Even after playing music for more than 25 years with three different bands, singer-songwriter Dean Wareham still doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing.
“There’s always a fear that you’ll just be completely unable to write a song,” Wareham says. “You just have to start playing. Work out some kind of chord structure. Then you start humming. Then the humming sounds like something. Then you figure out what words go there … Maybe I do it backwards.”
Wareham’s reverse song engineering might help explain why, at 50, he’s only just released his first solo album.
The frontman for influential and atmospheric rock band Galaxie 500,
dream pop group Luna, and husband-and-wife duo Dean & Britta, brings an impromptu spirit to the self-titled set of ethereal guitar-rock songs.
Produced by My Morning Jacket singer Jim James, at James’ home studio in Louisville, Ky., the record has an intimate, cosmic folk-rock vibe that complements Wareham’s normally plaintive style.
“This record would have been very different had Jim James not been involved,” Wareham says. “He gave it a lot of energy. Some of the songs were quiet acoustic demos, and he just had the band play them so much harder. He would take all the chords out of them and just do weird things.”
Wareham’s studio band, which included wife Britta Phillips (of Luna and Dean & Britta) and drummer Anthony LaMarca (now a member of the War on Drugs), made themselves at home at James’ place, where they also slept throughout the recording process. James himself added vocals and guitar to the album.
“We had a lot of fun,” Wareham says. “The drums were in the living room, the recording console was in the dining room, my microphone was set up in Jim’s den. [Yet] it sounds like it was recorded in an expensive studio.”
Before heading to Louisville, Wareham wrote the record quickly, which mirrors the spontaneous and free-flowing style that marks his best work.
“I am kind of naive,” Wareham says. “I’m not trained. I don’t know music theory. The songs tend to have simple structures that I use again and again.”
It’s the same unsophisticated approach he took back in the late 1980s with Galaxie 500.
“We were just learning to play our instruments,” Wareham says. “Sometimes it’s the weaknesses of the musicians that can make it interesting.”
A quarter century later, Wareham is a much more skilled guitarist and songwriter than he’d care to admit. To his credit, he continues to make feeling lost sound beautiful.
My Morning Jacket singer Jim James, left, and Dean Wareham first got to know each other around 1999, when the reverb twang of MMJ’s debut, “The Tennessee Fire,” drew comparisons to Wareham’s band Galaxie 500. “[MMJ] kept getting compared to Galaxie 500 [because of] the reverb and the falsetto,” Wareham says. “So Jim was like, ‘Who is this band Galaxie 500? I guess I should check them out.’ I got an email from Jim a little while later just saying hi.”
U Street Music Hall, 1115 U St. NW; Fri., 7 p.m., $15; 202-588-1880. (U Street)