Stripped-down underground

February 8, 2008


Never ostentatious, usually low-key but quite often hypnotizing, the music of guitarist-vocalist Dean Wareham has been a mainstay of the underground rock scene for two decades.

The 44-year-old New Zealand native started his musical career in the United States when he linked up with two Harvard University classmates, Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, to form slo-core pioneers Galaxie 500, which released three unforgettably moody albums before splitting up in 1990. Wareham then proceeded to lead the slightly more up-tempo guitar band Luna throughout the alternative-rock era, issuing seven official albums before that group went on hiatus about three years ago.

These days, Wareham has pared things down, making music as a duo with his wife and former Luna bandmate, bassist-vocalist Britta Phillips. Dean & Britta released their rewarding second album, "Back Numbers," last year, recording with legendary glam-rock producer Tony Visconti in between the new-found pursuit of crafting soundtrack music for films such as Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale" (2005).

We spoke by phone from his home in New York before the start of a tour that brings Wareham back to Chicago on Sunday.

Q. Let's start with recording "Back Numbers." It seems a lot more intimate than the bigger sound of "L'Avventura" (2003). Was that the goal going into the studio?

A. We really just wanted to do the same thing again! [Laughs] Well, actually having said that, this one does have the string sections, so it probably is more intimate. For this one, a lot of it we actually did at home. With the way technology is now, even though you call them demos, you can actually use those tracks and build on them for the final album.

Q. Have you noticed that your songwriting has changed since paring down to a duo after leading a full band?

A. Yeah. I guess with Luna, we would write by having us all get together and play in a room. We were louder, with two electric guitars going. But mainly there's no discussion anymore, and not as much need to compromise. It's hard to collaborate over a period of 12 years and to compromise for all that time. And I think the longer a band is together, the harder it gets.

Q. Given the difficulties of compromising in an artistic situation, does it worry you to be working with your wife?

A. No, we have a very good connection. We don't fight about music. I would say there were more discussions in Luna. [Guitarist] Sean [Eden] would be like, "Yeah, this is really cool" and we would be like, "No, it's not!" We'd fight about things like whether or not U2 was cool. Sean was a little younger than I was, he was probably 12 when the U2 records came out, while I was 16.

Q. When you're young and clueless, it's easy to be suckered in by all of U2's pompous flag-waving.

A. It's funny, actually, because I mentioned that in my book! I always remember watching that video from Red Rocks and going, "What the f---?"

Q. Your memoir, Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance, is being published by Penguin Press next month. Do you plan to do any more writing in the future?

A. No! It's the hardest thing I've ever done. Writing lyrics, singing songs ... that's one thing, and you're hiding behind the music. But when you're writing a book and putting all of your opinions out there, you just know that there will be people who hate you for it.

Q. You don't have to tell me about that! Since you were in a historical frame of mind doing the book, are you able to look back at your discography now and see why some albums work better than others? You must have 20 recordings to your credit.

A. About 15, I guess. My opinions change -- they go up and down. They can't all be good, no matter who you are. I think bands go through a period where they make four or five good records in a row, but they end up like Stereolab, which was great for a while and could do no wrong, but then it started doing wrong. So there are some of my records that I like more than others. But I was excited after doing these last two Dean & Britta records.

The first Dean & Britta record made me remember, "Oh, yeah, I've done this before, where I can go in and just make a record without all of the fighting and drama." That's the thing I like about Tony Visconti: He's one of the greatest record producers ever, but he likes to work quickly. He doesn't have time to stand around and make people sing the song 50 times!

Q. One last question: Given their lingering influence on so many rock bands today, would you ever consider playing with Galaxie 500 or Luna again?

A. I don't think I'm going to revisit Galaxie 500, but you never know. I'll be careful with [what I say about] Luna. I guess it's possible. But why do people re-form? It's often only for the money. I haven't bought a record by a band that has re-formed that's been any good, though I've heard the Mission of Burma record is really great.