Lovers Rock

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If you are someone who secretly yearned to work at a music store circa 1996, like me, like the people discussed here, chances are that Luna — they of the lovely and atmospheric guitar ballads and frontman Dean Wareham’s priceless, Ivy-grade lovelorn quibblings — are special to you. The former RAs of college radio have fully graduated with Romantica, their first album with new bassist Britta Phillips (who previously provided the singing voice for Jem in the mid-’80s animated series Jem and the Holograms). Phillips and Wareham sat down recently to prove why, if the Utne Reader were handing out free subscriptions for indie rock’s most fetchingly blasé couple, they’d be set for life.

I think this might be your best album, which is a bit of shock because the last two kind of sucked. What changed?
Dean: Well, I can explain it analytically, but I’m really not sure. We have Britta in the band. I wrote a lot more stuff on this record than for the last couple. This one had better songs; it doesn’t sort of jump around all over the place. I think it’s really hard to pin down why some records are better than others. If we knew why, they’d all be great, but they’re not.

Did being cut loose from a major label improve your creativity?
Dean: Labels generally didn’t know how to deal with us. They’d be like, “Where’s the hit?” and I’d say, “Um, I don’t know.” So that pressure was gone. And we did things in bits and pieces. We didn’t have to go into the studio for six weeks straight and make the record; we did it on our own time.
Britta: I can barely remember it. It wasn’t labored over at all.

I like that the album celebrates bitterness in this very pretty way. Do you have a philosophy about that? Dean: No, I don’t.

Is this is a bad-sex or good-sex album?
Dean: [eyes Britta] Good.
Britta: [avoids gaze] I think it’s good. Um, I don’t think any Luna records are bad-sex records, are they?

“Black Champagne” is a pretty image. Where did it come from? Dean: I can’t remember. It could be stolen. Sometimes I’ll look through an anthology of poetry and just lift lyrics. But it might not be stolen, I don’t know. I think I might have stolen the “diamonds in my veins” part that came next.

What’s your most notable act of thievery?
Dean: On the song “Bobby Peru,” there’s a whole line from a Columbo episode. “Murder is sad, suicide is sad/Why would a girl like that put her head in the oven.” Some musicians think they can just go and, like, lock themselves in a room and create in a vacuum. I’m not like that. I have to feed my brain.

I read a piece in
The Stranger that contends 2002 is just the early ’90s all over again: a Bush is president, we’re at war, and everything on the charts is fake metal and dance pop. Do you see any parallels?

Dean: It does feel like vanity bands are dominating the charts again. But I don’t bother to get upset about that, really. You don’t have to listen to the radio. You don’t have to watch MTV.

What new artists are you excited about?
Dean: I feel like there’s good music happening right now. Not a lot of it is being made by American independent bands.
Britta: There’s just so much out there — this market is saturated with bands. I don’t know how people can make a choice and actually focus on something.

There’s that saying: when all else fails, buy a guitar.
Dean: Now, it’s buy a computer, a laptop, an iPod. But I like a couple bands. The Mink Lungs. My Morning Jacket from Louisville.
Britta: [sarcastically] There’s a great band no one’s ever heard of called the Strokes.

You say that without shame.
Britta: I’ve seen them live a couple of times, and I think they’re great. Although they need to work on their between-song banter. Right now it’s like, ‘Hey, how you fuckin’ doin’?’

Dean, as someone who was criticized for being an “aristorocker,” did it make you empathetic for the Strokes?
Dean: Um, yeah. The article made a big deal of the fact that I went to Harvard. I don’t deny that my background is somewhat bourgeois, but I don’t have a trust fund, and I don’t relate to people who come from wealthy backgrounds. But it’s all irrelevant anyway.
Britta: It doesn’t mean you can write good songs, you know?
Dean: It’s an old story. You can go back to Bob Dylan. There’s a book about Positively Fourth Street, which is about Bob Dylan and Mimi Farina and Joan Baez, and how they put on these personas and changed their names, pretended they were from farms. But you’re either good at it or bad at it.
Britta: It’s the experience of listening to music as a whole.
Dean: A lot of good artists were very wealthy. Van Gogh, for one. I think that gave him the freedom to do whatever the hell he wants without having to worry about the bottom line.

What are two albums everyone should own?

Dean:Crazy Rhythms by the Feelies and Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food.
Britta: I’d say something by the Velvet Underground. And that’s it.

How has the band dynamic changed since you joined, Britta?
Dean: You don’t want to know.

Is there sexual tension in the band?
Dean: Yeah, there is. I think we won’t get into that line of questioning.

If I ask the right question, will you answer?
Dean: [silence, interpreted as latent desire to have question asked]

Is everything strictly platonic?
Dean: Oh, all right. I’ll tell you, because if I don’t, you’ll read it somewhere else. Britta and I are seeing each other.

Congratulations. How long has this been going on?
Dean: About a week.
Britta: Not quite.

So have you ever had sex to your own albums?
Dean: [registers disgust]
Britta: No way. I’d be like, where are you? I wouldn’t be able to concentrate.

Photography by Aaron Lee Fineman.

Click here buy Luna’s Romantica.

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