January 20, 2004, a day that will be forever burned in the minds of a handful of listeners of WFMU’s The Best Show on WFMU. It was here (first introduced about 1:12 into the episode and picked after a few choice Big Dipper songs at 1:49) that host Tom Scharpling first summoned the members of the long-disbanded Boston band to see if he could spark a dramatic reunion. If you’ll recall, reunion was in the air, following the stunning and emotional Berlin and A Flock of Seagulls reunions that had recently been shepherded through VH-1. Through his persistence, Scharpling would set off a montage of awkward hugs, slow-motion instrument polishing, drum-head changing, finger-building exercises, and stage clothes shopping excursions that. Nearly 4 years later comes the news that Big Dipper is indeed reuniting for a handful of shows in April 2008 and the release of a 3-CD set. The release will include a 12-page booklet with liner notes by Scharpling and, most importantly, songs from the band’s first 3 long-out-of-print albums along with the requisit rarities, unreleased tracks, and even the original video for “Faith Healer”. I’ve been waiting a long time for this day, and I’ve been waiting a long time to have more than this grainy, 12th-generation clip that’s been floating around YouTube for some time as a visual record of the band.
We will have more news on the CD and the shows as details are finalized. For now, we welcome Gary Waleik, Big Dipper guitarist and go-to guy on the low harmony parts, to the Halls of Rock. In my days of attending Big Dipper shows, Gary was always a great guy to chat with, and he’s no different today. Following this scratchy vinyl-burned track from the band’s Heavens lp, let’s get it on!
Big Dipper, “Mr. Woods”
RTH: So it’s true that Big Dipper going to reunite for some shows in April 2008! Do you know where you’ll be playing?
GW: Yes. We plan on playing two shows in Boston and two in the New York area starting 4/23/08. They will include shows at Maxwell’s in Hoboken and The Middle East in Cambridge.
RTH: Will it be just a few shows, or are you ditching your well-established adult lives for one more shot at conquering The Road?
GW: My guess is that those 4 shows will probably be all we do. If it goes well, I may pitch for a quick Midwest tour (Chicago, Lawrence, Wichita, Columbus, something like that), but we’re too busy as family men and gainfully employed individuals to risk it all on another full-blown rock and roll fling. Though the sirens do call from time to time…
RTH: Did this reunion really spring out of the efforts by Tom Scharpling, of The Best Show on WFMU, to get you back together? Is this something you’d previously considered?
GW: Tom certainly got the ball rolling over 4 years ago, and I’d give him a lot of the credit because I’m just not sure we would have done it otherwise. We had talked about it a bit, but felt that it would be risky, considering how high the bar was set by A Flock of Seagulls.
RTH: You mention on the Big Dipper MySpace page some reservations about reuniting, that everyone does it, that you’re not sure if you were ever a great live band, etc. Is there anything in particular that finally pushed you over the edge and convinced you to go for it?
GW: I don’t think there’s any one thing in particular that helped us make the leap. If anything, it’s the fact that our kids are older, we have a bit more time, and maybe we’re a bit more desperate to lead adult lives than we were even 4 years ago. There’s only so much Teletubbies you can watch without completely losing your mind. Of course, there’s only so much indie rock you can play before insanity sets in, so it’s a balancing act. If Bill starts looking like Laa-Laa when we’re back on stage, I’m going to FREAK OUT!
RTH: You’re spread out around the country a bit these days – or is it just Steve who’s outside New England?
GW: Bill, Jeff, and I are still in New England. Steve is living in Walla Walla, Washington with his wife and two children. He and Denise are running Trio Vintners, a start-up wine company. So in addition to his geographical remoteness, Steve is isolated by the fact that he’s the only self-employed member of the band, which I’m sure is a tremendous burden. I’m hoping he makes a lot of money at it so we can quit our jobs, buy that window van we’ve always wanted and rock well into our 60s…or 70s. Maybe…not.
RTH: How are rehearsals going?
GW: Well, they really aren’t yet. I’m still trying to remember which end of the guitar you blow into to produce sound. But Steve’s begun relearning the songs, and at some point Bill, Jeff, and I will convene to play a little so we’ll be ready when Steve jets into town in April.
RTH: Has it been difficult remembering your parts?
GW: I think it might be for some songs, but I seem to have a photographic (maybe the term should be “electromagnetic”) musical memory. I remember pretty much all of it. I think. I hope…
RTH: Have you toyed with writing new material, recording anything new or left unrecorded from long ago?
GW: I have been writing some new material, as have Bill and Jeff. A couple months ago, Bill and I put vocals to a song Big Dipper had recorded instrumentally in 1992, and I’m very pleased with the results. He sang the high part, I sang the low part, and it was nice and easy…just like old times. I hope we’ll be inspired to write and record a bunch of new stuff, but first things first.
RTH: Let’s go way back. How did Big Dipper come together?
GW: Steve and I were in Volcano Suns, and he joined Dumptruck not too long after we left that band. During that time, I had met Bill through his girlfriend, and we started hanging out on his porch and strumming guitars. Songs started coming and, to our amazement, they were actually good! When Steve left the Dumper, I suggested we get together with my cousin, Jeff, who had just left a speed metal band called XS. Jeff and I had played music together since our Uncle John and I bought him a cheap used drum kit when he was 11 years old, and I knew that his powerful style and eccentric sense of humor would endear him to the other guys. I was wrong about that at first, but once they got to know Jeff, they loved him.
We recorded a few of our best tunes in May 1986. I sent them to Gerard Cosloy who was, along with Craig Marks, running Homestead Records. They loved the tunes, and sent us an unsolicited contract. Which was funny, because we didn’t even have a name for the band at that time.
RTH: What was the Volcano Suns experience like?
GW: It was tough; a volatile mixture. Peter [Prescott] must have felt he had a lot to prove post-Burma, and Steve and I were pretty young and inexperienced. I was finishing college, so it was hard to make the Suns my first priority. Just as we were starting to come together as a band and write some good songs, we started to argue a lot, and it was no fun. We all moved on, and were all better for it. But I do wish that we had stuck with it longer and recorded an album, because I think it would have been pretty good, eventually.
RTH: What were your influences prior to meeting up with the Dipper guys?
GW: I was influenced by pretty much everything I had heard. When I was 8, The Beatles blew my mind (which is funny because my daughter discovered them at exactly the same age, and now she sits in front of the stereo and plays her recorder along to the entire Magical Mystery Tour lp), and I was really into AM Top 40. In the mid-70s, I got into the Velvet Underground and Soft Machine and Love and the Stones with my Uncle John, who covered music for a local magazine in the late ’60s. I was a little late in realizing the majesty of punk, because I lived in a cultural outpost while in high school. The music from 1975-1984 is some of the best and underappreciated music in the history of great, underappreciated music. I listened to a lot of classical music on the radio, and my first job was recording avant garde concert music for WBUR, for whom I work now. So all of that influenced me.
I never cared at all for J. Geils Band.
RTH: You’re in my general age group (mid-40s), right?
GW: Yes. I just turned 45. But I’m faster now than I was when I was 33. I can’t wait for 78!
RTH: How did young Gary’s record collection grow from, say, junior year in high school to sophomore year in college?
GW: Wow, was that an arbitrary span of years…or have you been talking with my wife, who was also my fellow record-collector in college?
I had learned what I could from Beatles and Stones and a lot of great ’60s stuff by the end of high school, and then moved on to a more challenging sonic landscape. It started with Talking Heads, Sex Pistols, The Clash, Television, and Ramones and quickly branched out into miraculous regions where Wire, Gang of Four, The Embarrassment, Pell Mell, The Mekons, Swell Maps, The Monochrome Set, Mission of Burma, and The Buzzcocks frolicked.
RTH: How did you hear yourselves, as Big Dipper, when you first started playing together? What were you aiming for musically?
GW: I heard us as an experimental pop band along the lines of Soft Boys or the more eccentric Beatles stuff. We were a bit odd at the beginning, but I think Bill and Steve, who are older than me by a few years, were already easing into a more traditional approach to music. I don’t think we ever aimed for one thing as a band, but what we produced over the years reflected our range of influences, from daring punk and post-punk to some straight country and pop influences. It all kind of gushed out that way. Even though we all had our individual vision of what the band should be, we were all open-minded enough to let the influences emerge naturally, more or less.
RTH: I always thought you had a cool way of combining the artsy side of punk (eg, Buzzcocks, XTC, Wire, Television), the drama of fellow Boston art rockers (eg, Mission of Burma, Christmas), and pure power pop.
GW: Thanks. I wish we had been a bit more daring, like those bands were (well, XTC became pretty darn predictable after a while, but they WERE great at one point). But it probably would have sounded too forced if we had, so I guess it all worked out in a way.
RTH: What was the Boston scene like that you came out of? From our view in Philadelphia, at that time, it seemed worthy of our envy. You had multiple college stations, local labels that got records out, a number of energetic bands, and enthusiastic crowds.
GW: At the risk of sounding like an old fart repeating the all-too-familiar “Things were so much better back in our day!” rant, I’ll say that it was great. As you point out, there were fantastic college stations (WMBR, WERS, WZBC, WMFO and others) and some pretty big commercial stations that got it, at least for a while (WBCN, WFNX and others), some good labels (though not too many) and lots of people who cared about live music. To Boston’s credit, we still have those things, to a certain extent, especially the college stations, and especially WMBR. I think the big difference between now and then is the clubs. We could play The Rat, Chet’s Last Call, TT the Bear’s, Green Street Station, The Paradise, The Channel, Club III, and a bunch I’m probably forgetting. There was never any problem getting a gig. Before Dipper, I think I went to see shows almost every night from 1982-1984 or so. No exaggeration… almost every night. It was a great club scene. It’s not now, although I do love the smoke-free thing.
RTH: Do you note a strain of ‘80s underground Boston rock that extended beyond the works of you and your friends and exists to this day? It’s always seemed to me that your underground bands had an identifiable core sound, regardless of where they were on the noisier to melodic spectrum.
GW: I’m not exactly sure what you mean. But I think the great thing about the Boston scene of the ‘80s is that there were a lot of very good bands, and none of them sounded alike. Salem 66 were different from Volcano Suns, and Christmas sounded nothing like The Neats, but you could put them all on one bill, and it made wonderful sense. Maybe there is a common sound, but it’s hard for me to identify what that is.
RTH: Did Boston’s hard-rockin’ ‘70s arena rockers mean anything to you and your mates: Aerosmith, J. Geils Band, Boston…?
GW: I can only speak for myself. I never cared at all for J. Geils Band. I was never a big Aerosmith fan, although I can’t help but to admire their longevity. I had a love/hate thing going on with the first Boston record. It bugged me that I found any use for a big arena-rock band while all this great punk music was pouring out of New York and England and Boston and elsewhere. But it’s still a fun record to listen to in a lot of ways.
RTH: How did you feel the band developed from Boo-Boo through Heavens, Craps, and beyond? Did you go where you wanted to go, or did you get sidetracked or otherwise fall short of what you had in mind?
GW: With Boo-Boo, we were just recording for ourselves, and paying out of our own pockets. So it’s all over the place, in terms of sound and style. It’s a very unself-conscious record. When we recorded Heavens, we knew we were a real band, so we went for a more cohesive approach. By Craps, we had toured a lot and were better players, but we hadn’t spent nearly enough time on songwriting. As a result, we ended up with a slicker, shallower record, although it’s one that I think has some stunning tracks. By Slam, the business end of things had so overwhelmed us that we just made a series of poor decisions. I’d say that the good songs on Slam were quite good…but there were a lot of horrible songs on that record.
It’s hard to say that we fell short of what we had in mind at the outset, because I don’t really think we had a unified approach. I think that distinguished us from most bands, and it made for some interesting song contrasts. But it was also a weakness, and I think it ultimately did us in.
RTH: You know how I feel about Heavens. To me, it was the album that best represented your natural sound as a band, all the elements came together in a way that reflected what it was like seeing you live repeatedly. What stands out in your memory from the recording of that album? Was there anything special in the water, so to speak, when you recorded that one?
GW: That’s my favorite, too. And I think there are several reasons it was so strong. We spent a lot of time writing songs and developing them in practice. We were all working comfortable day jobs, and supplementing our incomes with gig money. So we were paying the bills and focusing on songwriting, which was so exciting and fun. We had lots of great material from which to choose. “Ron Klaus Wrecked His House” was almost ready to go, but was a last minute reject! That was a nice luxury. We had a small recording budget, so we were focused and economical in the studio. We just couldn’t wait to record that album, and I think you can hear our enthusiasm.
Don’t blame Yoko.
RTH: You did some cool covers in your time, not shying away from some big pop hits like “Jet” and a glossy Fleetwood Mac song called “Lies”, or something like that. Any other covers you had fun playing?
GW: We loved playing Husker Du’s “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill”. It’s a great tune, and it gave Jeff an opportunity to sing and, sometimes, gave me the opportunity to play the drums. We tried Black Sabbath’s “Fairies Wear Boots” once, but always fell apart laughing in the middle of it, which would have been inconvenient in front of a live audience.
RTH: Do you think you’ll pull any out for your reunion shows?
GW: I have no idea. We’ve already talked about some possibilities, but that will remain a secret!
RTH: I’m ashamed to say I never knew you produced Eleventh Dream Day’s Beet until tonight! (Strike 10 rock nerd points from my total score!) That makes a lot of sense. They were a band that shared a lot of your sound. How did that come about?
GW: We played in Chicago once, and stayed with some fans of ours named Bill and Jessica. They were friendly with Eleventh Dream Day, and they gave me their first record, which I loved. We played a show or two with them in the Midwest, and I became very friendly with them. To my amazement, they asked if I could help them out in the studio, and I jumped at the chance. I really like that record, and I had a great time working on it.
RTH: “Making it” in rock ‘n roll is still a massive crapshoot, I’m sure. However, these days there’s a much stronger infrastructure available to indie rock bands. Did any underground band but Del Fuegos cash in with a even a minor role in a national advertising campaign? Today, all sorts of unknown bands crop up in ads, play on the video monitors at Target, get songs in major motion pictures… Please explain to our younger readers what “success” might have meant to a band like Big Dipper in the late-80s. What roads to this notion of success might have been available to you?
GW: Well, I think we were successful in many ways. We toured Europe twice, North America many times. We put out a bunch of records and had a blast doing it until we made the poor choice to hook up with Epic. I think we would have been more successful if we had maintained the sort of priorities and focus that made Heavens such a great record. Maybe that would have resulted in a big, commercial pop record…maybe that would have resulted in an avant-garde masterpiece. Maybe it would have been something in between. So I guess success would have meant making several more good records.
RTH: How did the band wind down? Was it gradual, dramatic, the result of Yoko?
GW: I think it was gradual, although we never really recovered from the Epic experience. Steve left in July 1990, and Bill and I kept at it for another 2 years, after which I just couldn’t take it anymore. Don’t blame Yoko. She may have been able to help us.
RTH: There’s not a lot on Big Dipper on the Web. The great data dump seemed to pass you by. Rarely do I run into any indie rock fan younger than a certain middle age who knows of you. Your records are out of print. You meant a lot to me and some of my friends, but you seemed to get left out of the great data dump. What gives?
GW: I think more people are discovering us via MySpace. Tom Scharpling interviewed me a few weeks ago, and I’ve heard from a few people since then who have told me that they’re listening our music for the first time and really like it. I’m working on a 3-cd anthology which should be out in March, and we’re playing some shows, so I wouldn’t say we’ve been left to rot in the great tar pit of history.
RTH: These days, you’re Senior Producer for NPR’s cool sports show, It’s Only a Game. I assume you’ve got a taste for sports and competition. Did you ever find yourself taking a competitive approach to your music, to whatever band you’d be sharing the stage with, and so forth? Some of my non-sports-loving musician friends stare at me blankly if I mention any relationship I’ve felt between sports and music.
GW: Competitive? No, but I do think there’s a similarity between what I do know and what I used to do. Thankfully, Only A Game is a unique program. I think Big Dipper was a unique band. So I’m lucky to have worked on unique creative projects for over 20 years.
RTH: What are you up to musically these days? I see you’ve done some recordings as grimspex with Bob Beerman of Pell Mell. It’s cool, repetitive instrumental stuff. Any plans to release a grimspex album? Anything else cooking?
GW: No plans for a grimspex release yet, although one tune is the theme for a new WBUR show called Radio Boston (http://www.radioboston.org/). I’ve been writing and recording songs with Bob Fay (ex-Sebadoh, Crush, Deluxx, and so on) as AMC Gremlin. I hope to do more of that with both of them, but they’re family men, too. It’s hard to get together.
To conclude our chat, Gary agreed to take a seat on the bench and join in on some Dugout Chatter…
What guitar would you least want to be caught dead playing?
Parker NightFly. Just hideous and unnecessary.
Bill Goffrier: Painter, Rocker, or Fashion Plate?
All three! Add swingin’ single to that list, too!
Pete Shelley or Steve Diggle?
Ouch! Tough one…I love them both. I mean, what would Diggle’s “Running Free” be without Shelley’s “You know there’s no time” refrain? What would Shelley’s “You Say You Don’t Love Me” be without Diggle’s roaring guitar? I love them together, so I’ll courteously abstain from answering that one.
What’s a song or band you love that might surprise even your old friends and bandmates?
I love Chic. Yes, the disco band. I just love ‘em, especially the songs “Le Freak” and “Good Times”. I love a lot of Ringo’s solo material, too, especially from the lp cleverly named “Ringo”. Count me as a Ringo guy.
Who’s the better rocker, Peter Gammons or Theo Epstein?
I haven’t heard nor seen either, but I hear Gammons can shred. Theo seems like a Seattle scene wannabe, like his pal Bronson Arroyo, which is not my bag at all (with no disrespect intended to our fine musical friends Young Fresh Fellows or anyone else). So I’ll give it to Gammons. Plus, he’s been on my show, and Theo hasn’t.
What production touch most readily turns you off?
I hate cheesy ‘80’s keyboards and too much reverb.
Do you agree with me that the film Almost Famous is the most cloying of all rock films? Is rock ‘n roll ever that sweet?
Ummm…I haven’t seen it. I’ll blame parenthood on that one. Now Parenthood; THAT was a movie.