Music News

Setting Moon

Although singer-guitarist Dean Wareham and the other members of Luna agreed that bringing their moody, evocative group to an end after twelve years was the right thing to do, they weren't sure whether they should make an announcement before touring in support of their seventh studio long-player, last year's gorgeous Rendezvous. "There was a little bit of conflict about that," Wareham concedes. "At first we were going to keep quiet. We didn't want to deal with the emotional weight of everything."

Eventually, however, Wareham and his cohorts -- guitarist Sean Eden, bassist Britta Phillips and drummer Lee Wall -- chose to make their decision public via a wry list of reasons for the split. (Rationales included "There are too many bands out there traveling around, singing their songs, etc.") The advantages of this move soon became clear. "Obviously, it's good for ticket sales," Wareham points out. "I can see why the Cure has been breaking up forever. And it's made interviews a lot easier, because there's actually something to talk about. The label people used to be like, 'Why can't we get a feature on them?' But there really wasn't much to say other than 'We recorded another album' -- and the recording of an album is not generally very interesting."

As Wareham acknowledges, combos are often at their most newsworthy when they're making either their first or last splashes, which helps explain why the only previous Luna profile to appear in Westword was a March 1993 article that coincided with the act's maiden journey across the U.S. Back then, Wareham, who'd recently left the cult favorite Galaxie 500, was matched with drummer Stanley Demeski of the Feelies and bassist Justin Harwood from the Chills. The result was something of an alternative-rock supergroup, albeit one with identity difficulties. "We had a problem with this woman who called herself Luna, and she threatened to sue us," Wareham notes. Their first attempt to placate Ms. Luna was to rechristen themselves as Luna2; the odd moniker can be seen on 1992's Lunapark, the trio's first-rate debut for Elektra Records. "We thought that would shut her up, but it didn't," he says. "Then we gave her $5,000, and that shut her up."

Despite attracting critical hosannas, Lunapark fell far short of platinum status, as did its equally strong successors, 1994's Bewitched (the first CD to co-star Eden), 1995's Penthouse and 1997's Pup Tent. Nevertheless, Elektra "didn't really bother us, which was kind of unusual," Wareham says. "We never had a hit, but they weren't losing money on us, and I'm told that sometimes a band like ours helps attract other bands to labels -- as if we had anything to do with Third Eye Blind signing to Elektra."

Power shifts within the company ultimately brought such patience to an end. Elektra's A&R department loved the tapes that would become 1999's The Days of Our Nights and were thrilled that Luna had chosen to record Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine" as a B-side. "But then they took the song to the radio people, and they said, ŒWe can't do anything with this. It's too slow and quiet,'" Wareham recalls. "And that was the end of that."

Upon being dropped by Elektra, Luna placed Nights on tiny Jericho Records, but the deal didn't stave off a crisis within the band. Bassist Harwood left around this period, following in the footsteps of Demeski, who'd passed his drumsticks to Wall prior to Pup Tent. "That was a point when I thought about quitting," Wareham admits.

Instead, he added Phillips to the lineup and went the indie route. In the wake of 2001's Luna Live, issued on the cheekily named Arena Rock imprint, the band hooked up with Jetset Records for 2002's Romantica, which was widely hailed as one of its best and liveliest recordings. Rendezvous is lower-key, as befits a swan song. With the exception of "Astronaut," a holdover from the 2002 EP Close Cover Before Striking, the album was "all tracked live, with the four of us in one room looking at each other, and minimal overdubbing," Wareham says. "It gives a feeling to the whole thing, as opposed to if you're doing different songs in different studios, or building them track by track." Cuts like "The Owl and the Pussycat" are relaxed and confident -- the aural equivalent of old friends bidding farewell.

Wareham and Phillips won't be separated for long. They've already teamed up for a duo disc, the 2003 Jetset release L'Avventura, and they'll collaborate on a sequel before the year is out. Additionally, Wareham has contributed to two films playing at this year's Sundance Film Festival: He scored The Squid and the Whale, co-starring Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, and joined with Phillips in creating instrumentals for The Devil and Daniel Johnson, a documentary about the famously off-kilter singer-songwriter. "I'm not planning on getting a real job," he says.

In the meantime, Wareham is relishing the run-up to the final pair of Luna gigs, slated for New York's Bowery Ballroom in late February. "It's actually a lot more fun to be on stage right now," he says. "I'm not up there thinking, 'Here I am, just like I was two years ago, and I'll be back again two years from now, playing the same songs.' It's more poignant knowing that it's the last time in that city, and it makes you think back on other things, think more about the meaning of the lyrics and put more into each guitar solo."

Audience response has been rewarding, too: "We played Œ23 Minutes in Brussels' [from Penthouse] at Irving Plaza, and there was spontaneous applause for a full minute. It made my skin tingle."

Such reactions have made Wareham briefly question the wisdom of putting Luna on the shelf, but he's concluded that "it's not a good enough reason to change." As for a possible future comeback, he jokes, "If they gave us as much money as they gave the Pixies, we'd consider it."

Keep those options open.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts