The ultimate Luna interview: Noah Baumbach and Dean Wareham talk super-groups, the Velvet Underground and the history of one of New York’s greatest bands
Noah Baumbach, a longtime friend of Dean Wareham, is an American writer, director and independent filmmaker. Dean Wareham has contributed score and also appeared as an actor in Baumbach’s films, including “The Squid & the Whale,” “Frances Ha,” “While We’re Young” and “Mistress America.” They sat down to discuss the history of Wareham’s band Luna, whose vinyl box set “Long Players: 92-99â³ is released this month on Captured Tracks. This interview is excerpted from the booklet that accompanies the box set.
Noah Baumbach: Can you talk about where you were — creatively and personally — after the Galaxie 500 breakup? You had a bad breakup.
Dean Wareham: Galbraith said somewhere that the happiest time of anyone’s life is just after their first divorce. Which is a scary formulation perhaps, but yeah, I felt happy and free. I knew I would keep making records, and I had interest from a couple of different labels. I didn’t have a band, though, nothing that anyone could see live, so I had to record some demos.
What were the first songs you wrote?
“Anesthesia,” “Slash Your Tires,” “Slide,” “Crazy People.”
I love those songs. “Anesthesia” particularly. I think I’ve seen it somewhere, a Dean Wareham single, maybe it was at Other Music.
There was a 7” single of “Anesthesia” and “I Can’t Wait,” recorded with Wharton Tiers at Fun City, and that’s included in this box we are doing. And frankly, I prefer that “Anesthesia” — it’s slower and sadder.
Did you know you wanted to form a band again?
I was more interested in the textures that bands create. In 1992, the singer-songwriter was not in fashion, or at least, not in my head. It has come back in a big way. Now they are all over the place.
Were you concerned that a band dynamic might become a problem?
My first band dynamic was unhealthy — a trio with a couple in it is probably not ideal. This time, I knew I wanted to have a four-piece band. We tracked “Lunapark” as a trio — Justin Harwood, Stanley Demeski and myself, but the plan was always to add a fourth member. Robert Forster wrote up some “rules of rock” and he writes that the trio is the purest form of rock and roll. But, I think it’s the quartet. The trio forces everyone to work, there is something cool about it, especially live; all of you have to make noise constantly. But I think most of the great bands (especially in the live scenario) are four or five people.
Were you thinking of things you wanted to do differently, structurally or musically? Or did you blindly throw yourself into another relationship?
I made the demos on my own, I had signed the deal on my own, so, I guess I was in a position of more control. But then I embraced the band scenario.
What are some bands you loved then, ideal bands in your mind?
Feelies, Velvets, Television, The Clash. These are all New York bands (even the Clash were recording in New York). And all are all twin-guitar bands.
How did you select a producer for “Lunapark”?
Justin Harwood and I wanted to get someone who would make a natural-sounding record. Coming out of the ’80s, we wanted to steer clear of ‘80s production, the big, wet drum sounds. Perhaps that is part of the ’90s sound: drier, compressed production.
And grunge was in full swing also.
Yes, it sure was. We decided on Fred Maher, who had produced Lou Reed’s “New York” album, which had a sound we liked; dry, natural, one electric guitar on the left, another on the right. Perhaps this was a reaction against what I had done in Galaxie 500. Sometimes the record you make is a reaction against the last record you made.
Where did you meet Justin?
In England; he was in The Chills and we had the same manager.
And you were both born in New Zealand.
Yes, though, of course, I left New Zealand as a child in 1970. Justin and I met in England in 1989, at a softball game that The Chills had organized. A couple of years later, Justin had quit The Chills. And, in 1991, I attended a Feelies show at Town Hall in New York, not knowing that it was one of their final shows, and that a couple of months later, their drummer Stanley Demeski would be available. Did you ever see the Feelies?
I saw them open for R.E.M. at the Felt Forum.
We made “Lunapark” at RPM Studios on 12th Street. You know, our first five albums, we wound up at RPM every time, even if we started somewhere else. And then, the live album was also mixed on 12th Street, but at a different studio, about a block away.
What did you like about it?
The Neve recording console, a great collection of microphones, a nice view of Union Square, Bryan Ferry lived in the building. The Rolling Stones and Talking Heads had recorded there. It was nice to be making music in the Village and not Midtown.
Did it feel different, making this record?
It took longer than any of us were used to. Fred Maher said he likes to take ten weeks to make a record. Justin and I countered with six weeks — still three times longer than I had ever spent making a record. But, Justin had a bit more experience that way. In Galaxie 500, we were rarely allowed to do a second take. I carry that impatience with me the rest of my recording career.
Did it feel more professional?
Definitely. It was certainly more expensive, and we had a producer, an engineer (Lloyd Puckitt), and an assistant engineer. There was also a receptionist at the studio — and our future drummer, Lee Wall, worked that job on one of the records we did). We fixed mistakes, which was a new thing for me. Fred liked to have us do multiple takes and then splice the best parts of different takes together.
Were you called an “indie supergroup?”
In one or two articles, yes. It’s not particularly helpful to be called a supergroup. I suppose, looking back, The Chills and Feelies and Galaxie 500 are considered important in the history of indie rock. Still, I looked at Bob Mould’s supergroup, with Chris Stamey and Tony Maimone and Anton Fier — great musicians from HÃ¼sker DÃ¼ and The dB’s and Pere Ubu — but it didn’t mean that together they would make a good album.
Was that Sugar?
This was his solo period, right before Sugar was formed. I like the first Luna record, but we got better as we went along. We had just started playing together, and had not even played shows at that time.
I like “Lunapark,” but I can see the sound is somewhere in-between. When does the band find its sound?
The first thing we did as a four-piece was right after “Lunapark,” a session at Mixolydian in Newton, N.J., where we recorded and mixed “Indian Summer,” “Egg Nog,” “Ride Into the Sun” and “That’s What You Always Say” in two days. And that EP came out great; that was our first session with Sean Eden and he played beautifully, and it started to feel like a band.
How did you find Sean?
We placed an ad in the Village Voice and someone told him about it. Matthew Buzzell had taken Sean to see Galaxie 500 at the Knitting Factory.
What did you like about his playing?
At those auditions, his job was to play songs from “Lunapark.” I can’t remember his playing that well from the audition. I did like his sneakers; I remember that. And in the first sessions, he played a couple of really pretty guitar solos on “Egg Nog” and “Ride Into the Sun.”
Why did you record these songs? Were you thinking about the next album?
Terry Tolkin (our A&R guy) wanted us do a Christmas single, and some B-sides. The annoying thing is that the B-sides you do after the album sometimes turn out better than the album. You do it quickly, there’s no pressure, and sometimes, that makes for better results.
What do you like about playing covers, versus your own material?
It’s fun to sing covers, because you don’t stand there questioning each lyric. And maybe it’s easier to put yourself in someone else’s mind than to express your own thoughts.
Do you like playing covers of songs that you listen to yourself?
At first, we certainly did. At least, until years later, when we did “Sweet Child ‘O Mine,” which is not a song that I would ever put on, though I’ll listen, if it’s on the radio. Justin was disgusted. And then, later, a few that were out of character — “Straight Up” by Paula Abdul. “Only Women Bleed” by Alice Cooper, “Dancing Days” by Led Zeppelin.
How was the first record received?
I tend to forget the good reviews and remember the bad ones…; there was one nasty review in the Melody Maker. But that’s just England.
People held you up against Galaxie 500?
Yes, but also, things had changed that year in England; the press were now pushing all things Seattle. The UK music press is all about identifying and packaging the next big thing, and putting it on their covers.
You got the name from the Bertolucci movie?
They came into my high school looking to find the kid to star in that film. Not one of his better ones.
It’s hard to find now.
The Diane Keaton character in “Sleeper”; her name is Luna. So, let’s say it’s from the Woody Allen film, not the Bertolucci one.
Did you feel pressure being on a major label?
Not really. Hints were dropped, but it didn’t occur to me that I should feel pressure. When you sign to a major label, of course, they are spending a lot of money and they want a hit record; they are not interested in selling a mere hundred thousand records. But we were left alone for the most part. And Terry Tolkin shaded us from any pressure — or maybe he didn’t feel it either.
How many records did you sign for?
You sign for seven records, but, it’s always at the label’s discretion whether they will keep you on the roster. It’s like an NFL contract — only the first year is guaranteed. When I look back, it is amazing that we lasted as long as we did. Really, they were pretty patient with us.
Did you ever feel pressure to write a hit?
Not at first. You just try to make each song as good as you can. Maybe we thought we had songs that were singles, but we were wrong about that. I remember meeting Steve Lillywhite years later; he said “You know that song that the label wants you to write? It’s not possible. That’s the producer’s job to craft that song with you.” I like to think he was right. But you hear of other people doing that, studying what’s on the radio. Which is fine, maybe some people are more chameleon-like and they’re good at it. But no, we did not try that approach. I remember a comment from John Lydon about Public Image making one of their albums — that if you are in the studio trying to please other people, you become everything that you hate.
Did the songwriting approach with the band change?
“Lunapark” was all my songs, mostly written before the band existed, though as we prepared to record, Justin had a big hand in arranging them. And I welcomed that; he was better at it than I am. For “Bewitched,” Justin started co-writing some of the songs with me; songs like “Bewitched” and “Tiger Lily” and “This Time Around” all started with him, his chords and riffs, and I would come up with the melody and lyrics.
Did you keep notebooks?
Yes, notebooks full of scribbled funny sentences or rhyming couplets.
Things you saw in newspapers or TV?
Yes, that too. I’m trying to think if I ever I sat down to write a story. “This Time Around” and “Into the Fold” are personal. But that’s not generally my approach.
How much touring did you do for “Lunapark”?
Six weeks opening for the Screaming Trees, another five weeks opening for the Sundays. And then a call to open for the Velvet Underground in Europe, which blew our minds of course. At some point on that tour, we went into Falconer Studios in London, with Victor Van Vugt, to record demos for “Bewitched.”
What were the songs?
“Bewitched,” “Friendly Advice” and “California.” We played “Friendly Advice” every night on the Velvet Underground tour. Sterling Morrison liked the song, so later we asked him to guest on it. We also had a couple of songs we demo’d with Kramer at Noise New Jersey, and then did a handful more in New York, just before the album sessions started.
Where did you record the album?
We started at Right Track, on 48th and 7th, near all the music stores. I didn’t like going up to midtown every day, it’s just weird around there.
I agree. How did you make decisions as a band?
You argue, about things that no one else would ever notice…; “This vocal effect? Or that one?” But it wasn’t really an issue on “Bewitched,” we all got along well with each other and with Victor.
How was it working with Victor Van Vugt?
Well, again, we picked Victor because we liked the natural sounds of the Nick Cave records that he had engineered and mixed. He was fun to be around, and recorded the band the way we sounded. That’s what we wanted; we didn’t want some super-famous producer coming in to push us around. I had certain anxieties, from days of being on an indie label, that you needed complete control, and no way were you going to let the man (or his producer) tell you what to do. I have since come to think that this is silly. As musicians in the band, you already have a lot of power; you can always push back — or fire the producer.
But some producers have a strong influence.
Yes, and you hear of producers coming in and firing band members.
Can you talk about playing live, versus recording in the studio? You hear of bands trying to capture their “live sound” on a record.
Both were important to us. The records last longer of course, but it’s nice to feel that you can step on stage and play the songs really well. Luna were always good live, and I credit that to the rhythm section, whether Justin and Stanley, or later, Lee.
Are there songs you only “find” later, on the road?
There are songs that are much better at the end of a tour, and others that don’t work outside the studio. Lately, I’ve been listening to live and recorded studio versions of Luna songs, and the tempo is what changes. Tempo is incredibly important; if you start the song at the wrong speed, it will never feel right.
Particularly with Luna, I’m sure, where the mood is crucial. I think of a song like “Moon Palace” that can’t go too quickly, or, by the end, you’ll be singing “nyah-nyah” too fast.
I confess, I am often guilty of starting that song too quickly. But the rest of the band will fix it.
Has your own persona changed on stage? Did you get better as a performer?
Paul Morrissey wrote somewhere that an artist (or actor) is his truest and best self right at the start of his career, when he makes his first statement — and it’s all downhill from there. But I disagree. Maybe there is a point at which you become a shadow of your former self, but we are not there yet. I feel more comfortable on stage after all these years, and I think I sing and play with more confidence.
Was “California” the closest you had to a hit record?
Probably. The opening riff in that song was used in a Calvin Klein commercial. We maybe had more luck getting in TV commercials than on commercial radio.
Where did that riff come from?
It was my attempt to play a James Burton riff from a Ricky Nelson record. It’s a good way to write songs — start with someone else’s song.
You and I have talked about Ben Lerner’s “Leaving the Atocha Station,” where his character has a strategy for writing poems. He takes an existing poem, but then makes random changes — scrambling the order of the lines or replacing a solitary word with another word that sounds like it, but has a different meaning. And then he makes whatever changes he feels are necessary to finish the poem.
That’s a good idea. Bob Dylan has admitted to using a similar strategy — taking a line or two from someone else’s song, and then writing a whole new song, suggested by that one line.
Knowing that about yourself as a musician, I guess you know that by the time you are finished trying to copy something, it is your own.
Yeah, and because I can’t play like James Burton, I cannot really copy him.
Who were some of the other bands on Elektra back then?
Metallica. MÃ¶tley CrÃ¼e, though they were on the way out. Things like The Doors, Third Eye Blind, Natalie Merchant, BjÃ¶rk, Better Than Ezra. The Eagles’ “Greatest Hits” alone was a big moneymaker.
Were you able to operate under the radar?
It’s all so competitive with radio, you’d even compete for attention with bands on your own label. If the alternative radio guy is calling the “alternative” radio stations, and he’s got new songs from Natalie Merchant and Third Eye Blind and Luna, well, he can’t get them all played.
“Great Jones Street” is for the DeLillo book?
Yes. DeLillo figures in a few Luna songs. “Math Wiz” is after the character in “Ratner’s Star. I lived two blocks from Great Jones Street and that street had a romantic appeal to me. Those NoHo streets, when I first lived there, around 1990, were so quiet, especially on a Sunday morning. It was parking lots and auto parts stores, and the Great Jones Cafe.
Which is where we met…; are there other writers who inspired your lyrics?
What was I reading then? Paul Auster, certainly. James Ellroy. Nabokov. Going back now, studying the Luna songs again, there are songs I still love and others where I find the lyrics embarrassing.
And you can’t change them. Do you write different kinds of lyrics now? There are musicians who are more poetic when they’re younger and more straightforward when they’re older.
It’s still torture. But, I feel like I am doing it better now. It’s not the same as writing poetry; you have to be much smarter to write good poetry, or rather, it is written at a higher intellectual level. There are not-so-great poets like Rod McKuen, who I would consider a good lyricist. I would say the same for Richard Hell or Patti Smith. These are people who would all like to be considered poets, but the truth is, they are better in song. With songs, you have a different challenge — fitting the words with a melody, which can be really frustrating, for me anyway. If I think back to writing lyrics, I remember long nights staying up with a bottle of Aquavit and pages of nonsense that I would try to make sense of. But, in song, you also have a big advantage over a poet; the music helps you express things far more powerfully than words on a page can do. I mean, how often does a poem make someone cry? But songs can do that quite easily.
Did it help to have a deadline?
Yes, that’s the only thing that gets me to finish something.
How much would you change a song lyrically during recording?
All the time, because something might look good on paper, but the moment you hear yourself singing, you realize that it doesn’t work at all. One nice thing about making the records relatively slowly, over a period of six or eight weeks, is that there was plenty of time to come back and fix the lyrics.
Is there something about word collage that feels like it has already worked somewhere else, so it will maybe work here?
I certainly did a lot of that. Sometimes I would have four or five pages of choices, which I would narrow down, bit by bit.
Are the songs more revealing about you personally than you realized at the time?
Yes! I feel that more about the later “Romantica” album; that, today, I am almost embarrassed to sing those songs. Though, I could say the same of a song like “Bobby Peru.”
I like the “Romantica” album for that very reason. I like the sound, but also how it feels like something mysterious is going on beneath the surface. It creates an interesting tension between what you think you are hiding and what is being revealed. There’s real longing.
You hear some A&R people say they want to sign someone right after a divorce or a death in the family, because you’ll get a more interesting album.
In movies, the corresponding wisdom is maybe hire someone right after they have made a flop, because they will be more desperate to make a hit. The producer thinks the director is more likely to listen to him in that scenario. How long did you tour with “Bewitched”?
Two US tours. And one miserable English tour, opening for the Auteurs. Luke Haines is a nice guy, a really clever writer too, but the tour was kind of a bummer, for him and us both.
Obviously, Galaxie 500 cast a long shadow, and it seems like Galaxie 500 got bigger in the years after you broke up. When did you get the sense that people were coming for Luna, not for the guy who was in Galaxie 500?
Our first tours were opening for other bands, and in that situation, you accept that they are not there for you. But as things progressed, certainly by the time of our third album, “Penthouse,” you can feel an energy as you walk on stage, that people are excited to hear Luna songs.
When did the Luna “Kids” EP (with the cover image that looks like the poster for the Kids film) come out?
It was recorded when we were doing “Penthouse.” We had a lot of songs right then, and some extra covers. Close to twenty songs.
Going into “Penthouse,” did you have any sense that the band had really found its voice?
I don’t think we realized till afterwards. But I remember a listening party right after finishing, where we played all the mixes, and we were very happy with it.
“Penthouse” has a very “complete” sound to it. Like it could be a concept album.
Yes, sonically and lyrically, it hangs together. The album was done, really, in two sections. The first four weeks it was just us, tracking the songs with Mario Salvati down at Sorcerer on Mercer Street. Mario had recorded and mixed the Television comeback album, which we really liked. We had rough mixes for “Penthouse” that we thought sounded really good, but I think we were allowed to produce the album ourselves if we agreed to bring someone in to mix. Major labels prefer that your record be mixed by someone who has recently mixed a hit record, which makes a certain amount of sense. Pat McCarthy had just mixed that Counting Crows’ hit, and had worked with R.E.M., and went on to produce their remaining albums.
What did a “hit record” sound like in 1995?
Pearl Jam. Counting Crows. Live. Crash Test Dummies. The final three weeks were at RPM with Pat. Pat came in; he said I’m not just going to mix the record, but I’m going to help you finish it. So he had us go back into a lot of the songs, add new guitar parts, add other textures. He had me re-sing some of the songs. He had Stanley come back and re-do the drums for “Double Feature.” It was the first time someone had ever pushed me like that, say where I would spend two hours going over one little section of the song. I didn’t love doing that. But I can’t argue with the results. Coming from indie rock backgrounds, I think we just couldn’t believe that someone could spend three days mixing one song. But Pat, of course, came from a very different background; he started out working as an assistant engineer on U2 records, under Lanois and Eno, records that take a year and a half to make. He had a lot more experience than we did. He would sit there, painstakingly adjusting each syllable of the vocal track, just getting it to sit perfectly in the song. I listened to the rough mixes recently, and some of them are good, but Pat took the album to a much higher plane. The other album he mixed, that I really like, is Madonna’s “Ray of Light.”
Are the songs better on “Penthouse”?
I think so. And some lyrics I am proud of. But, sometimes, I think the best part of a Luna song is the section where the song disappears and the guitar solo starts or we just start heading into a whole other section. Like “23 Minutes in Brussels” is not much of a song, per se, but it’s great live, because of what the band does with it.
How did you choose the album covers?
We had a couple of designers we really trusted. Laurie Henzel (who went on to found Bust magazine and is married to Michael Lavine, who photographed us a lot). She did the first couple of albums. For “Penthouse,” our manager RenÃ©e introduced us to a designer named Frank Olinsky. And initially, we did a whole lot of individual photographs, RenÃ©e and Terry both thought it would be a good idea to put my face on the cover. The rest of the band didn’t love that idea, and I wasn’t about to force the issue. I remember someone in the music business telling me once — more people will see your cover in a record store than will hear it. In the 1990s, that was probably true. So, the cover is important. These days, most people see only the computer screen or their smartphone.
At this point it was all compact discs, right, so you are dealing with those size limitations?
Yes, most labels, especially in the US, were not doing vinyl at all; just cassettes and CDs. “Penthouse” and “Lunapark” vinyl were done in very limited quantities on Beggar’s Banquet and Summershine. There was no “Bewitched” vinyl at all. That’s why the Luna vinyl that is out there on Ebay is very expensive, if you can find it. Frank Olinsky and I went to see a show of photographs by Ted Croner, who was part of the New York School of photographers from the 50s. He had taken some beautiful photographs of New York City buildings. We already had the title “Penthouse,” which I think was Sean’s idea. And we picked out these great photos of New York buildings at night — shimmering photos — the light seemed to pour out of them. I met Croner, and he explained that these signature shots of his were partially caused by the cold weather; that as he stood in Central Park taking those photos, it was so cold that his hands were shaking, which caused these blurred streaks of light.
Has your singing changed over time?
I sing lower in my register.
You don’t sing falsetto as often with Luna. Is that conscious, or because the songs don’t require it?
I don’t know, some of the Luna songs are more conversational, half-sung, half-spoken. And maybe I didn’t want to keep repeating the same trick.
Tom Verlaine plays on the album, and who else?
Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab; they were also signed to Elektra by Terry Tolkin, and that was his idea. She sang with me on “Bonnie & Clyde.”
That was a secret track, right?
And that song is in “Irma Vep”?
Yes, and I like the way the song is used in that film. “Irma Vep” was at least partially about re-inventing a classic French vampire film, but with an actress from Hong Kong. So a re-invention of a Gainsbourg song by an American band fit.
So “Penthouse” is the last record with that lineup.
Yes. We toured the States, on our own, then we did a tour opening for Lou Reed. Stanley’s last show was at Central Park Summerstage. Justin and I felt we had to make a change. It was not a musical decision, but chiefly because he really hated being on tour. Stan always had one foot in and one foot out of the band. Which I can understand now, he was at a different point in his life. He had been in the Feelies for a long stretch.
By now you have toured with the Velvet Underground, then again with Lou Reed, and you’ve also played with Tom Verlaine and Sterling Morrison. What’s that like?
As a teenager, I couldn’t have imagined I would ever meet any of those people. I look at a mixtape I made in 1988 or so, and it’s amazing I later got to meet so many of those people on the mixtape, almost as if the act of making the mixtape had summoned them to me. People like Jonathan Richman, Alan Vega, Peter Hook. It’s also become clear that you can do a cover version and the act of covering someone’s song can bring you into their orbit.
Were there contemporaries you liked?
My favorite bands back then were probably Stereolab and Spiritualized. I didn’t like most of the grunge stuff, or the music on the radio. There was a lot of bad music in the 90s; grunge, trip-hop, Britpop. Well maybe not bad, but just not my thing.
It was a strange time, between grunge and the Strokes.
I liked Beck and Stephen Malkmus as lyricists.
Maybe our view of the ’90s will change. Lately I have discovered some good music from the ’80s, songs I hated as an adolescent, but I now realize are really good. Like Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long.”
It’s true, some things, as a teenager, are too adult; you are not going to connect. You say “look at that old guy.”
I was hung up on the ’70s as being better.
Records from the ’70s certainly sound better; that was the golden age of production. Even today, you hear some crap song from the ’70s, but the production is often beautiful, just the pure sounds of the drums or the acoustic guitars.
Were there sounds you tried to re-create?
Occasionally, I might try to nail a guitar sound by Glen Campbell, or things by Morricone. But we were not obsessive about copying old sounds. As the band developed, and under the influence of Pat McCarthy, perhaps, we evolved from being just “guitars and drums” and toward something more layered.
When Lee came in, were you worried about upsetting the balance?
It is nerve-wracking to replace your drummer. Everything sounds different — at first. But Lee was another trained guy; he and Sean both attended North Carolina School of the Arts, and we felt very comfortable with him right away. We immediately went on a short but grueling trip to Spain; PradejÃ³n and Majorca. And then, we plunged into the making of “Pup Tent,” and Lee had a really good bond with Pat McCarthy.
How long did it take?
Three and a half months.
And you said “Penthouse” took about half that.
Yes, seven weeks total.
How many vocal takes would you do at this point?
Pat liked to have me sing a song five or seven times, and then, we’d assemble a vocal comp. And then, we might do it all over again. So, maybe, I’d sing it fifteen or twenty times. But part of this is because I am writing as I go. If you’re recording a cover, with the lyrics set in stone, it’s much easier.
Were you working in ProTools?
Not yet. In fact we didn’t record in ProTools till we made “Rendezvous” in 2004. For these records Pat produced, he used two 24-track 2” tape machines, the one “slaved” to the other. That is part of what made this all so time-consuming — the technology. It was a lot of work to punch in and out, to comp vocal tracks — if you are picking a syllable from this take and the second syllable from another, and then getting the volume to match. In ProTools, it’s super easy, not only can you hear what you just did, you can see it on the screen. I’m sure none of us miss those days. Though, I have to say, it all sounds great.
So yes, the making of “Pup Tent” was long and difficult, at times. Pat drove us a little crazy. I hated the schedule we were on; we never got started till 3 p.m., and then the sun would go down about an hour later (this was rural Minnesota in December), and we would work until four in the morning and then play ping pong, and then it was hard to get to sleep. I would take an Ambien, and then wake up cranky, and the whole cycle would start again. I think our other problem was that we weren’t quite prepared; we rushed into the making of that album, before the songs were there. Though, sometimes, that works just fine as a strategy. There are some really cool sounding things on Pup Tent; “Pup Tent” itself, “Tracy I Love You,” “Fuzzy Wuzzy.” So, sonically, I love it.
It would be great if you could do one of those “Making of” documentaries, and we could go in and hear the songs in various stages of development. Have you thought about releasing the demos?
Well there are some demos in this box set, but just a few. Maybe one day we can release all of them.
Did you re-master these records?
With “Lunapark,” we are going back to the original tape and creating a new master, digitized at today’s higher rate of 96k-24 bit. But, for the others, we are just using the masters we have. These Luna albums were mastered by legendary mastering engineers like Bob Ludwig and Greg Calbi, and their work does not need fixing or updating. I recently read Mark E. Smith’s autobiography; he opines that “re-mastered” is just marketing talk; and often, it is just that — a way to convince people that the version of the album they already own is now inferior. Yes, there have been changes in mastering in recent years; everything is mastered louder now, maybe with added compression and midrange. But this is not necessarily an improvement.
How many of those recording studios are still around?
I think it’s safe to say that none of those New York studios exist any more. As the music business has changed, and Manhattan rents exploded, that combination of factors made it hard for them to survive. Didn’t you visit us at RPM while we were mixing “Pup Tent”?
Right, we were working on “Mr. Jealousy.” And you wrote “Hello, Little One” for the film.
Which we later re-recorded for “The Days of Our Nights.” But I prefer the version on the film soundtrack. You also saw us at work at The Place, over in the Meatpacking District.
The next record is “The Days of Our Nights.” Had you parted with Elektra at this point?
We made the album for Elektra, and it was put on the schedule, but a few months later they decided not to release it. Terry Tolkin was long gone. Nancy Jeffries was handling us, and she had been quite honest with us. She said if there isn’t something that the radio department can use, then our days at Elektra were numbered. She wasn’t threatening us so much as informing us of the pressures she was under too. I think the culture had changed at Elektra; it used to be that the A&R people ran things, but with Sylvia Rhone (whose background was radio) running the company, the radio department seemed to have more control. Looking back at the record, maybe they were right to drop us.
What don’t you like about it?
There are some good things on there. I just think we were a little lost, which can happen to a band. It happens to every band — if they stick together long enough.
I like “Superfreaky Memories.”
I’m not certain that I like “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” but there is something delicate and pretty about it; it’s a really nice drum track and Sean’s playing on it is great.
Sometimes, people are very wrong about their own stuff; they can’t see it clearly.
True. The members of New Order don’t like “Movement,” which is an album I love. Nico didn’t like “Chelsea Girls.” I love the cover image for “The Days of Our Nights”: the painting “Horizontal Blonde,” by Richard Phillips.
Yes, I always thought that would have been a good title for the album. I remember I was in LA, working on a TV pilot, when you sent me some mixes.
Some of the songs were hard work in the studio. And that’s what those songs trigger in me.
When I’m looking at dailies, I see all the difficulties we had that day: the weather, or problems we had to solve. Then, as the movie takes shape, I forget all about those things. But if I look again, years later, it all comes back, the difficulties in making it.
Yes, sometimes that’s what you remember, the pain of creating it. We finished the album, and then we got a call that Elektra didn’t want to release it. Luckily, we were also signed to Beggar’s Banquet; they liked the album, so we headed to Europe.
Did it do better in Europe?
I have no idea what the sales were.
Did you care about that stuff?
I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to it.
Justin left after “The Days of Our Nights”?
We toured Europe first, and in that time period, we signed a new American contract with a label named Jericho. And we did a US tour in the fall of 1999. But in this period, Justin started going back to New Zealand a lot, and, bit by bit, selling everything in his New York apartment. Then, finally, he gave up the apartment and just lived in a hotel when he was in town. And after our fall tour, he got on a plane to New Zealand and that was it. He got out just at the right time, before the music biz started its great slide, brought on by the mp3 and the iPod. That’s when Britta joined the band. She had an iPod.
How is this incarnation of Luna different from the “Bewitched” period?
I suppose we were more psychedelic at this point, more layered. Maybe that’s a trajectory that most bands follow, until they decide to make their “back to basics” album…; drums, bass, guitars.
“We wanted to capture our live sound!”
Yes, well we finally did that on the “Rendezvous” album. It was recorded live in the studio with minimal overdubs. But that, and “Romantica,” are not part of this box, which just covers the Elektra years.
What will the reunion be like?
I don’t know, it’s the first time I’ve ever done a reunion.
When I saw you play in New York last year, it was the first time I’d seen you play as a solo act. And it was unexpectedly moving to me to hear you play songs from all your different periods. I suppose you’ve had four major incarnations: with Galaxie 500, Luna, Dean & Britta, and the solo stuff. But Luna covers the biggest period of your career.
Yes, twelve years in the same band. At the time, that seemed like forever. Now, it doesn’t seem so long. The thing I’ve missed about Luna is how easy it is for us to get together and play the songs. I mean, we all work at it initially, but then it gets to a point where it is effortless, and that comes from playing together a long time. So far, it’s been a lot of fun doing the rehearsals. Of course, some bands reunite and quickly find they don’t like each other, and they break up again.
But this reunion is more of a commemorative one.
What is it about Luna, the band, that makes those recordings so distinct?
Well, first there are the songs we wrote together. Without Justin, there’s no “Tiger Lily” or “Chinatown.” Without Sean, there’s no “Sideshow by the Seashore.” But, I suppose what defines Luna is the twin-guitar aspect of the band; the way Sean and I play together or play off each other. And a shared sensibility we all have. I think that, before I ever open my mouth to sing, you can tell it’s Luna. Through the years, there were so many lazy reviews that said we sound like a certain New York band from the sixties, which I don’t buy at all. And look at the ’90s — where one grunge band often sounded like a copy of the next — at least we were doing our own thing.
I think of Brian DePalma; in his early career there was that lazy criticism that his movies were too Hitchcockian. But to look now — even though, yes, you acknowledge elements of Hitchcock — it’s so DePalma. Those criticisms are irrelevant now. I feel that way about Luna; yes, of course I hear the influences, but it sounds like Luna. “Kicking & Screaming” screened at BAM recently, and my brother Nico commented afterwards that it felt like the ’90s (not negatively, mind you!). Do you have that feeling with Luna, when you look back, that it sounds like the ’90s?
Hmmm. I don’t think our recordings sound like the ’90s — though, they sure don’t sound like the ’80s. But if I look at press photos, at the style of the photographs themselves, but also at what we are wearing, then it looks a bit like the ’90s; the backwards baseball cap and baggy T-shirts, the loose-fitting jeans. But, hey, that’s the only kind of jeans they had back then.
Interview conducted in March 2015 in New York City; edited by Tim Woulfe.