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Let's not stay together

Why does a band break up? For Luna, after 12 years, it just seemed like the natural thing to do.

It's impossible to parse the confluence of practical factors and mysterious fortune that combines to make a band work and lead it to falter. The much-loved dream-pop band Luna, like virtually every other long-lived indie band, has gone through many periods of uncertainty -- times when one member or another questions the ratio of artistic peaks to dinners at Wendy's, ponders the future following a founding member's departure, and can't quite find their little rock group's purpose in the cosmic flow.

Luna's struggles never came to blows. There were no drug problems or clashing egos or royalty disputes. The band, led by former Bostonian Dean Wareham, is breaking up after 12 years for reasons that are far murkier and far more typical. When the moment of truth materialized for Wareham, it felt more like a creeping inevitability than a decisive blow.

''How do you know when it's time to break up with a girlfriend? Or get out of bed?" he muses on the phone from his home in New York. ''How do we make any decisions? You don't until you do it. Any time you make a big change, there are lots of reasons that build up and you keep them at bay, and finally enough is enough. At some point, it becomes more complicated to stay together than split up."

Following a tour that stops tonight at the Middle East in support of the band's seventh album, the just-released ''Rendezvous," Luna will go into what Wareham likes to call ''retirement." He's compiled 10 explanations on Luna's website (www.fuzzywuzzy.com), some more whimsical than others, among them ''People are dying in Iraq," ''Too much time spent in 15-passenger vans," and ''Hotel Electravision."

Wareham agrees a general distillation of his list points to exasperation with the lifestyle. After a while -- in Luna's case 12 years -- the demands imposed and concessions required of a struggling indie-rock musician suck the glamour out of a rock 'n' roll love affair. ''It's different to be 41 years old and carrying equipment up the stairs at the Middle East at 2 in the morning than when you're 23," he says.

A transplanted New Zealand native, Wareham formed the ambient alt-pop trio Galaxie 500 in Boston in 1986 with Damon Krukowski, a drummer, and bassist Naomi Yang; the three met in high school in New York before attending Harvard together. The critics adored them, but Galaxie 500 remained an underground phenomenon during its brief four-year life, and it would be years before the group's minimalist dirges were appreciated as a seminal precursor to the slow-core and shoe-gazer movements of the 1990s.

Following Galaxie 500's acrimonious breakup in 1990, Wareham's bandmates resurfaced as the surreal duo Damon & Naomi, and Wareham formed Luna with former Chills bassist Justin Harewood and ex-Feelies drummer Stanley Demeski. Luna was quickly scooped up by Elektra Records; Sean Eden came on board as second guitarist for the second of four albums the band would record for the label before being dropped in 1998.

Luna went on to release three more albums -- models of elegant, minimalist pop craft all, iced with Wareham's signature lyrical sarcasm -- for the indie labels Jericho and Jetset. Along the way, Harewood and Demeski left the band. Drummer Lee Wall joined in 1996 and bassist Britta Phillips four years later.

No one is immune to the trauma of being dropped from a label, the chaos of management and lineup shifts, the grueling road trips. Add to that the band's inability to break out from cult status, and it's no surprise that frustration was running rampant. Still, it was Wareham who called a meeting in April, just after Luna had finished recording ''Rendezvous," to announce that he thought it was time to pull the plug.

Phillips -- Wareham's girlfriend -- knew it was coming. The others weren't exactly surprised, and nobody really disagreed. But the consensus that Wareham somewhat tentatively says the band reached doesn't quite reflect the full range of feelings.

''For a while, we were saying it was spontaneous and mutual. It wasn't," Phillips says. ''In one sense it's a relief, because I really want Dean to be happy. It's also very sad. It's still new for me, and I'll miss it."

Wall, who's planning a move to Los Angeles next year, says he probably would've opted to see how the new record did before making a final decision. ''We've survived this long because there's a loyal fan base, and I'm proud of that," he says. ''But every record feels like it could be the last record; that's just part of being in the music business. We've reached a plateau, and that's not a situation that can sustain itself, regardless of the musical satisfaction. It's healthy to move on."

Eden struggles to convey his reaction and his outlook, which are darker than his bandmates'. ''It's the infrastructure that was frustrating," he says. ''This isn't a criticism, but the dynamic changed when Dean and Britta decided to become a couple. It sort of polarized things. We weren't doing as much as we could've been or making as much money as we could've have.

''I'm the guy who enjoys touring. The rest of the members aren't as inclined to do it unless the money is great, which it usually isn't. We don't have a charmed life. It's hard to pay the bills. I don't think that this was an imperative, but I'm ready to move on."

Eden has been writing songs and collaborating with other musicians on possible projects, and Wall -- who composes music for television and commercials -- will continue that work after his move to Los Angeles. Wareham and Phillips plan to follow up last year's duo project, ''L'Avventura," with a second collection of sunny cover tunes and enigmatic originals.

Wareham, the father of a 5-year-old son from a previous relationship, made his acting debut with a starring role in last year's indie film ''Piggie" and a small part in a ''Law & Order" episode. He says that while he'll continue making music and wouldn't dream of moving to Hollywood, he'll most certainly continue to pursue opportunities on screens large and small after Luna's tour winds up in February.

''Initially, I thought we shouldn't make the announcement and deal with a farewell tour," Wareham says. ''The urge is not to want to deal with extra emotional stuff. Finally, it seemed like it would be more honest, and I'm glad we did, because it makes it more interesting to be onstage. It's special.

''People ask, 'What are you going to do next?' and it's a frightening question for a guy who's been in a band for a long time. They say, 'Aren't you afraid of losing your safety net?' And I say, 'What safety net?' "

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com. 

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