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."

If there is any humor in Wareham's interviews, it's likely only private jokes he shares with himself; cut it any way you like, and you'll never find the punch lines. The whole process seems to amuse and disgust him at the same time. He owes it to his new label, Jericho Records (which is distributed by the WEA Manufacturing group, the company that also distributes records by Elektra Records, the label that dropped Luna after four albums), to promote The Days of Our Nights. And he owes it to himself to be himself while he does it. If no one likes him, he doesn't seem to care.

Fortunately, the album Wareham is promoting doesn't need much help in that regard. The Days of Our Nights is quietly beautiful, raising its voice on only a few occasions ("Seven Steps to Satan" and "U.S. Out of My Pants!" among them). It's all music-box melodies and Wareham's flat voice, deep breaths and slow burns. And every once in a while, the lyrics are clear enough to offer actual insight. Early on in "Math Wiz," Wareham seems to be describing his troubles being understood: "I wrote a speech to my dad, 21 pages long," he sings. "He twisted my jokes and swallowed their meaning."

Not that Wareham gives you much of a chance to understand him, or even be on his side for very long. Every effort bounces off him the way a raindrop would deflect off his permanently waxy hair. Complimenting the way Luna's unironic treatment of Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine" on The Days of Our Nights reveals the song to be heartfelt and heartbreaking -- a great song lost amid Axl Rose's snaky whine -- leads only to a curt response. Wareham practically disowns the recording, dismissing it as something the group tossed off in a couple of hours, along with a pair of other covers -- Kraftwerk's "Neon Lights" and the Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue" -- destined to end up as B-sides. And empathizing with him over the fact that Luna will likely never escape the Velvet Underground comparisons that have dogged the band throughout its entire existence and surrounded Wareham since his days with Galaxie 500 is only asking for his subtle form of abuse.

"It's kind of silly," Wareham admits. "But, uh, whatever. Rock critics aren't necessarily smart. I mean, you might be. Some of them are. What are the qualifications for that job, anyway?" He laughs, a kind of smug snort. Then he sighs, as he walks through it, yet again. "It's a reference point, obviously, among many others. I guess, for me, what started me getting real excited about music was the New York punk and new-wave scene. All those bands looked back to the Velvet Underground and the Stooges and the Modern Lovers as well. But that was back when Television were punk and the Talking Heads were punk. Now punk is sort of a straitjacket: You gotta sound like Green Day or something to be considered punk. It would sort of be historical to consider yourself a punk now. That was then -- it was 20 years ago. It's silly to try to strike the same pose."

Of course, Wareham has been accused of striking that same pose throughout his career, pretending it's either CBGB's in the late '70s or Andy Warhol's Factory a decade earlier. There is more than a little merit to the charge: Luna's five albums (which also include 1992's Lunapark, 1994's Bewitched, 1995's Penthouse, and 1997's Pup Tent) all graduated from the Reed-Cale school of thought, the Velvet Underground present less as a reference than as a definition. Wareham's raspy murmur and the gentle backing by the rest of the band -- drummer Lee Wall, bassist Justin Harwood, and guitarist Sean Eden -- led to obvious answers and inescapable conclusions. Even when the group updated the sound, they only ended up with Television reruns, songs that moved forward only a third of the way to the present.

Yet those albums were enjoyable in their own way; there are hundred of bands stealing from the same sources, but Luna is one of the few that can pull it off. Wareham agrees, in a rare moment when his stuttering, stammering guard isn't up. He admits that he isn't fond of everything he's done as a musician -- Wareham regrets recording Lunapark because he doesn't "really feel like Luna was even a band when we did that," and isn't a fan of most of Galaxie 500's output -- but he's happy with the rest of the results. He doesn't care that Galaxie 500 is worshiped by some people while Luna is merely appreciated, and he scoffs at the notion that he's put himself in a position of competing with himself. Wareham knows what he likes, and that's all that really matters.

"Well, Galaxie 500 might be a better band to some sad people," he says. "I mean, you know, there are some people that like Galaxie 500 more than Luna, and there are some people that like Luna more than Galaxie 500. Especially in Japan -- there's a lot of Galaxie 500 fans. And some people like both. Whatever. I certainly don't feel like my best work was in Galaxie 500. But there are some songs that I really love. I really like the last three Luna records a whole lot, especially Penthouse. I think of all the records I've done, that's my favorite. I don't know why, really. I don't know why some records turn out better than others. It's not a science."

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