Catching up with DEAN WAREHAM on the eve of his highly anticipated Dean Wareham Plays the Songs of Galaxie 500 tour, ANDY HAZEL learns about 80s music, looking back and Leeds.
“Man this call quality is terrible,” says Wareham of the second time we’re connected for his interview. “The sound quality of music and phone calls is awful these days.” Having been producing music long enough to make a judgement like that, Wareham comes across more like a man stating a fact than a grouchy elder statesman. Front-man for the critically adored bands Galaxie 500 and Luna for the last years of 1980s and best part of the 1990s respectively, Wareham has spent most of the last decade working with his wife and former Luna bassist, Britta Phillips, under the moniker Dean & Britta. This move saw him replace spacious washes of guitar fuzz and minimalist articulations of malaise for a slower output of film soundtracks (The Squid and the Whale), occasional albums (L’Avventura, Back Numbers), and a live score for the film project The 13 Most Beautiful…Songs For Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests. Given that there is no chance of a full reunion, and the success of their Screen Test shows is bringing them to new countries and the strange new taste of corporate gigs, it’s fair to wonder why this, and why now?
”Well,” he says with a sigh, “it’s exciting to play these songs, it really is, and with the release of the reissues it seemed the right time. We’ve been determined to get Australia no matter what and that involves taking a risk. Often people want a big guarantee on shows there, or they’ll have big label support, but I looked at it and it was like ‘it’s going to do alright, let’s go’.”
Born in Wellington, New Zealand and having spent a large part of his childhood living in Sydney, there is an understandable importance to touring here. “I don’t get to New Zealand often, every five years or so. Everyone there thinks I’m American because I have one of those confused accents from living in confused places, like Sydney, New York and Boston,” he says with his accent beginning to audibly shift across oceans throughout the interview. “It seems the longer I’ve been away from Australia and New Zealand, the thicker and heavier my accent got. But then I think it’s a generational thing. I look at my cousins and their accents are far thicker than my parents, and, no, I can’t do good impersonations,” he finishes, lying.
One of the most critically adored bands of the late 1980s, Galaxie 500’s triptych of albums Today, On Fire and This is Our Music were released 12 months apart from 1988-1990 and found small groups of obsessive fans wherever people in their teens and 20s congregated. “On this tour it’s been strange finding where we’re popular,” he says lightly. “You find people who’ve been waiting 20 years to hear a song played live all over the world. We were always more popular in England so they responded especially well there, but a few months ago we played in Sao Paulo and had 1000 people singing along to every Galaxie 500 song, which was unexpected. In Hong Kong and Taiwan we seem to get a lot of people to the shows and we never officially released a record there, so you never know until you get there,” he pauses. “I always think that you can feel when people are excited or if they want to feel something, you give that energy back to them. Sometimes it’s the function of a Friday night in a good bar though, and not every show can be that way. Sometimes it’s a Sunday night and you’re playing in…Leeds,” he says laughing.
Witnessing the affection in which his songs are still held, and deciding to evenly split the albums for the shows means mining his personal history and assuming the role of a time capsule guide. “I do find it strange that I play this role evoking this era,” he says carefully. “It was not a great period to be making music, before grunge hit. At least in the US the popular music in the charts was absolute crap; Bon Jovi, Huey Lewis…no indie bands dreamed of cracking that or getting big or anything. Now you can have a band like Vampire Weekend or Arcade Fire in the chart, it was a very different time. The songs act as channels and as I sing these lyrics I wrote 21 years ago, it takes me back to thinking about my life then, especially touring Galaxie 500 songs. When you’re touring you think of the last time you were in a place. It’s strange, because now most of the audiences weren’t born when those songs were written”.
A band long beloved by musicians and critics, it’s not surprising that Wareham has a proliferation of ‘Best Of…’ chart rankings and hyperbole with which to promote his music. That he chooses to use none of it says even more. It’s perhaps more telling that this tour coincides with some very nice (and nicely reviewed) reissues of Galaxie 500’s three albums. “I read the initial reviews in Pitchfork and Mojo and Q, but I don’t have a drive to read every review that comes out. Yeah they got great reviews, but I’ve seen both sides of that. With Luna, there was a period in England where they built us up and destroyed us. I had that experience with Luna at first that was hostile, then the reviews eventually turned. There is a discussion on Pitchfork about us and somebody was incensed by what they’d written or where they’d ranked us or something. It’s funny; it’s such a subjective thing. Back then we didn’t think we were the most important band or anything, but I look back at a list of records that came out in 88 and 89 I think we are among the best that year.”
This music, which has always been divisive largely due to Wareham’s falsetto (which he still has), has always been renown for its simplicity, which was, as with a lot of great music, not by design. “I didn’t feel like I was hoodwinking people,” muses Wareham. “But I thought it was strange when people would write that I was a great guitar player. I was like ‘…wha?’ I like the way I play, but thousands of people can play circles around me. Ultimately you learn it’s not about how fast you can play or styles, that has its place, but sometimes it is your very limitations as a musician that is a virtue. Practicing week after week, I feel like we stumbled onto the sound we had, with the help of our producer Kramer.”
While celebrating the past gets old fans and readers of music blogs into venues, Wareham is thinking more about the future as we catch the tail end of this tour. “We’ve been touring so much, but I’ve not written a song in about a year which is strange for me. That Warhol Screen Test show took off in a way we didn’t expect, as did playing these Galaxie 500 songs. I wouldn’t want to do this forever. I like it of course, but this trip will be the end of it. I’d like to go back to the future.”