SUPER AGAIN? Roger Miller told the Dipper to “rock hard” and forget about being a “mature older band.”
In a quiet basement in suburban Concord, singers/guitarists Gary Waleik and Bill Goffrier and drummer Jeff Oliphant (with stand-in bassist Jeff Moxley) are about to turn back into Big Dipper. Twenty years ago, this was one of the most celebrated outfits in Boston: a band with guitar noise for the post-Burma crowd, cerebral lyrics for the thinkers, and mile-wide hooks for everybody. They’ve turned down a few reunion offers since their ’93 break-up. But with the release of the three-CD Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology (Merge) this week, they’re back — at least for a few reunion shows, starting April 26 at the Middle East.
At their first rehearsal, the members are all business. Both Waleik and Goffrier have their heads down as they reacquaint themselves with their distortion pedals. Only Oliphant allows himself a few wide grins behind the drum kit. (Founding bassist Steve Michener, now living in Washington state, will rejoin the line-up next month.) Goffrier hits the intro and they slam into a couple of their punkier blasts, “Faith Healer” and “You’re Not Patsy.” The Dipper sound is still there, if a little tentative. And then with the slower and subtler “Lunar Module,” it clicks into place. The pop exuberance of “She’s Fetching” clicks as well, and from there they’re ready to try the trickier “Meet the Witch,” their local hit from 1988. “If you can’t handle the ‘Witch,’ you probably shouldn’t be here,” Oliphant ventures.
“I’m terrified and excited,” Waleik (who now produces Only a Game for NPR) admits when we sit down. “We could step onto the stage and people could say, ‘See, they really did suck all along.’ But I’m hoping there’ll be more excitement and less terror as we go along.”
The idea of a reunion has been kicking around since they played a short informal set at Oliphant’s wedding four years ago. It hasn’t hurt that there have been a bunch of high-profile reunions, including Mission of Burma, the Pixies, and Volcano Suns, the former band of both Waleik and Michener. “I saw Mission of Burma’s reunion in 2002,” Waleik recalls, “and they were so astoundingly good, setting the bar so high, that I decided I never wanted to do a reunion with Big Dipper. But I thought about it again after the initial shock wore off. And I recently got an e-mail from Roger Miller with his advice about this. He said that you’ve got to rock hard, you can’t go out and be a mature older band.”
And then an old acquaintance, Merge founder and Superchunk leader Mac McCaughan, complained in print that Big Dipper’s catalogue was unavailable. Waleik contacted him and they struck up a deal for the Supercluster package, which includes two albums, Heavens and Craps, recorded for Homestead plus a raft of unreleased tracks. It’s a reminder that Big Dipper peaked early: the members came in with a pedigree (in addition to the Volcano Suns connection, Michener was in Dumptruck and Goffrier in Wichita band the Embarrassment) and a songwriting knack that they’d honed in their previous outfits. On the 1987 Heavens, you could hear them bouncing song ideas off one another.