Interview: Dean Wareham’s Black Postcards

photo by Christopher Nelson

interview by Spike

Even if you don’t know him by name, chances are you’ve heard Dean Wareham’s music. In 1987, Galaxie 500 began building a cult following through both their music and mystique. Wareham quit the band — in essence, dissolving it — after three albums; he moved on to form Luna in 1991, while Galaxie bandmates Damon and Naomi continued on as a duo. Luna added an extra guitar and expanded Galaxie 500’s gauzy pop into something more visceral and elongated, a realization of the psychedelia that Galaxie 500 hinted at. Although Luna scored the “coveted” major label deal (with Elektra), they were in essence a cult band as well; it was just a bigger cult. The band earned critical raves for their albums — Penthouse is the one most frequently singled out (and a great starting point if you’re new to the band’s music) — and toured the world many times over until they disbanded in 2004. Glamorous, right?

Sure, but not always. Actually, not even most of the time. Black Postcards, Wareham’s memoir (out this month on Penguin Press), chronicles the life span of both these bands, and provides a look behind the scenes at the endless van drives, disappointments, and tensions that arise when friends who start a band achieve a modicum of success and suddenly find themselves business partners as well. It’s not something that comes easy, and certainly not an eventuality you plan for when working out songs in the practice room. Wareham currently records and tours with Britta Phillips under the name “Dean and Britta”; Phillips is not only his musical partner (and the bassist for Luna’s last few years) but his wife as well.

You don’t have to be a Luna or Galaxie 500 fan to enjoy this book, but it helps. Although many of the anecdotes are time-stamped (the breakout of Nirvana and the “alternative” major label signing frenzy, to name just one) the experiences are universal. Suddenly you own a business, almost by accident; there is rent to pay, and it’s your friends’ and well as your own. Pressure? Yeah, you could say that. So it should come as no surprise that the end of both bands wasn’t exactly tidy, although Galaxie 500’s abrupt stop is the one that still seems to smart many years later, at least in the Damon and Naomi corner. While the pair’s response to the book on the record has been a “no comment”, that term itself implies a ton of comment; it’s just a held tongue away. Wareham doesn’t spare feelings in the book, and he certainly doesn’t go out of his way to paint anyone in a flattering light — himself included, if not most of all. The book reads in the same measured, careful tone as his conversations seem to. While sentimentality is acknowledged, it’s rarely elaborated on, but you can sense it. If you don’t like the narrator, chances are you won’t like the book. And this is dang engaging book.

The obvious question, I guess. Why write a memoir?

Dean Wareham: I had been thinking about a book, and already doing some writing, when the editor at Peguin contacted me. Most rock bios aren’t written by the musician, they’re written by critics, people outside the band, from interviews. And there was a story to tell.

What a shift in gears to go from writing primarily as an impressionistic lyricist to taking on a memoir.

Of course. Songs can be lies. This had to be the truth.

How has the reaction been from your former bandmates in Luna, and the rest of the folks in the book? I don’t want to say “characters”, because these are real people…

I haven’t really heard from most of them yet; it’s still a bit early. It’s tough to read about yourself. and I expect not everyone will like everything I said about them. But it had to be true, and if you take out every little thing that someone might mind, there wouldn’t be any book left. I don’t think I was mean. Well, maybe I was a bit mean about Terry Tolkin, our former A&R guy. He’s a fairly big character in the book, and he wasn’t thrilled with his portrayal. But I do think I was harder on myself than I was on anyone else.

Is it much different reading the book reviews than it is reading what people have to say about your music?

Well, the book is more personal, so I guess I do take the reviews for it more personally as well . It’s not just an album; it’s my life. Everyone seems to have an idea how the book could be different. Some people say there’s too much detail about Galaxie 500, or there’s not enough about this or that area.

When you decided to call it quits with Luna after twelve years and seven albums, one thing you said struck me. To quote you, “We reached a point where I really thought there were enough Luna albums in existence.” It’s so uncommon to hear a band or songwriter say that.

Some times you can make three and that’s enough (laughs). But many bands just keep on going, making albums with slight variations, because… well, because they can make a living at it. They’re comfortable. I think we had made enough albums, but I also think we ended it with one of our better ones.

Over the weekend I was watching “Tell Me Do You Miss Me?”, Matthew Buzzell’s documentary of the final Luna tour. There was one sequence where you’re on yet another really long drive between shows, and reading aloud from newspaper that has a review of your previous night’s show. The critic seemed to be offended that you stood still and sang, calling you “dispassionate” as if what a rock band does isn’t valid unless they leave the stage sweat-soaked and exhausted.

Right. Well, you can’t fake that stuff; at least I can’t. I just play the guitar, I don’t jump up and down, and I’m not a screamer. I’m a quiet singer, not a belter. Maybe “deadpan” would have been a better word. But that’s ok, you know? It’s not for everyone.

How involved were you with the DVD?

We saw a rough cut. It was very long, with lots of whole songs. In the end those went on as extras. It was an interesting time to film a band, when they’re breaking up. A lot of the time he was just around, filming. I’d ask him what he was doing, and he’d say “I’m creating story”. And he did.

It really captured the various personalities well.

Yeah. And he had a lot of power; when you film enough… well, he could have made any one of us look good or bad if he wanted to.

Just like a book can.


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One Comment

  1. Steve
    Posted March 25, 2008 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    I looked this over and was surprised. The guy who writes lyrics about chasing girlies and writing on dog biscuits can write like an adult too. Luna was always about the Dream Pop mood to me though.

    $25 for a hardback. If people are cutting back on music cds they must be cutting back on music books more. I hope Penguin doesn’t “drop” him before this makes it to paperback. Nothing sells in hardback anymore anyway unless its Harry Potter.

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