Swinging Modern Sounds #51: Free For One and All
Dean Wareham is sort of like Miles Davis. Miles Davis always played like Miles Davis, had a few stellar tricks up his sleeve (the mute, the wah pedal, the achingly vulnerable tone), but was, when you get down to it, Miles Davis, no matter in which setting he performed. However, he performed in a great variety of settings: acoustic, electric, cool, modal, fusion, orchestral. Dean Wareham is sort of like Miles Davis, in that he has been an astute talent scout, as regards collaborators. He has always been, up until now, about who he played with.
The considerable legacy of Galaxie 500, one of the really satisfying bands of the late eighties, has to do with the personnel. Damon Krukowski’s significantly inventive drumming and Naomi Yang’s trebly bass playing were the perfect setting for Wareham’s learning-on-the-job rhythm guitar and his miraculous leads. (He seemed to have thought through tone unlike few guitar players of his time, despite any technical limitations he might have had, and this resulted in glorious leads that almost anyone might have played, though they did not.)
The idea of Luna, his next template, was very different: to sound like a major label band, and he recruited players to that end. Whereas Galaxie 500 (who covered both the Sex Pistols and Joy Division in their day) was a punk band, Luna was a commercial venture, at least for a while. It depended at first blush on a particular lineup, on Stan Demeski’s clean, methodical drumming and Justin Harwood’s in-the-pocket bass playing, and a more explicit linkage to the lineage of the Velvets, Television, and The Feelies than was present in Wareham’s first band.
When Luna broke up, it broke up in part because of the blossoming of Wareham’s musical collaboration with bass player Britta Phillips. The Dean & Britta releases, which now number three, have permitted, on the one hand, a sort of Gainsbourg/Bardot genre-hopping musical romance, but also a conceptual ambition that would have been impossible in the conventional rock band trappings of Luna. Luna would not have made an album of songs to accompany Andy Warhol Screen Tests.
Throughout these three aforementioned musical manifestations of Dean Wareham, despite the disparate settings, Wareham always sounds like Dean Wareham—vulnerable, weary, faintly comical, unhoodwinkable—with a singing style heavily indebted to punk and post-punk, and an approach to the electric guitar that is lyrical without being showoffy. What he had not done, however, excepting one single right after Galaxie 500, was record a solo album. The recently released Emancipated Hearts (a title that might seem to be about making a solo album) is a first therefore. In twenty-five years of making music. And while Britta Phillips plays bass on the album, and Jason Quever mans the board (and is advertised on the jacket with all the subtlety of Robbie Robertson’s production credit on Neil Diamond’s Beautiful Noise) and adds some keyboards, there’s a sense of the album as a ratification of Wareham’s personal strengths—great lyrics, simple melodies, pinpoint arrangements, lots of space—but without sacrificing what has been great about the Dean & Britta albums, a contemporary understanding of conceptual apparatus. This is an album with an outward lyrical gaze, a sense of the world happening around the songwriter, and therefore it is an album that transcends Dean Wareham indie rock personality, replacing him with an a sort of Emersonian transparent eye. Synthetic, perhaps, in the sense that the album is gathering disparate artistic tendencies together, and selfless in the sense that Wareham doesn’t feel particularly confessional, nor to have a self at this point who needs expressing exactly. For me, that makes the album exceedingly musical, graceful, moving, with perhaps a hint of resignation: How can we face the storms within emancipated hearts?
There’s a danger, at least, when you are like Miles Davis, a master of personnel, in stepping out and becoming entirely responsible for the songs, and there is also a liberation, a will to power, in that stepping out. An intoxication, a loneliness, an anxiety. All these things on this album, and in just 33 minutes (if you get the expanded edition, which you should for “Living Too Close to the Ground”), made in an entirely new setting (California, to which Wareham recently moved). Like an old punk album, therefore. (And apparently you can get a ten inch vinyl edition, for the old-time flavor of it all.) But also like an up-to-the-minute singles-only digital thing.
I spoke to Dean by e-mail in a couple of tranches over the last several weeks, sometimes in the context of the interview, sometimes not. He’s a great writer, and possessed of a strikingly astringent and dry-eyed view of things (and in this regard you should read his truly inspired memoir, Black Postcards), without pity or self-pity or undue kindness, and what follows, I trust, will give abundant evidence of this.
The Rumpus: The jacket of Emancipated Hearts borrows its design from a paperback of Friedrich Nietzsche—I think it might be Beyond Good and Evil—and I’m wondering if Nietzsche is a shadow influence on the lyrics here. The song “Emancipated Hearts,” for example has a bit of a Nietzschean thrust to its refrain . . .
Dean Wareham: Ah yes, “he’s gone, he’s gone, beyond recall, free for one and all.” I guess I could be singing about Superman, or about Zarathustra coming down from the mountain, but in my mind I was singing about Julian Assange. I wish I could say that Nietzsche inspired my lyrics but all I can honestly say is I was inspired by the graphic design of these ‘70s paperback covers for Beyond Good & Evil and The Birth of Tragedy and The Gay Science.
Rumpus: So you’re not going to cop to knowing your Nietzsche here? I was going to teach Thus Spoke Zarathustra in my lit class at NYU this semester, so I am fresh from having read a bit of it, and I am therefore equipped to operate as exegete thereof. Was it not something one learned with the ample supply of postmodernism in Cambridge in the eighties? I can remember lots of punks in Providence with both Beyond Good and Evil and Metal Box.
Wareham: Metal Box I loved. I saw Public Image at the Palladium around that time; the show lasted about 30 minutes before John Lydon invited people up from the mosh pit and then he just left the stage and never came back; the band continued playing for a while with Jah Wobble lying on his back playing the bass. They didn’t teach Nietzsche in the philosophy department at Harvard; philosophy there was strictly analytical stuff and the poetic ramblings of Nietzsche did not belong. And see—you are teaching it in a literature class—so they must have been right. I did have a Freshman seminar where we read Camus, Kierkegaard, Thomas Mann, Dostoevsky, and Zarathustra and Schopenhauer as Educator by Nietzsche. I don’t pretend to understand him, but I can enjoy him as a poet and comedian. I liked the idea of the eternal return. Sometimes I think that being on tour year after year is an eternal return; you play a certain club in Copenhagen and then ten years later you are back again, traveling the same roads year after year.
Rumpus: And what’s with the “Little Drummer Boy” quote in the chorus of “Emancipated Hearts”? Just because it sits nicely, in counterpoint, with the main melody? Or is there more to it than that?
Wareham: Hmmm. What would Jimmy Page say here? He would say “I really don’t know about that.” I have heard the song you mention, my favorite version is sung by Marlene Dietrich, arranged by Burt Bacharach. He was her bandleader for a time and according to a biography I read, there was more to their relationship.
Rumpus: A lot of the album feels a bit more pastoral and, in a way, a bit more psychedelic than anything you’ve done in a while (much more so, say, than the Screen Tests album, which has some industrial and Velvets-ish stuff around the edges). The Incredible String Band cover at the end seems to support this interpretation. How did that come to be part of the album?
Wareham: My good friend Chris Hollow (of the Sand Pebbles) sent me the Incredible String Band’s “Air” last year. I love the lyric “You kiss my blood, and my blood kiss me;” it is of course about breathing, about the interaction between blood and oxygen. I was staying at Jason Quever’s place in San Francisco and the two of us recorded this one in his living room and it immediately felt so good. Since then I noticed the song on the soundtrack to Olivier Assayas’ recent film Something in the Air, which has a lot of interesting music from that late 60s period, Kevin Ayers, Soft Machine, ISB—not the usual songs we hear again and again to signify the 60s. As for the psychedelia, perhaps it is suggested by Jason Quever’s meandering organ playing, it calls to mind an electric circus.
Rumpus: There are a lot of strings on the album. In fact, where most of the guitar solos might have gone, there are violins instead. Is this part of a strategy, or just inclination? Might one refer to a certain mid-60s chamber folk here? Or is it just what strikes you now?
Wareham: Well, at first we tracked some synth-strings, but I had violinist Gillian Rivers come over to the loft in Brooklyn and I set up a couple of microphones and in just a few hours she played these beautiful parts on viola and violin . . . she wound up being an important element on the record. It’s true there aren’t a whole lot of guitar solos but sometimes I think it’s healthy to take a break from that. One friend already texted me: “not enough guitar solos.” I promise to deliver the guitar solos in concert.
Rumpus: Why a solo album now? Is there more Dean & Britta coming?
Wareham: I actually don’t quite count this as my solo album, it is six songs on 10” vinyl, which we had to do in Europe, because I couldn’t find a pressing plant here. So I call it a deluxe EP or mini-LP. We have recorded three Dean & Britta albums. It seemed like a good time for us to do something different. Britta has been very involved in recording these songs, it’s just that I handled the singing and writing. And she has also been working a solo album that is getting closer to completion, though it was slowed by the tragic death of producer Scott Hardkiss early this year.
Rumpus: Do you play on her album? Is the partnership in effect on these “solo albums,” if only in a different, less marquee-oriented way? Or is there a strategic difference?
Wareham: I do play guitar on her album. Her producer Scott was a fan of my playing. He said I sounded like 1) a sad elephant and 2) a guy on a surfboard, always on the verge of wiping out but somehow keeping it together. Lately Britta is working long hours on her own, programming drums, playing bass, writing arrangements—
The Rumpus: How much of the sound had to do with the producer and studio? Did you conceive of the album once the team was in place?
Wareham: I am always making it up as I go along. Perhaps the biggest decision is choosing a producer, and that was Jason Quever, who creates his own unusual wall of sound. He certainly has his methods; he said from the beginning that he wanted to use more ambient microphones, bring the physical space into play. Instead of close miking everything, he likes to put microphones on the other side of the room, or down the hall, and see what that does. Tiny Telephone Studios in San Francisco has one great feature I have never used before, and that is a dedicated echo chamber, a room set up with a speaker and two microphones. You send the vocal (or anything you like) into that room and re-record the natural reverb, which is crisp and present. It is a very specific sound, the sound of great recordings from the 50s or 60s; it reminded me of records by Sam Cooke or Nat King Cole. The rest of the team is Britta on bass and piano and our drummer Anthony LaMarca who has been playing with us almost seven years now. He joined the band at age 19 when he was still a student at the New School’s jazz program.
Rumpus: The Screen Tests album has a certain conceptual aspect to it—the songs have a specific visual component to which they are affixed. As such, it feels artful in a contemporary way. And Emancipated Hearts has, it seems to me, a similar apparatus: the lyrical relationship to moments of “found text.” Each song has some reference to a book or a newspaper article, etc. As such, the whole seems to relate to your undergraduate studies: it’s political. Do you see it that way? Did you write lyrics earlier in your oeuvre in this way? Or is it specific to this project?
Wareham: Well, I always use pieces of found text, but this time maybe I took it to another level. “The Ticking is the Bomb” I wrote after Nick Flynn’s second memoir by that name; “Emancipated Hearts” is a phrase mentioned in a John Betjeman poem. And “Love is Colder Than Death” is the title of a Fassbinder film noir, but my song used that title for the chorus; the rest of the song feels like a non-sense nursery rhyme.
My sister sent me a novel by the poet Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station, which is also the title of a poem by John Ashbery, who figures in the story. The novel’s narrator is an American poet living in Madrid in the 2000s; he gets stoned each day and reads the New York Times online, and notices that it is the same headline every day: “The Deadliest Day Since the Invasion Began.” Certainly I remember those days when the nightly news was the same grim report week after week. So I took that observation and wrote this song around it. It seemed a more honest way for me to write a protest song. With my voice and manner, I can’t really pretend to write or sing a song from the point of view of a soldier (like Tom Waits did beautifully with “Day After Tomorrow”), but I can write a song about watching the war on TV.
I am interested in politics but have stayed away from writing overtly political songs, or message songs, because I find it difficult to discuss politics intelligently in a 4-minute song. But I am finding there are ways to get bits and pieces of political thought across without preaching that the people have the power or we shall not be moved. Of course these sentiments have their place too—I’m not knocking Phil Ochs—but that’s a different kind of music, songs to play at rallies, not to achieve a state of bliss.
Rumpus: Is a “state of bliss” the more ordinary goal of the popular song?
Wareham: Well there are different kinds of blissful states. I can get there with Brahms’ “German Requiem” or Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” but also with “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk. But if I look at my own recordings, I think generally there is a focal point within the song and often it’s the instrumental bridge or a guitar solo where we try to do something unexpected, something beautiful or weird, or beautiful because it is weird. And of course I fail half the time, but yes that is the goal, to create even a few seconds of bliss, or sadness. The electric guitar is a great instrument for doing this because it is capable of surprising you. There are so many different sounds available.
Rumpus: What on the album is about moving to California? Anything? We all have ideas about what a California record sounds like, and ideas about the kinds of songs that are produced there (either like Heart Like a Wheel or Damaged), and it wouldn’t be hard to construct an argument in which the politics undergirding some of these songs are a reaction away from an anticipated move to the West Coast . . .
Wareham: “The Longest Bridges in the World” is a phrase taken from a poem by Bertolt Brecht—now there is someone who could write clever protest songs—about the 1929 stock market crash. I took his lines about the longest bridges in the world, linking “scrap heap to scrap heap,” but wrote my own song about leaving New York and moving to the West Coast by singing, “and now I see the traffic heading west / and nothing else remains.” I kept visualizing us driving our Subaru across the country, leaving behind some 25 years in New York City. A move like that (leaving New York!) feels like you are killing part of your identity—but hey, it’s not so bad here in Los Angeles; we have an avocado tree in the back yard, and there is certainly plenty of culture here. I think you could argue that Los Angeles is a more artist-friendly city than New York at the moment.
Rumpus: So the album is not a Dean Wareham interpretation of a California album?
Wareham: I’m trying to think what is Californian about this record. It is the only thing I have ever recorded and mixed in California, which must count for something. But it’s not particularly sunny, is it?
I am resistant to the idea and the trappings of California rock and maybe this is what you are getting at. I never much cared for the 70s California bands that were so big, and I never got into the Laurel Canyon scene. As a teenager, I discovered punk rock and “Rockaway Beach” and “London Calling” made me feel much better than “Hotel California,” and Jonathan Richman seemed more interesting than Crosby Stills & Nash. But of course I love The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean and The Doors at their best, and there was a short period in the early 80s where some of my favorite music was coming out of Los Angeles–early albums by the Dream Syndicate, the Three O’Clock, and Opal.
Rumpus: There’s also a lot of droning and groove here. Was there anything constructed in the studio? Or were the songs all written ahead of time?
Wareham: The songs were written; I was prepared with melody and lyrics, but then some of the songs changed radically once we got into the studio, when instead of sitting in our practice room in Brooklyn we were in a large spacious studio and everything was miked up and everything sounded different, or we decided that a song was not working at all and needed a different approach. That is what is exciting—joyous even—about recording; the moments where a song goes from being one thing to another, sometimes in the space of an hour, maybe on account of a different drumbeat or tempo, or someone adds a new part that turns out to be a crucial element. But yeah, there is certainly some droning. “Deadliest Day” uses a drop-D tuning so that note drones all the way through the song. “Emancipated Hearts” is basically one chord all the way through—it’s good to have at least one song like that on a record. Britta and Anthony tracked live drums and bass on top of a decidedly non-groovy little drum machine loop (you know, the kind of drum machine that starts “Heart of Glass”) and that turned into the best groove on the record.
Rumpus: What remains to be done for you as a songwriter? Do you have larger ambitions for what happens around the bend of career? Or are you more interested in the songs that are right at hand?
Wareham: It’s a scary question for a musician or songwriter today—what does the future hold? It is a strange time in the music business too; it feels like we are all in some kind of transitional period, stuck between old technology and new.
Writing songs does not get any easier, and that might be because I am harder on myself than I was twenty years ago. Hopefully, as we grow older and change, there are fresh topics, new perspectives, or at least there should be.
Right now I have this new record and another LP very nearly finished; the focus in the next year will be on performing live. It may be a year before I sit down to write another song. And someone just asked me to make an album that is all guitar and no vocals at all, which could be fun.
Rumpus: Are you writing more prose these days?
Wareham: I write the occasional essay or review, like for The Talkhouse. But writing prose is slow work for me. Reviewing a couple of albums for that site made me realize how hard it is to write about music. I can see why record reviewers use the same adjectives over and over again; there are only so many ways to say “delicate.” Though apparently you write about music with ease, or so it appears to me—I picture the words literally pouring out of you. I do enjoy writing tour diaries. Last year I wrote one for The Paris Review. Being in a different place every day is helpful for obvious reasons, it automatically delivers something to write about.