Dean Wareham '85: From Harvard to Luna to Warhol

by Sarah Reid

Alternative-music duo Dean & Britta (Dean Wareham ’85 and Britta Phillips, both of whom were in the indie band Luna) will discuss their musical careers and songwriting process 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 9 at 29 Garden Street sponsored by the OFA Learning from Performers program, with support from the Peter Ivers Visiting Artist Fund, and Arts @ 29 Garden. Interspersed with music and video clips, the talk will be moderated by Harvard University law professor Jonathan Zittrain. I spoke with Wareham about his music career, experience at Harvard, and recent projects, including writing the score for The Squid and the Whale and for Andy Warhol’s screen tests.

What was the music scene like, when you were in Harvard?

There’s a recording studio now; we did not have that. We had some practice rooms. Yeah, it was different back then. The Freshman Union [Barker Center] was a different building, an eating hall, and downstairs there were a couple of little rooms, we used to play in there.

What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of your experience at Harvard?

I don’t know if I can sum it up in one word. Misery? (Laughs.) No, no. I feel like I didn’t have a very good time the first three years I was there, but my senior year I started to enjoy myself more. But I wouldn’t blame the school for that; I just think that if you told me now that I could go to college, for four years for free, and all I had to do was just read books and write papers, I think I’d be really excited. I think maybe when you’re 18, it’s just like: uh. It was more about just being away from home.

Would you have rather not gone to college at that time?

It didn’t even really occur to me. I guess I could have taken time off, but that wasn’t what I was going to do.

What did you think of the arts scene at Harvard?

I wasn’t really aware that there was a scene. For the kind of music I was interested in, you had to go off-campus for that.

Who was your favorite band during college?

Joy Division. That’s probably my favorite band. They’re from Manchester. People still like them; they’re hugely influential.

Who’s your influence now?

I think we should be beyond influence. it’s something more helpful when you’re just starting out.

Are you still touring for the Andy Warhol screen tests?

We’ve been doing it for about three years, but it’s kind of slowing down a bit. We still have a couple of shows left, but we’ve done it about 70 times. It happens sporadically; it has to be the right room, with enough space to accommodate the show.

Which screen test is your favorite?

Well, here’s this woman Jane Holzer, in one screen test she’s brushing her teeth. That one’s pretty great. She did another when she was chewing gum. She did a lot of them. She was kind of Warhol’s first superstar, in 1964. I like that one.

Is it similar or is it different to writing scores for movies, like The Squid and the Whale?

No, it’s very different. For one reason, it has to be done live. It started as a live project. And there’s no dialogue. When you score a film, you’re just putting in 30 seconds here or there, little bits to help the film along. It’s like we’re making music videos, only we were starting with the music video and then writing music for it. In one way, it’s more difficult than scoring films, and it took us a long time.

How long did it take you?

Well, you know, things usually take as long as you have. So we had a year and a half before we had to perform it live. So that’s how long it took. If you had told me that I had four months to do it, I would have finished it then.

Has Harvard helped you?

Yes, I think an education has helped me. As a lyricist, it helps to read and have a point of view. Not like you need it [a degree]. There are plenty of people who didn’t go to college and write lyrics fairly well, too. It probably wasn’t necessary, but it formed who I am as an artist. I don’t know if it’s so essential for musicians, to go to school and have a degree in music, but then again, I can’t read music.

When did you write your first song?

Around freshman year at Harvard. We were doing covers of songs by Joy Division, Clash, the Cramps, but then we started writing our own songs, too. I wrote a song called "Chiquita Banana." It was about a girl I had a crush on, and then we wrote a song called "Back to Beirut," which was way ahead of its time.

Are you excited about coming on Feb. 9?

It’s going to be strange, coming back.

Have you visited a lot?

Not Harvard, no, I’ve been up to Boston a bit. It’s weird, like going back in time to a house of your childhood.

It’s going to be cool.

I’m sure it is. Where is it again?

[Caption: Dean & Britta (Courtesy www.deanandbritta.com)]