Phone Home

by John Harris
June 2003

They were darlings of MTV. Then a vodafone ad made The Dandy Warhols rich. Now they're recording with Duran Duran and their singer says he's quitting. John Smith asks: What on earth's going on?

Courtney Taylor enters the breakfast lounge of Portland, Oregon's Heathman Hotel dressed in a mixture of military fatigues and goth costume jewellery. He looks like he's in the Southern Death Cult. The Dandy Warhols' chief has also been bold enough to shave his hair into a flop-down mohawk as a tribute to Joe Strummer, apparently on the advice of a "model chick" acquaintance. After ordering fruit, yoghurt and coffee, he makes a nonchalant announcement: "I'm quitting the band."
This is a bold move for a group in such a prime position. In 2001 the Vodafone corporation used The Dandy Warhols' magnificent hipster anthem Bohemian Like You as the soundtrack to an inescapable ad blitz. For the band, the riches of movies, car commercials and TV shows beckoned - and as the Dandys' sole songwriter, Taylor pocketed around $1.5 million. Unfortunately, he claims obliquely without naming the guilty parties, much of the money is currently "uaccounted" for.
If Taylor extricates himself from Dandys business forthwith, he apparently stands to catch a windfall of around $400,000. "I'm a truly gifted songwriter and producer, I've just written a screenplay," he says, with equal amounts of hubris and petulance. "There are things I can do."
Across town lies one of the results of Taylor's sudden influx of wealth. Beneath a tangle of highway flyovers, next to mechanics' workshops and warehouses, is The Odditorium, the band's new rehearsal space-cum-creative hub. It's quite a place. Aside from a lounge, an office, a kitchen and a room constructed to approximate a backyard in gold-rush San Francisco, the piece de resistance is a gigantic room featuring a good-sized stage, a chequered floor, and wall frescoes and pillars straight off the set of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. To call it camp would be total understatement.
MOJO arrives mid-afternoon. While Taylor, keyboard-bassist Zia McCabe and whitefro'ed drummer Brent DeBoer pose for the camera, guitarist Peter Holmstrom sits cross-legged on the dining-room table, riffing on a Fender six-string bass. He has known Taylor since high school, and where the vocalist is self-aggrandising and hyperbolic, Holmstrom is measured and self-depreciating. Upon the merest hint that a camera is about to appear, Taylor pouts furiously;Holmstrom merely shuffles into the frame and lets his spindly frame and mascara'd eyes do the posing. Notably, whereas Taylor is an enthusiastic drinker and smoker, Holmstrom has forsworn both. What does he make of today's 'I quit' intrigue?
"That was the first think I heard out of Courtney's mouth when I got here," he shrugs. "I don't know... He's got a sort of knee-jerk reaction to everything. There's always somebody to blame - and it's never himself, except every once in a while. There is a lot of money missing...(he allows himself the faintest of smiles)...but I'm sure there's a perfectly logical explanation."
When David bowie - from whom Taylor has been seeking advice vis-a-vis his curent predicament - first clapped eyes on The Dandy Warhols, he was reportedly transfixed. The occasion was a Dandys performance at Glastonbury 2000. In Taylor's words, "He looked at me and thought: that guy wit the yarn turban on his head has done something I've always wanted to do - and that is put a band together where everybody is as cool as me."
In these terms, Portland provides the perfect base for the band. This city, 170 miles from Seattle, is very, very cool. Though most American cities seem to have fromarched their residents into K-Mart and declared all but the most lumpen culture dead, Portland has a bustling downtown, founded on a wealth of theatres, galleries, thrift stores and other shops for the discerning consumer. There is even a record store called O-Zone, which features a pop art RAF target in the window and stocks a huge selection of UK imports. Here, you can forget about Limp Bizkit, Good Charlotte and Jackass, and buy a full set of House Of Love reissues instead.
Back in the early 1990s, however, things were different. "Everywhere in America has an Anglophile music scene," Taylor explains. "It's been especially strong all over since (adopts hype-crazed DJ voice) guitars came back: The Strokes, The Hives, The White Stripes. But when we started, it was, 'fucking no fucking way.' This was in the days of bands called things like Loader. Baseball caps, plaid shirts, black Converse... you played a Fender Jaguar, and you wanted to sound like Dinosaur Jr. We were pretty isolated."
This is no lie. While most of young Portland were listening to Nevermind and Dinosaur's Green Mind, the embryonic Dandys took the trend-busting option of setting themselves up as the US arm of the shoegazing upsurge (for proof, see 1995's Dandys Rule OK, the independently released debut subsequently reissued by Capitol as The Dandy Warhols). "Spiritualized's Lazer Guided Melodies was the moment when it all changed for us," says Taylor. "After that it was [The Verve's] A Storm In Heaven, Slowdive, Ride... all this syrupy, thick dreaminess."Rather inevitably, they had little time for their Portland contemporaries. "It was, We had nothing to do with you. You are not sexy, you think you're fucking angst-ridden and intellectual, but you very clearly have never contemplated suicide as deeply and as frequently as I have, and you're not even close to being scholarly. We've a pretty culturally aware band. We've all read the great Russians. We understand '20s Paris and '50s Cairo."
When asked about the clear blue water that still separates the Dandys from most of their indie rock peers, Taylor akes exception to the use of the word "poise". "When have I ever been poised?" he asks, rather ludicrously. The perfect example, MOJO suggests, is 1998's Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth, the Dandys' first UK top 20 hit, which took aim at some smack-addicted unfortunate with withering irony. The video, directed by US photographer David LaChapelle, featured the group playing among a troupe of dancing syringes and was an arch, playful, taboo-shredding hoot.
Taylor is horrified. "There is nothing fucking playful about coming home from your first tour eer, and discovering that your girlfriend of four years has become - in one week - a fucking heroin addict," he seethes. "She was the coolest, hottest, smartest chick in this city at the time. There was no fucking way that I was going to respect that shit enouh to write a heavy, sad song. It was, I couldn't believe you're a junkie, 'cos heroin isn't even fucking cool any more!"
This collection of shadowy subject matter and the desire to never be consumed by it seems to define a large swath of the Dandys' cosmos. "Fun is real, pain is real," as Taylor puts it. "But try to do the first one more, because the second one is the stronger magnent.

If not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth mudged the door open for The Dandy Warhols, the ad-related re-release of Bohemian Like You allowed them to break on through it. It also helped that the band had created a consummate sliver of enduring radio-rock, made with a craftiness that could have been inspired by The KLF's chart-heist bible The Manual.
"We were very precise about everything, from the Pavement drum sounds to the Christine Sixteen [from Kiss's Love Gun] guitar riff," confirms Taylor. "I didn't want to do Keith Richards. And, thanks to the commercials, it had great, sexy pieces of film with it. I could never be that gratuitous. But I'm glad somebody else was."
Now comes the fourth Dandy Warhols album. Though it represents their most assured, artful work to date, Welcome To The Monkey House, - the Kurt Vonnegut-derived title reflects Taylor's snowballing antipathy towards the musical industry - will throw many of the group's admirers a curveball Pitched well away from state-of-the-art alt rock, and founded instead on sequenced bass lnes and parping analogue synths, it sounds as if the band decided to rewind back to the louche disco rock of 1997 single Every Day Should Be A Holiday, turn 180 degrees away from the classicism that defined 2000's Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia, strip back the guitars, and aim for heavy rotation on MTV circa 1995.
"We wanted something that reflected that we're now people who are immersed in a world of international, big city sexuality," explains Taylor. "Just coked out of your head, horney... you stumble out of this club into the morning liht of New York City in some filty meat-packing district club with these pseudo-supermodels, and they're smart and they're fucking beautiful and scary, and you just want to get naked and be with someone, and that Eurotrash shit that you've been listening to: it's garbage, but it has something - a certain, dark, cosmopolitan desperation - to it. Another One Bites The Dust had that. And so did Duran Duran."
And so it came to pass that Duran keyboard player Nick Rhodes became Welcome To The Monkey House's co-producer. Once he had added keyboards to a handful of tracks, his influence was graduallly extended, until the band joined him for a spell at Battersea's Sphere Studios. For a fortnight, they were joined by Duran Duran's entire original membership, working on a comback album with Nile Rodgers. The latter added a guitar part to a Dandys track entited I Am A Scientist;Simon Le Bon was cajoled into performing backing vocals on a song called Plan A. "Nick is so smart and clever: just the perfect elegant English guy," Taylor enthuses. "He just sits on the floor in his expensive Italian suits and beautiful shoes, and goes, 'No, darling, that's dreadful... Now, this one, perhaps...(makes keyboard sound)' We'd get drunk at night and go to these fantastic private clubs in London."
"The whole thing started with a long phone conversation I had with Courtney," says Rhodes, who speaks to MOJO upon our return to London. "What did we talk about? Oh, all kinds of things: life, culture, art...and music, mostly. I was familiar with their albums, which I liked very much. I think my intrest was sparked by the LaChapelle video. But it was fun for me to work with intelligent, sharp, witty musicians. They're a real band: a dying breed right now, I'm sad to say. After all this time, I can spot from a million miles off when somebody's either real or Memorex. And they're the gentle article."

Back in Portland, while Taylor, Holmstrom and Brent deBoer recline in the Odditorium's lounge listening to a compilation CD that takes in Primal Scream, The Beta Band and The Clash's Lover Rock, Zia McCabe sits in an anteroom smoking a one-skin joint and describing her hippy upbringing in Battleground, Washington with a garden full of ganja plants.
She also thinks aloud about Courtney Taylor's wish to call time on the group. "Courtney's such an extremist," she says. "I'm gonna fire this person, I'm going to quit'... He says those kind of things, and I can easily take him seriously, but I also need to go, Is he just blowing off steam? He's never said anything like this before. You can worry, but what's the fucking point?"
Just before we leave, Taylor - who insists, to the last, that he will indeed quit after the promo chores for Welcome To The Monkey House are over - answers one last question. How can he bow out before such a demonstrably talented group have achieved their commercial just desserts? What about Madison Square Garden?
"Oh, I don't even think that would be possible. How would we do that? Music is what we do, and we're too half-assed about every other aspect of it. We do an admirable job of some of the other stuff: tryin to keep look right in pictures, getting across who we are - but people really need a whole thing. And we're not like that. We just like to hang out."
He looks around him, at the playhouse Bohemian Like You built. "I guess it all comes down to this: The Dandy Warhols want the most reward for the least effort."