Dean & Britta
he majestic denouement of Luna was no zenith for Dean & Britta. Instead, it was the beginning of a collaboration that has now produced two charming and beautifully romantic albums, L'Avventura and the newly released Back Numbers. I've gotten to know Dean & Britta over the last few years and was able to ask some questions and spend some time with them before a recent show. I can tell you firsthand that they are as charming (and beautiful) in person as they are on their albums.
There seems to be a trajectory over the course of your career with regards to musicianship, songwriting, and even the production of your albums, can you tell me about that evolution?
Dean Wareham: My own musicianship hasn’t progressed that much since 1988, though I have become familiar with a wider palette, with different guitar sounds. I may be a different songwriter, but not a better one. The lyrics you write when you’re 25 years old may be naïve, but they are still valid. In terms of production, I’ve been lucky to get to work with Tony Visconti on the last two Dean & Britta records—certainly the best producer I’ve ever worked with.
Did you ever struggle with your playing or songwriting and if so was there a musical epiphany at some point where everything fell into place?
DW: Things fell in to place during the first Galaxie 500 sessions at Noise New York, produced by [Mark] Kramer. We walked out of there with three songs that we thought were completely unique.
Britta Phillips: Learning to play the guitar was the hardest thing I've ever done. I felt like I'd never be able to do it and then one day, everything changed, all at once, and I could really play.
What's the Dean & Britta song writing process like?
BP: It really depends on the song. Sometimes we sit down and jam together and then one of us writes the lyrics (“Singer, Sing”; “Words You Used to Say”). Although, Dean didn't write the lyrics to “Singer, Sing,” he really weeded through my vocals on the demo to select the best lines. Sometimes we both contribute lyrics (Crystal Blue, R.I.P.). And sometimes we just write separately.
Are there certain individual strengths that you write to?
DW: Sometimes all you need for a song is one interesting riff… that’s what I look for.
BP: I don’t really think about what my strengths are when I write. Sometimes I’ll use another song as a model for inspiration, but often a song comes about from playing around with new keyboard sounds. I always start with the music since that comes easily to me. Lyrics are more difficult and time-consuming.
You both have very distinguished catalogs of songs you've written. Do you still get moments when you're blown away by a song falling into place perfectly?
DW: Of course. There is usually one song that happens like that… something happens in the studio that transforms it into something special.
BP: I'm always amazed when a song falls into place perfectly. Some songs do seem to just write themselves.
This is the second album with Tony Visconti producing, what drew you to him?
DW: His work on the T. Rex records more than anything. They still sound fresh after all these years. Tony is the whole package, good at every aspect of producing—engineering, playing instruments, fixing things when they are broken, coming up with a cool part when we’re stuck and especially mixing.
What was the recording process like?
BP: We started recording demos at home and then had Matt Johnson record the drums on top of them in the studio. We had a big chart on the door and we'd put a gold star next to the song each time we recorded something new. Then we re-recorded some guitars, bass and vocals, but we also kept some stuff from our home demos. My vocals on "Singer, Sing" and "Words You Used to Say" were recorded at home, for example.
DW: Only when Britta breaks my headphones.
BP: We haven't had difficulties. Sometimes we both get tired and stressed out, but musically, we're right in sync. I really respect and trust Dean's instincts.
Tell me a bit about the Back Numbers album art, what was the concept behind it?
BP: I recently read a review that called it James Bond meets Valley of the Dolls. We wanted to do something a bit different than "indie casual," so we looked through some books our photographer had lying around from the ‘60s and went for something kinda glamorous, stylized and sexy.
Who was your favorite artist growing up?
DW: The Bee Gees.
BP: The first record I remember is my 45 of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” by Tiny Time. A few years later, I loved Elton John (probably had something to do with my dad being a piano player). The Bee Gees and the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever were “it” in junior high. Then it was Led Zep in high school, followed by Blondie and the Talking Heads.
Are there any new or up-and-coming bands that you take notice of or that influence you?
BP: I like the Go! Team a lot. I love their use of samples. I love the Gnarls Barkley single, "Crazy." I'd love to write a whole album like that: minimalist retro disco. And I love the song "Magic Touch" by Kudu. I want to write a song like that. Hmmm...whole lotta disco it seems…
You both have acting experience as well, any cross over in skill sets between the acting and music?
DW: Acting is easier. They write the words for you, and you just have to stand in the right spot and say them. But I try to bring the same stillness to each, just be myself.
BP: I guess there can be an element of acting in some of the songs I sing...putting myself into a different scenario. In acting, you have to forget yourself and focus on the material, which I really enjoy. I feel rather shy on stage, but not when I’m singing.
Along with that, what's it like doing movie scores/soundtracks compared to working on your albums?
BP: We don’t have to worry about lyrics!! It was great working the score for the Squid & The Whale. It was fun and challenging to collaborate with the director (Noah Baumbach). He has great taste in music, but because he’s not a musician, we had to communicate by using references and trying to evoke “essences.”
What's next on the agenda?
BP: More touring…Europe in May! After that, I really hope we get to do more score work.