The Dandy Warhols
Next Thing I Know…
The Dandy Warhols Turn 25
For the past 25 years, The Dandy Warhols have established themselves as a preeminently unpredictable and eclectic band, with 10 studio albums that veer from trippy psychedelia to pure power pop and back again, often shot through with wry humor.
So it’s no surprise that Zia McCabe, their keyboardist, seems equally quirky and complex. Speaking from her office in Portland, Oregon – from which she also conducts a successful real estate career – she is ebullient and effusive as she talks about recent European tour dates. “I think that we are doing a much better job of striking a balance between home life and tour life. What people imagine a touring musician’s life to be like is so clearly different than what it really is. But there are some real magical moments. And we’re all such pleasure seekers that we do a really good job of making the most of it,” she says. “We have real gratitude for the privilege of being a band for  years, and getting to play for these beautiful audiences that embrace us and embrace each other. It’s worth any personality differences to keep that going.”
Her bandmates (singer/guitarist Courtney Taylor-Taylor, guitarist Peter Holmström, and drummer Brent DeBoer) apparently share that sentiment, as evidenced by the group’s remarkably stable lineup. There has been only one membership change since The Dandy Warhols officially began, when original drummer Eric Hedford left in 1998 and DeBoer joined. Such fidelity is almost unheard of in the music business, especially for a band that’s existed for a quarter of a century.
So what’s the key to their longevity? McCabe says they’ve worked to get “to a place of tolerance and acceptance where you focus on the things that work rather than the things that don’t work. And that is one of the keys to being in really long-term intimate relationships with people. We learned that together.
“I think most of us go through a phase of, ‘You know what your problem is?’ And you think they’re gonna be so grateful for that insight, and then they’re gonna make some changes.” She laughs. “That never happens! I mean, occasionally people blow your mind with some perfectly worded insight that triggers you to go be a better person, but mostly you go, ‘Really? Well, you’re an asshole and I don’t appreciate your comment at all.’ I don’t know how people do that for years. You see these documentaries of bands that just are so consumed by their hatred that they’ve forgotten where the creative love spark ever was.”
Finding a creative spark has certainly never been a problem for this band – if anything, some critics have accused them of being too wide-ranging in their styles over the years. McCabe dismisses the notion. “We’re driven by need: what do we need to hear, what do we need to play, what do we need to try? We’re such an eclectic act that what we do has a lot of ways to be shaped and interpreted – which keeps it exciting for me. Even if it’s kind of a country song, it’s still gonna have a psychedelic twist, because we just can’t help it.” (That last description perfectly sums up “Highlife,” a song on the band’s recently released 10th studio album, Why You So Crazy, which McCabe sings with a giddy, exaggerated twang over woozily exuberant instrumentation.)
Their musical explorations have seemed rather charmed right from the start: they were signed to indie label Tim/Kerr on the strength of their very first gig. Their debut album, Dandys Rule OK, was released to critical acclaim in 1995. Switching to a major label for their 1997 breakthrough second album, …The Dandy Warhols Come Down, they vividly showcased their skills with atmospheric songs that were at once hallucinogenic and accessible. That album spawned three singles that brought the band worldwide fame: “Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth” (with its instantly memorable “Heroin is so passé!” refrain), “Every Day Should Be a Holiday,” and “Boys Better” (which gained the group massive exposure thanks to its inclusion on the Good Will Hunting film soundtrack.)
The band soon found themselves sharing stages with the likes of David Bowie, appearing at the prestigious Glastonbury Festival in England, and headlining their own shows across multiple continents. With their ensuing eight albums, the band have continued to demonstrate a knack for offbeat but witty pop sensibilities, as they proved with two more hit singles, “Bohemian Like You” (2000) and “We Used to Be Friends” (2003). Since then, they have delved further into less mainstream musical directions, but still retained a cult status with a fervent following.
With Why You So Crazy, released this January, the band is as sonically diverse as ever, ranging from the moody, surrealist “Forever” to the exaggerated Americana swagger on “Motor City Steel.” The first single, “Be Alright,” is a dizzying mix of driving rhythm, dreamy vocals and staccato keyboard flourishes; its surreal video, filmed in one long shot with a trippy 360 degree camera style, follows Mad Men actress Jessica Paré as she explores The Odditorium, the eclectic Portland recording studio/performance space that the Dandys have owned for nearly 20 years. The video caused a stir online among fans, many of whom seem to regard the Odditorium as something of a musical Mecca.
Throughout all of this prolific output, there is always the pervading sense that this is, at heart, a group of friends who are purely having fun creating art together. Per McCabe, this is a deliberate attitude. “You can’t get precious about your stuff,” she says. “I do like the sense of whimsy. I like the silliness and the tongue in cheek and the dynamic of sometimes having really serious music with silly lyrics, or upbeat music with really dark lyrics – I think that that contrast is always fun to play with.”
Regarding the band’s eclecticism, McCabe says, “We’re experimental artists, and so you shouldn’t ever really know what to expect from us.” In other words, this musical unpredictability is, in fact, the only predictable thing about The Dandy Warhols. It’s a role McCabe relishes, even as she recognizes that not everyone will appreciate it. “I think that our fans get us, but…[reviewers often] are like, ‘Get a grip, you guys – you are all over the place!’ I think that they think we’re completely self-indulgent.” She laughs, unperturbed by the criticism.
Looking back at the band’s history, McCabe clearly feels immense pride. In fact, she says there’s really only one thing that she wishes she could go back and change if she could: her youthful tendency to party a bit too much. “When I joined the band, everybody acted like the most important thing was to get faded, or to get wild. And I am such a rambunctious person, add a couple drinks and I’m the leader of all the fun and all the adventure. And that became my job, and I thought that alcohol was a requirement. I really wish there would’ve been a few wise people that I looked up to that were like, ‘That’s lame. You can be such a better, evolved intellectual when your brain doesn’t have booze sludge in it all the time.’” (Though she clarifies, “I’m not talking about alcoholism. I’m talking about alcohol abuse, where it’s just too prevalent in your life and you don’t realize what a residue it leaves on everything.”)
These days, she tries to help steer young women in the right direction through her work with a summer camp organization called Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls (girlsrockcamp.org), for which she serves as a board member and fund raiser. She also visits the girls in person as often as her schedule allows so she can speak to them directly. Her best advice to them, she says, is to ignore “that little voice that tells you that you’re not as good as somebody else, or that you need to practice more, or that you don’t deserve it – that’s not you. That’s just a weird doubt voice that you can turn the volume down on and show up anyway – just show up and do your thing, and don’t let your critical side be part of the equation.” As the mother of a teenaged daughter (Matilda, age 14), McCabe knows how important this type of mentoring can be for young women.
Parenthood is also one of the factors that convinced her to start a second career as a real estate agent. It’s a role that, at first glance, seems entirely at odds with the uninhibited rock star she embodies onstage, but McCabe is pragmatic about it.
“I have life insurance and school savings and all this overhead to maintain that is [for] the well-being of another human, and that is the big motivation to keep shit steady. It’s not like, ‘Oh, it’s OK, I’ll just sell this house and live off the equity in a trailer off-grid!’”
It’s also not an endeavor she undertook lightly: “It took me about two or three years of going, ‘OK, no matter how good it seems like the band is going, statistically, this is not a reliable career, and it’s not one that takes you into old age.’ And so why would I naively go, ‘No, but we’re gonna last forever!’ So I had to find what uses my skill set – people skills, number skills, and being a creative problem-solver – where I could still set my own hours and be my own boss.” Real estate emerged as the only viable option.
That was five years ago. Once the decision was made, McCabe pursued it with a single-minded determination that even an intense worldwide traveling schedule couldn’t derail. She studied for her real estate classes while simultaneously touring with the band. Earning her realtor license two years ago, she has since worked as an agent in between her Dandy Warhols duties. She has helped some of the band’s fans purchase homes, and takes pride in the fact that her new coworkers accept and respect her (“I think everybody’s been pretty sweet.”) It can, however, be startling to look at her official webpage (AtoZiaRealEstate.com), where there’s a photo of McCabe, beaming, tattoos peeping out from under a demure dress. She bills herself as a “Trusted Real Estate Advisor / Rock and Roll Veteran.” Clearly, this is work she takes very seriously, even as she recognizes just how unusual the situation may seem at first.
“I’m in this conservative office. There’s some hipster boutique real estate firms that people thought I would end up with, but I just didn’t want to make a lateral move. I wanted it to be a completely different scene. And I like standing out [and] being the mouthy rocker chick!” Still, she has made some concessions: “I mean, I’m wearing a turtleneck sweater! It’s fine.” She giggles. “I always laugh at my ‘Business Zia’ self. But I’m still wearing Doc Martens right now. It’s like, I’m tidy but still have a little bit of an edge. And I’m kind of liking the fresher, cleaner, better-smelling Zia!”
Part of her success is undoubtedly due to the fact that she is genuinely in love with Portland, so she’s truly pleased to help people buy homes there. She was born and raised in the metropolitan area and is fiercely loyal to it. Even though she’s been around the world several times, she says she hasn’t been seriously tempted to move to any other city yet. “[Portland is] an amazing city. At the beginning [of the band], I was completely open to the idea of finding somewhere else I wanted to live. And then, after a few years of touring, nothing was enough better than Portland to motivate me to leave this city for any long amount of time.
“To be 90 minutes or less to the mountains, to rain forests, to desert, and to the ocean? That right there is such a privilege to be nestled in the middle of such amazing nature. And then to have such a progressive-minded town where everywhere is allergy compliant and everything is locally sourced and recycled. And it’s such a beautiful city. And the seasons, to have such wonderful diversity of weather.”
Besides being personally fulfilling, another side benefit to her new business savviness has been her ability to assume many more behind-the-scenes duties for the band. “We’ve taken on more responsibilities on the business side, because everybody was taking such a big chunk, there was literally nothing left for us. And so we got rid of a ton of our overhead. Now I take the calls from the accountants every day. And I run the Dandys business, the portion that I look after, from my desk for real estate. So I have this infrastructure.”
It’s a hectic lifestyle, but she relishes the challenge. “The way that all of the things stimulate my brain, it’s so healthy for me, and I feel so much more vibrant and intelligent and on top of my shit, having an office to go to and a place where I’m making these adult decisions every day.
“It’s just too bad that there’s this stigma that [having a day job] somehow means you’re somehow not as good of an artist. I don’t know why it’s so insulting to work and have some consistent money coming in so that you can then, when you’re not working, feel free to just be creative. Plus, once you start thinking, ‘How do I make my art to make money?’ – are you really authentically making your art, still?”
But Dandy Warhols fans should not despair – despite her excitement over this second career, she’s still obviously the most proud of her musical accomplishments. “When people go, ‘I got through the hardest part of my life because of your music’ – it used to just be like, ‘How is that real, that’s silly.’ But it’s not. They’re dead serious. And I’ve decided to not question it, and really embrace it as a reason to feel accomplished. It’s intense.”
Next up, the band kicks off their latest North American tour on May 4 with an appearance at Atlanta’s Shaky Knees Music Festival. After that, there will be a Dandy Warhols coffee table book coming out chronicling the band’s 25 years together; the last chapter for that is being finished now.
No doubt there will be many, many more chapters written in the history of this band, however. Even now, McCabe’s enthusiasm definitely hasn’t dimmed despite being a Dandy Warhols member for her entire adult life, a fact that seems to fill her with awe. “I was 18 [when I joined], so I have my childhood chapter, and then this – 25 years of this – and that’s not something that anybody could expect or foresee. When we first started music, I thought we were so incredibly lucky, even then. Knowing that that’s something I have contributed to humanity is really life-affirming and fulfilling. And what a privilege!”
Photo by Mike Morgan.