The Dandy Warhols’ Creative Spirit Lives On

The Dandy Warhols Creative Spirit Lives On. Read Leslie Ken Chu's in-depth interview with Courtney Taylor-Taylor
The Dandy Warhols

The Dandy Warhols have always been reactionary. If a genre’s in vogue, they probably don’t dig it, so for 30 years, they’ve made music at the risk of sounding unfashionable. But with their upcoming 12th studio album ROCKMAKER (out March 15), the Portland, Oregon quartet—singer-guitarist Courtney Taylor-Taylor, guitarist Pete Holmström, keyboardist Zia McCabe, and drummer Brent DeBoer—comes closer than ever to walking in step with a trend.

By the time the Dandy Warhols’ heady sophomore album The Dandy Warhols Come Down landed in 1997, grunge and Britpop had already eclipsed shoegaze in popularity. In 2000, when bubble gum pop, post-grunge, and nü metal dominated music charts, the band released Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, their cut-and-dry opus modeled after albums like Bob Dylan’s Desire. And three years later, when they finally felt like they’d found kindred spirits in the White Stripes, the Strokes, and Jet, bands that spearheaded the early aughts garage rock revival, the Dandies threw back to electroclash with Welcome to the Monkey House.

The Dandy Warhols’ reactionary spirit lives on in ROCKMAKER, a guitar record done the way they want to hear it, that is, an antidote to what they call the “knuckle-draggin’ man-rock” that pervades American pop culture today.

ROCKMAKER marks the band’s Sunset Blvd Records debut. “They had the Butthole Surfers, so I was pretty much like, ‘Okay, cool,’” Taylor-Taylor tells Northern Transmissions via Zoom from his home in Portland. In addition to Sunset Blvd’s illustrious catalogue, the band took a shine to the people behind the label. “They’re just amazing. They’re so cool, and they’re really put together. They’re fun to be on a team with. If you’re gonna deal with a bunch of old weirdos, deal with cool old weirdos,” Taylor-Taylor advises.

The album  was forged during Portland’s particularly chaotic summer of 2020. Wildfires across Oregon forced 400,000 people to evacuate their homes. Political tensions roiled as then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign charged forth. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 sparked protests around the world; in numerous cities including Portland, the demonstrations escalated to riots.

“That was the summer of hate,” Taylor-Taylor reflects. “Oh, my god, it was so ugly. It was so grim and oppressive.” The compounding tumult directly inspired the album’s rave-up “The Summer of Hate.” “We finally became the goth band that we’ve always wanted to be.”

Seeking reprieve from the discord, and to pass the endless suspended time imposed by the COVID-19 lockdowns, Taylor-Taylor began experimenting with writing 30-60-second songs. Every Friday, the band posted these tracks to its social media and YouTube pages. The exercise rejuvenated Taylor-Taylor, who had never identified as a prolific songwriter. “Oh, dude, I became a songwriter. I couldn’t believe it. I had to. I figured it out,” he beams with equal parts shock and excitement. “I finally unlocked the code. I have walked around, just nervous, thinking, ‘Another song will never come to me.’ If I try to write, it just sounds predictable; it’s so bad; it’s so obvious.”

The Dandies’ newfound workrate inspired them to take a simplistic approach to ROCKMAKER. “It was a super interesting pure research experiment to make a record where every song starts with a metal riff, whether they end up pretty and orchestrated, with timpanis rolling, or they just stayed metal or whatever,” Taylor-Taylor says. “One followable, cool-to-listen-to, little buzzsaw-y, rubber band-y guitar riff—it doesn’t get simpler than that for guitars.”

As if the successful creative challenge wasn’t thrilling enough, the album also boasts iconic guests including Black Francis (Pixies), Slash (Guns N’ Roses), and Debbie Harry (Blondie). “‘This song needs a thing that we don’t know how to do. This needs that person specifically,’” Taylor-Taylor says, explaining the thought process behind each guest spot.

Taylor-Taylor has never been afraid of being transparent about “the music biz.” When asked how the band linked up with such legends, he answers flatly: “You just have your people go to their people.” But generously, he elaborates: “I’ve known Slash probably since the beginning of us being in the industry, which would have been ’95 or so.” After meeting Francis through mutual friends, “He and I sort of stayed in touch. [ROCKMAKER single ‘Danzig with Myself’] started with a very Danzig riff. Then it kind of went very Pixies. So that’s how that happened.” As for Harry, Taylor-Taylor had only met her once before. “But I did have a good time hanging out with their manager when we opened for Cake, because he also manages them. So then our manager talked to him. He probably knew him anyway.”

Despite paying homage to bands like the Damned, the Stooges, and the MC5 with songs like “The Summer of Hate,” the album delivers more than just proto-punk guitar riffs. Hear the sludgy groove of “Doomsday Bells,” the throbbing industrial beat of “The Cross,” and the chest-puffing horns of the chiming “Root of All Evil.” Although Holmström envisioned the Yardbirds when writing “Root of All Evil,” “I heard it more as Sly and the Family Stone,” Taylor-Taylor says, “just distorted rock guitar, like cop shows or something [set in] New York City or South Central L.A.”

Not only did the Dandy Warhols write ROCKMAKER to fill a void they felt existed in modern guitar music, they also wrote it in response to their previous album, 2020’s Tafelmuzik Means More When You’re Alone. In contrast to the stripped down ROCKMAKER, Tafelmuzik was the Dandies at their most conceptual.

“Tafelmusik was a period in the Baroque era where dukes and barons and kings and queens would hire their favourite musicians and have them compose music for their dinner parties,” Taylor-Taylor explains. Using every instrument in their vast inventory, the Dandy Warhols concocted the three-and-a-half-hour-long Tafelmuzik as a soundtrack of an elaborate feast. Each of the album’s 10 tracks corresponds with a recipe and a wine pairing. There are even two “smoke break” tracks, one of which features New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain and McCabe sharing a conversation in French.

By 2024, rock musicians have been lamenting the genre’s death forever. But Taylor-Taylor has always been confident that as rock music ebbs, so too will it flow.

“It seems like guitar rock will always come back,” Taylor-Taylor observes. “Somebody just has to do it really well and then get noticed. It’s very hard to make a great, amazing record. It’s very hard to then get it noticed. You’d have to do both, and then it has to become part of big business’s best interest to go, ‘Oh, hey, that’s a whole market,’ so then they can maybe find bands that also make very good super cool guitar records and put real money into them. That’s one of the few pieces of advice [David] Bowie ever gave me. ‘Courtney,’” he begins in an English accent, “‘why do you want to be the first to do everything? It’s so much more profitable to be the second!’”

Despite the motivation behind the LP, Taylor-Taylor is still stoked about some modern guitar music, like Jack White. “Damn. He is just so awesome. Awesome legacy.” He’s even more effusive about Swedish punk rockers Viagra Boys, who released their breakout debut album Street Worms in 2018. “They had that really amazing track ‘Sports.’ What a great victory for the weirdos. I’m from that generation of ‘80s weirdo New Waver punk clubs—the classic old style. When I heard [‘Sports’], it just took me to that place. There were so many bands trying to do that kind of thing in ’82. But nobody was as good at it as those guys. They nailed that thing. I listened to the shit out of that song.” He also shouts out Amyl and the Sniffers. “And then don’t forget, Amy Taylor put out her huge breakthrough record,” referring to the Australian outfit’s 2019 self-titled LP.

“Now guitar music is coming back,” Taylor-Taylor enthuses. “This is the first time we’ve actually released a record at the right time.”

Pre-order ROCKMAKER by The Dandy Warhols HERE


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