Q&A With The Dandy Warhols’ Courtney Taylor-Taylor

Without a doubt, the Dandy Warhols is a band, a meeting of the Velvet-y minds with Brent DeBoer, Peter Holmström, Zia McCabe and Courtney Taylor-Taylor calling the shots. But drummer-turned-guitarist/singer Taylor-Taylor is its handsome face and baritone voice who pushed the band from graceful poetic garage music (1995’s Dandys Rule OK) to guileless glam (2000’s Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia) to sleek-yet-twisted ’80s-ish new wave (2003’s Welcome To The Monkey House). While the rest of the 20th century found the band drifting through three additional like-minded albums, the outfit has grown leaner and meaner with the focused, guitar-centric This Machine (The End). Taylor-Taylor, a ruminative lyricist with a caustic lean, makes the most of this particular Machine moment. He allowed novelist Richard Morgan to write the Dandys’ press notes and found his own icy literary voice in graphic set-in-Germany novel One Model Nation. Taylor-Taylor and his bandmates will also be guest editing all week.

MAGNET: With all the various brands, shapes, sizes and sounds that the Dandy Warhols have taken on—to say nothing of its side projects—would you say that makes you in particular a restless soul or a victim of aesthetic ADD?
Taylor-Taylor: I’m gonna go with both. I have a hard time saying no to projects that sound fun, and I have a hard time quitting what I start. These are two skills that I’m currently trying to develop. I suppose discontent is a built-in part of the human condition and there are those who deal with it by creating, those who destroy and those who just give up. We belong to the first group, but really, any way you slice it, you’re fucked. Life is mostly hardship and loneliness for everyone equally.

When you started the Dandys, did you want it to last long? As long as 18 years? Not everyone wants to write an epic.
I’ve wanted every band I’ve been in to last forever. Well, at first I did. I’ve been the drummer in a lot of bands, the Dandys being my first writing and singing and playing guitar. Now that it’s come this far I can tell you that I’d rather have been the drummer. I really like to drink, smoke and generally party a lot, and be incredibly irresponsible with my health. Little did I know that for a singer—or at least one that has to worry about hitting notes—this is not in the realm of possibility. [Laughs]

One Model Nation slays me. It is so you, and yet so apart from what I thought you might come up with–a harshed mellow trip and sweetly nostalgic. Why German bands? Why German terrorism? Why German government?
One thing led to another on that one. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it, then, of course, kept at it for 10 years until it finally existed on its own. A whole world with its own life. It felt good to get it finished. As far as why Germany—nobody else was doing it. I’ve been into that scene since I was a teen. Personally, I just wanted to see Star Wars and Dr. Zhivago, but set in the ’70s Berlin art scene, so of course I was going to have to do it myself. It’s not exactly the kind of thing that everyone feels mysteriously compelled to take a crack at.

Were you fascinated by German everything before Kraftwerk, krautrock and Bowie’s Low/Heroes?
I’ve always been a bit of a Germanophile, I suppose. After having spent a lot of time there, of course, it’s just a place not unlike any other as far as day-to-day.

How did you hook up with this Jim Rugg character you worked with on the book? He illustrated your thoughts beautifully.
I sent my script to several new up-and-comers whom I thought might do a good job, and Jim was the only “out of my league longshot” that I bothered. His work is in the Smithsonian. Anyway, Rugg said there were levels of subtext that he had never seen in comics, and he’d reorganize his schedule to draw my book, and the others never even responded. I guess Rugg kinda chose me. I must say that the process of making this week by the week with he and Jon Fell (the book’s colorist) was one of the most enjoyable collaboration experiences of my life. Jim falls into the “a scholar and a gentleman” category of dude.

Could you/would you want to bring something even more formidable and fictional to the surface in terms of the literary—less about music folk?
Like Harry Potter? [Laughs] I’ll leave that to those who are more creative than I. I tend to deal primarily in life lessons. I’m either searching the history of film, music or literature for someone’s method of dealing with how totally fucked life is, or I’m trying to pass one along. As a vehicle to get those across, I can riff on some historical events, but I don’t know that I’ll ever try to totally invent a world complete with its history flora and fauna.

How did you find dealing with publishing peeps, as opposed to the record-label biz and, well, even film folk? Twice as cutthroat? Less than half?
Oh, I guess they’re all just trying to give as little as possible and get back the most. I guess you can call that a cheapskate, but biznass is biznass. I’ve found that I actually enjoy putting my money where my mouth is when it comes to things I love and believe in. It’s thrilling and scary. It’s also hard to be patient with results, but I enjoy trying to be patient as well, although I’m not always good so at that part. Anyway, it’s hard to talk other people into doing the same, though, when it’s their job at stake, not their soul.

Do you view the past seven albums—honestly—not just as things and songs you play, but as a legacy, a heritage?
Of course. We have a thing that we do which nobody else can do. We weren’t good enough musicians to imitate anyone else, so we had to invent a shortcut to music for ourselves. It’s nothing new since the original punks were doing exactly that, too. We just had a different aesthetic in mind, and now that we’ve done it for so many people for so long, we have a responsibility to continue doing it. Whether you care about our music or not, we have a role to play. I’m just glad that it’s not a hugely important one.

I read one criticism of you where the writer discussed the relative failure of that body of work, as if not selling a million copies of every record was a bad thing. Do you feel that way—other than, say, the reaping of those monetary rewards? Do you feel honestly as if the listeners have missed the point or missed the boat, or rather do you feel by this point that there is a devoted group of Dandy fans you play up to?
We have found that we do what we do, and any result of that is purely incidental. I’m both surprised and not surprised that we ever sold a million records at all. One cannot know the result of one’s actions, and being aware of this has given us the absolute freedom to be ourselves all the time. I have no ide a who new fans are and who are old, or which of our kinds of music they like the most, or even which record. When you start thinking about the opinions of others is when you start becoming an entertainer. This takes more talent than I have, so I stick to straight-up gloomy weather tortured artist. I couldn’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thinks of my stuff. Unless, of course, they love it.

At the start of This Machine’s recording, I saw that you wanted something between the Cramps and the 13th Floor Elevators guitar sound, that Pete and you were achieving such crust. Was this something you two discussed—that it was time to get down to hard guitar tacks—or was it a natural progression after Monkey?
There was a discussion: “Pete, you get that speaker. I get this one.” [Laughs] I think when you strip back to just two guitar parts, you naturally find that dirtier is better. Actually, I am convinced that what we’re all actually trying to do is to come up with the worst shittiest guitar tone possible, then make something beautiful with it.

Is it that you had found your voice—anew, again—through some grimy guitar sound?
Yeah, I felt like a toddler. The Dandy Warhols is my first band playing guitar and singing. I had spent the entirety of my life as a drummer: symphonic music, jazz lab, Afro-Cuban beats, marching-band drum line. Those were on the music scholar side where I learned to read music and play together with other people, and how powerful that could be. I first got addicted to that power whilst playing a tune called the “Lethbridge Overture” when I was in seventh grade. Whenever we had substitute teachers, the drummers would insist we play this. It had a particularly satisfying finale where the horns are slowly climbing and the woodwinds begin to soar. Now, these chords changes struck us as extremely rock, so the drummers would build a slow marching cadence, and over the minute of this build we would start speeding up and building in volume and building and building and building ’til we were basically beating the hell out of the drums to this awesome rock epic, and at a tempo the band could barely keep up with. I can see the sub conductor waving the stick frantically at the accelerated tempo and trying to turn pages sweating and red-faced. God, it felt good to rock. Loud and hard, the way god meant it. As a guitarist, I come up with very simple parts and I still can’t tell whether it’s the part or the tone or the combination of both that makes it feel like how I feel. Since I didn’t grow up playing guitar, I kinda have to relate to very simple things that come out of it.

What made you want to write with David J. period, let alone something so morose as “Animal Carnival”? That’s a compliment, by the way. Nobody does glum like he.
I was a way-into-Bauhaus kid, and still feel that they are probably the band of my life, so to work with any of them in any way is a big deal to me. As far as lyric-writing, check out the lyrics to “No New Tale To Tell.” Who wouldn’t want to write with that guy? So, cut to us sitting around at Besaw’s Diner for a couple hours drinking coffee and discussing film and literature like a couple 17-year-olds, ’til we both agreed that Something Wicked This Way Comes really creeped us both out in an elegant and beautiful way. It took us the rest of the day to bash it out lyrically, then I kept editing and tweaking right up ’til we recorded it. I don’t quite remember where it was at when we ended that day, but months later when he heard it recorded and mixed, David told me he didn’t remember it being as good as that. I found that pretty flattering, and a huge part of it is how brilliant the cats in my band are at arrangement.

“Alternative Power To The People” has so many meanings to so many people. What was the last green thing you did?
Well, for one thing, I try to eat like a hippie. I don’t eat anything that isn’t organically and ethically grown, and I’ve reduced my animal product—meat and dairy—consumption to about 10 to 15 percent of my total diet. The agricultural condition of our country is really scary. We’ve been touring America and seeing and smelling what it does to the environment for like 17 years. Frightening. I also live in a small town where I get in my car about once a week.

Who are the specific subject matters of “Well They’re Gone”?
A chick I dated about 15 years ago when I came up with that main line “You said you’re weak and … yeah, well they’re gone,” and me.

How did you hook up with Richard Morgan? To have him doing your press is impressive.
Pete had given me a copy of Altered Carbon ( a Morgan classic), and it blew my mind. A year or so later, Pete went to see him speak at Powell’s Books, and Richard told Pete that the Dandys were one of his two favorite bands—us and BRMC. “Perfect, hey, ya wanna write something for us?” Or maybe he asked us, I actually don’t remember. It sure is amazing having this incredible writer put you into his stories. Crazy. Like watching Star Wars and finding that you had played Luke Skywalker.

Is “I Am Free” a note to studio people and record labels? Does This Machine prove you can make a true DW album without someone behind you?
Nope, it’s to hipsters/haters the world over. Or rather it was three years ago when I wrote it. I don’t think there are many hipsters left, and haters seem to only be 11-year-old boys on the internet, so at this point it is a reminder of how it feels to be defiant of the herd mentality. Feels good.

—A.D. Amorosi