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They're on the Fringe by Choice

The Dandy Warhols' deceptively simple music celebrates the day-to-day lives of outsiders just like them.

December 17, 2000|NATALIE NICHOLS | Natalie Nichols is a regular contributor to Calendar

At a time when rock 'n' roll danger feels more calculated than menacing, the Dandy Warhols are true pied pipers, likely to lead impressionable minds astray in a way no bellowing rap-rocker could hope to do.

Like such elegantly wasted forerunners as the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones, the Portland, Ore.-based quartet makes life on the fringe seem like a lot of fun on its latest single, "Bohemian Like You." Propelled by an irresistible, "Brown Sugar"-esque hook, the tune draws you into a world where barely employed artists and musicians support each other's alternative lifestyles with cheerful camaraderie:

So, what do you do? Oh, yeah, I wait tables too

No, I haven't seen your band, 'cause you guys are pretty new

But if you dig on vegan food, come over to my work

I'll have them cook you something that you'll really love

'Cause I'm like you, yeah I'm like you

And I'm feeling so bohemian like you . . .

"It's just pretty much straight-up reality," says lead singer and songwriter Courtney Taylor-Taylor, 30. "I condensed personal stories and experiences of me and my friends over a two-week period. It was the first time I'd done something like that."

Taylor-Taylor is proud of this experiment, which garnered airplay on such major alt-rock radio stations as KROQ-FM (106.7) and helped the group's third collection, "Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia," debut at No. 3 on Billboard's alternative albums chart when it was released in August.

But apparently he's a bit weary of questions about just how decadent the Dandy Warhols can get. Asked about the band's reputation for drinking and drug use, not to mention occasional onstage semi-nudity, the usually frank musician sighs deeply and looks away, glancing down at the breakfast he has begun to demolish in a Hollywood Hills coffee shop.

Guitarist Pete Holmstrom sardonically chimes in, "Isn't that like every band on the road? It's every band that we've toured with, anyway. . . . You have to burn just enough brain cells to stay relaxed."

Even moderate brain-cell burning takes its toll, however, as keyboardist-bassist Zia McCabe and drummer Brent DeBoer demonstrate, leaving the table in mid-interview to continue recovering from the revelry following a typically boisterous show at the El Rey Theatre the night before.

But the Dandys can't be frying too many synapses. After all, it's not like they've just been lounging by the pool all year.

They've toured the U.S., Europe and Australia since March, helping launch the new album, which in four months has already nearly matched the 68,000 sales total of "Come Down."

When it got together in 1994, the group never expected to find this sort of pop niche, but was more focused on providing variety in a Portland scene ruled by grunge-rock angst-mongers. Taylor-Taylor, who in the early '90s played drums for a band called Beauty Stab, formed the Dandy Warhols with McCabe, Holmstrom and original drummer Eric Hedford.

Many of their local counterparts had little tolerance for the Dandys' glamorous, smart-aleck music, crafted in the style of bands they adored, including the Velvets, the Stones, the Byrds and newer influences such as the Jesus and Mary Chain. But the blend of grunge and Brit-pop on their 1995 indie debut, "Dandys Rule OK," sparked a major-label bidding war, which Capitol won.

Underscoring its taste for irony, the band's first underground hit, "Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth," from 1997's "The Dandy Warhols Come Down," was almost a novelty song, an anti-heroin message wrapped in music deeply influenced by some acts with infamous histories of drug abuse.

Taylor-Taylor now seems more interested in genuinely recounting, and celebrating, the emotional aspects of being an outsider by choice. It's a subtle shift, but one that gives "Bohemian Like You" its anthemic power.

The song's success also places the Dandy Warhols among a mere handful of up-and-coming modern-rock acts that have managed to build momentum from one album to the next without becoming a flavor of the month (despite having tunes featured in current commercials for the Gap and Ford Focus). The record even garnered admiration from a personal hero, David Bowie.

"Having him come to a couple shows, bring his whole family down and say, 'Brilliant, mate. Mean it, mate,' was great," says Taylor-Taylor, a talkative guy whose languorous manner belies the force of his opinions on any given subject. "It's like God saying, 'You were right the whole time. Sorry I didn't get around to telling you this earlier in your life, but I figured you knew it anyway.' "


Along with impressing rock legends, "Urban Bohemia" has more immediate appeal than "Come Down," thanks to both a broader sonic palette and a deceptively simpler sound. Such shifts in the band's approach have caused some indie-rock types to accuse the members of being opportunists or poseurs. To the Dandys, it's more about self-discovery.

"[Previously] we were more interested in being space-rock," says Holmstrom. "This time we wanted to be a little more classic rock."

Despite its expressions of emotional turmoil, the album is ultimately uplifting, carried along by Taylor-Taylor's drowsy, seductive singing, the band's airy harmonies and the music's pretty curlicues. Still, its libertine insouciance seems a quaint and flimsy stance against the roaring fury of stridently rebellious--and far more popular--acts such as Eminem and Marilyn Manson.

Au contraire, Taylor-Taylor insists.

"Hate and anger is easy. It's cheap," he scoffs. He cites a quote he read on an album by Swedish hard-core band the Refused. "It says, 'In times as dark as these, beauty is the only rebellion.' And it's so true. Anger isn't the cutting edge. The scariest thing you can do is be shamelessly beautiful."

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