Delusions of Adequacy Interview With Luna
Having disbanded amicably albeit somewhat wearily in 2005 soon after delivering the still satisfyingly rich and rounded Rendezvous LP it was perhaps inevitable – in this age where few acts can stay apart forever unless deterred by death or deathless animosity – that Luna would eventually reform in some capacity.
Having remained creative in the interim with solo, duo and multiple other projects it was probably just a matter of when – not if – the pre-split line-up of Dean Wareham, Sean Eden, Britta Phillips and Lee Wall might reconvene as Luna. Yet rather than go back into active duty at full pelt to get back on the same treadmill that tired them out in the early-2000s, the foursome have followed a more lateral and piecemeal return to the fray.
Having re-grouped initially in 2015 as a live entity, Luna have since side-stepped sweating over a collection of all-new songs in favour of the soon-to-be simultaneously released A Sentimental Education (a long-playing set of both fan-pleasing and Discogs-digging covers) and A Place Of Greater Safety (a stirring six-track EP of sculpted instrumental jams and soundscapes), on Double Feature Records (the label set-up previously for the extracurricular and curatorial endeavours of Wareham and Phillips). Whilst in lesser-hands these two releases would smack of writers’ block – or even pure laziness – they actually fit logically into the unabridged Luna story. Through A Sentimental Education the quartet remind us just how good they are as song collectors and reinterpreters; with affectionate imaginative and lustrous re-takes on less obvious pieces by the likes of The Cure, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, Mercury Rev, Yes, Squeeze-era Velvet Underground and Mink DeVille. Contrastingly, the wordless A Place Of Greater Safety more deeply and widely explores the languorously lush group interplay that made Rendezvous such a sumptuous swansong beneath its vocal-led surface.
Such a welcome, worthwhile and cliché-swerving comeback may have been less heralded than those of other contemporary returnees but it nevertheless warranted an email interview catch-up with the ever affable Dean Wareham and Sean Eden to lift the lid on how it all happened… and more besides.
Can you briefly recount what led Luna to reform in 2015? Was it an organic rapprochement?
DEAN: The idea was likely percolating in all our minds, but specifically there was an email from a Spanish promoter, [where] he said there is a rumor that Luna is getting back together, is it true? At that point I think none of us had spoken of such a thing. Anyway, he made us a nice offer, not really ‘an offer we couldn’t refuse’ but an offer for a two-week tour that sounded fun.
SEAN: Dean basically emailed me out of the blue in June of 2014 to ask if I was interested in doing some Luna shows in 2015, because 2015 would mark 20 years since the release of Penthouse. The timing seemed right, and I’d been wondering if we might do some shows again around that time too, and also people had been repeatedly asking me if a Luna reunion was possible for years…! So, of course I was interested, and the ball quickly got rolling on the touring plans.
Did you have any major regrets after previously ending it with Rendezvous or was it break that did you all good?
DEAN: Looking back, I think it’s clear we needed a break, from the whole cycle of recording and touring, from each other.
SEAN: Certainly at that time we all felt the band had plateaued, so to speak, and we all needed a change. Although for me, it wasn’t easy to transition into doing no Luna shows at all (!) but that’s how it was.
Before we discuss the new covers reunion LP itself, did you make a conscious effort to reunite and operate with a different – for want of a better description – ‘business model’, in response to the seemingly more dispiriting arrangements you had around Rendezvous and the now-defunct Jet-Set Records?
DEAN: Well, in that period (2002-04) you could argue that the music business (certainly the compact disc business) was collapsing, old ways of doing business were going away and though people might talk about ‘new markets emerging’ to take their place, I’m not sure that has really happened. It’s just gone. The new marketplace is a strange one; people come to market and give their goods away for free. Now, some thirteen years later, we could have shopped our new record around and found an outside label to release it, but frankly I get tired of doing that, you can spend months and months shopping around, and I’m not sure that labels really have much to offer a band like us. They’re in the same boat we are; it’s hard to sell music. So the easier thing is just to do it yourself.
SEAN: What Dean said. And yeah it didn’t seem like there would be much benefit to go through a new label/deal, kind of a better business model to self-release for a band like us.
Are there new logistical challenges to contend with now? Are you all geographically close or not?
DEAN: We are spread around the country. But we’ve been playing some of these songs so long that we can get ready for gigs in a hurry.
SEAN: Dean and Britta are in LA, I’m in NYC and Lee’s in Austin, so logistically it can be a little tricky, but it’s true that it takes us very little time to be ready for a show.
What benefits does using the Pledge Music set-up bring to funding the release of your new recordings and connecting with your fans?
DEAN: We recorded our album here in Los Angeles, paying for it with money from our live shows. So it was not a Kickstarter scenario. But the benefit of using Pledge Music is that we can quickly recoup all the other expenses we incur: mastering, manufacturing, artwork, making a video, promo photos, publicity and radio promotion. So instead of having to wait twelve months for the sales to work their way through the distribution system and get paid, we can get that money on the day the record is released. Which is a relief!
Sean, we know what Dean and Britta have been up in the interregnum years, but what have you been up to musically or otherwise?
SEAN: I’ve done some scores and soundtracks to a few films (Hypothermia, Not Yet Begun To Fight), played occasionally with other bands/artists (Chrysta Bell, Elk City, Girls on Grass, Gramercy Arms), have acted in a few plays here in NYC, and appeared in a couple web series (including High Road, former Luna bassist Justin Harwood’s weird and hilarious web series), and also done a couple of TV commercials, among other things.
Turning to A Sentimental Education, your new comeback covers album. For other returning bands of your era it would have been considered an odd, even desperate, move but with Luna’s past high pedigree for reinterpretations – as highlighted beatifically on the Lunafied covers round-up attached to your 2006 ‘best of’ compilation – it actually feels like a very shrewd artistic move. What were your thoughts and motives? Did you even consider or start working on new self-composed songs?
DEAN: I didn’t contemplating writing new songs. I thought an album of covers would be a fun way for us to make new music together. As you say we have done a lot of covers in the past, and they tend to turn out well. We would often go back into the studio after finishing whatever album we were working on, and bang these out quickly for B-sides, and they would arguably turn out better than the album we had worked much harder on.
SEAN: Doing a covers record was certainly a much less daunting task than attempting a full-length new album of original material, and we really enjoy doing cover songs. I kind of got the ball rolling on at least trying some new original instrumental tunes, though, and that became, the EP A Place of Greater Safety.
Do you have any fondness for cover albums released by other people? What do you think makes a good one?
DEAN: One record I love is Nina Simone’s Here Comes The Sun. But once upon a time pretty much all the pop records (and folk ones too) were cover albums. And your A&R (artists and repertoire) guy not only signed the act but helped pick out songs for them to record. Until I guess certain rock and roll artists wrote their own material — Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, the Beatles. I could pick any great album by Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley, and generally it’s gonna be covers.
SEAN: As Dean said back in the day most artists were doing only songs that other people wrote. I like David Bowie’s Pinups album, and The Who and The Stones and Nick Lowe and many others have done some great covers of songs.
How did you collectively decide on which songs should undergo the ‘Luna conversion’ treatment?
DEAN: I picked most of these songs — which makes sense because I’m the one who has to sing them.
Did you record a lot of tracks to whittle down to the chosen ten, given that you’ve already released one outtake via your Pledge Music site and more are set to appear later this year across two seven inches on Feral Child Records?
DEAN: You know about that already? Yes, we do have some extras coming soon on a pair of 7” singles, songs by Roy Orbison and George McCrae. You generally want to record more songs than you need. We picked the best for the album but there is some nice Luna guitar interplay on these singles.
Dean, was opting to remould The Cure’s post-punk-era “Fire In Cairo” in some way a reaction to previously taking on the better-known “Friday I’m Love” as a Dean & Britta track elsewhere?
DEAN: “Fire In Cairo” I’ve been playing on the guitar since about 1983 when someone showed me the riffs. That said, we don’t really play the original riffs at all, we took it in a different direction, less angular, less new wave, and the vocal is more intimate. I will say this — it’s hard to sing like Robert Smith. Both “Fire in Cairo” and “Friday I’m In Love” were challenging.
Tackling “Friends” from the much maligned Doug Yule-led Velvet Underground LP Squeeze could be considered somewhat heretical to your fellow fans of the group. Do you think history would have been kinder to Squeeze if it had been simply been billed as a Doug Yule solo album?
DEAN: Maybe you’re right and he would have been better off — you’d have to blame the manager for that I think, he seemed to think that you could replace Lou Reed and still call it The Velvet Underground, which is absurd of course. All my life it has been a record I never bothered to listen to; I’d seen it in stores but it was always expensive and I figured, how good can it be? But now it’s on Spotify, it’s easy to take a listen and judge for yourself. Anyway I have a lot of respect for Doug Yule, for what he brought to that band on Loaded.
SEAN: Perhaps. I do like “Friends” a lot though, and certainly Doug Yule’s work when he was in the actual VU was excellent.
What drew you to “(Walking Thru’ The) Sleepy City” from The Rolling Stones’ also misunderstood Metamorphosis?
DEAN: That album was released under the name ‘Rolling Stones’ but these were in fact demos, songs Jagger & Richards had written for other artists, and on some tracks Mick Jagger is the only Rolling Stone performing, backed by musicians like Jimmy Page, Jim Sullivan, session drummer Clem Cattini. The whole album has sort of a Phil Spector/Andrew Loog Oldham vibe to it. “Sleepy City” was written for a band from Rugby — The Mighty Avengers. You can find their version on YouTube. Anyway, I know it’s not a well-respected Stones album but frankly anything from this period of their careers is gonna be pretty awesome.
Given the slew of Bowie tributes of late, did you hesitate in covering “Letter To Hermione”? Why is it your first pick from his songbook?
DEAN: Our drummer Lee suggested doing a Bowie song but we didn’t want to do something obvious like ““Heroes”” or “Life on Mars.” The week that he died, Charlotte of Le Volume Courbe posted Bowie’s home demo of “Letter to Hermione” that I actually like more than the album version. For someone who is often at a distance, always putting on characters and or disappearing into science fiction, well it seems like a very personal song about a girlfriend and a breakup. Britta and I met him a couple of times when we were recording our L’Avventura album with Tony Visconti; he was super friendly and told good stories and we were happy to stop working while he did so.
The version of Bob Dylan’s “Most Of The Time” is one my highlights on the collection. Is it harder or easier to select from his catalogue than Bowie’s?
DEAN: This one was Sean’s idea. I was wondering how we would pull it off but it turned out well.
SEAN: Both Bowie and Dylan have such a vast variety of great songs that it’s not that hard to pick something. And to clarify what Dean said, I suggested doing the song, but it was a friend of ours, Mike Martinovich, who had been suggesting we cover this song for a long time.
Dean, what drove you to covering “Car Wash Hair” by Mercury Rev with Jonathan Donahue and Grasshopper joining in? Given that you guest appeared on the original recording and Grasshopper once played with Luna in the early years, was it partly about returning an extended musical family compliment?
DEAN: That was a long long time ago I recorded on that song with the Mercury Rev guys, would have been just a month or two after Galaxie 500 broke up. I remember sleeping on the floor in the recording studio in Albany, NY, in a sleeping bag. Justin (our former bass player) used to say we should cover this one so maybe it was his idea. Sean and I played it on acoustic guitars in a dressing room in Portugal last year, and that’s when we started thinking about it.
Sean, in respect to the A Place Of Greater Safety EP. As well as bringing another dimension to your canon it also reminds us why you gel so satisfyingly as a guitar twinning twosome and why we’ve missed Luna. Could you describe and explain how you work together so well?
SEAN: It’s kind of hard to describe, because there isn’t really a conscious process a lot of the time in terms of who is going to play what, and what it’s supposed to sound like, etc. We kind of just play and then react and adjust to what the other person is playing (and Britta and Lee), and most of the time we try not to ‘think’ about it too much, and instead just play what we feel. Occasionally, I get pretty tweaky and obsessive about guitar leads or overdubs in the studio, but I’ve found that mostly, though not always, the really good stuff happens fairly early in the recording process.
What do you think influenced you most on the A Place Of Greater Safety recordings?
DEAN: We did these pretty quickly, so it’s hard to point to a plan or influences. Two of these instrumentals (“Spanish Odyssey” and “Around And Around”) appeared in different form in the Luna documentary Tell Me Do You Miss Me. And I had a few half-baked ideas that I’d recorded on the iPhone Voice Memo app, so that was a jumping off point for those ones, just played them to the band and then together we changed some chords or added a bridge. [producer] Jason Quever came up with some really nice keyboard parts on these too. Sean’s track “GTX3” was more worked out in advance, he had a longer demo already done.
There have been a lot Luna vinyl reissues – via Captured Tracks, Rhino and under your own steam – leading up to the release of your new recordings. Has the whole ‘vinyl revival’ boom that has occurred whilst Luna has been out of action surprised you? Are there any more archival Luna releases in the pipeline?
DEAN: I guess it’s surprising. And the vinyl revival is certainly overrated, I mean people keep saying “vinyl sales are way up” and yes it’s true they are up from the ‘90s when no one was making vinyl, but it’s still a boutique thing. Talk to Nat Cramp at Sonic Cathedral about Record Store Day; he hates it! Captured Tracks are planning individual releases of the first five Luna albums (those that were in the box); at least I think they’re still planning on that.
SEAN: There’s a possibility we could release some live stuff on vinyl, as we have good quality recordings of a lot of shows from over the years, but it’s hard to say at the moment.
Overall, what have been the best things about regrouping as Luna?
DEAN: Having a good time on stage and on tour. The tour we did in 2015 was actually fun and I think people can tell when you’re pleased to be on stage and it makes it more fun for the audience too.
SEAN: Yeah, doing the shows has definitely been the best part. I really enjoy touring and traveling generally, so I’m usually in a good mood and having a good time. Especially onstage as there’s nothing quite like the feeling of that spontaneous energy from the crowd and within the band.
What can we expect from you once the campaign for A Sentimental Education is complete?
DEAN: Honestly, we haven’t talked about the future. We’ve just released two records at once so am going to enjoy that for the moment.
SEAN: What Dean said.