Dandy Warhols – A New Orbit

July 31, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Big Issue, Issue #308, July 2008.

After a decade on the major label mother ship, the Dandy Warhols have manned the escape pods and launched into deep space…alone.

Assumptions can be dangerous, especially when it comes to impossibly cool, fringe-flipping musical sorts like the Dandy Warhols. Since rising from the Portland, Oregon underground with 1995’s Dandys Rule, OK?, the group’s daintily druggy take on psyche-pop has, to many, glared with pout-riddled irreverence and affectation as much as it has shone with brilliantly catchy hooks and pop artisanship.

Granted, 2004 documentary Dig! didn’t help. The widely celebrated film by young director Ondi Timoner rendered a provocative sketch of the quartet’s turbulent relationship with prolific San Francisco act the Brian Jonestown Massacre, depicting the band – and particularly charismatic front man Courtney Taylor-Taylor – as perilously conceited, hopelessly precious and willing to do anything for success.

Today’s encounter offers a very different rendition. From the moment co-founder, co-songwriter and guitarist Peter Holmstrom picks up the phone, he is a model of self-effacing charm and quietly enthusiastic conversation.

He cracks cheesy jokes; he bemoans the disorderly state of his new house; he takes friendly swipes at whatever and whoever springs to mind.

“I hold nothing against Ondi Timoner,” he announces dramatically. “She made a great movie,” he pauses, a mischievous giggle passing his lips. “But I wouldn’t necessarily call it a documentary.”

“The movie I would have made would have been much more realistic to what I feel actually happened,” he launches off again. “And it probably wouldn’t have interested anybody whatsoever!”

The picture Holmstrom paints of the Dandy Warhols – who release their interstellar-themed seventh album Earth to the Dandy Warhols this month – is one far-removed from their fashionably derisive public countenance. Indeed, if Holmstrom is anything to go by, the group’s aloofness drifts closer to self-parody than otherwise.

“I think our humour pisses off some people,” he giggles. “Australian’s are the only ones who seem to get it. In the States, we’re kind of too cool for modern music and alternative radio, but this tongue-in-cheek humour seems to be kind of too silly for the cool kids.”

“I see poor Courtney having a hard time with that sometimes, but only when he takes himself too seriously,” he sniggers, “which is often.”

Nonetheless, the Dandy Warhols’ pop legacy is a strong one. Since forming in Portland during 1994, Taylor-Taylor, Holmstrom, keyboardist Zia McCabe and drummer Brent DeBoer (who replaced original percussionist Eric Hedford) have become one of the most recognisable bands in pop-culture.

But while albums like 2000’s Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia and 2003’s Welcome to the Monkey House proved minor mainstream hits, the Dandys’ cultural visibility has come largely via television, film and advertisement licensing. Since inking a deal with major label Capitol Records for the release of second album The Dandy Warhols Come Down in 1997, the group’s popped-up, Velvet Underground-inspired sound has found its way onto television series as divergent as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Queer as Folk, Sex and the City, Veronica Mars, Six Feet Under and The O.C., not to mention films such as Good Will Hunting, The Fluffer and There’s Something About Mary and commercials too numerous to mention.

“We’re a self-sustaining unit at this point because of television and advertising,” says Holmstrom matter-of-factly. “We have our studio thanks to Vodafone, pretty much.”

It’s little surprise that the Dandys bare few qualms about licensing their songs to others. While you’d assume that such a highly visible band would be label darlings, their experience as one of the major label minions – which concluded earlier this year, when they were released from their contract with Capitol – was tumultuous to say the least.

“We’ve always had problems with every regime we’ve worked under,” says Holmstrom. “As much as we were initially offended that we got dropped, after a couple of weeks we suddenly realised, like, we’d really been trying to get off Capitol for years.”

“It was just like, ‘Woohoo, we’re free!”

Released through their new in-house label, Beat the World Records, Earth to the Dandy Warhols sees the Dandys’ – the same band that, a few years ago, you might have thought too precious to do their own dirty work – have returned to their small-scale, indie roots.

Filled with the kind of jangling guitar hooks, sun-hazed synths and frivolous vocal smarts that has become their signature, the record is classic Dandys all the way. The clunking electro-beats, synth lines and robo-vocals of ‘Mission Control’, the funked-up sass of ‘Welcome to the Third World’ and the pseudo-country swagger of ‘The Legend of the Last Outlaw Truckers’ each offer a brilliantly tangential take on the Dandys sound.

As Holmstrom explains, Earth to the Dandy Warhols’ diversity hails from its sheer breadth. “It was kind of like cleaning house in a way,” he says. “We’ve had a bunch of ideas – partial songs or complete songs – that have been floating around since the beginning, which we’ve never used for whatever reason.”

“So we just started playing those and working them out, then Courtney and I both brought in a couple of other ones… All of a sudden, we had a full record.”

But even with their first in-house release ready to float into orbit, the Dandys aren’t about to perform any moonwalks yet.

“I’ve been losing a lot of sleep over this whole label thing,” he sighs, laughing. “I really didn’t know if we could pull it off.”

“But you know what? I think we’re going to do it,” he pauses. “You got sent a copy of our record, right? So things are looking good!”

by Dan Rule

Earth to Dandy Warhols is out through Etch’n’Sketch/Inertia

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