Q&A With Dean Wareham

As frontman for Galaxie 500 and Luna, Dean Wareham lived and prospered through two decades of indie rock. MAGNET spoke to Wareham about his memoir, an honest and surprisingly juicy behind-the-scenes look at bandmate squabbling, life on the road and the perils of cult stardom.

Dean Wareham speaks in a soft, cultured voice, punctuated by a lot of easy laughter. His frankness is a little jarring, so far is it from the cryptic tenor of the songs he wrote for Galaxie 500 and Luna. But then, Wareham has just spent a year and a half penning Black Postcards: Unreleased B-Sides And Notes From The Road (Penguin Press), a memoir of his years recording and touring with those now-defunct bands. And in order to do that, he’s been opening up lots of old wounds.

If there’s a more immediately terrifying phrase in English than “open-mic poetry,” it’s “rock memoir,” a mongrel bastard of a genre that encompasses everything from muckraking oral histories to ghost-written stroke jobs. But Wareham’s fame, such as it is, has always hinged on the fact that his bands never achieved the popular acclaim his critical rep might’ve suggested. As such, the enigmatic quality of his music, released on both indie and major labels, has always been very much a part of his public persona. And there’s a big chapter of his professional history—the acrimonious split with Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, his bandmates in Galaxie 500—about which he’s never spoken in detail.

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EX-BOYFRIENDS: In With [Absolutely Kosher]

It’s not always easy coming up with nice things to say about an ex. But in the case of Ex-Boyfriends, genuine expressions of goodwill aren’t too difficult. The San Francisco trio refines its alternately fizzy and edgy pop/punk on the follow-up to 2006’s admirable-yet- disheveled Dear John. The group has never been one to play coy with its sexuality. Its MySpace page pretty much lays it out: “We are looking for bands that like to take long walks on the beach, cuddle for hours on end, watch Merchant Ivory films and love taking it up the ass.” Yet Ex-Boyfriends don’t spin their preference in the sack as a gimmick, either, choosing instead to see love, lust and the inevitable pain that accompany both as boundless, universal and unavoidable necessities no matter which way you lean. In fact, there’s nothing especially novel about Ex-Boyfriends’ approach. Strummed electric guitars unfurl simply with an algebraic precision (see the Sugar-y “Private D”); rhythms lurch and lunge with new-wavey panache (take your pick from a handful of XTC moments). In the end, In With’s indecisiveness is its sole drawback. A do-we-rock-out- mindlessly-or-cozy-up-and-get-cerebral? waffling is embodied in frontman Colin Daly’s oddly noncommittal vocals, which can’t quite reconcile the bawdy holler of a young Andy Partridge with the forlorn coo of James Mercer. [www.absolutelykosher.com]

—Hobart Rowland

MAJOR STARS: Mirror/Messenger [Drag City]

Listening to the sixth record from Boston’s Major Stars is a little like stumbling across a character-rich old house that’s just been given a fresh coat of paint. You can appreciate the restoration effort, but some of that ragged old charm is inevitably lost. Led by psych veterans Wayne Rogers and Kate Biggar, Mirror/Messenger still offers plenty of face-melting guitar workouts consistent with the band’s past fondness for 15-minute epics. But much of the LP is dominated by the brassy, bar-band howl of singer Sandra Barrett, which adds an unexpected and presumably unintentional layer of gloss. This being her second album with the band, Barrett’s vocals mesh well with certain tracks (the sprawling “My People,” the roaring “Can’t End Today”), but it’s sometimes a relief when her contributions are set aside and the band can fire all its engines without having to make room for a classic-rock hook. Mirror/Messenger is more approachable with its shorter track lengths and head-bobbing choruses, but it’s less memorable as well. Progress, you just can’t stop it. [www.dragcity.com]

—Chris Barton

JOE LALLY: Nothing Is Underrated [Dischord]

When Fugazi bassist Joe Lally released 2006 solo debut There To Here, he confounded and disappointed many longtime fans of his seminal rhythm-section work. Lally’s intense, world-aware lyricism was at odds with the sparse minimalism of the music, which consisted of bass, occasional drums/programming and little else. Not much has changed in the algebra that went into Nothing Is Underrated, but the end result is much warmer and more accessible. Whether it’s because the lyrics are of a more personal/poetic bent or because there are more guests (Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto, among others) dropping by to add their musical science to the proceedings, Nothing Is Underrated comes off like a simmering piece of 21st-century blues. No, Lally isn’t playing I-IV-V changes—as if—but the deceptive simplicity and introspective honesty at play here somehow jell more cohesively than on There To Here. There’s still nothing to remind you of the roiling bass line of Fugazi’s “Waiting Room,” but listeners who’ve matured half as much as Lally has in the two decades since that song was written will likely find much to appreciate on Nothing Is Underrated. [www.dischord.com]

—Jason Ferguson

Frames Singer Finds Luck And Love With The Film “Once”

Please excuse Glen Hansard for being incredulous and downright giddy when it comes to Once. Hansard, who for the last 17 years has fronted Irish folk/rock band the Frames, is the male lead in Once, a heartfelt rock musical that’s become an art-house sensation. He’s just been told what the micro-budgeted film has grossed—a whopping $9 million—in the U.S. since its May 10 release in New York City and Los Angeles.

“That’s fucking incredible, man,” he says of the box-office tally. “I honestly don’t know what it is. Some films get a bit of attention. It doesn’t make one better than the other. Fucking hell, this is amazing.”

The 37-year-old Hansard has been enjoying all the accolades that have come his way since Once won the World Cinema Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in January. (It’s due out on DVD in December.) He and Markéta Irglová, his costar in the film and off-screen girlfriend, are also performing as musical duo the Swell Season. Last year, they released their first record, which includes some of the songs that hold together the gentle, lovelorn narrative of Once. This summer, the two sold out a 750-seat venue in New York weeks in advance. But before the film, they could barely attract 50 people for an American gig.

“The reaction (to us and the film) has been shocking,” says the 19-year-old Irglová. “This is way beyond all of our dreams.”

Adding to the film’s unlikely success story is that Once almost never was. Erstwhile Frames bassist-turned-film-director John Carney had been crafting a script based on his experiences as a busker in Dublin. Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins, Red Eye) was set to play the lead. Meanwhile, Carney heard songs that Hansard and Irglová, a Czech pianist, had written and wanted to use them for the soundtrack. He was also taken by Irglová, casting her in the movie as the female lead even though she had no previous film experience. When the increasingly in-demand Murphy dropped out of the project, Carney suggested that Hansard step forward.

“I had doubts about making this movie,” says Hansard, whose only acting experience was a non-speaking part in 1991’s The Commitments. “For one, John was just jumping on the nearest person available. And two, because I wrote the songs and knew Markéta, I was afraid of this appearing like a vanity project. But John convinced me that I was the right man for the job.”

The tale of a broken-hearted street musician and the young immigrant woman who helps him record his songs, Once was shot in just 17 days without any proper permits. Its $150,000 budget came from the Irish Film Council. “We thought we could make the film and print out a few thousand DVDs,” says Irglová. “We’d travel around Ireland and play gigs in small cinemas. Hopefully then, we’d sell enough copies of the DVD to pay back the Film Council.”

Expectations remained fatalistically low after several film festivals rejected Once. Then came its breakthrough at Sundance, where Fox Searchlight Pictures bought the distribution rights for $500,000.

“It’s shaky,” says Irglová with a laugh, describing the film’s use of a hand-held camera. “Once is all about the story and the chemistry between the two people. The audience feels as if they’re being allowed to peek into someone’s lives.”

After completing a summer U.S. tour with the Swell Season, Hansard rejoined the Frames to open for Bob Dylan in Australia and New Zealand. Dylan, Hansard’s childhood idol, liked the film, and the opening slot came as a direct result of Once’s success.

While Hansard and Irglová will entertain more film projects, they plan to focus on music.

“You can’t make this film ever again: a film against all the odds,” says Hansard. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.”

—John Elsasser

Kasper Collin: The Man Behind The New Albert Ayler Documentary

A haunting image of Albert Ayler appears throughout a new documentary that explores the free-jazz saxophonist’s too-short life and legacy. It’s a black-and-white film clip in which he’s standing shirtless, silent, staring into the camera, the white patch on his beard beaming like a headlight. It’s as if Ayler is saying to the audience, “I told you so.” Ever-confident during his brief and underappreciated career in the mid-to-late 1960s, he had this to say about his chaotic, spaced-out brand of jazz: “If people don’t like it now, they will.”

Filmmaker Kasper Collin was one person who liked the saxophonist’s music from the get-go. He first heard Ayler in the early 1990s, when he was 18 and living in his native Sweden. “It really stood out from everything else I was listening to,” says Collin. “It’s incredible, powerful music.”

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Alamo Race Track: Year Of The Cat

alamoracetrack3501YouTube may be the peepshow of the inane, but being famous for 15 megabytes can work wonders for your music career. Just ask Alamo Race Track, the Amsterdam quartet whose performance of the song “Black Cat John Brown” has topped a half-million views on the video site. While you might expect such a popular clip to include irony-laced gags, celebrity spoofs or trippy animation, singer/guitarist Ralph Mulder explains otherwise.

“It’s just four guys sweating in a small dressing room,” he says.

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Q&A With Robert Pollard

To nobody’s surprise, neither age nor the dissolution of Guided By Voices has slowed the prolific output of Ohio’s most famous schoolteacher-turned-songwriter. Robert Pollard has simultaneously issued two new solo albums, Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love and Standard Gargoyle Decisions (both on Merge), with help from producer and collaborator Todd Tobias. He’s also putting the finishing touches on a coffee-table book of lyrics and collage artwork titled Town Of Mirrors: The Reassembled Imagery Of Robert Pollard (due out next year) and recently staged an exhibit of his visual art at Studio Dante, Sopranos star Michael Imperioli’s New York City theater.

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EUROS CHILDS: The Miracle Inn [Wichita]

With the muffled reveries of Something Else-era Kinks and the reduced heart rate of the Velvet Underground’s third album acting as rough guidelines, Euros Childs has produced a solo work every bit as endearing and important as the early stuff by his former band, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. Even the relatively up-tempo “Ali Day,” with its subtle poaching from the Kinks’ “Victoria,” seems impossibly sad here. The Wales-based Childs, whose voice wavers between an over-caffeinated Ray Davies and a falsetto that could crack a bell jar, recorded The Miracle Inn mainly with piano and acoustic guitar and jettisoned the prog-rock embellishments that stood between Gorky’s and the popular acclaim the band richly deserved. Anyone who complained about Gorky’s recording some material in its native tongue should note that Childs’ English here is only barely more decipherable than his Welsh. It doesn’t really matter. By the end of the sprawling, 15-minute title track, you’ll feel like you’ve just downed a couple of pints at a pub in Aberystwyth—halfway between Swansea and Caernarvon—and stepped out into a brisk August evening to get a good lungful of coal smoke, with no Burger King within a hundred miles. [www.wichita-recordings.com]

—Jud Cost

DAN WILSON: Free Life [American]

From ’80s college-rock footnote to ’90s one-hit wonder to Grammy-winning Dixie Chicks co-writer—talk about a kooky career trajectory. For someone as restlessly creative as Dan Wilson, you’d think such an intriguing run would’ve inspired a little more va-voom than the innocuous piano balladry and female-fixated introspection found on his solo debut. With arty Minneapolis misfits Trip Shakespeare, Wilson’s calculated quirk-pop classicism was executed with a campy flourish and without a net; then it was beefed up and refined with Semisonic. Yet on much of Free Life, Wilson appears oblivious to his crafty past and indifferent toward his future as a tunesmith for hire. The album begins with “All Kinds,” a dippy ode to infatuation (“You’ve got the kind of beautiful that makes the boys want to give up running all around”) that nonetheless finds partial redemption in an achingly sweet chorus. Admittedly, Wilson has always been an ace with hooks, and Free Life has its share of stick-in-yer-craw melodies catchy enough to delude just about anyone into humming along to wince-inducing zingers like “You were always pretty reckless with your love,” “I only want to love my baby doll” and “Don’t you wanna make me wanna cry?” It’s hard to believe Wilson has come this far to have so little to say. Perhaps with all the writing he’s been doing for less-talented mainstreamers, he simply misplaced his IQ in Jewel’s coat closet? Free Life is about as compelling as a blood-pressure screening: bland, boneheaded adult-contemporary posing as smart, sophisticated adult alternative. [www.danwilsonmusic.com]

—Hobart Rowland