writing songs for unseen warhol films
As Exposed: Songs for Unseen Warhol Films comes to the Barbican this evening, we speak to electro-punk pioneer Martin Rev about the enduring legacy of the great pop artist’s work.
From his managing of the Velvet Underground to his iconic sleeve designs for the Rolling Stones, Andy Warhol's mark upon popular music has been undeniably huge. Roxy Music, David Bowie, Talking Heads and pretty much every New York art band since the late 1960s have felt his influence in some way. And now that influence is set to be repaid in a special performance taking place at London's Barbican this evening.
Originally commissioned for The Andy Warhol Museum's 20th anniversary in 2014, Exposed: Songs for Unseen Warhol Films takes fifteen of the artist's recently digitised short films and gives them newly-composed live scores. Performed by an eclectic lineup of New York-based artists - including Tom Verlaine (Television), Martin Rev (Suicide), Eleanor Friedberger (The Fiery Furnaces) and guest music curator Dean Wareham (Galaxie 500, Luna) - they are a revealing snapshot of the artist's New York, intimate portraits of superstars and luminaries, soundtracked by the musicians that embody the scene.
Ahead of tonight's only UK date, we had a chat with a very jet-lagged, but very cool, Martin Rev of Suicide - a man that knows a thing or two about being an influential New Yorker himself - on what attracted him to the project and what it is about Warhol's work that makes it so very, very enduring.
What attracted you to taking part in the project?
Well, very simply, I was invited by the music curator, Dean Wareham (Galaxie 500, Luna) and I liked the idea of working with him. I liked the idea of working with the Warhol Museum. And the idea of doing tracks to some films of Andy's that apparently have never been seen either. And the places we were going to be playing, the venues. So it definitely seemed interesting. Better than an average, usual kind of a show situation, which I don't mind either of course.
What are the films like? Are they Superstar ones?
A lot of them are. But apparently they were, like, what they call his "home movies". So the 16mm things that he took, you know, any moment, at his leisure. At that time, I guess just to get a camcorder was a novel thing to do. Just to have something handheld like that, with which you could just candidly film the people around you. But yeah, it's all people from his Factory. That kind of thing.
Why do you think his work is still so enduring?
Well, he was definitely one of the great modern innovators in the visual arts. He found the next major place to go after abstract expressionism, which is basically, the end is the abstraction. You know, when an art movement becomes totally abstract? The end of the movement, not the beginning of it? It was almost like that was the end of painting. And, in many ways, that's why Warhol's paintings were not paintings in the traditional sense, anymore than in the sense of a canvas on a wall. He was bringing in all kind of techniques that hadn't been used yet, except commercially. And it opened up a whole frontier of possibilities that came after.
How about as a New Yorker... What was his presence like within the city?
Andy had had an almost elite sense, not him necessarily personally, but the culture that was around him, had a certain sense of stardom. You know, playing off the glamour and, in a way, the surface elements of American culture. They weren't the first, but they were the first to do that in an artistic setting, as artists. Max's Kansas City was, in a way, their playground. They were embraced there by Mickey Ruskin, who was an entrepreneur, a club owner. And, at the same time, people like myself and the new groups, like Suicide, couldn't even get in the door to get a drink because we were kind of the next wave. For us, that world was a bit unrealistic for our lives. For what our realities were. Which was a little more street, I guess you could say. So you knew he was in New York but, in a way, pop art was kind of the establishment when we were coming up. That was kind of the party in power, the ruling class. We were kind of the revolutionaries coming in. And Andy and his coterie of pop art were very… In New York, downtown New York City, it was still somewhat bohemian, but they were very well established. A lot cleaner, you know?
So what was it that eventually tied you together?
I think what tied us all together, ultimately, was that he was an extremely creative individual. A person who just loved art, loved the process, loved creating in art and had great sense of what he wanted. Which was something new and different. To give his life something to live for, you might say. And there are a lot of artists and a lot of them have different approaches and different goals, but there are certain ones that just have to seek something fresh. And I think that can tie a lot of artists together. Of different generations of different disciplines too.
Are there any particular memories of him that jump out?
We were doing a show at a club Uptown. It was the 80s. As Suicide, we'd had one album out, two maybe, but were still quite underground in the commercial sense, which was the reigning word at the time, commercial. We were in, like, a makeshift dressing area at the other end of the club, way down from the stage, just getting ready to go on when a young guy walks in behind the curtain and says, "this is from Andy" And he hands us two copies of Interview magazine, the most recent issue. To Suicide. Andy Warhol. And that was very surprising because there seemed to be such a gap between that world and ours. I never even thought he knew of us. And I was just thinking about that the other day. I wonder what it was. He obviously felt something akin to us, from a distance. And he had to give us that sign.
Exposed: Songs for Unseen Warhol Films takes place at London's Barbican this evening (Monday 16 May); the event is produced by the Barbican and co-commissioned by The Andy Warhol Museum, Brooklyn Academy of Music and UCLA's Center for the Art of Performance.
Text Matthew Whitehouse