Interview: Galaxie 500 - Bucketful of Brains (1989)

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While in New York for last year's College Radio Convention, I was given a tiny fanzine that was praising a new rash of guitar-wave pop groups like The White Sisters, The Witching Hour, The Springfields and Galaxie 500. Later that week, 1 literally bumped into Galaxie 500's singer/guitarist Dean Wareham and Marc Alghini of Boston based Aurora Records who'd just released Galaxie's debut double-A side single "Tugboat"/"King of Spain" and album "Today", hoping to get some interest, and then saw the trio play CBGB 's Canteen. Both records became major obsessions for the rest of '88, as they stitched together all my favourite influences - The Velvets, Television, The Feelies, The Chills, The Verlaines,, Joy Division even - making up a new coat of ultra-vivid colours, blessed with an extraordinarily atmospheric, subdued sound. There was the blissful, primitive energy of 60's psychedelia, married to those later new wave explorations too. Besides The Clean/ Great Unwashed/Steven guitarist David Kilgour, here was my favourite guitarist since Tom Verlaine - not bad for someone who's only been playing seven years (Dean's 25).

Ironically enough, Dean was born in New Zealand, although he moved to Australia and then to New York when he was 14, so any connection with Flying Nun in NZ is coincidental, although the environmental theorists among us might say different. Certainly, there is that same fragile, slightly detached, faraway quality and primitive, purist touch that seems out of Britain's reach because we're so close to home. Dean met bassist Naomi Wang and drummer Damon Krukowski at high school in New York but Galaxie 500 only formed when all three had graduated in Boston. Dean and Damon's band Speedy & The Castanets ("our bass player's idea") had split and Naomi had taken up the bass. Galaxie 500's name comes from the American Ford motor car but they chose it because, "it sounded like a late Seventies one-hit disco troupe, especially with the 'ie' at the end," says Damon.

Boston's confrontational, metal-coated musical trends (Bullet Lavolta, Lemonheads, Dinosaur Jr) didn't deter them from persuing their graceful textures. They sent a tape to Taang! Records where Marc Alghini was working; he subsequently formed Aurora and released Galaxie's recordings with Kramer (ex-Shockabilly and ex-Butthole Surfers, now of B.A.L.L./Bongwater) in the latter's self-built No Noise New York. Dean had interviewed Mo Tucker for "The Bob" who mentioned Half Japanese had worked with Kramer -Dean liked the connection and the sound Kramer got. Which is when the great reviews began. Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore described it as his favourite guitar record of the year. Equally, Kramer thought they were pretty special.

"Today" was recorded in three days. The title was ironic since the band admitted their obvious sixties influences - sound, technique, values: "we're aspiring to primitivism," Damon once said - although they were less happy -but not outrightly denying - the idea that "Today" was reasserting those values in an age which had dismissed them. But Galaxie 500 don't sound like one of their antecedent, and as BALL'S Dave Rick puts it, how can a group that sounds unique not be, in some way, innovative?

Galaxie 500 have the next album already completed; "On Fire" will be on Rough Trade and is equally stunning, for all the same reasons. After covering Jonathan Richman's "Don't Let Our Youth Go to Waste" on "Today", there's a cover of George Harrison's "Isn't It a Pity", saving New Order's "Ceremony" and Red Crayola's "Victory Garden" for a forthcoming EP. As for those influences, "we like the rhythms of those bands because they were more repetitive," admits Dean. "I once read an interview with Lou Reed when he said that moving from one chord to another can be incredibly powerful, and that's what a lot of our songs are about." Not only but also..."I used to really like political music, but I really don't have an aesthetic theory to justify the sort of songs I write. I'm much more into playing the guitar."

B.O.B.: When I listen to your music, it makes me think of all my favourite music, all of it admits it's own vulnerability, it's own.

Dean: Limits?

B.O.B.: Do you like the same music?

Dean: Often times, I guess. With singers it's not necessarily primitive just for it's own sake. We're not into being sloppy but we record quickly. That's part of it.

Naomi: There's a lot of preparation beforehand but when it comes to the final sessions, there are happy accidents, and we're willing to leave them in.

B.O.B.: What atmosphere are you trying to capture?

Dean: It's whatever gives you goosebumps. Sometimes it's literally goosebumps and there aren't that many records that do that to you. It would be hard for us to play other music.

B.O.B.: You sound like you're very careful about the physical quality of the music.

Damon: We spend a lot of time worrying about the sound of the instruments, more than most, we are very particular about the sound of the guitars and the amps.

Dean: The structure of the songs is very simple even if they're layered, compared to a group like The Pixies or Talking Heads who are jumping here and there. Sometimes, that's a criticism of us. Most of our songs start quiet and then build, and some have two chords and then three.

B.O.B.: They start, build and then lead out on a guitar solo.

Dean: It's the most natural thing. That's the way that most rock'n'roll is. The lead guitar usually comes in after the second verse.

Naomi: We're less deliberate about these things like the format. It's not like we discuss the form, but wait to see how the song's evolving.

Dean: The way the band writes, someone brings in a guitar riff, plays it for ages and ages, then I start to sing a melody and the lyrics come in the very last minute.

B.O.B.: Why don't you put more time into the lyrics and then you wouldn't hate them and abandon some great songs (like "Song In Three" & "Crazy" from the "Today" sessions)?

Dean: Because I've got nothing to say. This is part of the problem of all interviews!

B.O.B.: Are you serious?

Dean: No. I have strong opinions about things like politics but music isn't necessarily the right format for that, unless you 're Joe Strummer. Maybe I should spend more time writing lyrics but you go into the studio with five songs you don't have lyrics for and you're in a real hurry and you spend half an hour on them, and some of them you realise later are not good.

B.O.B.: People must try and pin you down.

Dean: There are tough questions like, "would you describe your music as lightweight but with a big heart?". It's just things you never would have thought of.

B.O.B.: Isn't the journalist trying to say that there is a lot of feeling there but the music is almost introvert?

Dean: Maybe that's what he was getting at. Someone once said "less is more", which is from the Miller Lite beer commercials. The music may be soft and subdued but then live, we're slightly more ferocious.

B.O.B.: But you don't explode....

Dean: We don't explode because it's....I suppose it's not hard if you can come on with big amps but it's hard to rock out when you're a three piece.

B.O.B.: But BALL and Dinosaur Jr can so it's not a question of being a trio.

Naomi: It's not the music that I can respond to or want the band to be.

B.O.B.: Will your music ever get aggressive?

Damon: I don't think so.

Dean: What about "Don't Let Our Youth Go to Waste"?

B.O.B.: That's tense, not aggressive.

Dean: Do you mean a Stooges type thing? Whatever, it's not in us, I don't think. Do you consider the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray" as aggressive rock? I can see us doing things like that. "When Will You Come Home" is aggressive, isn't it?

Damon: Listen to that title! It practically seethes with aggression!

Dean: People are always saying that we're naive, innocent and romantic.

Naomi: "Pastoral with skinned knees" was one.

B.O.B.: But you have such a raw, naive, genuine sound.

Dean: "Genuine" is nice, though. I like to be naive as a human being because you don't go out and sing a song about the junkies on the Lower East Side and "fuck this, fuck that"....because that's what's juxtaposed to us. Minor chords are the saddest of all chords, they just sound good. Open chords sound better than bar chords, because they jangle more and chime more.

B.O.B.: The new album is called "On Fire", another ironic title like "Today"?

Dean: We called it "Today" one, because it sounded like a title the Stones would have used in the sixties, or the Beatles "Yesterday And Today", two, because it's so obviously influenced by 60's music. It doesn't use today's technology or some of today's prevail ing attitudes in so-called underground music. I guess we're close to a couple of American bands but in general, it's toward loud, metal -ish stuff, some of which is great of course.

B.O.B.: But groups like Mudhoney & Dino -saur Jr are as much a throwback as you.

Dean: You're right. That hadn't occurred to me. But then stuff like Live Skull or Sonic Youth really isn't a throwback at all.

B.O.B.: It obviously doesn't bother you that it's a reminiscent sound.

Dean: It doesn't bother me that a lot of people say it sounds like The Velvet Underground in the least. That's a good way to sound. They've been saying that about every second band anyway. Every other band sounds like The Stooges.

B.O.B.: Are you trying to recall past musics?

Dean: No, sometimes I'll listen to the Velvet Underground live "69" album which is like long, long passages pounding from one chord to the other, back and back again, repetitively with very small changes, and I get a visceral thrill out of all that.

B.O.B.: Do you get the feeling that too many bands have left this music behind?

Dean: The nice thing about some of the covers we do is to get other people to hear the stuff that's disappeared, like Jonathan Richman's "Don't Let Our Youth Go to Waste" or Red Crayola or George Harrison. There are a lot of people growing up who don't know The Beatles. When we do covers, what we usually do is take a song whose original is not so good. I mean, I wouldn't want to take a song like "Thirteen" by Big Star, which to me is so incredibly performed that I wouldn't want to touch it. It's nice to be able to change it.

B.O.B.: Do you think your particular music can be popular?

Dean: I think it stands a better chance in England frankly than here.

Damon: If people want to concentrate, it's not like the music's obscure and we're playing free jazz or anything like that. It's very simple but I guess it does demand a little attention and concentration and I guess that doesn't usually make for popular music in America.

Dean: I can see why some of the record labels have picked up on it because, I guess, unlike a lot of bands on the so-called "alternative" scene, the music is melodic or pretty but it's also more than that. I guess a lot of labels might see us as a band who they can step in on and clean us up but that's not going to happen.

Damon: Also they'd be pretty surprised what was left. Tiffany, that's what these record labels say to you, that they won't be happy with this huge level of sales, they want gold.

Dean: It's frustrating to sell 200,000 records, that's what we've been told.

A last note: Dean recently attended a Jonathan Richman concert when somebody requested "Affection" and Richman wouldn't do it. "Just because somebody has the loudest voice doesn't mean they always get their way". The group suggests those are words to live by.

Matthew Morrissey.

On Fire | 30

A 30th anniversary celebration of Galaxie 500's masterpiece

On Fire 30 CD sleeve (design: John Conley)
Buy On Fire | 30