The Dandy Warhols are in their 20s—as a band, I mean. If, like me, you recall their early releases, ...The Dandy Warhols Come Down and Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia (both on Capitol Records) and they don't seem like that long ago, welcome to feeling old.
The Portland-based band's most popular releases, hallmarks in a period that saw a revival in guitar-driven rock & roll with a strong sense of melody, came out in 1997 and 2000, respectively. Their debut LP, Dandys Rule OK (Tim/Kerr), came out in 1995. Yet, the band, influenced by British psych-pop, is still plugging away.
"I'm surprised it's lasted this long," guitarist Peter Holmstrom tells City Weekly. "But I don't know how to do anything else, and there's something that happens with all four of us together that doesn't happen with other groups. We know each other well enough that, when we're on stage, there's this trust that things are gonna happen in a certain way, and it's gonna be good."
The Dandy Warhols' live performances have evolved from their early days, when their shows included a lot of nudity. That was then, when the Dandies members themselves were in their 20s, and they'd scored major-label success.
Consequently, Holmstrom says they made youthful mistakes. What would those be, exactly? "Not wanting to get up early in the morning to do interviews, or play on morning TV shows or radio shows, when it could have helped get our music out," he says.
For a time, the band traded on their fast-paced, non-conformist, style-conscious image, both reveling in and criticizing it. Holmstrom agrees that "Bohemian Like You," the single from Thirteen Tales about stylishness and the hip crowd, and "Looking pretty cool," which was used on TV ads and the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is likely the quintessential Dandy Warhols song. "That whole song is based on Courtney's [Taylor-Taylor, the band's singer, songwriter and guitarist] perception of where he lived and the people around him. It started with him looking out the window at a cute girl in a car at a stoplight, and he just wrote a story about that, if they'd ever met."
The song was nothing too deep, but—just like the band's "We Used to Be Friends" (found on 2003's Welcome to the Monkey House), which was also the theme to another hit TV show, Veronica Mars; it's hummable and sticks in your head for weeks. That knack for pop hooks, and making the mundane seem deep, has been the Dandy Warhols' greatest attribute.
It's difficult to write about the Dandy Warhols without mentioning the movie Dig! by filmmaker Ondi Timoner, which took the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004. The movie portrayed the rivalry between the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, but members of both bands claim the story of competition between the two was created by taking various scenes filmed over a seven-year period out of context. If the band had it to do over again, Holmstrom says, "We would be more involved in the editing process." The band was portrayed as more "poppy" and fame-hungry than they were, and the melodrama, Holmstrom says, was manufactured; the relationship between the two bands isn't so sensational. "We're all just making music; it's not a competition. We liked [BJM's] music and they liked ours."
The Dandies have nonetheless matured since then. They're not as irresponsible or impetuous, but they haven't lost their playful nature, which Holmstrom says is neither sarcastic nor snarky. They're navigating the changing music industry, with perspective gained from their younger, un-wiser days. Another regret of the band's, he adds, involves "certain choices that we made about interacting with record labels over the years." He refers partly to the Dandy Warhols' split with Capitol to start their own label, Beat the World Records, releasing their own music, as well as albums by Spindrift and 1776. The label saw only moderate success, and is currently inactive.
The latest Dandy Warhols release, Distortland, comes out on April 8 via Toronto-based label Dine Alone Records. The album finds the band continuing their pattern of stripping down their psychedelic and garage-influenced guitar sound for a more streamlined pop vibe. But they throw some interesting wrinkles into the mix, like changing instrumentation. Synthesizers play a more prominent role, as they have been doing gradually since the band's middle period. "I'm trying to come up with different sorts of textures, instead of just a wall of guitar fuzz," Holmstrom says. Also, the Dandies' music is increasingly focused on Taylor-Taylor's lyrics.
Holmstrom is pleased with the "guitar tricks" he uses on the song "Catcher In the Rye," and he says the single "Killing Me" is a "different feel for us." It starts with rhythmic synths, then the rhythms are accented by Holmstrom's guitar with a little distortion as a contrast. As usual, a sugary melody conveys acid-tongued lyrics that aren't necessarily profound or philosophical.
Distortland also includes "The Grow Up Song." Asked if he feels grown-up at all, Holmstrom responds, "We all have families and function in the world, but I still don't feel grown up. I don't picture myself any different from 20 years ago."