Fast And Louche
by Silva Diaz
May 16, 2003
Starting out, The Dandy Warhols just wanted to have one big non-stop party. Things have changed, hears Silvia Diaz
Courtney Taylor-Taylor drawls wearily, "So, do you want to talk about rock'n'roll?" It is, after all, something the band are legendary for: alarming record execs with requests for prostitutes on photo shoots, the keyboard player Zia McCabe's occasional breast-flashing during gigs, models waiting backstage and rumoured drug exploits on tour. Not forgetting infectious guitar songs, such as the 1998 chart hits "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth" and "Every Day Should Be a Holiday" and 2001's "Bohemian Like You", which stormed to No 5 in the charts after being on a mobile-phone advert. Plus the new single, "We Used to Be Friends", in the charts at No 18.
Now, they're on the road with a new album, Welcometo the Monkey House, co-produced by Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, with that group's singer, Simon le Bon, guesting. Taylor-Taylor sighs: "We've been going for nearly 10 years. There's a lot of crap in the press about us mind you, we've made stuff up if we're bored."
As a teenager, Taylor-Taylor stuck out in Portland, Oregon. "You don't fit in if you're a make-up-wearing weirdo, surrounded by large, clumsy guys and cheerleaders." He found escape in the work of Nietzsche and the collection of Kurt Vonnegut's short stories "You've got to be open to experiences. I read a lot" from which the latest album takes its title. Other sources of inspiration were The Pretenders, Duran Duran ("Their albums really made an impact") and Vogue ("I couldn't believe how beautiful and graceful the women were").
He then attended Cascade College, Portland. "I studied sociology, psychology and music, but wasn't there much." After graduating, Taylor-Taylor worked as a mechanic in a garage while drumming with the local band Nero's Rome. "Being a mechanic, there's a beginning, middle and end in terms of construction, unlike art. I knew most of the guys from college. Peter [Holmstrom, the lead guitarist] gotus together."
The first album, Dandys Rule OK, was for a local indie label. "Lazer Guided Melodies [the Spiritualized album] was a huge influence. We wanted to create a wall of sound." Their original drummer, Eric Hedford, left in disgust after one shenanigan too many. Taylor-Taylor's cousin Brent DeBoer stepped in, and the line-up was complete, with Zia McCabe on keyboards and bass, and Holmstrom on lead guitar. A three-album deal with Capitol followed.
"There were so many stagnant bands, we rebelled and thought, 'Fuck you we're going to have a great time, dress up and put on a show.' There wasn't a sign we'd be successful. Our dynamic was: a big non-stop party and not grow up." While recording, Taylor-Taylor admits, "I took a lot of amphetamines. We had to make music full of layers and texture and went nuts in the studio using so much equipment." Last-minute jitters meant it was scrapped and rebuilt. "We spent a lot of the advance, but not all. I don't regret it. After all the fun, we were focused and wanted to make it bone-simple and truly good."
Come Down, with its blend of arrogant sass and sing-along, melodic lyrics was slow-burning until "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth" pricked ears. "In Nero's Rome, one guy tried it [heroin] a couple of times, but they weren't junkies." Taylor-Taylor pauses. Gretchen, his former long-term girlfriend of four and a half years became a heroin addict. "As her partner, it felt like I'd been raped of my innocence, watching her. I joined the dead during that time." Seeing the descent from model to addict drove Taylor-Taylor to write about it. "Art's like therapy... it helped a lot," he says. After solid airplay on radio the song became a mocking anthem, part of a growing backlash against the trend for heroin chic.
"I'd read [the f๊ted American photographer and video director] David LaChapelle's art book and faxed him: 'Please work with us!' We hung out for a week, working on ideas." Upshot: a brightly coloured heroin game show, complete with transvestite host and dancing hypodermic needles. MTV loved it. "It was 50 per cent elation, because of what I'd been through."
The follow-up, Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, had mixed reviews. "We toured everywhere, and no one got it. David Bowie and Joe Strummer were into it. The best thing was our heroes coming up to us saying, 'We really like what you're doing.' Recognition meant a lot to us."
The Dandy Warhols returned to assemble a new album and build a studio; the opening date was 11 September 2001. "I'm an American," says Taylor-Taylor, "but I'd get slung in jail if I spoke about my personal opinion on Bush, 9/11 and the war. So I'm not saying anything."
During construction, McCabe married her boyfriend. "That was the beginning of everything going right. We got a phone call saying, '"Bohemian Like You" has become huge from being on the advert! Come back!' It was the best early Christmas present ever. People who ignored our phone calls last time round were kissing our asses, saying, 'You really deserve this. I'm so happy we knew it would be big.' Oh, now you get it? Well fuck you!" Did such reactions inspire "We Used to Be Friends"? Courtney snarls: "Yeah."
The reissued triumph led to a pause in recording. "We set up from scratch and had to work with Duran Duran. We needed to recreate the stunning, supreme bits of the Eighties sound that they did." Working with Rhodes was successful; Le Bon supplied backing vocals on "Plan A". The result is a confident, distinctive album full of Eighties pop echoes.
"Chic's Nile Rodgers was staying nearby and got involved with 'I Am a Scientist'. I heard the Lemonheads' old album. I called the singer, Evan Dando; he came over with beers; we wrote 'You Were the Last High' together." Speaking of which, will Taylor-Taylor live up to his reputation? "Yeah," he spits. "I really care about the English press image of me, 'cause some guy from NME thinks I'm so rock'n'roll. I'm going to take drugs just to impress them, and enhance my image."
Even if it seems the press is intent on talking about anything but the music, to Taylor-Taylor that is where his rock'n'roll heart lies. "Once we feel comfortable playing," he says, "it'll be great."
'Welcome to the Monkey House' is out on Monday on Capitol. The Dandy Warhols' tour continues at Brixton Academy, London SW4 (020-7771 3000) on 23 May