Call it the long game. Since their formation, indie-alt-what-have-you stalwarts the Dandy Warhols have remained essentially intact and absolutely active.
Formed in Portland, Oregon in 1994, the band has outlasted most of their peers and even survived their hometown’s upscale evolution from a well-rooted, post-‘60s counterculture to its present-day Airbnb-ing and foodie oasis. Their earliest live shows were a raucous detonation of garage punk, shoegaze and rock-sotted chaos.
Whether the band honed their sound or a larger audience simply bent its ear is anyone’s guess. Their 1995 debut Dandys Rule OK (Tim/Kerr) cooked up the drone-hum of Spacemen 3 with refreshingly nineties-irony-free Byrds-style harmonies. Yet the critical response (“what the Portland quartet sound like on bad drugs”- Q Magazine) was as varied as the band’s temperament.
Two years later, the band released their breakthrough album …The Dandy Warhols Come Down. Released by Capitol Records, the album received universal critical acclaim and featured the hit “Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth.” Yet, most tellingly, Capitol rejected the band’s first submission as their “breakthrough” album as it was too deranged for the major label. And “Be-In,” the death-trip-friendly opener of Come Down, is an ear-opener for people looking for any resemblance to the glam crunch of “Last Junkie.”
An auspicious start and either by volition or agitation, the Dandy Warhols have enjoyed a career that has zig-zagged from a lowbrow/highbrow presence. Their 2003 single “We Used To Be Friends” was eventually used as the theme song for the teen mystery TV show Veronica Mars.
Arguably still one of the more in-depth, enjoyable, and blunt documentaries on ‘90s independent rock, Dig! (2004) featured the combustible “twin flame” ascent of both the Dandy Warhols and their blood brothers/arch-rivals the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Between landing the 2004 Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and now finding a home in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, Dig! is probably the first music documentary about musicians starring musicians who grew up informed and formed by watching music documentaries. That kind of self-consciousness works in favor for both bands in Dig! Filmed over the course of seven years, everyone onscreen is at turns weary and wooly, and aware of director Ondi Timoner and her film crew’s constant presence.
Whether through grit or grace, The Dandy Warhols have sidestepped the death-knell closures that vanquished the majority of their peers. The core lineup of lead singer-guitarist Courtney Taylor-Taylor, guitarist Peter Holmström, keyboardist Zia McCabe, and drummer Brent DeBoer has remained the same since 1998 and the band has released more than 20 live and studio albums and a whopping 28 singles.
The critical response to their records has been either derisive or blindingly devotional—a predictable phenomenon for most guitar-rock bands like the Dandy Warhols who are, unsurprisingly, a band more intent on bottling lightning live and on stage.
Between the presence of solid local acts, and Os Mutantes and the Dandy Warhols, this year’s Winterland Festival has leveled up the game to offer a free two-day event for Northeast Florida.
We spoke to Dandy Warhol leader Courtney Taylor-Taylor, where we talked about the band’s forthcoming symphonic project, looking for Roky Erickson in the bit-stream, and the band’s eager acceptance by the rock elders.
Courtney, thanks for talking with the Jacksonville Music Experience.
Sure. Hey, can I call you back? I have to park…we’re doing this thing with the symphony.
Sure. [A few minutes pass; phone rings].
Ok. Thanks. Sorry about that.
So, you’re working with a symphony in Portland? How did that come about?
I have no idea. I don’t really remember who connected that but it was before COVID and we were supposed to play on March 15 or something, in 2020. And then on like March 2, the world shut down.
Are the Dandy Warhols doing a full concert with them?
Yeah, it’ll be, like, I believe 45 minutes sets—an hour and a half of music.
How do you feel about this? Are these new waters for you to swim in, working with a symphony?
Yeah, we haven’t done this before. I grew up playing in symphonic bands and things; that’s actually where [Dandy Warhols’ guitarist] Peter Holmström and I met, at a symphonic summer camp at Willamette University when we were in high school. So it isn’t that daunting to me. I would imagine Zia [McCabe; band keyboardist] is, you know, if she was the kind of person that is ever daunted (laughs), this would be it.
This is the daunting moment. Break out the tux.
So your upcoming show here at Winterland kicks off a run of Southeastern and East Coast shows. At this stage in your career, is there still an intensity for gearing up emotionally for any tour?
Well, there’s a lot of rehearsal before tours. So, you get in the headspace, and you get your chops back, and you get your calluses back, etc. So you kind of get ready for it: we’re also just ready for it. We need to go somewhere every four months, really, or we start to go crazy in our personal relationships and the interiors of our personal lives start to get awkward or ugly, even. So, we are traveling beasts and we have been for so long that at this point we just can’t really live, or function, without it. Normally, I guess. Or we tell ourselves that.
The pandemic notwithstanding, your career has now spanned at least two major shifts in the music industry and rock history: the ‘90s ascension of the global indie-rock awareness and now music streaming and the semi-extinction of major labels. Unlike many of your peers, the Dandy Warhols continued to work and tour through all of these shifts. Did you feel any kind of awkwardness or even fear when the music scene changed so radically from labels to DIY downloads?
Well, the only shift that really made any difference was when Spotify, Apple, whatever, all these subscription services were in cahoots with the labels. And what they’re doing is illegal. But nobody has enough clout, not even Taylor Swift or Neil Young, to pull a class action lawsuit and bust them, right? So it’s over, you know? Musicians cannot make money, they cannot survive. You have to be a pop artist; an extremely-pop artist, at that. Which is why music is so much less interesting. Commercial music, you know?
“We are traveling beasts and we have been for so long that at this point we just can’t really live, or function, without [touring].”
There’s no Cure, there’s no Clash, right? Nothing like that is going to make it. Everything is really clean and slick and it’s all very similar. And there’s some good pop music now: it’s not like all of it is just nauseating. But, you know, almost all of it is. But that’s the thing: by reducing the value of music to nothing…you used to spend 15 bucks, to buy a band’s record that you liked. And now for a few bucks a month, you have every single song still in existence. And that’s just reducing it to being completely valueless and thus, new music compared to old music, just sounds, unsurprisingly, valueless.
We have witnessed writing move from being a story to being “content,” and songs are now “downloads.” So even the designation lets us know what is happening in a gleefully blunt way.
Yeah, and it’s not anything new to be an artist, for as long as [the Dandy Warhols] have, and to complain about the industry, and how it has changed. (Laughs). There’s nothing new about me doing that and complaining. But if I could take your average 14-year-old kid—pop-music listening, garbage listening, laptop-electronic-music-making kid—and plug my brain into their brain and show them what it was like when MTV made what we do, as important as what Michael Jordan did…musicians were as present and elevated as any other occupation on Earth. The end of MTV, which aligned with the dawn of the internet, resulted in MTV failing. Badly. They had it all: they could have been the Spotify, YouTube, and iTunes of the new world. But at the top levels they were just an old, rotten, fat, and lazy group of titans of the past. So they couldn’t adapt. They were too old and dumb. So, yeah, it is hard for us to deal with that. And to think about it and to remember.
Now we officially sound like old people talking, but I first became aware of amazing, weird people like Nina Hagen and Klaus Nomi directly from MTV. And this touches on what is almost an evergreen obsession of mine: the idea of the grail quest, the seeking things out. I can remember reading about the 13th Floor Elevators when I was in my teens but I couldn’t find any actual physical copy of Easter Everywhere until I was 20. I had to imagine what the album even sounded like.
(Laughs). Absolutely. I get it.
And as you touched on—that nearly every band or song is a few clicks away—do you think this mass availability of all music also killed the similar buzz for you, in hunting down what was once an obscure artist?
It really was great, knowing the names of every employee at every cool record store in this little armpit-of-a-town of Portland, Oregon (laughs). And they knew who I was and they were at peace knowing that I was going to stand around and look through records and, four out of five times, probably not buy anything. That was really cool.
And you know, that was the first thing I started hearing, at the dawn of the internet and the removal of records and physical copies from the music industry, that everyone complained about. The first thing everyone complained about was CDs: “You don’t have the big artwork. Kids will never know what that’s like, blah, blah, blah.” Then those went away, too. Everything went away.
“It was just because there simply wasn’t such a glut of cool artists that were that prominent, or visible at the time, like there were in the mid-80s. So we really got to stand out as the greatest, globally for several years. Now we have this legacy behind us. And that’s just increasingly really exciting and something to be grateful for.”
So [digital music] makes it accessible but the world is now covered with a thick fog of gray, waxy information. You can’t scream into it and be heard. It absorbs all things and reduces them to complete nothingness. So it doesn’t really matter that you can find everything on there because how is anyone going to hear about it? You and I are just looking up the 13th Floor Elevators because we were at that age when you hear about it. You know, at the junior high school down the street, the 14-year-old kids have Sabbath t-shirts and Nirvana hoodies. They’re not finding Roky Erickson because he is just a blip in the data stream and it’s probably not even cool to find him. They’re just stoked to find this obscure band that none of their peers have heard of called Led Zeppelin. And what a treasure trove of real art and deep expression and craft and power. Those records are just great.
I listen to our records and they’re halfway between that and Glass Animals at times. Just being oddball artists with a bunch of vintage and modern instruments and technology is, I think, the coolest of all musics. But how do I know if that’s just me? This could just sound really stupid to 12 year olds, and then they turn 14 and then hear Jimi Hendrix, the Clash…I think that will always be a universal experience for some. But it’s just free for them (laughs). So, we’re not making any money. You can’t make a living doing this anymore. Unless you are U2 or something.
To dovetail into what we’re talking about: of influence, and whether it’s subtle or gross as far as being obscure or popular. As a songwriter, do you feel like in some way your core influences that originally inspired you to write have changed or diminished? Particularly since even in the decades when you’ve had success, whether by deliberate choice or default, you have been exposed to, or discovered, all these other earlier and even newer songwriters.
I am completely unaware if I’ve ever been influenced by other songwriters.
Yes, seriously. For me, songwriting has nothing to do with anything outside of my own f***ed up head. So it’s different: making records is where you engage your influences and you employ them. So the songwriting part of that—where the melody goes; what notes you choose; what the rhythm is; what words you choose to say or sing over this chord change—that is just such a personal thing. It’s like vomiting. (Laughs). You know, “When you vomit, do you think of other vomits that you’ve seen? Maybe at bars or on the sidewalk…”
Or the influence of great cinematic vomiting.
Exactly! (Laughs). “There was a house party where they didn’t lock the bathroom door, and you walked in just as she hurled into her hair.” End scene. You don’t think about it: it just comes out. And that’s the way it should be, I believe. I feel like I can always tell when a song was designed by committee. A camel is just a horse designed by committee. And that’s generally what pop music seems like to me: tacky and awkward and very tricked-out with details. But in a “the committee says it’s okay” kind of way.
I have one more question and I’ll stop holding you hostage but this totally impresses me although it’s probably old hat to you. David Bowie was an ardent fan of the Dandy Warhols. He handpicked you to perform when he curated the Meltdown Festival in 2002 and the band performed “White Light / White Heat” with Bowie during his encore. That is akin to being validated by the Olympic Gods. Are you still getting a contact high from that experience?
You got to remember that was a really dead time for cool bands. In the late ‘90s, the end of that MTV era was a lot of Spice Girls, The Backstreet Boys…I think the New Kids on the Block were on the cover of Rolling Stone and it said, “The Greatest Band in The World.” (Laughs). You know? And so it was easy for us to be this band with massive, swirling, trippy-guitar textures, and beautiful vocal harmonies and vintage thundering, cool Zeppelin drum sounds. We have all the right things and we were “new wave kids.” So we have that in our blood.
So everyone from Joe Strummer to Robert Smith to David Bowie to Tom Petty: everybody came out of the woodwork to meet us and wanted to hang out. And I remember the day I met Joe Strummer, which was an amazing day to be a musician. He was like, “I was the singer in the coolest band in the world. And now you are the singer in the coolest band in the world. How the fook does that feel, mate?” And it was probably 1999, exactly during that era when Fred Durst was a “great rock god”—only Joe Strummer, Robert Smith, and David Bowie thought I was this rock god guy. And I thought about our era when MTV was playing the sh** out of The Pretenders first record, and The Clash videos were in heavy rotation: just really cool stuff. MTV showed Dead Can Dance videos (laughs)! Insane. And after he asked me how it felt, I thought for a second and just said: “Frustrating.”
So, that’s kind of why we got to tour with those guys and play with them and work in the studio with David Bowie and go out to dinner and wind up drinking all night with Robert Smith, and all these great times that we had smoking pot with Tom Petty. It was just because there simply wasn’t such a glut of cool artists that were that prominent, or visible at the time, like there were in the mid-80s. So we really got to stand out as the greatest, globally for several years. Now we have this legacy behind us. And that’s just increasingly really exciting and something to be grateful for.
The Dandy Warhols perform at the Winterland Festival at 10 p.m. on Saturday, February 25 at the Riverfront Plaza in downtown Jacksonville. The festival is free and VIP packages are available. For full festival lineup and interactive guide, visit here.