Dean Wareham

Now in the third stage of a career stretching back more than two decades, Dean Wareham has adapted to changing times without losing his musical identity. Galaxie 500, a trio formed with fellow Harvard students Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, embodied the reverb-drenched melancholy of 1980s college rock, and Luna’s slicker, more fleshed-out sound dovetailed perfectly with the era of alternative rock. Since disbanding Luna in 2004, Wareham has played as a duo with his wife, Britta Phillips, releasing several albums and recording a score, 13 Most Beautiful, for some of the silent “screen tests” Andy Warhol shot between 1964 and 1966. Encompassing mainstays of the Factory scene (Edie Sedgwick, Mary Woronov, Lou Reed), fellow artists (including Dennis Hopper), and a handful of relative unknowns, the films, especially when coupled with Dean & Britta’s pulsating music, evoke a powerful sense of mystery. Free to fill their four minutes however they want, Warhol’s subjects reveal themselves in disparate ways: Reed toys sneeringly with a Coca-Cola bottle, while Sedgwick seems to shrink from the camera’s gaze.

Although the 13 Most Beautiful program was released on DVD last year, Wareham has just gotten around to releasing the accompanying soundtrack, a two-disc affair on his own Double Feature records. He’s also spending August touring the States with a Galaxie 500 show incorporating songs from the band’s three landmark albums (albeit without his former bandmates, with whom he remains on frigid terms). Shortly before the tour began, Wareham talked to The A.V. Club about not getting his old band back together, the difficult of writing 12 good songs, and discovering an unreleased Velvet Underground song to score Reed’s screen test.

The A.V. Club: The two-disc 13 Most Beautiful contains a number of songs in both original and remix form, including several by techno DJ Scott Hardkiss and Spacemen 3’s Pete Kember. Did those versions all come out of the process of scoring the Andy Warhol screen tests?

Dean Wareham: They all came out of the screen-test process, but then we asked a few people to do remixes, and then sometimes we liked the remixes more than the original version. The remix My Robot Friend did, “Not A Young Man Anymore,” it’s a completely different song. Ordinarily, you would make this one little original mix-tape and put all the remixes on disc two, but I think sometimes when you put out a double disc, people don’t even listen to the thing. They never make it to the remixes, and I wanted to be sure that people hear it. 

AVC: If you put the remixes on the second disc, it’s no longer a double CD, it’s an album and a bonus disc.

DW: It was very confusing. We had so many remixes floating around that it was difficult to make a choice. 

AVC: The Velvet Underground’s influence on your music has been prominent since the beginning. How did you end up using an unreleased Velvets song, “Not A Young Man Anymore,” to accompany Lou Reed’s screen test?

DW: I hadn’t heard it until a few years ago. I had a lot of VU bootlegs, believe me, but this one had just surfaced. Live at the Gymnasium in 1966. An unfinished song—I can see why they didn’t record it. It’s got one lyric and one really good guitar riff. I can see why they just dropped it, but it is such a cool riff. And we’re looking at his face and thinking, “What the hell are we gonna do for it, how could we possibly write…”

AVC: “How are we going to write a song for it that’s not just ripping off The Velvet Underground?”

DW: Yeah. So we said “Let’s just take one of his songs and do that.” Lyrically, the film is from 1966, the song is from 1966, and it’s called “I’m Not A Young Man Anymore.”

AVC: The lyric has that obvious implication, looking at that, especially when you add your anecdote in the liner notes about having the 60-year-old Lou Reed watching the 20-year-old Lou Reed as you’re playing the song. Looking at the whole batch of screen tests, there’s a pervasive sense of weariness, especially knowing that Edie Sedgwick and Nico would be dead within a few years.

DW: Right. I think Freddy Herko, the dancer who killed himself two months after that screen test, he looks weary. He’s called the first drug casualty of the Factory scene. He was just taking way too much speed and acting weird, locking himself in a closet and giving away all his possessions. Similar behavior to what Billy Name did, locked himself in a closet in the back of the Factory, and didn’t come out for a year. He was also doing a lot of speed and probably a lot of acid. There’s a feeling of sadness to this thing; you can feel it sometimes onstage. I turn around and look at Edie Sedgwick. She actually looks so innocent. She’s not wearing makeup or anything.

AVC: She looks vulnerable.

DW: She does. We did the show in Santa Clara. That’s where she was born, and that’s where she died. We met her husband at the time. I guess they were married for two months. We met her mom and dad. He came up to us and told us that he felt that she was talking to him. That’s the power, the amazing achievement these screen tests are, and not just the screen tests, but the other films as well—just that he bothered to document that whole scene. I’m sure at the time, people were saying, “What is this? This isn’t filmmaking, it’s putting a reel into a camera and telling you to sit there.” Yeah, but it’s something different than what anyone else is doing. All these years later, the paintings are all considered classics, but the films are still challenging and provocative. I do think it’s more enjoyable watching them with the music. 

AVC: You’ve been making music for 20-odd years at this point, and in Black Postcards, you wrote very liberally about the toll that’s taken on your life. Do you share any of that sense of being worn out by the lifestyle, and did that play into the music?

DW: No, I don’t think it did. I’m not sure I would’ve actually liked to be hanging around the Factory. I have something of a work ethic—well, those people did too, I guess, because they were on speed. 

AVC: Warhol certainly did. Warhol was obsessed with constantly producing.

DW: Sometimes you hear about these people in these incredibly productive periods where they’re just working all the time. It’s the same with Bob Dylan. How’d he do this? Then you find out they were on speed. You’re sleeping four hours a night, and I’m sure it can make you very productive for a short period. Obviously then it destroys some people as well. 

AVC: Lou Reed and John Cale wrote a song about it on their Warhol album, Songs For Drella. It’s just called “Work.” 

DW: “How many songs have you written today?” I think of that song sometimes when I haven’t written a song for six months, and I’m like “Jesus Christ.”

AVC: One of the things you’ve talked about doing recently is splitting the Dean & Britta albums between originals and cover songs to relieve some of the songwriting pressure.

DW: Yeah. I don’t know if that makes me lazy or not. I think it enables you to take a handful of really good songs that you don’t have to stress about, and just fill them out. It’s easier to write six songs. You write 12, but you’ve really got to write 18 and pick 12 you like. It used to be that everybody did that. Everybody was recording songs written by people like Carole King. Maybe that was better than incredible numbers of people in bands all writing songs. 

AVC: Then The Beatles ruined it for everyone. So now instead of six great songs, you write 12 that sound like the last 12 songs you wrote.

DW: I’m sure in some ways, that whole thing is money-driven.  This is why the Stones started writing songs, because their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, was like “Holy shit, that’s where the money’s going, from writing songs.” People still have to pay the publishing royalties, although some people think all music should be free and they shouldn’t have to pay anything. I read this book last year called Tell The Truth Until They Bleed, by this guy Josh Alan Friedman. It had a long piece about Leiber and Stoller—really, it’s an interview with Jerry Leiber. He made a fortune in publishing, and he talks about the point at which the mafia were like, “So, what’s this songwriting thing here? What’s that about? From now on, we’re getting some of that.” 

AVC: Andrew Loog Oldham is a perfect example of someone who took songwriting credits on songs he didn’t write as a form of payment. 

DW: And Dick Clark. In the Joe Boyd book White Bicycles, he writes about the Dick Clark show [American Bandstand]. Before Dick Clark took over, it was a very mixed audience racially, and the music was mixed, and then Dick Clark and his people engineered the sex scandal for the guy running the show, and Dick Clark took over. Anyway, Dick Clark often got a writing credit on the B-side of the single he was putting on the show. The B-side pays as much as the A-side. 

AVC: Can you talk about recording “I’ll Keep It With Mine” for Nico’s screen test? Her version is so iconic. 

DW: I guess Bob [Dylan], I’m not sure who he wrote it for, but he had supposedly given it to Nico. They met in Paris in 1965 and went all across Europe. This was before she came to the Factory. He gave her that song, and it’s on her first album. She always wanted to play it with the Velvets, and they were like, “No, we’re not going to play a Bob Dylan song.” He did several versions himself, I guess. We kind of like the version by Rainy Day, which was this supergroup featuring David Roback, Kendra Smith, Susanna Hoffs, a Paisley Underground thing. That’s kind of what we based that on. I don’t know if I mentioned in the notes that Dylan was at the Factory and he shot a couple of screen tests—there was some kind of power struggle going on. I think maybe his ego wouldn’t let him sit still for a screen test. There was tension. He was whispering to Edie Sedgwick that Warhol was taking advantage of her. When he left that day, he took an Elvis painting, which he then traded to Albert Grossman for a used sofa. And then Albert Grossman’s wife sold it for many millions of dollars. 

AVC: There’s so many resonant possibilities in that story. 

DW: Right. Like I said, anyway, it’s a beautiful song, whether he wrote it for her or for Joan Baez. 

AVC: In August, you’re touring the Galaxie 500 catalogue, playing the songs with your band.

DW: We did this in Spain in January at a little festival. The guy said, “Why don’t you do a Dean & Britta set one night and a Galaxie 500 set the next night?” We did it, and our drummer, who has a jazz background, was playing that stuff really well. Damon was always interested in jazz drummers, too. It was fun. I just thought, with the records being 20 years old and them all being re-released, it seems like a good time to do it, while I can still hit the high notes.

AVC: How has your relationship to the songs changed over the years? What’s it like for you to play them now? 

DW: I know I get a real kick, an emotional charge, out of playing a song I haven’t played for 10 years. It just takes you back to that point in your life. I think I should’ve been playing more of these songs all along, but with Luna, we had such a diverse group of songs to play.

AVC: Does it just take you back to the good times? There was a lot of bad blood toward the end of the band.

DW: It’s all kind of ridiculous to me. It’s like the breakup that never ends. I don’t quite understand it. You know, I sit down and I listen to our records, and there’s a part of me that’s sad that we’re not all going out and playing them together, but on the other hand, I don’t think that would be healthy or enjoyable. It’s like what David Byrne said about Talking Heads: Are you gonna go get back together with your girlfriend from when you were 16? It’s like going back in your life. And the relationship is strange anyway, it’s too weird to compensate, really. 

AVC: Have you been in touch with them about this? 

DW: We’re in e-mail contact. I didn’t advise them beforehand or ask permission, but they know about it. They probably don’t love it, but whatever. 

AVC: I was thinking about getting back together with ex-girlfriends. You might want to have a cup of coffee and catch up, but you’re not going to start dating again.

DW: What I really think it comes down to with Galaxie 500 is the numbers, with the fact that it was a trio, and them being a couple makes it very difficult. When it’s a four-piece band and there’s tension, it’s like, so what? There’s four ways for the tension to go. 

AVC: James McNew from Yo La Tengo has talked about being in a band with a married couple. It’s a strange dynamic, but obviously it’s worked for them.

DW: And his position’s different, because he came in, I don’t know, seven years into the band, although he’s been there a long time. They’d gone through a lot of bassists before that, people who didn’t enjoy the dynamic, maybe. 

AVC: You play with four people now instead of three. 

DW: We like four people, because I listen to the records, and there’s generally two guitars, because there’s an overdub on each track. Or sometimes Matt [Sumrow] plays keyboards; he switches back and forth. I think it sounds fuller with the live guitar. When I go back and look at the old Galaxie 500 live recordings, sometimes Kramer would get onstage with us and play a few songs. It sounded a little fuller. There are times when it works great as a three-piece, too. 

AVC: Does touring the Galaxie songs as a four-piece involve some rearranging? 

DW: It involves some rehearsing. The songs are more difficult to play than I remember. I listened to the live Galaxie 500 album from Copenhagen, and I realized that’s at the end of a tour, after we had been touring for a couple of months and had gotten pretty good at it. In terms of chord structure, the songs are incredibly simple. For example, a song like “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste” is only one chord, but there’s a whole lot going on in it. 

AVC: Peter Buck talks about how hard it was late in R.E.M.’s career to relearn some of their early songs. Because they didn’t know what they were doing at first, it’s incredibly difficult to replicate. 

DW: On “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste,” when I was going over my guitar solo, I had no idea what I was doing and I was completely lost. Then I’m like, “How did I do that?” 

AVC: It’s hard to stumble into the same thing twice.

DW: Well, obviously I don’t have to replicate it note-for-note. Mind you, I’ve got fans who get mad if I play “Snowstorm” and I do the solo with the fuzz pedal instead of the wah-wah. “What! How could he do that?”