In the late 80s, there was hardly a star in Boston’s rock and roll sky that shone brighter than Big Dipper. Comprised of former members of an array of already legendary bands – including The Embarrassment (singer-guitarist Bill Goffrier) and The Volcano Suns (guitarist-vocalist Gary Waleik and bassist Steve Michener) – the quartet formed a unique sound; at once chiming, poppy, and cheerful, while simultaneously twisted, dissonant, and skewed. Over 4 albums, in as many years, the band charted new indie pop territory, from breakthrough singles “She’s Fetching” and “All Going Out Together,” to “Faith Healer” and “Ron Klaus Wrecked His House,” but sadly, their demise came all too quickly, shortly following their major label debut “Slam.”
Although gone for more than a decade and a half, Dipper’s legacy refused to be forgotten. A continuing fascination which lead to Merge’s monster reissue, 2008’s “Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology” – a 3 CD set featuring songs from the band’s debut EP and first two full-length albums, along with 15 previously unreleased tracks. After that, the reunion shows predictably followed: then, the reunion thoughts. All of which brings us to “Big Dipper Crashes on the Platinum Planet” the band’s first truly fresh record since 1990, yet one which sounds pleasingly like the Dipper of yore.
Rocker cornered guitarist Gary Waleik at Boston’s Sunset Cantina to talk about the band’s return to recording, the stage, and (of course) his love of Robert Pollard.
Rocker: I wanted to talk first about the band getting back together…
Gary: Well, it’s sort of a long story. Back in about 2002, 2003, Tom Scharpling, a DJ at WFMU, who loved the band and who we knew back in the old Dipper days, called our original bass player Steve Michener, cold, at his home in Walla Walla, Washington. He wasn’t home, but he spoke live on the air with his wife, Denise, about the possibility of arranging a Big Dipper reunion tour. It made for great radio, but we weren’t really serious about getting together at that point, and we probably couldn’t have anyway because we most of us had very young kids, and jobs, and houses to take care of and all that, mundane stuff. But from that point on, the idea percolated. Jeff got married in 2004, and his wife, Tracy, who was gravely ill at the time, said, “I’d love to see Big Dipper play live,” she’d never seen us play live, and so that was a real incentive for us – Tracy’s sick, she really wants to see us, we have to do it – so we did it. We actually played four songs at their wedding reception, which is how a lot of bands reunite. I know, it happened with the Del Fuegos at least one time, maybe twice. Anyway, we had fun and we started thinking about it some more, playing every now and then, just goofing around, and we decided, “OK, we’re going to do it,” and around the same time, Mac McCaughan, from Merge Records, and I started talking about the possibility of a Big Dipper anthology. At first we weren’t sure what we were going to do, I told him we had all this material we had recorded from about 1990 to 1992 that I thought was really good stuff, and we were just going to do that, but then we realized we had the rights and all the original artwork and master tapes for all the Homestead stuff.
Rocker: How does that work with Homestead, they couldn’t lay claim to the recordings?
Gary: No, contractually, all of this artwork and the master tapes reverted back to us five years from the release date, so the stuff belonged to us, anyway. I have moles in the record business who learned that all of this stuff was sitting in a warehouse in Long Island, and I’d been trying to get this stuff back and they wouldn’t give it back, so I had someone go in and actually, how shall we say,… extract it.
Rocker: Some kind of “rock spy” you employed?
Gary: Yes, I can’t say who. This is highly sensitive material! So I had all that stuff, everything, artwork, original photographs, layouts for all the album covers, and the master tapes, and the multi-track tapes, so we had all that stuff in hand, it was ours, it was free, so Mac and I started talking about, “Hey, let’s do the Big Dipper Homestead stuff with some bonus tracks,” and the third CD would be the stuff that was never released, and it came together very quickly, we had a ton of stuff to send them, musically, in terms of the graphic design, the artwork, the photographs, and they did a fabulous job of putting that together, and we committed to doing a few shows in promotion of that, and we had a really good time. We were surprised at how good we sounded, it took a little while to rehearse and remember what side of the guitar to blow into to produce the noise and stuff like that, but it was a good, positive experience, put a nice punctuation mark on our career so we didn’t have to remember that Epic disaster as the last thing we ever did. Steve went back to the west coast, and Jeff and Bill and I, started getting together very sporadically to play new songs, and dig up some old songs that we used to play but never really did anything with. I have a little recording studio set up in my basement, and it was easy to record ideas as they came. It went very slowly, it took about four years to compile an album’s worth of material, but considering the amount of time we had to do that, we were surprised at how productive we were, and before long, we had 12 or 13 songs, and we said, “What the heck, let’s see if anyone will put out a new release.” We pitched it to Merge and they turned us down. It looked like no one was going to be interested, and then Bill had mentioned that he had had a good experience with Harry Howes at Almost Ready Records, who reissued The Embarrassment’s “Sex Drive” single, so we ran the idea by him and he said, “Yeah, sure, let’s give it a try.” So so far, that’s been going very well, we love the package, we love the songs, the cover came together really nicely, and it feels like Almost Ready is getting behind us in a really nice, supportive way.
Rocker: How did you handle any original tensions or reasons that led the band to split?
Gary: It wasn’t a tremendously acrimonious split-up, when we put out Slam on Epic, it was a very tough thing, because we had toured that summer on that record with great promises that we were going to do well and we were going to tour in the fall and there was going to be this string of hits. A lot of “Boys, we’re going to take you to the toppermost of the poppermost!” and all that A&R baloney. So when things didn’t work out so well, the band imploded for a little while, Steve decided to quit the band and he disappeared, Bill and I kept going for a couple of years after that. We were writing good songs and having some fun, but no one was interested in them at all. So to answer your question, we had all been in touch, in the ensuing years, from about ’92 to 2002, 2004, when this snowball started rolling down the hill, and we had already made up in the cases where we needed to make up. We all love each other. We all had a great time together and everything’s fine. So at the point, when the idea was presented that maybe we should get together for a reunion tour, as I said, we were taking care of little kids, dealing with professional responsibilities, and it was just really hard to even imagine doing a show, plus Steve was out on the west coast.
Rocker: Is that why he’s not on the new record?
Gary: Yeah. It would have been great to involve Steve in some way. We had urged him to write some songs and send them out our way, and maybe we could do some file-swapping and have him play some bass or singing or whatever, but that hasn’t worked out, and I understand why. It’s very hard to do when you’re out there by yourself. So in a way, it’s too bad that he wasn’t involved in the project, but Tom Brewitt, who was involved in the two years after Steve left, lives locally, he knows all the songs, and it was easy to get him involved. So we had another way to go with Steve’s absence.
Rocker: And some of your offspring are on this record too?
Gary: Yeah, it would have been nice to get more offspring than just my own involved, but since the recording took place in the house where I live with my wife and two kids, it was easy to get them involved, and my daughter, Marley, is a beautiful singer, and she picks up tunes very quickly. When we were recording “Lord Scrumptious,” which is the last song we recorded, the first song on the record, I heard in Bill’s demo for that song some vocal stuff in the background and thought, “She’d be perfect for that.” I played the song for her once, and she had the parts, and it took two takes, I doubled her voice, so it took only two takes. For Sarah and Monica, I wanted an instrument in the background, but I didn’t want it to be guitar. My son, Daniel, who’s 12, plays the trumpet, so I wrote out a little score for him, and he played the part. So it’s been nice to involve them.
Rocker: Would you want your kids to be in a rock band?
Gary: I don’t necessarily want them to be, my daughter’s taking up drums and one of her friends plays bass, so there may be a band in the works there. She is into Broadway stuff and show tunes, and she’s very much into drama. She’s seen us play a couple of times, and she thinks it’s pretty cool, but she’s not overly impressed, because where it’s at, really, is on Broadway.
Rocker: Before we turned on the camera, we were talking about the difference between being 20 and handling being in a band, and handling it today. How have things been different for you in this go-around when you think about your own experiences in the past?
Gary: There are pluses and minuses, I think we’re a little smarter and a little wiser. Fortunately, because our careers don’t depend on making music anymore, we’ve been able to just relax a little bit and say, “OK, we’re doing this for fun, we’re writing songs the way we want to, we’re recording them the way we want to, we’ll put them out the way we want to, and we’ll play the shows the way we want to, we don’t have a manager pushing us, we don’t have landlords bugging us for the monthly rent check.” Well, we do, but we know that’s covered from other sources. And we just do it the way we want to do it, and that’s fun. I think the songs are really, really good, I think they’re right up there with some of our best. So that’s really nice. The problem is, when you’re 50-something years old or 40-something years old, you just don’t have the same energy, and it takes energy to be in a band, it takes tremendous energy to be in a band, to the point where the thought of doing one show, my goodness, how can we do it, we have to get in a van and drive four hours and lug the equipment into the club, then play for an hour and a half and drive home? That’s impossible. Normally, I’m in bed doing crossword puzzles at 10 o’clock, and now you look at the tour itinerary and you have to go onstage at midnight…wow.
Rocker: What are your touring plans for this record?
Gary: Right now we have some tentative shows booked and now that there’s word out that we’re playing shows in the Northeast, we’re getting some offers from the Midwest, We felt like, in a lot of ways, the Midwest was our home, because of the interest in Bill, who, of course, was in The Embarrassment, which is still a legendary band in Kansas and in parts of the Midwest. So we may play Chicago later in 2013, and if we do that, we may end up doing Lawrence, Kansas, or who knows what. I hope it doesn’t get too ambitious, but we’ll see what happens.
Rocker: You have to keep those crossword puzzles going!
Gary: Right. I get tired just thinking of it! When I was 24 years old, whatever it was it would be “Chicago? Oh, great! Iceland? Yeah, we’ll go to Iceland!”
Rocker: When you did the reunion shows for Supercluster, what were your expectations around how that would turn out?
Gary: We were very pleased with the way the 2008 shows went, we were completely unsure of how that would go, whether it would be some sort of Spinal Tap scene with only three people in the audience and whatnot, but all the shows were well-attended, and we had a good time, so that was great. This time, I don’t know. Before, we were supporting Supercluster, and most of that material, people knew. This is going to be…whatever shows we play is going to be in support of an album of brand new songs, and it will be very interesting to see who’s into that.
Rocker: What motivates people to take another look at reuniting with their band? If you’d never gotten back with Big Dipper, do you think your life would have been crappier? What made you feel like you wanted to do this?
Gary: That’s a great question, and it’s a really hard one to answer, because rock and roll, and in fact, most of daily life, too, is ego-driven, you want to go back to feel that exhilaration of playing your songs in front of an audience, and have them send love your way. It’s a very egotistical thing, “I need that love,” and it’s a very intoxicating thing if you’re in your middle age, especially if you’re a parent, because in order to be a parent, a good parent, and a good spouse, you need to squash your ego a lot, it’s a hard thing to do, I don’t think I’ve done it as well as I can do it, but you have to do a lot of it. When someone comes to you and says, “Yeah, we’ll pay you 5,000 dollars for a gig, and it will be full of hundreds or thousands of people screaming and shouting for the songs that you wrote, and you’re going to sing to them,” man, it’s very, very tempting, and very intoxicating. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s also very terrifying, but you’ll do anything to get that love back. I think you find other things that only wiser, slightly more mature people can appreciate as you meet the fans who traveled from North Carolina or Ohio or England to see that one reunion show, and you realize that you meant something to them, and you meant enough to them to make them go to extraordinary lengths to see you again, that’s really humbling, it kind of squashes the ego, in a way, because you realize what you’ve created is quite above and beyond yourself, there’s something that you shared that is a part of you and yet at the same time apart from you, and when people can get together to appreciate that thing that is apart from you, they can also enjoy and experience it and it makes you realize you’ve done something really, really good. It sounds corny, but it’s very, very true.
Rocker: Would you say that the new record is a classic Big Dipper record or is it a departure?
Gary: I think it’s very consistent with our back catalog, but I think, stylistically, we’ve pushed some of the songs in directions we haven’t gone in before, maybe a little bit of psychedelia here and there, maybe a little bit of riffing, which we weren’t really a riff band, we weren’t a hard rock sort of band, so we’ve tried some different things, and I think the results have been good. In some ways, the record’s a little different, but I think in other ways, it’s very consistent with what a Big Dipper fan would expect.
Rocker: I always think of Big Dipper as being one of these sweet bands, but when I went back, it’s full of dissonance and twists. It’s not as simple as it appears.
Gary: Thank you for that observation, I agree with that, and one of my biggest disappointments back when we were a full-time band was that people, critics in particular, but fans in general, seemed often unwilling or unable to scratch the pretty pop surface and see the other stuff that was there, there was musical dissonance, and people who saw us live knew that we were a louder band than people who had only heard us on record would imagine we were. But lyrically speaking, I think we were getting at some pretty dark and pretty weird things, and to me, that was always the most interesting thing about a band or a movie or a book, where there would be this kind of crunchy shell that was sweet and agreeable, but once you broke that shell, there was something deeper, maybe more dark, and maybe more unorthodox and weird than immediately met the eye over the years.
Rocker: That’s how the Smiths made their trade, there was a honey exterior but with deeply sad things going on. It’s that mix that gets people in.
Gary: Yeah, I think part of that was our image, normal, everyday, maybe goofy guys, and we sort of pushed that image, so if we had that image, it was only our own fault. People have to know that you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge a double-gatefold indie release by its goofy pictures in the middle, if you know what I’m getting at.
Gary: Yeah, they’re really silly, they’re really fun, but maybe I would have been better to try and kind of play the cool, tough rock and roll gang. Other bands have made careers of it. Their music maybe isn’t as engaging as Big Dipper’s, I don’t know. But we couldn’t do that. A lot of bands who looked tough actually weren’t. A lot of bands who look cool actually weren’t. So we just wanted to be who we were, which is four guys, writing weird songs.
Rocker: It’s not like you had no success with that approach!
Gary: No, we had some success. In fact, we had more success than most bands do, than the vast majority of them do. Could we have been more successful? Yeah, sure, but here we are now, we’re making music and having fun, so how can you really complain?