The Magnificent ’90s: Dean Wareham

Dean Wareham

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So far in this series, I’ve considered the evolution of rock in a decade when it seemed to take an extended vacation. My claim has been that rock never really disappeared; it just began to reinvent itself and explore new musical frontiers. In many ways, the ‘90s were the most experimental decade for rock since the ‘60s, as we’ve seen in the stunning work of guitarists like Kevin Shields and Tanya Donelly.

Of course, I’ve only scraped the surface of rock in the ‘90s. Subgenres like slowcore, post-rock and math rock have yet to be discussed. (One reader aptly identified the modal avant-rock of Polvo as worthy of mention.)

Dean Wareham
Dean Wareham

Nonetheless, this week I’d like to focus on something a bit different: the state of pop music in the ‘90s. Independent pop had begun to emerge, partially as a reaction against the boy bands and watered-down R&B that dominated mainstream pop. Indie pop took its cues from the jangly guitars that defined ‘80s college rock, combining dynamic rhythms and infectious hooks with wide-eyed romanticism.

Most of these bands were pedestrian at best. They took few musical risks, crafting simple, inoffensive songs with little depth or originality. Granted, depth and originally were never really the point of indie pop, but the genre’s stylistic uniformity – particularly its dull, formulaic use of guitars – quickly became tedious.

In this soporific musical environment, Dean Wareham offered an alternative to the alternative. Galaxie 500 came to life in the late ‘80s, around the same time that indie pop broke out. But while bands like The Field Mice reveled in frothy innocence, Galaxie 500 swathed their music in thick, dark waves of psychedelia.

Spacemen 3 was a big influence on Galaxie 500, and Wareham clearly subscribed to the “minimal is maximal” philosophy. On paper, there isn’t much to Wareham’s songwriting; most of his tunes use pretty basic structures and chord progressions. Like fellow experimentalists the Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine, Galaxie 500 was more interested in texture and atmosphere.

Aided by Damon Krukowski’s restrained, jazzy drumming and Naomi Yang’s melodic basslines, Wareham created pneumatic soundscapes soaked in reverb and distortion. Wareham’s playing in Galaxie 500 had a delicately hypnotic quality to it, due in part to sus4 and maj7 chords, and strumming patterns that favored triplets. Even his solos were economical and unpretentious.

Galaxie 500 was a breath of fresh air. The band stood in bold contrast to the baroque tendencies of ‘80s metal, ‘70s arena rock and ‘60s prog. Moreover, it established this distance without the intentionally deskilled punk approach that many contemporary indie pop and rock bands adopted. Wareham has always been a very talented, precise guitarist with an uncommon knack for phrasing. And even as he boiled down his playing to its most minimal, Galaxie 500 maintained a strangely ethereal artfulness that couldn’t be further from lo-fi punk.

The impact that Galaxie 500 made on independent music was nothing short of monumental. The band spawned a whole new brand of dream pop that established dense, woozy atmospheres without the aid of a dozen modulation pedals. Wareham’s smooth, introverted and surprisingly nuanced playing has prominently influenced many of today’s popular indie acts, such as The Clientele and Beach House.

When Galaxie 500 broke up in 1991, Krukowski and Yang went on to do even dreamier (and arguably greater) things as the folk duo Damon & Naomi. Wareham continued further in the direction of pop, starting the seminal band Luna with collaborators Stanley Demeski (The Feelies) and Justin Harwood (The Chills).

Considering the musical background of the original lineup, Luna’s quirky, infectious dream pop came as no surprise. Through the course of several albums, Luna put together an impressive catalog of what should have been on the radio. “Slide,” the opener of 1992’s Lunapark, has all the makings of a pop hit, submerged in a narcotic haze of slide guitar and tremolo.

A New Zealander by birth, Wareham seems to have strong musical ties to the endearing warmth of Dunedin Sound. Luna was the product of that scene’s pop perfection and Galaxie 500’s sleepy, heady aesthetic. This would become Luna’s signature: catchy, sunny indie pop with a nocturnal twist. The apparent contradiction functioned exceedingly well, especially when Wareham dosed it with the occasional shot of snarky humor.

Wareham is still active, recording with his wife Britta Phillips. The two have released some excellent material, including a recent set of songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests. It’s no coincidence, though, that most of their recent tours have been billed as “Dean Wareham Plays Galaxie 500.”

Twenty years later, we still haven’t had enough.

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Adam Jazairi

Adam Jazairi is a writer, art historian, director, and literary critic, and I guess he sorta likes guitars, too. He has become a shameless gearhead with an incurable case of GAS (that’s “Gear Acquisition Syndrome,” for those of you who have been fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with this horrible illness). His heart has room for three true loves: his Tele, his JC-120, and his pedalboard.

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