Who's The Dandy Now?
by Jim Butler
The Dandy Warhols possess an endearingly crass moniker and an admirable taste for non-compliance. These eccentric pop renegades are loved and hated in equal measure, yet what makes them tick is respect for 'niceness' and a no-nonsense riff. "Bash it out" says the band who won't do "show tunes".
Towards the end of last year, or was it the beginning of this year - time is a little fuzzy after all, but he recalls it was soon after the death of Joe Strummer - Courtney Taylor-Taylor, the dandiest of The Dandy Warhols, took the not insignificant decision to cut his hair.
His slightly unkempt neo-mod barnet, which for years had noted Taylor-Taylor as a man apart from his fellow American rockin' and rollin' peers, had become castrated by its alarmingly sudden ubiquity.
With every nattily attired garage punk kid from Brooklyn to Malmo getting a hang on the elegantly wasted androgynous wave he had pretty much surfed alone through the late 90s and into the new century, he realised it was time to move on. It was time for the scissors.
"I guess I was just bored," he notes. "I certainly got scared when I saw people with the same haircut I had."
So as the punky Steve Marriott crop exited stage left, an entrance beckoned stage right for some new hipster incarnation, a Lydon/Simenson sneered spike perhaps, or a Lennon/Reed mean skin. But no, that would be too obvious; it would retain close links to the church of new wave orthodoxy. So the de rigueur bohemian (like you) look for 2003 was deemed to be, drum roll please, 80s cider punk (dog on a string optional) caught in a thunderstorm. Or to put it more bluntly, Phil Oakey in a squat.
Thankfully for a band who were seen as a riposte to the devil-may-care, catatonic chic of grunge when, in 1998, they made the dual statements of intent, 'Every Day Should Be A Holiday' and 'Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth', there does appear to be a method to Taylor-Taylor's raffish madness. He's now fighting a rearguard action against the perils of post-'White Strokes' studied cool. This vision of urban urchin is his opening salvo.
"What I worry about, with all these bands wearing ties and having the haircut I used to have for three years, is that they'll all suck," he rages scornfully. "They'll be dressed up so fucking nifty but they won't be able to make music that will move another human being. So yeah, I hope all these fucking bands, yeah, get the sound right and the look right, and get all the drum sounds and all the right vocals and keyboards, but make sure you're fucking expressing something that you won't be embarrassed to express. Do it, just do it - cough up a lung, man."
And if that's an example of his militant rhetoric, he's fired another broadside in the shape of Welcome To The Monkey House. Its title derived from Kurt Vonnegut Jr's 1968 compendium of short stories, the Warhols' fourth album is belligerent, snotty-nosed, speed-fueled romp through sinister electro punk, slightly corrupt melodic rock and skew-whiff handle of 80s glam-sodden pop, albeit refracted through a knowing noughties thrift store cool. The embodiment of petulant youth that characterised their first three albums (Dandy's Rule OK, Dandy Warhols Come Down and Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia) may have been tempered somewhat - although the sarcastic derision remains - and the totem of alt.rock passed onto the next generation, but Courtney and his Warhols chums, Peter Holmstrom, Brent DeBoer, and Zia McCabe, are still striking a chord with misplaced misfits everywhere.
"We made the decision long ago," Courtney explains, "that anyone was welcome to hang out with us as long as they're nice. I don't care how fucked up your social skills are, or whether you say weird things all the time, just so long as you're nice. Cos if you're gonna be mean then just get the fuck out."
London's Notting Hill is steeped in rock folklore; at the fag end of the 60s, Mick Jagger confused art with reality in Powis Square when he strutted lasciviously in performance, Nic Roeg and Donald Cammel's hypnotic flipside to that decade's dream. And a few years later, a nascent Clash took their first stencil-splattered steps beneath the Westway.
Though now tarted up and sanitised, its streets still burn with confusion and creativity. Having made a career celebrating those stranded on the fringes of straight society - the waifs, the miscreants, the outsiders, the hipsters, the freaks - The Dandy Warhols should fit right in. The only problem is, on a crisp Thursday morning in April, at the wrong end of Portobello Road (not the Hugh Grant end, in other words), they don't.
"Oi you - if you take one more picture of those lot in front of my shop, I'll come over there and smash your fucking camera."
The gnarly shop-owner threatening X-Ray looks like he means business. In amongst stifled giggles (Zia) and aghast faces (Brent), Courtney strikes a note of caution.
"You know what?" he deadpans. "I don't think he was joking."
Further down the road we're given short shrift at the fruit and veg stall.
"I think she was epileptic or something," Courtney says, referring to the mardy-arsed proprietor who shuns the chance to be caught on film with the band. "I just don't think she knows it yet," he cackles.
Thankfully, in amongst the vibrant mix of dislocated country gents, designer lifestyle terrorists and voluble spivs, Courtney, Pete (quietly spoken, slightly effete and the ever-so-indie foil to Courtney's gregarious and affected posturing), Zia (curvaceous, gives good earth mother) and Brent (misplaced MC5 rocker - just check out the freakout fuzz) take it in their cocksure stride. They're more interested in the bargains to be had in and around the market.
"Check this out, Brent," Courtney elucidates in his fantastical mid-west Americana drawl. "You can get five lighters for a pound!"
You can take the boy out of Portland, Oregon, but you can't take Portland, Oregon out of the boy. Back across the pond The Dandy Warhols are nothing like the big deal they are here in Europe. Here, they're class A, walking, talking, over-sexed, rock'n'roll mobile chemists. In Portland they're just another bunch of strangely dressed boobs.
"We go home and, apart from our friends, no one knows who we are," laughs Courtney, now safely ensconced in the Electric Cinema's private members restaurant. "Apart from the occasional person on the street, no one knows we're really fucking huge in this whole other place called Europe. In Portland, when people see we're off touring again, they're like (affects goofy voice) 'Oh, off you go dudes, sleeping in a van and eating in McDonalds, huh, huh,' and we're like 'no, not really'."
What with your success over here, though, have you ever contemplated moving anywhere else?
Courtney: "Yeah, think about it, talk about it all the time."
Pete: "If we find the right place maybe."
Courtney: "We're always saying that we'd like to live in Amsterdam, but six months later we're in Amsterdam for like five days, and by the fourth day we're like 'What were we thinking?'"
Zia: If I lived in those places and I'd never lived in Portland I'd be perfectly happy, but Portland is its own special thing."
And it's very much a lifestyle 'thing' of their own making. Although there's four of them in the band, The Dandy Warhols are more like a philanthropic surrogate family, where the lunacy of the Manson's can sit easily with the homely apple pie values of the Partridge's. Their friends go on tour with them as roadies (Pete: "Our guys aren't wearing loads of belts with maglites strapped to their arses."), and back in Portland they've put their money where their mouths are and flashed the cash to open The Odditorium, a fantasy playpen for the band and their pals.
"It's the ultimate clubhouse," Courtney explains. "It's a studio, a performance place, photos, videos, web design, a lounge and a library. It's far beyond anything adolescent bands do. If Andy Warhol had a tighter knit group of friends, and more of a sense of roots, he would have done this.
"You know, it's not work, it's just jerking off with friends - getting baked, and coming up with wack ideas, and executing them right while you're making your dinner, you know? It's like, this is cooking for 20 minutes, so let's run off and do some photos."
So it's keeping those creative juices flowing all the time?
"Definitely. It's about having a group of happy, productive people. Like if you're gonna shoot a video, have some DJs, get a bartender, have some people show up and have a fucking party. So now we get everything done, except it's all just an excuse to have a big hanging out party."
So every day is like a...
Yeah, a holiday.
Courtney: "Every day! Now every day can be a holiday. I told you guys!"
Zia: "I agree with you!"
Courtney: "Nobody fucking listens! Everybody thought that that was just a pop song. I'm fucking serious. God! You fucking people are just so dumb! You thought I was kidding? You think I was being cute? A sensitive popster?... I'm a prophet... a fucking prophet."
The laughter is punctuated only when a blonde Swedish hardbody arrives with Courtney's soup. Ever the laides man, Courtney is rapt.
"I'd kiss it," he motions as she leaves the table. "If she showed it to me, I'd kiss it."
Which brings us neatly to The Warhols enviable reputation as fast-living, junk-snorting, trousers permanently round their ankles rock'n'roll poseurs. It's not something they deny of course, but whereas in the past they were willing to indulge journalists with tales of drugs, strippers, promiscuity, drugs, Satanism, more drugs and even more strippers, these days they're a little more reticent.
"I was never that impressed with all those rock'n'roll stories," Courtney suggests, perhaps somewhat contrarily. "I found them cheesy and vulgar."
Zia seems shocked. "Not even the Motley Crue book?" she quizzes.
"Especially the Motley Crue book. You know what? It's just not smart enough for me. Rock'n'roll never seemed smart enough for me. So people can write about us and this rock'n'roll lifestyle, but we don't need it cos we're too fucking smart."
But you seemed to get off on regaling us with tales of Bacchanalian orgies.
"Yeah, but that led to me saying, 'I can't tell if all of these writers in England are 14-year-old chronic masturbators or they're just writing for 14-15-year-old chronic masturbators'. It's just a fucking culture of closet perverts."
Brent: "I think it started when Courtney admitted he had sex."
Courtney: "Listen, we get into plenty of rock'n'roll situations (laughs)... you can't go through life without it, but that's not what it's really about."
Do you think we need hedonism more in days like these?
"It's always important to have a good time. Life is fucked up," he states, peering intently through his mane. "I love good food, I love Italian wine - which, waiter, we're going to have another bottle of, please - and I love two handed blowjobs that clock in at just under 48 minutes. Is that hedonistic? It's not gratuitous. I just like decadence."
Perhaps the man doth protest too much, but you can understand why he doesn't want to get typecast as some airhead lug. In person he's engaging, pointedly and humorously discussing rock's (non-) participation in the war ("What about Bono? Has anyone spoken to Bono about this?") and the role of religion in conflict ("a lot less people have died over geography then this fucking clownish abstraction called religion"). However, he does concede the need to cut loose.
Courtney: "Of course I love to get drunk, go to bed with some super hot chick and then wake up with an ugly one. It's a part of living, and living is the only way I know to make songwriting happen. I know for Bruce Springsteen it might be solitude, forests and a cheap motel in Nebraska, but I like having heads around."
For Welcome..., these heads include Chic's Nile Rodgers (he adds the disco deviancy on 'I Am A Scientist') and arch-stoner Evan Dando, who co-wrote 'You Were The Last High'. Meanwhile, Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes co-produced the album with Courtney, which led to chief Duran, Simon Le Bon, contributing backing vocals on 'Plan A'.
"It was funny," an excited Zia recalls, "Cos he said 'will you be my friend? Cos he (Rhodes) always gets everybody and he doesn't share his friends'. I was like 'Sure Simon, I'll be your friend'."
However, they don't buy into the idea that working with two bits of Duran is further fuel to their rampant Anglophile fetish.
"Their first fucking album is fucking awesome," Courtney explains, not fully realising their lack of cultural rehabilitation over here. "But I don't think we sound that British anymore. I like repetition and that's very American. It's not a bunch of fancy-dressed Gilbert & Sullivan, there ain't no Pulp thing going on. You still like show tunes - we don't. Show tunes is show tunes. Rock is rock, AC/DC is rock, bash it out."
In truth, Welcome... is more indicative of a transatlantic exchange of ideas; in amongst the jet trash of Velvet Underground and Spiritualized, and pockets of Devo/Stereolab artcore, there's a splash of Aerosmith foot-to-the-floor classic rock, a dash of The Beatles enduring pop tunesmithery and a whole lot of 80s decadence. It's almost as simple as it is inclusive. It's not a new rock revolution, but then it doesn't claim to be. It's just four friends endorsing Spinal Tap's dumbass maxim: have a good time, all the time.
Welcome to the monkey house then. Cooler-then-thou haircut or not, you're all invited.
Update: The following was initially intended for the article but got cut out by the magazine:
The Dandy Warhols have teamed up with some of the biggest names in music for their new album, due out this summer.
The Warhols collaborated with Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes and Simon LeBon, as well as Lemonhead Evan Dando and Chic's Nile Rodgers, on 'Welcome To The Monkey House' - and they narrowly missed getting their hero David Bowie to play saxophone on one track.
Drummer Brent DeBoer told X-Ray: "We're really happy with the album. It took us a while to get it just right, and now we've got something incredible on our hands, I think.
"There's one song, 'Hit Rock Bottom', that has a total T. Rex vibe to it. We asked Tony Visconti, who produced all the classic T Rex singles, how he got that high-pitched backing vocal. He said 'I did those', so we got him behind the mic!
"David Bowie came into the studio to listen to the album and he loved it. He said he really wanted to play sax on that one track.
"Of course, we really wanted him to do it and we would have done anything to make it happen. But in the end, I think he was on tour or something because it never quite came together which was a real shame.
"One of the new songs (I Am Sound) is a bit like 'Ashes To Ashes'; it has that great, pumping electronic bassline. When Bowie heard it he said: 'That's one of mine!'
"I love that song. If I had my way, I'd let it run another ten minutes or so.