Dean Wareham Takes It To City Hall
On the occasion of a new solo album, I Have Nothing To Say to the Mayor of L.A., the NYC rock legend talks about creativity, confidence and the legacies of Luna and Galaxie 500
Dean Wareham has a storied history, and yet, one could also say he hasn’t gotten the individual acclaim that’s so decidedly his due.
His efforts at the helm of two influential outfits — Galaxie 500 and Luna — served to typecast him as a practitioner of that niche known at various times as shoe gaze, slow core or dream pop, i.e., a hazy blend of psychedelia, power pop and archaic sixties sensibilities. While it gave him a point of reference, it doesn’t necessarily take into account his more recent work, as both a solo artist and as half the duo known simply as Dean and Britta, Britta Phillips being both his wife and bandmate with Luna. The two recorded a series of albums and a few select film soundtracks that found favor with an ongoing following of faithful fans. Their recent endeavor, Quarantine Tapes, featured a selection of cover tunes recorded at home during the pandemic.
That said, Wareham’s work under his own aegis has been somewhat inconsistent at best. His first individual outing, an EP titled Emancipated Hearts, was released in late 2013. A self-titled set appeared the following March. It took another four years before 2018’s Dean Wareham Vs. Cheval Sombre, a collection of western-themed songs recorded with singer/songwriter Cheval Sombre, took shape. As a result, his new album, I Have Nothing To Say to the Mayor of L.A., makes for a most auspicious return.
Yet despite those earlier endeavors, it’s hardly accurate to apply any of those former descriptions to this particular album. While Wareham insists he’s not bothered by the otherwise concise categories he’s been identified with in the past, it’s clear, even at the outset that melody plays as important a role in its musical make-up as the ambiance and atmospherics.
“It’s not just about texture with this record,” Wareham maintains. “I’m actually proud of the songs on this record. There are songs here that you can actually listen to, and that show off the strength of the musicians involved.”
That’s borne out immediately on songs such as the lush and lovely “The Past Is Our Plaything,” the soothing “The Last Word, the half-spoken “Robin & Richard” and the dreamy designs of “Under Skys” and “Duchess.”
Of course, it’s also apparent at the outset that the song titles — and that of the album itself — suggest a certain amount of intrigue. “Why Are We In Vietnam,” “Cashing In” and “The Corridors of Power” indicate that indeed Wareham has something to say, albeit in a somewhat cryptic manner.
“I’m not selling out, I’m cashing in, All of my chords were major chords… all my rewards are just rewards… every fuck was a flying fuck,” he sings at one point, making it clear that there are certain truths inherent in whatever lies just below the surface.
As far as the song “Why Are We In Vietnam” is concerned, Wareham says the name was plucked from the title of a book he found written by Norman Mailer.
“I figured that’d be a good song title,” he recalls. “I think about all the 80 different countries in the world where we have troops or military bases. I was just wondering why, for example, we’re in Norway. We’re everywhere. Exactly who is the enemy? If there isn’t an enemy, we invent one.
“How do we get away with that? I couldn’t imagine Norway having troops stationed over here. It’s a weird joke. Why are we in the South China Sea? We’re told it’s because the Chinese are being newly aggressive in the South China Sea. But do they have submarines off Cape Cod?”
It’s pointed out that he really seems to be digging in deep as far as some of his themes are concerned.
“I do look at my own life, but my life’s pretty settled right now,” he muses. “So what else can I write about? I can write about other people or about politics, but I want to do so without trying to hit people over the head. I think it’s important to inject a little humor, especially when you’re singing about politics. So why are we in Vietnam? Why are we in Norway? Why are we in the South China Sea? And why are we at Hooters?”
The irony is apparent, but for good reason. “I worked hard on these lyrics,” Wareham allows. “It used to be that with Luna, we were in a situation where it was about making records so we had something to tour behind. It was part of the cycle. We needed to make a record again so that everyone could get paid. But now, nobody’s paying me to make a record. So I can maybe slow down a bit, just maybe. It’s healthy.”
Indeed, Wareham seems to be clearly expressing a certain satisfaction. “I enjoyed making this record, and I’m looking forward to playing it live wherever I can share it,” he says. “I’m not someone who, every time I finish a record, says “this is one of the best things I’ve ever done.” But I do feel that way about this.”
Nevertheless, his past accomplishments still weigh on his present efforts. Britta contributed bass, vocals and keyboards, keeping the ties intact with the pair’s duo efforts. So too, while Luna no longer records, they still play the occasional gigs. “I guess it’s a little bit of a juggling act,” he concedes. “We’re still getting calls to do Luna gigs, We’re going to be doing a tour of the U.K. where we’ll be playing a Galaxie 500 album in full. It’s still fun to do that, but I still want to keep playing new songs, too. Still, Galaxie 500 is bigger than ever. Part of that is due to these streaming services that help keep it alive, even if they don’t pay you as well as they should. But it does enable new people, and younger people, to keep finding the music. And Luna is still a really good live band.”
However, it’s his own creativity that instilled a certain spontaneity in the creation of these songs. “Some of that happens in rehearsals,” he recalls. “You sit there and play the songs over and over again, because eventually something else will pop into your head or you’ll accidentally go into some other direction. That’s part of the joy of being in the studio…those moments when the song transforms from from the demo you’re working on into something else.”
Still, given the imaginative arrangements, one has to wonder whether he’ll able to translate those tones and textures into live performance. For his part, Wareham isn’t worried. “I think we’ll be able to do most of this as a four piece,” he maintains. “There may be the one time we might have some difficulty cashing in, but we can sort of built it out one instrument at a time. We wanted the drama, and when we play it live, I think we’lI think we’ll be able to pull it off.”
VIDEO: Dean Wareham “Duchess”
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