This week marked the return of The Dandy Warhols to British shores, a quarter of a century after singer/guitarist Courtney Taylor-Taylor and guitarist Peter Holmström first joined forces, a couple of friends who decided they ‘needed music to drink to’.
Best known over here for the hit ‘Bohemian Like You’ – which narrowly failed to chart in the UK in 1990 but saw success a year later after featuring in a mobile phone TV advert – the Portland, Oregon outfit took relatively little time to make an impact at home.
But such factors rarely guarantee longevity, Peter instead seeing their ability to survive tied to their work ethic from day one.
He was in cold and frosty Antwerp when I called late last week, ahead of a date in the Belgian city which opened a brief 25th anniversary tour culminating – after further appearances in Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester – at Brixton Academy tonight (Friday, February 1st).
Looking forward to what his bandmate Zia McCabe (keyboards, vocals, who also clambered on board in 1994) called ‘a massive concussion of rock’n’roll a quarter of a century in the making,’ Peter continues to enjoy his travels with The Dandy Warhols.
“These are always the ones I look forward to. They’re way more interesting to me than US tours. Of course, it used to be more exciting before every city was essentially the same – the same chain stores everywhere. But whatever …”
I gather you’re a keen photographer too. Will you be out snapping between shows in the locations you visit?
“That’s faded off a bit, but I’ve always got a bit of a visual artist thing going on. I do take some pictures, but just for memories these days.”
You get a flavour of the new material in a single-shot 360° short film featuring Mad Men’s Jessica Paré for the single ‘Be Alright’, all the action taking place within the band’s self-run Portland HQ, The Odditorium.
It all centres around the consumption of a magic wine, their ‘band space’ including a bar owned by front-man Courtney, who directs the film and happens to have a passion for the wine world. and it was written and conceived by Kevin Moyer, an award-winning creative whose past music projects have featured, among others, Elliott Smith, Pearl Jam, and Willie Nelson.
It was back in 2002 that The Dandy Warhols bought a 10,000 sq. ft. building in what was then industrial Northwest Portland, The Odditorium soon becoming not only their band headquarters and including a recording studio, but also a hang-out for friends and fellow artists.
As Kevin Moyer put it, “I’ve been there many times and it is such a cool and ethereal place, full of psychedelia and gothic touches and auras, that it just makes your head spin trying to take all of it in as you walk through the unique rock’n’roll space. So what better way than to use a head-spinning media format to take the viewer on a magical journey through the Dandy Warhols’ own space and sound.”
Courtney added, “We’ve always been driven to create art with emotional clarity. That’s what the world needs more than ever right now. I’ve never felt so strongly that people are losing their minds, and it’s more of them than ever before. Local politics, international politics, news programs, sitcoms, and our president all feel like the heat got turned up.
“It doesn’t feel like a natural progression of insanity, it just happened. Most people are behaving in a manner that can only be described as batshit crazy.”
The video certainly suggests a hive of activity, prompting me to ask Peter if the band’s base is always such a happening place.
“Ha! No, no, no. In the past, more so … but it still kicks off every once in a while.”
Have you helped bring a little employment to your home city through your HQ?
“Yeah, some, though probably not as much as we’d like, but we definitely employed a lot of our musician friends when we were building that place.”
Do you tend to hire it out for rehearsals to local musicians?
“Some, but it’s a tricky thing. We need the space a fair amount, so the whole scheduling things always gets in the way. Generally, whoever’s engineering for us can work on projects, and we all have our own projects we’re working on in there as well, and we do rent it out sometimes to touring bands. Morrissey did a whole series of rehearsals there before a tour, then Spoon, Black Rebel (Motorcycle Club), The Strokes … and The Shins rented it out last, I think.”
The latter are also Portland-based, aren’t they?
“Yeah, well, they live here now.”
Lots of great bands started there or gravitated towards the city. Is there a fellowship between musicians associated with Portland?
Late last year I talked to Colin Meloy from The Decemberists. Is he on your radar, and is it a close enough city to get to know like-minded musicians in town?
“Sure, and my wife is really good friends with Colin’s wife Carson, and I know the band a little. I’ve known John (Moen), the drummer, forever. And Chris Funk is a good acquaintance. We know each other pretty well.
“But a lot of times with bands at the level of The Gossip and ours, we’re not in town very much, and not there at the same time.”
While ‘Be Alright’ showcases the band’s ‘classically off-kilter psych-pop’, there’s also what they call ‘country-fried Americana’ on ‘Motor City Steel’, and ‘gothic piano-propelled rumbas’ on ‘Forever’ on the new record.
In fact, there are references as far flung as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Don MacLean’s Chevy, and the church of Bowie’s ‘Modern Love,’ the 12 songs reflecting ‘surrealist visions of an alternate reality’. Arguably what we all need right now, on both sides of the Atlantic.
I’ve got to talk a bit about the past though, and it’ll be 20 years in 2020 since ‘Bohemian Like You’, the track they’re identified with more than any other over here, was first released. Is that the case in America too?
“Not in the same way…because that Vodafone advert never happened in the United States. It’s definitely one of the more recognised songs, but ‘We Used To Be Friends’ is as big if not bigger, as it was the theme song to Veronica Mars. When that came out, all of a sudden we had this bunch of kids up front, which was pretty cool.”
Despite what many might think over here, you were around for six years before your biggest UK hit. Hence this silver anniversary tour. Time flies.
“It certainly does … and I never quite expected this.”
Some bands, for whatever reason, don’t always get those breaks, and even if they do, a label may soon let them go and they’re done for after the briefest career. How have you kept it going? Luck? Hard work? Or both?
For you, there have always been side-projects, from Pete and the International Airport to Rebel Drones. What percentage of your recent life, do you reckon, involves The Dandy Warhols?
“Oh, easy 50 per cent, for sure.”
Is that a good way of keeping it fresh – a little diversification en route?
”I don’t know what actually keeps it fresh. It just sort of is. We all continually want to be doing something we haven’t done before or something slightly different to the last time. Whatever it is, it’s always this continual urge not to want to do the same thing we just did.
“I find with the side-projects and working with other people, you learn something different and bring that back down, and that’s creative.”
You’re clearly still mates too, or this wouldn’t still be happening a quarter of a century later. But right at the beginning, it was just you and Courtney (Taylor-Taylor).
“Yeah, we were the first to get together.”
This is a band about far more than the more recognised hits mentioned so far, and if for some reason or other you missed out, you could do far worse than start with 1998 anti-drugs anthem ‘Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth’, check out 2000’s Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia album (including the ‘Bohemian Like You’, ‘Get Off’ and ‘Godless’ singles), and watch 2004 documentary film Dig! (also featuring San Francisco’s The Brian Jonestown Massacre), then exploring more in both directions from there.
Before all that, the early recordings include elements of ‘shoegazing’ for these ears, not least on early single ‘Ride’, perhaps rather aptly. Personnel-wise, did it take a while for the main elements of the band to slot into place and for them to become a proper unit?
“Not really. It was very quick. We got together and six months later played our first show, six months later we were putting out our demo tape and signed to an indie label. A year later that came out and we were being courted by major labels.
Even so, there must have been ‘pinch me’ moments where you wondered how this had all happened.
“Well yeah, pretty much every year there was at least one. It was non-stop.”
When was the last time you felt that was the case?
“Pretty much every time we get on an airplane and go off on tour. There are times that are more exciting, like anytime we go to a place we haven’t been before, like when we went to Hong Kong, not long ago That was pretty cool.”
For the record, the band is completed by Brent DeBoer (drums, vocals), who took over from initial sticksman Eric Hedford in 1998, so the band you see today have been around for a full two decades now.
Going right back to the beginning though, who was the first to inspire Peter to take up guitar and get up on a stage and do it yourself?
“I think the first guitar player was probably Angus Young. That somehow connected when I was like 12 or something. Maybe even younger. My Dad always played Pink Floyd records, so there’s always been a bit of that. But that was maybe a little more technical than I could do. But AC/DC, well …”
Were many of those influences from this side of the Atlantic?
“Later on, absolutely – like 90 per cent of my favourite guitar players, like Daniel Ash, Robert Smith, Kevin Shields, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page of course, David Gilmour …”
And you had a spell over here in the ‘80s.
“Yes, I lived in Bristol for a few years. My parents both wanted to live overseas, and my Dad had a job with a company that was both US and UK-based. That got us over. It was the late-‘70s/early-‘80s, an interesting time, especially musically, and I’m sure that made an impression.”
“So I’ve been told. Ha! There’s a couple of other records that didn’t really come out, so I don’t know what the count actually is, but everyone keeps saying 10, so we’ll go with that.”
And yet it all still seems fresh for you.
“Oh, absolutely. I’ve pushed myself, and I’ve always got something I’m interested in doing or trying to do, generally failing at that but coming up with something! It’s interesting.”
Incidentally, after their London finale there’s a return home and a North American leg of the tour, taking in Atlanta, Washington, Boston, Brooklyn, Toronto, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, Los Angeles, Santa Ana and San Francisco.
Agreeing on a set at this stage must give you a few headaches as a band, I suggested, trying to work out what to put in and what to leave out after 25 years together.
“Yeah, because there are so many songs we actually want to play. It’s really hard to figure out what we’re not going to play. Because everybody’s got their favourites.”
Do you tend to change things around from city to city?
“We try to. It’s always slightly different, but generally when we start off, it‘s the same, and we play that until we start getting frustrated or bored.”
Besides, as Zia puts it, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out and it will be legendary’. And you can’t say fairer than that.
The Dandy Warhols’ 25th anniversary tour’s European leg ends at London’s O2 Academy in Brixton tonight (Friday, February 1st). For more details and all the latest from the band, try their official website and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.