Fifteen years ago, as frontman for dream-pop purveyors Luna, Dean Wareham was heralded as the heir apparent to such hipster luminaries as Lou Reed and Tom Verlaine.
Now, working as part of the duo Dean & Britta, which includes former Luna bassist Britta Phillips, who also happens to be his wife (March 10 was their one-year anniversary), Wareham’s soothing, gentle, psychedelic-tinged pop is being tagged in some quarters as “indie easy listening”.
Wareham is aware of the label, but says during an interview from his New York apartment he objects to it being applied to Back Numbers, Dean & Britta’s second disc.
“Maybe the music is being called easy listening because we use a vibraphone player and it’s easy on the ears,” he speculates. “But that is not what we’re doing.”
Wareham is speaking after having just returned from a long rehearsal where he and Britta were working with the musicians who will accompany them on a tour to promote “Dean & Britta”. The tour kicked off March 8 in Philadelphia.
Asked to compare his new band with Luna, which broke up after a triumphant farewell tour in 2005 (the band’s final days are depicted in the 2006 documentary Tell Me Do You Miss Me), Wareham says, “It’s really hard work to play these (new) songs. I’ve come to realize that with Luna, it was easy playing the same songs for 12 years, although with (the new band) I can turn up the vocals so I can hear myself sing on stage.”
On most dates, Wareham and Phillips will be backed only by keyboardist Meyer Ratkem and drummer Anthony LaMarca. But for a handful of shows, multi-instrumentalist Sean McCaul will be on hand to add the vibraphone touches that give Back Numbers much of its character. McCaul also will be the opening act.
“We used this guy on our first record, (2003’s L’Aventurra),” says Wareham of McCaul, who plays vibes in a band called ReLM as well as leading his own trio. “(Producer) Tony Visconti ran into him. He plays in the New York subway four hours a day on the El platform at Sixth Avenue. He is a dazzling musician. He used to work at Tony’s studio four or five years ago. Unfortunately, we can’t take him with us (on every date) because we can’t afford the extra person.”
Back Numbers includes a variety of carefully shaded moods. “Words You Used to Say”, which Wareham says is about “people growing a little older”, is among the strongest tracks and has been made into a video.
“That one had been sitting around for a while,” says Wareham. “Over the years the song changed quite a bit. (Ex-Spacemen 3 member) Sonic Boom was in town and came up with that synth part that radically changed it. Originally it was something like ‘Angie’. It had that Stonesy feeling.”
The disc also has moments of whimsy—“White Horses”, for example, is the theme song of a Serbian TV show popular in England in the early 1960s, while “Crystal Blue R.I.P.” was inspired by the death of a pet. “A friend had a bunny named Crystal Blue, and when it died she sent out a long e-mail about it,” says Wareham.
Has the friend heard the song? “Yes,” he answers. “She said it made her cry.”
On the other end of the emotional scale is “The Sun Is Still Sunny”, which appeared as in instrumental form on the Dean & Britta-scored soundtrack of the 2005 film The Squid and the Whale. “The (phrase) `the sun is still sunny’ sounds like something by Dr. Seuss,” muses Wareham, “so on some level I may have lifted (the lyrics) from one of our best poets.”
One of Back Numbers’ more unusual tracks is the country-tinged “Say Goodnight”, which includes the wonderful line “I fell in love with how far we had fallen.”
“Britta wrote that,” says Wareham. “I helped with the music. ... I could make a whole country album. Lee Hazelwood once said, `I take basic country stuff and dress it us as pop music.’ With what I do, it’s the opposite.”
Speaking of Hazelwood, Dean & Britta memorably cover one of his songs on their new disc, “You Turn My Head Around”, which was originally sung by actress Ann-Margret. “I found a used seven-inch (single) in Boston,” says Wareham. “It’s a great psychedelic gem hardly anyone knows about.
“I got an MP3 of that to (Hazelwood) last week. He lives in Florida now and is fighting renal cancer. I was told Lee smiled when he heard it and that he liked it. I interviewed him for (music magazine) CMJ once. I remember him saying, `I really like Ann-Margret, but she oversings.’”