Interview: The Dandy Warhols and The Upsidedown


The Dandy Warhols are cooler than you.   Don’t try to argue, it’s just the way it is. They have a great pop art name to go with their great pop art sound, and still look every bit as amazing slinging their guitars, shaking their tambourines and battering their drums and as they did when they formed more than a decade ago. The Portland-based foursome has created some of the most infectious and inventive rock music of the modern era, and has just released what this fan considers their most ambitious album yet: Earth To The Dandy Warhols.

The close friendships of Courtney Taylor-Taylor (vocals, guitar), Peter Holmstrom (guitar), Zia McCabe (keys), and Brent DeBoer (drums) are the foundation for the band that has created a mass of instantly memorable hits such as “We Used To Be Friends,” “Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth,” and “Bohemian Like You.”  While The Dandys have an undeniable knack for creating tunes that force listeners out of their seats, their lyrics are every bit as much of a treat as the music they’re carried in on.  Approaching themes of drugs, sex, and youth culture with a modern, cynical and often humorous stance (“Lou Weed” and “Hard On For Jesus” have to be some of the most amazing song titles of all time) is what makes the band unique.

In anticipation for their show at The Barrymore on Wednesday, I recently got the opportunity to sit at the cool kids’ table for a bit and chat with The Dandys’ guitar master Peter Holmstrom (who is every bit as refreshingly intelligent, friendly and down-to-earth as one could hope) about how they’ve navigated the big bad beast of the music industry, their latest creation, and what the future might hold.

The Dandy’s newest album, Earth To The Dandy Warhols, is proof that a band can be inventive and take risks with their sound while still maintaining the accessibility that attracted their initial fan base.  Leave it to The Dandys to come up with new ways to make music fun and fresh.  “The unique thing about this record is that it’s half old songs and half new songs,” says Holmstrom.  “Talk Radio is one of the first Dandy Warhols songs ever.”  Fans will certainly hear shades of the band’s familiar brand of great shoegaze-influenced art pop in the new album while other unexpected sonic frontiers are explored, but it’s not just the music itself that has grown over the years.

“I think [Courtney’s style of songwriting] has changed a little bit,” Holmstrom reflects.  “He’s developing a kind of storyteller side.  It’s always been there in certain aspects, but now he’s kind of able to take it farther and not just create from personal experience, actually making full fictional stories.”

“Welcome to the Third World” is one such work of lyrical fiction, as well as being one of the most musically adventurous songs the band has attempted in their career.  Recalling the Talking Heads, Richard Hell and ‘80s Stones at their funkiest, Taylor-Taylor sexes up the impossibly hip lyrics like only he can.

The driving rockabilly beat of “The Legend of the Last Outlaw Truckers AKA The Ballad of Sheriff Shorty” features another memorable performance from Taylor-Taylor who breathlessly rips through the snappy lyrics at breakneck speed.   “Mis Amigos” is a joyful, peppy Mexican-influenced tune that would have fit seamlessly on Beck’s Guero, while fans of classics like CCR’s “Susie Q” and The Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman (In A Black Dress)” will gravitate towards “Valerie Yum.”   The darkest moment on the record is the swirling, heavy stomp of “Wasp in the Lotus,” which could easily be a modern, more sonically vast “Helter Skelter.”
In contrast, “Love Song” is a melodic, textured, bluegrass-sprinkled break in the action, featuring Mark Knopfler on dobro as well as the banjo talents of Mike Campbell from former touring partners Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

“Our original idea was to have Steve Martin play banjo.  It would be incredible!  I mean, come on!  Steve Martin!  We got a track off to his management and just never heard back.  So, Courtney got a little bummed out and said, ‘Well, fine, we’ll just get the best banjo player in the world.  I’m going to ask Mike Campbell who the best banjo player in the world is.’  Mike Campbell said, ‘Me!’” Holmstrom laughs.  “So he did it, and I think at the same time Courtney had also asked Mark Knopfler if he would play, and they both said yes kind of at the same time.  We just had to cross our fingers that their tracks were going to work well together, and if they didn’t we’d have to pick one or the other…It worked out incredibly well.”

Holmstrom confirms that The Dandy Warhols have no plans to tame down their musical experimentation anytime soon.  Considering the near future, he says, “We were thinking maybe just do EPs, and that way we’d be able to be a little freer stylistically.  If you have four songs it can be something as far out as you want, relatively easy to get done, and it wouldn’t be such a big deal if, say, half your fan base didn’t like that style because three or four months later we could hopefully have another EP with a different style.  That’s all theory at the moment.  Since it’s our own label, we can do whatever the hell we want! [laughs]”

The Dandys have never been shy about allowing their work to be used in movies, TV shows and advertisements, a fact that at first seems to be in contrast with the band’s famously independent spirit.  There are, however, always two sides of the story, as Holmstrom explains.

“I understand people being a little more protective about [using their music in advertisements] because then you’re associated with a product, but for us it was just some money, which we all needed.  We don’t make money from record sales—well, sorry, we haven’t made money from record sales just because we end up spending too much on making records and videos and promotion, so it’s just in order to get by.”

He goes on to describe how allowing their music to be placed in a variety of mainstream media sources has been a positive tool for the band. “That has perks beyond just a paycheck.  It actually brought attention to our record, and the record company in England re-released our single and it went to number five.  It was a huge success and it went on for years and years and years.  Because of that, we bought our own studio [The Odditorium], and were able to have our own label [Beat The World Records], and be independent, so I have no complaints at all about that whole thing.  We did what we needed to do to survive, and have ended up on the top.  We don’t get a huge amount of radio play, so it’s another way for people to hear the music.”

Indeed, 2008 finds the Dandy Warhols in an enviable position. With their own label, studio and a well-respected body of work that has attracted an enormous worldwide fan base, the sky is truly the limit.  “I’m happy with where we are and I think that we’re incredibly lucky,” Holmstrom concludes. “We’ve done it on our own terms and I definitely feel good about that.”

Opening Wednesday night’s show will be The Dandys’ fellow Portland residents, The Upsidedown.  Having shared billing with artists such as The Jesus and Mary Chain, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Walkmen and The Black Angels, The Upsidedown are quickly establishing themselves as a major force in the music world.  Their six members assembled in the great northwest from around the country in 2003 and have been awing music fans with their dance-friendly neo-psychedelic sound ever since.  The Upsidedown released their sophomore album, Human Destination, on The Dandys’ Beat The World label in August of this year, and have received an overwhelmingly positive response from the music press.  Vocalist and guitarist Jsun Atoms recently took the time to good-naturedly respond to several questions about the music his band creates.
In addition to sharing a label with the Dandy Warhols, The Upsidedown had the privilege of recording their most recent record in The Dandys’ Odditorium, an experience that Atoms fondly recalls.

“The first album [Trust Electricity] was all recorded in a day with some vocal overdubs later. This album we got to work in the amazing Odditorium with the incomparable Jeremy Sherrer. He is really something. He tells you what he hears and why. He listens to your needs and magically makes your dreams come true,” praises Atoms.  “It was the best art making experience thus far in my life, partly because of the couch Courtney [Taylor-Taylor] designed for the mixing room. He has left you no choice but to relax. Peter [Holmstrom] is such a calming force to be around too.”

Following the brief, delicate slide guitar solo of “Licorice Noir,” Human Destination screams open with the happily bouncy “What I Like About You”-esque rocker, “If You Are Hell Girl.”  “Number Twenty Nine” is about as chill and soothing as it gets, while “Black Rainbow” and “Silver Wind” are grittier, with tight garage pop edges.  Another standout track is “Light,” which sounds like Nine Inch Nails blissfully drifting away on Lunesta.

In short, the record is “all the things we want it to be,” says Atoms.  “If you are in your backyard gardening, it’s for you. If you are having a slumber party dance night with your kids before popcorn and a movie, it’s for you. If you are driving and laughing or crying, it’s for you. If you are sexy it’s for you. If you want to feel sexier it’s for you. If you like dressing up, it’s for you. Overall it’s for you, and we are so proud of it. We are just trying to light up the world, that’s all.”

Variety is perhaps the strongest element in Human Destination.  Each track is its own world of individual influence and force.  Keeping the musical experience free and experimental is important to The Upsidedown.
“I am not concerned with a signature sound. I feel like we didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into any one thing,” explains Atoms. “I love some of the reviews we have gotten that say we are garage but dark gothic, or that we are music from the future that uses instruments from the past. I just want to make our music, and if we have an audience that will be a blessing.”

As for how The Upsidedown’s six members found each other, you can’t help but adore an account as entertaining as Atoms’:
“We came together like when a tornado settles. It was very Wizard of Oz. I was looking for a heart. Before we were a band I was empty and unfulfilled. Now I have the best friends in the world and I have so much fun. Tristan [Evans, bass/vocals] is from Kansas and she landed here, and she has the coolest poncho. Matt [Moore, guitar/accordion/vocals/harp] and Bob [Graham Mild, drums] were tin woodsmen from Missouri and they both needed a little oil. Brett [Kron, guitar] and Sarah Jane [keys/vocals/tambourine] had been scaring crows, and then we all saw behind the curtain and found out that we are the great and powerful wizard ourselves.”

As if a night with The Dandy Warhols and The Upsidedown wasn’t exciting enough, California’s Darker My Love share the bill as well.  “Two Ways Out” from the band’s new album, 2, is an epic, soaring take on Supergrass’ “Alright” melody, and is already a favorite among the music blogging community.  The fuzzy, feral, psychedelic grooves found on tracks like the pulsing “Northern Soul,” “Wild,” and “Blue Day” are evocative of British “lad rock” bands, such as Kasabian and Oasis, which is sure to bring another interesting angle to a night of already dynamic musicianship.

Wednesday night’s 8:00 all ages show at the Barrymore will be a showcase of old favorites and sure-to-be new favorites from three of the most important indie bands on the current music scene.

-Shelley Peckham

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3 Responses

  1. Hello, I would like tickets! wooo

  2. They are all yours- we’ll see you at the door!

  3. […] Rudd made his first appearance in Madison…his set was perhaps the most unusual of the year. The Dandy Warhols put on a great show to a smallish crowd, leaving us wondering if tough times were […]

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