The indie-rock veteran behind cult bands Galaxie 500 and Luna on going solo, getting into character, and defending the honour of Daft Punk.
One isn’t always the loneliest number.
Dean Wareham has a cold. It’s not a bad one—just some chest congestion, a cough, maybe a smidge of bronchitis—but the doggone thing won’t let up. This ailment is especially annoying because Wareham hasn’t been sick in almost 15 months, a feat he attributes, at least in part, to his move from New York City to Los Angeles last spring. To make matters worse, he’s just kicked off a tour for his latest album, a self-titled release that happens to be the 50-year-old singer, songwriter, and guitarist’s first solo effort in a career that spans more than three decades. To those who came of age in the ’80s, Wareham’s best known as the co-founder of pioneering dream-pop trio Galaxie 500; to girls who read Sassy in the ’90s, he’s the leader of Luna, an indie-rock group featured in the magazine’s Cute Band Alert section. Wareham has claimed releasing a record under his own name isn’t all that different from the experiences he’s had as a frontman, but allows that recording Dean Wareham was liberating. “Unlike being in a band, there’s not a lot of arguing about stuff,” he says. “That’s definitely a plus.”
He found a muse in the news.
Wareham isn’t entirely alone in his solo endeavour—he’s working with musicians who’ve collaborated with him on more recent projects. That includes his wife, Britta Phillips, with whom he’s performed in the duo Dean & Britta since shortly after Luna called it quits in 2005. At least one of the songs on Dean Wareham is an unabashed ode to Phillips, presented as a series of characteristically offbeat metaphors: “She’s an evergreen / A drum machine.” Lest you think Wareham’s just a starry-eyed swain, it’s worth noting that he had some unconventional inspiration for the songs on this album, from Monday Night Football to Occupy London. One of the most affecting tunes, “Beat the Devil,” was written as a eulogy for the writer Alexander Cockburn, a columnist for The Nation. “In a one-week span, Alexander Cockburn died, Gore Vidal died, and [the Australian art critic] Robert Hughes died,” Wareham says. “These are people so smart, so learned, that nobody could fill their shoes. Cockburn’s death, at least, stuck with me. I found myself thinking about it every day, more than, say, John Lennon.”
He has a thing for two guys in helmets.
It’s not surprising that Wareham was moved by the deaths of great writers: He’s a fine one himself. “My book editor wants me to write another,” says the author of the 2008 memoir Black Postcards. “But I’m skeptical of musicians who publish novels—if I’m going to read a novel, I’ll go buy Philip Roth ahead of Nick Cave.” Happily, Wareham has fewer apprehensions around cultural criticism. He recently scored a Salon byline as the result of a Facebook tiff with the writer Rick Moody over Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. “I try not to get into arguments on Facebook,” he says. “But I like that record so much, and after they won the Grammy, Rick posted ‘One of the worst, most vapid records of this decade.’ I was like, come on.” Their back-and-forth became a substantive debate, although Moody relied more on rhetoric than solid points. Wareham is more generous in his assessment. “He can write circles around me. His thing is developing these insane theories and burrowing down into them. He had to explain why this record is evil and hateful and soulless, and all I really had to say was, ‘It makes people want to dance and it’s fun.’” Wareham is quick to note that both he and Moody were out-argued by Canadian Owen Pallett, who used music theory for his own brilliant deconstruction of “Get Lucky” for Slate.
Ayahuasca is intense.
When he’s not writing, Wareham moonights as an actor—last year, he got tipsy in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. His relationship with Baumbach dates back to 2005, when Dean & Britta scored The Squid and the Whale. Turns out Wareham will be playing a shaman at an ayahuasca ceremony in Baumbach’s next film. “Look, I only had three days to get ready,” he says of the role. “I know some people for whom it’s like their religion.” One is musician Ben Lee, who’s made an album and a film about the psychedelic brew. To get shamanic, Wareham channelled the weedy singer-songwriter, but he won’t be indulging in his own ayahuasca anytime soon. “It takes over people’s lives,” he says. “That’s what I find kinda scary about it.”
Wareham’s wife and bandmate, Britta Phillips, was the singing voice of Jem in the Jem and the Holograms cartoon.
1996: Year Luna opened for Lou Reed at Massey Hall.
13 Most Beautiful: The song cycle Dean & Britta composed to accompany Andy Warhol’s screen tests.
Dean Wareham plays the Horseshoe Tavern on April 9. 370 Queen St. W., 416-598-4226, horseshoetavern.com.