BY JONATHAN VALANIA Back in the ’60s, Andy Warhol’s Factory — his studio-cum-playpen situated in a brick-walled walk-up on 47th Street in Manhattan — was the epicenter of all things edgy, artsy and, ultimately, profoundly influential. Dylan, Edie Sedgwick, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Nico, and The Velvet Underground all came and went, and most sat for one of Warhol’s screen tests — a three-minute black and white stare-down between the camera and subject. There are some 500 of them in the Warhol archives. Recently the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh commissioned ex-Galaxie 500/Luna mainman Dean Wareham — whose cred as a modern day practitioner of the Velvet Underground’s distinctive brand of druggy clangor almost qualifies him as an honorary ex-post-facto Factory habitue — to write a song cycle to accompany a selection of the screen tests. The result is 13 Most Beautiful…Songs For Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests which Wareham (along with his wife/musical foil Britta Phillips) will perform at the Gershman Y on Thursday as part of What Goes On: The Velvet Underground at the Y, 50th Anniversary Celebration, featuring Yo La Tengo, which marks the passage of a half century since the Velvet Underground/Exploding Plastic Inevitable performed there. Back in 2009, in advance of the debut of 13 Most Beautiful at the Fringe Festival, we got Wareham on the horn to explain the process of bringing this project to fruition, and of course we couldn’t resist asking him if and when Galaxie 500 will reunite and make our 80s indie rock dreams come true.
PHAWKER: Where are you right now?
DEAN WAREHAM: I’m at an IKEA. I had to drive in here to pick something up. I found a spot at the IKEA where a cell phone works.
PHAWKER: Awesome. So let’s just jump into it. To start with, how about you explain the premise of the project and how it came about?
DEAN WAREHAM: We got a call from Ben Harrison at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Well I guess there’s two parts to the project. One is there’s the films by Warhol which are these short, silent portraits they’re called screen tests, but they’re not actually screen tests, no one’s was being tested for anything. Initially he called them “stillies” because, I guess you could say they are sort of an extension of the still photographs, the photo-booth portraits that he did. And basically he would just have a subject, a lot of them famous, but some of them not famous, come in and sit down and stare at a camera for 3 minutes. Then he would play these films back at a slower speed, at 16 frames per second instead of the 24 that they were shot at. Those are the screen tests. We have about 500 of them. The Warhol Museum controls these, I think jointly with the Museum of Modern Art, I’m not sure. Generally, they just loan them out to universities and galleries. People don’t get to seem them very often. Kind of the incredible thing to me is that they’re not all over YouTube. They really have been to be able to control them really well. Anyway, they called and asked if we’d be interested in composing music for 13 of them. That’s just the number 13 because Warhol sometimes screened them that way, 13 Most Beautiful Boys, 13 Most Beautiful Girls and I think Ben Harrison thought to do the 4-minute roll was kind of a good length for a song, which maybe suggested for someone like myself rather than, say, Phillip Glass. There’s a 100 different people they could have gotten to do this and the results would have been very differently I’m sure. I thought about this as we were composing the music, like what is the correct approach? Ultimately, I don’t think there is a correct approach, it just so happens that we got picked to do this.
PHAWKER: You started working on this when?
DEAN WAREHAM: I would say about two years ago now. It was a long process. The first thing to do was to, from about 200 some that are available to look at, to narrow it down to 13. That took a while. Also, obviously, the amount of time you spend is related to the amount of time you have. A year before we knew that we had to perform these things in Pittsburgh. So initially actually we were just hired to perform them live and there’s a DVD out now but that was just kind of an after thought.
PHAWKER: What was the criterion for the actual song writing? Were you trying to tell the person’s story that you saw on the screen? Or write something that complemented imagery? Or what, what was the thinking?
DEAN WAREHAM: Yeah, write something that complemented the image. I mean I think we attempted with some of these people to tell their story on screen. It never feels good to be kind of describing what’s on the screen. I guess, it falls somewhere in between film score and music video. I mean, if you score a film, you score a 90-minute film maybe there’s 20 minutes of music in it and usually the cues are no longer than a minute they come and go with the dialogue. These are silent films, and the music is continuous through each of them. In that sense it’s closer to a music video. The process is always trial and error, you look at the image and you throw different ideas against it. And the picture kind of tells you what’s working and what isn’t. Some of them seem to work well with songs that had actual lyrics that obliquely could be about the person, but not really, and then some of them just seem better with straight instrumentals.
PHAWKER: So the finished project is a combination of instrumentals and songs with lyrics?
DEAN WAREHAM: Yeah, eight of them have lyrics and five are instrumental.
PHAWKER: There are two covers. There’s a Dylan cover, which cover is that?
DEAN WAREHAM: That song is “I’ll Keep It With Mine” which he wrote for Nico. Although I’ve also heard that he wrote it for Joan Baez, but I don’t know. She says he wrote it for her. It’s on her first album Chelsea Girls and there’s a couple Dylan versions of it, too. The one that she did on Chelsea Girls is really nice and we thought that was a good song for her. Apparently she used to, with The Velvet Underground, she always wanted to play that song and they didn’t want to play a Dylan song, but I think they did used to play it occasionally.
DEAN WAREHAM: Or at least a couple of them would back her up on it.
PHAWKER: And there’s also a Velvet’s cover?
DEAN WAREHAM: That song is called “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore” and it popped up on the Internet last year. It’s a bootleg recorded live at the Gymnasium in New York in 1966. The same year the Lou Reed screen test was filmed. We were wondering what the hell we were going to do with the image of Lou Reed.
PHAWKER: Is this more in vein of a “There She Goes Again” or is it more of a noisy “Heroin” song?
DEAN WAREHAM: It’s not a great song. It’s a really cool guitar riff. I can see why they stopped playing it. I mean the lyrics aren’t really fleshed out. It’s just the one lyric over and over again. It is from ’66 so it from the Cale era which is kind of more the noise era. Yeah, the riff sounded a little like “The Last Time” by the Rolling Stones a little. We really struggled to learn how to play it even though it sounds really easy. Finally we figured out they were playing with their guitars tuned down to D-sharp instead of E. That sounds strange tuning. So, that’s 1966, live 1966. So after that, the last 3 years they boycotted New York. They played Philadelphia a lot more than they played New York.
PHAWKER: Really? Do you remember the first time you ever heard The Velvet Underground?
DEAN WAREHAM: I don’t know. I don’t know about the first moment. The first album I had was Live ’69. It’s my favorite and I had that in high school. I guess, I was only 15 or 16 I left that out. You couldn’t find their records back then. The difference between now and then, the age that we live in everything is available somewhere out there on Amazon or if it’s not on Amazon then it’s available on some site as a free download, even the most obscure stuff. Back then you couldn’t find this records. I think Live ’69 was in print, maybe Loaded, the others you could only get in English imports. Hard to imagine now, now there are like 3 or 4 versions of each of those albums available.
PHAWKER: Do you have any kind of a relationship with Lou Reed these days? Are you friends? Have you met?
DEAN WAREHAM: We’re friendly. He’s always nice to me. He gave me a blurb for my book. He came to the show in New York when we did itat Lincoln Center last January, I think. He and Laurie Anderson came to the show. We chatted afterwards, and he seemed to really enjoy it. I mean it was strange for us playing that song with his picture behind us and him sitting in the audience. If you can imagine it wasn’t odd for him to watch these films. Now he hadn’t seen it since it was made 40 years ago — these films that he and his friends made in 1965 or 1966 in a little room on 47th Street and now it’s being projected by the Time/Warner Center on big, black wall with New York City behind it.
PHAWKER: I saw the photo. It’s beautiful.
DEAN WAREHAM: Yeah, it was a great venue.
PHAWKER: One last question I have to ask you, will Galaxie 500 ever do any kind of a reunion or get together again?
DEAN WAREHAM: That has not been discussed.
PHAWKER: Not on the radar currently?
DEAN WAREHAM: It’s not on the radar, no.
PHAWKER: What’s next for you guys? You’re touring this out right now?
DEAN WAREHAM: Tomorrow we’re going to Switzerland and Italy. It will be from Milan to Philadelphia. Then we’re going to Australia in October then back to France in November. It’s kind of taking over our lives. It’s fun, it’s a fun show to do.
PHAWKER: Yeah, I can imagine.
DEAN WAREHAM: And we get to play at all kinds of venues that we don’t usually.
PHAWKER: Awesome. I won’t take up anymore of your time. I’ll let you get back to IKEA. I wish you luck and I’m looking forward to see the show. We’ll see you when you get into Philly.