It’s been awhile since the band’s been active (there was a brief 2008 reunion); with an album of new material released late last year, Crashes on the Platinum Planet — their first in 23 years, the members of Big Dipper are playing a handful of dates to celebrate. Formed in 1985, by ex-members of The Embarrassment, Volcano Sons and Dumptruck, the band (Bill Goffrier, Gary Waleik, Steve Michener and Jeff Oliphant) released two seminal indie records on the influential Homestead Records label, Heavens (1987) and Craps (1988), before imploding in 1992 after the release of their 1990 major label debut, Slam, on Epic Records.
In 2008, Merge Records released a three-CD collection of their recordings, Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology, gathering together their entire Homestead Records output, alternate takes and unreleased tracks recorded for an album that never saw the light of day after the departure of founding member, Steve Michener in 1992.
2012's Crashes on the Platinum Planet is a return to form for the band, and with the exception of original bassist, Michener, all members are accounted for on this record.
The band's marriage of their love for pop music and avant garde sensibilities (read: eccentric lyrics and weird guitar tunings) was a winning formula that most rock music writers of that era frothed over. Songs like “All Going Out Together” and “Faith Healer” were college radio staples, but never metastasized to the mainstream, much to the delight of indie rock purists. To hear it from the band members, this wasn’t the plan entirely. Who in their early-20’s didn’t want a pop hit? Certainly, Bill Goffrier and Gary Waleik did.
I spoke recently to the incredibly grateful and appreciative Gary Waleik, now an executive producer of the WBUR radio sports show, Only A Game (syndicated widely by National Public Radio), and founding member of Big Dipper on the resurgence of interest in his band that he humbly calls “a quirky li’l band.”
Examiner: Big Dipper circa 2013 is something short of a mini-phenom. What does it feel like to be cool again after all these years?
GW: Cool . . . again? We certainly weren't very cool before! Not so sure we are now, either, especially given our ages. Maybe the word is simply “active.” It feels nice and invigorating to be active after all these years. And sure, cool!
Examiner: Since the run up to 2008’s Merge release of Supercluster, word on the street was that Big Dipper would reclaim its rightful place in the pantheon of greatest all-time bands. Do you think this is hyperbole, fact or reality? Is the band in a place to accept whatever outcome history dictates?
GW: Certainly hyperbole. I'm really not too sure what sort of rightful place we would reclaim. We're a humble, quirky li'l pop act, and we've usually been fairly accepting of whatever happens to us. Sometimes it's easier to accept than at other times. But we really are thankful that we've had a sort of third act now, in a country in which second acts supposedly aren't allowed.
Examiner: The new Dipper album, Crashes on the Platinum Planet, sounds in certain places like an old, albeit, familiar one — trademark oddball lyrics, tight harmonies and arrangements, but stylistically there’s a shift in another direction that I can’t put my finger on. I’m not sure if it’s the production or the song structures. Am I way off here?
GW: No, you're not way off. A couple songs on the new album are very ‘riffy’ for Big Dipper (“New Machine,” “Pitbull Cruiser” and “Blue”), especially because we were never really a riff band . . . until now. One of the tunes, “Sarah and Monica” is a little psychedelic and Jeff (Oliphant) asserts himself on a few tracks. So it's got a few different facets while retaining some of the same quirky characteristics that people have always loved [about us] . . . or ignored us for.
Examiner: Some bands that are critics’ darlings come swinging right out of the gate on their first release, and then quickly lose their marbles and turn their back on what worked so well the first time by going off the rails stylistically on the their sophomore effort. It’s not a criticism, mind you, but an observation that Dipper’s sound or overall aesthete was consistent and not overly adventurous. Was that a conscious decision or out of necessity because of limitations?
GW: I think what you're hitting upon is "Why do you put such a heavy emphasis on songwriting rather than on performance and sound and attitude?" The answer to that would be: We’re such rock savants, in a way. We write songs and don't worry too much about anything else.
Examiner: How did the Dipper sound come about? When I listen to Volcano Sons, Dumptruck and The Embarrassment I don’t hear anything in particular that suggests an nascent Dipper sound.
GW: There are some who feel that Volcano Suns are Big Dipper's doppelgänger. I think that's correct. We don't get enough credit for being noisy, and they don't get enough credit for writing good, catchy songs. We don't sound like Dumptruck at all because we didn't want to. That wasn't us. We don't sound like The Embarrassment (for the most part) because we couldn't if we tried. And, they also aren't us.
Examiner: What’s it like going on tour as an “oldster?” What sort of logistical and practical issues do you have to deal with now versus back in the day?
GW: It's hard to juggle work and family responsibilities with gigs. I won't call what we're doing now a "tour . . . it's just a handful of shows. It’s getting harder to do, plus we need a separate van for the Geritol! So it’s expensive.
Examiner: Has the band’s fanbase/demographics changed since the 80’s/90’s?
GW: No, not at all. Our fans all age at the same rate as everyone else does.
Examiner: How’s Bob Pollard (Guided by Voices founder, Robert Pollard, and Big Dipper fan who created the cover art for Crashes on the Platinum Planet) doing?
GW: I haven't seen him in a while, but he seems to be doing well. He's writing songs, releasing records like a madman, touring, is in great shape, and he has a loving wife who takes good care of him. Long live Bob!
Big Dipper: January 31, 2013, 7 PM, Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center St., Northampton, MA, $20.