When the Andy Warhol Museum decided to
commission a live soundtrack to accompany Warhol’s silent film
portraits, known as “screen tests,” they called up old
friends Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips. The duo was a natural
sonic choice: From their early years in the band Luna (and Wareham in
Galaxie 500), up through their current incarnation as Dean &
Britta, their music has often carried traces of the trademark
tonalities of Warhol’s Factory house band, The Velvet Underground.
The resulting work, 13 Most
Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, features a
four-piece band performing in front of a large screen, accompanying
13 short films Warhol shot from 1964-1966. Many of the songs were
composed expressly for the films, while others come from Dean &
Britta’s large back catalog. A few are well-chosen covers, such as
pairing Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep it with Mine” with Nico’s
screen test—a song the German chanteuse covered on her debut solo album, Chelsea
Dean & Britta took the unique show
on the road to a handful of theaters, beginning with New York’s
Allen Room on Jan. 17. On March 24, Plexifilm will release a DVD,
with the films set to studio versions of the songs. Paste
attended the stunning world premiere at Pittsburgh’s Byham Theater,
part of the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts, and talked
with Wareham about the project over coffee the next day.
Paste: How did 13 Most
Beautiful get started?
Dean Wareham: I got called by
[curator of performance] Ben Harrison at the Warhol Museum. I guess
they’ve been sitting on these, hundreds of these screen tests, and
they’re not often seen. Sometimes they loan them out to an art
gallery and project them on the walls. But they’re certainly not
seen like this. I couldn’t have imagined when I was a kid that I
would get this job. It’s weird to be working on this Andy Warhol
project; it’s kind of daunting.
Paste: Did you choose
which films to use?
Wareham:Yeah, that was our
decision. I made a few trips down to Pittsburgh and sat at the museum
looking at tapes. Initially, we were thinking of doing it as “13
Most Beautiful Women,” or “13 Most Beautiful Girls.” Warhol
sometimes showed them as “13 Most Beautiful Girls,” “13 Most
Beautiful Boys.” But I read a whole bunch of memoirs of life at the
Factory, and sort of became more and more interested in the
characters that were there, that were central. People that were there
every day: Billy Name, or Ingrid Superstar.
Paste: You do hone in on
the most central, recognizable figures. What else were you looking
for while selecting the films?
Wareham: Just looking for
something interesting to happen, or some of them would just be
beautiful. I guess one of the more striking ones is the Ann Buchanan
one, the second one — this was one of Warhol’s favorite screen
tests. Early on, he would tell people, “Look, just stare straight at
the camera; don’t do anything,” and I think as the years went by,
he loosened that and people started doing stuff. But she looks
straight ahead, unblinking, for three minutes, and then finally that
one tear rolls down. And there’s a tiny smile at the end, which is
That happens in a lot
of them: The subject comes in and they try to project one thing, and
they can do it for about two minutes. So Dennis Hopper is like, “I’m
real serious, and I’m reliving some awful sadness from my past.”
And he can keep that up for two minutes and then he cracks! I don’t
know what happened off camera, but he smiles. So I think there’s a
psychological thing that happens to anyone having to sit there and
maintain a pose for three minutes; it’s a challenge, and you see
two different people sometimes.
Paste: Edie Sedgwick’s
really jumps off the screen.
Wareham: That song, “It Don’t
Rain in Beverly Hills,” was written by a couple of friends of ours...it seemed to somehow be about her. I know obviously it
wasn’t, but it’s about the sadness of her story. It seems to be
about someone who goes out to Beverly Hills and tries to be an actor—which isn’t quite [Sedgwick’s] life—and finding that it’s
not all that.
So many of these people, of the 13,
five of them are dead, likely some of them drug-related. Freddie
Herko, he’s the guy who is smoking and just looking real gaunt,
he committed suicide a month later. Well, I’m not sure if "suicide" is
the right word: He invited some people over, and danced out the
window of his fourth-floor walk-up apartment on Cornelia Street. Not
having been there, I don’t know if that’s suicide, or if he was
on speed. He certainly looks like he’s been up for days in that
Paste: Have you
interacted with any of these folks?
Wareham: I’m hoping to meet
some; maybe some of them will come to the show in New York. Lou Reed—Lou, I know. I met all of the Velvet Underground except Nico, so
Lou’s the only one I know [of the 13]. Jane Holzer, I have a friend
who knows her.
Paste: And Warhol?
Wareham: No. Saw him across a
room once, but that’s it.
Paste: I would imagine it
was fairly daunting to choose music for Reed’s screen test; he
provided the original soundtrack for the Factory scene in some ways.
Wareham: I know. What can you do
with Lou Reed? We were looking at two screen tests. There’s another
one of him without the shades where he looks like a sweet little boy.
But then you put the shades on and he looks like a rock ’n’ roll
motherfucker. Ultimately, we decided to do this recently discovered
Velvet Underground song, “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore,” which
just seems kinda perfect, because he’s so young in that video. So
initially with him, we were nervous about doing anything remotely
sounding like the Velvet Underground, but it feels right with the
Paste: Some motifs you
use are similar to the Velvets: drones that build up, songs with
static chord progressions.
Wareham: There’s no right or
wrong answer for any of what we do, I suppose. ...And then the more
you read about Warhol, he would have just said, “Just do whatever’s
easiest.” He was fond of saying that. Make up 13 songs, or just
play one for the whole thing. Actually, I think we worked harder
on it than he would have!
Paste: A couple of the
screen tests have prominent props—like Reed’s hilarious
gesturing with a Coke bottle.
Wareham: I don’t know what
they were hoping to achieve with that, the Coke. There’s another
one with Hershey, maybe Nico with a Hershey bar as well. Maybe they
were trying to get an endorsement. The Velvet Underground ones were
shot expressly to be projected on them as they played, at the
Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which is why theirs are generally kind
Paste: Since you mention
the EPI, music and film together is a very Warholian idea. With these
screen tests, do you feel that they’re about celebrity and about
fame, or do they end up being about people?
Wareham: Maybe if they’re
famous people, then they’re about celebrity. You can’t help but
look at Dennis Hopper and have it be about celebrity. I think this grew out of [Warhol’s]
portraits, obviously; he’s doing a similar thing to what he was
doing with the painting. Are they about celebrity? They call them
“screen tests,” but they’re not screen tests, he wasn’t
screen testing people for anything, I don’t think. Maybe that was a
line for Gerard Malanga to get laid: “C’mon back, and Andy
will shoot your screen test.”