My preparation for an artist interview typically involves a ton of Google-ing, much Rdio-ing, and the composing of a series of questions that will help me to tell a story – be it about struggle, the satisfying result of hard work, or a romantic quest to create something of permanence.
But how does one go about preparing for an act like The Dandy Warhols? Industrious, intrepid and prolific, they have no one, succinct story, nor any cohesive plot line to follow. They’re a band who, in their 18-year career, have seen all variations of high and lows (involving moments of sheer awesomeness and occasional, radio-friendly meh), but who have always smartly – sometimes stubbornly, damn it – done things their own way.
I’m not sure anymore what three-digit area code I reached the band’s two-times-surnamed Courtney Taylor-Taylor in, but I do know I was unusually timid once I did. I feared 8 studio albums, dozens of hits (including Boys Better, Bohemian Like You and We Used To Be Friends), hundreds of interviews, one Dig! documentary, one One Model Nation novel, and nearly two decades in the biz had jaded him; made him disinterested or even mean. I was relieved to learn inside of a single minute however, that keeping a tally of his many achievements didn’t factor into Taylor-Taylor’s equation of success at all.
A native of Portland, Oregon with an obvious penchant for rock, roll and science fiction, Courtney is a witty guy who truly digs on making music and is cool with sharing his stories. Touching on The Dandy Warhols early days, including hard knocks suffered and brushes with superstardom, he mused openly and honestly about the good, the bad and the yet to be seen. Greatly exceeding our allotted 20 minutes – largely to indulge my wish for impromptu, one-sentence album reviews – Courtney Taylor-Taylor generously gave me exactly 43 minutes of access, and weeks later, I find it impossible still to adequately sum up the experience.
You’ve had a long career and certainly a prolific one. Would you say The Dandy Warhols are a band that takes itself quite seriously – or are you a band simply having some fun?
I don’t think there’s any band that takes itself more seriously than we do, but it’s a common mistake people always make in assuming that we don’t. There are certain things you shouldn’t take too seriously – like trying to explain the depth of your lyrics, or the stupid, horrible things that happen to you. You simply have to deal with stuff and then you have to move on. We don’t take being bad-mouthed by people with IQ’s of 80 very seriously, either because we’re not a band for dumb people and so dumb people hate us. The shit they say in print is never taken seriously. I mean, our music doesn’t change lives but it does makes lives more…tolerable.
Is there a secret to your success?
You have to know how to keep things in perspective. You can’t be a grumpy, angry-turd band and expect to last very long. You have to get along if you want to record together and tour for 18 years. You have to have balance in your life and in your music particularly.
The Dandy Warhols didn’t exactly hit the ground running. In fact, your second album was initially rejected by your label…What kept you going?
We were going to do this no matter what, so it didn’t really matter what the record labels wanted to do or say. We had our job and we wanted to do it. Fortunately, Portland was a very small town back then; I think it was around 350,000. It just wasn’t a place where there was a lot of pressure to succeed, so to even get a band together and to get a repertoire that you could play for 45 minutes was a huge achievement. Maybe just the fact that we had the discipline to get in a van and drive to San Francisco and play for days in a row doing garage shows and small clubs was enough, you know?
But where did that motivation come from?
We were motivated to be in this band because it was a blast and the absolute most fun thing to ever happen to us in our lives. We had fun together and our music was cooler than fuck. When you have that, it doesn’t matter what’s going on outside your bubble.
As you started to achieve more success and ‘fame,’ did it impact your ability to have fun?
When we started getting big, like around Bohemian Like You and all that shit, bad people – key people – started getting inside of our bubble and we had to stop touring and retreat back to Portland. We did nothing until everybody went away and we were left by ourselves. That’s when we could start having fun again. It reinvigorated our Welcome to the Monkey House sound and everything up to now.
When David Bowie asked you to open for him on tour in 2003, was it a ‘This is going to mean great things for us’ moment or was it an, ‘Uh oh, this could really change things for us’ moment?
We’d been hanging around with David a lot – in New York and England, and in his studio and stuff – so it kind of felt natural when he approached us. What we didn’t expect was what a really, really hard time we were going to have on that tour. It was two months of the most grueling lifestyle. We’d wake up on a tour bus, and we wouldn’t get to go see the city that we were in or go flip-flopping around the cobblestone streets and visit cafes. We’d wake up 50 miles outside of the city in the concrete basement of some stadium where our whole life was supposed to take place for as long as we were in town. We were like caged animals and constantly disrespected by the crew and absolutely everybody. It was a lot of really tough times.
So what seems like a huge milestone isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be?
That definitely wasn’t what it sounded like it was for us. After that, we made the assumption that all stadium tours were like that and we said we would never, ever do that again. A couple of years later, the Stones called us to go out with them for the end of their Bigger Bang Tour. We said, ‘No, we don’t tour stadiums anymore, it’s too depressing,’ but they were like, ‘Well, why don’t you come out for just three or four shows? We’ll fly you out and take care of you and everything will be great.’ So we said, ‘Okay; just three or four shows, we can handle that.’ Man, we got out there, and it was summer and the Stones play these massive, open-air stadiums outside…It was totally unlike what we went through before. There were all kinds of 70’s hippy dudes hanging around and it was really loose and not a tight ship in the way that other big artists run things. The Stones are a rock band with a very different attitude. Something they mandate is that you’re never called ‘support’ and you’re not called, ‘the opener.’ You’re The Dandy Warhols and that’s that.
Sounds like it was an important learning curve.
Well, we learned that if we were to ever to get to be a stadium-sized band – which at this point isn’t very likely – we’d do it like the Grateful Dead and just tour outdoor stadiums. There’s nothing like rock ‘n’ roll outdoors, being played with antique guitars and those summer-fun, acid-tripping, stoner, long-haired dudes everywhere…That whole thing is really the way rock ‘n’ roll music should go down.
Another artist told me that their sound from album to album was dictated by the mood they happened to be while they were in the studio – but I wasn’t sure I bought that. It seemed too…arbitrary. Has your experience in The Dandy Warhols been anything like that?
Well, it takes us about a year and a half to make a record so a current mood is like, 80 moods strung together over like, 500 days. Basically, there’s the writing of the song and then there’s the recording of the song. When you write a song, you write changes in the words and the way you’re going to sing them on the melody, and the chords that go underneath it. Then you go into the studio and you lay down the basic tempo and acoustic guitar and the vocal parts. You put in electric guitars, synthesizers and bass and you layer all the stuff and then re-build…You get rid of the 12-string guitar and you play one note on a distorted guitar that’s palm muted so it’s not jingle-y, jangle-y, jingle-y; it’s chunk, chunk-chunk chunk-chunk, chunk. You just sort of use every instrument and every sound and there’s guesswork. You’re trying to get a feeling to pop out of the speakers.
So you experiment in the studio.
Sure, there’s a lot of farting around and experimenting. You’re trying to convey the emotional intention of a song and trying to take the instruments and create different kinds of sounds with them to make the emotional world of that song apparent to anyone who hits play and sits down in front of the speakers. Anyone should be able to hit play and be consumed, overwhelmed, and sent on a musical journey with your music. So there’s all of that. It’s complicated.
What about current trends? How do they factor in?
You know – I think AK/DK is the only synthesizer band left in the world that turns me on – but whenever I hear any sort of synthesizers I feel tired; my feet hurt, my head gets numb and my heart shrinks, you know? And that’s being reactionary to the world around me and wanting to have an emotional voice above all this thick fog of shit hovering over the world: the internet, music, indie bands, fake indie bands, cable TV and digital satellites. Chords and melodies never change over time. I could sit here with one person and an acoustic guitar and you won’t know if that song is from ‘97 or ‘57. Production is the differentiating factor in this day and age; we can do whatever we want.
With the shift in the industry over the last 10-15 years toward single downloads on iTunes and away from purchased records at the record store, how is your ‘business’ as a band impacted?
We’re people who are just completely into making cool shit, but you have to look at the whole thing as a business. Fortunately we have someone who cares about all that and just tells us what he needs from us. About five years ago, we tried to make our own record label and we totally sucked at it. We are not as excited about the business end as I thought we were. We had no stick-to-itiveness whatsoever. Now, you can’t just be a band and wait for a big, old dinosaur label to come pick you up and make you huge. You have to have a lot of social-networking, computer-savvy sombodies around you to make that shit happen or you’ll just end up playing the same, small four clubs in your city over and over and never get any bigger. So, yes; there are more skills these days to being in a band. You have to be, or know, a serious computer whiz kid.
You mentioned side projects, so I just have to bring up One Model Nation. Tell me about it.
That’s a project I’d been working on since before the new millennium. It was a story that I really, really wanted to tell. It’s a metaphor for The Dandy Warhols and the way our career as a band has gone down, and then there’s just my personal vendetta against people who are destroyers rather than creators. I mean, I could be an angry, destructive, pissed-off individual too, but I decided not to destroy, kill, steal or vandalize. I decided instead to create things with my anger. There are two kinds of jealousy in this world: one kind makes you more ambitious and makes you want things and think about how to get them. The other kind makes you want to destroy the people and the things of beauty that you didn’t create and that you don’t own. That is not okay. I think we should be teaching our children about this and reminding them as they grow up that there are two ways to go about dealing with jealousy and one is going to land you in jail where you get butt-fucked by a 6’8” bunk mate named Mama – you know what I mean? (laughs) So that is what the graphic novel is about; it’s an ultimate, extreme example of shitty people and the effect they have on really great people…Now that’ll be a fun edit for ya!
(laughs) Well, I do very little editing so that’ll all likely stay in. It’s all pure gold as far as I’m concerned.
(laughs) Like Interview magazine style with run-on sentences and paragraphs that last for half the page?
Exactly. Total free-form journalism.
I definitely prefer that.
So, I know you do one-sentence movie reviews for your website; I was wondering if you’d be into doing one-sentence Dandy Warhols album reviews for me?
Uh…You know, these things take me days to come up with sometimes; I don’t just sit there and watch a movie and then instantly some concise, tight, pithy little sentence comes out. But try it anyways so that anyone who’s reading this can see how not good at this I actually am and how much time it does take (laughs)…Let ‘er rip.
Great. Okay, we’ll start from the beginning – Dandy’s Rule, OK?
Even if it’s a statement, maybe about where the band was at the time…
Hold on, hold on…I gotta…Just let me think! (laughs) I told you, I’m not quick with these.
(laughs) Okay, go ahead.
Okay…(pause)…‘Surprisingly deep for a small-town indie band.’ Oh, wait, no. ‘Surprisingly deep for a not very good band.’
(laughs) Okay…Now how about The Dand…
Hold on, wait! Let’s go ‘ Shockingly deep for some not very good musicians.’ Yeah. There we go.
Wow. I like it. Okay…The Dandy Warhols Come Down.
(pause)…‘You can listen to The Dandy Warhols Come Down or you can drop a shit-ton of ecstasy and listen to the Neil Young catalogue for 12 hours.’ (laughs)
(laughs) I love it! Okay, next: Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia.
(pause)…‘Did we actually just get called a Rolling Stones rip-off on this record? What the fuck!?’
Ouch! Okay: Welcome To The Monkey House.
(pause)…Hmmm…(laughs)…I have no idea! (laughs) Nothing comes to mind. I mean, what on earth could sum that fucking thing up?’
I think you just did.
(pause)…‘If you are hoping for them to get better at imitating The Stones on this rec…’ No, I don’t know. Fucking Welcome To The Monkey House. (pause)…’Please remember that Welcome To The Monkey House was dismissed as being unfashionably 80’s a year and a half before the Killers came out.’
(laughs) Now, Odditorium or Warlords of Mars.
Uhhh…(pause)…God, that record was…What year was that record? 2007?
What? God, that was 2005. (pause)…How about, ‘Odditorium or Warlords of Mars proves that in 2005 the best way to get dropped from a major label that was ruining your career was to not make a New Wave record.’
(laughs) Okay, you’re being such a sport with this. Let’s fast-forward now to This Machine.
Ummm….(whistles to himself for several seconds)…’Shameless guitar anti-heroics.’
So you’re pretty proud of this new record?
Yeah. It’s my favorite record right now…Like, in the world. A lot of people are saying, ‘This is your best record ever…’ and time will tell. We won’t know that really for another five or seven years or whatever but I do know that this record is how I feel every day of my life. I listen to it and I feel better. It empowers me to deal with things and to cope with life in general.
Amazing! Is it the fact that you’re all much more seasoned musicians now that makes it so good? Are you simply more capable of expressing yourselves?
Yeah, we’ve all done so many side projects and there’s been so much we’ve been involved with, but being a better musician doesn’t really make any difference. Being a better musician makes it hard. It’s like a crippling effect that must be overcome. A good musician is very dangerous to a band and there’s something emotional dishonest about being a whiz on an instrument. I’m certainly not a better musician than I was when we started. I just wasn’t interested in getting technically better. I think we all understand the studio process infinitely more clearly than we ever have. We’re just about trying get all that studio shit out of the way of the emotional, intellectual content of the music. You have to get that shit out of the fucking way – guitar strings and everything – and just make the damn thing happen emotionally. That’s what we’ve gotten better at.
What did you consciously do differently with this one?
This is the third record that we had Tchad Blake mix for us and I didn’t fly to mix with him this this time. We just let him mix it and stayed out of his way and then kind of said, ‘Oh, I forgot…I kind of liked this guitar part – can you work that in a little more strongly?’ So just leaving Tchad alone to do what he does best was something different. I used to be more of a control freak than I am now. I get to be less of a control freak because now I understand things a little more.
Well, I could sit and talk with you all day, but we’ve run rather long here…
Yeah, I think I’m about to get in trouble for this. I think I’m supposed to be on another interview right now…(hand covers phone; muffled voices). Yeah, I am, sorry. I gotta hang up.
Of course! Courtney, thanks so much for your time today. It’s been a pleasure.
No, thank you. That was a good one.
The Dandy Warhols’ ‘stripped down’ and ‘extremely guitar-centric’ This Machine LP will be released on April 24th via The End Records. The band has announced a spring tour in support of the album and will visit the following cities:
05/16 – The Fillmore – San Francisco, CA
05/17 – The Wiltern – Los Angeles, CA
05/19 – 4th & B – San Diego, CA
05/20 – Roxy Lounge – Scottsdale, AZ
05/22 – Emo’s East – Austin, TX
05/23 – House of Blues – Dallas, TX
05/25 – The Masquerade – Atlanta, GA
05/26 – The Fillmore Charlotte – Charlotte, NC
05/27 – Orange Peel – Asheville, NC
05/29 – 9:30 Club – Washington, DC
05/30 – Trocadero – Philadelphia. PA
06/01 – Royale Nightclub – Boston, MA
06/02 – Corona Theatre – Montreal, QC
06/03 – Phoenix Concert Theatre – Toronto, ON
06/05 – Irving Plaza – New York, NY
06/06 – Bell House – Brooklyn, NY
06/08 – Royal Oak Music Theatre – Royal Oak, MI
06/09 – Grog Shop – Cleveland, OH
06/10 – Metro – Chicago, IL
06/12 – Gothic Theatre – Englewood, CO
06/13 – Belly Up Aspen – Aspen, CO
06/15 – Commodore Ballroom – Vancouver, BC
06/16 – Doug FIr Lounge – Portland, OR
06/17 – Showbox at the Market – Seattle, WA