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Courtney Taylor-Taylor of the Dandy Warhols on Finding That Sweet Spot Between Yesterday & Tomorrow

This article was originally published on Clash 

It’s tough to pin down what exactly “indie” is considering what it once was, what it’s supposed to be and what people think it is. The Dandy Warhols make this both easier to understand while also complicating it further since they’ve been every version of said tag at different points in their career — they’ve sounded, looked and lived the part; played small venues as well as massive festivals; signed with Capitol Records for a short period and even landed a Vodafone commercial that broadcast their music to every corner of the globe.

Over three decades into their run, the Portland four-piece is in a comfortable place wherein they needn’t negotiate with anyone but themselves. Earlier this month, the Dandy Warhols unveiled their thirteenth studio album independently via Sunset Blvd and Beat the World. With cameos from Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Guns N’ Roses’ Slash, their autonomy from the machine mixed with the reach they earned from briefly engaging with it is more evident than ever before on ROCKMAKER.

Prior to its release, frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor sat down with Clash to discuss his new approach to songwriting, the prospects of artificial intelligence and the current state of the city that bred his band.

A number of songs from the new record have accompanying music videos that were created using artificial intelligence. What exactly is the process of creating an audio-visual package in this case

Courtney Taylor-Taylor: For our first single, ‘Summer Of Hate’, we gave one of our filmmakers the video for ‘Boys & Girls’ by blur as a reference for a classic, green-screen visual with that local cable-access vibe to it. So while we’re putting that together, he goes, “Hey, my buddy just got the most insane AI program that just came out; should we just bang one out?”

He then started working on it based on whatever the internet thinks the Dandy Warhols are, which is part Star Trek, part goth… club… kind of Edwardian and a lot of other weird shit. So what you then have to do with this beautiful AI footage is try to decide what is in this world and what is not; what is okay to put in here and what isn’t; what is snapping me out of the trip of the world or interrupting the beat of energy. You can tell when it starts getting shitty with you, like you put too much information in and then it turns me into a member of Insane Clown Posse… it becomes wonderfully disturbing.

That’s the basic thing — AI is a tool that cannot be programmed to understand feeling, and that’s awesome. Just keep it from launching nukes or crashing the global economy. Let’s keep it from doing that and have it instead make videos that look like they’d cost $11 million in 1997.

You’ve described ‘Summer Of Hate’ as an homage to some of the earlier punk bands. Was there a specific group that steered your vision?

The Damned in particular — they were the outlier of that original punk contingent. The Clash and the Sex Pistols were very much like, “Okay, we’ve heard The Ramones and we’re just doing that, but we’re English,” but the Damned thought punk was the MC5 and the Stooges. As time wears on and you make a million records and write a zillion songs, you realize that they had  great songwriting in a traditional way. Somehow, their mixes worked to the ultimate advantage stylistically in a way that it all just made sense. Nothing about the Sex Pistols hits me as emotionally or as hard, and I love the Sex Pistols — y’know, every song is so cool — but there was something else going on with the Damned … different sound, different production, different approach. And Dave Vanian is just the coolest singer.

For the vinyl B-Side of ‘Summer Of Hate’, we actually did a Depeche Mode-style cover of ‘Love Song’ by the Damned. I really enjoyed just singing Dave’s parts, y’know… just being Dave Vanian for a minute.

You’ve used AI for music videos — to what extent would you flirt with the technology as a songwriter?

I plan on it; I’m not going to not let that happen. I’ll find someone who’s got the equipment and the know-how, though it obviously has a limited scope.

A few months back, there was this artificial Beatles song, and of course it did not feel anything like them — it had similar guitar tones with someone imitating their vocal style, but nothing that would make you want to listen to it again.

We were just talking about having Elephant Stone open for us on our Australian Tour, so I looked them up and watched two videos in a row. The first one was great, but the second one… I could not stop myself from going back and playing it over and over; probably did that five–six times in a row. AI will never make that. Ever. Even for the most electronic band.

What’s the name of the song you’re referring to?

‘Love The Sinner, Hate The Sin.’ I mean there’s a couple of things I would change in the mix, like I would not have gotten rid of the Rickenbacker in the first verse — in the opening verse, they get rid of it — and it just becomes, well, that old Australian thing where it’s like a very professional impersonation of Oasis, which a lot of Australian bands did. It was a craze in the late 90s when we started going down there, to be a mediocre Oasis. I’ve never seen it as bad anywhere as Australia, just saying.

But once these guys bring that Rickenbacker back in and that 12-string sound — oh my god, they’re really good at it and the singer is special. He’s got that high-pitched voice that the Three O’Clock had … just that really authentic 60s tenor range, and it’s just dusty and beautiful and beguiling, and he hits really powerful notes.

You’ve watched the industry go through several phases of evolution. What’s something about the contemporary music space that irks you?

The homogenous nature of pop music blending EDM and hip-hop and soul/R&B. So if you want to listen to hip-hop, you really have to listen to old hip-hop ’cause Snoop Dogg has a style that nobody else does. Now you got some of this weird, racist country rap … it’s pretty awkward. Then, there’s the limited number of voices you can sing in. There’s like two male voices, like this white, beardy guy with an acoustic guitar… that post-Mumford & Sons sound.

It seems like the industry goes through trends. Eight years ago, everybody wanted to be reggaeton, and I like all that stuff, but it did get gratuitous since you had to have that, and then you just couldn’t escape it. Eventually, it’s not even artists working on that stuff; just entertainment-making people and businesses that are putting it everywhere.

When I think about it, it always was hard for me to walk around and listen to commercial music. When I was a kid, it was Phil Collins and I was outraged by it. I just thought, “That’s not even cool.” I want to hear people who have grappled with some shit within themselves and learned and grown from it — why is anyone making anything that isn’t that? It should just be people who are exceptional on every level, but I guess that’s the difference between entertainment and art. I can’t do what Justin Timberlake does.

As pop music goes, a lot of it is unavoidable. Have you heard anything in recent times that caught your attention in a positive way?

Generally, it’s just Tiësto doing a remix of somebody. As a producer, he nails it. He really understands that beautiful, expansive 80s reverb and how to have grippy, tight things in front and switch them out … y’know, get rid of all the reverb and have layers of tight and negative things in the mix, kind of like a vacuum. He’s so good with vocal sounds, if he is indeed doing the vocal sounds himself. Whatever is happening, he regularly blows my mind.

Milky Chance are also absolutely awesome. Even he [Clemens Rehbein] started out doing a pretty standard vocal style and then developed into a really cool singer. I can’t think of anyone else who’s big enough to call “commercial.”

The funny thing about being “commercial” today is you can be “indie” at the same time.

“Indie” now just means you have guitars. Not “man rock” like the Foo Fighters, but vaguely collegiate. Anything from sounding like the Smiths to the White Stripes, and then you gotta have some synthesisers… you can be on Sony records and still be indie. 

Yeah, that’s the English version of the term; always was. They never really had indie like Sub Pop, but that might be because they’ve always had indie labels. 

Like in the 80s, their indie labels were creating No. 1 hit singles — global success stories. They did it earlier, so I guess it had a longer lead time to get watered down and disseminated into the malls.

Meanwhile, the actual indie crowd tends to grow resentful toward artists who expose their secrets to the world.

Oh they hate it when you do that. Oh my god, Elliot Smith was deified in Portland… then he got nominated for an Oscar and got ostracized, and he ultimately moved. He couldn’t believe that happened! Yeah, they hate it when you sell out their secret.

What’s the music scene in Portland like right now?

There’s a band that just started to get really, really good in the last year. They were pretty good already, but they were kind of doing normal hipster shit. Then they just got weirder and weirder, just trying to get to the source with unstructured, powerful, cool shit — they’re called the Macks. I don’t know if there’s anything good online, but people send me stuff they haven’t even put out yet since we have mutual friends, and it’s getting insane.

I don’t know if there’s a scene, though. When it comes down to it, it’s just too damn expensive. Rent for me and my roommate in 1990 was like $175 each — we had to work two days a week. The rest of the time, you could just wait around for inspiration, think about recording stuff, live life, go to parties and try to hook up. Living in an economically-depressed town with lots of empty space and apartments with radiators for heat just created amazing artists… always has, I suppose.

That’s odd because Portland has a reputation for being a breeding ground for creativity.

It got destroyed by the riots. Portland is boarded up and it’s frightening to walk around. You have tens or thousands of homeless people — a lot of the lefty cities are having a problem with that and I just don’t understand why… like, we’re the ones who want to take care of them. This problem could be gone if we gave them apartments and hot water. We can do that for them, for God’s sake. It’s not even about sympathy; it’s just what makes the most sense. We’re coughing up the money anyway, so why not spend it correctly?

Like in England, they have the dole [unemployment benefits] and not all of them just want to shoot dope for the rest of their lives. I’ve definitely worked with people who got government stipend checks and they were allowed to work 14 hours a week, but now you can’t give them jobs since they don’t have 53,000 thumbs ups on every behavioral measure. It’s a different world and certainly a lot less tolerant than the one I grew up in.

Do you have any closing thoughts about the new album?

Yeah, it’s really fuzzed out with big, heavy guitars. We just thought it’d be cool and fun to start every song with a rad guitar riff rather than chord changes, words and melodies, then I’d just start looking through my lyrics to see what felt real. I’ve never written like that and it was really interesting.


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