Random Rules: Dean Wareham

Random Rules: Dean Wareham

The shuffler: Dean Wareham, the former leader of indie-rock featherweight champs Galaxie 500 and Luna. Wareham's current project is Dean & Britta, a team-up with his wife and ex-Luna bandmate Britta Phillips; their latest album, Back Numbers, was released last year. The duo also scored Noah Baumbach's 2005 film The Squid And The Whale. Wareham's first book, a memoir titled Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance, comes out in March.

Mavis Staples, "A House Is Not A Home"

Dean Wareham: I think this is off the first solo record she did for Stax. It's a very sad song. "A house is not a home when no one's there." Actually, I like the early Staple Singers more, the real gospel-y stuff.

The A.V. Club: Pops Staples and his crazy reverb guitar.

DW: Yeah, the reverb and tremolo. It was an influence on a couple other guitar players I like, Sandy Bull and, oh, "Mr. Tambourine Man," what's his name. You can look it up. [Laughs.] Wait, Bruce Langhorne. He played with Dylan. I think he's missing a finger on one of his hands as well. That can be a good thing, an impediment.

AVC: How so?

DW: Well, it forces you to play in kind of a simple, rhythmic style.

AVC: Tony Iommi is missing the tips of a couple fingers.

DW: Is he? I didn't know he had something wrong with his fingers. Oh, and Django Reinhardt. I don't know who else is missing a finger.

AVC: In general, are you a fan of gospel?

DW: I don't know a huge amount. My favorite gospel band is probably Spacemen 3. White British guys doing gospel music. I know they were really into The Staple Singers as well.

Nino Rota, "Theme From Fellini Satyricon"

DW: I'm not that familiar with this one, though I do love Nino Rota. I like soundtracks, but there's hardly anyone working today who I like. We do a bit of film-scoring, Britta and I. Oh, and I love [Ennio] Morricone. I saw him at Radio City Music Hall last year. He had, like, a hundred-piece choir and a big orchestra. It was a great night. Before he came out, some guy came on the PA system and said, "This is the most magical night in New York history." [Laughs.] But it was good. Then some guy walked out onto the stage—no one was quite sure what Morricone looked like—and everyone applauded. But it was just the guy bringing out the sheet music and putting it on the stands.

AVC: What did you have in mind when you scored The Squid And The Whale?

DW: Well, you have things in mind, but they don't always work. We started out taking pieces of classical music and we played them on synthesizers, inspired by A Clockwork Orange. That didn't really work, so we threw that idea out. We just sat down and watched. We tried not to be offensive. So much music in films is really offensive these days, beating you on the head, telling you what to think.

B. Fleischmann, "A Letter From Home"

DW: Fleischmann means "butcher." He's Austrian. I don't listen to a lot of electronica, but I like some Fleischmann. I think instrumental records like this are wallpaper. When a producer I really like—like William Orbit, who I think is great—makes a solo record, I'm like, "Eh." It's better when he has Madonna to write some songs for.

The Staple Singers, "I Wish I Had Answered"

DW: We've already talked about them. [Laughs.]

AVC: Do you think it's interesting how old pop artists like The Staple Singers changed their sound and message to fit the times?

DW: I think back then, they were trying to write hits all the time, you know? There was probably more pressure to do that, where now there are so many more records being made by so many more people. They're putting them out, and only 100 people might like it.

AVC: Have you ever felt pressure like that, particularly during Luna?

DW: There was pressure at Elektra. There was always someone saying, "What's the radio hit single going to be on this record? If you don't have a hit this time, we're going to drop you." They said that for about four albums, and then one day they were right. [Laughs.] But we were actually kind of fortunate. We had to go back and remix a song or something; that was the worst we ever had to do. You hear horror stories, awful things happening to bands.

AVC: Is your book going to be mostly about your bands, or will it be more of a personal thing?

DW: Well, it's both. It's a look at what it's like to be in a band, and the business, and what was going on in the record industry as a whole through the '90s. The grunge years, and then the Britney and 'N Sync years. And then rock came back again, and all of a sudden, CD sales began to plummet. There's that story—it's cultural, like urban anthropology—but it's also deeply personal.

AVC: Do you talk at all about your favorite music by other artists?

DW: Definitely. I talk about when I first heard certain bands, certain songs. There's stuff from my early childhood, like The Seekers doing "Georgy Girl," or seeing Elvis Presley on TV when I was 10 years old. There's also a bit about being in New York City in the late '70s for the punk explosion. I was a big Clash fan. I remember seeing The Clash at Bond's; it's a bit of a legendary series of shows. More legendary because the fire department came in after the first night and declared that the show was dangerously oversold. So The Clash tripled the amount of shows they were doing there. This was the Sandinista! tour, by the way, so some group was handing out literature about Nicaragua in the lobby. Grandmaster Flash were opening, and they got booed off the stage with chants of "disco sucks" and "nigger." It was really horrible. It was strange to see the difference between The Clash and their meathead fans.

AVC: What did you think of Grandmaster Flash at the time?

DW: Oh, I liked it. What was it, "The Message"? That was a great song. I wasn't deep into that stuff, but I liked it.

Kaleidoscope, "Kaleidoscope"

DW: There were two bands called Kaleidoscope, actually, an English one and an American one. Both were psychedelic bands, but I prefer the English one. This song is just called "Kaleidoscope." It's a song about themselves. [Laughs.] They do, like, eight-minute epics about fairies and sky children and the turtle king. I love that band. It's hard to find their stuff now. Actually, that's not true. You can find everything now, can't you? It's all out there. I think that's the big difference between now and, say, 1984. If you wanted to find Velvet Underground records back then, it was very difficult. They were out of print. But now, everything that ever came out is in print, and it's somewhere in the warehouse of Amazon.

AVC: Do you think that's changed the way people interact with music?

DW: It's a different world we live in. I read Simon Reynolds' book last year; have you read that?

AVC: Rip It Up And Start Again?

DW: Yeah. He kind of makes the point that music is now everywhere. People walk around with their iPods on all the time. It's everywhere, and yet it's more of a background activity than anything else. I think now, most people come home and sit in front of the computer; that's what they do all night long. "I've got all these songs, and I'm going to store them on my iPod." Still, it seems less of a central activity in peoples' lives. They don't eagerly await some new record and then go home and sit down and listen to it.

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