A Review of The Dandy Warhols’ This Machine and a Chat with Courtney Taylor-TaylorBy Joe Daly
April 06, 2012
As the Nineties approached the halfway mark and grunge yielded to more pop-flavored fare, a legion of acts stormed the airwaves under the “alternative” flag, whipping the planet into a radio-friendly alt-frenzy. At the time, that epithet was pasted onto virtually any guitar-based rock that didn’t fall under a clearly-defined genre, gathering groups like Pavement and Sonic Youth under the same umbrella as the Cranberries and Counting Crows. Many of those acts have since faded away, and while some continue to make music, very few have done so with the consistency and vitality of Portland’s The Dandy Warhols. This month the Dandys, now in their eighteenth year, release their eight full-length studio album, This Machine–an eclectic listening party that alternates between punchy rockers, moody ballads and seratonin-inducing electronica. Yes, electronica.
The early word on This Machine was that it would be “stripped-down,” “darker” and “grungier.” While those each fit to an extent, rarely do they intersect at the same point from song-to-song. In fact, the variety of sounds within This Machine makes it the band’s most exciting release since Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia. And while while a deconstructed vibe abounds, the maturity of the songwriting squarely establishes that “stripped-down” does not equal simplistic. In fact, front man Courtney Taylor-Taylor continues to hone his greatest strength as a songwriter–the ability to distill ambitious musical ideas into intensely-catchy melodies that sound deceptively straightforward.
Opener “Sad Vacation” rumbles with a fuzzy bass line and punchy rhythm beneath guitarist Peter Holmstrom’s sparkly, less-is-more style. The ethereal “The Autumn Carnival,” switches gears with spacey guitar textures and Taylor-Taylor’s haunting vocals, showcasing the range of mood and tempo that give the album its considerable depth and weight.
“Alternative Power to the People” is a pulsating and improbable head trip through electronica, tied into the rest of the album with its gauzey guitars and snappy drumming. “Well They’re Gone” explores more somber territories while “Rest Your Head” buzzes with lyrics and uplifting melodies that gather into a sparkly, swirling climax.
“I Am Free” is the standout, hitting the musical soul like warm, golden sunshine with its lyrical revelry and jaunty beat, suggesting that eighteen years into the game, The Dandy’s are still having a hell of a time.
TNB Music had a chance to catch up with frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor to discuss the new album as the band prepare for its release with a spring tour of Europe.
What was your mindset when you began writing songs for This Machine?
I never really began writing. I’m not very prolific, so I just slowly collect them over the years.
Would would you say are the thematic or sonic undercurrents running through the album?
Goth and grunge keep coming up in my conversations regarding this record. We’ve always had a pretty strong gothic contingent so it’s interesting to see people finally noticing that. The grunge part I would imagine is something that we can’t escape, at least without the help of Nick Rhodes, (who produced their 2003 album, Welcome to the Monkey House), being from the great Northwest and all. I think the biggest thing for me is that this is undoubtedly a guitar band and record. We are guitarists.
Although there’s a somewhat grungy vibe throughout the record, “Alternative Power to the People” is a straight-up electro/dance number. What was your inspiration for that song?
I had recorded an entire “scratching” part in my basement to a slower beat but when Fatty (drummer Brent Deboer, a.k.a. “Fathead”) put that bass line down, it just really wanted that scratching part on it. Or so it seemed to us, so we dropped it in and voila, now its one of my favorite tracks we’ve ever recorded. I’m glad you think its electro, ’cause there’s a part of me that will always be club kid.
After 18 years and 8 albums, what would you say is the most important lesson that you’ve learned about creating music?
It’s bigger than you are. You gotta learn the skills so that you can get all the equipment out of the way. I was told that Michelangelo said he never created a statue, he just chipped away all the shit from around the statue that was already there. That’s how I feel about us and me and the whole process. We weren’t very good at our instruments when we started, so learning to do that was as important as being able to technically play the things once they’re realized.
How important is it to you to have a hit within an album?
Not at all. It is impossible to create one at will and it would probably fuck you up if you tried. A hit is made by other people and it is quite impossible to know what another person will or won’t like, so don’t drive yourself crazy thinking about it. Just take care of yourself emotionally with the music you make and leave the other stuff to the entertainers.
For you personally, what are the qualities of a successful Dandys album?
When we can get drunk and stoned at a party, crank it, and have it be a totally euphoric experience time after sodden time. God, I love that. We’re gonna do that a lot on this tour.
What was your favorite moment during the recording of This Machine?
Always when I take a couple weeks off then come back in and hear what Pete, Fatty and Zia have done. I’m listening to Fatty’s record “Immigrant Union” right now. I can’t believe I get to be in a band with these three super musical nut jobs. Awesome.
Your friend Anya Marina recently told us that prolonged touring can exact a heavy toll on musicians. With all the touring you do, how do you keep your sanity on the road?
We’ve learned to keep it to only as much as it is fun. We quit before it gets ugly or as soon as it does. We also have a band, and in my book (One Model Nation) I have the characters talk about how when the Beatles met Elvis, they said he just seemed lonely. At that time, they felt lucky that they were in a band. They had each other. Anya is Anya, not a band. I don’t know if I could do that.
What does the rest of 2012 hold for The Dandy Warhols?
We have always wanted to live in someplace like Provence or I dunno, Bruges. We are gonna try to do that for July and August this year and besides that just see the world a little and do a fuck ton of interviews, I suppose.
We conclude all of our interviews with a few brief either/or questions. Please choose one and briefly explain why you made that choice.
Catchy melody or anthemic chorus?
90s or 00s?
Bands in the 00s that sound like they’re 90’s.
David Bowie or Mick Jagger?
Crap I dunno. Which era? Oh hell, I know what you mean. Ok, Mick Jagger but only ’cause he’s in the Rolling Stones. David is way more stylish as an old codger though.
Reading a book or watching a movie?
Come on you guys, jeezuz… Cant we all just get along? Ok, reading a book.
Thanks, Courtney. See you out on the road.
Awesome. Thanks, that was fun.
Thanks, Joe. It’s nice to pull my head out of my books, and remember what great music sounds like.
Thanks, James. As fun as it can be to discover new stuff, there’s something deeply satisfying in returning to artists like this to find them still creating exciting stuff.
Dude is on to you, Joe. Which Mick Jagger? It’s an important question. I mean, Beggar’s Banquet Mick kills Let’s Dance Bowie. But Going to a Go Go Jagger is absolutely destroyed by Hunky Dory Dave. And, you know, they both suck hard on Dancing in The Streets, maybe the worst duet ever. Certainly the worst video. It’s like an infomercial for butt plugs.
I always liked them Dandys. I think the cool kids here in the UK regarded them as sellouts, because Bohemian Like You was used in an unavoidable ad for Vodafone, one of the biggest mobile phone companies. I don’t care, I think they’re smashing. The Dandys, not Vodafone, Vodafone are a bunch of tax-dodging spunkers. Great service, mind, I’ve been with them since 1998.