Whether as a musical team or as individual agents, Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips have worked long and hard to become the ultimate rock operatives. Their previous assignment, Luna, disbanded in 2005 after seven studio albums, several EPs, a live album and a best-of compilation. Wareham and Phillips are also the sweet and sultry musical duo behind 2003’s L’Avventura (a lovely album of duets and covers) and Sonic Souvenirs (a remix EP spearheaded by longtime friend/ex-Spacemen 3 member Pete Kember, a.k.a. Sonic Boom) as well as the score to 2005’s The Squid & The Whale. In October, the duo—now known simply as Dean & Britta—released Words You Used To Say (an EP featuring one original in addition to covers of Adam Green, Bobby Darin and Donovan), and a new full-length, Back Numbers, is due this winter. It’s enough to make the rest of us feel tired just reading about it.
For now, though, Wareham and Phillips are relaxing with beer and pistachios in their East Village apartment while discussing Back Numbers. Much like L’Avventura, the album is a mix of original material and covers produced by Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T.Rex) and features drummer Matt Johnson and vibraphonist Sean McCaul. In addition to seven original songs, the pair pays homage to Donovan, Lee Hazlewood, the Troggs and the theme to The White Horses (a Serbian television show popular in England in the late ’60s).
Just as they’re explaining the album’s source material, the phone rings. Wareham checks the caller ID and grunts: It’s a 1-800 number. “It’s probably someone trying to sell us OxyContin,” he says.
“We should just pick up the phone and start cursing,” says Phillips. “Except I did that once, and it was your brother.”
This is a humorous, sassy and endearing domestic counterpoint to their musical interplay. On record, Wareham’s sweet, nasal austerity, mixed with Phillips’ smoky whisper, explains the frequent comparisons to Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra and Serge Gainsbourg/Jane Birkin. Their real triumph, however, is the ability to update a classic aesthetic with modern twists.
“Some bands really want to sound ‘of a time,’” says Phillips. “We like certain aspects of that, too, but I think it’s really good to mix that up with more electronic-sounding stuff. I mean, we like drum machines and synthesizers, too. There’s kind of a retro quality to what we do, but it’s not merely that.”
The pair also cites Kember, who picked several of the covers and performs on the album, as having a major impact on Back Numbers. “How many hours was he just here squatting on the floor playing the Casio and going through the songs?” Phillips asks Wareham. “We were like, ‘Just play anything. Play every one of those instruments, and we’ll weed it out later.’” Unlike the process for L’Avventura, Wareham and Phillips recorded demos for Back Numbers at home, then took them into a studio to finish with Visconti, who plays on nearly every song.
“He’s the best producer I’ve worked with,” says Wareham. “He’s the whole package. Some producers are engineers who’ve risen to the level of producer, but they can’t play an instrument. Others can play a few instruments, but they’re not good engineers or mixers. Tony’s like a scientist.”
Both Wareham (also formerly of Galaxie 500) and Phillips (ex-Ultrababyfat) have spent the better part of their rock ’n’ roll lifespan as parts of a whole. But following Luna’s break-up, they were free to just be Dean & Britta. For them, there’s a welcome purity in that.
“Obviously, we could’ve continued making Luna records, but I think seven albums is enough,” says Wareham. “I’m not sure that bands should make more than that. You can do it, but sometimes bands stay together just for financial reasons. I think being in a band is different when you’re 40 than when you’re 22. When you’re 22, you can organize your life around a band; you have no other responsibilities. But you can’t organize your life that way when you’re older.”
They can, however, enjoy the freedom to organize their lives around more stable creative ventures. Together, they scored indie movie Just Like The Son, which is currently making the film-fest rounds. Phillips is doing voices for Moral Orel, a stop-animation puppet show that’s part of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. Wareham is producing tracks for North Carolina band Jule Brown, the alter ego of Jennyanykind’s Mark Holland (whom Dean & Britta cover on Words You Used To Say), and he recently lent his acting skills to a friend’s horror movie.
“I play a man who may or may not be a child molester,” says Wareham. “I found myself at five in the morning running around a cornfield in Pennsylvania with a pumpkin on my head.”