Rebirth of the Cool


Last month, Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips played a few warm-up shows at the East Village bar Mo Pitkin’s, testing out tracks from Back Numbers, their second record as a duo. “It was quite nerve-wracking,” Dean confides to me, reclining in a West Village loft space. Britta shoots him a glance and agrees. I find this rather curious. Every time I’d seem them, they’d glide through their performances fearlessly and effortlessly.

In fact, last time I saw them, they were suavely encoring with Serge Gainsbourg’s “Bonnie and Clyde” onstage at the Bowery Ballroom. No, scratch that. Last time I saw them, it was onscreen at the Tribeca Film Festival, at the spring 2006 premiere of Tell Me Do You Miss Me, the documentary depicting the final days of Luna, the celebrated, breathy dream-pop quartet Dean first put together back in 1992. Britta joined in March 2000; Dean broke it up for good in 2005 after seven albums, a handful of EPs, and the usual bouts of endless touring. In the doc’s final scene, Dean and Britta hop into a cab outside, as it happens, the Bowery Ballroom, and head uptown into the snow. Onscreen there was no band drama, no verbal spats or fistfights. Instead, we saw a band that still set up their own gear, still broke it down afterward, and always kept their cool.

Since the dissolution of Luna (Dean’s second major band, after his stint with shoegaze pioneers Galaxie 500), the couple has kept busy. Britta’s done voice work for Moral Orel, an Adult Swim show on Cartoon Network. Dean’s writing a memoir, something an editor at Penguin approached him about. Together, the couple scored Noah Baumbach’s 2005 indie flick The Squid and the Whale. All this has kept them occupied, but I can’t help point out that all of these things have also kept them cool. But the only thing that makes them cool, really, is that they carry themselves in a very understated way, and always have.

So why do they seem a little more nervous, a little less cool, a little more human now?
Back Numbers is their second album as “Dean and Britta,” as a duo. “With what we’re doing, it’s sorta like starting over, from square one,” Dean says. “Figuring out how to play songs, who plays what.” He then downplays it a bit, and the doubt kicks in: “I was thinking after Luna, maybe I won’t be able to make records, or maybe no one will give a shit about this. The normal things that people get frightened about on a Sunday night.” Britta laughs. Another major change: Midway through the recording process, the longtime couple finally got hitched. I tell them that most couples like having that separation of work and home life; they reassure me that creatively, there’s never any static. “I like that feedback,” Britta says, looking at Dean. “There aren’t that many people that if they said, ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’, I would trust that.”

Back Numbers is a collection of sexy dinner-party songs that show a different side of these two. Britta admits to fooling around with MIDI and more electronic sounds. Together, they’re flirty in a way that recalls Nancy and Lee, a contemporary spin on the classic girl–guy duo. There’s a nuance now that Luna never had—that band was almost entirely Dean’s deal, but here, there’s a duality between Dean and Britta’s voices. He’s forthright and pragmatic as he always has been; she’s wispy, sultry, and optimistic. Their combined delivery is playful, romantic, and wholeheartedly un-cheesy. In other words, totally cool. “We could have kept making Luna records, but the world doesn’t need 15 of those,” Dean says. “We’re a little closer to this record, but really, you don’t know who’s going to get exposed to it. There’s a lot of luck and timing involved.”

So there’s a bit more uncertainty and vulnerability now, but not too much. These past few weeks they’ve been rehearsing for a tour while Dean keeps plugging away at his “tell-all”; they wonder out loud if people will even show up this time around. “That will be interesting to see,” Britta laments. She glances again at Dean, trying to gauge his reaction. He just shoots me a nonchalant look that seems to say, “We’ll figure it out. It’s cool.”

Dean and Britta play Hiro Ballroom on March 30,