Interview: Dean Wareham on Warhol, Dennis Hopper, And Revisiting Galaxie 500


Three years ago, I spoke with ex-Galaxie 500/Luna principle Dean Wareham about jumping into a full-time band with his wife (and Luna bassist) Britta Phillips and releasing their sultry, French-pop inspired Back Numbers, which was Wareham’s first major post-Luna effort. Since then he’s released Black Postcards, a memoir of his days growing up in New York, touring with his old bands, and the struggles “cult” musicians face trying to make a living as they grow older. And separately Dean & Britta have started their own record label, Double Feature Records, which will release their newest batch of material, 13 Most Beautiful…Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, a two-disc set of music they wrote to accompany Warhol’s screen tests.

Warhol filmed hundreds of Factory scenesters from 1964 to 1966, each “test” consisting of three-minute intervals when the subject was left alone in front of a rolling camera. Until Dean & Britta were commissioned to write music for a handful of them, the shorts had largely gone unseen. So while the “13 Screen Tests” shows are keeping them busy–the 50th screen test performance is set to take place on October 22 at NYU’s Skirball Center–the Dean & Britta band are also hunkering down and dusting off the Galaxie 500 catalogue for a series of shows, kicking off on August 19 at the Bowery Ballroom.

We recently spoke with Wareham about these projects over breakfast in Brooklyn.

When you got a call from the Warhol camp, how did that conversation go?

The [Andy Warhol] Museum–they have bands come through there and I’d played there. Ben Harrison, the performance curator, called and described the project. They were doing it with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and a big festival, so they had some seed money to come up with a special event. I think the Warhol Museum has been sitting on all these Warhol films and people don’t get to see them. Nothing is on DVD, except on bootlegs. The Paul Morrissey films [1968’s Flesh, 1970’s Trash] are, but I think they just wanted to find a way to get the screen tests out and get more people to know about them.

I don’t know whose idea it was to put them to music. It was kind of a scary idea at first, because it’s akin to colorizing film. You could look at it that way: here’re these objects that of art and How dare you touch them at all. So we were a little nervous about doing this thing and going out in front of an audience. We’re used to playing clubs to people coming to hear our songs.

It seems like an odd direction, as the first major undertaking after the album Back Numbers.

It was a major undertaking and I don’t think I imagined how much work it would be. It’s taken over our lives. But in a good way. I think the museum expected we’d do 8 to 10 shows. But the show coming up in New York is the 50th and there are more booked into 2011. It’s like getting booked on the film circuit festival, except it’s the arts festivals.
I have to say, I think it works. I think the addition of the music makes it much more enjoyable to sit in a theater and watch. But I don’t even know if Warhol intended to look at these or watch these things. Or put them on a wall, while something else was going on, like a moving painting. He really didn’t know how to edit films, so he didn’t edit films. He had them lit very simply. The odd thing is, he slows them down. They’re three minutes long but play over four, so it gives them this eerie quality.

Watching people close up in black and white can be jarring and creepy.

Some of them are creepy. Some of them are quite amazing. Maybe there were artistic intentions, or maybe he was a voyeur, who liked to watch the people without him watching them. There was this big Warhol show in Columbus, Ohio and they were showing all these short films. As much as it dawned on me what a monumental achievement it is, it also dawned on me that he documented the whole 60s New York underground scene. That we have all these things.

How did you go about writing music for this?

Some of it was lying around, some are covers. We didn’t know how to do Lou Reed so we just took one of his old songs [“Not A Young Man Anymore”]. Some were really sad and dark, some were really funny and sexy, like Ann Buchanan brushing her teeth. Dennis Hopper was interesting, Freddy Herko was this guy who committed suicide one month after his screen test.

To score film, “The film is in charge,” I guess you could say. We were all conscious that whatever we did, we all had to perform it on stage. But it’s not really like scoring film. Because films are dialogue, and for a two-hour film, you’re writing maybe 30 minutes of music. For this, it’s music from the beginning to the end. It’s like making a music video, but backwards, starting with the film.

Which one’s the hardest?

I thought Dennis Hopper was the hardest. It looked like he was doing some acting exercise, where he was very serious. But then two-thirds of the way through, someone says something, maybe off camera, and he cracks and starts giggling. It’s kind of a fun one. It’s like a psychological test, where the subject projects things, but then gets tired and can’t keep it up, so then some second side of their personality starts to come through. People start out laughing, like Ingrid Superstar; by the end, she’s crying. And Dennis Hopper starts out very sad and ends up giggling.

You’re reviving Galaxie 500 songs. You remember all of these? Your voice has changed since back then, if you listen now to On Fire.

I can still hit those high notes. A song like “Strange,” I don’t think I’ll get there. Maybe with a little more practice. The songs are fairly simple; it’s not like we were amazing musicians. But on the other hand, I was listening to these old live recordings and there was a lot more going on that I remembered. We did [Galaxie 500 songs] in Spain earlier this year and it was kind of fun. The promoter had asked, “Why don’t you do one night of Dean & Britta material and one where you play only Galaxie 500?” So that put the idea in my head. I saw some video clips of that show on YouTube and thought our band sounded really good. And of course the records were all re-released this year on Domino, outside the U.S., and [Damon & Naomi’s label] 20-20-20 Records here, and it’s 20 years later. So for all of those reasons, I thought now would be a good time.

Well, after the memoir, I didn’t think you’d be nostalgic anymore.

[Laughs.] It’s partly these songs you wrote 20 years ago–they take you back, to old girlfriends, to this and that. To tell you the truth, part of me is sad that I’m not doing it with Damon and Naomi. But sometimes relationships are so damaged to a point where you can’t go back. Maybe if it was a four-piece band, but that fact that it was a trio, where they were a couple, and there’s this tension of one of me and two of them. It wouldn’t be fun, riding with them in a van.

Would you consider doing something like this with the Luna catalogue?

It’s hard to imagine doing an entire set of Luna [alone] without [guitarist] Sean Eden being there; the band was all about the interplay of the two guitars.