Luna is what music critics like to call a “cult band.” Their fans love them, they have created a notable catalogue of songs that should be more well known, and their concerts have always been packed. Now, after 13 years since their last record, Luna are releasing two new albums. The fan base will be excited. And so should you.
Luna was founded in New York City by Dean Wareham in the early 1990s. Before that, he co-founded the terrific indie band Galaxie 500 — here’s “Tugboat.”
In 1995, Luna made what many critics consider a masterpiece: Penthouse. Rolling Stone deemed it one of 100 best albums of the 1990s. Ten years later, after releasing their seventh album, Rendezvous, the band broke up. Wareham continued as a solo artist. He and his wife, musician and actress Britta Phillips, now live in Los Angeles.
We’ve been following Luna since 1994, when they released Bewitched. Like many Luna fans, once we found them, we never stopped listening — year in and year out. Here’s “Black Postcards” — the location is Venice Beach in L.A.
Recently, we chatted with Dean to get his take on, among other things, the deep connection between Luna and their fans as well as his thoughts on a new LP of cover songs, A Sentimental Education, and a new EP of original instrumentals, A Place of Greater Safety. They’ll be released on September 22.
Washataw: Dean, we enjoyed Luna’s instrumental EP, A Place of Greater Safety. It seems like the perfect music for a road trip. You’re on the highway, and Luna is guiding you to your destination. What did the band want to accomplish with the EP? Did we detect some old school surfer instrumentalism? We could see the EP playing over Bruce Brown’s Endless Summer, the surfing movie.
Dean: Well, our goal was modest — we were just about finished doing the album of covers, and Sean Eden suggested we should book some extra time and write and record at least something that was original Luna. What I like is that we have come back, some twelve years later, with two things that we’ve never done before — a full album of covers and an instrumental EP.
I love the soundtrack to Endless Summer and, yeah, if there are hints of the Ventures or the Sandals, that’s cool, too. We are partial to that instrumental album Tom Verlaine did some years ago. Honestly, some of my favorite things ever are instrumentals — thinking Harvey Mandel’s “Wade in the Water” or Xavier Cugat’s “Perfidia” or John Barry.
For the most part, we did these instrumentals very quickly. I had some ideas sitting about, just riffs recorded on the iPhone Voice Memo app really, and so did Sean, and we really just started playing them and the band would add a bridge or chorus or key change to keep them moving forward. Jason Quever (our producer) said a couple times, “These are so good, maybe you should write some lyrics.” But I liked the challenge of making them interesting without a vocal. Sometimes a vocal just ruins a track that already sounds good (listen to the radio to confirm this).
I do think the electric guitars on this record are cleaner than what we’ve done in the past — meaning we dialed in a clean, reverbed sounds, whereas back in the ‘90s we favored more noise and modulation. Two of the tracks, “Spanish Odyssey” and “Around & Around,” appear in different form (home demos, really) in the Luna documentary Tell Me Do You Miss Me, but we reworked them here.
And you didn’t ask, but A Place of Greater Safety is the title of Hilary Mantel’s great novel about Robespierre and Danton. That place of greater safety — for revolutionaries — was the grave.
Washataw: Since you’re living in L.A., are you making music for films? What director would you love to make a soundtrack for?
Dean: The very week Britta and I moved to Los Angeles, we got hired to do a film. But it was Mistress America, a New York film by a New York director — Noah Baumbach. What can I say, we are available for film work, like many other musicians I know who have come West. We’re loving the new Twin Peaks, and Lynch is always so brilliant with music, so I’d say David Lynch — but he seems to have it covered. Vincent Gallo? He’s pretty good at doing his own music, too.
Washataw: For the LP of cover songs on A Sentimental Education, we’ve always been impressed by Luna’s ability to do wonderful covers. That’s not as easy as one would think, correct? Interpreting songs is an art.
Dean: Well, it’s easy enough to do a boring cover, like in punk or reggae style, but you want to make it special, right? The first thing is figuring out if I can believably deliver the vocal, if I can match the original singer’s energy or attitude. And oftentimes I know I cannot, so I’ll try a different way in, and for Luna often that means a gentler approach.
Singing someone else’s song is a bit like acting for me; I’m not trained and I don’t have much range, so instead of trying to scream and shout or be something that I am not, I try to make bring it closer to my personality. I’ve twice done songs by The Cure, and I can tell you it’s hard to sing Robert Smith. There may be a whine in my voice, too, but it’s a different kind of whine, less mopey, less desperate, less Goth I suppose.
Washataw: You had mentioned in a newsletter that you thought you nailed Bob Dylan’s “Most of the Time.” We agree. You also thought it was a difficult song. Why was that?
Dean: I have always loved this song, the lyrics, the Lanois production, but it was a bitch to sing because there isn’t much of a melody to study (except in the bridge which is melodic), so I was not sure what the correct notes were. I’m not even sure you’d even call that singing. I met Damo Suzuki of Can at a festival a few years ago; someone approached him and said, “Oh, I really like your singing!” And his response was, “No, I am not singing. I am being Damo Suzuki.”
I listened to Dylan’s studio version, and I checked out a bootleg demo he released, too, and it seemed to me that maybe he had no idea what he was going to do; that he had the words down on paper, but wasn’t at all sure of the melody or the phrasing. So maybe his performance of the song is closer to acting, or being Bob Dylan, than to singing.
Anyway, the struggle was to tell that story and figure out if it’s a sad song (I think so) or if the guy is so over it that “she ain’t even on my mind.” Lyrically, it’s wonderful, each verse is about different ways that he no longer thinks about this woman, but there’s that line at the end of each “most of the time” that suggests there are parts of the day where he’s not fine at all.
I sang that song three different times, I mean not just three different takes, but several takes on three different days. I sang it hard and I sang it soft. I sang it tough and I sang it sad, almost making myself cry one day. But ultimately some of the best lines were from the “scratch” vocal that I did very quickly the day we recorded, before I had bothered to study it at all, because those lines were off the cuff and I, too, was just kinda picking my way through the lyrics.
Washataw: Why did you pick those songs for the LP? You could have chosen anything.
Dean: You do covers out of love and respect (most of the time; occasionally someone hires you to do a song that you might not care for at all). Really there are two things you can do when you hear a melody or chord progression that you love — you can steal it or you can cover it. Or you can do both. I’ve certainly done that a couple times, copy the chord progression and write my own melody and words, and then come back and cover the song.
We did “Fire in Cairo” by The Cure. The first three Cure albums are part of my DNA. In the early 1980s, I went out and bought an MXR Flanger so I could approach Robert Smith’s guitar sound. But by the time I made my first record in 1988, times had changed and those ‘80s sounds seemed dated.
“Friends” is a great song by the Velvet Underground’s Doug Yule, an under-appreciated musician to say the least. That’s a nice thing about covering a song like this; you are waving hello to someone that you’ve never met. I don’t know a whole lot about Fleetwood Mac, but an Australian pen pal sent me some of their early recordings (long before Buckingham or Nicks joined) and I was surprised to discover that they are not a world away from Luna’s sound.
Washataw: One of our favorite Luna covers is “Ride into the Sun.” We have it on our iPhone, and we never, ever get tired of it. The guitar interplay is what grabs us every time, and we love your interpretation as a singer. Why did that song speak to the band?
Dean: Oh yeah, that one has a lovely mood to it. I think our drummer Stanley Demeski suggested that one. The rhythm guitar is me, the lead guitar at the top of the song is Sean Eden, and that was probably the first thing he ever recorded in the band.
It’s a good example of this annoying phenomenon which is that you work really hard on your album for two months (which was Lunapark at that time), but then when it’s over you take a weekend in a studio and do some B-sides and those sound better than the album. Oh well. At the time we recorded it, “Ride into the Sun” was obscure to say the least; it had appeared on Lou Reed’s first album (which was out of print) and there was a bootleg 7” of the Velvets playing it that appeared in 1992. This was before the explosion of catalog reissues in the ‘90s; now, as you know, there are five different versions of the song available on Amazon.
If I listen to that song, it’s clear to me that Doug Yule must have had a hand in it; there is a bridge and a key change (which we didn’t bother with). But we’ve recently recorded Yule’s “Friends,” which is on the new album, and also “Lonesome Cowboy Bill,” and in all of those songs you can tell from the complexity of the chords that Doug Yule must have been in the room.
Washataw: The other all-time favorite in terms of a cover is “Ceremony,” although that’s performed by you in the band Galaxie 500. We actually think you do a better version than the original by Joy Division. “Ride into the Sun,” “Ceremony,” and, of course, many of Luna’s original songs never get boring for us — we’ve been listening to them for more than 20 years. Luna fans seem to deeply connect to the band’s music in the same way.
Why do you think that is? Is it more than just the melodies, singing, and lyrics? Which helps, of course. Does that connection also come with an artistic integrity that has the band carrying out its musical vision no matter what are the current trends? Long question, but we’re interested in the artist’s point of view on this connection thing.
Dean: Joy Division’s “Ceremony” is just on that live album Still, but, of course, it’s New Order’s first single, and a really important single at that, coming right on the heels of the suicide of Ian Curtis. But the Galaxie 500 version is more epic, I suppose. I tell you what, it was hard to even figure out the lyrics in the days before the Internet.
I don’t know why people keep following us, is it nostalgia? I know for myself there are some artists that I will always want to check out their latest effort — but there aren’t many.
Whether we have a musical vision or not (and it might just be a collective, unarticulated vision that we’re only half aware of), it is true that we do not really change our style drastically from album to album. We’ve had a couple of lineup changes, but Luna in 2017 does not sound very different from Luna in 1995 or in 2004. Especially when we work quickly.
At any rate, sometimes I stop and remind myself how great it is that people take time out of their busy lives to come see us play when there are a hundred other things they could be doing — which mostly involve looking at a screen of some kind.
Washataw: We don’t want to get you into trouble. But what bands have held up for you and what bands haven’t?
Dean: It’s a personal thing. I think we form these opinions pretty young and hold onto them. But records that hold up for me are things like Marquee Moon by Television or Crazy Rhythms by the Feelies, which are intricate and layered. Adventurous, late Clash records like Sandinista hold up better than their early albums.
As I get older, I’m more often in the mood for Young Marble Giants than I am for the Buzzcocks or the Ramones, even though of I love them all. The best Rolling Stones stuff holds up, even more than the Beatles, I think. Records that are not so identified with a specific time and scene perhaps? “If You’re Going to San Francisco” — I mean how can that not seem dated when the era of flowers and hippies passes, and maybe it’s the same with punk or grunge.
Washataw: For us, the album Penthouse has so much power and strength. The best way to describe the music is towering or majestic. It’s kind of like Neil Young’s really good stuff with Crazy Horse, especially from his Broken Arrow album, which came out a year after Penthouse. It’s that kind of towering sound. That we, the listeners, are in the hands of serious professionals who are not fooling around.
What was going on in your life to create that sound and power, if you don’t mind us asking? Or what created that sound and power, beyond the technical side of things. There’s something that connects to people on an emotional level. We’ve been listening to Penthouse over and over for more than 20 years.
Dean: I’m glad it feels that way to you, but I am not sure we were serious professionals who knew what we were doing at all — but we don’t all have to be professionals. Our drummer Stanley took his job very seriously, and bassist Justin Harwood was a great player, too. So those two lay an excellent foundation for anything we might put on top, and I think that’s why the record sounds so good.
Okay, I suppose we sorta knew what we were doing. We mostly produced the record ourselves, until Pat McCarthy came in to mix it, and said, “I’m not here just to mix, I’m here to help you finish it.” And he really did take it from A to C and he, too, took his job very seriously and paid attention to every second of every song.
Washataw: Bob Dylan has a quote in the documentary Don’t Look Back about people may not think he’s such a great singer, but he’s just as good as the opera singer Caruso. That he hits all the notes, which he says with a little smile. We always think of that quote when we listen to you sing. Do you think that kind of singing adds something special to the band? Gives you a kind of uniqueness and maybe more emotional depth to the songs?
Dean: I’m not technically a great singer either, but, you know what, there is a wide range between the high, loud notes I wail in Galaxie 500 songs and the low notes I emit in Luna. And generally I hit the notes, too.
Dylan is a wonderful singer. Sure, there are some records where I don’t like how he’s singing, but if you listen to Nashville Skyline or Blood on the Tracks, he’s amazing. There are all kinds, of course; there are incredible voices like Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Glen Campbell, Art Garfunkel, Charlie Rich. But on the other end are singers like Alan Vega or David Byrne or Tom Verlaine, and they get it done, too.
Washataw: Many years ago, we attended the premiere of the documentary about Luna: Tell Me Do You Miss Me. First, we couldn’t stop laughing because of Sean Eden, Luna’s wonderful guitarist. Second, if we remember correctly, a music critic told you in the film that it was probably time for Luna to end its run. That the music had run its course. We thought it was presumptuous for the critic to say that. What do you think he said that? Because you’ve gone on as a wonderful solo artist, so the music is still there inside you.
In the film, we’ve already announced that the band is breaking up, and the Spanish critic you refer to, Ignacio Julia, maybe he’s just trying to support us in our decision; he says, “It’s good that Luna is breaking up, you don’t want to go on forever, or you turn into the Flaming Groovies.” Whatever that means. But I can report that we saw him in Barcelona last year. We went out for drinks in the Plaça Reial after the show, and over beer and boquerones he looked into our eyes and said, “I can tell that you guys will be back.”
Washataw: You live in L.A. now. Luna seems so much like a New York City band, and you seem so much like a New York City artist. It just seems like the right fit. Have you had to make any adjustments as an artist now that you’re living in L.A.?
Dean: Yes, we are a New York City band, every single album was recorded in New York (till now). Which begs the question, are we still a New York band when only one of us (Sean) lives there? I remember right before I left New York, I was at a party at a friend’s loft apartment. Rob Sheffield was there and I told him I was leaving and he said, “But you’re the reason we came to New York!” I thought that was nice. I spent most of my life in New York, too, and a good chunk of that in the East Village. And when you live in New York, you can’t imagine living anywhere else. But then you leave and realize that life goes on.
What I miss is rainy days, cold days, cloudy days; those are conducive to writing. It’s harder to sit down and write when it’s 75 degrees and sunny outside. What I don’t miss is coming home from the airport and having to carry my guitars and suitcase up four flights of stairs. Los Angeles is an easier place to be a musician, just logistically, studios and rehearsal places are cheaper, and it’s easier to have a car and move amps and drums around. It’s probably easier to be a painter here, too. The ugly truth is that New York is not an artist-friendly city. Patti Smith has pointed this out — once upon a time it was a great place to be a broke artist, but not any more.
Washataw: We love New York City. It’s our hometown. But we also love L.A. We actually find there is a realness here that people, especially from the East Coast, don’t appreciate. What’s your take on L.A.?
Dean: The first book I read when I moved here was City of Nets. The writer posits that Los Angeles does not have a long history, but it’s a glamorous one, and people are very aware of it. So I learned that I was living in the Hollywood Dell and a couple blocks from where Bertolt Brecht (one of my heroes) had landed. He did not like Los Angeles; he said the bread was shit. And here he was, the world’s most important playwright, and he was struggling to find work. But he did collaborate with Charles Laughton on Galileo, which they staged at the Coronet Theater, which is now Largo. So when I performed there, well, that was exciting to think that Brecht and Laughton worked in that room.
I’m lucky here in L.A. because we work from home, thus avoiding the number one complaint of life here: traffic. I’ve only been here for a few years, and I still have a lot to learn about Los Angeles, but I think it’s pretty great. Yes, it can be annoying, too, but so can Manhattan and Williamsburg.
Washataw: We’re always wondering how artists these days, especially musicians, survive economically. Do you think it’s tougher than, say, 20 years ago? Maybe we’re wrong. Maybe it’s better.
Dean: It is better and it’s worse. Being a musician has always been a risky way to make a living. I know back in the ‘90s there were labels with money to spend, and shops everywhere and it was easy to sell compact discs. But still, that money didn’t necessarily trickle down to the musicians.
It’s hard for a band to have financial success, unless you write a couple of hit songs; that changes the whole equation. Or it used to — now professional songwriters are lamenting that a smash hit song on Spotify earns them only a fraction of what it would if the record had sold millions. Anyway, I am quite a long way removed from that problem.
Today, it is easier than ever to connect with your fans, to get the word out about your new release or upcoming shows. D2F (direct-to-fan) sales have become very important, meaning those records you can sell online without going through shops or distributors and hence you take a much higher percentage of the profit on those sales.
Luna are lucky. We have a loyal following so we make money on tour (and ticket prices are higher than they used to be). We all do other things, too, occasionally a song is licensed to a TV show; Britta does voice-over work; we score films. I feel like I’m doing just as well now as I was in that compact disc era — the 1990s. And of one thing I am sure — it’s just as hard for journalists, photographers, designers. We’re all in this.
Washataw: Thank you for all the wonderful music you’ve given the world over all these years. What kind of artist do you want to be when you’re in your sixties? And have you ever thought of doing a country-influenced project? That could be interesting. Steve Earle, who’s 62, just put out a wonderful country album.
Dean: In my book I wrote that I didn’t want to be fifty years old and riding around in a van. But fifty has come and gone and I am still doing it. I think I will just be thankful if I can still make records and if people come to see the shows, and there is no guarantee of that. I have recorded an album with a friend (he records under the name Cheval Sombre, which is French for “dark horse”) — it’s not country so much as Western.
Each of us picked five songs to sing — songs like “My Rifle, My Pony & Me,” which was done by Ricky Nelson for Rio Grande, or “Wanderin’ Star,” which was a hit for Lee Marvin, “A Bend in the River” by Marty Robbins. Being that I was born in New Zealand and then raised in New York City, this is perhaps a stretch that I could attempt that kinda material. No one will mistake me for a real cowboy, but I’m really excited about the way the record sounds.