Dean Wareham’s not exactly the kind of rock hero whom people fist-bump over. But here we are in early October at Philly’s Trocadero theatre, trying to make sense of the surprisingly bro-y turnout at Luna’s Atlanta show, which took place just two days earlier. Both gigs, coming after a trial run of dates in Spain this past April, are near the outset of the band’s first proper tour in ten years.
“There were a couple blog reviews of the show and someone was noticing the amount of dudes, a lot of fist bumps and high-fives,” the 52-year-old singer-guitarist says, noting the atypical behavior with a typical trying-not-to-grin grin.
We look for a dressing room. Drummer Lee Wall is tied up in a phone call, bassist Britta Phillips gives me a warm greeting, and Wareham offers a tall boy of Stella. Second guitarist Sean Eden passes by, looking for a crew member, with the same perma-incredulous look that I remember distinctly from the Tribeca-wowing 2006 documentary Tell Me Do You Miss Me. That film chronicled the end of the band and the beginning of Wareham’s romance with Phillips, which began as an extramarital affair after she joined the group in 2002 and has since blossomed into its own marriage. These events were not unrelated; even though they’d already undergone a few lineup changes (the Chills’ Justin Harwood and the Feelies’ Stanley Demeski were the original bassist and drummer, respectively), it wasn’t until the coupling permanently changed the band dynamic in the midst of existing label and touring fatigue that soldiering on seemed fruitless.
In his first and most revered outfit, Galaxie 500, Wareham sang in an almost childlike scold, “I don’t wanna stay at your party / I don’t wanna talk with your friends,” under fiberglass blankets of resonating guitar. The languorous trio were champions for a specific kind of indie mindset that predated bedroom pop and shoegaze altogether; over three albums of highly “wet” guitar music, G500 were reverb-drenched Velvet Underground devotees who shocked the ’80s not via BDSM and heroin but debilitating social ennui. Sample Galaxie lyric: “Life sucks again / Watching trees decompose.”
Few second acts were as discrete as Wareham’s second band Luna, who first appeared in 1992 with Lunapark after putting Galaxie to bed with 1990’s This Is Our Music. Wareham’s unflinching fealty to the Velvet gods notwithstanding, this was something else entirely: Signed to major label Elektra, he now sang low, no longer reluctant of his true range, and kinda sexy. And the humor was no longer up for interpretation. Sample Luna lyric (in fact, the first lines on the debut): “You can never give the finger to the blind / Sometimes I act so stupid but you never seem to mind.”
“Galaxie 500 is definitely the one that makes people cry,” Wareham explains about his competing musical lives. (He also has a solo career and a duo with Phillips). “Well, some people cry to Luna. In Japan, I’ve seen people cry to Luna.”
It’s not that Luna doesn’t tug at the heartstrings, with their unhurried guitar solos and tales of regretful affairs. It’s that those moments now dovetailed with word salads like 1997’s “IHOP” (“Is there a doctor in the house? In the house of pancakes / You’ve got a banana split personality”) and unlikely covers like their take on “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” the original of which was topping the Hot 100 in 1988 while Galaxie was reluctantly embracing college radio. Oh, and the dreamy mini-epic “Fuzzy Wuzzy” is named after a colloquialism for a woman’s vagina.
As you’d expect, the more earnest band is recalled with more adulation, even though Luna’s 1995 wry and tender masterstroke Penthouse slipped into the very bottom of Rolling Stone’s Best Albums of the 1990s list. But the sophomore band has a cult of their own, elated for this current reunion tour, and even the leader himself chokes up a little returning to this swath of his canon.
“Certainly the first time playing ‘Chinatown’ or ‘Tracy I Love You,’ that’s a Luna song that can get to me and get to other people too,” says Wareham, referring to fan favorites from Penthouse and 1997’s Pup Tent. “Music can do that, music is a powerful art. It’s the most direct to people’s soul I think, more than poetry or film. The quickest anyway, the quickest to trigger emotions.”
Are the reunion offers lucrative?
“We’re not getting rich like the Pixies or anything like that,” he says laughingly.
And of course, will there be a new album?
Probably not, the only post-reunion album he’s ever cared about himself was Television’s in 1993.
Still, Luna is engaging with some of the tropes that come with a reunion and overdue critical re-evaluation. This fall marked the 20th anniversary of Penthouse, and the band did license the old albums for upcoming reissues. Plus, the iTunes-only covers compilation Lunafied might see physical release for the first time, allowing more people to hear their kazoo-aided version of Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” or their disconcertingly natural cover of “Neon Lights” by Kraftwerk, who’d just passed through Philly as well, causing Wareham to wax rhapsodic.
“The songs are so simple, but they’re so brilliant and the topics just resonate for the 20th century,” he says of the German electronic trailblazers. “Radiation and highways.”
Despite having last toured behind Luna’s 2004 swan song, Rendezvous, the band started to sound like themselves again after just three days of rehearsals.
“I’m surprised about how fun it’s been,” says Wareham. “We can get a little cranky with each other too, but we’re all grown up about it. We can come back 20 minutes later and say I’m sorry. I think we all kind of love each other on one level and that was impossible to see in 2004.”
Onstage later, the band gently resurrects classics like “Friendly Advice” and “Pup Tent” while taking their time adjusting to the cameraphones and slew of requests, one of which can’t be met because Wareham forgets the words. He wasn’t wrong about the newfound bro contingent in their audience; chants of “Let’s go Lu-na” to the tune of “Let’s go Fly-ers” will haunt the encore break.
“Hey now, we’re gonna play two of the three songs you just called out,” Wareham says, reasoning with the crowd.
Another audience member shouts, “You’ll have to tour again with the rest of the songs!”
Wareham smiles and turns away at the same time.