Feature #19 – Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips (Dean & Britta)

Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips started creating and performing music together in the NYC band Luna (1992-2005), which Britta joined in 2000. Prior to Luna, Dean fronted Galaxie 500, the highly influential three piece “dream pop” band (influenced by The Velvet Underground, among others) and Britta played in a few different bands (notably The Belltower and as bassist for Ben Lee’s live shows) in addition to doing film and television work.  As a duo, they’ve crafted three distinctly different albums over the course of the last eight years: “L’Avventura,” (2003) a stunning album of covers and duets produced by Tony Visconti, “Back Numbers,” (2007) a collection of original pop songs (also produced by Visconti) written in the tradition of American singer-songwriters like Lee Hazlewood and Tim Hardin, and, most recently, “13 Most Beautiful…Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests,” a project commissioned by the Andy Warhol Museum and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. The Screen Tests are silent film portraits that Andy Warhol shot at the Factory between 1964 and 1966, featuring a wide range of artists, collaborators and hangers-on (including Lou Reed, Edie Sedgwick, Nico, Bob Dylan and Alan Ginsberg, among others), and Dean and Britta wrote and recorded 13 songs to accompany a selection of the footage in order to create a unique performance: Dean and Britta perform the songs onstage with their band (including Anthony Lamarca and Matt Sumrow), while the Warhol films are projected overhead.  We’re grateful they took the time to answer our questions and provide us with some excellent lists.

Derick Rhodes/Listgeeks: Looking back, when Luna broke up, among the items listed in the announcement were, “Rock and Roll is killing my life,” “There are too many bands out there,” and, “Too much time spent in fifteen-passenger vans.” As a big Galaxie 500/Luna/Dean and Britta fan, I was a little worried that the action would come to a stop.  Clearly the action has done anything but come to a stop, fortunately.  Have you both surrendered to dealing with the downsides of touring/performing/rock and roll, or just found a better way to do things?

Britta: Well, we try not to carry really heavy things anymore, and we don’t spend as much time in fifteen-passenger vans. We’ve been spending more time in airports, though… It’s great to be able to travel the world… go to Paris, Brazil, Japan, Sweden, Spain etc., but everything great has a downside… there will always be itineraries to plan, hotels and flights to book, and musicians to heard through the gates.

Dean & Britta – “Night Nurse” from the album L’Avventura

Listgeeks: The “13 Most Beautiful” project seems to have been very well received internationally, and your work feels like it’s ideally suited to this type of performance/project.  Can you imagine future collaborations along these lines, perhaps involving another artist or performing in a film-oriented environment?

Britta: Yes, if it’s something inspiring and beautiful like these screen tests, we would love to do another project like this. A music project that is more of the art world than the “music biz” world. Working within set parameters can be very refreshing.


Dean and Britta performing “13 Most . . .” photographed by Julienne Schaer

Dean: It has been eye-opening to play in venues that don’t need to sell beer in order to pay you at the end of the night, arts festivals and museums, to realize there are other ways to do it. We just came back from performing the Warhol show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and I am quite sure I never anticipated playing there.

Listgeeks: I came across a few articles online that were critical of your performing Galaxie 500 songs on “your own” during the recent “Dean Wareham performs Galaxie 500” shows, typically suggesting that the original line up should have been involved.  While it’s clearly documented why you decided to move on from Galaxie 500 (in “Black Postcards,” the memoir you wrote which came out in 2008), I wonder what the decision making process was like behind deciding to perform those songs again.  Was it simply a matter of people loving that material, and wanting to hear you play it, or did you feel a personal/artistic urge to bring those songs to a live setting again?

Dean: People will sit at their desks and opine on what artists should be doing but I figure I am the one actually riding round in a van and I can sing my old songs however I want. I’d like to see the 1978 New York Yankees get back together but that’s not happening either.

As to why now: We were asked to play a set of Galaxie 500 songs at the Tanned Tin festival in Spain, and I enjoyed singing and playing the songs again, it was like slipping into another (younger) voice, and seeing how excited people were to hear the songs live, people who never had a chance to see Galaxie 500 back in the day.  We came home from that show and then Belle & Sebastian asked me to do it for the ATP festival they curated and we decided to add a few U.S. dates and that turned into more dates.

Listgeeks: One of my absolute favorite Dean and Britta tracks is “Ginger Snaps,” from L’Avventura – perhaps your most dance-oriented track to date.  Can the two of you imagine making an album or EP of songs with more of a dance/electronic atmosphere at some point?

Britta: Dean wrote that song, but yes, yes, yes, I would like to do more songs like that, if not an entire album.

Dean: Our other rather dance-oriented track was “Singer Sing” (the remix by Scott Hardkiss who brought the dance elements to the song). Maybe we will pursue the dance EP idea. . .

Listgeeks: Finally, are future Dean and Britta releases in the works?  Do the two of you spend much time working on music, when you’re not touring?

Britta: We released a limited edition single CD version of “13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests” on October 11th – all in the original order of the DVD.

Dean: We have some half-cooked songs sitting around; December will be the first month in about 3 years where we haven’t had live shows going on, so it will be time to get cooking again.

Dean and Britta Homepage
Dean and Britta Twitter
Dean and Britta on Listgeeks
Dean and Britta Facebook

Feature #18 – Cookies

The Facts: Cookies is a band from New York City specializing in popular music.  Ben Sterling formed the band shortly after the dissolution of his former group (the critically lauded Mobius Band) last year, enlisting Melissa Metrick (vocals/bass/keyboards) and Ian Ainley (drums) to help craft a unique and compelling sound. Unlike most good bands specializing in popular music, Cookies is a truly innovative outfit, incorporating into its productions a genuine love of 90s hip hop and R&B, electronic music, and – perhaps most importantly – savvy, distinctive songwriting.  We’re grateful to Ben for taking the time to answer our questions, and for creating some excellent lists. Those of you who are in the NYC area should be sure to check them out tonight (Thursday, November 10th) when they play at Glasslands, in Brooklyn.

Listgeeks: So far you’ve released six tracks, and based on the live set, it seems there’s more than enough material for a full-length on hand.  Do you anticipate releasing an album in the coming months? More generally, do you think we’ve moved past albums, for the most part?

Ben Sterling: We’re doing at least one more single and then probably an album. I like singles. I like albums. Grouping songs together will be around in some fashion forever… though our attention span is shorter, expectations are changing, and the internet means we often hear a song or two and leave it at that. But maybe that’s fair. It’s hard to make a record that deserves its length. They are very rare. Even “Rumours” has a couple wack songs.

LG: Your previous band, Mobius Band, was a little more on the traditional side, both in terms of the live show and from a production perspective . . . what are the main differences in how you approach realizing the songs in Cookies Vs. the way process worked in Mobius Band?

Ben: Mobius Band was a gang. We met in college and lived together and finished each others sentences. We were a thorough democracy with every decision. It was great for a long time. But then it wasn’t anymore. The dynamic broke down and got weird, like it usually does.

Cookies: “Love Will Never Do Without You” (Janet Jackson cover)

Cookies doesn’t work that way, it’s truly the opposite and that’s something I need after that experience. For me, the process of writing songs is very simple to start with and then excruciating to finish. The original rush of an idea is quick and beautiful and easy. But it’s just an idea, not a song or a production. The rest is basically window dressing and finishing lyrics, but without that it’s not a song, unless you’re making folk music or free improvisation. The original spark usually takes about ten minutes but I can’t finish a song in under two months.

LG: I’m a big fan of the boy/girl tradeoff vocal approach, which seems to be becoming a more central element in your productions. Has working with Melissa over time changed your perspective or approach in writing the songs, or did you envision that Cookies would have this type of dynamic from the start?

Ben: Melissa’s voice was at the heart of it from the beginning. I love her voice and have always wanted to do something focused on singing together. At least in my little hetero-framed world, the dynamic between men and women is relevant to just about everything, so it can point in every direction at once. It’s a really good challenge to write for a female voice. I’m not sure I’ll ever be totally comfortable with it. That’s part of why it’s so interesting in the first place.

LG: Who are some of your major influences at the moment from a production perspective?  Which artists have done things you’ve found compelling in the last year or so?

Ben: I’ve been digging back into early 90s New York hiphop. It’s such an optimistic era. Tons of 60’s and 70’s samples, everything soft focus.  A lot of Pete Rock and some lesser known stuff. Caribou’s “Swim” is probably the best pure production work I’ve heard in a few years, it’s untouchable. Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Junglinge.” Watch The Throne sounds amazing blaring from a car loud and distorted. New stuff: I have a feeling the new Chairlift album is going to be era-defining, based on one live show in June.

LG: You’ve collaborated with the photographer Emily Keegin and director/designer Wyeth Hansen, both of whom seem to have a visual sensibility/vision that really works with Cookies. Are the visual aspects of what you’re doing an important part of the process of releasing the music?  How did those collaborations come about?

Ben: Part of why Emily and Wyeth are in tune with the Cookies aesthetic is because they invented the Cookies aesthetic.  I knew what the cover was for “Summer Jam” before I’d written the song.  I’m so lucky to have Emily in my life, she is an amazing artist and thinker.  We’ve got some great stuff coming soon. Wyeth is the same, just a great friend that makes work I admire. He made the “Wilderness Tips” video in one night. I made him dinner and spoon fed him wine, and he sat there mumbling at the computer and made a video in two hours.

Related Links:

Cookies Website
Cookies tumblr

Cookies Twitter
Cookies on Listgeeks

Listgeeks Feature #4 – Christoph Niemann

Christoph Niemann is an award winning, Berlin-based artist/illustrator with a plethora of high-profile covers and editorial pieces (including for Wired, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and Atlantic Monthly) to his credit.  Conveying his ongoing fascination with the sights and sounds of New York City (Niemann lived and worked in NYC from 1997 to 2009) through his Abstract City Blog (which recently became Abstract Sunday), Christoph has delighted and enlightened New York Times readers with his remarkable insight, singular wit and superior illustrating skills on a regular basis since 2008.  His most recently released books include “The Pet Dragon”, a book created to acquaint kids with Chinese characters, and the NYC-centric “I LEGO N.Y.” and “Subway.” His latest children’s book, “That’s How!,” comes out next month.  Christoph’s Web site is the best place to keep up-to-date on his latest projects, and you can also follow him on Twitter.  After you read the interview, check out Christoph’s “Vanilla to Pomegranate” list.

Listgeeks: You’ve recently worked with a very wide range of materials – paint, pencil/paper, legos, fabric, coffee, computers, tile on the NYTimes blog . . .  Is it hard to decide which projects are destined for which materials? Does the material you’re working with frequently lead you into new or unexpected concepts?

Christoph Niemann: Usually I start with the concepts and then think of the appropriate way to execute the ideas. With the 3D objects I have been doing for my blog, there are obviously a few unexpected things that happen, mostly due to my impatience and clumsiness. But since I usually develop the concepts with pencil and paper and only start building the items once the whole project is figured out, there are relatively few surprises.

LG: Your kids seem to have a big impact on your personal work – especially the projects featured on the Abstract City Blog.  Has being a dad changed your approach to illustrating?

CN: Not really. Obviously life with the kids is a pretty rich source for strange mementos that can be abused for my visual essays, but I am very wary of focusing on my kids too much. As a reader, the last thing I want to read about is how interesting or peculiar the life of the author is. I am keen on finding stories that a reader can relate to by finding experiences we all share. As for the Lego series, the kids are less of an inspiration but rather an excuse for me to spend hours each weekend playing with what is still my favorite toy.

LG: How did the Abstract City Blog come about? You started that with the NYTimes in the summer of 2008, right?

CN: Yes, at that point I had been working as an editorial illustrator for about 12 years, which I still consider the most important part of what I do. But I also felt that in order to stay fresh, I had to force myself out of my comfort zone and try out projects that were scary and that would involve a greater amount of mistakes and dead ends. It’s not that I don’t mess things up in my editorial work, but after a while one becomes rather smart in avoiding disasters by (more or less consciously) avoiding risk. Coming up with my own stories and relying on handmade art goes so absolutely against my instinct that it seemed like the perfect way to shake things up.

LG: I’m curious about the differences between projects for which you’re required to generate a concept of your own/on your own vs. projects for which there’s a more clearly defined, explicit goal (or something very specific to illustrate).  Do you find one way of working easier than another? Is it sometimes helpful to have restrictions in place?

CN: I am infinitely more comfortable with the restrictions of a normal assignment. Part of it may have to do that I have much more routine with these kind of assignments, but a tight framework gives you a lot of good angles to start. If there are rules you can think about how to break them (or at least get close to breaking them). The self-generated work is much harder, because instead of just creating a solution, you have to create a problem first. And things don’t work out, I am never sure if I didn’t try hard enough with the drawings and the copy, or whether the overall concept is so wrongheaded that failure is inevitable.

LG: Finally, you have a well-documented bond with NYC.  After a few years of being in Berlin, how has your perspective on New York changed? Do you see yourself moving back at some point?

CN: I can absolutely imagine moving back there at some point (probably not before the kids are out of school though). I still go to New York five times a year and enjoy every minute of it. In a perfect world I would split my time 50/50, enjoying the possibilities and creative freedom of Berlin AND taking advantage of the energy, speed and determination that come from living in NY.

Christoph Niemann on Listgeeks
Listgeeks Home