THE LAST TIME the Weekend section conversed with Luna singer- songwriter Dean Wareham, more than three years ago, he was about to take a U.S. citizenship exam. "It was easy," says the New Zealand-born musician, who has lived in New York for more than a decade and in the country since he was in high school -- and recently became the father of an American-born son. "The test is a whole lot easier than you're led to believe. You know, instead of naming all 13 of the original colonies, you've just got to name three of them."
The edgy art-rock quartet has made two albums since then, but only one has been released in this country. The new "The Days of Our Nights" is officially available in much of the world, but not here. "American band, but no American label," Wareham notes of his quartet, which actually has only one member who's a U.S. native. "But we hope to rectify that soon. We're talking to some people and we think we're going to get the record out in October. It has to be approved by Elektra. They own our record."
Including the one the label won't release, Luna recorded five albums for Elektra, but recently the relationship had been, in Wareham's word, "deteriorating. We got along fine with our A&R person. But we had more and more difficulty with the people at radio, and it seems like they have more and more power -- at all of the labels."
The band approved the release of "The Days of Our Nights" elsewhere in the world, Wareham explains, because he and his cohorts -- bassist Justin Harwood, guitarist Sean Eden and drummer Lee Wall -- didn't realize until the last minute that it wouldn't be coming out in the United States. "We handed in the album and they accepted it," he recalls. "And then they took us off the release schedule. But these things happen all the time in the music business. I'm sort of surprised we lasted as long as we did at Elektra. It's a very different label than when we started. It's much bigger, and it's more of an R&B label."
Undertaking the short tour that comes to the 9:30 club this Saturday before the album's released, Wareham admits, "is annoying in the short term. But if we can get this record out on another label it's much better for us." Splitting with Elektra, he notes, will wipe out the band's debts for recording, marketing and tour support. He calls such "recoupable" expenses "an evil concept."
Although import CDs are rare in D.C. music stores these days, the Australian edition of "The Days of Our Nights" is widely available. "I don't know how many have come in, maybe a few thousand," Wareham says. "That means that our U.S. sales will be down a little, but our European and Australian sales will be up. I guess that's bad, because we get a better royalty here."
So far, the singer says, the album has done well in Europe. "In England, this record's got the best press I've ever received for anything, either Luna or (his previous band) Galaxie 500, and more radio play." Still, he says, the band is better established in the United States than overseas. "Certain places in Europe we're popular, like Spain and France. But except for Spain, I'd say we play to more people in the States."
"The Days of Our Nights" continues the more playful and eclectic sound of 1997's "Pup Tent," which was a major change from the dark, stately mode of 1995's "Penthouse." "If there was a shift in style," says Wareham, "I guess I would attribute it to the departure of our former drummer, Stanley Demeski, and Lee's arrival, because he plays pretty different. And also the fact that we used a producer, Pat McCarthy, who was really pushing us in directions that we wouldn't have gone on our own. Encouraging us -- insisting, in fact -- that we use other instruments than the guitar. He wanted us to experiment. He thought that a plain old rock band is boring."
Wareham supposes that such new songs as "Dear Diary" and "Superfreaky Memories" are "pretty close to what the band is like live," yet the album adds mellotron, trumpet, synthesizer and string arrangements (all by Harwood) to the quartet's repertoire. It also includes one track, "The Slow Song," sung entirely in German.
"I was having trouble writing lyrics in English for that," the songwriter reveals. "And our producer Paul (Kimble) heard that I could speak a little German. He suggested that the song sounded so pretty, and sort of American, why not do something to make it ugly and German? And actually I think it kind of works -- better than French or Spanish, I think."
Actually, Luna has already recorded a song that's primarily in French, Serge Gainsbourg's "Bonnie and Clyde," which Wareham did as a duet with Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier. "It's too sexy to sing in French," he jokes. "I just can't handle it."
The new album's real conversation piece, however, is from a different sort of foreign clime: L.A. It's a cover of Guns N' Roses's "Sweet Child o' Mine."
"We do like the song," Wareham emphasizes. "It's not like we're completely goofing on it. I'm not an Axl Rose fan. That's the only song by them that I like. We were just playing around with it in rehearsal, and it sounded good. It was in my vocal range.
"It's better than Sheryl Crow's version," he announces with mock pride. "It's quite dull, even for her."
Still, Wareham notes, the song was originally intended as a B-side. "It was recorded in two hours, with three microphones, after the record was done." He giggles. "But the people up at Elektra really liked it."