Thirteen Years In Urban Bohemia: A Conversation With The Dandy Warhols’ Courtney Taylor-Taylor

dandy warhols

For the past twenty years, Portland-based psych-rock band The Dandy Warhols have released a steady stream of psych-rock albums and the occasionally sugar-sweet, catchy psych-pop single. In so doing, there’s a divisiveness among fans: some see them as purveyors of a hybrid of classic and contemporary rock styles, while others find them a bit too precious, opportunistic, and pop-minded. Love ’em or hate ’em, one fact remains–they are nothing if not a very consistent band, capable of making some great, cohesive albums.

Such is the case with their third album, Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia. The band’s previous album, The Dandy Warhols Come Down, was well received critically, even if its sales didn’t match the acclaim. Thus, the seeming indifference that met Thirteen Tales didn’t surprise frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor, who chalked it up to simply another Dandys record existing but ignored; all they hoped for would be that it would reach the people who appreciated them.

As would be the case at various points for the band, right as they planned to move on to the next thing, something happened that raised their profile. A European cell phone company licensed the use of the album’s catchiest song, “Bohemian Like You,” which propelled the song in the charts, and brought the band a wider level of international acclaim. And while we might politely disagree with Taylor-Taylor’s assertion about his band not having a defining hit, one cannot deny the instant, universal appeal and success of that song. Even today, it’s become a standard sports-event anthem; on many occasions this writer has heard its opening measures in NFL and NBA games, taking its rightful place alongside “We Will Rock You” and “Rock and Roll #1” in arena play lists.

Thankfully, The Dandy Warhols have always aimed for being something more than the pop band their critics dismiss them as. They’ve continually made–and, we hope, will continually make–album after album of wonderful rock music. We are honored to have a chat with Mr. Taylor-Taylor about his experiences.
What I like about Thirteen Tales is that I find it’s a very deceptive record. On one hand, there’s the psychedelic rock element that you’ve been known to do, while on the other hand it’s a pop record.

Yeah, but there’s no actual pop music. We weren’t even close to actual pop music. Pop music is top 40 stuff. Maybe it’s pop music circa 1968, when guitars were in pop music. It doesn’t resemble the charts. It was antiquated when we made it, let’s put it that way.

Well, what I mean is that there’s a classic pop sensibility going on in terms of your writing style. I know when we think of pop we think is crap like Britney Spears or the Boy Band phase that was going on when you made the album

Yeah, that’s true, but that pop–it’s been with us, it never seems to go away.

It was there in the 1960s, too, if you stop and consider it.

That’s true, too. Fathead’s dad played in bands in the 50s and 60s, a kind of folk/four-part harmony type of thing, where they wore the cardigan sweaters and pointy cowboy boots made of suede. He was in one of those bands, and they worked on cars, were gearheads, and were these cool, hip guys, and to them, they hated what they called chicks’ doo-wop, which we look at now as being classic, definitive sounds of the era. They hated it and thought it was the most embarrassing thing for ten-year-old girls to listen to. It’s legendary, classic music now, but back then for dudes who were seventeen years old, it was fluffy and embarrassing for a guy to like. (Laughs)

(Note: The band in reference is called The Roaring Door, and according to Fathead: “They were active mainly between 1964 and 1969, mainly in Portland. They recorded five songs that never came out but I have the recordings. It’s super super hip and strange 60’s pop.They uses to play The Crystal Ballroom a lot and they went to Europe as a stripped down acoustic and vocal group.–ed)

I get the feeling that the making of The Dandy Warhols Come Down was not the easiest of experiences for the band.

Having unlimited studio time was a mess, and having a budget that we could spend on anything we like was not a great idea for a young band. We learned very quickly to set deadlines for ourselves. We were in the studio for a long time, and then we realized, “Uh, this isn’t working.” We were stuck, we didn’t know what we were doing, and we didn’t see the finish line. We didn’t even known what direction the finish line was in. We had never recorded in a proper studio–we’d always built our own studio. That was a studio a friend had in a warehouse space. Subsequently, we’ve build our own studio space, make it our own, and get some gear, either borrow it from friends or pick it up if it was something we really needed. Making Come Down was a good life lesson for us, because we’ve never made that same mistake again, though for Thirteen Tales, we did take over a year and a half to finish, which was a real mindfuck.

It hurts you to work on something that long. It hurts your brain to have to spend your life working on the same thirteen songs for that long. You tell yourself, “well, I’m going to have a weekend off, go see some friends,” or “I’m not going to work on it for a week, I’m going to do something else,” but guess what? You can’t. You’re obsessed. You have to go back in and punish yourself. On the wall, we had a huge board that listed “tracks to lay down” and “tracks not laid yet.” I dreaded that thing. I hated it, because just as we’d cross one thing off, two more things would appear to do next. “Oh, we need to lay down some egg shakers and Jew harp on this track.” So next thing you know we’ve got maracas, tambourines, and shakers. I’d ask, “Are we really going to have to lay down eleven different kinds of Latin percussion instruments before we can say this track is done?” The song might come out awesome, but when you’re there, you can’t see it. For Thirteen Tales, we knew that we had to set ourselves a finish line, even though it took us way too long to get there, whereas with Come Down, we had no clue as to what we were doing.

Then there’s the wonderful added pressure of a label saying, “Sorry, this album’s not good enough, you need to go make another.”

Oh, god, yeah. Are you kidding? Never. Never would we let that happen to us again. I don’t want to be too down on Capitol–Perry Watts-Russell, our A&R guy, was a great supporter, defender, and we love him–but what we learned after Come Down was that we didn’t want anyone into the studio. We didn’t want anybody to hear our work until we were done. We realized that letting them in would be stupid and self-defeating; they’d say things to us, giving us “suggestions,” and we’d get angry. I mean, it’s okay to get suggestions and ideas, but it wasn’t their business to do so until we walked out the door and handed them what we felt was the finished product.

Where did you make Come Down? Were you in LA?

We couldn’t make a record if we were in Los Angeles. There are just way too many distractions, and nothing would get done. It’s not conducive to our creativity. Portland’s our home, our creative center, and we’ve made all our records here. Now, if someone were to offer us a place in the South of France or in the Bahamas, I’m sure we could make something work! (Laughs) It’s sunny; the weather is the polar opposite of Portland…so it might be interesting to see what we could get done there.

You had modest success with Come Down; it didn’t perform badly and was well-received, even if it didn’t meet sales expectations. I’ve talked to other bands in the same situation, whereas their modest success was met with a label that was supportive, yet stepped in and let the band know that the second album was make-or-break. Did this happen?

All of our singles in America, I think they all end up around #32, which isn’t a bad thing. That’s in the Top 40, but it’s nowhere near the Top 20. What makes that ideal is that you’re having, as you said, modest success, without the pressure of being a “hit” band. It’s really a great place to be.

As for the pressure–we didn’t feel any. None at all. We had a conversation with the president of Capitol–the big boss. He said to us, “This is how it is, this is where you stand. Everybody at Capitol loves you. I don’t know what it is about your band, but we love you. You don’t sell many records, but that’s okay, we love you. You’re safe. We’re just that kind of label. You’re not Nirvana, but you don’t want to be that band. When the next Nirvana comes along, those kids will look to the Dandy Warhols and say, ‘Hey, Capitol is a label that really takes care of its artists.'”

Some might see that as endorsing a form of indentured servitude…

Yeah, but then again, you’re making music, so it’s cool. (Laughs) It’d be like taking a four-year old to the amusement park, and because they’re little, you say, “Okay, you have to stay within this building with the little rides, but you can ride all of them if you want, you can eat all the popcorn, and have all the fun you want.” It’s not a bad trade-off. It’s got its hassles, yeah, and I could probably spend an afternoon telling you of my complaints. But you know what? If you get to that level–where you get to make music all day, as your job–you are extremely lucky. I’m more mature than I was at the time other people got to know us, and looking back, where that unhappiness came in–where our complaints came from–I honestly realize now that it was us taking for granted what we actually had. We were caught up in the moment–having a good time–without realizing the other side of the equation, that it’s temporal.

You think you’re going to retain those album sales, that people are going to flock to your shows–but then you start to see that after your “hit,” less people start to show up, sales drop off, and you get people who just come out to hear that one hit.

Exactly. In a way, that’s how the Dandys got lucky in that we never had a big, career-defining “hit.” So when people come out, which “hit” are they going to expect to hear? We weren’t a big hit band; we were at a cultural turning point. Ten years before the modern definition of “hipsters,” that’s what our audience looked like. That’s not just in the States, though. People all over the world–we connected with people who didn’t want to hear Limp Bizkit, The Spice Girls, Blink-182, and all the punky, poppy, really slick productions with perfect-sounding guitars, or singers who rapped aside Cookie Monster-style screamers. We connected with people who didn’t want what they were being given; we were that alternative.

That’s one thing I loved about the late 1990s; there was a quiet underbelly of bands like Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Grandaddy, and Modest Mouse, making weird psychedelic records for a large audience.

Yeah, exactly! Those are all great bands, and if you notice–we all exist because we never had the “good fortune” of having real “hits.” If you notice–all of those bands still exist, and they still make music, whereas a lot of those other bands from those days aren’t making music anymore. It’s incredible, people make a mental note of you and your music, they file you away as a band that’s less about chart success than it is making great music, and in so doing, you wind up with a career.

Before I called you I was talking with Eric Matthews, to get his thoughts on the album. He states that he feels Thirteen Tales was when Pete (Holmstrom) really started to come into his own as a guitarist.

(Pauses) Well…I dunno about that. When we started, Pete and I, we weren’t guitarists. We had guitars, we likes playing them, and we liked playing around with different effects and pedals, but all we really knew were a few basic chords. We weren’t virtuoso-minded, but we were tone guys. We were always playing around with different sounds and tones, which is a fun and different way of playing and writing.

As for Pete…to me, when you listen to Dandys Rule OK, and you hear “The Dandys TV Theme Song, that “chigga-chigga-chigga-chigga wosh-ROAR” and that amazing feedback. That’s Pete. It’s all Pete–and to me, that’s Pete at his best. You can’t improve on it.

(Pauses) Looking back, though…I think it’s around Thirteen Tales that Pete started to study and learn scales, and studying the old-school guitarists. (Pauses) It seems like right around that time–or maybe it was Monkey House–that we started to notice him sounding like a roadie. (Laughter) I don’t mean that in a bad way. When you look at guitar techs, some of them are simply amazing guitarists–sometimes even significantly better musicians than the bands they are working for. (Laughs) We’d have rehearsals or sound checks, and we’d go somewhere while he set up, and we’d come back, and he’s just fooling around, a little noodle here, a solo there, and we’d be like, “What the fuck are you doing, Pete? That’s amazing, keep playing!” We both got more interesting as guitarists, and if you listen to our last album, Pete became a fucking god. (Pauses) Yeah, you know…I don’t think I noticed at the time, but thinking about it now, on Thirteen Tales, Pete’s guitar work made a major jump. Thirteen Tales is very much a guitar record, with Pete on the left and me on the right, whereas Come Down was more of a reverb record.

And that introduction, that one-two-three punch of those first three songs…

Oh yeah, that’s a great one! Totally happenstance. It was actually Fathead’s idea. Those were meant to be the last three songs, with the album beginning with “Country Leaver.” Fathead had a rough mix of the album, and one day he came in all excited, saying, “Man, I got into my car and my CD player started it with ‘Godless,’ and dude, you GOTTA listen to it from there.” So we put it on and started it there, and were all amazed. That was a close call, because I think it wouldn’t have had that punch you said.

And that’s what I meant earlier when I said “deceptive,” because it’s got these great, deep, introspective songs, sitting alongside songs like “Bohemian Like You,” which many would consider one of your signature songs. What I’ve always liked about it is how immediate and spontaneous it feels.

It very much was a song that came together quite quickly. I had been playing around with that guitar lick, as you can hear on the demo. It’s a fake Keith Richards or a Kiss lick. I say fake because Keith would have used an alternate tuning. It’s a straightforward thing, heavy like a vintage Kiss song. I just meat-headed it. (Laughs) I hadn’t heard anybody with a melody like that in a while, so I just sat on it a few weeks, playing it in my spare time, and honing it. So one day, I’m goofing around with it, and I look out my window, and I see this old 80s-era BMW, and there’s this cool, hip looking chick, and she’s got messy hair, a couple of tattoos, and I’m like, “Wow…” (Laughs) I had a quick three second prayer that steam would start coming from the car’s engine or that the tire would go flat, but no, sadly, she drove off. (Laughs) I was thinking about how nice it would have been had her car broke down and she had to ask for my help. I played around with that scenario for a little bit, and I had her coming up to my door, and I would say to her, “You got a great car, what’s wrong with it today?” Boom! (Excited) I sat down with it and had it written in an hour. Chicks, man…they’re the greatest inspiration. If it weren’t for chicks, there’d be no rock.

When you finished and handed in Thirteen Tales, what was Capitol’s reaction?

It was well received. They thought it was a cool record, even though it flopped. That’s the story of the Dandys, all of our records flop initially, and then we see an upswing. So when it came out, we weren’t surprised about it flopping. It did the same in England, too. In fact, the first single, it was our worst charting single to date. Come Down didn’t get big until a year and a half after it was out, which is when it was released in England. By then it had come and gone over here, yet it had a revival because the English press were really into it. Thirteen Tales took two years to hit, which is when it was re-released after “Bohemian Like You” appeared in the cell phone ad. Capitol, at the time, were like, “Okay guys, you did your best, great album, let’s crank it up and try again,” and then boom, the album really took off, even though we’d sort of moved on. As always, the secondary wave probably saved us by washing out the negatives that the label felt towards us; after all, you can’t drop a band when it’s selling really well and selling out shows. We felt validated–how can you not if your record is selling, your shows are larger, and people are singing along to every word? We didn’t really get caught up in thinking about things or the future–we were too busy having fun, playing around the world for people who loved us.

I recall you once saying you heard eight or nine of your songs on the radio when you toured Europe at that time.

Man, yeah, for music fans like myself, Europe is a really exciting, different experience. If I were touring the US and cranking the radio, I could go from the west coast to the east coast, and I’d hear the same sort of formats; your big top 40 radio stations, or your metal stations, or your oldies stations, or your country stations, or your R&B stations. You cross state lines, and even though the location’s changed, the music’s relatively the same, and that’s cool. Europe, though—they do things so differently. If you’re traveling, in Italy you might hear traditional Italian music, or hardcore American rap, uncensored, or straight up underground house music, but when you cross into France, it’s like, BOOM! You’re in another country and the music instantly changes; you hear much more free-form radio, and when go to Germany you’ll hear all sorts of  stuff you’ll not hear on American radio. It’s amazingly different. Our first time over there, I remember times just sitting there, listening to what was playing, and anxiously awaiting whatever would come on next—and being pleasantly surprised. One thing we learned over there, when that comment was made, was that “success” means something different. It’s a much more thorough thing over there, especially in terms of radio.

I once was listening to some DJ talking up some crappy band as being the hottest, biggest band of the moment, and I called him up and said, “Okay, if they’re so hot, why don’t you play the song that comes after this one on their album,” to which he meekly said, “we don’t do that.”

Exactly! When you’ve charted and when you’ve had a hit in Europe, there’s a mindset that says, “You know, this band is really good, this song’s a hit, that means their album is good, and so, let’s play this album track!” So it was weird for me, at first, to listen to the radio, to listen to what’s essentially mainstream radio, and hearing something like “Minnesoter” or “Best Friend” or any number of deep album cuts. In its own way, it’s very validating for American acts, because it lets them know that their music is appreciated and liked, not simply because the record put all of its money behind a single. I mean, it can be really frustrating and upsetting to make a great album, full of great songs that you’re fond of, but knowing that the powers that be only want to focus on one or two songs and don’t give a fuck about the rest of your songs on the album, unless it’s a major success, and they see the potential to make a shitload of money off of you. Thirteen Tales is a great record, and though it might not have been a “hit” in America like it was in Europe, it was really nice to hear it being appreciated in that way in Europe. They loved us, we love them, and that more than makes up for the frustrations. It’s easy to get caught up in the game of image and success, especially when you’re young, naïve, and immature. Looking back at it now, I do occasionally feel frustrated, but you know what? We tour, people come to see us, and people still love us. That doesn’t happen to every band, and it’s really cool and humbling that we happened to be one of the lucky ones that did. 

It seems like, ultimately, that the saga of the Dandy Warhols has been a mixture of fun and frustration, tempered with some great psychedelic rock.

Very much so. We’ve had highs and lows, but you know what? The bad things don’t matter; the good things are incentive and reward for that dedication and for persevering through the less fun moments and the frustrations. At the time, we were fighting an industry that’s set in stone. You have to play by their rules, or you don’t play at all. The Dandys, we challenged it. We didn’t fit in the club. We still don’t, and we’re perfectly happy with that.




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