Rank Your Records: Dean Wareham Orders Luna’s Seven Records
The frontman looks back at the discography of the band that Rolling Stone once called “the greatest rock and roll band that no one’s heard of.”
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Between 1992 and 2004, New York City’s Luna recorded seven full-length albums of flowing and sophisticated indie rock that earned the band a respectable cult following. They also released a 2006 documentary, Tell Me Do You Miss Me, a warts-and-all look at a band unravelling at the seams, ready to play their farewell show and leave Luna behind them. The doc felt like the nail in the band’s coffin. However, after ten years of playing Luna songs live in his solo sets (as well as with his wife and Luna bassist Britta Phillips), frontman Dean Wareham got an offer he couldn’t refuse to do a short Spanish tour. Turns out, the band still had love for each other, and that tour expanded into a full North American tour in 2015.
Luna’s catalog had long been out of print, mostly because the labels that released them folded. But thanks to Brooklyn’s Captured Tracks, the first five LPs are getting long overdue reissues both individually and as a deluxe box set. Wareham says the idea wasn’t his, but that of long-time Luna fan, Captured Tracks owner Mike Sniper. “It was Mike’s idea,” he says. “This really came from him. He’s a Luna fan and saw us in the early 90s in Princeton. I’m very pleased with what’s happening. I’m kind of amazed it’s happening because it’s not easy to put these things together.”
The reissues will help Luna fans that have long sought after the albums on vinyl, which go for ridiculous prices on sites like eBay and Discogs. “If you were a band from the 1990s, it was quite possible that your music wasn’t released on vinyl,” Wareham says. “Especially on major labels because they weren’t doing vinyl. For us, Lunapark came out on vinyl in Australia only, and Penthouse came out on vinyl in England only, both in small pressings. The originals go for a lot of money now.”
(Unfortunately, 2002’s Romantica and 2004’s Rendezvous are not part of the box set or reissue campaign. Says Wareham, “I already re-released those myself on my Double Feature label. They were out there already, I guess. Although those are both out of print now so I should put those out again. So this is a box set of everything we recorded in the 90s when we were signed to Elektra.”)
As for what is ahead for Luna, Wareham admits some more shows will happen, and maybe even a release. “We are playing a few shows,” he says. “But we’re not going to do another tour this year. We went into the studio and recorded a handful of cover songs, but we haven’t decided what we’re going to do with them. I thought that would be an easy way for us to do a bit of recording without making a whole album, which I’m not that keen to do. We’re all kind of enjoying it right now and getting along well.”
7. The Days of Our Nights (1999)
Noisey: Why is this your least favorite?
Dean Wareham: Because I never listen to it. But you know what? I’m sure there are some people out there who really like it. From that record I like “Superfreaky Memories,” “Math Wiz,” “The Slow Song,” which is in German, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” I can go either way with. Sometimes I like it. I think we were a little lost at that point. We were on this treadmill, a cycle of recording, making an album, hurrying up so you can record but not being ready, etc.
Elektra didn’t pick up this album.
Yes, they did not. We recorded it for Elektra and it was put it on the schedule, and then they decided not to release it. I can see why.
In your memoir, Black Postcards, you called this “possibly the worst of the seven” and “a bloated dud.” You also said you felt the fifth album was a difficult one to make.
[Laughs] Do I stand by that? “A bloated dud?” That’s too unkind. There are some nice songs on it. I didn’t really like the single much, “Dear Diary.”
Did you find your Guns ‘N Roses cover was an entry point for some Luna fans?
I don’t know, but I have been told that in Spain at the indie discotheques that song is the final one they put on when it’s time to go home. That’s nice. That’s something.
6. Lunapark (1992)
There’s not really a science to this, is there? I like some of this record too, but I don’t feel like we were really a band yet. We’d only been a band for a few months and did this album as a trio: myself, Justin Harwood and Stanley Demeski. [Mercury Rev’s] Grasshopper played on a few songs too. But after that we were always a quartet with two guitar players. So it’s missing Sean Eden.
This was the first album after Galaxie 500 split up. Did you feel pressure to introduce this new band after your previous band had built up a strong following?
No, I didn’t feel pressure. Maybe I should have, I don’t know. I was just having a good time. In England it got a few nasty reviews. But that’s to be expected. They said it’s no Galaxie 500. And also, at that time it was 1992, and grunge was getting big. The British press was full on into grunge and we weren’t grunge. But I really like the first track “Slide,” “Slash Your Tires,” that’s good live, and “Anaesthesia.” I think we almost spent as much making the video for “Slash Your Tires” as we did the whole album.
To promote this album you toured with the Velvet Underground?
We did. I don’t know how Lou Reed came to hear our album. Maybe it was the producer Fred Maher who told him. He was Lou’s drummer in the 1980s. But Lou liked it and we got the call from him to do the tour. I probably mentioned this before, but on the first day in Edinburgh we played this nice old theatre, and in the dressing room we were able to listen to the Velvet Underground rehearse. And I was thinking, “Nobody else sounds like them.” But at that point you could argue that even they didn’t sound like them. It was fun, but it was a grueling tour for us. We did the whole European tour and then they went on to do a few dates opening up for U2.
Yeah, and then they broke up again because they were arguing about who would produce their live album. Lou wanted to be the producer. If I was to recommend hearing live Velvet Underground though, it wouldn’t be from that tour.
That must have been a thrill to open up for the Velvet Underground for your first album.
Oh yeah, sure! We did a lot of opening. We opened for the Screaming Trees, and then we opened for the Sundays, and then we got the call to do that tour. But yes, I couldn’t quite believe we got the call to do it.
5. Romantica (2002)
I like this album too. Part of how I’m ranking these records is by how many of these songs we play live. From Romantica there are not many. Sometimes we play “Lovedust” or “Black Postcards” or “Weird and Woozy.” There was so much going on in my life at that point, it’s kind of hard for me to think about this record objectively. Prior to making this, I was getting involved with Britta. We were falling in love. A lot of that record is very personal, and for that reason when I go back, it’s hard to listen to those more personal songs.
This was the first album with Britta. She really changed the dynamic of the band.
Right. That’s true. Having a woman in the band certainly changes the dynamic. I think it also energized me and made me excited about Luna again. It was fun to be in Luna at that point. It was complicated.
This was the first album you released on Jetset. In your book you wrote that you regretted going with that label over Beggars Banquet.
It was already at the start. Things just started to fall apart and employees started leaving and communication became difficult. Sometimes you get offered more money to go with one label over another. The people at Beggars were there for the long haul and Jetset wasn’t.
4. Pup Tent (1997)
The difficult fourth album! I like Pup Tent. Out of the ten songs, maybe there are a couple I don’t like. In a way this is perhaps the best sounding Luna record. It’s just really layered; there are all sorts of things going on and that’s because we worked on it for three and a half months. Our producer Pat McCarthy found Luna this kind of dull guitar band. Before he would even let us record our guitars he wanted us to explore all kinds of other ideas, which you can hear. Every track is sonically dense.
Yeah, and he sent you to Toys “R” Us to buy toy instruments.
Yeah, we went and bought some toys. That’s true. And we used the toys. There was a toy robot I sang through and toy keyboards. I was happy to go to Toys “R” Us.
You’ve called this your experimental album. Why?
I just feel like every song we went to record he wanted to do it some other way. He would say, “You could do it like that but it would be kind of boring.” The opening track “IHOP” he had us play it to a loop. We experimented so long making this loop that the piece of tape that was to be the loop was too short for the machine, so we had to make another one.
It was around this time Rolling Stone called Luna “the greatest rock and roll band that no one’s heard of.” Was that a compliment?
I liked it. Our manager didn’t like it, though. She cut that out and put it on everyone’s desk at Elektra. That was very nice of them to say that, though. Luna is a really good live band, and we were quite good in the studio. It’s just that we were swimming against the tide of what was going on in the 90s.
3. Bewitched (1994)
This was the biggest seller. It sold more than the others, but of course, these days you don’t even ask. It’s become almost meaningless.
You mentioned that you weren’t quite a band when you made Lunapark. Did you feel like a band making Bewitched?
Yes, definitely. We co-wrote the songs more, so it wasn’t just going into the studio with a bunch of demos I had made and saying, “Here, play this.” We rehearsed and we jammed together, so there are things like “Friendly Advice,” which is one of my favorite Luna tracks and featured Sterling Morrison. We were playing that song during the Velvet Underground tour and he liked the song. It got better when he played on it. A lot of people’s favorite Luna song is “California (All the Way),” but I’m a little tired of it now. The opening riff of that song was used in a Calvin Klein commercial, and maybe an Amex commercial? We didn’t get any of the money though. It went to the label and the publisher.
I’m looking at it now and there are seven songs from this record that we’ve been playing live. When you work out the songs together before you go into the studio, then when the record is finished those songs are more fun and easier to play live. It’s just more organic rather than these things you build and layer track upon track until they get filled with so much that at the end of it you think, “How are we going to play this?”
2. Rendezvous (2004)
This was the final album that we recorded, which, at the time, I think the band was on its way to breaking up. I didn’t like it that much at the time. I was just tired of Luna. But when I listen to it now, I think it’s really catchy. Again, most of it is just tracked live, the four of us in one big room, using minimal overdubs.
You guys secretly broke up in April 2004. How did that affect releasing an album and touring it six months later?
Well, we broke up after we recorded the album. And in order to break up with something, you have to be fed up with it. You have to build up this thing in your head where you realize the relationship is intolerable. People don’t quite break up out of love. It was really draining because once we announced it I remember it was better than pretending everything was fine. I would say that I enjoyed the reunion tour more than the farewell tour. If I watch the documentary about that final tour, I look at myself and I seem slightly crazed at that point. But it was a good thing that it ended. It was time. And I guess maybe in my mind I had a feeling that this was going to be the last one. I’m sure other people did too. Most of the tracking of the record was perfectly fine. We just got a bit bogged down at the end.
Sean sang two songs, whereas you sang all of the songs before this. How easy was it for you to give up that job?
I was happy to let him sing. Sean pushes himself very hard. That was one more thing I found mildly annoying at the time. But especially live, it’s nice to let someone else sing the song. It’s nice to take a break. It’s a lot of work to play every song, and sing every song for an hour and a half. And I really like the two songs he sang on that record: “Broken Chair” and “Still At Home.” They’re both really good.
Sean’s vocals fit in with your songs on the record really well.
Yeah, that’s true. Initially we weren’t going to put who sang what, because we figured it was obvious. But then someone would say, “Dean, I liked your high voice on this one.” And of course, it wasn’t me. It’s like when you listen to those late Velvet Underground records and you think it’s Lou Reed but it’s Doug Yule.
1. Penthouse (1995)
In your book, you said this one is your favorite, so that hasn’t changed.
I also mention in the book that some bands make their first album and they’re all downhill from there. But I feel like Luna, when we made our first album, we weren’t there yet and our third album is our best. We spent about four weeks tracking this. Just a band doing our thing on Mercer Street in Manhattan at Sorcerer Studios, which I’m sure is now long gone. We recorded it with Mario Salvati, who engineered the Television album we really liked. He got Tom Verlaine to come in and play some really great guitar solos. He did one on “23 Minutes in Brussels,” which is one of the best Luna songs. Verlaine also played a 12-string on “Moon Palace” as well. And then Pat McCarthy came in to mix it. Although he said, “I’m not here to mix it. I’m here to finish it!”
Penthouse is where Luna really hit its stride. It’s the album I would recommend as a starting point for beginners.
Yeah, I don’t think there is a bad song on it. Actually, “Hedgehog” isn’t a good song, but it does have some redeeming qualities. There are some good lyrics. That was the second single. The radio department thought it could get played on modern rock radio because it was a little bit grunge. That’s how they think. But I think it was the weakest song on the album. Nancy Jeffries, who was head of A&R, told me, “The song that you like the least on the record, that’s probably the single.”
Was Elektra expecting this album to take off?
Oh I don’t know. They had other things that were taking off, like Third Eye Blind and Better Than Ezra. Looking back, what song on that record was gonna get played on the radio?
Well, you did have that Serge Gainsbourg cover with Laetitia Sadier.
Which was in French. So it could have been played on French radio. If it did, it probably didn’t get much. But people liked this record. It got good reviews and turned things around for us in Europe, definitely.
And of course, Bob Dylan totally stole the photo from the cover for his album, Modern Times.
Yeah, the taxi photo, which we used for a single. But you’d have to ask him if he saw ours first. He does plagiarize though. He lifted some passages in his memoir from Jack London.
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter - @yasdnilmac