INTERVIEW WITH DEAN WAREHAM
Can you recall your first “what is this” musical experience? Do you remember the song or artist? How old were you?
My earliest memories of music are “Georgy Girl” by the Seekers and “Hey Jude” by the Beatles. Also “Timothy” by a New Zealand girl group — the Chicks — that was my first live show at 5 years of age, at the Wellington Town Hall.
Did you grow up in a musical home?
Well not professional musicians. My Dad played a Yamaha nylon-string guitar, in fact he carried that thing all over the world, last I checked he still had it. He would sing songs like “Old Stewball” and “Me & Bobby McGee.”
In the film “ALMOST FAMOUS” the main characters older sister moves out of the house but leaves him a stack of records under his bed and as she leaves she tells him “look under your bed they’ll set you free” You had a similar experience because of your older brother who had a very cool record collection. What was there? Which were the ones that hit you the hardest. How old were you?
My older brother certainly introduced me to Bowie and Lou Reed, I must have been twelve, and he listened to a great radio station “Double-J” I think it was called in Sydney, Australia where we were living at the time (having moved there from New Zealand in 1970). He liked Frank Zappa too but that stuff frightened me. Anyway I still own his old copies of Transformer and Diamond Dogs.
What was the first record you ever bought with your own money?
I think it was the Boz Scaggs record Silk Degrees which came out in 1976. But honestly I had gone into the record store looking for something else, probably the disco act Silver Convention (who I loved), but the guy behind the counter in this particular store insisted that I would like Boz Scaggs. It didn’t change my life but I do still think that “Lowdown” is an amazing track.
Your family moved from down under to New York in 1977 and you were 14 years old. What a time to be in New York! You had a front row seat at the age of 15-16 to the punk explosion. Did you have any idea that you were witnessing and partaking in something special - historical? You went to shows and saw the Ramones, Richard Hell, the Clash, Talking Heads, Blondie, Pere Ubu, Devo, Gang of Four, PiL, the Specials, B-52's (on your prom night at the Mudd Club), Echo & the Bunnymen and the Undertones. What was the energy like? What bands left the biggest impression?
I remember every one of those shows. Richard Hell & the Voidoids at CBGBs was my first introduction to that place, it was all very intimidating for a teenager. I was at the Clash show (at the Palladium) where they got that photo for the cover of London Calling. I was at a PiL show (also at the Palladium) where John Lydon sorta wandered off the stage after just a few songs, leaving the rest of the band to finish without him. I’ve only later realized they would book shows without even really knowing how they were gonna perform them. They were better the next time I saw them — at the Channel in Boston. B-52’s at the Mudd Club were phenomenal, such a great live band and this was right before their first album came out. But no I didn’t quite realize that I was living in the midst of one of the great music scenes/periods.
As a guitarist who were the players that made you want to pick up the guitar?
At age sixteen I revered the Clash above all, that’s the band that really made me want to pick up an instrument and do it myself. But around 1980, the Feelies made a huge impression on me in terms of guitar playing, and it’s neither Bill Million or Glenn Mercer in particular but more the way the guitars mesh together, really the way the whole band works together rhythmically. I should also mention that in 1979-80-81 I would often spend the summer in New Zealand, there was a band in Wellington — Beat Rhythm Fashion — who also inspired me to start a band.
You purchased your first guitar during your final months of high school. It was a VOX Superlynx! How did that come about? Do you remember where you bought it and do you still own it?
It belonged to my girlfriend Toni’s older brother, that was just sitting in the closet with no strings on it — so it was sort of a present from her. I should thank her for that gift, shouldn’t I? Unfortunately I sold it to a friend when I was in college, and used the money to buy a beat up alpine white Les Paul Custom with a cracked headstock.
Did learning the guitar come easy to you? What were some of the first songs you learned or tired to play?
It did not come easy, but that’s probably because I only took four lessons. I think you start with lessons and they’re showing you this or that scale, but what you really have to learn is how to play with an amplifier too — the textures, the sounds that the electric instrument is capable of generating. I had to learn that myself, very slowly. I started with covers like “Human Fly” by the Cramps, “Submission” by the Sex Pistols, “Shadowplay” by Joy Division (another huge influence on my playing, just the simplicity and darkness of it).
In college You formed the band Speedy & the Castanets, which years later morphed into Galaxie 500. Was this your first band?
Yes it sure was, a trio consisting of myself, Damon Krukowski, and Marc Glimcher — we were high school friends who all wound up at Harvard, where we bought amps and and started jamming in a little room under the freshman dining hall, using a drum kit that belonged to classmate Conan O’Brien. I have to confess we were pretty terrible players, but at least we wrote some funny lyrics.
I would like to touch on Galaxie 500 briefly. So much has been written about the band but I’d like to talk about Kramer who produced all 3 releases (Mark Kramer Shimmy Disc Label Owner, Producer, Artist). History has shown us that TODAY, ON FIRE & THIS IS OUR MUSIC are all seminal recordings. Incredibly influential. The sound of these records is as equally important to the songs. I believe they go hand in hand. How important do you feel the overall “sound” contributes to the power of these records? The way they were recorded and engineered? These records sound like nothing else before or sense. Kramer’s contributions are akin to George Martin of the Beatles thus argument could be made, making him the 4th member of Galaxie 500.
Yeah, I can’t really overstate Kramer’s importance. Here we were, three people still learning how to play, and we had done one session with an engineer at 6/8 studios in New York that demonstrates the direction we were headed, but Kramer took us somewhere else altogether. He is a brilliant human being, a great musician, a great arranger, and it was just a perfect combination. He didn’t labor over it, but somehow he made us sound huge, and believe me we did not sound huge in our rehearsal space.
One last Galaxie 500 question and this concerns the song “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste”. This is a cover of a Jonathan Richman song but you took it and made it your “All Along The Watchtower”. The vocal delivery is absolutely heartbreaking and the guitar work is beautiful. What made you pick this song? Can you recall what you were feeling when you were laying down the guitar leads? The song is a masterpiece. My favorite among many in the Galaxie 500 discography.
Thanks. I heard this short a cappella demo/poem that Richman had done, it was on a bootleg LP on Mohawk Records, and we decided to set it to music. As for the lead guitar track, I remember being out there in the big room alone, laying down that overdub, and feeling completely lost at various points, but I kept playing, kept stretching, and I had a great sound going with my Epiphone Riviera, a Boss CS-3 compressor and the dirty channel in my MusicMan amp, and it seemed like the guitar played itself, it was just one take and then I got the thumbs up from Damon and Naomi and Kramer.
I’m sure Jonathan Richman has heard the song. Have you ever heard from him? If so, what did he think about it? (on a side note - “IM STRAIGHT” begs to be covered !)
Yes it does. We went to see Jonathan play at Nightstage in Cambridge and gave him a copy of our Today album. He was very sweet but I never heard what he thought of it.
I would like to talk gear for a bit. Are you a gear guy? Did you ever fall into the G.A.S (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) trap that so many of us player do? Do you have a collection of amps, guitars and pedals?
I don’t have a huge collection — my house isn’t big enough for that. But I do figure buying a guitar is like putting money in the bank, or moving it from checking to savings — that’s what I tell myself. I have a handful of small amps: Guild, Masco (modified by amp guru Skip Simmons), an Epiphone Pathfinder, Fender Bassman and lately a Mesa Boogie California Tweed that is my main live amp. As for guitars it is a lot of Gibson or Gibson-inspired stuff — ES-335, Les Paul, a Firebird, and a PureSalem Woodsoul that is a nice hybrid, because you’ve got the Fender scale length with P90 pickups, it’s a good combination.
In 2018 you released an album with Cheval Sombre titled Dean Wareham Vs. Cheval Sombre. It’s another beautiful sounding record. Great songs and it’s received countless spins on my record player. You have just released your newest solo record titled I Have Nothing to Say to the Mayor of L.A. When you go into a studio to record is there a sound already determined in your mind of what you want the record or song to sound like. Going back to the Galaxie 500 releases they have a unified sound. Is there a record you are most proud of from a production and engineering point?
The Galaxie 500 records sound timeless to me, maybe because they are neither ‘80s nor ‘90s but recorded right between those two decades, so they don’t sound like either, it’s hard to place them. And at that point we’re all looking for a way out of the sounds of the 1980s, really nothing that Kramer produced sounds like that decade.
Luna’s Penthouse album I think sounds wonderful too, we’re in a fancier studio (RPM in Manhattan) but really it’s all about the people — Mario Salvati who recorded it and then Pat McCarthy came in to mix (and do additional production) and he did an outstanding job. Not a lot of people know this, but Pat also recorded and mixed Madonna’s Ray of Light album (right after Penthouse). He was the opposite of Kramer in that it was very painstaking, he paid attention to every note and every word I sang.
What was your main set up for the recording guitar and amp wise? There is a lot of cool delay and modulation effects going on. Very subtle but impactful to the songs. Do you recall what effects you used? It’s a great Headphones record!
Thanks, I think my guitar sounds are for the most part pretty clean on this record, you’re right there is some modulation and delay but not a lot of fuzz. During the basic tracking, I generally played my ES-335 into two amps simultaneously; the Mesa Boogie California Tweed and the Epiphone Pathfinder. But then the third wave of the pandemic hit and I was back home to play my guitar solos, with Britta engineering them. And mostly on the Epiphone Pathfinder again. One really cool effects pedal I used on a few songs was the Hypersleep reverb; it was recommended by Adam Brilla at Stompbox Sonic in Boston. It uses an old bucket brigade chip, so it’s neither a spring reverb nor a digital reverb. There is something artificial about it but that was the charm.
The new album was recorded in San Francisco at the Panoramic-House in Stinson Beach. It’s a gorgeous studio environment. Did your surroundings there effect the outcome of the record and if so how?
It felt real good to escape from our pandemic life to this studio on a hill looking over Stinson Beach and just relax, and focus on music all day long. I don’t think the record sounds like California per se; we weren’t going for that, but yeah it’s a great studio and I’d love to go back one day
Your wife Britta Phillips plays Bass on the record. Who else was involved?
Britta played bass and some keyboard too and she’s just always super helpful when I am recording the vocals, she is a patient listener and critic. Roger Brogan played drums, and Jason Quever added either a guitar or keyboard part on most songs.
How much of the record was written prior to going into the studio and how much was worked out while you were there?
I was more prepared than usual, perhaps because it had been seven years since I last wrote a batch of songs. Roger and Britta and I started playing these songs together a few months before we got into the studio and that helped. “Cashing In” was the only one that we really were figuring out in the studio, and even then, the lyrics were written. So in that first week I was able to finish the vocals (instead of just mumbling half-written lyrics), and walked out of there feeling really good. The plan was to reconvene at Jason’s studio in the Bay Area but then the pandemic roared back so Jason mixed alone — he would send us mixes, and we would nitpick little things like how loud the hi-hat and bass should be. It was a little odd because we were listening on different speakers and headphones than he was, but we got there. And at the end of the process, I also depend on a great mastering engineer — Scott Hull at Masterdisk.
You have an incredible ability of picking amazing songs to cover. The Scott Walker tune “Duchess” sounds like it was a lost Galaxie 500 song written just for you. It’s a beautiful song. What made you pick this one?
It’s my favorite Scott Walker song. Britta and I had performed it for a livestream during the pandemic, and it was Roger Brogan who said we absolutely had to try it in the studio. I figured it would be a B-side, but the basic track came out beautiful, and then we hooked up the vintage RCA 44 Ribbon microphone that meshed so nicely with my vocal, we decided to keep it. We actually did an edit at home to make room for a guitar solo — my (Japanese) Burny Les Paul with Bigsby straight into the Epiphone Pathfinder again.
There is a lot of substance in subject matter in this record. Does lyric writing come easy for you? What inspires a song like “Red Hollywood,” the tragic story of John Garfield (a.k.a. Julius “Julie” Garfinkle), an actor who was blacklisted in the early 1950s for refusing to “name names” during the Red Scare, and died soon after, at the age of 39? Or the song “Corridors Of Power” with the line “people who live in houses like that don’t know”.
It does not usually come easy, well maybe once in a while I find a simple haiku-type lyric that just works (e.g. “Tugboat”) but more often it is hard work, I find myself pulling lines and ideas from various sources and trying to fit it together like a jigsaw puzzle, and sometimes I end up with a song and I wonder how on earth did I do that? “Just As Much As It Was Worth” is a good example, I took the chords from a Charles Aznavour song that my parents used to play when I was a kid, and a line I read about grief — “it hurts just as much as it was worth”, but somehow I fashioned a song that I’m really proud of.
The new year is fast approaching …. What do you have planned for 2022? Any final words?
I am supposed to tour the UK and Europe in February, playing songs from this album and also Galaxie 500’s On Fire. But it’s a challenge, the damn virus has already forced us to cancel some of those shows — in fact it is making it really hard for any of us to make plans for 2022.
Thank you Dean … one final question. You are stranded on an island and you can have any 5 records with you what are they?
Beatles - White Album
Feelies - Crazy Rhythms
V.U. - Matrix Tapes
Brahms - German Requiem
Nina Simone - Here Comes the Sun