We chat with The Dandy Warhols
It’s 2012 and the Dandy Warhols are still touring. Eighteen years after frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor (then just the one Taylor) met keyboardist Zia McCabe at a Starbucks, assured her that it didn’t matter that she couldn’t play an instrument and that she should definitely be in his band, the Dandys are still selling out shows.
Their ninth studio album This Machine dropped on April 24, and although the tracks are still steeped thick with their native Oregon grunge and their trademark wry humour, the album is a conscious step away from the sunny days of careless youth, drifting into darker territory and even leading several critics to use the word ‘gothic’ to describe its sound.
“I think that we probably feel like we’ve had some gothic elements in all of our albums,” says McCabe but I guess just because some of the tones are darker and the overall mood of some of the songs are a bit darker, and ‘goth’ is kind of an easy, ‘go-to’ genre word for a dark, emotional tone for music.”
McCabe explains that This Machine was partly a creative experiment for the band, for the first time relieving Taylor-Taylor of sole songwriting duties and instead compiling an album with writing efforts from the entire band.
“I’m very much a collaborator with music, and I think for Courtney it was a new thing,” she explains. “He’ll typically have the lyrics and the chord changes at least when he brings it to us… but this time he’d just really be open to whatever. We’d be up for anybody’s writing ideas on this record.”
“I thought it was exciting. I think that you can see some growing pains in the album because of that. From start to finish it doesn’t have that seamless feel, in my mind, that our past albums have had, and I attribute that to having so many collaborators. But I think that that’s something we can easily grow into and get a hang of better in the future, so it makes me excited for future recordings,” says the keyboardist.
One song on the album stands out as, to some critics, an uncomfortable question mark hovering over a band once known for their naked onstage antics, as members who are ageing into their forties.
In the self-deprecating ‘Enjoy Yourself,’ frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor admits, “I used to be cool” before a chorus of, “So look at yourself/ Enjoy your health.’ A Pitchfork reviewer suggested his exaggerated ‘Tim Curry-esque drawl’ implies that he’s singing in the voice of a character, but Zia is quick to dismiss the idea.
“He’s talking about himself and getting older and realising that looks fade, and what stuff isn’t permanent about youth and to not waste it. To me that was a really charming thing for someone that doesn’t have a small ego to write and I really like the honesty in that song.”
“I don’t know if it maybe made it a little easier for him to be so candid by using like you said a ‘character’s voice’, to get outside himself a little to perform it, maybe it’s intense to be that candid about yourself in that kind of way,” she muses.
“He’s just going ‘hey, I used to be really hot and really cool and kind of an asshole, and now I’m realising that I should have enjoyed it more’,” reveals McCabe. “Youth is wasted on the young, I think that’s how the saying goes…”
The band might be getting less naked these days, but they didn’t get picked to play the upcoming Harvest Festival for their calming presence. While the public can rattle off the Harvest lineup by heart, McCabe has no idea what she’s in for, preferring to be surprised by what’s on offer.
“I wander into things blind typically,” she says, “I barely look at who else is playing or what time we go on, or what stage until we get there, I don’t know why but that’s just the way I roll.” True to her casual word – when the line-up is spilled to McCabe in one, incoherent gasp of names, she approves a couple headliners, while others slip past without reaction.
“We’ve done some festivals with Beck,” she responds coolly, “I’m always curious to see what he’s up to, sometimes I’m not into it, sometimes I love it. But he’s been around as long as we have, longer, and still doing stuff. I don’t know what mark you have to pass, whether it’s the two year mark or the fifteen year mark to have a sense of camaraderie with any band that’s been around that long through the same time period as you; and hes kind of seen the same stuff. We’ve kind of lived some sort of parallel life, so of course I’m excited to see that.”
Anyone else that tickles her fancy? “Sigur Ros, I loved seeing them at festivals. I thought they were really boring when I saw them in Portland, so I’m excited to see them in a festival setting again, not in a cosy chair in a theatre where it’s too easy to fall asleep.”
After nearly two decades of the festival scene, McCabe admits she’s rarely fazed anymore by running into big names backstage.
“You never know when you’re going to get star struck and of course its always embarrassing ‘cause you didn’t expect it to happen, you thought you were cooler than that,” has the Dandy ever been caught out? “Really, the only time I’ve been star struck is when I met Willie Nelson. I just started crying and blubbering and hyperventilating, it was very embarrassing.”
Taking the opportunity to draw out Zia’s embarrassment a bit longer, we ask which Australian bands she’s into. “We get asked this in every foreign country and I never have a good answer. You know who I like that’s actually New Zealand, I really, really like Ruby Suns.”
We remind her that here substituting Kiwis for Australians is about as popular as confusing Canadians for Americans in the States.
“I know! I’m sorry, but that’s as close as I can get! The Morning After Girls are Australian right? They opened for us. I don’t listen to very much current music, so I’m not very good with even if people said what American band are you into right now, I wouldn’t even have a good answer. I would say, you know, I listen to a lot of Ray Charles, does that count?”
We’ll let it go, this time. At least McCabe’s being honest - it’s that same ‘no bullshit’ attitude that’s allowed the Dandy Warhols to ride the alt-rock wave of the ‘90s right through to the shores of 2012 without bending to the frivolous fashions of each passing year.
“Our creed, our motto for being able to get through life on the road and just life in general is ‘when it’s good it’s fun, and when it’s bad it’s funny’ …and that’s really one of the main things that’s gotten us through, trying to not get hung up on the frustrating times and try and keep a good sense of humour on how bumpy life can be.”
This Machine is 0ut now through The End Records. The Dandy Warhols tour as part of Harvest Festival in November.