A decade ago, in a half-lit, mostly cluttered living room just off Chapel Hill's Rosemary Street, Lee Waters screamed. One of the bands he was in at the time, Cobra Kahn, was laying down some brutal agro at a house party. Waters was behind the microphone with guitar in hand, making music so loud that the crusty die-hards at the house party finished their beers on the porch. The cops came.
Last summer, Waters found himself in a much different situation. He was back behind the drums and in a much bigger room—the Église de Saint-Eustache in Paris, a grand, gothic cathedral built in the 16th century. And he was backing Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, veterans of Galaxie 500 and Luna, playing quiet music for Andy Warhol films.
No crust punks, no porches, no police bust-ups.
"That cathedral was amazing. A little touchy on the reverb, but ..." Waters says, back home in Carrboro, where he lives with his wife, Jenny, and occasionally works at the bar Orange County Social Club. "Really, even though some of the venues have been so grandiose, I try not to skip over the part where you need to play the songs to the people who took the time to come hear them. That's as true at Église de Saint-Eustache as it is at The Cave."
The story of what led Waters to that Parisian cathedral is emblematic of what can happen when a local musician—talented but, above all, hard-nosed and determined—forges ahead with music as his life's calling. Waters had been playing in bands for years when he met Dean and Britta, the iconic indie rock pair who were in Paris to perform a new program called 13 Most Beautiful ... Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests. Their band provided live music for 13 of Warhol's short silent films—a challenge, certainly, but a good one.
Waters still plays in multiple local bands, including the unwavering institution Lud and the recording project Fan Modine. He and Jenny had their own subdued pop project, Work Clothes, for years. He records with people when needed—hear him on The Rosebuds albums Birds Make Good Neighbors and Night of the Furies or the Portastatic titles Be Still Please and Who Loves The Sun—and tours, too. He joined The Essex Green for several outings and filled in for Scottish group Camera Obscura when their drummer had travel visa problems. In fact, that's the story of how he arrived in Paris.
"I first met Dean and Britta while on tour with Jule Brown," Waters remembers. Mark Holland led the country blues-rock group; he and his twin brother, Michael, who together fronted the band Jennyanykind, knew Wareham from past projects. Wareham produced tracks by Jule Brown, and Michael contributed to Luna. "My next time through New York I was playing drums with Camera Obscura and, on a whim, invited Dean and Britta to our show a few hours before we were scheduled to play. Honestly, the invitation was kind of an afterthought, so I was pleased to find out they could make it."
Later, he discovered their drummer had touring conflicts. He asked his friend Matt Sumrow—another Triangle veteran, who had moved to New York several years prior with the former Chapel Hill band The Comas—if he would suggest him for the job. Sumrow, after all, had their ear in the best way.
"Britta and I had been through a couple of keyboard players before we found Matt, and he really improved our four-piece band immediately," Wareham says. "He has a gentle touch on Wurlitzer and electric guitar, has good taste in sounds and even plays the trumpet if we ask him, too."
"It wasn't until after I was on the phone with Dean setting up audition dates that he realized we had already met," Waters says.
Wareham knew he'd found his guy: "I had seen Lee play drums at Mercury Lounge in New York with Jule Brown, and remembered being super-impressed. He is one of those drummers who makes everyone around him play and sound better."
Wareham became a minor star with his dream-pop group Galaxie 500 in the late '80s. When that group split, the trio's other two members, Damon Krakowski and Naomi Yang, pursued folk-based psychedelia. Wareham, however, veered more toward the mainstream with his band Luna and its pop, indebted to groups like Television and The Velvet Underground. Britta Phillips, his wife, eventually joined. As a duo, they've made two records and received a commission from the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh to pursue this project.
"When we play an encore that includes a Galaxie 500 or Luna song, it's received with what seems to be knowledgeable applause," Waters says. "The majority of my experience with them is doing the 13 Most Beautiful show, which seems to draw fans of any mix of art, film and music."
The screen tests existed as purely visual art for so long on their own, silent portraits of disparate figures from Warhol's circle, like Edie Sedgwick or Ingrid Superstar, and celebrities like Bob Dylan and Salvador Dali. It's a rich legacy to augment, and Waters says it's not always easy to add music to works like that. There's a fine line between too much reverence and too little, between overpowering or underwhelming the original.
"It's a balance, I think," he says. "You want to be professional enough to please the Warhol Museum's expectations, but you don't want to make it so precious that you don't pay homage to the vulnerable and stripped-down way in which Warhol portrayed the people."
On Thursday night, Waters will take the stage at Duke University's Reynolds Theater with Dean and Britta. He admits that he's part of an important project, especially since Duke's currently hosting an art show with Warhol's portraits of celebrities. But he'll play it as intently as he's played all the others. The cops probably won't shut down the gig, though.