By Christopher Hollow
Does Dean Wareham have commitment issues? Or does he just know when to move? He left Galaxie 500 at the height of their success. He exited Luna just as they released their second best record. Now he’s ducked out from the duo he was in with his wife, Britta Phillips.
“I understand in a band this announcement, going solo, would be reason for someone to panic,” he says, by way of explanation. “But Britta and I are not jealous of each other that way that bandmates can be. We’re both invested in each other’s successes. Britta is still there helping me out both in recording studio and on stage.”
Thank goodness for that.
So, twenty-five years into his career, Wareham has just released his first solo mini LP, Emancipated Hearts. Over the seven songs he pulls together the various voices he’s employed with Galaxie 500 [high], Luna [wry] and Dean & Britta [close mic’d]. He’s also been transparent about his inspirations for the songs – picking out lines from various books and films – and employing the Jean-Luc Godard theory of: ‘It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.’
His last release was 2010’s multi-media extravaganza 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests. Last Saturday night Wareham was playing his Warhol show in Las Vegas. Playing music along to Warhol’s famous Factory screen tests of people like Dennis Hopper, Nico, Edie Sedgwick and a young Lou Reed drinking a Coke. For Lou’s film, Dean and Britta play a version of an unreleased Velvet Underground track, ‘I’m Not A Young Man Anymore’. Sunday morning and the news came through that Lou was dead, aged 71.
Lou Reed passed away last night. You must have all kinds of feelings…
I was checking out of a Las Vegas hotel when my phone started buzzing and I have a feeling I was always remember this moment. At first I was unfazed; I think I’ve been half-expecting this news – considering his recent health issues. But as Britta and I drove back home I started playing a mix of some favorite songs, ‘Love Makes You Feel’, ‘Coney Island Baby’, ‘Ecstasy’, ‘Satellite of Love’, ‘Street Hassle’ — and of course music is a quick path to your emotions.
You’ve long been seen in a similar light, if not an extension of Lou’s work. Are you comfortable with this idea?
So many of us singers and musicians are extensions of Lou Reed in a roundabout way. You could start with his influence on David Bowie and Iggy Pop, or Roxy Music, Can, Jonathan Richman, and these were influential artists too. And then the Only Ones, Suicide, Joy Division, the Feelies, Patti Smith, Yo La Tengo, Stereolab, Jesus & Mary Chain, Spacemen 3, the Strokes, Go-Betweens. . . we could go on and on. Certainly he was an influence on my guitar playing, and I took to heart his suggestion that the movement from one simple chord to another, when done right, could be a very powerful thing. As a vocalist and lyricist and singer I think I am pretty different; he was a much darker presence. And I have other heroes too: Joe Strummer, Lee Hazlewood, David Byrne, Tom Verlaine, Robespierre.
So why go solo now after all this time?
I look at the careers of other singing couples, your Serge & Jane, Peaches & Herb, Captain & Teneille; there is only so far you can take it. After three consecutive Dean & Britta albums, it was time for us to do something different.
What song did Britta want you to hold onto for a Dean & Britta record?
Well she is working on the Britta Phillips solo album, slowed by the recent, tragic death of our friend and producer Scott Hardkiss, who was producing it. But she has also created her own special instrumental version of ‘Love is Colder Than Death’.
WATCH VIDEO for “Love Is Colder Than Death”
What’s better – your “Love is Colder than Death” or Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1969 film, Love is Colder Than Death?
Fassbinder wins for originality of idea. I had read a biography of the man, also titled Love Is Colder than Death. And I think there is a German band with that name — it’s very German, isn’t it? I wrote my song without ever seeing the film but I watched it recently. It’s not a great film, it’s kind of like a strange, amateurish Breathless. Though it does feature the amazing Hannah Schygulla. Let me say that his film is more important but I like my song better.
Recently you toured the world for a year or so revisiting the songs of Galaxie 500 – how did that influence this set of songs?
It was interesting singing the Galaxie 500 songs, I realised I could still hit those high notes. For years sound engineers and bandmates have told me that I am a quiet singer — but on songs like ‘Strange’ and ‘Blue Thunder’ and ‘Ceremony’ I am actually belting it out — high and loud. So I did try to bring that voice onto this record.
What’s the emotional push behind ‘Emancipated Hearts’?
The song may not be particularly well thought-out, but I imagined I was singing about the arrest of Julian Assange: “He’s gone, he’s gone, beyond recall, free for one and all.” I even had another verse written, something about a Pale Prince. But let us be careful — now the NSA is going to be reading our interview.
The highlight, for me, is a song called ‘The Deadliest Day Since The Invasion Began’. Is this an anti-war statement?
It’s about watching the Iraq War on TV, those weeks and months when every day was “the deadliest day since the invasion began,” mutilated bodies being collected every morning. This is an observation I took from a novel by Ben Lerner. Anyway of course this war was a crime against the millions of innocent Iraqis whose lives were destroyed and disrupted. And then of course just in terms of American goals it was a military disaster and an incredible drain. The night this war started Luna were on stage singing ‘Kill for Peace’ and ‘Season Of The Witch’. I opposed it right from the beginning, it was patently obvious at the time that all this talk of weapons of mass destruction, or an imminent threat to U.S. security, was a collection of lies. What is it they say, in the rush to war the first casualty is the truth.
What is your favourite anti-war statement?
My favorite anti-war song is ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ as performed by the Bushwackers Band. This one can will make you cry. Pete Seeger also says it’s the greatest anti-war song ever written. What a cruel hoax that was — the British persuading Australians and New Zealanders to travel half way round the world to fight for what exactly? The song asks that question.
You’re on Facebook and Twitter – do you ever censor your opinions for fear of alienating fans?
I don’t really use Facebook and Twitter to express my political opinions, I use them more to let people know where my next gig is.
You do a cover of the Incredible String Band’s ‘Air’. Are you intrigued by Scientology?
I find them pretty creepy. But perhaps that’s unfair, when you get down to it are their tales of aliens populating the earth really any harder to believe than stories of a man walking on the water or returning from the Dead, or another old guy parting the Red Sea? But this ‘Air’ song, I believe the ISB wrote that song shortly before they became Scientologists.
Their producer and manager Joe Boyd tells a story about one night in 1968, following a show at the Fillmore East in New York City, when he took the band out to dinner, and ran into an old friend from Cambridge days, David Simons. Wow, he tells the band, Simons used to be a complete mess, but he has really turned his life around. Then Boyd goes back to his hotel, leaving the band at the restaurant. Simons then sits down and talks to the band, convinces them to visit the Church of Scientology’s New York Celebrity Centre. A week later Boyd meets the band back at the Chelsea Hotel, where they request that he hand over all the money earned on their East Coast tour; they are Scientologists now and would like to give this money to the Church.
Listen to “Air” by the Incredible String Band
Are you a better songwriter or interpreter?
I know what’s easier and more fun — interpreting someone else’s song. Though this too is tricky, it has to be the right song — at least for me. Johnny Cash could sing anything and improve it.
What, in your opinion, has been your most successful cover?
‘Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste’ by Jonathan Richman. Or maybe ‘Indian Summer’ by Beat Happening, which we did in Luna. Both of these songs I think in the original versions are skeletal, but the covers are more majestic.
Listen to “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste” by Galaxie 500
Who’s been the most enticing offer of collaboration that you haven’t taken up?
Hopefully if an offer is enticing I will take it up. Lately there are emails back and forth with my friend Cheval Sombre — we want to do an album of cowboy songs. We have a list going.
You recently worked on the soundtrack for the film Frances Ha. What’s been your favourite film music project?
Well we’ve worked with two really great directors — Noah Baumbach and Andy Warhol. If you are scoring film you are just glad if you get offered a great film like The Squid & the Whale. I think an actor would say the same thing. The Andy Warhol Screen Tests we worked on were very different, it was like making music videos but making them backwards, where the 4-minute film is already shot, but then you have to fit music to it. But these are great films too, in a very different way, there is no narrative, it’s more like a moving portrait, a visual poem.
Listen to Dean’s cover of “Hey You”
You’ve been working closely with the Andy Warhol Museum. What other unearthed treasures can we expect?
I am working with them on another project for late 2014, it will involve a collection of different performers this time, probably five different people writing music for three short films each. And most of these films have never been seen by the public, there are home movies, colour Screen Tests, some unexpected subjects. I can’t say too much right now, it’ssecret.
You’re one of Australasia’s great, long-lost sons. In your time in New York, when did you feel most like an Australian/New Zealander?
It’s probably sporting events that get me. I witnessed Australia II taking the America’s Cup in 1983; I had taken a train down from Boston to Newport and managed to get on a little boat and I tell you there were some Americans on that boat actually crying in their scotch when Australia II crossed the finish line. This was the greatest moment in the history of that sport, a sport that no longer has the same meaning, because its not really one country’s sailors against another’s, it’s just another collection of professionals sailing for Oracle or Prada. This recent cup we saw an Australian winning it for an American millionaire, and then saying how great it feels to beat the Kiwis. I understand it should good to beat the Kiwis if you are Australian, but not this way.
But honestly it’s when I fly into Wellington or Sydney, having spent seven years in each of those cities as a child that I feel almost at home, like I am going back to the old house. I love it.
What song are you trying to get your friends to listening to right now?
‘Love Makes You Feel’ by Lou Reed. And ‘No Destruction’ by Foxygen.
LISTEN to “No Destruction” by Foxygen
What question should I have asked?
This is the kind of difficult question that I am afraid might get you in to trouble.
ORIGNAL ARTICLE HERE: https://rhythms.com.au/dean-wareham-emancipated-heart