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Catching Up With... Dean Wareham

March 9, 2009  |  3:30pm
Catching Up With... Dean Wareham

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 Beautiful…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 Girl.


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 cool.


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 screen test.


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 Factory.


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 of different.


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.”

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