The downtown area of Portland, Oregon hasn’t seemed to stay put over the past 25 years. Real estate development and the steady rise of the tech industry have set the entire city into a state of flux with new apartment complexes popping up like dandelions along the skyline with boutiques and restaurants growing just as quickly in their shadow.
In reaction to the exponential growth, everyone in the arts community has either adapted to the changes by sanding down the jagged edges of their work in hopes of reaching a wider audiences or it has entrenched itself deeper in the underground, embracing a rougher, uglier aesthetic.
Everyone except The Dandy Warhols.
The psych-pop quartet has remained one of the few constants in Portland’s music scene. The Dandys couldn’t help but stand out from the grunge-drunk acts that dominated the clubs and press in 1994 with their jangly mix of Krautrock rhythms, glam swagger, and high cheekbone glamour. They faked the rock star part until they actually made themselves into the real deal thanks to a certain Vodafone advert and, for better or worse, the 2004 documentary Dig!
The ups and downs that have followed since are par for the course for any band that has lasted as long as the Dandys. But what hasn’t shifted is their creative consistency. Even as their music has incorporated the throb of vintage synthpop and modern electronica and deepened its power pop roots, each record has provided the perfect headphone head trips and concert hall euphorics.
25 years later, the quartet—vocalist/guitarist Courtney Taylor-Taylor, guitarist Peter Holmström, keyboardist Zia McCabe, and drummer Brent DeBoer—are proving still capable of surprises. Their latest album Why You So Crazy is a phantasmagoric journey that dials up their Velvet Underground influences (‘Motor City Steel,’ ‘Small Town Girls’), throws a little zonked country diversion in our path, and smears the rest with bright washes of pastel colors and stereo panning effects. It ends with a extended piano instrumental that evokes the pastoral drift of Robert Schumann and the heady skronk of Cecil Taylor.
One reason the Dandys have been able to follow the meandering path of their collective muse for so long is The Odditorium, the clubhouse and art space that the band purchased in 2001. Inside the otherwise nondescript building is everything they need to create without interference: a state-of-the-art recording studio, a green screen room to make music videos, a proper stage to use for tour rehearsals and plenty of space to lounge around and wait for inspiration to strike.
It’s into their lovely lair that Taylor-Taylor and Holmström invited this humble interlocutor to have a freewheeling conversation about the creation of Why You So Crazy, having to start over after the fallout from Dig!, coming to terms with their 25 years as a band and so much more.
How do you approach making a new record together? Are you writing together or are you each bringing songs in for the rest of the band to learn? What’s your process like?
Courtney Taylor-Taylor: Everyone kind of does their own thing in their basement studios and puts in there. [He gestures to the Odditorium’s soundboard and computer.] Then we kind of circulate through here. Sometimes at the same time but mostly by ourselves with the engineer, just loading on to each other’s songs.
Does it feel like a pretty streamlined process having worked together for as long as you have? Peter Holmström: [laughs] No! It’s a completely different process than when we started but it really doesn’t feel that different.
CTT: It’s always messy.
PH: Yeah, it’s always shocking that there’s a record when we’re done.
CTT: The four of us learn so much in those three years between records. We all learn a tonne. The fucking subtlety and complexity and how abstract music is to begin with. The grunts and clicks and beeps and shit. It makes people feel so good or terrible. We just learn so much about it so each record seems like a big, huge leap forward from the last one.
And this new record does feel like that. It feels like you’re taking steps into more experimental terrain and fucking with your vocals and obscuring them.
CTT: Every song is a feeling in your life and you just try to intensify it by having the vocals be bone dry or be really fuzzy. Or, you know, the guitar is super loud or tiny. That’s all it is. It’s all about feeling at the end of the day. On this record, on ‘Motor City Steel,’ that is a bone dry vocal. But obviously ‘Terraform’ is very layered. I think I had six vocal tracks on there with backwards delay and forwards delay.
The way you record these days doesn’t feel like a very egotistical process. You have to put a lot of trust in your bandmates to let them fuck around with your tracks.
CTT: It makes your songs better. Zia and Pete and Brent are probably the best studio producers I’ve ever worked with. It’s a huge weight off to know that I can just walk away when I’m no longer inspired to take a song any further and somebody is going to come in and put something on there that is an absolute mindfuck. Everybody’s just so good now, it’s ridiculous.
PH: Absolutely. It’s what a band is supposed to be.
I wanted to ask about 'Highlife' from the new record, which puts the spotlight on Zia as a vocalist and has a great psych-country vibe to it. Where did that song come from?
CTT: That’s a cover of a song from Zia’s hillbilly band [Brush Prairie].
PH: She’s had that band for a long time.
CTT: At least since the big breakup. That is a straight up ‘I just split with my husband and my family just split up and fuck it, here’s how I feel about it today.’ That’s why that one just killed me. There’s all the subtlety that says this is a real experience this person is going through. She wrote a lot of ‘I’m a wild woman. You can’t tame me’ shit. I don’t know if we’d be comfortable rocking that but ‘Highlife’ is such a great song. And the lyrics and the delivery. Plus, the production, I think it was either Uncut or MOJO called it a ‘helium trip’ and it is exactly that. Whip-its or helium.
Was that a song she brought to the band or did you ask her about covering it?
CTT: I heard it and I said, ‘Let’s cover that.’ And it just...I don’t write that many songs anymore.
Is that on purpose?
CTT: I just don’t have time and I don’t care as often. Songs are always something I have to do to make myself feel better about whatever shit I just did. Good songs are harvesting your regrets. I’m just too busy to sit around and stew about how fucked up I am anymore.
Do you put pressure on yourselves to create then? I feel like having a space like this and having the time to work on a record relieves a lot of the pressure to feel like you have to get something done.
CTT: Not until the very end, when we feel like, ‘I think we’ve got a record here.' Even with this one, I don’t think we ever applied any stress or time limits.
PH: Not until the very end when it’s ‘Holy shit, we’ve got to finish this.’
CTT: ‘It’s done. Except for this, this, and this!’
PH: That or you saying to us it has to go to mixing in however much time it is and we’re, like, ‘But, but, but I’ve got this idea!’
Is that how you typically decide when a song is done, when you have to pry it out of someone’s hands? I feel like there could be a compulsion to keep tweaking things and working on it unless someone puts a hard deadline down.
CTT: No, when you keep fucking with it and it’s not as cool as it was three mixes ago, that’s when it’s done. Then you go back to that mix, and go, ‘That’s it. That’s the mix.’ But we’ve been doing this for 25 years. We’ve learned that.
How does that feel, the fact that you’re looking at your 25th anniversary as a band this year?
PH: It’s just a milestone. One I never really expected. Probably 10 years ago I never expected to make it this far, but at this point 30 is not going to be a big deal. 35. I don’t have any other skills.
CTT: It feels like six or seven years to me.
PH: I’ve been doing this half my life now.
What was it 10 years ago that had you thinking you wouldn’t make this far?
PH: Just that 15 years in a band...that seemed normal for a band that I didn’t really expect to go beyond five because nothing in your life had gone even five years. 20 years seemed like a good point to call it quits or whatever. It doesn’t feel like we’re rehashing anything or stagnating so why would we stop?
CTT: The only reason is because it really fucks with the family life. I get up in a panic at 8am and I check emails and answer emails until 14 hours later when I go to bed again. I’m putting down the phone as I’m heading off to bed and feeling, like, ‘Just a couple more words…’ It just never ends. While we’re talking here, I will have 15 to 20 panic-stricken fires that I have to put out. That’s the only reason to quit because it’s a pain in the ass. The finances of a global company are so fucking confusing. It’s hard work and there’s nobody else to do it. Without the record release, it’s a perfect vacation band. Last year was just vacation after vacation. Go to Hong Kong for five days, go to Denver and wherever else. But the record release thing...then it’s industry again. Then it’s interviews and photos. I love doing interviews. I just don’t ever want them to come out. There’s always those regrets of ‘What did I say?’ and ‘Why didn’t I say that?’ or ‘Why did this idiot write it that way?’
Is that something that weighs on you, Peter, or do you not worry about it?
PH: I don’t do very many interviews. I’m not sure why. There was a while when we were only doing select ones and a few of those got farmed off to me. I’m not sure I did any on the last record. But I don’t worry about it as much.
Has that always been the case though? Any band that’s starting out is usually hungry as hell to get some press mentions?
PH: No, I read reviews of the records and all that. I think that stopped around Odditorium era because that record got panned just because of Dig!
CTT: We got Hollywooded really bad and it kind of ended the world knowing who we are and understanding us and going, ‘Oh, yeah, weirdos from Portland, sure. They’re cool or they’re gross or whatever.’ But then it became, ‘Oh, we’re these douchebags from Hollywood.’ And that’s the last thing we are! I know lots of reasons to dislike us and none of them are in that movie. I also know a lot of reasons to like us, which weren’t in that movie. I would hate that band in that movie. So, I understand. You put a record after that thing comes out, they don’t even listen to the record. They already know what fuckers you are. We had to start over from a negative number. We had to dig our fucking shit out.
Still, good on you guys for not letting that destroy what you had built up to that point.
CTT: That was the most impressive thing to me. We sat down at that table right there [he points to a large wooden conference table in an adjoining room] and we just went, ‘Whoa...what do we do?’ Nothing. We just keep on keeping on. Only we’re not playing 5,000 seat venues anymore, we’re playing 300 seat venues. But time marches on and now we’re back to playing 5,000 seat venues!
Thinking back to when the band started in 1994, what leaps to mind?
CTT: Just being young and free of any real concerns in life. What an amazing time.
PH: To be able to survive on about $350 a month. All we did was play music. Work two or three nights a week and then just hang out and have a good time.
CTT: Portland was so simple then. It was a great weirdo place. That’s what made us who we are.
The Dandy Warhols are on tour. Check here for ticket information.
29 - Birmingham, O2 Institute
30 - Glasgow, Old Fruitmarket
31 Manchester, Albert Hall
01 London: O2 Academy Brixton
The album Why You So Crazy is out now