Artful dodgers of pop

Courtney Taylor-Taylor wanted to die.

“About a year and a half ago, I was super depressed,” the Dandy Warhols singer recalls. “Have you ever had one of those suicidal periods? One of those ‘if I wasn’t such a spineless prick I’d kill myself’ depressions. I couldn’t get out of bed and brush my teeth. That’s how low I was.”

He won’t go into specifics, beyond saying things were falling apart in his personal life. He’d also just lost a friend, playwright Sebastian Horsley, to a fatal heroin overdose in 2010 (opinions differ as to whether or not the Englishman took his own life).

“We were very close. We’d made plans to get together in London the next month. His play had opened, he went to it and was thrilled with the reception. Then he went home and shot a bunch of dope, that killed him. A lot of things were happening around about time.”

It was while lying in bed, in a trough of despair, that the rangy singer wrote much of the Dandys’ new album. Their first record in four years, This Machine is a return to form for the band.

With their last two studio projects, 2005’s Odditorium: Or The Warlords of Mars and 2008’s Earth to the Dandy Warhols, they turned their back on the glossy indie rock that had been their trademark. Now they’ve gone back to their roots. The result is an LP in the über-catchy tradition of their biggest hit, Bohemian Like You.

That was the song which, in 2000, transformed the Portland, Oregon power-pop outfit into MTV stars and festival headliners. One moment they were playing tiny club shows, the next they were all over the radio and on magazine covers. Looking back, Taylor-Taylor says success was an ordeal. The last thing he wants is for This Machine to become a million seller.

“I remember drinking with The Cure’s Robert Smith in Greece just as Bohemian was starting to break. And he said, ‘you’re going to hate it, man. This is going to be the most sick you are ever going to be in your life’. He told me that when The Cure began playing arenas he’d look out into the audience and see all these guys wearing baseball caps. And they weren’t even wearing them the right way around. Nobody else told me that. I was friends with Joe Strummer before he died. He didn’t tell me. I’ve spent a lot of time with David Bowie. He didn’t say anything. It was just Robert. He was the only one.”

What was it about fame and wealth that he disliked? “It’s as bad as all those whingy whiners say,” he explains. “We got to taste the bitter creepiness and it was enough to make us loathe it.”

When your band has a hit, the record label thinks it’s stumbled on a license to print money, he says. If you don’t play their game, things can get ugly. Post-Bohemian Like You, the Dandys needed to get off Capitol Records in order to survive.

“We released Odditorium and the idea was to get the fuck off a major. We had an eight minute song as the opener and a 10 minute one on second. The philosophy was ‘let’s scrape out the inside of our brains and get everything down there’. We wanted to make sure there wasn’t a single track on that record that Capitol would want to remix.”

With the Dandys keeping a low profile since 2008, they were assumed to be in hiatus. That’s not the case, says Taylor-Taylor. Far from putting the band on the back burner, they’ve never stopped grafting. “I’m just not that prolific a songwriter,” he says.

Such an assertion may surprise anyone who remembers the cockiness The Dandy Warhols displayed in the cult rockumentary Dig!. Chronicling the diverting fortunes of Taylor-Taylor and his friend, Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, the movie portrayed the Dandys as super ambitious and brimming with swagger. At one point Taylor actually declares, ‘I sneeze hits’.

“I was told to say that,” he complains. “Honestly, I was told what to say almost every scene in that movie. I can’t believe we let ourselves be talked into doing it. We should have smelt a trap. It made us look like mean friends to Anton. It was terrible. We’d be told to say things, and we’d think, ‘oh, this is cute… this is funny’. I only saw that movie once. And I found out it was this dark icky thing. It was horrible. Let’s talk about something else.”

The Dandy Warhols have been based in Portland their entire career. Starting out, Taylor-Taylor never dreamed he’s spend the rest of his professional life in this medium sized city, 172 miles south of Seattle. “When I was about 14 and started coming downtown, hanging with the safety-pins-through-their-noses kids, everyone was saying, ‘I’m getting out of here, maaan. I’m movin’ to New York or LA’. I never had that feeling. The one thing I knew was that I would be making music the rest of my life. I kind of assumed it would take me out of Portland.”

Then something extraordinary happened. Portland became a mecca for left-leaning artists, earning a reputation as the most ‘alternative’ city in America. “If Portland hadn’t changed from the shit-hole it was, I would have had to move. In fact, it became an international city concurrently with us becoming an international band.

“People may make fun of it now. But it’s become laughable in a pretty neat and cool way. That’s a crucial difference.”

* The Dandy Warhols play Vicar Street, Dublin Wednesday. This Machine is released Friday.

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