The Big Takeover Interview - issue 42 (1998)
The Big Takeover #42
Not If You Were The Last Blissed-Out, Drugged-up Psychedelic Punk Band on Earth
By Jack Rabid
Portalnd, Oregon’s Dandy Warhols have popped up in music media a lot, thanks to their sometimes incredible, sometimes merely good second LP Come Down, which builds so well on the equally inconsistent but promising Dandys Rule OK. The hottest, catchiest song on the new album was smartly made into a single and MTV video, and even without the subject matter of “Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth,” it just screams hit. That the surprisingly good video makes use of the psychedelic hint in the band’s sound was also a daft move. The radio began playing it, and off the band headed on tour for an eternity. They must have played New York 10 times during a three month stretch, both on their own, with great bands such as Verbow, and opening for everyone in sight, such as The Charlatans U.K.
In our interview below, tall, wiry, good looking, ironic heartthrob Courtney Taylor reveals which incredibly close person he wrote that “Junkie” song both for and to. And just as unconcerned as to whom else it might offend, along with the rest of the band he apologetically details his rampant drug use (without being probed much). You get the feeling you could ask him/them the most sensitive, personal question in the world that is in fact none of your damn business, and he/they would just shrug and tell you the answer as best he/they could. With a shrug.
We would consider the hedonistic Dandy Warhols the very antithesis of self-consciousness, even if it weren’t for the incessant and hilarious scenes of nudity in public, starring their wild and uncontrollable keyboard/tambourine player Zia McCabe. A few anecdotes about her untamed, party-animal antics predictably provide the most uproarious moments of any discussion with or about the band, and if you can keep from laughing at them, you might check your sense of the true-life absurd. This woman, who also seems to set the tone for the band’s anything-goes attitude when on stage, is a walking poster-girl for “News Of The Weird,” if only because she makes it all seem, in the words of Morrissy in The Smiths, “as natural as rain.”
But perhaps the best virgin territory delved into here is the rarely-covered, substantial roots the Dandys have in classic American and English punk rock circa 1976-1984 (we know it’s not often covered because we were surprised to discover how much of a devoted scene member Courtney was then). Which leads us to the place of Portland in that punk influence, and in their local reputation, both favorable and unfavorable. (They react with a sneer to accusations of being pompous and vain.) The Northwest can be suspicious of anyone who doesn’t play by the rules, and the Dandys, whether you laud them or think them obnoxious twits, really could give a rat’s ass for rules of decorum.
The result is the heady, floor-shaking brew of punk/psychedelia/trance/bliss-rock/hard rock/new wave that makes up the best of their sound (also don’t miss “Boys Better” on the new LP). Dancing at a Dandy’s gig when they get the blasting groove going is a feeling of great freedom. And you don’t even need to take all the drugs these vaguely degenerate folks do to achieve that, though obviously so many do.
The setting for the interview was perfect: a relaxed chat with all four of them in their posh backstage at the gigantic disco, The Roxy (there awesome perks to opening for Charlatans U.K.), amidst their beer, bowls of fruit, and comfy chairs. My thanks to Maria Malta at Capitol for not only arranging this once but twice (sorry Maria!), with much patience, but to John Davidson for the transcription.
Jack Rabid: So, you’re obviously aware of the original late ‘50’s/early ‘60’s hot Portland sound, of Paul Revere & The Raiders, The Kingsmen, etc. How aware are you of the late ‘70’s groups, of The Wipers primarily, but also of Napalm Beach, Pell Mell, Drum Bunny, Sado-Nation and Smegma (and Bop Zombies, Lotek, Styphnoids, Rubbers, Neo Boys, Cleavers and more)?
Courtney: I went to their shows when I was like 14 or 15. I’ve been playing in Portland bands since like ’83 or ’84. I was just a little new Wave punker kid going to see Fear and D.O.A and raging against all the suburban assholes that elbowed me in the halls and shit like that. It was great. It was really good to be a young, teen-angst homo punk rocker, whatever, you know?
JR: You were a homo punk-rocker?
Courtney: Shhhhh, that’s what they told me. Because we had bands like that you mention, other bands would come to Portland and come through to play. We had the Pine Street Theater, and there was a club called the Metropolis, which was just a shit-hole, like a punk Mongolian grill or something. That was where all the punk bands played. That’s where I saw The Circle Jerks and all that stuff. It was mostly just kids from downtown schools. There would be kids wearing pajamas and combat boots. It wasn’t a very fashionable punk scene.
JR: The punk scenes in the Northwest completely intrigues me just for that reason. It seems so much more organic to me.
Courtney: The non-fashion of it?
JR: Music and message completely first and other concerns second.
Courtney: A lot of the politics of it, that’s what intrigued me as a kid. Just having something that you can believe in so that you didn’t have to make decisions for yourself. But, you weren’t listening to grown-ups. It was other people who were slightly older then you that seemed a lot smarter and a lot more worldly, making decision that you could just believe in. I could just believe in them. I could just believe in Henry Rollins (then in Black Flag) or D.O.A.
JR: Along those lines, three nights ago I stayed at Joey Shithead’s (Err, Joey Keithley’s) house in Vancouver.
Courtney: From D.O.A?
JR: Yeah, I just flew back. We had long discussion about that, he took me and my girlfriend around and showed us the sites of all the old clubs like The Smilin’ Buddha. I saw all those bands when they came here in ’79, ’80-‘81
Courtney: What’s he doing?
JR: He just ran for the Green Party seat in his hometown, Burnaby. He plays folk gigs and an occasional D.O.A. gig and house-sits for his three children.
Courtney: Are all the jolly cats still over there in Vancouver, in D.O.A.?
JR: Well, he’s got a new lineup, but almost all the ex-members that are still alive are up there, except for Dave Gregg, who lives here in New York. I see him from time to time. They’re doing a huge 20th anniversary show with all the ex-members this year in Vancouver.
Courtney: Did a bunch of them die?
JR: Dimwit died, heroin overdose. He was the drummer. He was also in The Subhumans and The Pointed Sticks. A more recent drummer died in a house fire.
Eric: Drummers gotta watch out!
JR: Take that as a warning, Eric. A guy who was a bassist for them also died of heart failure. They have three ex-members who are dead now. Anyway, a lot of people have tried to picture you as the best English band not from England which I think is dumb, because I hear a more direct, punkish edge in your sound that the English can’t manage.
Courtney: Yeah, three chord progressions!
JR: Even just more of the attack in the group strikes me as being far more American then that. I think Swervedriver has distinct, more punishing American influences – like the Stooges is their favorite – and they’re among the only bands from England that does.
Courtney: This is more like rock. It’s more… I tend to say “sleazy” when I try to describe the difference between us and English bands. We’re vulgar.
JR: There’s some Fear in that equation, “Let’s Have a War” or something.
Courtney: Exactly, that’s the only Fear song that I really loved. I like the U.K. Subs and The Sex Pistols and The Clash a lot more then most American bands.
JR: I just saw the Subs old-lineup reunion with the great Nicky Garratt on guitar and Alvin Gibbs on bass as well.
Courtney: I saw that they were touring all summer.
Peter: That’s cool what you say about that punk thing. I guess it does have some influence.
Courtney: Portland seems to have a more rowdy scene because where we’re from there, everybody’s so amped. We play louder and faster, it’s less hypnotic.
Zia: The more the crowd is ours, the more crazy it gets. I don’t mind. I hope it ever gets like a lot of slam dancing.
JR: I’ve had enough stage diving and slam dancing to last a lifetime. It’s bring and stupid (and dangerous if NFL quarterbacks and linebacks are doing it!)
Courtney: We like it more when groovers are in the crowd.
Peter: You feed off the energy.
Zia: I like when the crowd’s crazy but I remember being in moshpits where you didn’t see the same person twenty times kick the same girls in the back of the head.
JR: It’s like a repeating loop, a sample or something.
Zia: There’s just unspoken rules. Like, you get one safe ride. It just should be like that. I remember loving stage diving, but I only did it once. It doesn’t seem fair to kick everyone.
Courtney: What is “safe diving?” Is it like going feet first?
Peter: It is when you take your boots off first.
Eric: I don’t like that angry kid thing. I don’t enjoy being angry, I don’t enjoy being around people that are angry. I don’t want people that are angry by nature or enjoy the feeling to want to have anything to do with me. I don’t want them interested in me, I don’t want them to notice me, to talk to me, to anything me. Nothing. And I don’t think any of you guys do, either.
JR: To me, it always depended on how intelligent the anger is, like the Clash or some anti-Vietnam song in 1967. It must have something to say; as the PIL songs go “Anger is an energy.”
Zia: Well, right, they’re not the dumb ones.
Courtney: We played with Candlebox on a big radio show bill. Talk about anger and crowds…
JR: It becomes just another marketing ploy: “Oh, I’m so angry.”
Courtney: Girls being carried off on stretchers.
Zia: Broken collar bones…
JR: I’m more impressed with someone like Billy Bragg who can give you a reason for his anger, and in the next minute do a really heart-breaking lovelorn song that you can tell is sincere and has some intellect behind it. Anyway, when I try to explain what you guys sound like to people who haven’t heard you, I try and say something like, “Well, they’re one-fourth Velvet Underground, one-fourth My Bloody Valentine, one-fourth Spaceman 3 and one-fourth punk rock.”
All: That’s pretty good.
Peter: You’ve got the psychedelic edge in there, a little bit.
JR: How do you perceive the band?
Courtney: When I hear the Sex Pistols, I hear myself. I listened to Never Mind The Bullocks so fucking much, so many times. And the Clash’s first record.
JR: The English version? (before the U.S. company deleted several tracks and replaced them with later singles that didn’t sonically fit, a full two years later!!)
Courtney: Yeah! Those are tapes that I just wore out. So, those kind of chord changes are probably what we use a lot of. It’s probably the same chord changes, same type of melodies, but we just approach it differently. That had to have been a huge influence on me. But then, Devo, too. I listened the fuck out of Devo.
Peter: And New Wave in general
JR: That’s probably where I hear minor hints of The Pixies sometimes. That’s probably really more Devo then Pixies.
Courtney: Yeah, I didn’t listen to much Pixies.
JR: Just a certain quality of your voice in one or two songs remind me of Frank Black – like on “Minnesoter,” you’re a dead ringer!
Courtney: Portland also had the classic rock influence. ‘70’s rock all over the radio. That was an influence for me, anyway.
Zia: That’s what I was raised on.
JR: I’m afraid that often is why I’ve preferred English bands from time to time. They grew up listening to the Velvet Underground and went a million different directions from there, whereas a lot of American bands that have grown up with Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith and have gone from there…
Courtney: I definitely listened to Aerosmith as a child.
Eric: And Zeppelin. I Love Zeppelin.
Peter: “Toys In The Attic.”
Courtney: All I heard was the bad Zeppelin when I was young. I didn’t really get all the good shit about Zeppelin ‘til I was in college.
JR: You don’t hear the blues stuff on the radio much. Some of the shows I’ve seen the reviews of have tried to pass you off as “blessed out.”
Zia: That’s what we strive for.
Courtney: I don’t mind that. What do you mean by “blessed out”?
JR: It sounds like a bunch of drugged out stoners with nothing to offer. Just kind of getting up there and putting out some kind of a big haze. All sound and no substance behind it.
Zia: I don’t think blessed out would be lacking substance. Those are the best shows, I think.
Courtney: Being able to do that is a rare thing for a band in the first place, to totally create a sound that emotionally, gently massages people. That gives you a great big thumbs up and a peck on the cheek. So when I hear, “You guys are really blessed out” that’s what makes me think: “OK, well, one part of what we are trying to do is working.”
Peter: That’s just one part, though.
Courtney: Then, 13 minutes later you want to get the whole crowd bobbin’.
JR: I think that’s wehre I come into this because when I became a fan was the 1996 Irving Plaza show with the Wipers and Pere Ubu. I just kinda stood there watching, unimpressed, and then suddenly, the second half was like one stomper after another. “Who are these guys?” It was a trance-like dance, but it wasn’t just a blissful, pot-smoking moment. It actually had some power.
Zia: We like velocity.
Peter: It’s so unusual I guess.
Courtney: I don’t really think about how many opinions I’ve heard in the last three years. We constantly get it.
JR: Of course, the opinions were probably coming more from yoru local scene until recently, I’d imagine. You are aware that there are whispers from time to time that you are a bunch of stuck-up, wanna-be pop stars. And Portland is very self-conscious about those attitudes. It seems like it’s got a different vibe than what you’ve been doing.
Courtney: The PC-like uptight indie-rock type shit?
Peter: To put it bluntly… yeah, who cares.
JR: That’s kind of why I started talking about the Portland tradition because it seems to me your band comes from the older, crazier stuff. I could never imagine you on Kill Rock Stars, which is a label I like a lot, but it’s a different ethic.
Courtney: Yeah, definitely. Like Theater of Sheep and all the bands that had great haircuts and did loads of drugs. Ooh, that was cool. The beginning of the ‘80’s for Portland was really great. I remember, Seattle bands would come down and they were always so lame. Portland’s always been a really smarty town, but not as bad as Olympia. Portland has a good art scene and a good sexual deviant quotient. There is none of that in Olympia, and there’s really never been any of that in Seattle. Seattle’s like “Butt-Rock” town, it always has been. Olympia is like, the kids think they’re so goddamn smart and that it’s them against the world; They all go to Olympia. So, you get like “riot grrl” movements starting. It’s kinda weird. To me, Portland seems a little more thoughtful of a city, and a little warmer. A little more bohemian. Smart artsy.
JR: I’ve only been there twice, for one night each. My old band, Springhouse played the Roseland Theater with Judybats and Riverside (April 12, 1993). And last week I saw that Paul Revere & the Raiders’ original ‘60s lineup gig at Oak’s Park, a huge, huge thrill. The city seems so very small, and pretty, and friendly to me, on such limited exposure.
Courtney: Roseland used to be called the Starry Night.
Peter: How did you like it?
JR: I loved it! A beautiful, ornate, old theater.
Courtney: It’s a good size, the stage feels good.
JR: I liked looking at the balconies and seeing people looking down at you. But as far as Portland goes, what you were saying about the drug bands in Portland made me laugh when I heard “Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth,” because I immediately thought, “No, I think these guys like drugs.” I think people are gonna look at this wrong, like you’re some kind of straight-edge group!
Peter: It’s the irony.
Courtney: Right. It’s just about last year how heroin got… MTV having a special on “heroin chic”. You know, how absolutely unbelievable is that! So then this girl that I was seeing for years starts shooting dope. We broke up. We went on tour; I come back and Pete comes home from the Paris Theater, where there’s just like a pack of them down there. Sick!
Pete: “Yeah, me and ALF. Alf whips out the dop and the speed. You guys said you were down there, up in that room for three or four hours, and Gretchen shot up, like five times.
JR: Oh, lordy.
Peter: I don’t remember exactly, but it was a lot.
Courtney: I was just like, “This is a person that was so close to me.” For years! My best friend! My lover. For four years. And we did a lot of drugs together and never had a problem. Never, ever with anything. We’re both super-drift people. She’s awesome, she’s fucking amazing. Then, the next time I talked to her, we got in this big fight about it. When she left, I was feeling kind of defensive so I wrote that song from the snotty sort of perspective on that.
JR: Well, what I like about it is that we’ve seen tens of thousands of junkies parading before us telling us not to do drugs. Like that works! Or Nancy Reagan and all these goody-goody do-goers. That doesn’t work either! Every time I watch those ads, I think, “If I was 15, I’d be like, ‘Cool. I’m gonna go try it!’”
Courtney: Exactly. I like ours better.
JR: Whereas, no one actually just came out and said what I always thought, which was, “It’s boring. It makes you boring. You’re boring. You’re a drug addict. You used to be an interesting person.”
Courtney: I like heroin, but I like every drug.
JR: When it becomes the entire focus of your life, you become a dreadful, fucking bore. And you’ll probably die, too, jerk.
Courtney: Oh god, unbelievable!
Courtney: Yeah, or just a freak. She was shooting a lot of speed, too, and that really erodes your brain. She was getting all paranoid, like, “People are living in my attic and they’re trying to get me and I have to sneak out my window because I can’t go out my front door sometimes because I hear them behind the furniture.”
JR: Speed of course was the drug of the Sex Pistols and the early Beatles
Courtney: This particular song I was very cautious in my wording of it to not… it really was about her hearing that song. It really was. Just to be totally superior and condescending. That was totally my thought behind every single consonant and vowel: to have a superior condescension on it. To not be: this hurts me, or: I’m sad because of this or any of that. Just total and utter condescension about being a junkie. Once I was done with it, I thought about it and I thought, “Wow. This would have to work a lot better than just saying ‘Don’t do heroin, you’ll get addicted.’”
Peter: Plus, I think it served a purpose. It stopped all the heroin songs. It became more then just a personal issue.
JR: So you put your song on the A-side, and you should have put a cover of “Chinese Rocks” on the other side!
Peter: “Chinese Rocks”?
JR: The Heartbreaker/Ramones song. It was co-written by the king New York junkies of the ‘70’s, Johnny Thunders and Dee Dee Ramone. It goes, “I’m living on a Chinese rock/All my best things are in hock/I’m living on a Chinese rock/Everything is in the pawn shop baby.” (Chinese rock of course being Chinese heroin.)
Courtney: We should cover that one!
JR: A very famous punk song. From the Heartbreakers L.A.M.F album. So, whenever I ask people about the Dandy Warhols from Portland, they always say that everybody in town has a different Zia story. Is that true? Are like the Wild Woman of the West or what?
Peter: Party Girl!
Zia: Yeah. It ends up that way. There’s no competition in “wild,” really. People are weird, but they’re not necessarily like crazy fun. Most of the people who are wild are fucking scary.
JR: I was thinking of that when you took your shirt off at Coney Island High and changed into the other one, right there on stage. Like you were in the dressing room and no one was around. No big deal.
Zia: Oh, right.
Zia: I’m not a very modest person, so it’s easy for people to think that I’m weird.
JR: Maybe you’re just wild compared to other people.
Zia: I’m pretty loud, so if I’m doing anything wild or fun, everyone in the room’s gonna know. I’m not a person who does really crazy stuff on the sly, or really subtly.
Courtney: Center stage.
JR: What are you favorite Zia stories? Anything worth telling on the record?
Zia: They usually involve nudity.
Courtney: There’s the Virginia one. That whole shaker incident.
Zia: Those two where I got in a fight with the band.
Courtney: Richmond, Virginia. Some guy tried to steal her shakers and tambourine and we found it in one of the bands cases.
JR: Ooh, that would make anybody a wild woman.
Zia: It was really funny to me, though. Had I been drinking any other kind of liquor, I would have been real vicious. But because I was drinking Tequila, I just unplugged all their stuff while they were playing. The bass player tried to beat me up. On stage!
Courtney: While they were playing!
Zia: He kicked me down and I got in a fight with him in the middle of their show. It turned into a big mob. It was their last song.
Courtney: It basically started as kind of riot-type situation. A guy, starting a fight with a chick, you know?
Peter: During a song.
JR: What’s the name of this band?
Peter: Don’t know, don’t care.
Zia: The cool thing is, that’s their hometown.
Courtney: It was just some nobody band from Richmond.
Zia: They’ll never have anywhere to play again. That was the only venue and they got kicked outta there. Both the bartenders were women. One of them came flying out there with a baseball bat. It turned into quite a riot. I don’t remember most of it.
Courtney: I think the nudity stories are just more glamorous. That’s why they get remembered.
JR: Most people don’t have the balls. Err, so to speak.
Courtney: Of course, Zia does.
JR: I don’t think I would. It’s not my style.
Zia: To get naked?
JR: Not in that sort of extreme public show. I’ve seen a lot of people like Jello Biafra and Iggy Pop and Captain Sensible on stage without their clothes, it always just makes me laugh.
Zia: Getting naked in front of a thousand people is easier than getting naked in front of three that you don’t know. I’m six feet higher then they are.
Courtney: It was pretty weird, though, when we were at the Palace in L.A. and they had the big Supergrass after-show party that Capitol threw. Lots of music industry people, like all the uptight industry talking like, “Oh hi how are ya, yadda yadda, glad to meet ya, how’s this project going, oh good, hey did you hear, oh you didn’t sign them did ya, did they finally ink a publishing deal?” Then Zia walks in, butt naked, with a cigarette and a drink. She walks in, sits up at the bar and says, “Oh hi!” Everyone is just like silent and we’re laughing hysterically! The security guy starts chasing her around, and she’s walking around pretending she doesn’t see him coming. People were edging in between them to stop him and stuff. Everybody’s trying to be polite, because it’s a big industry thing. There’s presidents of record labels in the room, so the security’s trying to be polite, which just makes it harder to grab her and get her out of there. She’s just wasted and walking around, ignoring him as they’re grabbing at her. It was totally funny.
Zia: Phil Costello kept me from being arrested. The head of radio at Capitol. The “sergeant of rock.”
Courtney: I gotta say the quote: Security grabs her, finally gets a hold of her and says, “Look, if you get naked one more time, you’re outta here.”
Zia: I just put my clothes back on. Then I flashed them and they didn’t kick me out. And still they kept saying, “If you do this again…” That was right before I threw up.
Courtney: I go back to the hotel and she’s laying with a big garbage can next to the bed.
JR: Is it safe to say that such hijinks allows a band like yours to tour constantly now without getting on each others nerves?
Courtney: We read a lot. We all read non-stop.
Peter: We’re pretty boring in the car..
Zia: We don’t talk really. We just read. The quietest time now is in the van.
Courtney: There’s no one new to talk to.
JR: Some of those drives are pretty fucking murderous, though. Believe me, I remember. Especially around your quarter of the country.
Zia: That’s when we take drugs. Knock ourselves out. We’re all to the pharmaceutical stage in our career.
Courtney: Downers, valium.
Eric: Painkillers. Like today when I got in the van I took Ambien.
Zia: How often do you take the Ambiens?
Courtney: About one a week. About half a one twice a week.
JR: Are you ever awake? It’s rare to hear bands endorse drugs openly these days. I don’t take them, I’m not into that. I’ve lost a few friends to them, and a bunch of others flaked out on me. I suppose anything is OK in moderation, but you gotta watch it.
Zia: I only take it when I’m going to bed and I don’t want to wake up.
Courtney: I usually do. I wanted to go to bed. I wanted to not wake up ‘til we were in New York. I took it right when we left, and I didn’t fall asleep until an hour outside of the city! That didn’t work.
Zia: You would have fallen asleep pretty anywhere then.
JR: My friend wanted me to ask you if you ever attempted to have a bass player in the band, along with Zia’s right hand on the keyboards.
Courtney: We tried this one dude. Zia wouldn’t allow it. I guess that’s why I wanna have three-chord punk rock but have it blessed out. The way to do that is to not have a bass, just have it drone at the bottom. So you can play Never Mind The Bollocks and have people shoot dope and go, “Man, that’s sooo beautiful.”
JR: Make sure you cover either “Severteen” or “New York.” In fact, “New York” is a good one because it’s about junkie behavior. It’s about Johnny Thunders himself!
Courtney: I like the “Chinese Rock” one, the one about China White or whatever. What album is that on?
JR: L.A.M.R..,” the only Heartbreakers studio album, and also a great version on the Live At Max’s LP which is a hot live record. The Ramones then did their own version a few years later I think n End Of The Century but that one was kind of lame. The whole style is just Heartbreakers.
Courtney: That would be perfect. It sort of fits our band, doesn’t it?