Jesse Valencia reviews The Dandy Warhols’ latest album Distortland and has an exclusive interview with The Dandys frontman, Courtney Taylor-Taylor.
The Dandy Warhols are back!
Well, they never left, but they’re about to release one of the best records of 2016.
At just a little over thirty three minutes long, with each song averaging about three and a half, Distortland is ten minutes shorter than the band’s shortest album, 2012’s This Machine, but manages to do twice as much. This collection of concise, focused gems distills the band’s range of sound across a feast of radio-ready singles. As such, it is easily the band’s best record since 2000’s Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia.
Best Classic Bands recently described the new record as transitioning from garage rock to “Britpop-esque power pop.” I have to respectfully disagree. That’s speaking to aesthetics more than styles of playing, because those worlds can blend pretty easily and The Dandys have done both since the beginning. For me, this record is more garage rock and more rough around the edges, while Thirteen Tales is more accurately described as “Britpop,” with all the horns and dance-pop snares.
Palm-muted riffs, airy vocals, droning synth swells, and tight beats abound on Distortland. Opener “Search Party” is a stoned, zoned-out mood setter that lands somewhere between The Doors, The Stone Roses, and the riff to “I Want Candy.” Next is “Semper Fidelis,” a trip-hopping industrial drone that could be a bookend to “Mohammed” from Thirteen Tales. “Pope Reverend Jim” carries the record into new wave territory, blending ’50s surf rock with a kind of B-52’s/’50s revivalism. “Catcher In The Rye” is a chords-y chugalong that swings with its spooky reverse tremolo notes tickling the background, while “STYGGO” (short for “Some Things You Gotta Get Over”) starts out like “Sympathy for the Devil” before drummer Brent DeBoer’s indie disco beat takes the song’s groove to chillwave mode. The song “Give” is very neo-Western. Almost renaissance-ish. Reminds me of something the band’s faux-rivals The Brian Jonestown Massacre might have put out in their Bravery, Repetition and Noise period. The song “You Are Killing Me” is one of the strongest songs on the record. The harmonies and production style on that jam are so solidly power pop that it almost sounds like Ric Ocasek himself produced it. “All The Girls In London” swings like “Catcher In The Rye” and echoes Bohemia’s “Get Off.” The version on the album is different from the single put out last year, but I think I like it better. Closer proper “Doves” is ethereal in the way “Be In” from the band’s second record …The Dandy Warhols Come Down is ethereal, shifting between no more than two or three chords with crafty harmonies swirling around them. The record’s afterthought, “The Grow Up Song,” is just lead singer-songwriter Courtney Taylor-Taylor and his guitar, still strumming away at the end of the party.
Equally engaging is the record’s title. “I noticed there is a lot of distortion on the tracks, and in weird places,” says Taylor-Taylor. “Distortion on the vocals, drums, keyboards, not just distorted guitars. Even the acoustic I found myself putting distortion on. Meanwhile, we’re living in Portland, Oregon, which has gone from 0.5 million to 2.5 million, and that’s the weirdest thing. I just looked out my window and thought ‘Distortland’ … yep. The dirty little town that time forgot, one day became the cultural epicenter of earth.”
This might be my favorite Dandys record.
Also, it’s their first for Dine Alone Records. Distortland’s jams never drag. To be honest, I’ve seen the Dandys three or four times in the last couple of years and the best way for me to describe the album is that it captures on record how the live band feels.
Taylor-Taylor’s lyrics toggle between storytelling (“Pope Reverend Jim,” “All The Girls In London”) and existential heartache (“Give,” “You Are Killing Me”), all the while offering casual but poignant musings on life or little anecdotes of reflection. “Don’t you know anything can get you down if you let it? / Some days more than others this is how I’ve lived and learned to divide them …” he sings on “Catcher In The Rye,” while closing track “The Grow Up Song” ends with “I’ve got to admit / I’m too old for this shit.”
A couple of weeks ago I spoke with Courtney at length about the new record. We met through my working on an upcoming book about our mutual friends The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and I’ve been tracking songs with my own band, so I was intrigued to hear what The Dandy Warhols’ recording process was for Distortland, a play on words for their hometown, Portland, Oregon. At the time of the interview, Courtney was at work rebuilding Dandys HQ, The Odditorium, which had suffered structural damage from a pretty heavy storm last year. He’s been documenting progress on the rebuild via YouTube. We decided to talk about nicer things.
Jesse: How was South by Southwest?
Courtney: South by Southwest was fun. It’s rough and ready. You show up, and it’s a punk rock faire. Soundcheck is messy and clipped. You just use gear that they find for you. Something like an AC-30. I think it went off great. They’ve been doing it long enough, that when you get down there, generally it’s working. I know some newer bands that had a real rough time of it. Musically couldn’t get it on, but they’re also stuffing in like three gigs a day.
Is it spread out across different venues or is it all in one spot? I’ve never been out there.
It felt to me like it had become city-wide. For us, where we were, was one entire street, where everything had become a venue. If you’re selling clothing, you move all the clothing out, and you put up a six inch high tiny stage, you know, for acoustic music. If it’s a bar you move out the tables and maybe have an acoustic band, but a full band. If you’ve got a patio, you put a big stage in outside and you go ahead and have a show and you can fit, you know, 500 or 600 people in there.
I was thinking of applying to it.
Oh dude, yeah. You should do it. Its fun and it’s crazy.
I’ve been fucking listening to your new record like probably fifteen times since I got it the other day.
I can’t stop listening to it. I can’t stop just smoking pot, putting the headphones on, and hiding.
That’s exactly what I wanted to say. It reminds me of your guys’ shows. The way that it flows, from the first song to the last song, you have this very airy intro, and then a very airy ending, with all these little rides and bumps in between. The sound of it reminds me of how you guys sound live, because I’ve only started watching you guys in the last couple of years, and it has the synth swells, the tight drums, and then you have these chorus-y reverbs on the guitars. When I was going to first listen to it, I was expecting more loud overdriven guitars, but then what I heard was so much better than that. You have this different version of Chauncey P. on there, where the mix is slightly different than the single you put out.
Basically I just mixed [the single] to make the guitars sounded ripping, so that we could get a mixer, and that’s basically what happened. Jim Lowe heard my version of it and got ahold of our management. Obviously, after eight years of trying to have our own record label, and pretty much failing, who would ever even know we still existed, if you weren’t a diehard junkie for the Dandys? So that was great. We got an unbelievably talented, skilled mixer, and then that really worked, so then that’s why we’re on a real label now.
Did Dine Alone find you, or did you approach them?
Our management looked at every label and picked a few that seemed most appropriate for what we are, and then Dine Alone seemed like the best fit. We liked every artist on their label, which never happens. I probably checked out half the artists on their roster, and these people just seem to have really authentic taste. They tend to go for authenticity. I didn’t notice any sort of quirky idiosyncratic trend-hopping in their roster. They go for authentic, powerful artists. There was style through it.
That’s good. Doing your own label was not really a failure, though. For the last however many years you’ve learned through the trenches. All the hard lessons.
We failed in being a label but we’ve learned what we need in a label.
There’s the conveniences of the label. You don’t have to deal with all the promotion and bullshit as much.
Exactly. How much reach they have. What kind of reach they have. Do they understand what you are? These are the issues, you know.
I’m really interested to hear about how you recorded the new album. You have that picture of your ProTools rig on your website.
In that photo there’s a cassette 4-track from the 1980s, and so what I do is I lay my stuff down to the 4-track cassette, because I really like that sound, you know, that tape, that splattering …
… yeah. It’s a quarter … what is it, an eighth of an inch tape or something? How wide is a cassette? Quarter inch or eighth of an inch? But then that’s divided into four, so you’re really getting a 16th or a 32nd of an inch, so it’s splattering on a tiny, tiny amount of tape, so it’s really dirty. It sounds just fucking cool. So I start there and then I play out of the cassette loops that I build or like or full guitar parts or whatever, and load them into the ProTools rig on my laptop, and then I sort of form these minute-long versions just so that I can get the lyrics and message that’s in my head. That’s what comes first for me, the first whole lyrical statement of what the song is and what I’m feeling, and the chord changes. It starts on just acoustic guitar, staring out the window, trying to get something off my chest that’s bothering me, or whatever. Or some sort of enlightenment, some epiphany that I’ve just experienced, and I want to put it into this. Make it real outside of my body and my mind, you know, I want it to exist outside of my cell wall. So that’s the guitar. Then I go down downstairs, do that whole thing, tweak with different guitar tones. Drum sounds. Keyboard sounds. Whatever I’ve got. Vocal sounds. Mix to 4-track cassette. Get it into the laptop and start moving it around, chopping it around. Then re-lay vocals maybe, or re-lay guitar, and then once I have six or seven of those, then it just seems like it’s time to take it down and load it into the Odditorium’s computer. You know, the big rig.
So we get it there, split it up on the board, see if it’s all going to work, and Peter is a far more detailed-out, guitar-tone-getter than I am, so we work on it at the Oddy and then Pete brings in a hard drive. Puts it on his hard drive, takes it to his basement. He and Zia work in his basement, because Zia will fall asleep at The Odditorium, you know, giant sofa. Dark. Cozy …
… huge beautiful room to work in, so she’ll just fall asleep. So she has to work there, because there’s this one hard folding chair to sit in, and (laughs) that’s the “guest artist’s chair.” Zia can’t fall asleep there, so she works there. And then Pete has all these military-issued 1940 synthesizers that have 700 cords to plug in. You know, those old ARPs?
That he can’t drag back and forth to the Odditorium, so he does all the really high-tech blippity blippity stuff. Anything involving guitar tones, delays, envelope filters, reverse reverbs, all that super high-end shit comes out of Pete’s basement.
Then once he’s got a few of those laid in. Zia’s got a few laid in. Then they bring it back. They load it in. Then Pete and I sit and chop at the Oddy. Also, if a song isn’t going anywhere, I can just let Pete get it, and he’ll take it, ’cause he’s a remixer of modest skill. He’ll take it over there and chop it into a full five minutes or whatever. If we can’t seem to get it beyond one good solid minute of music. Like “Semper Fidelis.” We wanted that thing to be longer. We wanted to be able to listen to the thing for five minutes without having to hit “repeat.”
“Semper Fidelis” is cool because it’s got that consistent drone though. Consistent synth swells, and then that palm mute guitar pops up a lot of places.
Did you know that’s Anton’s [Newcombe, from Brian Jonestown Massacre] guitar pedal?
Yeah, it’s the guts of Vox Ultrasonic, but there’s something different, because I own two twin ’67 Vox Ultrasonics that I used to play back in the old days, and it isn’t quite that. It’s different, and I can’t get that heavy metal sound out of my Ultrasonic, but I can get it out of that pedal, and I’m sure [Anton] would be horrified to know that that super rough Powerman 5000, Rob Zombie fucking metal sound came out of his pedal, but I love it, man! I’ve been wanting somebody to do that for a long time. With clean vocals. You don’t have to do cookie monster vocals just because you’ve got a heavy metal palm muted, super death metal guitar sound. You can put clean vocals on top of it.
See that’s funny, because that’s death metal to us, but to death metal kids …
It’s dance music.
But it’s cool because it pops up in a couple places. On “Semper Fidelis,” and then you’ve got it on “You Are Killing Me” …
“Reverend Jim.” I was trying to figure out if that was surf rock or rockabilly, or both? You’ve got that (mouths surf-rock guitar sounds).
Right? Totally. Pete did all the surf-y Dick Dale kinda guitar stuff on that. The high plinky surf guitar is like that dude from Shannon and the Clams, he’s sort of staked out that part of the ’50s as his thing, and then the Dick Dale twang, the early whammy bar experimentations … wow, it’s really fun doing an interview with another musician.
I was trying to go for that same metal sound, too.
I’m tired of everything else.
When I started researching the Brian Jonestown Massacre, I didn’t know anything about recording. Just the shit on shitty free software that I could get from some shitty shady site, and I had the computer microphone. I didn’t know anything about interfaces.
Well, computer microphones are … Fathead’s [Brent DeBoer] done a lot of great work just on a laptop. Cup your hand around it different ways, and you can get it to do different things, if you just put your palm over it almost completely and sing into the back of your hand, and EQ it later, you can get it to kind of sound like a ribbon mic. It’s all you. It’s not the gear you have, it’s you. That’s what makes great records. People still make great records. Not computers. Not the equipment. It ain’t the fucking preamps. It ain’t the transformers. It’s the fucking person and their desire to have something happen that is emotionally explosive for them.
Right? I just wanted to hear what it sounded like. I had no idea what I sounded like, you know what I mean?
Right. And you can sound like whatever you want. You don’t sound like anything until you make some decisions in the recording process.
I have Garageband and we record shitty demos on the laptop, with just the laptop mic that’s built in, and then we found this studio in Phoenix, and the band would play over the shitty demo I made in the studio, and then we’d take the demo out and then I just add to that.
That’s kinda what we do.
That’s why I was interested to hear what your process was with these songs. Like, how did you come up with the idea that these ten songs are this record? Was there a bunch of shit that you had where you’re like, “Man, I really like this jam, but it doesn’t fit with these songs. We’ll have to cut it …”?
Never, never. I’m not very prolific. I don’t write songs. They come out of me. I don’t sit down and go “I’m gonna write a song.” I don’t. I just get fed up with life or people, so brutally and depressingly overwhelmed and bummed out by the world … or occasionally something good. Lay on the sofa, guitar in my hand, and just space off. Sooner or later something rolls around. It comes out of my mouth and it comes out of the guitar and I capture it, and that’s it. It’s the authentic feelings going on in my life, and they become a nine and a half, or a ten, or an eleven, and that forces me onto the sofa with the guitar. The rest of the time I’m just trying to live life. Trying to keep myself happy, and if I fail at that, then it’s guitar/sofa/bong time, and then the thing that comes out of me, the words and the melody and the guitar and the chord changes, that will motivate me down to the basement to get the fucking thing put out and put together. Multiple tracks all going at the same time.
I thought “The Grow Up Song” sounds like you’re on your couch just kicking back, strumming out some chords at the end of the night.
Yes, of course. Exactly. And I don’t feel like that very often. I’m generally a guy who’s like “fuck yeah” I like to drink and I like to fucking party. I want sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll until the sun comes up and everyone’s piling out of the party for the walk of shame in the morning light, and I love that shit, but more often it happens now that it’s just gross, you know? But still let me tell ya, you know we had a nice fucking party last time I was down there [in Phoenix] …”
We wrapped it up a little after that. I then followed up with drummer Brent DeBoer, a.k.a. “Fathead,” who lives in Australia, about how he tracked drums for the new record. 90 percent of them were tracked at The Odditorium. Three days after tracking was finished the roof on the Odditorium caved in.
Brent also wrote swinging new single “Catcher In The Rye.” DeBoer says, “‘Catcher’ I wrote and then Courtney and I hashed out the lyrics.” Check it out below:
As for the other Dandys, guitarist Peter Holmstrom recently spoke to The Kansas City Star about his thoughts on the new album, while Zia McCabe has been way too busy to be catching naps of any kind. Most recently she gave the welcoming address at Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ rally in Portland (see the complete video here) and is planning a series of Dandys afterparties as her alter ego, DJ Rescue.
April 12: New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom
April 13: New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom
April 15: Cambridge, MA – The Sinclair
April 17: Washington, D.C. – 9:30 Club
April 18: Millvale, PA – Mr. Small’s Theatre
April 19: Louisville, KY – Mercury Ballroom
They then tour Europe in May.
Distortland is out now on Dine Alone Records