Justin Harwood sounds concerned. He's musing over the apparent success of his new band, the critically acclaimed Luna2. "Everyone seems to be really happy," Harwood says of himself and bandmates Dean Wareham and Stan Demeski. But Harwood quickly adds, "We're still a little cynical. It's like, 'This is all too good. Something's got to go wrong.'"
Harwood's healthy dose of realism makes sense, considering Luna2's tortured pedigree. Harwood, Wareham and Demeski all come from dysfunctional alternative acts, two of which--the Feelies and Galaxie 500--no longer function at all. As such, the three members of Luna2 stand as wizened survivors of their own rsums. They've been around the block enough times to recognize every signpost and sinkhole in the street.
Wareham, for example, led Galaxie 500's two-year trip on the college music charts. The Boston-based band made a loud splash in the late 80s with such lethargic, round-shouldered songs as "Decomposing Trees" and the perfectly titled slacker anthem "Oblivious." Wareham was Galaxie's brightest light. He wrote and sang the band's material, and his weary guitar work helped color and shape Galaxie's slow-motion universe.
But Wareham was soon deposed by his bandmates. He became a powerless figurehead of his own creation.
"Dean left Galaxie because the other two band members were a 'couple,' you know?" Harwood says. "And the funny thing about couples in bands is that they tend to operate as one. You can never outvote them. And you can't tell one of them something without the other one getting involved."
The resulting tension forced Wareham to call it quits last year. He moved to New York to recharge himself and reassess his priorities. Harwood says the Galaxie breakup was tough. He says Wareham still doesn't like to talk about it.
All of which comes off like a picnic compared to the messy demise of the Feelies, a long-loved assemblage of nervous Hoboken, New Jersey, nerds long served by Demeski's kinetic rhythms. As Harwood tells it, the venerable cult band hit the skids last year, after one of the group's leaders up and flew off to Florida with no advance warning. "Basically, Glenn [Mercer] had respiratory problems," Harwood says of the former Feelies front man. "I guess he found it hard to breathe onstage. So he got a job at Disney World. He's a locksmith. He's down there opening locked car doors for people in the parking lot."
Harwood says Demeski, who joined the Feelies in 1985, was blindsided by the Mickey Mouse move.
"Stan never got a call," Harwood says. "They still haven't called him to tell him it's over. He's very disgruntled about the whole thing. I mean, he's got a wife and two kids to take care of."
Harwood's pre-Luna2 problems weren't quite as dramatic. Still, the baldheaded bassist suffered through his own death sentence last summer. Harwood had spent five years with the Chills, a brilliant New Zealand pop band that still exists--minus Harwood and the legion of other musicians who've come and gone from the act's orbit. Harwood says the Chills' notorious instability is because of the band's not-so-benevolent dictator, Martin Phillipps.
"Marty genuinely believes he's on a crusade," Harwood says of the chief Chill. "And he believes he can't let anything or anyone get in the way. I mean, the others would put a lot into that band. But we'd never get anything back. There was no compromise as far as input. You end up like I did--you'd rather be at home with your girlfriend and your dog instead of sleeping on the floor of some recording studio."
Harwood and the rest of the Chills escaped from Phillipps in rapid succession last summer. Phillipps has since released a new Chills CD, the occasionally fantastic Soft Bomb, with yet another roster of bandmates. It's the 12th lineup in the Kiwi band's 11-year history.
"You go to parties in New Zealand and all the ex-Chills kind of get into a corner and talk about Marty," Harwood says with a laugh. "In a way, I sort of feel sorry for him. But he dug his own grave."
With the collected baggage of its lineup, Luna2 figures to be a three-car pileup waiting to happen. But Harwood says he's cautiously optimistic about his rebound band's "recovery."
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"Everyone's really working their way through their anxieties," he says. "It's like being in a new relationship. There's this big weight off your shoulders."
But there's also a ton of expectation hanging over the new group's every move. The rock press is already tossing bouquets, with former fans of the Feelies and Galaxie 500 especially happy, peppy and bursting with love.
But while Luna2's debut CD, Lunapark, is a considerable initiation, it's also the kind of quietly assertive disc that isn't likely to inspire instant converts. Luna tunes like "Anesthesia" and the wonderfully plaintive "Hey Sister" make for a noticeably soporific experience. The overall effect is like listening to the Velvet Underground's third album in an opium den. But Lunapark exhibits a nicely crafted confidence. Wareham already had most of the songs written and ready for recording when he first contacted Harwood, who helped gussy up the compositions. (I'm kind of like the senior vice president of the band," Harwood notes. "Dean's definitely the CEO.) Demeski, the hired hand of the group, was later recruited to propel the proceedings. The results, not surprisingly, sound a little like Galaxie 500 doing a slow take on forgotten Feelies songs. Such name-dropping is an expected consequence of dissecting a new band with a long list of priors. Harwood, a good-natured sort, says he doesn't mind talking about the past. "Hey, it's a way to get publicity for what we're doing now," he reasons.
But Harwood audibly winces at the idea that the New York-based Luna2 is some kind of calculated supergroup of minor-league all-stars.
"We're not like the Golden Palominos, where the players are simply bored with their own bands," Harwood states. "We got together to try and be a real band--you know, record lots of records, go on tour and all that."
And, says Harwood, so far, so good. But he's still not entirely convinced. "We're a little nervous about the whole thing," he says. "We know very well that coming from a good band doesn't mean you'll be a good band.