By Alejandro Rubio; Photos by Michael Macioce/macioce.org on October 5, 2012
In 1962, the Ford Motor Company introduced its new full-sized sedan, the Galaxie 500. For over a decade, it conquered the streets, selling millions of models until it was dropped from production in 1974. And despite the automotive industry’s nostalgic tendency to repackage and reintroduce models like the Challenger, Camaro and even the Fiesta, the Galaxie 500 remains largely forgotten.
But there was another Galaxie 500. Formed in 1987 by Harvard alumni Damon Krukowski, Naomi Yang and Dean Wareham, this Galaxie 500 was a rock band, recording three studio albums—Today, On Fire and This Is Our Music—while lasting only four years before abruptly disbanding in 1991. And unlike the Ford, which remains on blocks in the back of our minds, this Galaxie 500 refuses to be forgotten as its records continue to intrigue and indulge its legions of listeners.
But for 20 years, the band’s songs were confined to those sparse recordings. Following the breakup, Krukowski and Yang formed Damon & Naomi and Wareham played in Luna and then Dean & Britta (with his wife, Britta Phillips). Then, in 2010, Wareham decided to hit the road and give the songs of Galaxie 500 another life. The Guide caught up with the singer-guitarist as he prepares to bring “Dean Wareham Plays Galaxie 500” to this year’s Culture Collide festival in Los Angeles, reminiscing about his time with the band and how it feels to come back to these songs after being apart for two decades.
I’m sure you didn’t go to Harvard in hopes of starting a band. What were your initial plans when you enrolled there?
Dean Wareham: I didn’t have any plans. I guess some people know exactly what they want to do at age 18 or 21—I certainly didn’t. I thought I’d pick school or politics. Damon went to graduate school to study English and Comparative Literature and Naomi enrolled at architecture school, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I wasn’t someone who had it all figured out. If you would’ve asked me would I be making music, I’m sure I would’ve said, “No.” [Laughs] That seemed unlikely.
Were you playing in bands prior to Galaxie 500?
When we were at Harvard, Damon and I were in a band called Speedy and The Castanets. We were pretty bad. We didn’t know how to play. We’d play punk rock covers of songs by The Clash, Joy Division and The Cramps and our friends would come laugh at us. Fast-forward five years after graduating from college; I went away to Germany for a year with my girlfriend and sat in my room playing a lot of guitar. When I came home to the States, I started trying to put a band together, but I don’t know how serious I was about it. I started playing with Damon and kind of auditioning bass players, but it wasn’t until Naomi joined the band that it all started going somewhere. I had come to realize that instead of searching for an accomplished musician, I should’ve been searching for someone who shared the same sensibility. I think that’s important in a band, to have a shared vision—that way you don’t wind up playing with someone who likes a completely different type of music to what you like.
Did Galaxie 500 develop a following prior to recording the first album, Today?
No, we didn’t have a following. It was just whatever friends you could persuade to come and see you on a Wednesday night. You know, when people start bands it’s just their friends and family that come see them, and that’s all. They’ll do it a couple of times, and then people get tired of it [laughs]. But they had this system of college radio stations in Boston that were very influential and you could make a cassette or a little reel-to-reel tape and send them around. And it seemed like there were certain shows that people tuned-in to and listened to, so you could build a live, local following on a basis of a song or two that weren’t even released.
Once people heard that first record that Kramer produced, did you find yourselves suddenly popular?
We knew that we were a little bit popular, but we didn’t notice it in Boston so much; we noticed it in other cities. I think that’s also the case where a good band becomes more popular outside of their town; but the converse is also true where you’re really big in your hometown because you’re a good live band, but then outside of that nobody much cares because your records aren’t that great [laughs]. But when we put out that first record, any touring that we did was just learning about the disasters of breaking strings or whatever. And we weren’t together that long, but by the end of the Galaxie 500, when we recorded that live album in Copenhagen shortly before we broke up, we were playing those songs pretty well.
Now that it’s been over 20 years since that breakup, what inspired you to go out and play these songs again? Especially being billed as “Dean Wareham plays Galaxie 500.”
Well, I billed it that way because it’s just an accurate description of what it is and what I’m doing [laughs]. Britta and I had started playing shows [with] more Galaxie 500 songs in our set and then we played this little Spanish festival where the promoter said, “Why don’t you come back again next year and do one night of Dean & Britta and then the next night play a whole set of Galaxie 500 songs?” We did it and it sounded really good. I came home from that trip and the Galaxie 500 records were just being re-released and it was exactly 20 years later. I just felt like I might as well do this now, and I’ve been enjoying it.
How have people responded to you playing these songs again?
People seem to be happy. I look out there and people are smiling, holding up lighters. They know all the words. It’s cool to go to Japan and Brazil—I played this show in São Paulo and the people knew all the songs. It’s cool.
Have your feelings towards these songs changed since the last time you played them with Galaxie 500?
Well, I guess. Especially the first few times I did these shows, it felt like being transported back in time, back into your earlier life, and singing songs about the people you used to be. And it’s strange going back to a lot of the same cities, maybe where I played the first time. There are certain songs that feel different. Singing a song like “Don’t Let Our Youth Go to Waste” is kind of different when you’re 25 than when you’re 48. But I think these records have aged well. I don’t know why, but they have.
I don’t think there were as many bands playing then as there are now, but people still seem to be drawn to those Galaxie records.
There are definitely more people in bands now. Everyone’s in a band. A lot more people are touring and putting out records, and I guess there are probably more bands making music that sound a bit like what we were doing. When we were around, it was just all of the grunge era. It seemed to be what people were doing or thinking. There was a lot of noisy stuff coming out of New York like Sonic Youth, Live Skulls and Swans, so what we were doing was pretty different.
Looking back, what would you say you’re most proud of with your time in Galaxie 500?
I guess I’m just proud of the three of us. Self-taught musicians [laughs]. It was like a real dream come true that we were able to get together and make records that still sound great, and weird, and not actually dated. They don’t sound like the ’80s, they don’t sound like the ’90s...that’s an achievement.
Our Music With Kramer
Mark Kramer, known simply as Kramer, became Galaxie 500’s unofficial fourth member as he produced all of the band’s studio albums as well as their final live recording, Copenhagen. He is also known for his work with legendary artists like Royal Trux, Will Oldham, Daniel Johnston, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Low, Urge Overkill and more.
What was your first introduction to Galaxie 500, as a band or as people?
I’d never heard of them before they called me and said they wanted to come down from Boston to record their debut LP [Today] with me at my studio in NYC. They asked if I wanted to hear a demo, and I said, “No.” I wanted to hear them for the very first time in my studio, playing their songs live right in front of me. They didn’t know what would happen in the studio and that made my heart sing. The doors were wide open and anything could enter.
After the band signed to Rough Trade, did they approach you to produce On Fire or was your involvement almost inevitable?
We were a four-man team right from the end of the recording of Today. If there was ever any question of my producing This Is Our Music, they did not make me aware of it.
After On Fire was released, were you surprised by the impact it had and continues to have on the music scene?
I wasn’t surprised in the least. Quite the contrary; I’d wholly expected it. It was their best work and it was my best work, and it really was the record of the year. When a band dreams up a world like Galaxie 500 dreamed up, they must deal for years to come with the reactions.
What about Galaxie 500 was and is so special?
One point was surely their courage in presenting quiet and minimalist soundscapes in an age when bands like Nirvana were all the rage, but more importantly, people loved them because they really were a great live band that made great records. They didn’t sound like anyone else. Being in love with Galaxie 500 was like being in love with E. E. Cummings. It was devotional. It was a bonding experience amongst their fans. You wouldn’t see people getting into fights at Galaxie 500 concerts. Metaphorically speaking, even the nastiest club bouncers wore flowers in their hair when Galaxie 500 came to town. It was beautiful. F