Luna: Deep In The Spectacle
Luna's Penthouse, their new album, is their best, and the most professional sounding moment thus far in Wareham's career. Where Galaxie 500's Today was a charming, naive, and collegiate take on the Velvet Underground, Wareham now sounds like he's risen to the stature, at least aesthetically, of the likes of his first big influences, like the Velvet Underground and Television. This is confirmed by their slot as the opening band for the Velvet Underground's only reunion tour, and two cameos from Television's Tom Verlaine on Penthouse. Except where the Velvet Underground, like future punk records, sound like everything is going to fall apart, like there is no tomorrow, with songs about heroin ("I'm Waiting For The Man"), death ("The Black 'Angel's Death Song") and identity crises ("I'll Be Your Mirror"), Luna sounds like all the anger's burned up and turned into low key cynicism. In fact, the Velvet Underground had already burned everything up by the time of their final album - the mellow and sentimental Loaded of 1969. Luna sounds more like the 1990s. All the bombs have been lit but they never blew. Their sound is almost reactionary. Says Wareham, "I don't think it's like everybody's obligation to be pushing the boundaries of music making. You don't have to do that in order to make something good and interesting. You can revisit other things without being retro. We have borrowed liberally from the past, but I don't think we're retro like Lenny Kravitz per se." Not many people are as retro as Lenny Kravitz.
Where the Velvet Underground, Television and so on both seemed so exciting because of the possibility that anything could happen, Luna sound like rock music at a wall with nowhere to go further really, and left with refinement and perfection as the only option. Wareham says, "I guess [the boundaries of rock music] have been pushed pretty far, but no more than they have been in painting or any other art form. There are still all kinds of interesting combinations that you can come up with. It is still possible to be original, I think. But most people aren't really interested in doing something original anyway. Everybody's got their own secret history of rock 'n' roll. I have the records that I consider classics. It is certainly very different than that of rock critics at Spin or Rolling Stone. I'm sure there are some of them that I share opinions with. By and large, those people have always been full of shit."
At this point, I want to make it: clear that I do like Luna. I look with a sceptical eye. That's all. Why should I take what Wareham says as the truth, like most interviewers do with their interviewees? Why should I take rock music at face value, like most rock critics do?
I write this last paragraph to set myself up to give attention to what Luna really does well. The fact that Dean Wareham, through three albums with Galaxie 500 and now three Luna albums, has crafted an instantly recognizable guitar sound is remarkable. By the same token, the fact that Luna and Galaxie 500 sound so far removed from one another is further credit to the respective members of each band (more credit to Luna though, because the sidemen of Luna are much more adept than the Damon & Naomi rounding of the Galaxie 500 trio). In the bass-drums-guitar-real time spectrum, Luna sounds like nothing else exactly. It is most connected to the guitars played by Dean Wareham and the other guitar player, a Canadian named Sean Eden, who joined after Luna's debut, Lunapark. Says Wareham, "We pay a lot of attention to the textures of the guitar. I think we use pretty different sounds from what most of the alternative bands out there are using, which is exactly the same sound on every single fucking record."
Luna's sound might also be attributable to a wide range of influences they take in, while they have the very distinct influences as mentioned before, they leave the doors open for more. Take the Serge Gainsbourg cover, "Bonnie and Clyde," with the surging cello and, Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab on vocals. Or, take the crazy bossanova rhythm track driven through effects which turns "Double Feature" into a fierce rhythm track. Or, sometimes Luna is playing off of Galaxie 500, like "Moon Palace" with its guitars drifting off into a neverneverland of reverb and sleepy noodlings completely with a "meow-meow" chorus that almost sounds like its spoofing Wareham's Galaxie 500 vocal style, which was a lot whinier. Wareham admits to the Galaxie 500 nature of the sonq, but says, "Hey I'm allowed." Luna take in everything around them from the beatific beauty of "California All The Way" of their Bewitched album to the "Nixon's in a coma, I hope it's gonna last" lyric of "Double Feature." Says Wareham, "We just rechannel everything that's floating around out there. I don't know if you could stick someone alone and give them no schooling whatsoever and stuck them in a room with an acoustic guitar for like ten years. Maybe they would do something interesting. Maybe they wouldn't. Maybe they'd chop up the guitar and use it for firewood instead." Well, I don't think music would be quite the same if you were all by yourself anyway. They wouldn't have any reason to perform music. "Exactly. It is a social thing."
Wareham also goes out of his way to give credit to his producers on Penthouse saying, "We have an instantly recognizable sound. Some of it is do with us, and part of it is to do with the people who produced and mixed the record. The engineers. They did a really great job and really tortured us." Wareham's also happy about the new sum of money that Luna gets to record. Spend the money and hear it get played between the speakers. Says Wareham, "Well, what I do like right now is having a decent budget to make a record with. You know, I like lots of records that get made for 5000 dollars, but it's nice to have like 100,000 dollars to make a record. So there's no rules about it. You know, I think the whole lo-fi movement is a deadend of an idea. Well..."
He trails off, even though I tell him to go ahead, because I agree. But what about expensive lo-fi, like taking a whole load of money and letting it blow up imbetween the speakers Waterworld-style? Wareham protests saying, "Well, the money that's left over we do get to keep, so we do keep an eye on it. There are limits."
Rock music used to be so wasteful and decadent. When even rock is tightening up its purse strings, then there really is a problem. Rock's not dead, it's commodified. Says Wareham, "I think music's always been commodified. I'm sure going back to Mozart. It is commodified. There are people that pay for its creation. It's not created in a vacuum." In the sense of the former paragraphs, its clear that music doesn't come from a vacuum. It comes from society. But now we come to the root of our society: money. This makes for a boring society in many senses. Wareham is right about music having always been commodified, but rock has now turned into a cheap commodity.
In "Lost in Space," Wareham sings: "You know there's something more/ But you can' t give it a name/ They're selling all your heros/ And they seem so tame/ You've heard it all before/ And now they say your case is tragic." For me, it suggests that everything is getting pretty disappointing these days. The argument that rock was dead as a social phenomenon stemmed most of all from the idea that it was no longer capable of really doing anything in terms of social phenomena. This argument has some validity, though aesthetically it's hard, and even pointless, to try and call rock dead, because how can an aesthetic be dead - perhaps exhausted at times, but that's all. Anyways, Luna seems to paint a portrait of a world where boredom is the biggest problem, and our war against it is the hardest one to fight. The passions are dwindling, and Luna, while pointing this out, don't seem to busy trying to subvert this. Wareham says, "I mean different parts of that song come from different places, different pages. The one about selling your heros, was maybe about something like William Borroughs doing Nike ads and the notion that there's nothing so disturbing or radical that it can't be absorbed by Madison Avenue at some point and turned around and used to sell products back to people." It also seems to be happenning quicker and quicker, especially in our multimedia world. If you can't make it famous fast, then you probably won't. But Wareham also stresses that the Beatnik culture that Borroughs emerged from is particularily susceptible to the increasingly quick commodification phenomenon. "It is easily assimilated. There's an article in the Baffler magazine (That's a music magazine that looks like a literary journal that comes out of Chicago) about the huge influence of the beat writers on American culture, and how ultimately their message, which was one of individual freedom and do whatever the hell you want, while appearing initially as a challenge to American status quo of the '50s is not really a challenge by this point. Now the message is Be A Rebel, Be A Rabel Businessman. It's not threatening at all to American power structure. It has been turned around now anyway. That message of individual liberty is now the message of the '90s businessman.
"It's the dual nature of art and product. That's what they call it up at the record companies: product. I know that Robert Kresknow (sic), the former head at Elektra Records was incensed because his bosses at Time-Warner would call him the content provider. He was the cog in the chain for providing content of the CDs."
Wareham sounds faithless and disillusioned and definitely embittered with music and art. Luna is cool in this sense, because they are definitely a sign of the times. They sound real. Wareham says, "I guess it's only music. It's only art. We're not out there killing anybody by saying that Pearl Jam is crap. Nobody's going to string anyone up." Does music have no prophetic qualities then? I guess music can make you cry. It's powerful, but as we know it I don't think it changes the world. It can change you for a night. Or it can change certain people's lives. You know there was a lot of talk in England about 5 or 6 years ago of the Stone Roses and stuff and about how it was the revolution for the kids. But going out in baggy pants, taking ecstacy and dancing is not a social revolution. It's a commodity in itself. Perhaps it's a phase, but not a revolution."
So where does the point seem to be? Ware recounts the making of Penthouse's Chinatown with its twangy Duane Eddy nature and Ba-Bown vocal effects. The song sounds good, and Wareham says they spent three days mixing it trying to decide how loud the Ba-Bowns should be. Wareham says, "For what I don't know, It has a nice sound to it, I guess. Everything just fell into place. Actually that's wrong, we worked really hard on it, so everything didn't just fall into place." Hearing Wareham say "for what I don' t know," I'm left wondering if this means that he is part of the group of artists who criticizes art while making more art (implying that art is pointless, but I don't actually say this). But he misunderstands me, and answers: "Well, you know what no. I pretty much go with the flow while making it. I'm not a perfectionist. I don't get hooked on things. I don't really enjoy doing things over and over again." It's funny after I think about this answer, because without trying to detract from Luna, Dean Wareham does so and as you talk to him like he doesn't give a care about it. It reminds me of when I interviewed Trumans Water for issue number 4, and Kirk Branstetter in explaining why he made music said: "You just kind of do it, because that's what you do."
After Lunapark, Luna's first album, they did the Slide EP, covering the Dream Syndicate, Velvet Underground, and the Beat Happenning. Their version of VU's "Ride Into the Sun" is glorious. It's so smooth. Wareham claims to be really happy about these songs: "You know it's good, if you go and sit down and listen to something and it makes you tingle a little." Tingling justifies its own existence?