I recently sat down with Gary Waleik, guitarist/songwriter for the Boston band Big Dipper to discuss the band's career, as well as their latest album, Big Dipper Crashes On The Platinum Planet. I appreciate him taking time out of his work day to chat with me (I caught him at his full-time gig at WBUR where, among other things, he serves as Executive Producer for Only A Game, a nationally-syndicated sports program, which airs on National Public Radio) and sharing his thoughts on a number of subjects, including Big Dipper's short-lived stint on a major label. At all times, Gary was open, engaging and refreshingly candid:
DG: Is it safe to say that the Big Dipper anthology (released on Merge Records in 2008) was the impetus for Big Dipper to reunite, and hit the road?
GW: That's basically correct, although Bill (Goffrier) Jeff (Oliphant) and I had been dabbling in songwriting even when the band was not happening, as it were. There were a few tunes which had been lying around that we picked up and had some fun with, but when we found how good they were sounding, we began recording them - so we were essentially in the process of reuniting prior to the release of the anthology, and the subsequent tour we embarked upon. While it wasn't necessarily the impetus, it definitely had a positive impact on us getting back together.
DG: Were you surprised to witness the renewed interest in Big Dipper as a result of the anthology?
GW: Pleasantly so. It was really gratifying: band breakups are always hard, and the way
the band broke up in the early 90's was particularly difficult - you spend all those years wondering if anyone remembers you, and do the songs you've recorded have that "staying power." First off, I gotta give the folks at Merge Records credit: the anthology was a very ambitious project, and I thought they did an amazing job of telling the Big Dipper story with the songs they compiled. We played a few gigs around the release in March/April of 2008 and it was really cool - we had great crowds at our shows, and folks were coming up to us saying how much the songs meant to them. We didn't care so much about the image or the live show per se, we cared about the songwriting. When you hear 20 years later that someone really loves a particular song and it has personal meaning for them, it makes you think "maybe it was worth it, after all."
DG: I would bet many of your fans mentioned specific gigs that held fond memories for them.....
GW: You're right. We had a guy come to one our shows all the way from England, who had seen us perform there back in the day, as well as folks from around the country - Ohio, Philly, and North Carolina (to mention but three) taking part in our Northeast tour. It's gratifying to know folks still remember and appreciate you.
DG: Share with us a little backstory on the recording of your latest album, Big Dipper Crashes On The Platinum Planet-
GW: For the last fourteen years or so, I've had a modest basement studio. I didn't get to use it a lot early on, what with raising kids and such, but over the past few years, me and the Big Dipper guys would get together on Sundays, sharing song ideas. If we felt there was an impetus to commit it to a recording, we'd go ahead and do it. We were amazed at our productivity (given the sporadic recording schedule) and how fun the whole process turned out to be. At the end of the day, we assembled a bunch of tunes that I think rank among the best in the Big Dipper catalog.
DG: I noticed in the liner notes of Platinum Planet that one of the tracks features an archival NASA transmission - whose idea was that?
GW: Mine, actually. I had a CD of various NASA transmissions on it, and I thought several of the soundbytes would work great on the track, "New Machine." Toward the end of the song, there's a transmission from Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell: folks thought he was talking in code when he referenced spotting Santa Claus and his sleigh. Allegedly, Lovell saw something following the spacecraft during one of the Apollo missions. When he said: "NASA, be informed there is a Santa Claus" folks assumed, since it was around Christmastime, he was jokingly referring to Santa. But evidence suggests that "Santa Claus" was really code for a UFO sighting, which he wanted to convey to Mission Control without arousing suspicion. So I wanted to include those NASA transmissions, which I think are cool.
DG: I'd have to agree - on my album Ambientism, I used NASA transmissions on a couple of tracks, including one from Jim Lovell.....
GW: Really? That's pretty neat! Maybe that was one of Jim's purposes on this Earth - not just space exploration, but to inspire musicians on the ground like you and me.
DG: What were the advantages of recording the album in your home, versus the traditional studio environment, which you guys utilized in the past?
GW: Relatively little pressure, in fact, I'd say no real pressure. We could go into my studio, record a song and try different arrangements, and if it didn't work out, we could say "so what?" We as a band are also at a stage in our lives (that is, we all have professions outside of the band) where we didn't put any pressure on ourselves, which frequently leads to implosions in the standard studio environment. I don't remember any instances of that happening with us, but let's face it - when you're paying studio rates, and not coming up with stuff that you like, it can really set you back. We could try anything we wanted to, and if it didn't work, we'd just move on to the next song. It was a very liberating experience overall. Economically-speaking, the maintaining of studio gear and the like, though I've thrust that pressure upon myself, is nothing I can't handle. And I've utilized the studio for other projects, so it's not as if I put it together just for working on Big Dipper material.
DG: I think the advent of technology is remarkable in that it has leveled the playing field for many musicians, allowing them to produce studio-quality work. That this technology has made itself available in such a short timespan is amazing, as is the fact that many successful indie albums are being recorded and produced in home studios.
GW: And they sound amazing! Spoon, for example, has done many of their recordings in a home studio, as have Grandaddy and Apples in Stereo. Their albums sound great. You're right about the technology leveling the playing field, but aside from that, it gives you the advantage to work on a project at your own pace for as long as it takes, and then when you're satisfied, approach a label with it. In the past, you had to find other means to garner label interest, and once they put you in the studio, if they didn't like what they heard, you were dead in the water. I really wish the self-recording option had been available to us back in the late 80's - it would've made our lives so much easier.
DG: It's also kinda amazing the role the Internet has played in this process: a band can self-produce a great recording, then make an awesome music video on inexpensive equipment, post it to Youtube, and after receiving an incredible number of hits, suddenly find themselves being courted by the majors.
GW: Of course, there have been tales of record labels missing bands they should not have missed, but it's a very interesting dynamic now because of the ability to home record, and do really great stuff without having to gain the approval of a major label beforehand.
DG: The trajectory of Big Dipper began on the indie label Homestead, where you released two critically-received discs, Heavens and Craps. This in turn found the band courted by Epic Records, who eventually signed you. Your major label debut, Slam (released in 1990) has been cited by some sources as being a controversial disc. Would you agree with that assessment, and if so, how so?
GW: "Controversial" would not be the adjective I'd apply - the word that springs to my mind is.....divisive. Seems to me folks either love that record or absolutely hate it, and I can't exactly put my finger on why that is. My personal view of Slam is that, while it contains some very good songs, the presentation of it is all wrong: it's too slickly recorded and arranged, plus the album art is one of the worst covers in rock history. Steve Michener (our bassist for that album) has his own take - he thinks Slam is every bit as good as our previous work, and is especially proud of it, which I can respect. I agree with his assertion that some of Slam's songs rank among our best, however I think it was the wrong record at the wrong time. There's a precipitous drop-off in quality as the album progresses, and I attribute that to the fact that Epic was pressuring us to release Slam in April of 1990 - our original consensus was that the record come out in the fall. Being the good soldiers that we were, we acquiesced to the label's wishes - which caused us to rush the songwriting process, and didn't leave us much time to pour over what we had recorded, so we could make more discerning choices over what should end up on the album, and what should be left off.
DG: If you could go back, what would you have done differently?
GW: As you know, hindsight is always 20/20, but I would have done a couple of things - first, I'd have made it on a smaller-budget, which would've taken some of the pressure off: we recorded six days a week for two months straight, and I think we focused on some minutiae that we really shouldn't have. And to clarify, there was probably some degree of pressure during the making of Platinum Planet, but there's a world of difference between self-imposed pressure and the kind that a record label puts on you. I also would've picked a producer who had a better understanding of our strengths and weaknesses, and took a more proactive stand in terms of the arrangements, not just the production. Lastly, I would've liked to have had the time to winnow out the lesser tunes, and included those songs we inadvertently omitted, which turned out to be superior. I think had we combined the best songs on Slam with the unreleased material that wound up on the Supercluster anthology, it would've made for a great record.
DG: I'd have to say another dynamic was at play during the 90's, namely a palpable distrust of any indie band jumping to a major label - it was as if "major" became synonymous with "sellout."
GW: Interesting you should say that. In the late 80's, when we were still unsigned, we had folks in the industry (music labels, booking, management) telling us that major labels were in a feeding frenzy over signing independent artists - some went so far as to say Big Dipper was poised to be the "next big thing" in terms of commercial success on a major, because our music was so accessible. I didn't necessarily believe that, because I thought despite the catchiness of our songs, our overall sound was just too eccentric - the lyrics and themes we explored were just a little offbeat. I find it notable that the band which fulfilled that prophecy wasn't us, but Nirvana: they went from indie to major, and few folks were bitching about them signing onto Geffen....
DG: Actually, a segment of their original fanbase got p.o.'d over that move - which is why many think the last great Nirvana album isn't Nevermind, but Incesticide or Bleach.....
GW: You're probably right, but that kind of thing generally happens anyway, and there's not a lot you can do about it. What I want to know is, following the release of Nevermind, did they remain p.o.'d for months and years afterward? I think they were happy to be along for the ride, witnessing this indie band from Seattle soaring up the charts, and kicking the asses of so many established rock acts at the time. That "major = sellout" business was something we were certainly aware of - we knew what sort of fire we'd be playing with by making the transition from indie label to major, but frankly, there's only so far you can go there. Unless you put out a slew of material, and your label really knows what they are doing in terms of marketing and exposure, and you're willing to get out there and aggressively tour, it doesn't help you in the long run. With all due respect to Homestead, I remember us doing venues in towns we were playing at, and not even finding Big Dipper's CDs available in their record shops - when we asked our label why that was so, we'd get a "well, um...." answer. We felt we needed to go beyond a two-man operation (which Homestead was at that time) so we could get the attention and promotion that would help the band. So we made the jump to the majors in light of how limited those options were. The landscape of the music industry has changed considerably since then.
DG: Boston during the 80's was a particularly fertile time for indie music - you had the whole "Bosstown sound" phenomena, with bands like yours, The Neats, Mission of Burma, Guided By Voices, etc. Is the current scene similar in terms of an influx of creative and eclectic bands making their voices heard?
GW: I'd hazard to say that comparing the current scene to the 80's is like parsing apples with oranges, and I have to admit, my finger isn't really on the pulse of that - I'm not listening to as much new music as I used to, or checking out the local club scene, and shame on me for that, but I've just got too much going on in my life right now to devote significant time to checking out what's going on. Still, I don't think the scene is anywhere near as "fertile" as it used to be. That's not coming from the perspective of some old "fuddy duddy", and I've shared this observation with the rock press on previous occasions.....the club scene is not nearly as strong as it once was. There used to be an amazing scene in terms of being able to book a gig at a venue on any given day, and checking out several great bands sharing the same bill, which has sorta become extinct. Our saving grace though is that Boston's radio scene is still a force to be reckoned with - college stations like WMBR, WZBC....
GW: Well, ERS is not as good as they used to be - seems like they're less committed to playing local and indie music, but WHRB, and some others....it's a shame we lost both BCN and FNX, as they really supported the local and indie scene. The younger acts are figuring creative ways to get their music out there - some of it's working, and some of it isn't.
DG: Sometimes I wonder if the technology isn't a double-edged sword - I mean, the bar has been raised so high, fidelity-wise, and the technology so readily available..........I think quirkiness can be subsumed under the weight of high-tech production.
GW: I think it depends. Some bands sound great utilizing the best technology, others don't. And regardless of the approach, a great song is a great song, and folks can sense that.
DG: But is there room for the "lo-fi" approach, or has that become somewhat of an anomaly?
GW: I think there's room for a lo-fi approach - what I don't like though is when bands do it on purpose. Robert Pollard (Guided By Voices) has said many times that his band didn't want to record their records via a boombox or a 4-track cassette recorder, they had to - it was what they had at their disposal at the time. I think GBV had an advantage over other lo-fi acts in that so much of what they wrote was so inherently beautiful that regardless of the apparatus used, the songs would convey that beauty. I used to work as an engineer in one of the hip recording studios that's a stone's throw from where I'm speaking to you now. On many occasions, a musician would lay down a killer guitar or bass line, and his response was: "No no no. That sounds too good. Could we put a crappy mic on it?" I guess it all depends - I mean, I appreciate GBV's Do The Collapse (produced by Ric Ocasek, of Cars fame) as much as I like their lo-fi tunes "Propeller" or "Vampire On Titus."
DG: Speaking of Robert Pollard, you guys wrote a song about him on the new album....
GW: Yes we did. In fact, we chose "Robert Pollard" as the first single, and just finished a music video for it.
DG: Does Bob have a cameo in it?
GW: We're all in it, though Robert doesn't actually have a cameo in it - except there is sort of a surprise cameo that sort of involves him, and sorta doesn't. That's all I can divulge about it, you'll just have to see it for yourself.