Tuesday 19 March 2019

Long, long ago, in a Galaxie far, far away ...

Nick Kelly

Time does funny things to a band. Some bands sound dated and almost quaint when you revisit them decades later. Others sound fresher than ever -- as if it took this long for the rest of the world to catch up.

With Galaxie 500 it is the latter. Named for a classic Ford motor car, the Boston-formed trio made three extraordinary albums for Rough Trade from 1988 to 1990 -- Today, On Fire and This Is Our Music -- and then abruptly disbanded after lead singer and guitarist Dean Wareham quit amid some acrimony.

The remaining members, drummer Damon Krukowski and bassist (and partner) Naomi Yang, became a singing duo Damon & Naomi (who will be touring the UK in May), as well as joining Magic Hour. Damon also wrote a book of literary prose poetry, The Memory Theatre Burned. Dean formed Luna and now records with partner Britta Phillips as Dean & Britta.

In the meantime, there was a 'Best Of' titled The Portable Galaxie 500 and a live album, Copenhagen, recorded during their heyday on tour in Europe, both released by Rykodisc.

Twenty years on, Domino Records in the UK are reissuing their three studio albums along with extra B-sides, demos and live tracks. Now a new generation of music fans is being given the chance to discover their majestic moody minimalism.

Listening back to the records now, one is struck by their simplicity: typically three chords, played at about the speed that the Arctic ice caps are melting, punctuated by Wareham's volcanic guitar interludes (wah-wah pedal optional).

Then there's Naomi's serpentine bass, snaking its own melody line under Wareham's soulful, wounded-bird vocals that tell of "watching trees decompose" or sat watching telly on his tod.

Was there ever a more fragile-sounding band than Galaxie 500? One imagines concerned nurses, not groupies, rushing to get backstage.

Speaking to the Irish Independent from his home in Boston, Damon Krukowski ponders the influence that Galaxie 500 had on subsequent guitar bands.

"I never thought we really sounded like anybody else, to be honest," says Damon. "We were constantly grouped in with the bands that came after us who played slower than was usual. There were various names given to them -- 'slowcore', 'sadcore' ... But a lot of those bands didn't really do it for me."

Does Damon think Galaxie 500 have aged well? "The records have gone in and out of style over the years," he says. "I think it's all to do with the way they were recorded. Since those records were released, there was a revolution in the way music was made -- digital technology changed everything.

"From the 1960s through to the 1980s, music was recorded pretty much the same way. Then when digital kicked in, suddenly the whole way drum sounds and vocals were recorded changed dramatically. Now, we're seeing a lot of current bands return to the older techniques. There seems to be a desire for a more organic sound."

Was there an element of trying to secure Galaxie 500's legacy by reissuing the studio albums?

"It's important to me that they're out there and available. The expression that Naomi uses when she talks about Galaxie 500 is that we died young. We never got to the stage where we were releasing albums that people didn't like any more, or where the critics were giving us bad reviews. There has always been a sense that it all ended prematurely."

What happened?

"It was Dean who left. We haven't spoken to each other since the day he walked out; except for emails about the business side of things. We all moved on."

One reviewer mentioned that Damon's drumming style was closer to jazz than rock. "That's something that someone wrote once and it keeps getting picked up on to the point of being a cliché. It's true my mother was a jazz singer and I grew up in a house full of jazz records but I never learned the drums in a formal way. The instrument I learned was the piano.

"When we formed Galaxie 500, I was listening to punk, not jazz. Topper Headon (The Clash drummer), the Velvet Underground and the Modern Lovers were way more of an influence on me than Miles Davis. You know, I would not be able to play in a swing band even if I wanted to."

And yet there was a saxophone solo on 'Blue Thunder'... "That was Kramer's idea," days Damon. "He was always pushing us to go in directions we would never have dreamt of going in ourselves.

"You see, we had already carefully worked out how the song should sound. That's why there are two versions of 'Blue Thunder'; one with sax and one without. The one without the sax we put on the album. When it came to releasing it as a single, we put out the sax version."

When I first heard it back in the day, I thought it sounded bonkers. But eventually I came to thinking it was a stroke of genius.

"It freaked us out, too, at first! When Kramer suggested we put a sax solo on it, we were gobsmacked. We said: 'Have you gone mad? We're not Roxy Music!' Kramer rang up a jazz musician friend of his, Ralph Carney, who had worked with Tom Waits. We had never had any experience of working with a session musician before. The idea of someone coming in, doing their thing, and leaving was alien to me."

One of my favourite Galaxie 500 tunes is actually a cover of a Yoko Ono song, 'Listen The Snow Is Falling'. It's one of the very few occasions when Naomi takes the lead vocal.

"'Listen The Snow Is Falling' was never something that was going to appeal to Dean -- it was too hippie-ish for his tastes," Damon recalls.

"You can't imagine him singing those lyrics. But I thought it was perfect for Naomi; her voice had that innocence.

"At the time, she was not that confident in her own singing abilities. These days, she's far happier doing lead vocals."


Today, On Fire and This Is Our Music are released on Domino. Damon & Naomi begin their European tour on April 30 in Brighton. For details see www.damonandnaomi.com

Irish Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top