A Hazy Day At The Dandy Warhols' Factory

The Rocket
by Jay Horton
August 9-23, 2000

Within the deepest recesses of Northwest subculture, whispered tales are spread of the Portland quartet known as the Dandy Warhols, those invulnerable, ambisexual decadents eternally drifting past the farthest reaches of rock ‘n’ roll excess. Upon first meeting the band – guitarist Peter Holmstrom, iconic frontman Courtney Taylor, keyboardist Zia McCabe and new-ish drummer Brent DeBoer (who replaced long-time drummer Eric Hedford) – certain expectations are inevitable. The Dandy Warhols are insolent vampires, surely, or press-baiting sybarites. Something more, anyway, than the personable-seeming lad in faded denim – fresh-faced enough to be carded at this neighborhood dive – ambling towards my table.

Peter Homstrom, guitarist for the Dandy Warhols, slowly drinks a beer and assumes a distant graciousness unaffected by even the most tasteless questions I can muster. “Sex and drugs are part of anyone’s life. We’re just the only band that talks about them blatantly,” he insists. “Most of the interviews focus only on the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Hopefully, that changes since we’re on our third record. We’ve grown up now.”
The Dandy Warhols new album (and second for Capitol), Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia, does represent an evolution in their trademark waves of melodic psychedelia. Their songwriting has evolved, improvement by age. Guided by a (hesitant) rawk sensibility, the songs are showcased by gratefully unmuddled production. And, thought sometimes self-consciously, the record easily demonstrates bandmembers’ growing facility with their instruments. “You play a lot of shows,” Holmstrom shrugs. “You can’t help but get a little bit better.
“When we were making the last two albums,” he continues, “I wanted to make music that I could read to. The new album was intended to be a lot tighter, warmer in that ‘70s way. You can hear all the guitar parts this time, they’re not hidden under layers of effects. It’s more straightahead. We simplified this. It would sound the same as the other albums if we layered on 15 drum tracks and 10 vocal skeletons by Courtney.”
Holmstrom, along with the rest of the band, is jetting to London the next morning – where the Dandys’ new album has established itself in the top 40. He dreads the journey. Contrary to popular rumor, the Dandy Warhols still live in Portland: Holmstrom has a house in southeast; McCabe owns one in northeast; Courtney Taylor and DeBoer have apartments in the same northwest complex. “We’re a Portland band, and we definitely want to make sure everyone knows that we have no plans on going anywhere else,” Holmstrom informs me.
Odd, then, that the album was available in Britain six weeks earlier than the states. “It’s a smaller country, and it’s easier to get more music across because there’s only one major radio station. They liked the last record, and they played the hell out of it,” he explains.
“Our music is definitely British-influenced, but we sold about the same amount of records in England as we did in America – the size of the country is just much smaller. Maybe, that’s just the amount of people that like the band. There’s 60,000, 70,000 people that would like us anywhere.”
Portland, it should be said, remains a bit conflicted about what the Dandy Warhols represent. After Thor Lindsay’s Tim/Kerr label released their debut celebrated debut Dandys rule OK in 1995, the band jumped to the big leagues and Capitol Records for its second album The Dandy Warhols Come Down, and, in turn, incurred the expected scorn of the indie faithful.
“I see nothing wrong with making money off music,” Holmstrom says evenly. “As long as you’re doing something that you like to do, that feels honest to you, there should be no problem at all. It’s pure luck that other people like the same kind of music. If you keep making music just to get yourself off, well, good luck.”
Beyond the taunts of careerism – charges absurd to anyone familiar with their major label efforts, much less the legendary “Black Album” Capitol failed to release to it’s complete lack of a radio-friendly tune – the Dandys’ more colorful image remains distinct from the relatively dreary Northwest aesthetic. They are not loud, distorted power-pop. They are not mopey balladeers. They are not forcibly eccentric. Peter Holmstrom finally smiles: “Maybe we’re the new sound.”

Ten hours before an intercontinental flight, scant miles away from bandmate Zia McCabe’s birthday party, and where is Courtney Taylor?
Legs sprawled upon the editing deck, poking through Thai leftovers, he demands another cut. Video cut. Courtney Taylor-Taylor, his preferred media-driven pseudonym of the moment – wants to see what would happen if the shirtless bartender continues dancing through the first bar of that second chorus. Courtney directed the video for the American single “Bohemian Like You,” and has developed something of an obsession with post-production.
His presence is somewhat irritating, of course, to the trained craftsmen hired to perform this task, but the infections enthusiasm of a pop god at the height of his creative powers forgives most everything. Courtney Taylor is a rock star, the way they used to make them: shiny and inspirational and possessed of more hypocrisies and divine wisdom than a month of Sunday supplements. You can’t help but like the man.
“Bohemian Like You,” a casually anthemic testament to the passions and inanities of slacker-dilettante culture, throws an unreconstructed Stones riff atop irresistibly listless hooks and a suitably ambling beat. It’s already won consistent airplay on modern rock stations around the country.
The video, befitting the tune’s singalong qualities, both parodies the traditional karaoke video and depicts a frenetic crowd lip-synching the night away at a local tavern. The car is Taylor’s local dive, and the drunken patrons are Taylor’s friends. “It’s amazing when you can use Capitol Records’ money to do what we have to do,” he marvels. “Pay for all of our friends to have fun, and then simply document it as a job.”
That sense of community remains central to the Dandys’ ethos. “I imagine wed all look pretty useless to anyone else’s band,” Taylor continues. “We’ve all just pretty much found our own situation, and we’re starting to find filmmakers and artists that are part of the family.” Beyond those put to work on the video and liquored up on Capitol’s tab, Courtney demanded that the label use a friend as photographer, and the band will tour America with Portland pop up-and-comer Rick Bain, whose talents easily outweigh his national profile.
More than anything, the Dandys want to surround themselves with groups of like-minded individuals. “It’s kinda funny,” Taylor muses. “People come in and bang out in our little scene, our weirdo, white-trash artist, intellectual, art-fag scene, and they get apartments and stay.” Grinning at the prospect, he imagines a bohemian compound of “20 to 25 people who are fun, smart, weird and can cook. We’ll be armed to the teeth, too. We will find our own food, grow our own vegetables.”
“We’re a band that is about music and people,” Taylor says excitedly. “We travel the world, and really cool people that we like show up to every show. We’ve all seen the same Godard films, we’ve all read Dostoevsky, we’ve all read… you name it. And it’s the same scene all over the world. It’s great.”
Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia concentrates upon that scene – detailing the universal themes of modern pop (love, depression, isolation) within very specific stores. “All of the songs are about someone,” Taylor confesses, “and they’re very biographical. Some of the people know they’re about them, and some of them don’t. They’re about bandmembers and ex-best friends and ex-lovers and people who hang out in our scene and friends who go through shit.”
As the name suggests, Thirteen Tales… depends upon the stories told simply, with astonishingly few traces of the glib whimsy that marked earlier albums; an intimate effect heightened by the minimal production. “We just wanted to see what it would sound like if the performances were all clear,” Taylor says.
The most startling element of this unaffected approach may be the maturation of Taylor’s vocals. His voice more than a whispered falsetto layered upon itself, Courtney Taylor actually sings on this album – not always that well, true, but with a dramatic and unmannered poignancy. “You get used to hearing your voice a lot, and you start to care about it,” he says. “I’m not a great singer, but whatever can carry you will always have to win out because, you know, I’m gonna be listening to this record for the rest of my life.” Alternately compelling and brusque, his throaty swagger on new songs like “Solid” and “Country Leaver” resemble a suburban, smaller scale Iggy Pop more than anything he’s attempted before.
Given the markedly different direction of the new material, amidst swirling rumors that their future with Capitol depends on this album’s American success, does he worry about the response? “Record labels should just be a back to fund artists,” Taylor insists. “If you aren’t successful, you don’t deserve to be. If we don’t sell enough records to stay on the label, for God’s sakes drop us; we obviously are not offering something that enough people need. If I can’t make music well enough to have enough people support me, then probably I’m not that good at it. Frankly, America’s a beautiful country in the way that the commercialism is at least fucking honest.”
An entirely valid argument but certainly different than the aggressively indie stance favored by so many Portland musicians. “Everyone here is in a band and they all think they’re the best band,” Taylor says affectionately. “God bless them, whatever works. We get to play music. We’re good at it. We do well enough, we don’t have to fuck around with anyone else’s ideas. If we did, we’d probably be slinging espresso for a living.
“It’s not like we’re out there selling four million records. It’s not even like we’re selling 500,000 records. Paul Revere and the Raiders had hits, and they hardly get remembered at all. And they were way bigger then we are!”
They had costumes though.
“Mmmmm.” Taylor stares into the dstance. “Didn’t they all have costumes back then?”

“Oh my god, we’re beautiful! We have our own image, our own style, our own music, all we want is to share it with people,” exclaims Zia McCabe. “Look at me! Look at how good I play! I want you to share this with me.”
It’s well after midnight, the video has been thankfully abandoned and McCabe’s birthday party has been underway for a while – days, possibly. In the back room of a large Northeast Portland restaurant and bar (owned by yet another member of the Dandy’s ridiculously extended family), McCabe raves about the upcoming tour. As the band member with the least musical training (none, in fact, when Taylor invited her to join) she’s the most excited about their musical growth.
“We just got our shit together and really came to respect our strengths,” she acknowledges. ‘The thing about [using] a wall of sound or a lot of samples, it’s relatively easy to hide any of your insecurities behind it. Pete’s become this amazing guitar player.” McCabe has slowly developed her own talents, though concerts reportage inevitably focuses less on her keyboard aptitude than her occasionally topless stage antics and extracurricular vices. “The lifestyle’s a part of it all, but it’s so magnified,” she says, faster than you’d believe possible. “They ignore that I own a house… that I plant a garden. They want to think I’m doing coke in the back of my garden… There’s a time and place for everything.”
“If you only listened to our records,” Taylor agrees, “you would know me better than my mother, if you really just only listened to my records. And you would not know me at all, you’d have no fucking idea, almost, what I think and how I feel, if you read our interviews.”
The Dandys do loathe the press, perhaps reasonably so. Yet despite their reputations, they seem cordial, pleasant and genuinely serious about their music. “IF this record doesn’t happen to enough people,” McCabe warns, “it will absolutely crumble a lot of my moral and spiritual beliefs. It’s just needs to! It’s a good record! We’re beautiful, we’re fun, we’re happy. So many bands aren’t happy. So many bands aren’t beautiful.”

There are those, of course, who believe that band’s appearance should not matter. Those people live in Portland, play music that is irritatingly complex or deliberately obscure, and, likely, have never met Kate Moss. Thirteen Tales… proves the Dandy Warhols’ musical abilities to be the equal of their glamour. They are indeed a beautiful band.
Six hours before their departure oversees, the Dandy Warhols finally prepare to leave the party – somewhat earlier than they’d otherwise prefer. As Taylor slouches against the door, a small horde of well-wishers offers its good-lucks and congratulations. The Dandys may be somewhat superficial, blithely commercial and definitely ambivalent to the worse pretensions of slackerdom, but they’ve assembled an admirable community of artistic friends and invested their celebrity with rare purpose. Trying to save the world, one bohemian at a time.