The Dandy Warhols: The big picture

The Dandy Warhols may have sold their music for a mobile-phone commercial and sparred with their rivals on the big screen, but they haven't sold out. Fiona Sturges hears why

Tuesday 20 September 2005 00:00 BST

For a band who have fought to protect the purity of their music in the past decade, it's somewhat ironic that The Dandy Warhols' biggest breaks have arrived through television and, more recently, the big screen. In 2000, their song "Bohemian Like You" was featured on a Vodafone advert, sending sales of their album Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia through the roof and affording the band the financial freedom they craved for so long.

Earlier this year they once again found themselves in the spotlight with the film DiG! Described by one critic as "the real-life Spinal Tap", it charts the love-hate relationship between The Dandy Warhols and their San Francisco rivals The Brian Jonestown Massacre, led by the hot-headed Anton Newcombe. At the start the two bands are united by their mission "to get a full-scale revolution going on", but as the Dandys' career goes from strength to strength, an embittered Newcombe embarks on a campaign of self-sabotage, assaulting his fellow musicians and ordering bouncers to beat up the audience. By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, the film was a surprise box-office success and won a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance film festival.

The Dandys are unimpressed by such accolades, however. To them, the biggest surprise was that it got finished. "There was always a different story every year," sighs the singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor, who also narrates the film. "The director, Ondi [Timoner], would say, 'It's going to be a monthly show on HBO.' Then the next time she'd be, like, 'It's going to be a weekly show on MTV.' After a couple of years we just saw them as the friends who came with the video camera. They were lovely people who added to the fun." Of the final product he says: "It ended up being about Ondi the film-maker and her ability to wring a plot out of a bunch of random footage. It doesn't indicate to anyone that we're great artists or great musicians or that we even care about music. We're the crazy funsters of the film while the Jonestown have the sad times. In real life there is no plot."

For the outspoken Taylor-Taylor this is clearly a major insult. He is a man who deplores anything in life that doesn't involve making or performing music. This includes flying, staying in hotels, talking on the telephone, having to eat when he doesn't feel like it and talking to the press. During our meeting his mood moves between amusingly sardonic and plain sulky. Asked what is the worst part of the job, he replies, "This", jabbing a finger toward my tape recorder. A little more sheepishly, he continues: "The thing is, you don't need to do this. You can just sit in your town, make a record and send it out. If it goes crazy with the radio then great, you sell a lot of records. You don't need to be a lackey for the label. You don't have to run around doing what we're doing right now. It doesn't seem to help much. [Doing interviews] takes you maybe from 30,000 records sold to 33,000 records sold. If you really want things to happen it's all done in the mixing room."

By contrast, the rest of the band members - the bassist and keyboard player Zia McCabe, the shock-headed drummer Brent DeBoer and the softly spoken guitarist Peter Holmstrom - are the epitome of charm. McCabe, a diminutive redhead with a nice line in self-deprecation, is here with her smiley, 10-month old, baby Matilda. "She's very well-mannered," McCabe says. "She's getting used to the travelling now. This is her in a grumpy mood."

McCabe doesn't see motherhood as making a difference to her life with the band, though she admits it has increased her desire for success. "It's made me crave money, which is a bit of a shock. Before being an artist was enough but now I want to be an artist that makes a serious amount of cash. For the first time in my life I've been worried about how the single's doing. If you look closer you'll see the dollar signs in my eyes."

While DiG! didn't always offer a flattering portrait of The Dandy Warhols ("We're like the class clowns," murmurs DeBoer), all agree that, in commercial terms, it is unlikely to do them any harm. At the start of this week the band released Odditorium or Warlords of Mars, a decadent collection of Stones-meets-Stooges-style rock. Despite the odd lapse into dreary psychedelic noodling, the album contains enough smart riffs and solid tunes to keep their long-standing fans content while possibly reeling in new ones.

The word "odditorium" refers to the band's studio in their hometown of Portland, Oregon. Inspired by Andy Warhol's Factory, the building stretches a quarter of a block and serves as a part-time band residence, rehearsal and recording space and local arts centre for Portland's creative community, a large portion of which helped to design it.

Ten years into their career, The Dandy Warhols insist they have never been tempted to leave Portland. "It's one of the coolest cities on the planet" says McCabe. "I can't imagine living anywhere else. If we couldn't live there, we'd probably leave the country altogether."

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"You ever been to Oslo?" asks Taylor-Taylor. "It's like that, but prettier. It's between a hill and a river, a ridiculously green and idyllic place. And there's a full-sized mountain, and the desert's not much more than an hour away. The cost of living is pretty low, which suited us when we started. In fact, it used to be almost free."

Another advantage of living in Portland is the geographical distance it puts between the band and the music business. In the past The Dandy Warhols have had their work cut out persuading their label to let them make records the way they want. Now they have a space of their own which remains unsullied by shiny-suited executives. "We can just lock ourselves in there and make great art," remarks Holmstrom. "And when we're done we turn it in. Now that we're at a stage where we make enough money for them, the record company people are glad that they don't have to get involved. It's less work for them."

Along with their obstinacy in the face of the bosses, The Dandy Warhols are famed for their extracurricular activities. Over the years, tales have abounded of shows played naked, of advances blown on drugs and alcohol and whole records canned because of the band's inability to finish the job. "Well, that last one's not true," says Holmstrom, referring to 1997's unreleased Black album. "It was canned because we had reached a point where we weren't progressing. We've got to that point plenty of times before and since, where we don't know what to do so we take it somewhere else. With that one we just started again. As for all the other stories, I'm not sure. They're probably about right." Certainly the Dandys admit that their candour with the press in the past has "landed us in the crap"; bitter experience has now taught them to be tight-lipped.

"But we're not really the wild rabble-rousers that people make out," adds DeBoer. "We probably don't go as crazy as people at home who have entirely different jobs do. Yeah, we party and we stay up all night but it's not like we have drug problems."

Looking back on the early days, the eternally gloomy Taylor-Taylor suggests that they were simply making the best of a bad situation. "We're really good at making it fun even when we're suffering," he says - though Holmstrom paints a brighter picture. "We still have a good time. At least I have a good time. I've heard everyone from Trent Reznor to David Bowie look at us and say, 'If you're going to be in a band, you should probably be in your band.'"

Once described by Rolling Stone as "the most exhilarating 60s-into-90s excursion yet attempted by an American band", The Dandy Warhols are now regarded as the missing link between Sixties psychedelic rock and the current guitar bands The Strokes and The White Stripes. Ten years ago they released their debut, Dandys Rule OK, a neo-psychedelic guitar opus that saw them declaring their influences with song titles such as "Lou Weed" and "Ride". In 1997 they delivered Come Down. The first single, "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth" - rumoured to be about Taylor-Taylor's then girlfriend, and containing the line "Heroin is so passé" - rarely found its way on to the radio but confirmed The Dandy Warhols as rock'n'roll rebels.

Their next album, 2000's Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, appeared to have bombed until Vodafone picked up the "Brown Sugar"-ish "Bohemian Like You" for their marketing campaign. The song went to No 5 in the charts and the album went triple-platinum. There were, of course, sections of the indie-rock fraternity who didn't approve and who accused the band of selling out. "Well, grumpy little indie Nazis are good people to piss off," shrugs Taylor-Taylor. "It keeps them out of your shows, keeps them out of your bars, keeps them out of your life."

"As far as I'm concerned, Vodafone saved rock'n'roll," DeBoer reflects. "The most guitar-oriented music on British TV at that time was Robbie Williams. When our record came out, they refused to play it. But then the ad came out and, for whatever reason, it cut through the noise of TV and people were like, 'What the hell's this?' They actually turned up the commercial rather than turning it off. They started calling radio stations, and soon rock was back in people's lives."

"It bought our freedom," Taylor-Taylor adds. "Bands have to take out massive loans from record companies to make videos, albums, cover art, web design. Well, we don't have to. We don't have to do anything we don't want to, ever."

That is clearly not the case, as is illustrated by his sitting in a London hotel lobby, talking to me. "Well, somehow I thought a promotional tour would be fun, but it turns out I'm having no fun at all," he declares, sinking back into his former gloom. "The fact is that I don't travel well. The lack of sleep isn't good. I'm the other side of the world, and it takes me longer to get over jet-lag than anyone else I've met. I won't be over it until I get home." He later reveals that three years ago, while on tour with David Bowie, he quit the band, citing depression and exhaustion as the reason.

"Imagine two months of opening for another band in enormous concrete bunkers outside of big cities. It was horrible, just hell, the biggest daily insult I've had to cope with in my life. After that there was no possible way I could continue. It was a very dark time for me. But then I took four months to hang out and do nothing, and I found myself in the studio. I started to record, and suddenly I was making another record."

In one final attempt to lighten the mood, I ask what Taylor-Taylor wanted out of the band when he started it, and which of those ambitions he has achieved. At last, the brow unfurrows and the shoulders start to relax. "I wanted David Bowie and Robert Smith to find my records, listen to them and love them," he replies. "I wanted to have dinner with them occasionally and chat and be friends. I wanted to meet other bands that were where we're at and hang out with them. I wanted to play music, and not have to do anything else. And that's pretty much what happened. It's pretty amazing, really. I guess we got further than I thought."

'Odditorium or Warlords of Mars' is out now on Parlophone

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