. That’s a wide range. I’m not an expert on jazz, but I have things I like. I’m just trying to think of the last thing I bought. I bought Vince Guaraldi, a recording with the San Francisco Boys Choir, which I kinda like.
He’s known for his Charlie Brown music, but he’s good -- sort of like a brighter Bill Evans in some ways. The same kind of harmonies, but not as depressed.
What else are we listening to around here? Brahms’ German Requiem. That’ll make you cry. Makes me cry anyway. That’s a really really beautiful piece. The new Cate Le Bon record, I like that. I don’t know if you’ve heard her. She’s Welsh.
I confess most of the big indie bands today, I’m not that fond about… I don’t wanna say their names.
Do you find yourself going back a lot to any specific band or any period?
Well, I guess I go in cycles. I go down the rabbit hole. Listening to people. As you know I loved that last Daft Punk album.
From Daft Punk to Brahms. As much range as your acting, I guess.
Well they get you in different ways, those records, don’t they?
Let’s talk about somebody I know you listen to and think about a lot, Lou Reed. I think a lot of us are still surprised he’s dead. He’s been a big influence on you since the beginning, you got to know him personally; you opened for the VU reunion with Luna in the early ’90s. Tell me a little bit about what Lou meant to you as a musical figure and as a man, and how his death struck you?
Well, yeah. There’s his import as a musical figure, which obviously is immense. He’s one of the originals. I came of age in the punk era; I was a teenager in the late ’70s. You can’t really imagine… a lot of those bands wouldn’t have existed without the Velvet Underground. He’s just like the original punk rocker. And you saw this outpouring after he died, all these people who felt that he had touched their lives, and there wasn’t just musicians, it was all kinds of people from many walks of life who felt that… I mean, he’s almost a Lady Gaga-like figure; he made people feel okay to be different.
I mean this is someone who was given electroshock therapy by his parents to cure him of being homosexual.
He ended up being married for a long time, late in life, oddly enough, married to a woman, I should add.
That’s true. Not once, but twice.
Where was I when I heard [news of his death]? I was in Vegas. We had just played the night before. We had done this Andy Warhol screen test show. Where we played songs set to these silent films, and one of the films we played to, there was a portrait of Lou Reed drinking from a Coke bottle. So I guess he was on the screen looking down on us on his final night. Woke up the next morning, started getting texts, and yes, it was… I think at first I was like, oh, well that’s not really a shock because I know he’s been ill, and I don’t think it’s going to affect me that much. But driving home, I started listening to some of his older songs like “Love Makes You Feel,” and some of the obscure ones… There’s a lot of records, a lot of good ones, a lot of bad records, but even the bad ones have gems on them too.
Part of what’s interesting about Lou is he was known as this transgressive badass but he also wrote really beautiful melodies. And for me the greatest stuff is the live 1969 record, the version of “Lisa Says,” the long version of “Sweet Jane,” those bridges that you don’t get on the studio records. When those songs are stretched out, you hear that they’re not just riffs, they’re really beautiful, extended, nuanced songs; that’s a side of Lou’s talent we sometimes forget because we think of him as being this tough, sexually ambiguous drug addict.
Absolutely. Yeah, he wrote these beautiful, beautiful songs… and that, that live album you mentioned, sure. If I had to pick one of their albums, that would be my favorite. And that’s from the period when John Cale had left the band or been booted out. And with him taken out of the equation, they probably tilted more to the prettier stuff.
I guess that was the interesting thing -- that they made four records, each very different from each other. And you can make a case for… well I don’t think you can make a case for "White Light/White Heat" for being the best, but either of the other three.
So here’s my last question. You’ve said that while there’ve been so many changes over the years, being a musician has always been a hard way to make a living, and full of unpleasantness. So what makes it worthwhile? Where does the pleasure come from? Especially now that you’re past picking up groupies after the show?
Yeah, sure. Selling those T-shirts at the end of the night. (Laughs)
That’s probably less fun than the groupies part.
The most exciting part is making the record in the studio. And the most exciting time is you’ve got a song and it doesn’t… you’re not sure how it’s working, and in the space of an hour or two it goes from being one thing to something completely different because of something that somebody plays; it might just be like a sleigh bell, or something on pedal steel, a contribution… or, I don’t know, it just starts coming together and sounding magical. And that’s still kind of addictive.