Zia McCabe ponders the mysteries of life, and The Dandy Warhols' new album
From performing naked, to releasing their own mixes of years-old records, to writing a “goth” album for their newest release, This Machine, The Dandy Warhols have become known for consistently doing whatever they want and making it work for them.
The Dandys’ flame-haired synth-mistress Zia McCabe said that’s what keeps the sparks flying, 18 years and 10 albums on, when I talked to her last Thursday from their tour bus, winding through San Francisco at the time.
“We're always trying to fill a gap, taste-wise. Not in a trying-to-be-different kind of way, but what needs do we have for music that aren’t being satisfied? We satisfy it for ourselves,” she said. “That's why you get so much diversity with our albums.”
McCabe had had a trying week, rescheduling our interview twice in two days. But the tour route beckons, and she’s eager to answer the call.
“It's gonna be a riot," she said."We've got bikes and barbecues—we're gonna have a good old time.”
This Machine Kills Boredom
This Machine is named after Woody Guthrie’s, and then Bob Dylan’s, much-homaged guitar label “This Machine Kills Fascists.” (“Someday there'll be a band who has a sticker that just says ‘This’,” McCabe joked.)
The title is reflective of the content, not in that it’s necessarily political: the closest the Dandys get to politics on This Machine is “Alternative Power to the People,” in which, tellingly, the vocals are indistinguishable from one another.
It’s reflective in that the album is individualistic as hell, no two songs sounding quite the same. The eldritch grind of “Sad Vacation” and “The Autumn Carnival” segues into the more Britpop-y soundscape of “Enjoy Yourself”. From then on, all bets are off, a saxed-up cover of “16 Tons” and the Sigur Ros-like “Don’t Shoot She Cried” some of what follows.
McCabe said the eclecticism comes from trying to keep from getting bored with each other and their sound. “As long as we keep inspired, I think everything's fine.”
As for the “goth” word, McCabe understands why friends and reviewers are describing the new album with the term. And it’s not just because David J. of Bauhaus and Love & Rockets fame produced a track.
“It's not like we were sitting around at Denny’s and were like, ‘Hey, I think we should make a goth record.’ It never happens like that, you always get an idea and then see what it turns into,” she said. “But we've entertained most genres, and doing something that's a little darker was natural for us [at this point].”
The Dandys have always made music they felt the world needed.
“When grunge was around, we were like, ‘Ugh, there's no trippy, drone-y lounge music being done.’ No band that you could sit having a cocktail to, wearing cool vintage clothes,” said McCabe. “It was all flannel and ripped jeans and parent-haters.”
“Then as we moved on, it became, ‘Oh man, we're gonna make the last guitar record, go guitars!’” said McCabe. This explains their rockier (in sound and reception) album Odditorium or Warlords of Mars.
As singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor breathes on This Machine’s first track, “The more you stay the same, the more I feel like I have to change.” Yet underneath the genre-bending, the band has never lost their sense of self.
“It's like a person who puts on every kind of different outfit, but you still know it's them,” said McCabe. “Your personality shines through. There are things about us that we repeat even though we're constantly changing. It's still Courtney's voice, the synth base—it's still us, no matter what.”
It helps that they've never lost their humour either. From “Enjoy Yourself”: “I used to be too cool for rules. Too cool for school. I used to be pretty, pretty like a girl. I was the prettiest little girl in the whole fuckin' world.”
When I asked McCabe the secret to a long-lasting band, in true hippy fashion, she called it one of the mysteries of life.
“Why do some relationships last forever and some fizzle out? You know, we're all terrified of trying to figure out something else to do. This was my first band.”
“To all of us, we're family, and music is the number one thing between us. We don't get caught up in drama,” she said.
Tearing down the wall
The Dandy’s new music is a reaction against what McCabe calls a world of over-production.
“We've got unlimited tracks, unlimited choices, and for us, we always wanted to create that wall of sound. But we could build the damn Berlin Wall with music. It was getting a little out of control with choices,” she said. “This time, we really limited ourselves.”
In the studio, the band termed the new material their punk rock record; not because they sounded like the Sex Pistols, but because their mission was a straightforward and minimalist sound.
“We wanted to make it something we could do when we're jamming in our rehearsal space. We didn't want to have a ton of layers—that was the main inspiration.”
According to McCabe, inspiration also came from all the collaboration on the album. It’s the first Dandy offering to feature songs untouched by Taylor-Taylor.
“Courtney was a little burnt out on the songwriting, and we’re all doing more songwriting on our own, in side projects,” said McCabe.
“I can hear some of the growing pains, but it [just] makes me really enthusiastic for the creative potential for the future. It's brought a ton of excitement to our working relationship.”
And all it took was for the Dandys to try out a few new positions.