Guitarist/vocalist Dean Wareham is no stranger to the cult of success or the success of cult.
His first band, Galaxie 500, was obsessively followed by a small coterie of fans who grew with each independent release and, like the similarly configured Velvet Underground, ultimately became much more an influence on subsequent musical generations than a commercial triumph.
Wareham’s next band venture, Luna, was a Dream Pop band that garnered a major label contract and a fair amount of acclaim (Rolling Stone cited their third album, Penthouse, as one of the essential albums of the ’90s). After a dozen years in various permutations, Luna split in 2005.
Bassist/vocalist Britta Phillips joined Luna in 2000 and became romantically involved with Wareham. When the band split, the pair remained together both personally (they married in 2006) and professionally (as Dean & Britta). They returned to a more low-profile stance, periodically releasing albums and working on scores for small, low budget films like The Squid and the Whale.
Four years ago, Wareham was approached with an intriguing proposition by Ben Harrison, Performing Arts Curator for Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum. Harrison was looking for someone to compose a soundtrack of sorts for a series of filmed portraits Warhol shot in the mid-’60s.
Warhol had referred to the silent black and white films as “screen tests,” aiming his camera at a broad spectrum of subjects, from Factory figures like Billy Face and Edie Sedgwick to the Velvet Underground to relatively unknown acquaintances, filming close to 500 of the moving portraits from 1964-1966.
Being a huge Luna fan, Wareham was the first artist Harrison contacted about the possibility of creating music to accompany Warhol’s films.
“Sometimes it’s like, ‘I’m so lucky that I got hired to do this,’ but it’s not all luck; in the larger scheme, we’re somewhat appropriate for it,” Wareham says. “The films are all four minutes long and when Ben started thinking about someone to score them, he thought that four minutes suggests songs rather than (a) score.”
The result was “13 Most Beautiful ...
Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests,” a live presentation of Warhol’s portraits projected on a large screen while Wareham, Phillips, keyboardist Matt Sumrow and drummer Anthony Lamarca perform the songs live. The performance was filmed for a 2009 DVD and D&B released a double album’s worth of the songs’ studio translations.
The full quartet has been touring the show intermittently over the past four years, all of which is amazing to Wareham. He never saw the project going beyond a few Warhol Museum performances.
“I don’t think they were expecting it to have this kind of life and neither were we,” Wareham says. “Ben said, ‘You’ll do it here in Pittsburgh and maybe another eight to 10 shows.’ Thursday night we were in Pittsburgh for our 75th show. People like the show and it works.”
The process began with Wareham and Phillips reviewing Warhol’s screen tests and picking 30-40 from the archive of 150 that have been transferred. Then, they whittled tests down to the final 13 portraits, a process which took about six months.
“When you score a film, you can put in any old instrument you want. The assignment was to perform it live, so we had to be aware that we were going to be a four piece band on stage,” Wareham says. “And for this, the music was continuous — when you score a film, the music goes in and out and there’s a lot of silence and dialogue. This was kind of like making a music video, but making it backwards, where we had the video first and put a song to it. Some are instrumental. They’re not all songs.”
From there, the methodology for creating the music for each film was as individual as the films themselves. Wareham and Phillips started by reading about and connecting to the portrait subjects (including actor Dennis Hopper, an early advocate of Warhol’s art, and dancer Freddie Herka, who committed suicide just two months after his screen test), leading to an eventual musical understanding of their films.
“We wanted to take people who were there every day and important in Warhol’s life rather than some famous person who happened to pass through The Factory for the day,” Wareham says. “We would look at them and try something we had recorded already or try someone else’s song to see what it was like. Some (songs), we would sit there with the full band playing over and over to the same thing. The process was different for each of the 13.”
Wareham admits he was slightly intimidated about adding his own creative input to Warhol’s artistic expression. Once he got into the process, his reticence was replaced by the same sense of purpose that drove Warhol.
“I was intimidated, because it’s a different world,” Wareham says. “Intimidated to be going into museums (and) to be performing not just to fans who come to my gigs to hear my songs. Half of them are there for that, half are there for the Warhol films. And the question of Warhol’s intent is kind of interesting. The ones of the Velvet Underground were shot to project on them while they performed, so those were intended to be set to music.
“When you study Warhol, I think he would have felt comfortable with it. I don’t think he was precious about these things.”
So far, “13 Beautiful Songs” has been a small part of the larger Dean & Britta touring structure. The group performs its standard show for a few dates and mixes in a few Warhol shows along the way. For Wareham, one of the great appeals of 13 Most Beautiful was simply the opportunity to experience Warhol’s amazing portraits.
“You get to see these films on a large screen and that’s unusual in itself,” he says. “If you live in Pittsburgh, you get to see them at the museum because they show Warhol films regularly. Otherwise, the only way people see these is at a gallery, where there will be a room with TV sets. But when you look at them that way, you tend to walk in and stand in front of them for 10 seconds and move on. This is a rare opportunity to see them projected.”
DEAN & BRITTA perform "13 Most Beautiful … Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests" this Friday at Over-the-Rhine’s Emery Theatre (emerytheatre.com) in conjunction with the Contemporary Arts Center. Tickets can be purchased here.