FOREWORD: I got to be pretty friendly with Portland’s Dandy Warhols during 2003, hanging out with them at their hotel, the Bowery Ballroom, and again later, for a piece in High Times – a match made in marijuana heaven. Besides putting a spin on avant-garde artist Andy Warhol’s name, they were easily one of the most beatnik bands I’ve ever encountered. The Dandys were a closely-knit troupe that used royalty monies from the song Bohemian Like You to build a large Portland designing/ recording warehouse space called the Odditorium.
They gained a modicum of aboveground fame when leader Courtney Taylor-Taylor revelaed the dramatic tension between him and Brian Jonestown Massacre’s confrontational oft-drunk psychopath, Anton Newcombe, on winning ’04 Sundance Festival documentary, Dig! After ‘03s Welcome To The Monkey House, a slight musical departure reliant more on synth-based new wave glam, ’05 follow-up, Odditorium or Warlords of Mars, retreated back to heavier guitar treatments, and ‘08s Earth To The Dandy Warhols was released independently online. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
It’s 3 p.m. on a Monday afternoon at Tribeca Grand Hotel in Manhattan and Dandy Warhols’ diminutive Zia Mc Cabe is still hung-over from washing down six Corona’s with several shots of Jagermeister following last nights’ first of two shows at Chinatown’s Bowery Ballroom.
But at least she got to perform. A month earlier, the Dandy Warhols were scheduled to play The Conan O’Brien Show, but the New York blackout staled that and the band found themselves walking through Time Square, taking pictures, watching pissed off Hilton Hotel customers sleep on the streets, and visiting midtown club Siberia until 5 a.m.
Perhaps it was best to meet Ms. Mc Cabe first since she most profoundly captures the liberal bohemian attitude of hometown Portland, Oregon. Spending her formative years living in a log cabin forty-five miles north of Portland in a Battleground, Washington, hippie community, the kittenish keyboardist watched her mother grow grass, raise horses, and feed ducks.
“Now I live in the ghetto, but (bandmate) Pete lives in the up and coming Pearl District where ex-hippies grew up and became responsible,” she shares as guitarist Peter Loew grabs a couch seat next to us.
Loew spent three childhood years in England, coming back to the States in eighth grade wearing bellbottoms and sports shirts while other students had preppy Levi’s jeans on.
Adds Loew, “I had an English accent so I didn’t fit in. I was a complete outsider which affected what I ended up liking.”
Creating surrealistic music in the clean, floral-accented, pristinely renovated city along the floral banks of the Williamette River, where high end art galleries juxtapose low end counterculture art (screen printing, cheap jewelry), became a serious passion for Portland’s daringly darling Dandy Warhols.
“Influences are everything, not just music,” Loew maintains. “There’s a lot of ideas that get tossed around and 90% never happen.”
After the Dandy Warhols’ formative indie debut, Dandy’s Rule OK, drew attention from major labels, the band signed with Capitol Records and released ‘96s narcotic aural tapestry, Come Down.
“We were listening to My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Spiritualized – things that were ‘comedown’ music for people who didn’t listen to dance music,” Loew recalls.
When I speak to lead singer-guitarist Courtney Taylor-Taylor days later, he suggests, “We try to do what no one else is doing. The way to do that is find something obsolete or unfashionable or at least not what current trends (dictate). We have a signature feel but not a signature sound. Our first (Capitol) album was, ‘Wow – shoegazer’s been out for five years. No one’s made the perfect shoegaze record. By the next record (Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia), if you didn’t have a turntable, you weren’t cool. So we decided to make a 1971 record in ’99. This time, no one was making records for yachts off the coast of Monaco, so we did our Smooth Operator.”
Inspired by Simon & Garfunkle’s “The Sounds Of Silence” as a pre-teen, Taylor became infatuated with learning how to properly structure and compose songs. But this led to “strange social skills” in public.
“Anytime a song was on, which is 80% of your life, I was constantly tuned out (to my surroundings). I’d be in a supermarket with elevator music on and if there was a part of a song that had power to it or chord changes, those chords would move me. I’d distinguish between parts of the song I liked or didn’t like – which is why are songs are so repetitive and simple,” Taylor explains.
For the Dandy’s twisted take on Sade’s “Smooth Operator,” christened “Welcome To My Monkey House” (a title taken from the Kurt Vonnegut novel about sexual repression), respected surrealist painter Ron English combined band namesake Andy Warhol’s yellow banana image with the Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers metal zipper for the cover art.
Recoding began at London’s Sphere Studios, notoriously enough, on 9-11, across the hall from where Duran Duran were finishing a comeback album. That led to several Taylor co-productions with the English new wave icon’s keyboardist Nick Rhodes. Fellow Duran Duran member Simon LeBon added tenor backup to the funky “Plan A.”
“Courtney’s reflecting the worked up nostalgia of the ’90s pre-Y2K and 9-11. It was more fun then and we had less to worry about. We had a simpler life and problems were smaller,” Mc Cabe insists.
“We’d made a well-produced indie record that was very organic. When it was remixed (by Jeremy Wheatley), it got changed. It’s still tight, but the songs are individually sectioned instead of flowing into each other,” claims Loew.
One song inariably altered was the first single, “We Used To Be Friends,” which got chopped up in a machine-like manner, changing the feel of the original version. Though the band seemed skeptical of the Capitol-sponsored remix results, a skeletal lo-fi version of “Monkey House” may be released next year.
Taylor asserts, “I’ll try to achieve the same level of surrealism with less musicality. The theory explores how far you could reduce the musicality to make it seem bigger before you start losing the musical-ness.”
Delving further, the silly robotic “I Am A Scientist” leans towards Oingo Boingo’s ’80s electro tomfoolery while the ethereal “Heavenly” and the hallucinogenic “I Am Over It” provide shimmering mindbending escapades. “Monkey House” also contains a clandestine dialogue-driven short film. The End Of The World As We Know It, which derides ’00s national election fiasco, re-examines the WTC disaster and mocks the impending apocalypsic furor.
At the second Bowery Ballroom show, the tight combo displayed unfailing confidence. They enjoyed stretching their lesser known songs by taking a built-in groove and drawing it out, developing a single beat over the course of a jam, then gradually altering the glistening pseudo-psychedelic surrealism contained therein.
Donning vintage wool golfer’s hat, Taylor looked relaxed as he strummed 6-string elegantly, encouraging spontaneity during the swirly extended mantras.
Mc Cabe, wearing a ripped T-shirt with the Rolling Stones trademark tongue emblazoned by an American flag, handled assorted keys with care, shaking a tambourine or maracas to fill out the lathered arrangements.
Loew sported black eyeliner and a black T-shirt with PUNK spelled out in frizzy pink lettering, adding requisite 6-string and a touch of bass.
Behind the busy frontline sat De Boer, bare-chested with wild Afro flailing, punctuating the deeply penetrating reverberations while intermittent slide projections and ’60s soft porn flashed on the rear walls.
While in Toronto days beforehand, the Dandys, sans Mc Cabe, visited High Times promotional party for the just-released film, Pot Luck.
Taylor boasts, “We had the Rice Crispies treats, banana nut bread, and chocolate chip cookies. Everything had that nice, fatty, oily, crispy pot butter taste. They were all just genius. I ate more than I ever had in my life.”
This autumn, the Dandys will open for legendary rocker, David Bowie, a likeminded artful dodger whose ’70s masterpiece, Hunky Dory, celebrated Pop Art conceptualist Andy Warhol as gleefully as the Dandys do. Bowie admires the wry dry cynical wit of Taylor, claiming he “has me in fits from the moment he opens his mouth.”
That’s high praise from Ziggy Stardust.
In retrospect, Taylor rationalizes, ” I analyze my own insecurities and deal with my own petty problems through music, I’m a therapist for myself. I experience the world even though my disposition is to be afraid of things I try to overcome.”