LOTS OF BANDS have pledged allegiance to the Velvet Underground, but only one was selected to open for the Velvets' 1993 reunion tour of Europe. That was Luna, a New York-based quartet whose lineup testifies to the worldwide influence of "Heroin" and "Sweet Jane." When following the Velvets through Europe, the members of Luna traveled under passports of four different nations.
Singer/songwriter/guitarist Dean Wareham, an alumnus of Harvard and Boston reverie-rock band Galaxie 500, was raised in New Zealand and Australia; though he's lived in the United States for more than a decade, he's still technically a New Zealander. Bassist Justin Harwood, formerly of the Chills, has also lived in New Zealand, but he's a British subject. Guitarist Sean Eden, the most recent member to join, is Canadian. Only drummer Stanley Demeski, once of the Feelies, is a U.S. citizen.
The Velvets tour actually strengthened Wareham's resolve to become an American. (He has a citizenship interview next month.) At the Czech border, he and Eden were thrown off the train, while Harwood and Demeski were allowed to continue to Prague. They had to cool their heels at the border until the tour manager could pull a few strings and get immigration to let them in. "Countries like that," Wareham says of the United States and Britain, "they mean something."
Another result of the V.U. gig was that Velvets guitarist Sterling Morrison, who rarely plays on other bands' recordings, agreed to appear on two songs on Luna's second full album, "Bewitched," which was released last spring. (It was preceded by "Slide," a six-song disc that includes a cover of the Velvets' "Ride Into the Sun.") Ironically, "Bewitched" may be the least Velveteen disc with which Wareham's ever been involved. "I don't think our last album sounds like the Velvet Underground, except for the stuff Sterling plays on," says Wareham. "We're a lot poppier than that."
In fact, he adds, "I don't think we sound like the Velvet Underground. I don't think anybody sounds like the Velvet Underground. That's one of the lessons I learned from watching them" on the tour.
Luna is about to enter the studio to record its third album -- "really my sixth record," notes the singer/songwriter, counting the Galaxie 500 ones -- with producer Mario Salvati, who engineered the latest album by another major Luna influence, Television. Wareham says the new material will reflect his growing interest in '60s schlockmeister Lee Hazelwood, who's recently been championed by such diverse bands as Tindersticks and Killdozer. "Some of his songs are really strange," he says of Hazelwood, who's best known for his work with Nancy Sinatra. Despite this influence, the album may also have a harder edge. "We're hoping that it will be a little more lively, capture more of our live sound. The songs tend to be a little longer."
One reason that Luna can stretch out more these days is the addition of Eden, who didn't play on the band's first album, "Lunapark." "We didn't really want to be a trio," recalls Wareham of Luna's original format. "It's easy enough to make a record as a trio. You can just overdub the guitars, which is what I'd always done. It's more difficult live. (With a second guitarist) you can just relax and hear someone else play."
Wareham's skepticism of threesomes may have something to do with his tenure in Galaxie 500. "I was miserable," he remembers of that band's final days. "We were a trio. The other two were a couple. It's just an untenable situation."
After he left Galaxie, Wareham says, he wasn't even sure he wanted to be in another band. "I just knew I wanted to make records." When he heard that the Feelies had broken up, though, the singer/songwriter called Demeski. "I was a huge Feelies fan," notes Wareham. He had already met Harwood when Galaxie 500 toured Britain with the Chills. ("We had the same manager for about five weeks," Wareham recalls. "We had to fire him at the end of the tour. 'Cause he had a lot of money and we didn't.") Eden was located the old-fashioned way: through an ad in the Village Voice.
Though Galaxie 500 recorded for now-defunct indie-rock stalwart Rough Trade and Luna works for Elektra, a division of Time-Warner, Luna still has an indie outlook. The band is careful to control costs, so that it doesn't end up swamped by debts to its label. "Probably this record is going to cost even less" than the last one, says Wareham.
"I never entered the music business with a big plan," he explains. "I never dreamed of selling a million records."
"If you're on a major label," he adds, "you have a lot of people around you who have that dream for you." Most major-label bands don't make money, and Luna, like the rest, will eventually be dropped if it fails to break through commercially.
In the mean time, "Metallica keeps everyone employed," Wareham jokes.
Even though it might pay off, Wareham no more wants to imitate Metallica than the Velvets. "I think it would he a bad idea to sit down and try to write songs that sound like a particular band," he says. "That would be the most depressing thing. To make a record you don't even like. And then have it not sell."