It's been said that hardly anyone bought the first Velvet Underground album, but that everyone who did started a band. In the case of Dean Wareham, he started three.
Founder of Galaxie 500, Luna, and Dean & Britta, as well as myriad solo projects, Wareham is the most prolific and inspired acolyte of the pure melodicism and impure dreaminess of the Velvet Underground. When Lou Reed took his band back on the road in 1993, Wareham joined the tour with the newly formed Luna and then recorded with the Velvets' guitarist Sterling Morrison in the year before his passing. Out of Wareham's love for the Velvet Underground, a unique identity for Luna emerged.
Beginning with the debut Lunapark in 1992, through its masterpiece Penthouse in 1995 and on through the early 2000s, Wareham and the band created a lush yet laconic sound, a glinting resonance of guitars and droning strings, with rhythms that could shift from windswept pop to sweaty punk. Through it all, Luna's melodies shimmer through the fuzz and haze, and that luminous intimacy is fully on display in its newest recordings, the covers collection A Sentimental Education and the purely instrumental EP A Place Of Greater Safety.
Neither record was meant to be. In 2004, the band released Rendezvous, billed as its final album. Wareham had disbanded Galaxie 500 in 1991 to form Luna, and then after ten years he wearied of "the endless cycle" of touring and recording and began to focus on his collaboration with Luna bassist and singer (and eventual wife) Britta Phillips, as well as solo projects and film work. In 2015, Wareham reformed Luna, tried full-band touring again and eventually decided that working on a covers set would be a "fun and easy" way to bring new material to the restarted group.
As it turns out, A Sentimental Education is more than just a charming batch of favorite songs. Many of the bands Luna turned to are among the giants of rock music — Yes, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie, the Cure — but the songs are from the margins, rendered with elliptical, off-hand grace and affection.
"I think mostly we have decided that Luna sounds like Luna when it's the four of us in a studio playing live, no matter what songs we tackle," Wareham says via email while on tour in Spain. "These songs come from the '60s, '70s', '80s and '90s (which sounds like the tag for a classic rock station). Some I have wanted to do for a long time, some are songs from records that I loved as a teenager (like the Cure's first album), others are by artists that I've only recently gotten into."
When it came to acknowledging the Velvet Underground, Wareham made an end run, choosing "Friends," a song by Doug Yule (bassist and sometimes songwriter and singer for the Velvets) that appeared on a 1973 album called Squeeze, generally considered an embarrassment if not a crime against humanity.
"Perhaps the crime is that the album is listed as the Velvet Underground," says Wareham, "but yet contained no founding members of the band. So it's really a Doug Yule album and does not sound like the Velvets at all. But there are certain VU songs that bear the stamp of Doug Yule; you can tell them from the more complex chord structure — I'm thinking 'Lonesome Cowboy Bill' and 'Who Loves the Sun'. And this song 'Friends' feels like one of those. It's got some lovely chord changes and vocal harmonies."
As a snapshot of influences and inspirations, A Sentimental Education is most illuminating in the choices that seem light years away from its style. Wareham turns in an especially sweet take on "One Together," a Fleetwood Mac song, but one that was written by Jeremy Spencer, an early member of the band who is completely forgotten, save by the hardest of hardcore British folk and blues fans.
"When I was a teenager I was into punk rock," says Wareham. "There was no room for Stevie Nicks. But when I started listening to early records like Kiln House, I heard a band that doesn't sound so different from Luna at times (except they are bluesier). It's interesting to look at some of those bands and the trajectories they took, starting out as one thing and only really breaking through after six or seven albums when they had changed into something completely different."
You can hear Luna's paradoxical approach, its ambitious understatements, its noise-traced lyricism, in so much of the current indie landscape that it's strange its name isn't shouted from every rooftop in Brooklyn. The band's experiments have always had so much warmth and subtlety, the way guitar figures intertwine so naturally and then cry like muted trumpets, the way songs could build and build even as the dynamics, the emotions, seemed to be found rather than orchestrated. Every Luna record, including the latest, seems like a soundtrack to a film that could never really be directed.
"There is music for all kinds of moods and situations, some for driving or dancing, some for rainy days or winter hours," Wareham says. "At least once a month I try to spend an evening doing nothing but listening to music into the small hours. Even if it's just for a few minutes or half an hour, music has the ability to make us feel better (or better and worse at the same time even). And that escape can come from all kinds of music, whether it's Brahms' German Requiem or Scott Walker or Brian Eno or Young Marble Giants."
Looking back on the arc of Luna's career, Wareham is most proud of simply making albums that still "sound great from start to end." For him and his band, the current tour offers a chance to rediscover the simple pleasures of sharing that music again.
"Of course there are ups and downs, good Luna and not-so-good," Wareham says. "But right now I think we made two really cool new Luna records. There are no plans to go back into the studio, but there are no plans either way. I figure, it's like athletes who have just won a game, and someone asks, 'What are you gonna do next year?' And the answer is I just want to enjoy this moment and then we'll think about the future soon."