Sunday, February 24, 2008

Luna and Dean Wareham – "So why aren't you guys more famous?"

I experienced a little sense of excitement yesterday when I learned that Dean Wareham had written a book about his life before, in and since one of my favourite indie bands, Luna (due out March 13, 2008).

The promo says that "Black Postcards" is also about what it's like to have to pretend to be civil as you answer the same helpful question over and over again, "Why aren't you guys more famous?"

I can't wait to see what Dean has to say.

I don't know the answer to the question, but I'll have a go.

Luna was a cult indie band that played from 1991 to 2005.

Like another of my favourites, Bettie Serveert, and perhaps the Go-Betweens, they seemed to have everything needed to generate popular and commercial success.

They flirted with major record companies (Elektra and Beggars Banquet), but ultimately they got jilted.

So ultimately they remain(ed) a cult band whose obsessive fans (e.g., me) wonder why more music lovers don't join them in their (my) obsession.

So What is a Cult Band Anyway?

I know this will sound like heresy, but I think there is a sense of both success and failure implicit in the term "cult band".


A cult band usually creates a sound that is different, unique, distinctive, quality, a worthy addition to what Julie Burchill used to sarcastically call "rock's rich tapestry".

This is the first and foremost duty of the band to itself and to its audience.

Everything else is secondary.

If the sound of the band is special to the band, then how many people "get" the sound is secondary from the musical point of view.

A cult band will usually have the right pedigree. In the early days, they will play the right covers, they'll name the right influences, they'll get name-checked by the right people. If they're lucky, some of the right people might even guest on their albums or invite them to play on their tours.

As a result, they will develop a dedicated following of early adopters.

A successful act of creativity communicates in some way (whether deep or superficial) with its audience.

We fans will want to buy everything, watch everything, read everything, see them every show and bore our friends senseless with our enthusiasm.

We will also look at our friends a little askew if they don't immediately share our passion.

The duty of the fan is to give the work an audience and space to breathe and grow.

This includes publicising or promoting the work if you're so inclined.

It means playing the CD to friends. It means buying new copies if it's within your budget (artists don't receive any royalties from second-hand sales).

It also means knowing when to stop obsessing and let your friends make their own decisions about what they like and what they want to buy.


I'm talking solely about commercial success now.

I don't know at what point of sales a four member band can live comfortably on their royalties.
Obviously, it depends on your costs, whether collective or personal.

Unfortunately, if you're signed to a major label, it's not 50,000 copies.

Most groups never get a shot at the big time. They never get signed by a major label. Equally, they never get dropped by a major label.

If they're not too obsessive about commercial success or fame, they make do with where they have got. They play music for their audience of loyal fans, they tour relentlessly, they work their butts off and maybe they make enough to survive without a day job.

It can be done nowadays, although there weren't the same income opportunities in the 80's and 90's.

This type of band can't really be said to have failed: if they are satisfied with what they have achieved, they have succeeded in their own vision.

If they are more commercially ambitious or set on financial success or they woo fame too slavishly, then they impose different expectations on themselves.

By failing to achieve these expectations, their only failure is that they have failed to achieve commercial success. So what?

It doesn't mean that they have failed musically, at least from a fan's point of view.

We fans have to make do with what the band was able to generate before the financial pressures terminated their career.

So ultimately the test of every band is: what were they able to achieve with the time and money available?

The Cult of Luna Takes Shape

I think my Luna CD's were among the first CD's I ever bought.

I had assembled quite a large vinyl collection when CD's were introduced and was a slow adopter of the new (replacement?) technology.

What attracted me to Luna was the sticker proclaiming "featuring members of Galaxie 500, the Chills and the Feelies".

Because both Lunapark and the Slide EP had been released in Australia by the time I found them, the deal was sealed when I noticed a Dream Syndicate cover on the EP (not to mention the Velvet's "Ride Into the Sun").

Quite early in their career, they supported the Velvets on their reunion tour of Europe in 1993.
Sterling Morrison played on a couple of tracks on "Bewitched" and Tom Verlaine played on "Penthouse".

It was clear that Luna was building on the foundations of the Velvet Underground sound and that they were firmly planted in the traditions of New York rock.

So I was hooked.

Defining the Luna Sound

The essence of the Luna sound is the standard rock combo: two guitars, bass and drums.

If pressed, I would say that the music is more important than the lyrics. However, I might be wrong.

What I mean by this is that Luna are first and foremost skilled musicians.

Unlike, say, the Go-Betweens, they are not essentially writers who happen to be in a band.

Music is primary, and the lyrics, while enjoyable, are songs, not paragraphs from novels (although I for one would like to read that novel).

Right from the beginning, their music strode the loud/soft divide like the Velvet Underground.

The louder stuff was driven by propulsive guitars and an always subtle rhythm section.

The guitars could be both rude or polite. But while they were often neat, they were never messy.

Some people call them simplistic. As a non-playing fan, I just marvelled at the melodies, even if they were simple or common or traditional or even classical.

By the time they released "Romantica" and "Rendezvous", I think they had taken their compositions to the level of an orchestra for guitars where they used layers of sound to develop a more complex textured sound.

As one critic has said, it was perfect music for headphones.

So to the lyrics…

Romantic, flirtatious, decadent, hedonistic, witty, sarcastic, mischievous, nonchalant, sincere, ironic, nostalgic, innocent, guilty, warm, cool, wistful, affable, arch, self-deprecating, funny, punny, comfortable, relaxed, moody, languid, intimate, post-coital, pre-coital…

Lou Reed might have captured the life and language of Andy Warhol's Factory set in the 60's, but Dean Wareham did the same for a generation in the 90's and noughties that were just getting on with business and life and love and more recently children.

Joe Levy has copped a bit of stick for his effusive liner notes for the Live album, but he does capture how a lot of non-critical fans relate to Luna music.

He also draws a picture of Dean Wareham that betrays a few Warholian brushstrokes:

"I often think of Warhol when I go to see Luna play. Not just because Dean Wareham stands still and shy onstage with a slight smile while his songs act out every manner of misbehaviour he can think of or orchestrate, but also because Warhol is the ground zero for the New York rock & roll that Luna have taken up.

"Without his outsider's desire, his fakery, his honest delight in invention, his thirst for gossip, his cruelty and kindness, his parties, where would we be?"

One of the things that I respect about Dean Wareham is that he came to the flame of New York from New Zealand (via Sydney), yet he appears to have fit in like a hand in glove, perhaps because he insinuated his hand into a velvet glove.

However, sometimes you need an outsider from Pittsburgh or Hibbing or Wellington to see things as they really are.

"So Why Aren't You Guys More Famous?"

Like any fan, I can only enthuse or list the reasons I'm a fan.

Yet my reasons can't be enough. I know I have friends who have no Luna in their collections, who have never heard of them or hate them as purveyors of wimpy dream pop rock.

It's not that they don't get it, some of them get it and just don't like it.

Perhaps, despite the Velvet feel, the music is just a bit too crafted for some? Perhaps, it needs to be a bit more torn and frayed? Perhaps, they haven't transcended their influences enough?

I guess I'll have to wait until March to see if Dean Wareham can shed any light on the question!

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