Vent house

Luna's Dean Wareham is cooler than you are -- just ask him

All too often, musicians are defined solely by their music, the lyrics they write, the records they make. A single frame becomes the entire film, a lifetime of personality quirks, habits, likes, and dislikes summed up by an hour of words and music -- a few albums' worth, if they're lucky. It's a way of knowing someone without really knowing them, without scratching the surface, let alone breaking it. For most musicians, fact and fiction aren't separate, only different names for the same story.

Take, for example, a scene from last year's South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin. As Tom Waits sat in the lobby restaurant of the Driskill Hotel, quietly enjoying a late lunch with a few friends, two fans were bellied up to the bar just outside of the restaurant's entrance, debating whether Waits would prefer a bourbon-and-Coke or a straight shot of Jack Daniel's. They waffled over the decision for a few minutes, testing the patience of the waiter waiting for a final answer, before finally sending a drink Waits' way. He politely declined, and the pair of acolytes slumped on the bar, dejected, believing they had made the wrong choice. Their hard-drinking hero had rejected them, turned down their simple gesture of appreciation. They didn't realize Waits stopped drinking a long time ago. They probably still don't.

So you would assume it's a bit disappointing for someone like Dean Wareham to realize no one knows -- and possibly, no one cares -- about him other than the fact that he sings and plays guitar in Luna, or that he used to do the same in Galaxie 500. All anyone knows about him, for the most part, has been gleaned from Luna's five albums (including last year's The Days of Our Nights) or from the photos of him that appear on the back cover of those records, the ones in which Wareham appears as though someone just asked him to solve a complex calculus equation. You might suppose, from that shallow well of information, that Wareham is every bit as somber and serious in person as he seems to be on those albums, the kind of guy with no patience for anything other than writing songs and playing them.

Why isn't this man smiling? Luna's Dean Wareham, second from left, is more than happy to tell you.
Michael Lavine
Why isn't this man smiling? Luna's Dean Wareham, second from left, is more than happy to tell you.

And, well, he is; apparently some musicians can be judged by their album covers. Ask Wareham about the music, and you might get a straight answer. But ask about the man who makes it, and you only get toyed with, strung along. Talking to him is an incredibly frustrating experience, though that's probably not quite the right word for it. Excruciating might be a better fit, or embarrassing, perhaps. Whatever word would best describe the feeling of being made fun of for half an hour, without actually being made fun of. Not really, not technically -- he never comes right out and says it, preferring to let you fill in the few remaining blanks. Wareham's words, he claims, are meant for other critics, not the one he's on the telephone with at the moment. His assurances, however, feel forced: Imagine trying to carry on a conversation with someone whose contempt is barely concealed by a thin smile and hollow laugh.

Maybe Wareham has every reason to be bitter. Maybe he's seen his words sliced and diced too often, rearranged and edited past the point of recognition. Or maybe, as others have said, Wareham is simply an asshole, so full of himself that he'd need to be six inches taller to contain it all. After a mercifully brief exchange with him -- interrupted a handful of times by other phone calls and unexplained disturbances -- it's more than tempting to agree with the last theory. After all, while he later admits he hates doing interviews, he doesn't do much to hide that fact. It's always there, the beginning of every thought, the period to every sentence. He excuses himself every few minutes to pick up another call, tend to the dog constantly barking in the background, or discuss something with the woman who answered the phone. A half-hour interview becomes a test of endurance on both sides. He wants to end it, and you want to let him.

"There's all kinds of ways to be misunderstood, and one of them is via the interview," Wareham explains in a voice that is a mix of New York (where he currently resides), New Zealand (where he was born), and God knows what else he's picked up along the way. His accent changes with almost every word, like a spoken ransom note cobbled together from tapes of a dozen other voices. "That's what happens when you get interpreted through your songs. I mean, you tend to write about bad things that happen, or maybe serious things. So that would give a skewed view of what your personality is. And writing is about exaggerating things, you know? That's what writing lyrics or writing poetry is about: taking some little thing and trying to make a big deal out of it.

"The thing about interviews is that if someone interviews you and they're an idiot, then they make you sound like an idiot too. They ask you stupid questions and they bring you down to their level. It's tempting to not ever want to talk to anybody, but you can't do that. I mean, I certainly don't mean to insult you. You're doing a great job." He laughs, sort of. "But you know, interviews get cut up, and things get taken out of context. The humor doesn't come across because it's not a real conversation."

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