Black Postcards: Kent MacCarter interviews Dean Wareham (part two)
Part one of this interview can be found here.
How do you feel about TS Eliot’s (in)famous quip, ‘Good poets borrow, great poets steal’?
I was having a hard time figuring out what TS Eliot meant here – what’s the difference between borrowing and stealing in poetry? So I Googled that phrase (the internet is beautiful) and, apparently, this is one of those famous quotes that is a misquote. Apparently what he actually wrote, in an essay on the playwright Philip Massinger, was this:
‘Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different’.
And this we can all agree on.
Is it hard to draw or believe the lines between a claimed accident, ‘strong influence’ and outright theft between artists? Wayne Coyne and his Flaming Lips had to turn over publishing royalties to Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) for their song ‘Fight Test’. Recently in Australia, Colin Hay of Men at Work was found by the barristers to have nicked the flute riff from the classic Australia nursery rhyme, ‘Kookaburra’ – under copyright just like ‘Happy Birthday’ is – for their megahit song, ‘Down Under’, and now must pay. Luna released a song that skirted awfully close to having a chord sequence from Van Halen’s ‘Jump’ linger a bit longer than it probably should have. Anything to say about Bob Dylan and cover art on this matter?
Well, yes, I took the chord progression for ‘Dizzy’ from Van Halen’s ‘Jump’, but that’s not illegal. Anyway, we were not worth suing because the song didn’t make enough money. ‘Down Under’ or ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ or ‘My Sweet Lord’ – now those are worth suing over. Dylan is careful; he takes from dead people who can’t sue him, which is firmly in the tradition of all folk musicians. But you are referring, of course, to the cover of Dylan’s Modern Times album, a great photograph by Ted Croner that we had already used as the cover for a Luna single. We don’t mind.
Now, moving on to acting and movies, you’ve played a bartender on Law & Order and had lead roles in indie films Pumpkin Hell and Piggie. Did you agree to do these simply as a lark? Compared to performing music and the writing of a memoir, how did you find the ‘act’ of acting?
Acting is easy. They write the words for you; all you have to do is memorise them. You stand in the right spot and look where they tell you to look and speak the lines. But you do have to get up super early in the morning.
Scoring, composing or being music supervisor on films (ala Ry Cooder or Danny Elfman) like The Squid and The Whale is also in your repertoire. Is that a practical pursuit?
I enjoy it when the film is good. I guess there are two kinds of jobs, those you do for love and those you do for money, and the best ones are really good films that you get paid to work on.
How did you find working with directors Noah Baumbach and Olivier Assayas?
Both brilliant directors with their own distinctive style, so what’s not to like? It is exciting to work on a good film; it’s a privilege. I think that goes for everyone involved, from the actors to the composers to the caterers.
Your music has also appeared in movies like Sideways and Margot at the Wedding. Are you overly choosy about what song might be used where? Such as selling the usage rights of a song to American Express instead of (trendy clothing stores) The Gap?
I’m not too bothered about having a song in a TV commercial. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but it doesn’t upset me, especially if it’s just an instrumental section of a song. And double especially if they pay us. Frankly, it’s one of the few ways to make money from your recorded music now; everyone is focused on trying to place their songs on TV. The Gap ad I didn’t want to do because I would have had to stand there on camera and sing ‘fall into the Gap’ or some other nonsense. I didn’t want to do that. I don’t think I would have done it convincingly. But Aerosmith was good at it.
Okay, so image has its place. The current Dean (Wareham) & Britta (Philips) persona is one similar in vein to Lee (Hazelwood) & Nancy (Sinatra) and Serge (Gainsbourg) & Brigitte (Bardot). And you’re no stranger to slick magazine covers, ads for fancy watches or suits or appearing in the pages of GQ. Is there a point where cultivating a semi-bourgeois, urbane image becomes untenable?
I confess that in an Esquire photo shoot I was wearing a watch that I definitely could not afford. But it’s just a photo shoot. Performers are supposed to dress up for those. I don’t think it much matters if people think I’m semi-bourgeois; I probably am, and I don’t have to pretend that my Dad was a coal miner. Ultimately, I will be judged on the music, not on a spread in a fashion magazine.
There are always legions of fans and critics waiting to label you as a ‘sell-out’ for such activities. It’s not fair, but true.
I remember talking to a certain underground filmmaker/photographer I know, who came up in New York in the ’70s. We discussed this issue of selling out, who had sold out and who hadn’t. ‘It’s not selling out,’ he said, ‘it’s cashing in.’
One thing nobody will ever tag you as a sell-out for is your association with The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. They chose you and Britta, specifically, to score music for a selection of Warhol’s character studies that he filmed over many years. The result, 13 Most Beautiful … Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, is a film, a record and a live show you’ve taken all over the world including a stint at the Sydney Opera House in 2010. How did all of this come together?
This was a commission from the Andy Warhol Museum. Ben Harrison, the museum’s Curator for Performance, approached me with the idea to score thirteen of Warhol’s Screen Tests – the short silent portrait films he made at the Factory between 1964 and 1966. And I alluded to this before perhaps; it’s always good to work with a brilliant director, even if this one was not alive to give us direction.
Has being the representative composer for Any Warhol been at all nerve-wracking?
It was at first. We kept asking ourselves, what would Warhol have wanted? And we were performing outside our comfort zone. Our comfort zone is playing our own songs to our own fans in rock clubs, whereas now we found ourselves playing the songs in museums and churches and arts festivals – to a very mixed audience, from younger fans of our music to older ladies with blue hair who have a membership at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
We haven’t talked about music all that much yet. Your first band started out as three Harvard University students with a borrowed drum kit from fellow student Conan O’Brien. Did you have any idea what you were doing?
None at all, we couldn’t play our instruments. We were trying to be like the Clash or the Cramps or Joy Division but didn’t know how to do it – I didn’t even own a fuzzbox. Our girlfriends would come by rehearsals and just laugh at us. I would say it took me about six years before I started to play something interesting on the guitar, and by that time had hit on the right combination of people – and this was Galaxie 500.
It’s well-documented that Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground are / were influences on your music. Sterling Morrison can be heard on your second Luna record, Bewitched. And VU hand selected Luna as their support band during their European reunion tour in 1993. What is it like to not only meet and collaborate with such legendary names, but to slowly become the heir to presence?
All I can say is it’s kind of amazing to have met so many of my heroes… to actually play with Sterling Morrison and Tom Verlaine, to meet Lee Hazlewood, Jonathan Richman, the Talking Heads, Alan Vega, the Feelies. It’s hard for me to see myself as the heir to those figures; I am too much in awe of them.
You majored in Social Studies at Harvard. Why? What was your original ‘plan’ before Galaxie500 took off?
I did not have a plan. I still do not have a plan beyond the next six months. But certainly a career as a musician was not a plan either; it’s just that I started doing it and then I found that people liked the music and I was actually earning a living that way, and now I don’t know what else I would do.
You recently did an interview with Stephen Malkmus about how you’re both three decades in to the music racket and remain alive, well and flourishing. You seem to be well into the ‘gravy’ of life now; over the hump of exhaustion that bands create, the nadir of touring frustrations (which your tour documentary Tell Me Do You Miss Me is saturated with) and the anxiety of figuring out how to end a critically acclaimed band that never struck the financial jackpot. How did you manage that?
I don’t know. I hope you are correct that these are the gravy days – following the salad days. There must be some luck involved, and I kept at it I suppose, perhaps out of stubbornness or stupidity. I’ve been making music long enough that I actually have an audience out there, people who will show up when I come to town.
Care to shed any more light on the impromptu wedding band you performed in with Malkmus and David Berman?
It was at the wedding of writer Robert Bingham, who was a good friend of Berman and Malkmus, and who I knew through my wife at the time. Mr Malkmus suggested we do ‘Sweet Child ‘O’ Mine’ and I had just recorded it with Luna. So that was lucky. But the tragic thing is that Robert Bingham died of a drug overdose a few months later, and I was asked to sing the song at his funeral. I just read his novel, Lightning on the Sun, which he did not live to see published.
Your second band, Luna, was an indie supergroup made up of Galaxie 500, the Feelies and the Chills – that’s an incredible pedigree.
Yeah our bassist Justin Harwood hailed from one of the most revered NZ bands, drummer Stanley Demeski played with my own favorite the Feelies (very underrated but I think an important band in rock history in the New York area), and there I was from Galaxie 500. But it doesn’t mean much; it wasn’t till we added guitarist Sean Eden (from no particular band at all) that we started to make really good music.
I want to close with some final ruminations on your memoir. ‘It felt good to be heading north’ is a stupendous line to end a book on. In your memoir, you speak of Matthew Buzzel, director of the tour doco, Tell Me Do You Miss Me, lingering around to capture the very last moments – ever – of Luna as a band after their last show in New York’s Bowery Ballroom. Looking back now, through all the times you thought your bands were heading ‘south’ (and the times that they were or weren’t in actuality), how did you summon the energy to ‘keep on’ during those bleaker times? And with what did you assuage the occasional fears of artistic collapse?
Why thank you, I was happy with that last line too, and I didn’t particularly have to struggle with it; I just had a very natural moment to end my book – the moment I stepped into a taxi cab after my Luna’s final show and knew that my life was going to be different from this moment on.
As for summoning the energy, maybe it’s easier when you’re in a band, you have deadlines, shows to play, songs to finish, and there’s a structure to it, and people to help finish the songs. If there was a bleak time, maybe it was when Luna was let go by Elektra Records, and by our publisher, and by our accountant, but still we would go out on the road and we were playing to more people than ever, so that was energizing. And then Britta replaced Justin on bass and that changed the energy too.
There is always that fear that one day I’ll sit down to write and just won’t be able to do it. Some people would call that writer’s block. I just saw Geoff Dyer (one of my favorite writers) give a reading in Brooklyn. He said there is no such thing as writer’s block, or rather that the writer only says he is ‘blocked’ because at that moment he has nothing to say. It’s easier to think that you are suffering from this special writer’s affliction, than to admit that you have nothing to say. So perhaps the thing is to wait until you do have something to say.
Kent MacCarter is a writer and resident in Melbourne, where he lives with his wife, son and two cats. His poetry and a smattering of non-fiction has appeared in anthologies, journals and newspapers internationally in print and online. He is currently involved on the board of SPUNC: The Small Press Network and is also an active member in Melbourne PEN.