RIDING THE FIERY BREEZE
MARTIN O'GORMAN CHARTS THE CAREER OF THE SEMINAL BOSTON 'DREAMPOP' BAND, AND ASKS FORMER MEMBERS Damon & Naomi WHY THEY DECIDED TO RECORD THEIR NEW ALBUM WITH ONLY THEIR CAT FOR COMPANY.
"Our sound is a Hegelian synthesis between the abstract and the concrete. We have the music and the lyrics, and both are improved by each other. Thus, they come out in this synthetic whole we call Galaxie 500."
Defining your band's music in terms of 19th Century philosophers is one approach, but singer Dean Wareham had very little to go on when describing the music of his band Galaxie 500. The quavering vocals, the two-chord drone, the light drumming - it's what's not there that counts
The growing popularity of slower, almost confessional, personal music has made the release of "The Portable Galaxie 500" collection all the more timely - groups such as Low, Smog, Sugar Plant, and even Radiohead bear the influence of Boston's finest in some way. While the controlled emotion of the studio albums demonstrates one side of the band, last year's live album, "Copenhagen", documented Galaxie 500's brooding guitar-driven power on stage. Their tale draws many parallels with one of their major influences: The Velvet Underground. Undervalued during the group's lifetime, it's only posthumously that critical acclaim has been received from all quarters.
DON'T LET OUR YOUTH GO TO WASTE
The story starts in New York City, where New Zealander Dean Wareham, Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang attended high school together. After graduation in 1981, Dean and Damon enrolled in college in Cambridge, Massachusetts and formed an archetypal student band - Dean on guitar and vocals, Damon on drums. Although Damon was formally trained in piano and guitar, drums were just a "goof I picked up at high school", while Dean had had "four lessons from some guy who showed me a few Cramps songs and about four scales". The group covered numbers by the Sex Pistols, Joy Division and the Clash, and when Naomi enrolled a year later, she supported the band by designing posters and backdrops.
Damon & Naomi decided to stay on at graduate school in Cambridge, studying English and architecture respectively. Dean moved back to New York to form a new band, hooking up with Damon whenever he was in the area. After unsuccessful auditions for a bass player, Naomi put herself forward, even though she had no previous experience. A summer of rehearsal followed, and Dean announced that he was going to move back to Boston to keep the group together - plus, "I had nothing better to do". They decided to name the band Galaxie 500, after the classic American automobile. Their first gig was at Dean's going-away party at his apartment in Manhattan. "We played four or five songs," he recalled in the sleevenotes for the band's 1996 boxed set. "I remember being pleased that I didn't break any strings." On August 11th 1987, the band entered New York's 6/8 studios to record a demo tape, featuring "Walking Song", "The Other Side" and "On the Floor".
Galaxie 500's public debut was at Chet's Last Call in Boston on October 1st, during which the other acts heckled the band for being 'wimpy', Naomi asserted in 1990: "It's a brave thing to go out and not stand onstage doing the typical rock poses. It's saying you need strength to be vulnerable." According to Damon, their ambition was to "headline this bar on a Saturday, because we were always playing it at lam on a Tuesday, and to get a record out". Luckily, the demo tape was gaining some radio play from a DJ friend, prompting Galaxie 500 to record again, but with better production this time. After reading a fanzine article, they called the head of Shimmy Disc Records, Kramer, at his Noise New York studios, where a session was arranged for February 1988.
Kramer became the catalyst for the nascent Galaxie 500 sound. "He pushed up the reverb and said 'Well?' ", remembers Naomi, "We said, 'OK! Sounds good.' " The session produced four songs, two of which, "Tugboat" and "King of Spain", became the first release on the local Aurora label in May 1988. The trio then made their way back to Noise New York to provide Aurora with an EP. "What I did was OK with you?" was Kramer's greeting to the band. The projected EP turned into an album, recorded for a miniscule $750. With all the tracks recorded in one take, the straightforward performance of the songs was augmented by accidental ambient sounds that contributed to the atmosphere: "The interference in terms of distortion or a strange noise is something that I was happy to leave in and so was Kramer," said Wareham in 1989, "He got us to do things that we wouldn't have done. With the vocals- on 'Oblivious', I couldn't hit a note, so he slowed the tape, had me sing it, and then sped it up again. That's why it sounds very strange there."
The title of the album was "Today", described by Dean "as a joke. It's suggestive of music as product", while Kramer provided a suitably spaced-out sleeve note, exclaiming: "Come ride the fiery breeze of Galaxie 500!" The album received critical acclaim on these shores, with Melody Maker calling it "an astonishing debut by anybody's standards". Rough Trade picked up the option to release "Today" in the UK and Europe, but the album found support hard to come by in their home country: "It was really hard," said Dean in 1989, "We were on this tiny record company and there aren't the sort of music papers in the States that there are [in the UK]; there's really no way that a small independent band can get its name about."
The band made several trips to Blighty, where the audiences were more appreciative, while at home, short lived attention came fromGeffen Records. However, it was the more obscure Slash label that showed the greater interest, sending the band into the studio in February 1989 to record demos, including "Strange" and "Cold Night". A short US tour in Spring that year included a support slot with Throwing Muses, but despite these incendiary appearances, Slash's offer was only valid if Galaxie 500 employed a light show. They passed.
LEAVE THE PLANET
Galaxie 500 were soon lumped in with the burgeoning "Boston scene", featuring such luminaries as Throwing Muses and the Pixies, both of whom were making it big in '89. However, the band didn't feel part of any 'movement', as Damon recalls: The sound in Boston at the time was either a kind of heavy rock, or overly clever post-New Wave college bands. We had some friends on the scene, but we didn't feel a musical connection to anyone else particularly. We didn't know the Pixies or the Muses, though we met both bands at shows (we opened for each of them once), but they - and we, for that matter - were more visible overseas than in Boston."
After appearing at the New Music Seminar in LA on July 19th, the band returned to the studio to complete their follow-up LP with Kramer. "On Fire" was released in October 1989, with worldwide distribution by Rough Trade. Melody Maker called it "a stunning collection of daydream pop", while Sounds described the album as "utter magnificence". Naomi remembered in 1996 that "our sound finally had a real direction. I suppose that was the liminal moment between musical naivete' and experience." A European tour culminated in a show at London's Subterania, at which Melody Maker journalist Everett True famously heckled "Play slower, quieter!"
A UK-only 12" of "Blue Thunder" was released in February 1990. The song was inspired by Dean's car (although Naomi thought it was "about storms crashing against lightning-flecked mountain tops. I was incredibly disillusioned when I found out."), and was remixed from the album version to include a saxophone solo. "Kramer brought in his friend Ralph Carney," said Damon. "He just said, 'Here's the song' and Ralph went 'Just cue me Kramer' and it's Waah, waah, whaap! We were all dying laughing in the studio..."
The EP contained another of Galaxie 500's trademark covers: New Order's "Ceremony". "We thought it was an obscure song," said Damon at the time, "You couldn't really get it in the States." The song came back to haunt them when the band supported the Sundays on their UK tour in February. "Peter Hook came to see us backstage," remembers Damon today. "He picked up Naomi's bass and said: 'Right! Let me show you how to play that song!' " "It's kind of like the nightmare that your idol comes to you and says 'You're doing it all wrong!' " recalls Naomi. "She was struck dumb in Peter Hook's presence," continues Damon, "It was hilarious. We gave him a beer, he drank it, crushed the can and then he left..."
With Damon & Naomi giving up their studies and Dean moving back to New York, tracks for the next album were recorded in June 1990, with Kramer still at the helm. "When Dean moved back to New York, it affected the band mostly because he allowed it to," remembers Damon. "He wouldn't make any special arrangements to rehearse, for example. Maybe he wanted it to become an issue. As a result, I think the songs on the last album were written less collaboratively than the first two - we were bringing songs into rehearsal in a more finished state than we had earlier, simply because we didn't have as much rehearsal time to work them out." Wareham recalled that "things were tense in the studio ... we worked eight or nine very short days, starting at 2pm, finishing by 6pm mostly." Krukowski comments that "the real highlights of that album are instrumental, in my opinion. Maybe because that's what we were truly working on together at that point."
Nevertheless, any problems between the musicians did not show in the finished product, entitled This Is Our Music, after Ornette Coleman. While Sounds claimed that it was an "album slightly less than we might have hoped for", the LP contained some of the band's finest recorded moments, including the forlorn opener "Fourth of July", and an eerie cover of Yoko Ono's "Listen, the Snow Is Falling" sung by Naomi. Prior to the album's release in October, Galaxie 500 played several UK shows with Teenage Fanclub and opened that year's Glastonbury Festival, at the bottom of a bill featuring Adamski and Happy Mondays. It was not the ideal venue for Galaxie 500; "It was a farce," says Damon. When Wareham decided to take a break from Galaxie 500, Krukowski and Yang kept themselves busy. "Kramer's studio was falling apart," says Naomi. "It was a 16-track studio, which with time became 15-track. We thought maybe we could take Kramer to a better studio, and there was this great one in Boston called Q-Division. Damon and I decided that we'd record a few songs at this studio in order to test it out." These songs were released as the "Pierre Etoile" EP in 1991. "We didn't want to steal the Galaxie 500 sound for this project," continues Naomi. "I didn't do any singing because I sang in Galaxie 500 a little bit, so we were consciously avoiding that, which was insane in retrospective, because we had no idea that the band was falling apart anyway."
The band had embarked on their first full-blown US tour that winter, and subsequently opened for the Cocteau Twins in March 1991. Following what was to be the final Galaxie 500 show at Bowdoin College in Maine, preparations were being made for a visit to Japan. "I called Dean about getting tickets for the tour," Damon remembers. "He just said 'No, I quit'. And that was it. He had plans, but he hadn't told us. He wouldn't tell us why. He said 'There's nothing to talk about.' We haven't spoken since. To do the box set we communicated by fax and through third parties. But we have not spoken, because we decided, that he had nothing to say to us, we have nothing to say to him, as childish as it might sound."
ISN'T IT A PITY
The two camps went their separate ways. Wareham recorded a solo single, "Anesthesia" in February 1992, before hooking up with bass-player Justin Harwood of New Zealand band the Chills. Wareham then called ex-Feelies drummer Stanley Demeski, saying: "Stanley, you don't know me, but you're in my new band." Demeski replied: "Oh really... what's it called?" Wareham flipped through a pack of Tarot cards and replied: "Luna." The band signed to Elektra, clinching a high-profile support slot on the 1994 Velvet Underground reunion tour. Famous guest stars are another Luna fixture: the late Sterling Morrison featured on the "Bewitched" album and Tom Verlaine appeared on "Penthouse" in 1995, while the band recently provided material for the film Mr. Jealousy. In between Luna projects, Wareham recorded an album of covers featuring his wife Claudia Silver,under the name of Cagney and Lacee.
After "Pierre Etoile", Damon & Naomi stayed with Kramer for "More Sad Hits" in 1992, who convinced them to drop the Pierre Etoile moniker (it means 'rock star') and go with their own names. After 1995's "The Wondrous World Of. . .", the pair split with Kramer to record 1998's "Playback Singers" at home. Krukowski and Yang also became the rhythm section of Magic Hour, "a lark that started with a message on our answering machine from Kate Biggar of Crystallised Movements," says Damon. "We thought, that's the craziest idea, because Crystallised Movements were very loud and rock, and no one thought of us that way." In between musical projects, the duo also run Exact Change, a publishing company that reprints classic works of literature, including surrealist works by Andre Breton, Giorgio de Chirico, and Franz Kafka.
In 1996, Damon & Naomi finally laid to rest the spectre of Galaxie 500, issuing a lavish box set containing the band's entire recorded output, along with reissues of the three studio albums through Rykodisc. The collapse of Rough Trade in the early 90s meant that the albums were unavailable for many years. "Rough Trade declared bankruptcy without ever having accounted to or paid Galaxie 500 any royalties," says Krukowski. "Not a penny. The rights to our records then went into bankruptcy court in New York. A dark day came and the court held an open auction to sell everything that belonged to Rough Trade U.S. Our rights were to be sold to the highest bidder. Naomi and I went to the auction (Dean didn't show), and placed a bid on behalf of all three of us. No one else placed a bid, either out of courtesy to us or because the records didn't seem to have any value, and so the rights became the band's. Now all our records -the Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi records - are licensed to record companies." His efforts ensured that the musical legacy of this unique band can be enjoyed again. Once more we can hear the delicately introverted soundtrack to a thousand sad and lonely nights; once more we can "ride the fiery breeze" of Galaxie 500.