The most fascinating thing about Andy Warhol wasn't his platinum blond hair, his gaunt face, or his creepy entourage of attention-starved hipsters. Nor was it his artwork. Though Warhol's contributions to popular art and popular culture are impossible to quantify, his simple soup cans and Day-Glo Marilyns were far less captivating than his overall persona. The most fascinating thing about Andy Warhol was that he was utterly and totally cool.
It was the kind of cool that came from an innate sense of superiority. The proof was in his vacant gaze and choice of turtlenecks. His impeccable taste, his deadpan humor, his disengage attitude -- all raised him above mere mortals. Warhol's unaffected affectedness is the kind of thing that cannot be faked, though many have tried.
Like their namesake, the Dandy Warhols have that same aura of cool. "Hi, I just got woken up," says the Dandys' lead guitarist, Peter Holmstrom, in a voice that sounds like matted hair and stale cigarette smoke. It's early afternoon here in South Florida, and he's calling from a hotel room, though he isn't exactly sure from where and can't be bothered to find out: "I think... I think... this is Austin. But I can't really tell from what I can see outside."
The Dandy Warhols are currently touring the U.S. on the strength of their catchy, snotty single "Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth." It's an irresistible slice of faux Sixties pop: bouncy beat, bright backing vocals, and the disdainful chorus, "I never thought you'd be a junkie/Because heroin is so passe." The idea of heroin abuse as less a moral crime than a fashion crime somehow takes the piss out of both the pro- and anti-drug factions in rock music.
"It's not really an anti-drug song," Holmstrom explains sleepily. "It's more an anti-addiction song and an anti-stupidity song. We have to keep defending ourselves against being an anti-drug band. We're just trying to have a little bit of fun."
Frowning on drugs would, of course, be awfully uncool. After all, the band has an image to maintain, and it's not one of clean living. Courtney Taylor makes a great frontman, all skinny legs and cheekbones, the perfect antidote to Eddie Vedder and his meaty ilk. Holmstrom bleaches his hair, wears more eyeliner than a preteen girl, and has mastered the subtle art of playing power chords while smoking. Zia McCabe is perfectly cast as the quiet, bespectacled girl bassist -- though rumor has it she sometimes performs topless. Eric Hedford, on drums, looks like a long-lost brother to Jim and William Reid, of the Jesus and Mary Chain.
On the one hand, these hippie-mod-beatniks from Portland, Oregon, look completely ridiculous. On the other hand, they look -- as the British say -- brilliant.
More important, they sound brilliant. Their debut, the self-aggrandizing Dandy's Rule OK, was recorded in a basement and created a loud underground buzz when it appeared in 1995. Major labels heard the noise and began wining and dining the Dandys, who quickly gained a reputation as shameless grifters who squeezed their hosts for every possible freebie. (A Seattle reporter wrote that when he interviewed the band they tapped him not only for dinner but dessert and a pack of cigarettes, too.) Nevertheless Capitol Records signed the Dandy Warhols and sent them into the studio, hoping for more of that lazy, lysergic, Partridge Family pop.
What Capitol got instead was a record that Holmstrom and company now refer to as "the Black Album."
"Essentially, when we went in to record the album the first time, we didn't have anything completed," Holmstrom admits. "Like, songs. We had ideas and we wanted to go into the studio and complete them, and just create the whole time we were in there. We were pretty much unprepared for that! We had no idea what we were doing."
According to Hedford, who wrote the band's press release biography, the studio sessions created some friction between him and Taylor. According to Holmstrom, the drummer eventually split from the studio altogether, as did McCabe. Left on their own, the singer and the guitarist availed themselves of the studio's abundant and expensive gadgetry.
"I was having a good time," says Holmstrom. "We were heavily involved in creating weird noises."
When the fun was over, Holmstrom and Taylor examined the results in the light of day. "We went back and listened to it and, well, I don't know what we were thinking. It was pretty uncommercial. We just started over from scratch."
Capitol, however, closed its wallet, and the Dandy Warhols realized that their personal accounts had been drained by the experiment. "We just took everything down and went back to practicing in the basement. We got rid of all the fancy expenses we'd gotten used to. Hopefully those days are over."
Hence the group's major-label debut: ...The Dandy Warhols Come Down. "That was just us having fun with a title that could mean all sorts of things," notes Holmstrom. "The Dandy Warhols come down off drugs? The Dandy Warhols come down off their high horses? Plus we got our name in the title again."
The album opens and closes with droning epics, "Be-In" and "The Creep Out," respectively, but in between there's a plethora of pop songs stamped with the Union Jack and executed in ultramodern fashion. "Minnesoter" is a classic-rock stomp with a sinewy guitar hook; "Good Morning" has a gothic afterglow; and "Every Day Should Be a Holiday" wins the prize for freshest update on Duran Duran. Aside from the popular "Junkie," the album's standout song is "Boys Better," a high-revving rock tune that's half HYsker DY, half America.
Are the Dandys happier with their new product? "Yeah and no," says Holmstrom, finally beginning to wake up. "I definitely like the Black Album a lot, just because it's a little bit weirder. It's not pop-song-oriented. I like pop songs as much as the next person, but I also like things that are a little bit bizarre."
The Black Album may or may not be released in the near future, but at the band's live shows they've been selling a single with two tracks from the fiasco: a rough cut of "Junkie" and a mysterious song called "CCR."
Were Mr. Warhol alive today, he might have imparted some wisdom to the band. After all, as outrageous and out-to-lunch as he was, he knew how to take care of business. While many in his glamorous circle faded from view, Warhol built a financial empire upon his pop art commodities. And somehow he never lost that indefinable sense of cool.
"When we first started, we kind of did have a big group of people around us," Holmstrom points out. "It was a little more Factory-like than it is now. It was a mid-Seventies or Eighties-style Factory -- more business than chaos. We had no choice but to work." He sighs. "Gotta go out and move units!"
The Dandy Warhols perform at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, November 24, at Squeeze, 2 S. New River Dr., Fort Lauderdale, 954-565-2151, with the Longpigs and Treble Charger. Tickets cost $8.
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