Hey brahs and sahs. . .this is the first interview I’ve done for Katchin’ of a person that I’d never met. . .but I was excited to try to pull it off. Musician and songwriter Dean Wareham recently wrote a memoir called Black Postcards that manages to accurately and poignantly capture the ambivalence, emptiness and simple pleasures that make up the life of a small-time touring musician. In terms of music memoirs I've read this one is closest to my experience as a micro-time indie rock musician straddling the period between the industry's feast and famine years (late 90s vs. current day).
Wareham’s collection of surreal tour, studio and the occasionally dispassionate and intimate personal experiences accrue to paint a melancholic portrait of a so-called "cult" performer (not that I know anything about the "cult" element). Wareham is a clear and lucid writer - in contrast to his whimsical and impressionistic lyrics that he includes in the text - and he comes across with refreshing humility. He manages to remove the veils of fantasy that surround the popular perception about what it's like to be in a band.
Because I found that it resonated with my experience and touched on the sacrifices that come hand in hand with pursuing a more dedicated relationship to da music game, I wanted to try to talk to him. I found his email by doing some basic internet searching and dropped him a line. . .he responded and was up for it! Of course it took me forever to figure out what to ask him. . .he had been interviewed extensively about the book and he basically answered all the questions I had initially, but I wanted to ask a couple new ones.
Dean Wareham is one of the founders of Galaxie 500, Luna and Dean and Britta. . .these are all bands I recommend you check out. Galaxie 500 is one of the main templates for indie rockers trying to strike a balance between disaffection, alienation, humor and deep emotion. No one has done it better and probably no one will.
Luna was the band project that Wareham undertook soon after the dissolution of Galaxie 500. In the grand hierarchy of major label bands (they were initially signed to Elektra) they were not considered a "success" but compared to the profile of most indie bands they did very well. The albums still hold up - (even "The Days of Our Nights" - the one that Wareham says he doesn’t like much in Black Postcards).
Dean and Britta find Wareham and his partner Britta Phillips exploring the tradition of post tin-pan alley songwriting and arranging that was mined fruitfully in the work of Lee Hazlewood, Harry Nilsson and Jack Nitzsche in the 60s and 70s. It’s amazing stuff! I think we can safely say that Dean Wareham is a brah now. Whether that’s a compliment or not is for him to decide!
Kid Millions: You said in an interview with Magnet about the Galaxie 500 section of Black Postcards: "I think that section of the book is about losing your innocence." - I'd like to toss out there that the entire book works as a gentle rejoinder that nothing is as it seems. This was brought into focus for me with the passage about Timothy Leary:
"It's a little-known chapter in the life of Timothy Leary that this counter-cultural icon became an informant for the CIA and named all the names he could. . ."
And perhaps your choice to rebut Damon Krukowski's interview with your own take on the LA spotlight incident also brings this into focus [Dean begins the book with a scathing quote from Damon Krukowski suggesting that Wareham left Galaxie 500 to sell out to a major label- read the 1997 Ptolemaic Terrascope interview on the Damon and Naomi site.] Can you talk about this? Your book is closest to my experience in music over the last 15 years or so - did you have some ambitions beyond just getting down your story?
Dean Wareham: Yes, I like your point that nothing is as it seems, and I think I was trying to write a more honest account of being in a band than I had seen in other musical memoirs. Really I was hoping this book would work not just for fans but as an interesting and comical story even for those who had never heard of me. As for opening with the quote from Damon - about what an awful person I had become - mostly it appealed as a narrative device, as a way right into the thick of the story.
KM: You wrote this book - so there's not that gap between you and the actual text - there's the story of your life in music up until this point, and then there's the meta-story of what you're trying to reveal to anyone with illusions about rock and roll. . .not sure if this is a question but care to comment?
DW: There’s my personal story in there, and hopefully the book also tells about what it’s like to be in a band. Or what it was like to be in a band in the 1990s anyway - I now realize that I was writing about a time that has almost disappeared, a time when people bought compact discs. Lots of them.
KM: There’s a dark undercurrent running through Black Postcards - “Your friendship has been poisoned,” is a line about being in a band with your friends that launches the reader into the meat of the memoir. This hasn’t been my experience in music but frankly I’ve never had much success. Success in any form, it seems, does no one any favors. Would you agree? Even small amounts of money that really aren’t going to make huge differences in individual lives seem to wreak havoc - was that your experience? Did it HAVE to be that way?
DW: Perhaps you’re right - that if success doesn’t come, then there’s less at stake, less reason to fight. But maybe I overstated it — being in a band doesn’t have to poison your friendships forever. I’m on good terms with everyone in Luna - probably better terms now that we’re not in a band together. I don’t really think there was any good reason for the Galaxie 500 breakup to be so acrimonious, but Damon and Naomi viewed my leaving the band as a terrible betrayal, and I was guilty of not giving them an explanation for my departure. I see your point about success causing problems, but money was not part of the problem in Galaxie 500. Ego perhaps, but not money.
KM: I just read an interview with the RZA where he talks about hearing this Donny Hathaway track, "A Song For You":
"I've always been a tough kid, anti-R&B. You know, I kind of kept emotions out. But I'm a man now. I'm a full-grown man. And that song really resonated with my own life, the love I was dealing with, the woman I was dealing with-- who I'm still with to this day. And that song used to bring tears to my eyes."
DW: Lee Hazlewood I discovered in 1990; a gift of a mix cassette from our tour manager Noel [Kilbride] (ex of AC Temple). Buffy Sainte Marie from Naomi Yang [of Galaxie 500 and Damon and Naomi], whose parents had played her the Moonshot album (and I just got to interview her for Magnet online). For me it was Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, Glen Campbell, Gordon Lightfoot, Donovan, the early Bee Gees - these were things I heard in the house. But I never tried to make music like that with Luna. It was only with the Dean & Britta albums that I felt I had the freedom to move in that direction.
KM: Along the same lines is that a natural progression as you step away from the band context? Like a different focus and set of figures to aspire to?
DW: There was also a freedom to do it without arguing with band members over concept or the direction the band would be taking. And I found myself working with Tony Visconti, who was the perfect person to help with that. And Britta too. I have to say I really depend on the contributions of others. I can write the songs myself but I need help realizing them. And I’m still really interested in the textures that musicians create together, that bands often get at more successfully than solo artists.
KW: You talk about hiding behind lyrics a lot in interviews - that's its easy to do in opposition to the memoir's frankness - is that still in play? I wonder if that's something you aspire to when you write lyrics - that veil?
DW: I don’t know what I aspire to when I write lyrics. Just to come up with something evocative or poetic or amusing, and something that fits with the piece of music I am working with. A friend of mine recently wrote that she likes my lyrics because they are “contemplative without being whiny” and that this is a balancing act. I do think it’s worth something in art if you can be funny one moment but make people want to cry a little too. But the moments that make people want to cry — I feel like those almost happen by accident when you’re making a record.
KW: I don't know what you think about Weezer (I'm a fan) but Rivers Cuomo has said of their 2nd album Pinkerton, "It's like getting really drunk at a party and spilling your guts in front of everyone and feeling incredibly great and cathartic about it, and then waking up the next morning and realizing what a complete fool you made of yourself." [quote from Entertainment Weekly May 25, 2001].
Joni Mitchell only made one Blue. . .right? She said, "The Blue album, there's hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy." [from a 1979 Rolling Stone interview]
I'm assuming that these quotes aren't related to your own experience with song writing but this is a roundabout way to get you to talk about what's driving your own songwriting when you feel like you're at your best. . .can you talk a little about it?
DW: My songwriting at its best is probably not about straight-up storytelling. I do know what they mean about spilling your guts and then being embarrassed. I don’t know that I think about lyrics in terms of honest or dishonest. What is a dishonest lyric? But again this was the big difference with writing a book, where I had to figure out what I thought about certain things and express myself clearly and honestly.
KM: I like the turn of phrase in the song Black Postcards:
If I had to do it all again - I wouldn't. . .
Throw it all away
These words can really be read in a number of ways - especially in performance - either you wouldn't do it all again. . .or you wouldn't throw it all away. Or the phrase "Throw it all away" can just be seen as a call against nostalgia and sentimentality - and then the long outro of the live performance suggests a setting aside of thinking and a surrender to the moment perhaps? I know that the song isn't really related to the book directly but can you riff on the song Black Postcards a bit in that context?
DW: My sister sent me that line, or something similar at any rate - if I had to do it all again I wouldn’t - it was by a poet that she liked, I think it might have been John Berryman [The line is from a poem by John Berryman called Dream Song 28: Snow Line - “If I had to do the whole thing over again/I wouldn't.” - KM]. This is a useful technique, and Bob Dylan talks about it, you take one line from someone else’s song but then write your own song around it. “Throw it all away” was one of those things that came out of my mouth when I was singing along to the riff, trying to write lyrics, and then I never did replace them, and maybe it was a nod toward my friend Angel’s terrific song “I Threw It Away” [Angel Corpus Christi’s song is covered on Dean and Britta’s 2003 album L’Aventura]. I don’t know if I was talking about my marriage or the experience of being in a band or a bit of both. On the final Luna tour I found myself onstage singing “I have dreamed an empty dream” which seemed to be about the band winding down (though that’s certainly not really how I think of my years in Luna). I watch the Luna documentary now, and I think it’s a really beautiful and evocative film, but it’s hard for me to watch myself going a little crazy, persuading myself that the band situation has become intolerable, because maybe you have to make a case in your own mind that it is intolerable - in order to summon the strength to get out of a relationship.
KM: Can you talk about some positive experiences you've had related to the release of the book? Are there things in there that touched people in ways you hadn't anticipated?
DW: I’ve really liked hearing from other musicians, such as yourself, that the book spoke to them too. Getting praise from other musicians that I respect has always been worth more to me than a review in Spin Magazine.
Thanks to Dean for the time and the exclusive photos!
The shot of Dean with Flava Flav was taken by Justin Harwood, the shot of Dean in front of “Exterior Sheeting” was taken by Britta Phillips and the donut shot was taken by Lara Meyerratken.