Bohemian’s Rap-sody: An Interview with Courtney Taylor and Zia McCabe of
The Dandy Warhols
Three years have rushed by since Oregon’s Dandy Warhols — certainly one of the more unconventional rock bands to come out of the Pacific Northwest — told the world that “heroin is so passe” with their MTV Buzz clip, “Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth.” Though they were missing long enough for fans to wonder about the certainty of a return, the Dandys did not disappear: Tonight, they’re on the second stop of a tour promoting their much-anticipated third full-length album (the second for the Capitol label), Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia. These gurus of cool — singer/guitarist Courtney Taylor, keyboardist Zia McCabe, guitarist Peter Holmstrom and drummer Brent DeBoer (affectionately nicknamed “Fat Head” for his out-of-control afro) — are in a paisley state of mind as they prepare to give New York City fans a taste of the multifaceted Thirteen Tales: the nod toward the Grateful Dead that is the glacially paced “The Gospel,” the Dylanesque, country twang and stomp of “Country Leaver,” the soporific “Sleep,” the “Brown Sugar” meets the Beach Boys buoyancy of “Bohemian Like You” — the various homages are fun to spot. No matter what genre they brush up against, the Dandy Warhols make some of the finest acid-freakout rock available.
In the downstairs bar of the Bowery Ballroom, pre-show talk revolves around getting their guest lists in order, the need for warmer blankets on the bus and the urgency of securing photos for the passports necessary for upcoming gigs in Canada. Amidst the melee, I spoke with the charming Zia and the enigmatic Courtney about the new record, their Revolution or Death theory, and Saturday morning cartoons. (Note: Courtney joins us mid-interview, once he is able to break away from an audience with the eccentric Genesis P. Orridge, who counts himself as one of the band’s biggest fans).
What have you been doing the past couple of years, between albums?
Zia: We recorded this album the Christmas before last (1998), and then spent a year and some odd months mixing it, having a few different people mix each track trying to find the best mix. Courtney was really busy doing that. I bought a house, so I was just a homemaker for a year.
Does the band still live in Portland, and is that where the album was recorded?
Zia: Yes, it was [recorded there], and I can’t imagine us moving unless it was to a different country. I can’t imagine anywhere in the U.S. we’d rather live. We recorded the album in this old Gay Men’s Gym or Health Club, with a sauna and stuff. We didn’t know [what it had been] until we got in there. We just took it because we were so desperate for a place. [So] then we could spend $500 a month on our space instead of $500 a day and we could make it “ours.”
We had a kitchen and a living room area and then a place where all the gear could be set up live. The sauna was the perfect drum room, [because it was] a cedar room. There were all the different shower rooms and hallways to record in, plus one big open space with cement walls to do the big echo-y stuff. It was perfect. There was one little office that we made the control room and everything else was pretty much open. And it was right in downtown so you could still go home. It was nice. It was really a fun time.
What’s the biggest misconception about the Dandy Warhols?
Zia: (Laughs) That’s so funny, we’ve been discovering from journalists that we’re misconceived. The biggest misconception is that all the things they write about and talk about are more important to us than music. That partying is more important, that drugs are more important, all of that stuff, than actually being in the band and making the music. Obviously, we couldn’t have made this record if we did what everyone says we were doing. There’s just no way. We don’t party that much. We came out with this great record, so I think that’s its own proof: obviously, what people are saying isn’t true.
Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia seems to follow the same style as Come Down — slow acid rock songs and then more up-tempo, pop stuff. Did you think much about varying your “signature” style, or was it more like “this is just what we do”?
Zia: It’s what we do. I think that all the real changes were made in the recording and the mixing process. The songwriting is the same. I think Courtney’s lyric-writing skills have developed more. He’s gotten more comfortable with expressing how he feels in words, which is a really new thing. I think that’s really noticeable. You want to learn something new each time you record, and I think we just didn’t go for that big wall of fifteen tracks of guitars [sound] and all that. You can hear each separate track, so that was a lot more of a stripped-down way to present our music. It shows that we’re a little more mature.
(At this point, Courtney comes over to join us).
Courtney, you’ve had this fascination for Nietzsche, and now you’ve written a song named for him. How was that song inspired?
Courtney: That came straight off the bathroom-stall wall of a private college in Portland. Pete and I roadied for a swing band that was playing there. I couldn’t believe it when I saw that. I was like “Okay, I’ve gotta use that. That’s amazing.” It said “I want a god who stays dead, not just plays dead. Even I can play dead.” And that’s the lyrics to the song.
What’s up with all the references to god and spirituality in the song titles?
Courtney: Well, I think everybody is pretty hung up on meaning, y’know, and we can’t get over. We’re born into this world without any. Then we take guesses, we guess about it, and then if other people guess differently, we generally apparently like to kill them for it, or convert them to our “guess.” That’s called religion. I’m not hung up on religion so much as [the idea of] how absurd it is. As intellectual as I want to think I am, I still haven’t got it figured out much more than anybody. So, I guess it’s going to come into the lyrics sooner or later: the Why, the big Why thing and the big “I don’t know” thing, which ultimately results in the “Fine, that’s OK, I don’t know” thing.
Is the title Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia meant in any way to be a loose kind of concept album, and do you think anyone really gets the irony of that title?
Courtney: It just seemed kind of appropriate. All our records are written around what I experience, what my friends experience, what we experience [as a band]. We’ve toured all over the western world and we realized that the people who come to see us are all very similar, everywhere. It is a subculture and it’s a very bohemian, impoverished, computer-literate, Ken Kesey-reading, Ken Russell/Jean Luc Goddard-watching gang of people, but it’s in an urban setting: Urban Bohemians.
The single “Bohemian Like You” is rather humorous, actually.
Courtney: Thanks [laughs], yeah. That’s the only one that isn’t actually just a true, straight-up story. That’s just a conglomeration of all the experiences worked into a little fiction.
“Godless” starts out with this nice horn intro, like a Burt Bacharach/Herb Alpert kind of thing. Did your parents own records by those artists?
Courtney: No, I grew up playing percussion in symphonic band and jazz bands. In general, I like brass, but I like the warm, more sultry [tones] and I listen to a lot of Chet Baker. The muted sound [of the trumpet] just fit in better. Eric Mathews, who played [that part] is just brilliant. The guy understands about as much as any human can about music. There’s an appropriateness to each tone, truly. Everybody in the line, from Eric to me to Greg — who recorded it — to Dave Sardy, who mixed it, was aware of the appropriateness of it to be very brass and dull: no harmony to it, just a single note line.
Is the song “Solid” influenced at all by the movie Being John Malkovich?
Courtney: No, [I wrote it] a long time before that. The lyric — “I must have a door in the back of my head” — it’s just a metaphor for my friend’s alcoholism. He had a really great life but was so emotionally distraught and such a complete alcoholic that he was unable to see what he had. I was like “This is sad.” I just wanted to write him a song.
Zia: I haven’t seen that movie.
Courtney: Oh boy, oh boy, it’s as good as everyone says it is. It’s funny as hell. I couldn’t believe they actually pulled it off.
Courtney: That’s what I kept [thinking]. I sat there just getting more and more depressed, thinking “Is this how genius you have to be now? Is this just generally the new age of the entertainment genius?” Then when I realized that Spike Jonze didn’t write it, too, that it was written by somebody else, then I was somewhat relieved. Like, “Okay, you don’t have to be a renaissance genius. A genius for all seasons,” y’know.
Matt Johnson of The The recently said, “Although the range and diversity of music being created and performed has never been wider, the traditional outlets for music have never been more restrictive.” Do you have any comments on that?
Courtney: Sure, listen to radio. If you’re not Korn or N’Sync, you really can’t get on radio, which is kind of the point of this record. We were absolutely willing to die by it. We don’t care if we sell nothing, if we get slammed by the press, this is the record we’re going to make. It is utterly not going to fit into radio, therefore Revolution or Death. We went into this [with that mindset]. We listen to Neil Young, AC/DC, Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, y’know, older records. We knew what we wanted to sound like, and so we did it knowing full well [what the outcome would be]. Now it actually might be revolution, because it’s been added to five of the seven biggest, most important stations in America, just in the first week. So, you never know about timing. It took us a year longer to make it, and everybody was freaking out and we were like, well, y’know, maybe by the time this record actually comes out, people are going to be so sick of Limp Bizkit that this’ll open the door for Apples in Stereo and Brian Jonestown Massacre and other cool bands.
It’s like what Frank Sinatra said, “Why would anyone get into a business where, statistically, it is impossible to be a success?”
Courtney : Sometimes I freak out about stuff like that and wonder, as I lay in bed, “Do we suck? Are our records any good? Is it all just because people are enamored of how we look and our whole thing? Is this just bullshit? Are we just some kind of fucking weird, clowny, pretty band?” (Feigning exasperation) I’m phony, I’m nothing!
Courtney : Yeah, I’m a neurotic. Left alone, everybody’s crazy, and I am alone more than most. (On that note, Courtney excuses himself to go get passport photos taken).
Do you guys ever talk about what it might be like if you had your own Saturday morning cartoon?
Zia: Sure, all stoners talk about that kind of stuff (laughs). If we had our own cartoon show, it’d probably be a lot like Scooby Doo: little adventures and running around and being cute. I’d be Velma. Well, when I have my glasses, people call me that.
It could be a combination of Scooby Doo and Josie and the Pussycats.
Zia: I get that a lot, but I never saw that cartoon, so I don’t know it. I just know that that’s what I got called when I first got in the band. Because the keyboard player also played the tambourine.
And then later on they went to outer space. Why? I don’t know.
Zia: See, that’s perfect. That’s what we would do.