by CS Walker
Civilised, cultured and urbane, The Dandy Warhols are no longer the debauched stonesy rockers of mobile phone-shifting fame. The four formative influences on their new album, Welcome To The Monkey House, were a hip hop giant, a glam god, a disco genius and a new romantic hero. CS Walker travels to Paris - where else? - to pick their nits.
In a flamboyantly Art Deco hotel in Paris in the spring, The Dandy Warhols have ordered beer and wine and champagne, some of it unwittingly, and everyone is talking at once and it's all happening very quickly. Then somehow Courtney and Zia are discussing the finer points of red wine - in Austria they use a special spicy grape, apparently - and I remark that they've become very civilised, all grown up, not quite the louche rock'n'roll animals they've often been painted as.
"We are true hedonists," states Courtney Taylor-Taylor, with great calm terrific diction. "We like everything. They may have written about one aspect of us in the past, but we like great conversation, great drugs, great sex, great architecture, great furniture, great music, great art - anything that just makes you feel glad to be alive. The big affirmations. Anything of beauty. You got five senses, and there's a lot of beauty you can absorb with all five over the course of the lifetime. So why just dote on one thing?"
Courtney sports a proud new mohican, the kind of noteworthy haircut that will shortly, just adjacent to Place de la Concorde, prompt a young woman dressed as a winged pink fairy to insist that she make a wish while anointing him with a silvery wand. This just happens; nobody bats an eyelid.
Right now it appears to be fun, as well as ineffably cool, to be The Dandy Warhols. There's a song on their new record called 'The Dandy Warhols Love Almost Everyone', which elicits the obvious question: who don't you love?
"Only mean people," drawls Courtney, frontman, singer, guitarist, kind of a hero. "It's easy to enjoy being mean to people, to give in to it, just for that moment. Who don't we love? Anyone who lets themselves enjoy the power you feel when you hurt someone else's feelings."
Adds guitarist Peter Holmstrom, "We don't particularly love our government too much right now. We're hot on that point."
"There's that as well, yeah," says Courtney. A 20 minute discussion on the cataclysmic evil of George W. Bush ensues. It takes in the Roman and Greek empires and the Dark Ages, and climaxes with Courtney murmuring (and like a true rock star he waits until everyone else has stopped jabbering before saying this, to ensure my tape recorder picks it up), "It only takes one bullet."
"But sometimes you sever the head and two sprout," chirrups keyboard player Zia McCabe.
"It only takes one bullet," says Courtney, again, with poise.
The Dandy Warhols have a new album called Welcome To The Monkey House, with a zip-up banana on the cover. Now that's a little bit Velvets and a little bit Stones, but the thing is, they've changed here. They've shifted, if you will, from the Warhol of the Factory years to the Warhol of the Studio 54 years. From grunge to elegance, from weed to mirrorballs. All but throwing out their guitar thing just as it's fashionable, they've gone electronic, synthy, spacious, suave. The album's co-produced with Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran fame, and the tracks that weren't produced with Rhodes were produced with Tony Visconti. So there are all sorts of unexpected cosmic links with the New Romantics, Chic, Bowie and Bolan.
It's quite a brave move, just when they could have capitalised on being a American guitar band. "I guess we get bored of everything before everyone else does," says Courtney.
Are you tired of rock?
"Hell no - I guess if you're saying you can't have rock without guitars, then it's less rock. But this was all about how to make space in between the sounds, make the songs bigger by having less things going on. That's what we've learned from being obsessive Dr. Dre students. We've studied Dre for four years now, and realised that guitars take up the most space. We've made lots of guitar music over the years, and we need to excite ourselves, to overwhelm ourselves with our music. It's kinda nice to let everybody else do the gruntwork, y'know? God bless The White Stripes, The Strokes, BRMC - they can go slug it out with guitars and keep the flame burning. We'll just sit and rap and bust some shit in the lab, see what we can come up with. 'Cos it's really not about the tools you use but about expressing emotions, feelings, life, whatever."
The single, 'We Used To Be Friends', reminds me of 'Since You've Been Gone' by Rainbow. But this doesn't go down well when I suggest it.
"We're trying to work with silence as well as sounds," explains world's-nicest-guy drummer Brent DeBoer, he of the big black hair and super-laid-back demeanour. "Dr. Dre has this huge music with, like, four basic sounds. It's the perfect hypnotic vehicle for a vocal. We wondered how that worked."
You're trying to step a few metres away from rock'n'roll mythology?
"No, No," tuts Brent affably. "We're not trying to do anything. Never ever ever try, that's the worst. If it doesn't come naturally, don't waste time. We just stripped away the walls of guitars, and it was beautiful."
While recording, the band had heat for the first time. As in, their studio had heating. "Usually, it's cold." They watched a lot of John Waters movies and Duran Duran documentaries. Zia's the only one who had a Duran Duran poster on her wall as a kid.
"Why Duran Duran?" muses Courtney. "I'm going to get asked this 10 times a day now, aren't I? So I've cleared the mud away and got it true to my head. Duran's first record [1981's Duran Duran] had the filthy sexuality of rock, but also the big city sleaze of disco. And they did a great job of it. I mixes cocaine-in-the-back-of-the-club-toilets with hot, over-the-top cross-dressing action and a basic Iggy Pop rock-ness. Which that awesome Queen record, 'Another One Bites The Dust,' also has. Nobody wants to like disco, everybody wants the rock'n'roll fantasy - but there's something in there that we can use here and now. We were inspired by that first Duran record - I sure liked the way they looked on it, and it turned me on a lot."
So all your roaming led to Rhodes?
"We'd heard he was a fan and then we were watching the 'Planet Earth' video and we just knew. Everybody talks about that 80s electroclash thing, but nobody can actually do it. Nick's approach is less kitsch, less in-your-face - it's elegant, beautiful, sexy and faraway, with long-hanging strings. So, we got some of that."
As for the way they look, they had that part already. The Visconti tracks are very T.Rex - "Yeah, there was a point a few years back before everybody else did it when we'd've gladly done a whole album of T.Rex" - and the experience of working with Chic/Bowie legend Rodgers was, in Brent's favourite word, "beautiful". "He was across the hall working on the new Duran record with Nick," Brent explains. "We knew we had something pretty good going on 'I Am A Scientist', and Nick told him, 'Nile, you gotta hear this'. He comes in, likes it, and Courtney says, 'Hey, you should lay down some sick guitar on this, man!' Nile's, like, 'Yeah, I'll bring my guitar tomorrow', Courtney's, like, 'No way', and gives him this really cheap guitar. So he plugs it in, and I've never seen anything like it. I sat there in a daze, staring. He was so into it, it was something else."
"He just," clarifies Zia, "wailed for a while."
The Dandys very nearly put the cherry on the icing on the cream of the top tier of the cake by getting Bowie to play sax on the album, but that never quite came together. They stand by their oft-criticised decision to play three 20 minute drones when supporting him at the Bowie-curated Meltdown show in London last year. "We hadn't been that experimental in a long time," says Zia. "We'd kinda stuck to festival hit sets."
"Y'know," adds Courtney, "Bowie's peers and friends were there - Bono, Eno, The Cure, everyone - and some of 'em were nagging at him for picking us, this band that has 'hit' songs. But he knows us, and he's seen us go on for 45 minute swirly trippy spinny aural acid trips, so he's aware of what we are. So we showed all the pissy little art Nazis there."
The band first met Bowie at his Glastonbury performance in 2000. Brent says it was a "huge" experience. "We were watching his set from the side of the stage, then the second he finished, before his encore, he came up to me - me! - and said he'd loved out set that night. Then he turned round again, and said, 'I really mean that'. I'm sorry, but that did it for me. It wasn't like he hadn't got much else to think about at that second, in front of 100,000 people.
"Recently, when we were at Visconti's studio in New York, I lit up a cigarette and he stopped me because he's given up. He said, 'Please - do anything in front of me, chop out an 8-ball of coke, open a bottle of Jack, but please don't tempt me with the cigarettes. Hardest addiction I've kicked in my life, and I've kicked a few.' Coming from him, that seemed reasonable," says the drummer, bumming one of my Marlboros, "so I took it outside."
Somewhere, in a Paris restaurant, The Dandy Warhols are playing musical chairs. What you do, Zia explains, is every so often you all move two chairs along, thus gaining a fresh perspective and engaging with different people. It kind of works, though it means you're hungry like the wolf and it thoroughly confuses the waitress, who's already proven she can't pronounce the band's name. Next comes musical puddings, whereby everyone has to pass their dessert along after one bite. As a repressed anal Brit, I fear germs, but keep it to myself. The crème brulee is the best, the baked Alaska disappointing. The ice cream is purple, brown and white. The wine is plentiful. However, as Courtney's girlfriend and Peter's wife are here, the band - contrary to folklore - show scant enthusiasm for painting the city red, and pass up on the opportunity of seeing Fischerspooner at Pompidou Centre. "I wouldn't go out and buy their record," says quiet Peter, with a brand of music criticism any journalist could relate to. "Partly because I've already been sent about five copies." The Dandys have been breathlessly rushing across Europe for a week "doing promo", answering the same questions a hundred times with the patience of saints. When they get back to the States, they'll rehearse for their imminent tour. As our photo shoot winds down near the Jardin des Tuileries, we witness something very romantic. "Come with me," Courtney tells his girlfriend, who's just arrived, as he whisks her away from the rest of us. "I want to show you something." From a distance, we see them sashay into a position which provides them with a splendid view of the Eiffel Tower, as twilight comes on. They embrace. It's like a Doisneau photo, I'm thinking, although everybody else is perhaps thinking, hurry up.
Now Courtney is striving to art direct the BANG photo shoot, with attention to cheekbones. The band steal my copy of BANG's launch issue and declare it "cool", although at dinner Peter asks if the picture of Har Mar Superstar in his sweaty underpants could be put away, please. Nobody has any argument with that.
Portland, Oregon is known as "The City That Works," Peter tells us. "There's no urban sprawl, and it's the only city with a mountain within the city limits. And it has the largest bookstore in America." The Dandy Warhols are very happy living there. "There's a law whereby a certain degree of sunlight has to hit the street," explains Zia. "Architects have to get really creative with their angles, to avoid shadows. It's really interesting." Zia feels she is a pillar of the community, and at no point during the evening does she get her breasts out. Portland has "a really skanky background," elaborates Courtney. "It was notorious around the turn of the last century for shanghai-ing people. They'd sell sailors who'd drunk themselves into oblivion and nobody could tell if they were alive or dead. They'd wake up in the middle of the sea to find they were owned by the Chinese navy."
It has "a lot of attitude" does Portland. "It's the most stuck-up fucking intellectual highbrow smartypants place," says Courtney, "and we love it. It's hardball. You've gotta know who you are, otherwise no one's interested. When we first got signed and had some success, journalists in New York with bad hair, bad make-up and wannabe hipster clothes would ask us if we found 'the big city' a bit shocking. I was like: are you fucking kidding? There is nobody in New York that could hack it in Portland for a fucking second."
So happy are they in Portland that the band have bought a huge factory/warehouse, which they're converting into a recording studio and, for want of a better phrase, arts centre. "It's kinda like the Death Star in the first Star Wars," Courtney offers. "We'll have everything there - recording, photo studios, graphic design, web design, DV cameras, video editing... it's what you want if you're a band like us and all your friends are brilliant artist-losers. They can come in and do their thing, and if we need a video we'll throw a party on E. And if it gets messy and weird, that's fun too.
"Our lives haven't changed. Perhaps one day we might end up super-wealthy, but right now we all pretty much live nicely like good creative hippies. We're living the dream we always had. We'll always have to make music - we need to, we love to - so we might as well use our success to facilitate ourselves and friends having fun lives."
Purists moaned when a Vodaphone advert turned the track 'Bohemian Like You' into a hit. (The album from which it was taken, Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia, went on to sell a quarter-million copies in the UK.) Did crossover popularity change you?
"It meant a lot of Portland artists don't have to sell their souls. And it meant that at the moment the advertising industry, which uses Nick Drake, Spiritualized and us, was hipper than the music biz. Which is horrible! The music industry got called out on that one."
Why Welcome To The Monkey House? Because it's the title of a 1968 Kurt Vonnegut short story collection, but also because, Brent explains, "it's a metaphor for where we all live. When I say where we all live, I don't mean, y'know, here. I mean this mad, mad society, post Y2K. A door opened and then slammed, and now people are behaving like maniacs. Those in charge of reality has lost it."
"It's a metaphor for the nonsense," adds Courtney. "Vonnegut put it so succinctly - it's cynical, wry and lovely."
You sound melancholy, at times, on this record.
"At one stage every song started with 'You', 'I', or 'We'. I guess it dead clear to me that that's all there is to write about. Y'know - the soup, the dogs, the cars, the trees, the elevators - they actually don't matter. This world and all our lives are just about people. They're the only thing that really affect you. So celebrate life, not death. Oppose war because your feelings matter, not because it'll make you popular with cute college girls. It's okay to be lonely and introspective, it strengthens you. It's also okay to high-five your buddies. We've made records to comfort the aching, and records with a social gel. This one we've reduced to a groove and a testimony, which is everything there is."
The Dandy Warhols are four wise monkeys. It takes warmth to be this cool.