Fine And Dandy
The Big Issue
by Alex Hannafoud
August 22-28, 2005
Hot On The Heels Of The Highly-Acclaimed Dig! – The Movie Portrait That Laid Bare The Dandy Warhols – The Pop-Rock Protagonists Return With A New Album. They Talk Parties, Scene Politics, And Rock Star Confessionals.
So, What are you going to ask them about?” The PR man for The Dandy Warhols wonders aloud just before The Big Issue interview. “Everyone asks them about drugs and they’re bored of that because they don’t even do drugs any more – they’re not into that now.”
And so, armed with a Dictaphone, notepad, and a little voice in my head repeating the line ‘Don’t mention drugs, don’t mention drugs,’ this interviewer sits down with The Dandy Warhols in the lounge of the eccentric Miller’s Residence Hotel in west London.
“We’re gonna wing it – we’re going in head first,” says Courtney Taylor, the Warhols’ lead singer. However, he looks far from ready to dive head first into anything, aside from perhaps his bed (he’s sprawled, almost comatose on a sofa). And then, five minutes into the interview, comes the killer line: “I forgot what I was saying – I’m so stoned.”
Hmm, glad I didn’t mention the drugs.
The Warhols are hilarious. They’re like a living, breathing Spinal Tap, but at the same time that all this rock star posturing is going on, it doesn’t take long to realise they’re actually very nice people indeed. And funny. Take the latest posting on their website: ‘We’re currently stuck inside, practicing for our fall tour. And it’s hotter than two cats fucking in a wool sock.’
Although there have been some line-up changes along the way, The Dandy Warhols, who formed in Portland, Oregon in 1994 are now Taylor on vocals and guitar/bass, Zia McCabe on keyboard, Peter Loew on guitar and Brent DeBoer on drums. It wasn’t until their second album – 1997’s Come Down – that they first hit the public consciousness with the single Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth (lyric: ‘I never thought you’d be a junkie because heroin is so passé’), but it was their third that launched them into the major league, in Britain at least, with their anthem Bohemian Like You.
The band returns with a new album in September – the improbably-titled Odditorium Or Warlords Of Mars (The Odditorium being the name of their rehearsal/recording studio in Portland). And it’s not bad. There may not be a ‘Bohemian’ or a ‘Junkie’ on there, but it’s a conscious move away from the synthesizers of 2003’s Welcome To The Monkey House album, back to their humble rock beginnings. First single Smoke It is a Dylan-esque fast-paced stomper, but it belies the variety of the album, from the Rocks-era Primal Scream R&B workout, All The Money Or The Simple Life Honey, to the hoe-down of The New Country and catchy Everyone Is Totally Insane.
The Dandy Warhols had seemed to have stalled with the Monkey House album. Until last year, that was, when a friend of theirs called Ondi Timoner decided she would release a documentary on the band that she had been making.
Dig! had a simple concept: Timoner just wanted to document the careers of the Warhols and another band called the Brian Jonestown Massacre, over a period of eight years. Of course, over eight years anything can happen: things go wrong, things go right, there are punch-ups, there are tears, and there’s a lot of love. But squashed into an hour, you would inevitably end up showing the extremes of these. And that’s exactly what Dig! does.
The result has been described as a ‘kind of highway-safety film for the rock community’. Although both bands seem to start out on the same foot – two underground acts with no commercial success – the Warhols are seen as less cerebral and having more commercial potential, while the Massacre’s singer Anton Newcombe comes across as both a misunderstood, tortured soul and a lunatic.
Despite this, both frontmen are preoccupied by their own credibility, and the quotes Timoner wrestles from them are like gems prised from the inside of a cave. Newcombe: “I am not for sale. I am Love.” Taylor: “I sneeze and hits come out.”
Unsurprisingly, since the film’s release, both have quite a few opinions about that, too.
“We didn’t believe Ondi was even going to make the movie until the end of the second year of filming,” says Taylor, now lying prostrate on the sofa. “She just kept showing up so we were like ‘great’. But when she said she’d finished, a lot of us were like ‘where’s the ending? Because we’re not done’.”
And that, interestingly, has been one of the biggest criticisms leveled at Dig!; In the movie at least, the Brian Jonestown Massacre fail to sign that elusive major label deal, whilst The Dandy Warhols go on to play to thousands of people at festivals all over Europe. If you don’t know anything about the Brian Jonestown Massacre you’d be forgiven for thinking they had imploded and Newcombe had been sectioned for his own safety.
“In fact,” says Warhols guitarist Peter Loew, “the day that movie came out, I went to see the Brian Jonestown Massacre at the Brixton Academy, and they were amazing. And it was twice as good to see Anton because he was doing well and he performed well that night and there were no fights.” Ah yes, the fights. If Dig! is to be believed, Newcombe got into a brawl with his bandmates after pretty much every show he played. But Loew insists it was more like two fights on stage in the entire 14 years the band has been together. Oh, the media, and the way we don’t allow a simple thing like the truth get in the way of a good story. But in fairness to Turner, that is exactly what Dig! is – a gripping yarn. And you wonder whether she ever intended it to be anything else.
“It’s a movie, not a documentary,” Taylor agrees, briefly becoming slightly animated. “She worked her ass off and forged a plot when there was no plot. She crafted the thing to swell and ebb by taking eight years of us and a year and a half of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and it looks like a rock documentary, but in fact it’s just f***ed with the memories of my life.”
If it sounds like Taylor is pissed off, he isn’t. He still talks to Turner, and he insists he’s still friends with Newcombe. But I somewhat doubt the latter very much.
“Anton was pissed. He was outraged,” Taylor says. “He felt personally insulted. He felt taken advantage of by whoever shot the footage. He doesn’t talk to Ondi anymore. He thought she just wanted to attract attention to her career.”
I point out that Taylor himself provided the voiceover for the entire film. Surely that would have given Newcombe the impression that he, er, had something to do with its content.
“No, Anton and I are friends,” he says. Again. But when someone has to tell you that over and over, you just don’t believe them. Anyway, he continues: “Finally, I bump into Ondi at my hotel and she hassles me into stopping off at the studio and reading the narration for her film. I still didn’t think she would ever finish the thing. I was like, ‘You know Ondi, I’m busy’, but she said there had to be a voiceover and it had to be mine. So in the end I pretty much did what she wanted. And the end result doesn’t feel very real. They’re like the band that fights all the time and we’re the band that parties all the time. And neither of us make music ever.
“She missed out on insane amounts of us,” Taylor says. “She didn’t get us at Glastonbury or the gigs hanging out with the Cure.”
“But if she’d been there, Robert Smith wouldn’t have poured his heart out to us,” the Warhols’ keyboard Zia McCabe argues.
“True,” Taylor admits. “He told me that when the Cure got back from touring the Disintegration album he was depressed. There they were, all of a sudden playing stadiums and all he saw were baseball caps and he felt worse about himself than he had in his entire life – completely alienated – and he warned us to always do our own thing, know what kind of people we wanted to communicate to.”
McCabe adds: “He said we should treasure the fact that we have the four of us and never take it for granted. I don’t think his band ever figured out how to get along.”
You get the feeling that would never be an issue for the Dandy Warhols. Loew and Taylor met in high school and Taylor met McCabe through a mutual friend when she was working in a local coffeehouse. It’s quite a close-knit group. “But,” Taylor adds, “close knit kind of implies that no one else is allowed to hang out with us. It’s not an exclusive group – people come and go and there’s always new people hanging out – there’s always something going on.”
And so back to Dig! If somethings ‘always going on’ in the Dandy Warhols’ world, was all that captured on film?
“There’s this big mystique surrounding rock’n’roll,” says McCabe. “And this film lets you take a peek into it… it’s romantic and it’s exciting. And for that it’s totally amazing.”