Dean Wareham On Galaxie 500, Luna, And What Lies Ahead

"Things don't write themselves..."

More than 30 years on from their untimely split, seminal dream pop innovators Galaxie 500 retain a special place in the hearts of fans. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that they’re bigger now than ever before – streaming has opened up their audience, while the band’s minimalist indie rock melodics arguably presaged the current boom of TikTok rooted bedroom pop.

Clash encounters one-time Galaxie 500 singer Dean Wareham in the lounge of his North London hotel. He’s on tour in Europe, playing a series of special shows devoted to the band he formed alongside bassist Naomi Yang and drummer Damon Krukowsi. The three went their separate ways at the dawn of the 90s, and haven’t been in the same room since. Damon is an author, and an advocate for a fair deal for musicians in the streaming era; Naomi is a talented visual artist; and Dean went on to form Luna, a vehicle that brought him success, acclaim, and his wife, bass player Britta Phillips. Something about his first band, though, remains at the forefront of fans’ minds. 

“I mean, the summer show had 1000 people in there!” he says breathlessly. “My agent proposed this 10 date run, and I said… are you sure? But everywhere we went we got good crowds. And it makes it all the more fun to play the songs.”

Galaxie 500’s music – three slim but magical studio albums – has lasted in a way, while the work of some of their more-hyped peers have faded away. Not that the trio appreciated what they were doing at the time, the singer points out. “I don’t think we did,” he muses. “In a way, the band – and those songs – is bigger than ever. But when we made that first record in 1988 we liked it, but we didn’t think it was an important record. Looking back now… it’s maybe one of the better records released that year!”

Recorded alongside producer – and, essentially, fourth band mate – Kramer, debut album ‘Today’ became a breakout moment, lauded by the British music press. Indeed, much of the band’s enduring fanbase resides on this isle – point of note, Galaxie 500’s final shows were in support of Cocteau Twins. “Things just happened quicker over here. If John Peel liked you, if the music papers liked you… it all happened quicker.”

“The records hold up,” he insists. “They don’t sound dated. They don’t sound like they’re from a particular scene. The records are 1988 running through to 1990. So they don’t sound like the 80s, and they don’t sound like the 90s. It’s not grunge! We just did our own thing.”

Re-visiting those songs from a modern vantage point has proved to be illuminating. Amid the sparsity, there’s an often caustic use of noise – Galaxie 500 were often contrasted to the Velvet Underground’s subdued third record, but perhaps that misses the band’s thirst for direct connections. “It’s funny, I used to think these songs were all really quiet. But when I went back and revisited them, re-learned them… some of ‘em aren’t quiet at all! I’m really wailing it out.”

“I still like those songs,” he says. “There’s nothing really that I’m ashamed of. And a lot of ‘em have real moments of excitement, and intimacy, and space to play in.”

“There’s a lot of restraint,” he adds. “Take a song like ‘Strange’ – it builds, and then you just go nuts. And that’s a song that we didn’t really play live in Galaxie 500. It’s actually one of our most popular songs on Spotify. Damon was interviewed, and said was all algorithm. I think it’s more about the songs. Even at the time, people connected to the lyrics. It should have been a single.” 

Perhaps that’s the reason why Galaxie 500 have outstripped their contemporaries. “What endures is often pretty simple – some of these songs just have one verse, that’s repeated.”

With a slim catalogue, there’s little room to surprise fans. But Dean has dug out his former band’s cover of ‘Cheese And Onions’, the semi-obscure Beatles pastiche penned for spoof biopic The Rutles. A keen Beatles nerd, he relished – like so many of us did – the chance to dig into the world for documentary series Get Back. “it was amazing,” he says. “I mean, it was a bit long… but there was a point to that. Showing songs coming into being… and when it finally gets to the version you know, it’s really exciting. Obviously, we didn’t make music like that. Our songs were all finished when we got to the studio, as we couldn’t afford to do otherwise. Some bands can afford to spend all their time in the studio.”

“It’s definitely inspiring to watch them work, and try out ideas. You see bits that work and don’t work. And it is fun to sit in a room with other musicians. I knew that already, but it’s also a lot easier when it works! That’s how Galaxie 500 worked – largely, we just went into the studio and did it. It wasn’t layered over many months, and different locations. Most of my favourite records were made in one place.”

The question of new material hangs over our conversation. 2021 saw Dean Wareham release the absorbing full length ‘I Have Nothing To Say To The Mayor Of LA’, a playful and often exhilarating update on his pared back songwriting. “It’s sort of embarrassing how long it took me to make that record,” he chuckles. “I credit the pandemic for opening up some time. Everyone is out there talking about how the pandemic influenced their record… now, I’m not sure I buy all that. But it certainly allowed me some time.”

“The thing I need is a commitment. The thing that made that record happen is that I put down on a deposit on a studio and said: yes, I’m gonna be there! That’s the kick in the pants I needed. Otherwise, it’s easier to do the laundry than write a song.”

“Somewhere in my head there’s a voice scolding me for taking that long,” he jokes. “And the moment you’re finished the voice starts up again!”

Luna are – technically – still ongoing, a group whose various elements are split in cities across America and beyond. As such, there are no plans for a new Luna LP. “We’re scattered all over the place,” he points out. 

As for tour dates, the 30th anniversary of Luna’s debut LP is coming next year. “There’s always an anniversary of something!” he laughs. “It’s a good invention, the anniversary tour. Keeps you back out on the road. No one sells music anymore so you sell concepts.”

Dean Wareham wrote his memoir – the riveting Black Postcards – in 2008, and he’s toyed with the idea of returning to prose. “I do write the occasional thing. I’m a slow writer. Writing is hard! As they say, writing is hard or everyone would do it. Sitting down and expressing yourself clearly, finding something different to say… it’s hard. Lyrics are hard, too, but they’re not as revealing. You can be cryptic and sit behind that.”

“I guess some of them are quite direct,” he adds. “But it doesn’t have to be truthful, shall we say. And it can also be whimsical.”

Currently residing in Echo Park, Los Angeles, Dean is content to finesse his life, and to immerse himself in the guitar. Lockdown saw Luna convene remotely to cover ‘Marquee Moon’, the title track of Television’s outstanding 1977 debut album. “It wasn’t my idea,” he says with a wriy smile. “Honestly, I thought: are you crazy? We recorded it remotely. And played it live once, too.”

“A lot of things come purely from picking up the instrument,” he points out. “Things don’t write themselves. I try to play every day, for that reason.”

Growing older has provided Dean Wareham with a more rounded insight into his work. Returning to Galaxie 500, he’s able to view it in the abstract, and take stock of his distinctive songwriting voice. “Lyrically, what’s fun to pay attention to is small things. Sometimes the small details are more important. There’s always a little bit of comedy in there. A sense of humour.”

Closing, Clash and Dean Wareham chat about his London plans, a bit of sight-seeing and touching base with friends. The future is wide open, as far as he can see. “The idea is to go home and write songs…”

Stay in touch with Dean Wareham online.

Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Rachel Lipsitz

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