By Mikel Jollett on February 1, 2012
2012 marks FILTER Magazine‘s tenth year in print. To celebrate, we are looking back at some of our favorite magazine features, from July 2002’s Issue #1 all the way up to this coming November’s Issue #50.
Some interviews are standard Q+As and some are just plain old hang-outs, our interview in FILTER Issue #4 with The Dandy Warhols falls somewhere between hang-out and tell-all. Singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor gave us the ins and outs of their studio space, what he thinks of the critics and the many cracks in the rock-star facade that Taylor seems to put on.
Art Imitating Life Imitating… THE DANDY WARHOLS (Issue 4, February 2003)
Photography by Stephen Dewall- Illustrations by Tom Manning
THERE'S ALWAYS that moment in an interview when you’re talking to somebody famous, somebody you’ve read about, somebody who’s already an image in your head, somebody who up until now was only a sketch of quotes and back stories and old press photos folded into some ratty notebook--and all the while you’re checking your notes to make sure you’ve asked the right questions, nodding approvingly at whatever’s being said, wondering if your hair is cool enough, if your clothes are cool enough, if you can write something cool about it, something that doesn’t mix metaphors or start with a big run-on sentence--and so you’re sitting there thinking about all these things while you smile and try to play smooth and then suddenly the moment comes. And you’re always glad for it. It’s a moment when something happens: a joke, a seagull shits on your shoulder, the fourth beer, whatever--and for just that moment you are no longer a journalist and the guy across from you is no longer a rock star and you’re just two guys having a pretty fucking good conversation.
That moment happened for Courtney Taylor-Taylor and me during the national anthem of the Super Bowl. We were sitting in Cal-Sports, a dark, ironically-themed tavern somewhere in the maze of brick warehouses and concrete skyways which make up the “Industrial Quarter” (really, it’s on the street signs) of Portland, Oregon. Courtney was holding, uh, court with his collection of scarf-clad, leather-jacket-bound , mop-topped twenty to thirty-something pals—locals mostly, from what I could tell, who treated the lead singer of the Dandy Warhols with the type of zealous affection generally reserved for the patriarchal leaders of certain isolated cults—and I was sitting there with Steve (our photographer who had nothing to do until the photo shoot on Sunday night) and we were listening to Courtney’s incessant monologue (because damn it, the guy can really talk) which, for the moment, was focused on Celine Dion whose hand was migrating slowly across her chest as she sang “God Bless America” on TV—Courtney playing the part of the flustered stage manager speaking into her headset (“Don’t touch the nipple, Celine. You can grab the breast, but for God’s sake, don’t touch the nipple”). When into this rather surreal scene of leather bracelets, eyeliner, beer, John Madden and Raider apparel, walked in a thin, medium-sized white dog with blue eyes. The dog came in through the front door as if it was the most natural thing in the world and sat down next to us. Courtney looked up.
“That is a cool fucking dog. I want that dog.” All agreed. And we laughed. And the dog stayed. And we fed him hot dogs. And everything become sort of normal again.
We’d met Courtney two hours earlier when, after walking aimlessly through the serpentine, rain-soaked streets of Portland, we showed up at the band’s new photo/ movie/practice/performance/art studio dubbed “The Odditorium.” On the phone from L.A., Courtney had described the place as a cool and aesthetically perfect location for our photo shoot. What we saw was a one-story commercial office space in an alley beneath the overpass. Courtney was walking out to the street with a vacuum cleaner to pick up some glass. I wasn’t entirely sure it was him at first, since he looked shorter in his photos (they always do, I know) and in his tight, ripped T-shirt, walking out of the garage, appeared to be less like the slick, urban bohemian of reputation, and more like James Dean or a young Marlon Brando. His hips rotated when he walked, his body moving from side to side like a dimestore cowboy; and I frankly wasn’t sure if he did it on purpose or if it was a result of the fact that his jeans were so damn tight. In any case, he made an impression.
He showed us around the studio, which was for the moment, still a dusty mess of exposed dry wall, paint brushes, broken glass, cigarette butts, screws, and florescent lights. “Capitol’s paying for all of this,” he said as we looked on into the main room: a very large converted machine shop with a new concrete floor cut into a checkerboard. Half-painted Roman columns hung from the ceiling. “We can play gigs here, have dinners, it’s a great space.” And though he described his vision of an all-in-one art studio with the tone of a teen stoner describing the ways in which he’s going to trick out his van until it’s “totally sweet,” by the end of his monologue, I believed him. Listening to him, you get the sense that you’re always participating in a grand, elegant, well art-directed day dream. Maybe it’s his clothes. Or maybe it’s the slouch of his lip. Or maybe it’s the fact that everything about him—his attitude, the cadence of his voice, the permanently-fixed expression of one who is unimpressed—suggest a man who is completely convinced of his coolness, his attractiveness and his ability to get shit done.
It must be great to be a rock star. Especially one like Courtney who is not the lest bit vexed by the fact that Capitol Records is funding his burgeoning empire of thrift-store cool up there somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. “This label has shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars for us to fucking get stoned, get drunk, whoop it up, plug in our equipment, buy weird stuff,” he confided to me over his Frito boat back at Cal-Sports. “They have been incredibly good to us.” It’s a strange comment on capitalism really (or Capitol-ism for those of you keeping score at home) that the lifestyle of the tragically hip and marginally-employed musician is funded by a company that hopes to market and sell that very concept.
How did we get here?
The Dandy Warhols formed in 1994, when Courtney and guitarist Peter Holmstrom (a shy, soft-spoken and incredibly endearing Jeff to Courtney’s Mutt) decided that there just wasn’t enough cool music in their little universe (and far too many hours in the unforgiving day). They met up with a game, 19-year-old hippy child named Zia McCabe who, at the time, didn’t even play an instrument (keyboards and bass aren’t that hard anyway)—but was fun, and smart, and cool, and up for absolutely anything. Add a since-replaced drummer named Eric Hedford, some enthusiastic shows for the locals, a propensity to disrobe on stage (Courtney sans pants, Zia sans blouse), local radio airplay, a contract with Portland indie label Tim/Kerr, and you got yourself a hip little rock band.
Sugardaddy Capitol Records signed them the next year with a big bonus and then proceeded to reject their first album because it had no singles. Unfazed by Capitol’s chagrin, the Dandies headed back to the studio to rework what eventually became their first major album Come Down which included a minor hit song entitled “Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth.” The video for that song was played on MTV and featured a warped game show in which drug-users were rewarded for their habit with prizes like a toilet to vomit in, or a car crash. The video was directed by another tragically hip individual, David LaChapelle, who was (according to local legend) lured into working with the Dandies by a picture he received of Eric and Pete in a bathtub, Courtney peeing in a sink, Zia on the toilet, and a dead dog nailed to the wall, along with a note, written in Courtney’s hand, reading, “Yes, this is me licking your ass. But if it’s working, call and let me know.” The video was a minor sensation. There was a message about the ills of drug use in it somewhere, but that message was mostly eclipsed by the spectacle of dancing syringes.
I asked them about this image the next day while having lunch at a yuppie café in Northwest Portland, if people always expected them to be there big drug-users, if they were ever asked to do something like drop e and run through the forest, when all they wanted to do was eat a cheeseburger. Peter fielded, “The only time the image has worked against us was in the British press where it was all they wanted to talk about. It went away with the last record.”
“I’ll drop e an run through the forest,” Zia interjected, a coy little smile forming on her lips.
Peter flashed his reticent grin, “And anyway, they did finally focus on the music. Like we stuck around long enough and made enough records to actually matter.”
Courtney picked up, “You’ve got the British press who are a lot of chronic masturbator, drippy-nosed, dweebs. English bands traditionally have drug problems. But they don’t talk about drugs, because they have problems with it. Well, we don’t have any drug problems. We don’t give a fuck. If it’s there, we do it. If it’s not, if we need to sleep, we don’t. I mean, who gives a shit? It’s like eating [pointing at his plate]. Do you have a fish and chips problem? No. We don’t talk about fish and chips. And we don’t eat it everyday. But if that’s all you ask me about…so, of course, all they want to talk about is sex and drugs and blah, blah, blah. With the last record, there were no photo studios involved, no slickness to our image. We had to react to everybody’s opinion.”
And react they did. Their next album, Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, was a critical and commercial success, featuring an impressive diversity of styles—from spaghetti western, to psychedelic wall-of-sound rock, to a decidedly Love-and-Rockets-meets-Lou-Reed-cooler-than-shit spoken word growl. They were nominated (along with Sigur Rós, PJ Harvey, Air, and other critical heavyweights) for the Shortlist Award. They made fans out of guys like David Bowe (who went to their shows), Joe Strummer, Trent Reznor and Robert Smith. They recorded a song with Massive Attack. And they even scored a radio hit with the peripatetic snapshot-of-a-day-in-the-life-of-the-typical-city-hipster single “Bohemian Like You.” They had style, they had grace, they had messy hair. They talked about the Revolution of Elegant Haircuts, the day to come when frat-boys would have to muss up their hair and be nice to girls in order to get laid. They proclaimed themselves, “the last sexy rock band.” If you weren’t into them, you had at least heard of them, and you respected the diaphanous cloud of urbane Dandy hipness looming out there on the horizon.
dandy warhols - bohemian like you by aquarius3
So sitting there in that little yuppie café with Zia, Pete, Courtney, and Brent (Courtney’s cousin and Dandy drummer since just after Come Down—who is more like Greg Brady than his hair even suggests), in 2003, the day after the Super Bowl, on the verge of their third major label release, when the sartorially-inclined upstart garage rockers of the world had co-opted their style, co-opted their revolution which forced frat boys in skinny ties to hit on the girls smoking cigarettes on the sidewalk in front of Strokes shows, I wondered if they felt at least somewhat responsible for the whole thing.
Peter spoke softly from behind a heavy tangle of dyed bangs, “We came before it so I’m sure we influenced it in some way or another. I guess it’s sort of happening, but not enough, not on a big enough scale.”
"It will. It’s just a matter of time,” Courtney added, sipping upon his glass of pinot noir and spritzer. “We weathered that whole thing. Grunge was going on. We were a reaction to grunge. We survived nü-metal and boy bands. We’re like the only band who weathered it. And now it’s cool to be in cool bands again. It's kinda weird. Oh, yeah. It’s going to be good for five years. And then its just going to fucking face-plant. By then, hopefully we’ll all be retired with a big piece of land, horses, and babies.”
I thought it would be a sensitive moment. But it wasn’t. I thought perhaps they would feel like something they started had been stolen from them. But they didn’t.
Courtney looked enthusiastic about it. “It’s not like stealing. It’s more like borrowing. That’s all you do. All you do is take blue and yellow and put them together in a weird way that no one else has. It’s not that you invented green. There’s nothing original, just combinations of things. We were the last sexy rock band until a couple of years ago and now bands are sexy again. The singer for the Hives. The White Stripes. The Strokes. They’re sexy bands. It’s great.”
Peter chimed in, “The thing is, we’ve never been trendy. We were always just like, ‘This is what we like' whether it is in fashion or not. It’s just sort of whatever. And it’s never done all the way. Which is the problem. We do everything half-assed. We're not like Ladytron or the Hives where it's like, 'We're going to do this.' And everybody’s going to do it. We can’t ever pull that off.”
There’s a lull in the conversation as more drinks arrive. Courtney discusses the specifics of T-shirts and make-up for the photo shoot that night with Zia. Steve is concerned about the background for the photos. A wall and a floor have to be painted white. Courtney’s cell phone rings. The paint is drying. And I’m wondering if all of this isn’t just a little pre-packaged. If the world of hip-pocket intellectualism and fashionable slackerhood that’s been created here, surrounding these admittedly artistic musicians isn’t just a bit like some “Bohemian Adventure” ride at Disneyland where the essence of a sub-culture has been chopped into a few digestible soundbites and basic ideas to be exported and consumed by a family of four with one-use cameras and sunburnt ankles.
Because there are times when it seems Courtney is just trying too hard. I mean, we go to bars. We read books. We listen to music. We attend shows. And there are a lot of smart and interesting people doing smart and interesting things in our world, too. But I guess we’re a little less excited by it. And we don’t know how to use it to sell records. And we aren’t rock stars. So maybe it’s just plan basic envy or maybe it’s something like what Navajos must feel when they see the Indian canoes at Disneyland—the discomfort spawned from watching something you are, turned into something someone else can buy.
I ask Courtney about the death of the age of irony, and whether post-modernism ended on September 11th, the dialogue between art and politics being what it is. He responds, “Politics has not publicly said anything to art yet. There has been no dialogue yet. What I’m suspecting is going to happen is a lot of what happened in Nazi Germany where politics will say to art, ‘You better fucking watch it, or we’re going to put all of you in jail.’ The artists almost never demand a statement from the people. They’ll always go with the gun before they go with the brush. Who knows, artists might not be clever or cool enough anymore to get a comment out of politics.” And I don’t think he realizes what a powerful case he’s just made for a statement like that.
“I just love the idea of the common man,” he continues. “The working man. I think that’s the highest genius you can achieve. To be a hard-working non-intellectual, clearly Zen about life. Just make your way through. Things pop up in your life. You overcome it. Or you go around.” I’m wondering just what people he’s talking about. And whether—like the Odditorium, the drug use, the viewpoint on style—it’s all part of his grand and elegant daydream.
The conversation turns to the weighty topic of the new record, Welcome to the Monkeyhouse, Capitol has once again asked to rework it, pushing its release from early spring to July—and the band seems to have no problem with it as long as they can release their own version on their own label. “Capitol wanted something slicker. Something more marketable,” Courtney explains. “These people, they don’t live real lives and stuff. They probably don’t know anybody anymore who buys records just because they like them. Still, we are a priority. We searched and searched to find the coolest slick mixer for it. Because the White Stripes still only sell five hundred thousand. Creed sells five million.
“So there’s no reason why, like the good little scientists that we are, we do pure research and then give it to them and say, ‘If you can do something with that and make five million dollars with it, do it.’ No one I give a shit about listens to KROQ. So I don’t care.” Everyone nods in agreement. It’s a confusing moment because what he’s just said sounds to me exactly like selling out, but then I’m not exactly sure what that even means, and anyway the interview is basically over at this point, and he’s the rock star, so I don’t press further.
We did the photo shoot that night and got on a plane the next day. It was an empty flight and Steve slept in the back, having been up until 2:00 a.m. shooting the band. Looking down over the wing at the city of Portland—the pristine bridges and minor ports, the sprinkle of 12-story buildings, shops and museums that make up the downtown—I couldn’t help but think that it looked less like the heedless, sprawling mess of a city where we lived and more like something out of Sim-City. Here is an airport. Here is a factory. And here is a subculture. I wondered if I’d gone far enough with my questions. If I’d challenged them enough. Or if maybe I’d kept everything too sanitary out of some instinct to be non-confrontational. I mean, I really don’t know what selling out is. And I don’t think I could even define artistic integrity, if pressed to do so. In any case, they make cool music and it’s not like they’re Motley Crüe. And what exactly is there to expose? This isn’t Watergate. After all, they have to sell records just like we have to sell magazines and there they are on our cover. So maybe we’re all in on it together.
Besides, there was another moment. Another crack in the rock star façade. It was during the photo shoot on the last night. They put the album on and we all listened to it. They seemed nervous, checking my expression to see if I liked it. It reminded me of friends who play in local bands that do the same thing—that same air of wanting approval. Which is strange for a band that’s sold over a million records worldwide. I didn’t get the sense that they were concerned about sales or market penetration, more like a group of kids who’d made something and wanted people to like it. So I remembered something Zia had said during the interview. Courtney was going on and on about how “fucking brilliant” and “amazing” the new album is and everybody was nodding their heads, sort of puffing their chests about how great they were. But then he paused, his diatribe complete for the time being, casting a pall over the table when no one said anything. So out of the corner of the table I heard Zia’s voice. Not nearly as confident and blazing and convinced of its utter coolness. It was childlike. Earnest. And in a strange way, it summed up the attitude, the clothes, the desire for record sales—the combination of artistry, work, and insecurity behind the whole overstuffed rock ego. “All I can really say is that we’re proud of what we made and we really hope you like it.” F
PREVIOUS "10 YEARS OF FILTER" FEATURES
Issue #1 (July 2002) Getting To Know: Bright Eyes, Doves, Balligomingo, South and Breakestra
Issue #1 (July 2002) Cover Story: On the Dark Side of the Moon with Weezer
Issue #2 (September 2002) Getting To Know: Haven, Interpol, Division of Laura Lee, Jazzanova and The Cato Salsa Experience
Issue #2 (September 2002) Cover Story: Looking Back in Wonder: Björk Takes a Pause
Issue #3 (November/December 2002) Getting To Know: Röyksopp, Thievery Corporation, Clinic, Hot Hot Heat + The Pattern, Ikara Colt and The Music
Issue #3 (November/December 2002) Cover Story: Coldplay: At Home in the World
This article is from FILTER Issue 4