Warhol, set to a Velvety soundtrack
Singer-guitarist Dean Wareham's work with his two previous bands, Galaxie 500 and Luna, was often likened to the Velvet Underground's. "I don't worry about it," he says of the comparison. "I mean, I guess Luna sounded more like the Velvets than we did like Black Sabbath."
One of Wareham's latest projects sidles even closer to the legacy of the influential 1960s proto-punk band. His current group, Dean & Britta, which combines Luna's Velvety sound with a retro-pop sensibility, composed "13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests." The tunes are set to short films by the V.U.'s onetime mentor, which include portraits of Velvets Lou Reed and Nico.
Wareham, his wife, Britta Phillips, guitarist Matt Sumrow and drummer Anthony LaMarca will perform the song cycle Saturday at the National Gallery of Art, which is hosting an exhibition of Warhol's work.
"I think Warhol is an important person in the history of rock-and-roll," says Wareham, a New Zealand native who has lived most of his life in New York. "Warhol, in a way, is an original punk rocker. He takes commonplace objects and celebrates the beauty of them, and I think that's what some of the best punk music did."
Commissioned by Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum, "13 Most Beautiful" draws on hundreds of Warhol's shorts of friends, associates and passersby. Each original film runs about four minutes, which suits the length of a typical rock song.
Some of the shorts are motionless studies of near-immobile faces, while others feature movement by either the camera or the subject: A deadpan Dennis Hopper suddenly cracks a smile, Reed drinks a Coke, Nico nods out of the frame, Baby Jane Holzer brushes her teeth.
Most of the 13 "beautiful" subjects are not well known, except by devotees of Warhol and his 1960s studio, known as the Factory. "The more we looked at these, and the more research we did, the more we became interested in the people who were at the Factory on a daily basis," Wareham says. "So we decided to focus on them rather than, say, Marcel Duchamp, who just happened to be there one day.
"I knew the names, but I didn't know a whole lot about them," he allows. "Some of them are fascinating artists in their own right. And some of them were just drug addicts."
Wareham and his collaborators wrote new music for some of the screen tests but also repurposed older Luna and Dean & Britta material. "Scoring a film is trial and error," he says. "Sometimes a really good song doesn't work. The picture sort of tells you what works and what doesn't."
For the Nico film, the quartet chose Bob Dylan's "I'll Keep It With Mine," which the singer recorded for her first album. The Reed short is accompanied by Dean & Britta's version of "Not a Young Man Anymore," a long-lost Velvets number that recently surfaced as an Internet bootleg.
"That was a tough song to play," Wareham says, but he and Sumrow do an eerily accurate impersonation of the Velvets' guitar sound.
Wareham estimates that Dean & Britta has performed the song cycle about 60 times, but not in the sort of venues where Luna once played.
"We do it at museums, arts festivals, film festivals," he says. "In Paris, we played it for three nights in this enormous 15th-century church. It's still an operating Catholic church, and we were sort of surprised they let the show happen there. But Warhol was Catholic, and I think somebody there liked that."
Of course, a historic church is not necessary, but "it has to be someplace that's big enough for the screen to be put up above our heads," Wareham says. "13 Most Beautiful" is out on DVD, but Wareham prefers that the Warhol shorts be seen on a large screen.
"They look beautiful," he says. "They really do."
--Mark Jenkins, Nov. 11, 2011