Galaxie 500 Cruises The Great Wallow
Sure, the pursuit of happiness is the American way.
But sometimes a person just has to ignore the famous words of Thomas Jefferson and Bobby McFerrin.
Sometimes you have to turn off the onslaught of advertising cues that try to instill guilt in those not chasing a brighter, slimmer, richer, more fulfilling future.
Sometimes what's needed is a good wallow.
While hardly a band for all occasions, Galaxie 500 is definitely a band for those occasions.
The rock trio from Boston, which opens for the Cocteau Twins on Monday at UC Irvine's Bren Events Center, makes melancholy mood music evocative of long, rainy days, when it seems far better to watch the world from inside a cocoon than to engage life and get all wet.
Dean Wareham's high, tremulous plaint of a voice is the perfect, commiserating companion for those gray funks (think of Neil Young singing a slower, tearier version of "Only Love Can Break Your Heart"). Wareham's guitar playing sets up a slow-moving, encompassing haze designed to hold the mood in. Bassist Naomi Yang and drummer Damon Krukowski are careful to make the rhythm waft, never prod.
Then, at some point in most songs, Galaxie 500 will realize that, wallowing or not, it is supposed to be a rock band. So the beat will gather intensity, and Wareham's guitar will start to gain mass and presence, throwing off groaning feedback. But just as Galaxie 500 seems on the verge of asserting itself -- the way such melancholic-rock mentors as the Velvet Underground or Joy Divison typically would -- it will end the song or pull back. The cocoon is too warm and pleasant. The wallowing is just too delicious to let go.
Does this mean that Galaxie 500's members are the wallowing types?
"No," said Wareham in a recent phone interview from his home in New York, speaking in a soft voice that still bears an accented tinge from his childhood days in New Zealand. "None of us are sad people or melancholy. It's just the way the music comes out for some reason.
"My favorite music is really melancholy," he added, citing such sources as the Velvet Underground, Television, Big Star and Joy Division -- all names from the canon of influences for contemporary alternative-rock bands that have a pop-lover's sweet tooth for melody.
Drummer Krukowski, in a separate interview, seconded the idea that it is important to separate the singer's (or player's) personality from the song.
"It's just what we like," he said. "I don't think it's that melancholy, anyway. It's not a very gloomy thing to play music in a rock band. It's kind of a silly, fun thing. It's not like wandering on a heath, reciting Byron to yourself. I do understand (why the band is perceived as downbeat). The bands we've always loved and imitated are certainly on the melancholy half of things."
Wareham's lyrics tend to be doleful, but sometimes a funny absurdity creeps in. "Fourth of July," from the band's current album, "This is Our Music," shares a theme -- sorrow amid celebration -- with the X/Dave Alvin anthem of the same name. A listener focusing only on Wareham's pale, lugubrious delivery might miss the humor in some of his lines that seems to gently mock depressive wallowing: "I wrote a poem on a dog biscuit / and your dog refused to look at it. . . . I decided to have a bed-in, but I forgot to invite anybody."
To listen to Wareham and Krukowski, who are both 27, Galaxie 500's distinctive sound and mood are more a matter of happenstance than a concerted drive to express their inner souls.
The three members all attended an upper-crust private school in Manhattan, then, by coincidence rather than plan, all wound up as undergraduates at Harvard. Getting involved in a rock band also was purely a matter of accident, as Krukowski tells it.
One of their Harvard classmates "wanted a band so he could meet girls," the drummer said. Because he was willing to pay for all the band's equipment, "Dean and I went along for the ride" and became novice rockers.
Dubbed Speedy and the Castanets, this precursor to Galaxie 500 played Clash and Sex Pistols covers and entertained hopes of landing a Boston club gig. The best they could do, Krukowski said, was develop a reputation for ineptness while playing at Harvard events. Then the founder left: "He had a flirtation with a fundamentalist Christian group, which told him rock 'n' roll was the devil's music," Krukowski recalled. "They also told him to forgive his debts," which meant that Wareham and Krukowski got to keep the gear their departed band mate had bought them.
In 1987, after all three members had graduated from college, Yang, who hadn't previously played in a rock band, took up the bass and joined her old friends. Suddenly, Krukowski said, what had been "a terrible-sounding band" began to show possibilities. "It's a mystery to us why it started sounding good after so much struggle."
The band named itself after a far-from-sporty Ford sedan from the 1960s.
"It just sounded nice, and looked nice written down," Wareham explained. "It didn't mean anything in particular. We wanted to let the band define the name, rather than the other way around."
While based in Boston (Wareham has since moved back to New York to be closer to his girl friend), Galaxie 500 has not identified with that city's prolific alternative-rock scene.
"We're not a hugely popular band in Boston. I don't really feel an affinity," Wareham said. "Boston has a lot of bands. It doesn't have a lot of good bands, in my opinion."
After all, Krukowski said, with more than a trace of irony in his voice, running with the pack wouldn't have fit Galaxie 500's image as a solitary, brooding bunch.
"We've always been down on the Boston scene. I guess it's our melancholy nature. We're lonely in the crowd."
Working with New York-based producer Kramer, Galaxie 500 recorded "Today," released in 1988 on a small Boston label, followed by "On Fire" and "This Is Our Music" for the more prominent independent label, Rough Trade (Rough Trade recently reissued "Today," as well).
Band members foresee a move to a major label for the next Galaxie 500 album, but it is not likely to bring changes in a style that could be described in Youngian terms as "Muted Glory." While generally praised by critics, the band has gotten some barbed comments for its languid, reserved sound. One New York Times writer theorized that the sound and sensibility of Galaxie 500 and fellow lassitude-rockers Mazzy Star exemplify "a kind of cultural catatonia" afflicting a post-collegiate "generation caught between dead ends." (On the other hand, it could merely exemplify the timeless human need to indulge in a nice wallow.)
"Up to this point, we haven't contemplated (changes)," Wareham said when asked whether the band had a more affirmative, energized side to show. "You can't let critics or the public or record companies dictate to you what your next move should be."