“I’m the only living person who can say I played with David Bowie on stage and sang with him.”
It’s OK if you don’t like the Dandy Warhols (Courtney Taylor-Taylor, Zia McCabe, Peter Holmstrom, and Brent DeBoer). Since 1994, the Portland quartet has been making music that they love and their fans dig. Their poppy, dark, playful, and jangly sound and influence can be heard in a slew of today’s current alternative bands. The Dandys may not be a household name, but chances are you’ve heard their music in major films or TV shows (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars), commercials (Ford, Vodaphone), on MTV (“Bohemian Like You”), and on alternative radio.
Along the way, they’ve been part of the ’90s explosion of alternative rock, starred in the controversial documentary Dig, and even shared a glass of wine with Robert Smith of the Cure. Taylor-Taylor & Co. also shared the stage with the late, great David Bowie (who selected them to play the 2002 Meltdown Festival) and worked with Nick Rhodes (Duran Duran and producer of The Dandys’ release (Welcome to the Monkey House), a man who knows a thing or two about writing a hit song and selling millions of “units.”
I caught up with front Dandy Courtney Taylor-Taylor, the handsome and chill leader of Portland’s finest. I haven’t spoken with Taylor-Taylor since 1998, so it was like catching up with an old friend. We discussed the band’s rich and dynamic history and what the future holds as they embarked on the first date of their Distortland 2016 Tour.
Where are you today?
This is the first gig of the tour. We’re in Calgary. It’s cool and crisp outside.
What do you attribute your band’s longevity to? There’s been a lot of ups and downs for the Dandys.
Yeah, we’re addicted to doing it for sure. There’s also the fact that what job could possibly be better than this? I think that’s mainly why—and a total lack of better things. And we all have other things going on. I’m trying to get a film made of my graphic novel [One Model Nation, 2002, Titan Books] and I’m trying to start setting up a wine bar. I’m kind of an obsessive wine collector. I want a cool place to sell and discuss wines that’s open to the public. I want more of public club and not a scummy bar: a wine shop.
We all have things we want to do, but we can never stop doing music. I can’t imagine any other job. I was too busy to get my wines together for the bus; I need to stock up soon. My wine shop will not have any wines less than 10 years—nothing after 2004 for me.
Did you know that Greg Norton [formerly of Hüsker Dü] is a wine rep?
No, really? Does he still live in Minneapolis? Take down my email because we’ll be there in five days. I left dry and I was too busy to remember to put even a case on the bus. I even carry my own bag. I bought Hüsker Dü’s cover of “Eight Miles High” on a vinyl 45 a long time ago.
David Bowie was a fan of your music. Did you speak to David much prior to his death?
I don’t feel like he’s dead. I still don’t believe it. I feel like he is somewhere and he’s not really gone.
You worked with David Bowie, didn’t you?
We were in the studio in midtown in NYC with Phillip Glass. We’d go up there and work on stuff. I had worked with Tony Visconti [legendary music producer: T-Rex, David Bowie, Morrissey] and called him a few months later. I asked him: “Did you ever play that song for David?” [Visconti] said, “Yes, did I ever!” Tony said he was producing his new record [Blackstar, 2016]. Thank you, man. Tony said Bowie hadn’t worked with him in almost 25 years. David really liked helping other bands, but really loved being around bands he enjoyed and absorbing their energy.
I remember when I stayed up late in a Greek hotel with Robert Smith, just pounding white wine. That’s the only wine they do well in Greece. [Laughs] Robert said when I was new and we were first starting to get big in England, he said I did that thing that bands do: We said that we’re better than Bowie. I remember one of the shoegazers—Ian Brown or maybe Liam Gallagher—said that same thing. Robert Smith had mouthed off about Bowie. He told me that, after he did it, he said to himself: “Why did I do that? What the fuck was I thinking?” A couple of months later, his manager says, “Bowie wants you to play his birthday party; should I tell him to fuck off?” Robert Smith said, “Are you kidding?! No; I need to apologize to the guy.” It was great; the Cure played his birthday party and they were friends after that.
Bowie is Bowie; he’s a singular archetype more than anything else, but he had a ton of hits, and the only time you should try to sing like him is if it’s that kind of low, baritone [Taylor-Taylor sings]. His style and his unspoken ideology have kept bands on target for look, vibe, sound, and style. That’s what he is: a fucking archetype. A true artist.
Bowie really transcended just music. He could paint, write, act, et cetera.
He was a true intellectual. It was so great to know him and hang with him on tour.
I’m the only living person that can say I played with him on stage and sang with him. No one living now. That’s what he told me. Lou Reed was alive at the time, and he was the only other person at the time, but that’s what David told me. Then when Lou died, I realized that I’m the only remaining one. I walked on stage, up the stairs, and out with my guitar. My band was already out there. And I just went, “Arghhh!” I said somethings to him and we rocked it and I know it’s still on YouTube. I joined him on stage at his show, but I haven’t watched it since he’s gone. I don’t think I will ever watch it again.
The 2004 documentary Dig is possibly one of the best music documentaries out there. What has that film meant to you, career-wise and personally?
It’s really a documentary on Anton [Newcombe; The Brian Jonestown Massacre]. We were really told what to do. The [directors] would tell us, “Hey, we need to go shoot some film at their house,” or wake me up after two hours of sleep after drinking and doing blow. Talk to Phil Costello [music executive] and ask him about this or not. The only time she caught us in our natural state was when the French cops came on our bus. That was the only time we weren’t told what to do. We were supposedly the best adjusted band in the world. We’re not that significant in the story.
[Newcombe] stopped drinking like seven years ago, but he’s still a kook, wild man and an intellectual: a madman and brainiac. He’s got a record label, a studio, a family, etc. I don’t think he’s that guy. That was just a bad alcoholic. That whole thing was so, you know—just dark and icky. We were totally taken advantage of and lied to. We were also naïve and trusted her. We thought she was doing a documentary, but she wasn’t; she was making reality TV. We got ripped off on the deal really bad. It’s like, huge, and we haven’t seen one penny from it. It’s our lives. She won’t give us the film. She shot like thousands of hours of film and 500 of those are of our lives. She’s the only person we let film us. She’s a bad person, a bottom feeder—just bad. She does bad things. Make angry movies and make people fight.
I was at the Viper Room show where Anton started that fight on stage. Was that real or staged?
Yes, it was; it’s all kind of real. He would just drink, drink, and drink… He knew he’d have to go crazy or no one would watch a movie about a band. He knew he wasn’t going to make it in the “system”: the old dinosaur, dying system. And, he wasn’t about ready to adapt to that fucktard situation of major label bullshit. So he would just drink until he would pop.
Distortland is your 10th album. Where does this one sit in your catalog?
Actually, it’s not. Let’s count; here’s what I have: Dandy’s Rule OK, 1995; then there’s The Dandy Warhols Come Down, 13 Tales [from Urban Bohemia], then there’s [Welcome to the] Monkey House, and Odditorium is number five. Then This Machine, and then that brings us up to today: Distortland.
I’m looking at your discography; it lists 10 releases. Let’s set the record straight.
Some of those are basically the same albums or repackaged obscurities. There was a new [record company] president, a completely stupid man. He heard the new album at the time and said, “What’s this? It’s not black; it’s not white.” They were going to take it away from me and so I got Nick Rhodes involved; I wasn’t going to remake 13 Tales again. Which, of course, is what everyone else really wanted. No one was really making new wave music anymore and I was listening to Gary Numan [and] Duran Duran’s first record, so I got the dudes that did “Where’s Your Head At?” It had that Gary Numan sample in it. I got that mixer and Nick Rhodes and we made the first new wave album for the 21st century. We got a lot of shit for that. It flopped when it came out, but influenced some bands and now is bigger than it was when released.
I remember when you first came out, you were so fresh, and the ’90s seemed really diverse. Did you find the ’90s a great time for music?
I think the ’80s were actually better. When MTV came out, it was a new medium and it allowed bands like Adam and the Ants, the Clash, and the Cure to break through. They weren’t Foreigner or Journey; only those bands were allowed on the radio. This new thing was what the cool kids were watching. In the ’90s, CZ Records [Seattle indie label] bands. They didn’t have a chance to really get big. They’re gone and forgotten. All you had was college radio, and MTV, by then, was basically safe. It was what was commercially accessible. Those bands were touring in vans.
Most of those ’90s bands are gone. They were not going to get above from touring in a van and living in a tiny box together, stinking, having no money or decent food. They were playing for like 200 people a night. I picked the right people to sign with [Capitol Records]. In a lot of ways, Perry [Watts-Russell, Capitol A&R] protected and shielded us. I didn’t produce our records to sound like something that was big at the time, like Bush. We put out some records that flopped, but ultimately they got bigger. We maybe barely broke the Billboard Top 100. We weren’t that kind of band, as you probably remember. [Author’s note: I worked for Perry Watts-Russell at Capitol Records as an A&R scout.]
I wrote “Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth” after seeing a Vogue spread for “heroin chic.” The photo spread was like 10 pages of 13-year-old girls painted white with red veins and wearing designer wedding-gown clothes. I was so horrified. My ex-girlfriend, who I actually originally put the first band together with, basically became a junkie after going out on our first tour. So that’s what the song is about, but Anton always said it was about him. I wouldn’t write a song about Anton, because I wouldn’t know what to say. [Laughs] I just couldn’t.
Heroin has ruined a lot of people’s lives. It was all over in the ’90s and very prevalent in the music scene.
Yeah, I lost one friend, sometimes two, a year, to heroin. If you watch the video for “Bohemian Like You,” she’s gone. Actually, a couple of people in that video are gone. [Sighs] Just tragic.
Do you still own the Odditorium (a recording studio/events venue in Portland)? I heard it sustained major damage in a storm.
The roof caved in only over the mixing room. It’s taken about a year to get everything fixed. We’re good now. | Doug Tull
The Dandy Warhols are on tour through mid-October, including a performance at the new Delmar Hall in St. Louis on October 8. Additional tour dates are below:
09.25 | Skully’s, Columbus OH
09.27 | Rams Head Live, Baltimore
09.28 | Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro NC
09.29 | Charleston Music Hall, Charleston SC
09.30 | The Social, Orlando
10.01 | Culture Room, Ft. Lauderdale
10.03 | State Theatre, St. Petersburg
10.04 | Ponte Vedra Concert Hall, Ponte Vedra FL
10.06 | Terminal West, Atlanta
10.07 | Mercy Lounge, Nashville
10.08 | Delmar Hall, St. Louis
10.10 | Saturn, Birmingham AL
10.11 | Tipitina’s, New Orleans
10.12 | Granada Theater, Dallas
10.13 | White Oak Music Hall, Houston
10.14 | The Scoot Inn, Austin