Go Deeper

13 Most Beautiful…: Dean Wareham Q&A

Posted June 1st, 2009

From 1964 through 1966, Andy Warhol shot over 500 Screen Tests of people in and around his Silver Factory. These shorts feature some of Warhol’s “superstars” like Ultra Violet and Ingrid Superstar, artists Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali, and current and future cultural icons including Allen Ginsberg, Dennis Hopper, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed. The films are surprisingly meditative, especially for the amphetamine-fueled crash through life that was the Factory scene.

The Screen Tests distill essential themes of Warhol’s work, especially his fascination with surfaces and the construction and performance of personality. Two years ago, the Andy Warhol Museum and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust commissioned the band Dean & Britta to write soundtracks to the films. The resulting performance, 13 Most Beautiful . . . Songs for Andy Warhol Screen Tests, is coming to the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival in September.

Dean Wareham (the Dean half) has had an illustrious career: fronting Galaxie 500; garnering accolades from pretty much everyone during Luna’s 14-year run; and since 2005, doing the same with Dean & Britta. (For details, see his memoir, Black Postcards.) In advance of Thursday night’s Dean & Britta show at Johnny Brenda’s (a regular concert, not the 13 Most Beautiful . . . performance), I talked to Dean about composing soundtracks to the work of one of modern art’s giants.

When did you see Warhol’s Screen Tests for the first time?
About two years ago, when Ben Harrison called me from the Warhol museum. I’d seen Kiss, which is one of [Warhol’s] earlier films, snippets of Screen Tests and a couple of movies. It’s probably a part of his work that people aren’t that familiar with. None of the films were on DVD until now. [These 13 Screen Tests, accompanied by the Dean & Britta soundtracks, came out on DVD last month.] The only Warhol films on DVD aren’t really Warhol films, they’re Paul Morrissey films like Trash, presented by Andy Warhol, but not directed by him.

What kind of impression did they leave on you?
There’s a lot of them – almost 500. Some of them are kind of boring, but some of them are great. I think it depends on the subject. Sometimes it was just someone pulled in off the street, sometimes it was Salvador Dali. I think strange things happen to people when you put them in front of a camera. They’re almost a psychological exercise, what people present over those three minutes, but then they’re played back at silent film speed of 16 fps [frames per second] for four minutes. If you slow down our facial impressions, like a mother looking at a baby, a myriad of expressions go by that we don’t normally see.

The one that comes to mind is Freddy Herko. His screen test seems slower than any of the rest of them; why it stretches out 5 minutes I’m not sure. He committed suicide within a month of his screen test. If you know that, it might affect the way you look at it. He looks like he’s been awake for several days, gaunt, smoking. That’s one of the more striking ones.

And Ann Buchanan. I think the early instruction was to stare straight at the camera and not do anything, and she’s the one to do it without blinking. A tear about halfway through the test rolls down her face.

For a lot of them, the subject begins by projecting one thing. Mary Waronov [another subject] noted that people come in projecting one thing and are unable to sustain it for the whole 3 minutes. You see the self that you want to project, and then you see something else begin to creep in. She begins stern and scary, and at the end a smile creeps in.

Some of the screen tests in this performance include figures who have become very well known, as well as people who were integral to the Factory community. Did the subjects of the screen tests affect which films were included?

They left the selection up to us. I really didn’t know what I was looking for when I went down to look at them. Some of them are so striking that you have to include them, like Ann Buchanan’s, and Jane Holzer, who did like nine and they’re all great.

The more I read about the Factory I decided I wanted to focus on the people who lived there or were there every day or people who were important in the life of the Factory from ’64-’66, rather than just famous. Like Billy Name, whose name I first saw on the back of the [Velvet Underground]’s third album. I didn’t know that much about him, but he was the day-to-day manager as well as the official photographer of the Factory. He’s a fascinating figure, graduated from high school in 1958 and came to New York to do stage lighting. It was ’63 or ’64 when he started taking speed and painted his whole apartment silver, and what he didn’t paint he covered in foil. He’d have these haircut parties to help pay the rent. Warhol attended one and invited him to come up and do it for the Factory.

You’ve performed 13 Most Beautiful… a bit already. What are your audiences like, and what has their reaction been to this repurposing of the screen tests?
The audience is a mix. I think half of it is our audience, but we’re playing in museums also to an older audience, like subscribers to a museum series who will come and check out whatever performance is there. A friend of mine was in the audience in San Francisco and told me that an older guy was complaining about the mix tape we played before the show: “Warhol wouldn’t have liked this music.”

I’m not even sure what Warhol’s intentions were. I think he shot these things and would play them at galleries and parties, but I don’t know whether he wanted people to sit down and watch them from beginning to the end.

I think it’s an amazing achievement what Warhol did, documenting the avant-garde of New York in the ’60s. That’s the cool thing about seeing these incredibly young faces up there on the big screen, like you’ve opened some kind of magic box and you’re looking back into the past.

How did the band work with the films? Did you write or play while watching them? Did you watch, contemplate, and come back to the film with ideas?
We would try a lot of different ideas against the picture. You learn when you’re working with film that the image tells you when what you’re doing is right. You may have one idea but up against the picture it may be boring, or the wrong mood. As musicians/composers, you have to be subservient to the picture. Some of them, we just tried songs, even covers – we tried an unreleased VU song for Lou Reed that had gotten out on the Internet last year.

Was this from the Gymnasium recording?
Yes – it’s called “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore.” We tried to study each person as much as possible. When I found myself trying to literally write lyrics about what happened to a person, it didn’t work as well.

The personas are literally projected here, and are pretty diverse. Did you accommodate the different personality traits that seem to emerge in the films?
If you’re looking at Freddie Herko, and you know that he committed suicide a month later, that totally pushes the music in one direction. Ingrid Superstar, she’s kind of giggling and laughing in hers, but she ends up crying at the end. The job is figuring out what the mood of each screen test is, and trying to get it out.

In a strange way, we’re actually collaborating with Warhol on this, which was a scary thought.

Why scary?
In a sense, you’re taking moral rights – like somebody would object to it, like you’re colorizing a black-and-white film. At least with the DVD, people can turn the music off.

I would think about what Warhol would have wanted or what the right thing is to do for the screen test. There’s no real answer to that, other than we were picked to do this. With each test being four minutes long, Ben Harrison thought a band would be good. I think if, say, Philip Glass had done it, it would’ve turned out quite differently.

Did any kind of story emerge, once you put all the films and music in order?
Five of the 13 people we picked are dead. [Such as Edie Sedgwick, pictured to the right.] So, just to examine those people who are hanging around then is to tell a story. It’s not always a pretty one; it didn’t end well for all these people. I don’t think that’s Warhol’s fault, although some people blame him for creating a situation where this was possible. He wasn’t their mom, but in a way a parent figure from whom everybody wanted attention.

How did compiling, ordering, and composing music for these films change what they feel like or mean to you?
I always liked Warhol, but at the end of it I had a greater appreciation for the Factory itself, in those years anyway, as a work of art, as a giant collaboration between all these people, and a deeper appreciation for them. And his genius as a filmmaker.

Why “genius”?
He dares to do something that no one else has thought of doing. His films are not strong in terms of narrative, but he documented this huge scene, he largely took actors who were not actors and threw them into these situations and let them do something strange.

I never thought of this before, but maybe there’s some kind of connection to a filmmaker like Robert Altman, who would give actors the outlines of a scene and kind of let them go.
And recently, Joe Swanburg has the so-called mumblecore film movement and takes people and puts them in situations where things are improvised and makes things up. Warhol’s situations are a little more strange, and include actors who are on LSD and such.

Outside of this project, have Warhol’s aesthetics and ideas affected your work?
Warhol’s a very important figure in rock and roll. It’s hard to imagine rock and roll history had he not met the VU. They’re such an influence on David Bowie, the Stooges, the whole punk movement. I think that Warhol himself is a figure in the history of punk rock, with his message that anybody can do anything, whether that’s right or that’s wrong.

Dean & Britta play at Johnny Brenda’s Thursday, June 4, at 9:00 pm, $15. With Cheval Sombre and Wild Carnation.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Dean & Britta photo by Michelle Talan.
13 Most Beautiful . . . performance photos by Rob Long.
Andy Warhol, Screen Test: Edie Sedgwick, 1964-66, 16mm film, black and white, silent, 4 minutes at 16 frames per second ©2008 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved.