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Their psychedelic melodies glossed over self-indulgent lyrics might make you think of the Velvet Underground. Their cutesy band-name pun on the king of pop art suggests a group of Brit-fop art-school dropouts. But the Dandy Warhols, an elegantly wasted foursome from Portland, Oregon, transcend the novelty aspect of their name, as they've proven with their surprisingly successful sophomore album Come Down, on Capitol Records.
The band, fronted by singer/guitarist Courtney Taylor, has received much praise since its first release in 1995 on indie label Tim/Kerr, appropriately titled Rule OK.
This debut release was in true vintage glam-pop form, with songs like "(Tony This Song Is Called) Lou Weed" and the single "TV Theme Song," which spawned video play on MTV's 120 Minutes. But the video for the first single off Come Down, "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth," is colorful and twisted beyond anything suggested previously by the band.
With this clip, director David LaChapelle puts a vibrant coat of paint on a deadly serious issue. The clip is set up like a demented game show, with choreographed dancing human syringes. Contestants receive glorified prizes representing the consequences of heroin life. A hearse, tombstones and twirling stretchers all populate LaChapelle's avant-garde vision of antiheroin reverse chic. However, guitarist Peter Holmstrom says the single has been widely misinterpreted.
"Number one, 'Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth' is not an antidrug song," he says. "I think people perceive it that way because it is easy to read that message into the song. It is easy to get that out of the song without having to really pay attention to whatever else is going on in the lyrics. It is an antiaddiction song, antistupidity song. If you are going to do heroin, you have to be careful.
"The single is my least favorite song on the album anyway. People have been responding well to our music; everybody seems to love it. Even though people are skeptical of the single, we still win them over; that is all that matters."
The strange content does not stop with the band's best-known song. There may be a few pop-driven songs on the album, and the overall feel might recall the Velvet Underground, but what about "Every Day Should Be a Holiday"? This tune bears an unlikely resemblance to ZZ Top's hit "Legs." Or what about "As Cool As Kim Deal," kind of a postmodern T. Rex pop-rock anthem?
"Courtney wrote the song years ago," Holmstrom says. "We were just fooling around with it one practice, and we picked it up, started playing the tune, and then the lyrics came later. We used Kim Deal because she is pretty much the ultimate rock chick. And it worked better than Kelley Deal.
"We have very obvious Velvet Underground influences. We think T. Rex is great. They are also definitely a big influence on our band. I think we try to get our songs to sound like the bands we modeled the Dandy Warhols after, because we are not that great of musicians. We can play our songs, and play some cover songs, but we are not talented enough to sound just like our influences. So it becomes us just hacking it out."
Capitol Records may have been looking for something new, but with this band, it instead got serious traditional rock 'n' roll, revamped into humorous pop with substance.
"All of our influences are kind of there, but we are not capable of totally pulling it off," Holmstrom says. "We write songs and we say, 'Yeah, this sounds like whoever,' and then we try to title our songs after the band or person who influenced it. Sometimes the title just sticks through and stays on the album. On our first album, 'Lou Weed' is titled because the song sounds like a Velvet Underground song. 'Coffee' is totally a T. Rex song."
After the Dandy Warhols put out Rule OK, they went back into the studio, did a lot of drugs and recorded a follow-up known as The Black Album, after the legendary 1987 Prince album that was pulled before its planned release.
The band members recorded their Black Album without writing any lyrics or music ahead of time. The Black Album never got released, but it led to another, more focused trip to the studio where they created what would become their second album, Come Down.
"It was very experimental," Holmstrom says. "We had song ideas and we wanted to go into the studio and see what would happen if we just kind of tried to create anything that sounded good. We wanted to experiment with sound. And I do not think we were at the right stage in our careers to be trying anything like that. One of these days we will go back and finish it. It is a great recording. It is just not done. There are a couple of songs that could be singles."
The Dandy Warhols came from the lounge-punk culture of the Portland area music scene. Their brand of pop-rock won them attention after only eight months playing together, either because or despite that they had little in common with other Portland bands.
"For me personally, I never even expected to put out an album at all," Holmstrom says. "We started in Portland when there was nothing else like us around. We were convinced that we would maybe find 20 people in town that liked us. And then we would play shows, and have parties with all of our friends after. We thought it was just going to be fun. And then it just blossomed into this huge thing that I certainly was not prepared for."
The Portland scene that delivered the Dandys to the world was laden with willful obscurity, the more original and obtuse the band, the better. The Dandys were--and still are--just four unpretentious kids looking to amuse themselves and their audience, to hear Holmstrom tell it.
"The music is actually very simple and just a reflection of the bands and people who inspire us," he says. "I went to art school in Portland before I entered the band. So if I was not doing this band thing, hopefully I would be painting, but probably not. I would probably be working in some coffee shop and painting on the side. Courtney was a drummer in numerous bands; he is the only person who has had a whole lot of band experience. Eric and I were in different bands in high school. So we had a little bit of experience. But before the Dandy Warhols, I had played in maybe two clubs."
Bassist/keyboardist Zia McCabe, potent with rock-chick beauty, is the only girl in an all-guy band. She was once a cigarette girl in a Portland bar, but, as Holmstrom says, "The girl got her wish," which was to play in a band.
"Zia loves being the only girl in the band; she loves the attention," he says. "She feeds off of it. Zia had never even played an instrument. She was just like, 'I want to be in a band.' Somehow our paths crossed.
"It is really incredible that Zia joined this band without ever picking up an instrument, and then the band is good and makes it. Now that is a long shot. She learned quickly how to play the keyboards. She picked up everything really fast. She has a really good sense of rhythm, so her picking up the percussion instruments like the tambourine and the shakers was great. It adds so much to the sound."
The Dandy Warhols have learned to thrive on chaos, with a management team that has never represented a band before, and that, according to Holmstrom, always seems to be scrambling to get things done. For a band that refuses to take either itself or its music particularly seriously, a touch of business amateurism doesn't sound like much of a liability.
"I think we are always one step behind what we should be," Holmstrom says. "Because there is always chaos, craziness and havoc, it is always frantic. We have no idea what we are doing, and we are just doing our best to keep up.
"The company is the largest music promoters of the Northwest, but they have never managed a band. So there are a lot of things they are still learning to do. It gets crazy--every tour starts out with us trying to do everything in the last week. Then we go out, and like a week into our tour, we realize that we do not have enough tee shirts or CDs to sell. We do some of our own distribution for our first album. We sell Rule OK at our shows, because it is an independent record-label release, so it does not get out everywhere."
But even if the band occasionally stumbles on the business front, the members can pride themselves on their musical achievements. The radio success of "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth" should guarantee December airplay for their holiday-single offering, a cover of "The Little Drummer Boy." They'll also be featured in Gus Van Sant's next film release, set for early next year. And they've toiled hard on the road, opening for such notables as Oasis, Blur, the Charlatans UK, and Spiritualized.
"We stayed out a month and a half longer to play with these bands last year," Holmstrom says. "We had such a blast. The crowds really got into it, especially when we were playing with Blur. There were over 2,000 people screaming in each town. It was amazing."