Q&A: DEAN WAREHAM
An online exclusive interview
Dean Wareham / (Penguin)
Wednesday, April 09, 2008
By Molly Brown
Dean Wareham, singer and primary songwriter for Galaxie 500 and later Luna, has written a different kind of rock story — the indie-rock underdog’s life story. Sure, there’s sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, but it’s viewed through the eyes of a musician who, though lauded and revered, never quite made it in the unrealistic sense that MTV and Clear Channel — and even his own former label Elektra, part of Warner Music Group — demanded. Instead, Wareham, along with his bandmates, spent years touring shitty clubs, staying in divey hotels, driving stinky vans and loading in and out their own gear. They were loved abroad, opened for folks like the Velvet Underground and even found glowing praise in the pages of the New York Times and Rolling Stone — and still major success eluded them, but Wareham couldn’t shake the band life and settle down into a normal life.
Wareham’s book, Black Postcards: Unreleased B Sides & Notes From the Road (Penguin, released in March), chronicles it all, from that incredible feeling of smoking cigarettes outside one of your first gigs at 2 a.m. — in Wareham’s case, a battle of the bands while he was at Harvard (they lost) — and nearly ends with what he refers to as a "Spinal Tap moment," waiting to buy weed in an Econoline van outside a Minneapolis hotel during their farewell tour, watching Ryan Adams’ two huge tour buses idle away in front of them. Wareham, who now tours as a duo with his wife and former Luna bassist, Britta Phillips, spent much of 2007 back on the road as part of Dean & Britta — the first time he’d toured since Luna’s final show in 2005.
Here Wareham talks about why he wrote the book, the pains of pseudo-stardom and what it’s like to get sucked back into loading the van.
Stop Smiling: What spurred your decision to write the book?
Dean Wareham: Actually, I’ve been doing it slowly over the years. I’d written a couple of chapters, and I used to write the tour diaries for our website. I spent quite a lot of time on them. Finally, I realized no one’s paying me to do this, it’s very difficult and I’m going to stop, and I discontinued taking notes. Some of the book grew out of that. I got call from this editor at Penguin, Scott Moyers. He’s since left, but he asked me if I’d given any thought about writing a book. I had a few chapters and had almost written a book proposal, so I sent a few chapters. It all happened very quickly. He read them, loved them and got permission to go ahead.
Then the difficult part began — the procrastinating. Writing a book is hard. I’m used to writing lyrics, which is a whole different thing. As a lyricist you can be clever in very small doses, and while songs are personal, they’re not revealing at all unless you want them to be. You hide behind things, you can switch from first to third person and be poetic and do whatever the hell you want. For a book, that approach doesn’t work, and it’s very different from blogging or tour diaries. What’s entertaining for five minutes, you can’t just pull it out and expect it to be a book. There are ebbs and flows and arcs to it. For long time it seemed like an unholy mess, my book. I got some pointers from Scott, and all of a sudden it seemed like I had a beginning, middle and end. It took about two years.
SS: The book leads with a Galaxie 500/Damon Krukowski quote from a fanzine. Why did you choose this to set up the story?
DW: Yeah, I start off the book with the end of Galaxie 500. I didn’t intend to make that the focus, but it seemed like a key way to get into the story. Someone directed me to this interview up on the website, it’s an old interview, and I just read this nasty stuff. I just thought I was entitled to respond to it. I think it’s how so many bands end — not all, I still talk to everyone in Luna, and we get along fine — but so many end with acrimony. You start out the best of friends, then end up really mad at each other. Or bands that stay together like the Beach Boys enter the stage from different sides. There’s a natural drain in the history of every band. Look at the VH1 series [Behind the Music]. It’s like an episode of Columbo — you just know what’s going to happen.
So, yes, you come back to it. If I hadn’t been in a band with Damon and Naomi [Yang] we’d still be friends, because frankly they’re nice, intelligent people, but they could be neurotic and controlling. Maybe they think I’m the same way. If you’re in a band long enough that’s all you see of each other. It’s difficult to see the good in each other and you start to drive each other nuts. You’re spending too much time together and being too involved with one another. It’s like you’re married.
SS: You write that when Galaxie formed, there weren’t many indie-label options to release a record. And “today there are thousands of independent record companies and anyone can release a record.” Would you say it’s easier of more difficult for new bands today than when you started out?
DW: Back then, we could think of 10 to 15 labels to send tapes to. Now it’s just this explosion. There’s just too much — too many bands, too much info — and it’s getting worse and worse. At least 10 or 20 times the number of records come out every week. But now it’s harder for people to sell large quantities — anyone in record business can tell you that. Maybe it was more difficult to get signed back then, but it was easier to get noticed. One of the great things about being in band and making records is that it’s a fairly cheap medium — maybe now it’s too cheap. All you need now is a MySpace site and you’ve got a band.
SS: Do you wish Galaxie 500 had ended any differently?
DW: I wish they hadn’t been so mad at me. I honestly didn’t think I did anything evil. I didn’t think there was any reason to be mad at me. They didn’t really give me a reason to say why I’m quitting, which was basically, “You’re driving me crazy.” I couldn’t think of a nice to way to say that. It’s just like how I write it in the book, when you’re breaking up with someone and say, “It’s not you, it’s me.” Perhaps I should have been more honest about that.