Courtney Taylor on Sex, Drugs & Rock 'n' Roll
by Robin Roth
Feb. 12, 1996
The Dandy Warhols have been largely about evolution. Recently though, public opinion seems to think the band is going a bit too far. During January, I visited the Warhols in their high-security compound in eastern Oregon; its exact location is known only to a select few. Singer Courtney Taylor is both band leader and compound front man. Hi Warholian Compound serves as band headquarters and refuge for friends and family, a place that is both labyrinth and catacomb, with its hidden warehouses and a maze of trailers. "It's a little bit like the Starship Enterprise," he says. "Our compound consists of a group of people grouped together in a behavioral sense. You may think of us as utilitarians and minimalists. On that level, we're alike. We're a family clique, but looser, because some are part of it and some are not."
"We're stockpiling arms, food and information," he says, double fisting a cigarette and a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon for breakfast. "We're preparing the nation against the invasion."
"The invasion?" I ask.
"Well, yes," he replies, his words encircled in a cloud of smoke. "The British invasion."
Taylor is not referring to 19th century imperialism or the backbeat of the '60s, but to the fact that, as he sees it, British bands such as Oasis, Elastica and Blur now threaten to dominate the American airwaves. The Dandy Warhols have even been dubbed as a British-sounding band. But Taylor, a self-proclaimed rock guru, has roots closer to Beaverton than Britain. Raised in the developing suburbs, Taylor grew with the area, recalling a childhood of dirt bikes, mud and forts. "It was quaint," he says of his neighborhood. "Flowers in the front, sculpted junipers and clean suburban families, all trying to be good people and not do dishonest things." He flicks his cigarette into his empty beer can, immediately lights up another, and grins. "That's learned behavior with no reason around it. It's the psychology of the cult. Are you going to act or react? Most people just react, not thinking. It's why people watch T.V. In our compound, we struggle to unlearn and live the way we want to live. Create your own behavior based on who you want and like to be.
Although Taylor says he envisions a "simple life" for his future, complete with a house in the country, a wife and a couple kids, he is quick to come back to the here and now. "The Warholian Compound is action now for security," he warns. "It's the problem of the British invasion, because if people listen to it, they become British. They tear down all the trees and houses to build row houses. It's the imposition of a mindset." Part of his job as compound leader, he says, is to educate both clan members and the masses to the "British conspiracy" - a plot, he claims, spearheaded by the queen to restore the British empire and reclaim America for the crown. "British rock music is the first starting point of the invasion," says Taylor. "It influences young minds toward the superiority of British aesthetics and culture. America must not forget its heritage."
"In the '60s,' he continues, "People think of the Stones and the Beatles, but for every Stones and Beatles, there was a Doors and a Velvet Underground. In the '70s, the Sex Pistols and the Clash were imitating the Ramones and Iggy Pop. The superiority of the American rock culture needs to be maintained." But for Taylor, change starts from within. "I'm really the anti-cult leader because I only facilitate everyone being their own guru. I am defending a nation that celebrates love of the self," he says. "Those are the people we want in our nation."
Those are also the people he wants at his shows. The only audience he wants to play for, he says, is one consisting of people he'd invite to visit the compound, an increasing difficulty considering the band's growing popularity and mainstream successes. Following the release last spring of their first album, "Dandys Rule OK," the band, comprised of Peter Holmstrom on guitar, Zia McCabe on keyboards, Eric Hedford on drums and Taylor providing vocals and guitar, as gone from small local gigs to a five album record deal with Capitol records, recently returning from a six-week American tour with bands Echobelly and Electrafixion. The band is leaving later this month for Europe and is planning another U.S. tour with love And Rockets this March. The group's second album, currently in process, is scheduled for a summer release. The band may also participate in this summer's Lollapalooza tour.
Taylor reacts to the band's success with a strange juxtaposition of humility and hubris. "It definitely increases the pressure. Pretty much every town we went to expected us to be the next big band," he says, admitting he's sometimes afraid to answer the phone. "I never have any time anymore; sometimes I'd depressed all day. I'm really just as good as you can get and still be mediocre. I'm the alpha and omega of mediocrity."
But as the band's front man, publicist and manager, he's quick to attribute much of the band's success to himself. "The more ideas of mine that get used, the more successful my band is. When I come home at three or four in the morning and I'm really baked, depressed and drunk, I can watch TV, jack of, or pick up my guitar. So I play the guitar because that gets me off. I'll find three chords that match how I feel. It's all about where you want to put your efforts." He lights another smoke. "How I create songs is the way art should be created: The appeal is that it's done for the right reasons - that's why we do well - because I come up with chords which validate how I feel." He looks unsuccessfully for his open beer, and cracks another. The ease of his slouch reveals a tiny blue star tattooed below his navel. "I'm not that brilliant or lucky," he continues, "You're only lucky when you have a guitar in your hands with a feeling. But not everybody is lucky enough to be beautiful and talented, so you're a bit of a freak. People want to see a freak and be turned on. Everybody just wants to be turned on. Art and music are just masturbation. It's getting myself caught up in a gooey world."
His songs are a turn-on, he says excitedly. But titillation depends on the night. "Only three times in the history of the band has every song worked," he grins, something he does a lot. "It's all about making music for the right reasons. It's great and easy to get on stage and take my shirt of and be fucking loud. It's about giving people what they want. It's not about being a part of something that feels 'okay.' That's the shit, because I only want to appeal to people I'd want to have as friends, not uptight people, but educated, smart intellectuals who think things that are fun to think - like sex." He begins to laugh, something he also does a lot, and admits a childhood defect makes him salivate excessively when excited. I hand him a handkerchief which he graciously accepts, but forgets to wipe the dribble on his chin and holds it in his hand or the rest of the conversation. "Reproduction is ingrained before eating," he continues, "The future of the species and contingent upon feeling good when you do one thing. That's the way I like it. Being turned on is fun. It's the funnest thing because it's ingrained. It's self-awareness with a great controllable, pleasurable drive - suspended perfect euphoria - it's way better than drugs." Always the gentleman, he offers me a smoke, a cup of coffee, a beer.
The philosophy of the "Warholian Force" is part Epicurean, part existential, and "Far out." It's a "virtuous hedonism," according to Taylor. "It's about getting turned on and groovy. Being naughty is fun." But he's quick to caution, "I'm more Christian than Christian. I really don't want to hurt anybody. My main problem is dualistic: reconciling the mind and the body. I don't have as much sex as I should because bad conversation turns me off. I'm Buckaroo Banzai and Mahatma Gandhi. I'm 'Mr. Everything.' Brains and beauty are a winning combination. I'm the vampire in action, but how long can I look good?" He stares into space. "Live because you can. Go for it when you can. It's a lovely indulgence."
Taylor grew up in a religious home and admits this was not the way he was raised to view things. "I never regret anything, because I'm honest. It's just fucking less painful in the long haul. There's a bliss about ignorance, and pain comes with understanding. I'm not afraid of any feelings. Your deepest and weirdest - I've been there. There's nothing twisted about me. You gotta enjoy life. Ultimately, I have very normal thrills - drug trips, sex, music." When he's not occupied with the band or compound politics, he tries to look cool. He hangs out at the local Starbucks. He lifts weights. He lights neighborhood bars. He likes women, drugs, fast cars and motorcycles. He likes Walk Curtis and Wednesday night poetry readings at Café Lena. ("The art scene in Portland means a lot to people," he says. "Artists can do something, even if they're not so good.") He likes Powell's. He reads "to question and reevaluate," he says.
From Proust to Playboy, his tastes are eclectic. It wasn't a rock star he aspired to be, but an English teacher. His library is large for someone who never went to college (he actually collected his books for personal pleasure, not a professor's), and his conversation is sprinkled spasmodically with allusions to Socrates and Mr. Spock. "Spock is my spirituality," e says." Nothing but facts." Not surprisingly, "Star Trek" is his favorite TV show, and he hopes to have "Star Trek" reruns showing 24 hours a day at the compound. Although heading the Dandys take up much of his time, Taylor tries to balance the band with life's other duties. He's a homebody and misses Portland when he's away. "There's a beauty and coolness to Portland," he says, "Because it's an educated town. There are a variety of experiences and it's effortless to stay."
Madness, mediocrity, megalomania or masquerade? To Taylor, it's all about having fun. "We're the smartest, hippest band around."