Galaxie 500’s On Fire At 30

The RNR Globe talks exclusively with Dean Wareham on his old group’s sophomore masterpiece

Galaxie 500 On Fire, Rough Trade 1989

Galaxie 500 are usually painted as the perennial “underrated band.” They weren’t when they were around; but neither were they going to be hailed as leaders of a trend. You wouldn’t claim them “misunderstood,” because their gorgeous melodies and revebed vibe were like a warm blanket, which you need when things are as cold outside as Dean Wareham’s lyrics could convey. Their initial gorgeosity was plain as day. It just didn’t fit. Or so it seemed. 

When a band is as unique and fully formed from the start as Galaxie 500 – an enigmatic creature that seemed to fly in and out before we could get focused on how wonderful it was – you don’t get the usual storylines of most indie bands. Within less than three years, the Boston trio released three near perfect statements of their sound, toured sporadically, and broke up just as their third album seemed to be leading them, well, somewhere. The tales that usually build up press releases, then cult crowds to packed clubs came after this band broke up. Inter-group tension, their record label’s impending bankruptcy, and suddenly apparent musical influence all dropped sometime around 1991. Galaxie 500’s albums were out of print and collectible before the ink dried on your cash register receipt when you bought their last album, This Is Our Music (Rough Trade, 1990). 

It’s true their first album, Today (Aurora, 1988), went under the radar – I found my copy after stumbling upon the second album, On Fire, their college radio breakout. “Critics’ darling” doesn’t come close to describing the near universal media gushing for On Fire. Of course that media was fanzines, indie bi-monthly mags and drunken praise from 3 a.m. college DJs. But it’s still praise. And as On Fire was released by Rough Trade, still a large indie at the time, many underground rock fans – brow-beaten from the left-right combination of the devolution of hardcore punk and its new offshoot, noisy pre-grunge like Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore, and Dinosuar Jr. – were amendable to this trio’s dreamy chill tunes.

But in that too, Galaxie 500 has an odd legacy. On Fire is actually a pretty loud record. And most of the riffs are of the two or three-chord punk variety. If played speedy with no echo, “Leave the Planet” could be a Ramones song. 

Galaxie 500

Under the knowing knobs of Lower East Side oddball, Kramer, the band essentially updated the third Velvet Underground record by infusing the stinging solos and snuck-up snare pounds culled from the second. And they weren’t alone. In New Jersey, Yo La Tengo were mining somewhat similar dynamics; and to me, On Fire was a logical extension of the kind of VU re-dos that the Dream Syndicate started on their 1982 debut, occasional female vocals and ear-split pedal stomps included. Not to mention Jesus & Mary Chain’s Spector smelts and Spacemen 3’s sprawls that had been buzzing the indie charts since 1985. 

Yet what made Galaxie 500 stand out so much was Dean Wareham’s evocative, groggily gossamer vocals that really had no precedent, and a stunning consistency across the band’s songwriting and sound. True, bassist Naomi Yang, who was asked to join the band before she ever picked up a bass, did quickly develop a more fluid ability into On Fire; while drummer Damon Krukowski was even more deft at his loud/quiet dynamics that ran parallel to burgeoning grunge. They played them not for obvious mosh kicks, but instead as subtle emotional shifts, as Wareham’s guitar drones directed. And on this album the band’s songwriting was most epically intense. It’s here they reached their summit of sunshine shards over burning desire unquenched. On fire, indeed.

Unlike many ultimately influential bands, Galaxie 500’s influence hit quickly, as some indie rock bands by the mid-90s started to try to incorporate the band’s semi-soundscapes. Easier said than done. Today, On Fire sounds just as mysterious and unmatchable as in 1989. Wareham’s voice is the kind that, if you tried to incorporate an influence from it, you’d sound like you’re imitating, such are the distinctive vocal melodies. And the production atmosphere of the album is one of rock’s greatest pairings of producer and band. It ain’t easy taming all that gorgeous wash and whine. And so if there is any remaining notion of Galaxie 500’s place on the under/over spectrum, it is because they remain a singular, out-of-time voice.

Seemingly never out of time on his clock to create, singer/guitarist, Dean Wareham, went on to form the spacey swoon-pop greats, Luna, and reconvenes that or some combination of him and his wife, Britta Phillips, to perform sporadically, from European festivals to various boho happenings. But we were able to snare him for some thoughts on his first band’s 1989 classic.

 

 

Let’s start with basic recording questions. Where / when did you record On Fire? How were you approaching it, in relation to Today? What did you want to do the same, or different?

There were two different sessions at Kramer’s Noise New York studio at 247 West Broadway in Tribeca. The first session took place mid-February 1989; we recorded eight songs, including “Strange,” “Plastic Bird,” “Leave the Planet,” “When Will You Come Home” and “Ceremony.” This took us all of three days. Day one we recorded the basic tracks live, and on days two and three would record the vocal, a second (lead) guitar track, and Kramer would then immediately do a quick mix. This is perhaps slightly unusual, but you can make a case that when a song is sounding good, you should mix it right away. The second session took place over the summer, and yielded “Blue Thunder,” “Tell Me,” “Decomposing Trees,” “Snowstorm” and “Isn’t It a Pity.” I don’t think we approached the album thinking what we’d do the same or different, but I do think Kramer now really got into arranging and producing the band, he was more invested in it.

 

AUDIO: Galaxie 500 1989  Peel Session

 

How were the On Fire sessions in general? What’s it like working with Kramer? 

It was great, so quick. We would do one or two live takes – tracking drums, bass, and rhythm guitar together – and then quickly move on to overdubs, and even there, it was always just one or two takes. If I made some weird mistake, Kramer’s instinct was to keep it, rather than punch in and fix it. So if you listen to the feedback solo at the end of “Tell Me,” I am completely lost and the notes are out of the key, and yet, that’s what makes it a special moment in the song.

 

Ralph Carney’s sax on “Trees Decomposing” — whose idea? I’m from Cleveland originally, and it’s always great to hear Ralph. Memories of working with him?

Kramer’s idea. They had already made at least one album together. Kramer called him in, I think they smoked a joint, and Ralph asked, “What key is the song in?” and Kramer said, “You know what key it’s in.” And that was it, he had a quick listen to the song, and made up his parts on the spot. What can you say, he was a mind-blowing musician. He also played sax on “Blue Thunder.’ I think we were already attached to the way it sounded as a guitar song, so we held the sax version, and released it later with the video and a 12” single. 

 

The title, On Fire, how did that come about?

I think that was Damon’s idea, it’s sort of a jazz title, no? Damon had a lot of jazz records, they not only influenced his drumming, but also the album titles and the LP designs too, Naomi liked the way those old records looked.

 

When you first appeared, Galaxie 500 certainly came across as a more dreamy, swirly antidote to predominantly noisier stuff on college radio, and especially as On Fire came out. But I remember thinking that, to me, you did seem to be of a slow-moving movement of Velvet Underground-influenced bands. I felt like On Fire was a descendent of the first Dream Syndicate album, and in some league with what Yo La Tengo was doing at the time. Did you feel you had peers you felt were akin? Or were you floating out there alone?

Certainly, that first Dream Syndicate album had made an impression on me a few years earlier, and we were aware of the Paisley Underground bands. We were really into Opal, who later became Mazzy Star. On the East Coast, there was a Hoboken (or New Jersey) scene, I’m thinking about the Feelies, a band we loved deeply, Yo La Tengo, and others. And in a way that was sort of similar to what was happening on the West Coast, as bands moved away from trying to sound punk-ish or new wave, and looked more to the past. In the UK you had Spacemen 3, that was exciting. 

 

But of course, in general, the independent touring landscape around 1989 was mostly leftover hardcore and burgeoning noise stuff like Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore, Mudhoney, and Dinosaur Jr. Did you feel misunderstood or out of place in ways? Or did you not give a fuck?

In Boston, we were fish out of water. So many other bands were playing hardcore or punk or pre-grunge. But of those bands you mention, we opened for a few of them, Sonic Youth at CBGB’s (they were fans of our first album), Dinosaur (at Bunratty’s in Boston), Pussy Galore (at Maxwell’s), and I know we’re a relatively quiet band, but we could make a racket too. We played with Flaming Lips, and another time with Screaming Trees. Mark Lanegan later told me that our gig made a big impression on him. And we liked some of the Shimmy-Disc bands too, especially Bongwater and B.A.L.L. I guess most of the bills we played with, we were the quietest band on stage that night.

 

VIDEO: Galaxie 500 at the Commonwealth School, April 1989

 

While Galaxie 500 is today painted as a kind of underrated band, I remember a lot of magazine and college radio love for you back then. I think most bands don’t initially go into their band with major plans or expectations. What were your expectations once On Fire was finished? 

We did not start out with high expectations, but things moved quickly, especially in the UK where the weekly press can make things happen. And I don’t know how many copies of Today had sold, but the label owner Mark Alghini said he had trouble keeping up with demand. 

 

How much touring did you do on that album? Any interesting tour stories from that period?

Our very first (somewhat disastrous) U.S. tour took place in April, 1989, so that was in between the two album sessions. After the record was finished, and we signed to Rough Trade, we made our first trip to London. We played one gig at a pub in Tulse Hill. I remember meeting Tim and Laetitia from Stereolab, but the big one was at the ICA. I was terrified, it was probably the biggest audience yet for us, and it was super quiet between songs. On Fire was released that fall, and we embarked on a five-week European tour, with Kramer along doing sound. As you well know, touring can be up and down, but overall we had a blast. And we spent a lot more time in the UK and Europe than we did in the States. 

 

What was the high point of that On Fire period, and what was the low?

The high points are mostly in the studio, those moments when you add a new element to a song and it completely transforms, like the falsetto vocal in “Blue Thunder” that I hadn’t really even been planning. The low points involve travel, being exhausted and grumpy in the back of a van. 

 

I know this is a strange question for a band to answer, but as the next few years rolled by, did you hear an influence from your music around the indie landscape? 

I think quite soon after we split up there was a slow-core scene of bands that supposedly sounded like us, like Codeine or Low (also produced by Kramer), though I don’t think either band sounded like us at all. They are both more minimal and controlled. 

 

 AUDIO: On Fire (full album)

 

Eric Davidson

Eric Davidson is a freelance writer from Queens; singer of New Bomb Turks; author of We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988–2001, and former Managing Editor of CMJ. Follow him @lanceforth.

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