It’s 25 years since The Dandy Warhols first put Portland, Oregon on the alternative indie rock map. They’re in the middle of a world tour, celebrating their landmark anniversary plus promoting their 10th studio album, Why You So Crazy. Naomi Dryden-Smith caught up with charismatic Zia McCabe for the lowdown on touring 25 years on, her ever increasing musical talents, her family life/rock legend juggle, and to dispel all Brian Jonestown myths for good.
Louder Than War: How’s the 25th anniversary tour going, what does it mean to the band?
The European part of the tour was awesome, we had an amazing time and did seven countries – 8 shows in 9 days. It feels like we’ve struck the balance that we’ve been looking for between travelling and being at home and working enough to feel fulfilled but not working so much that we feel spent. I’m looking forward to taking another lap around the USA (and dipping into Canada), there’s always something to be seen in this big country that I haven’t seen before.
Has the dynamic of band changed as a touring unit all these years later?
I don’t know what it’s like for other bands, I’ve only ever toured with my band, but we have our bunks, which are literally our only private space and we just hang out. I can tell you the biggest difference now is that nobody smokes on the bus. In the early days everybody smoked – if somebody smokes even outside the bus I’m disgusted now so that’s the biggest difference. And less partying – sometimes there’s an open bottle of wine or people having some beers but there’s just no crazy bus ragers like there used to be. That was really fun – no regrets, bus ragers were all awesome – but it was really sweet on this tour to kind of step back a little bit in the bus lounge and look at all the groups of 2s and 3s, 4 people talking to each other and just in such good spirits, it was such a sweet vibe. It was nice. Old friends hanging out after another day of work together on the road.
We’ve all been doing this for such a long time. We just kind of know each other’s routines, even down to saving something off the rider for somebody else because you know that’s their favourite thing to eat. There are just things that we know about each other that you couldn’t know if you hadn’t lived in such intimacy for so many years. It’s such an enclosed space – I think that’s why there are very few bands who have been around for as long as we have, because is it’s hard to stay in relationships with that many people – you know, people do stupid shit or people can be mean, or just the difference in personalities over the years that you simply run out of patience. But that didn’t happen to us. For whatever reason, we’ve become more tolerant rather than less tolerant over the years.
You’ve travelled all over the road, what keeps you coming back to Portland? How does it work with your family life?
When we first started travelling I was ready to entertain the idea of living in other cities and other countries, but the more I travelled and the better it felt every time to come home I realised I would probably never actually leave Portland permanently – maybe if our government got so horrible we couldn’t be Americans any more – but outside of that I wouldn’t leave Portland permanently. It’s not just because I love the city because the city is rapidly changing, but it’s where both sides of my family is from for several generations, and it’s the nature that surrounds the city, the geography of this part of the world – to be less than two hours from the ocean and the mountains and the desert and the rainforest – there just aren’t many spots like that in the world where you have a little bit of everything.
My daughter toured with us for the first five years before she started school and her father, my then husband, was the stage manager for the band at that time. Once she started school he stepped away from that position and looked after her and I would have to leave. Sometimes it was really hard – I’ve missed birthdays – you just miss your kid. But it seemed like it was okay. I was always home enough where I could come pretty close to 50:50 and that made me feel okay. But as she became a teenager I really started to feel that being gone for a month at a time meant I missed part of her development, at a time when she really needed her mum around, and that’s when I started to consider being on the road less, and wanting to be consistent for her while she learns how to be consistent herself. You just can’t be taking off all the time while they’re having their emotional ups and downs. You want them to be a reliable person, but how can you expect that if you’re always bailing, or could be perceived as bailing. It was the first time I really started to feel guilty about being away. Travis and I are still technically married but we’ve been split for 7-8 years, we’re really close and our co-parenting is on point. He is one of my very best friends.
The film Dig! is still a major reference point for DW fans both new and old, when was the last time you watched the doc? And how do you feel about the film all these years later?
Every time I get a new boyfriend I inevitably end up watching it with them because it’s just easier that way! And every time I laugh and it’s all nostalgic, but I also cringe and feel kind of embarrassed. I said things I didn’t really mean and I felt like I was kind of led into saying them –I didn’t really feel that kind of stuck up way that I came across and it was Ondi encouraging that at a moment when the relationship was tense. The Brian Jonestown were sort of feeding into that tension, they thought it was kind of funny, and so we played the game for a minute – but it was so brief because we thought “this doesn’t feel good, we’re not going to play into this rivalry, it’s gross”. But too late – Ondi had already filmed a bunch of it. And so there’s that.
I think the major bummer about Dig! is those people who think there is still some rivalry between the two bands, which is just ridiculous. If you look at Anton’s page, or the Brian Jonestown’s, he is constantly saying supportive things about us and our music and being encouraging and we play on stage with each other when different members are in towns where the shows are. The chances of both bands still making music 25 years later is just amazing it’s amazing that one band is, but that both are is just wild. Brian Jonestown’s line-up has changed infinitely, it’s a revolving door and people go and come back, the band has always had a lot more drama and instability. But Anton is the BJM. He makes music non- stop and with some really talented people. The fact that they have maybe fewer conflict resolution skills or more mental illness or more substance abuse travelling through the membership of the bands is one thing, but that the music has never stopped being great is the other thing and that’s incredible. We have had Matt Hollywood on stage with us a couple of times, and we asked Anton to join us on stage in Berlin. He did come down and hang out at the soundcheck with us but he decided to stay home with the kids so that his wife Katie could be there because she loves the band so much.
That was a silly moment for the two bands to be disagreeing and I’m glad it’s over and it’s too bad that it still carries on through some of the fans. There are no hard feelings. There are hard feelings towards Ondi the filmmaker because she created this way bigger drama and made it way less about the music than we thought it was going to be, so there are hard feelings towards her, but there are no hard feelings towards each other. We were both (maybe not equally) victims, but I think we all suffered. I don’t know if we suffered more than we gained, that’s up for debate and depends on who you ask, but everyone’s past it now. The whole movie is sensationalism – she won a prize for it: good for her, she told a sensational story. It’s Dave Grohl’s favourite rockumentary, he says he shows what a real train wreck being in a band is. That’s how you tell a story right, you pick the darkest bits and you throw them out there against the parts for deep contrast.
After years of brilliantly holding down the low-end of the band with just synths, you’ve added electric bass to your live duties, plus you’ve taken on lead vocal. How does it feel to have added these things to your Dandys repertoire?
The bass guitar came out in a bit of a rebellion. Brent had written a song very much focused around bass guitar and it just wasn’t going to sound the same on synth so I, with very little confidence from any of my band mates, took it upon myself to learn the part and I did – I learned it well, and I loved it. Then I learned another bass guitar part that had been written by Courtney for Plan A and I realised I really liked playing the bass guitar and that it was a really fun way to add excitement to something I’d been doing for so long. For the last record, I think it’s about a 50/50 split – each song was up for grabs for either synth bass or guitar bass, but half the time the bass guitar was what made the most sense and half the time the synth bass was what made the most sense. It’s wonderful to have increased my options – I guess I’ve doubled my options – when deciding how the low end is going to be presented in that song, and that’s super exciting for me. I have a bit of a short attention span and getting to move on to something new or try something new or be challenged by something new is a really great way to keep me interested, so having the new challenge of the bass guitar has really brought a lot of excitement back into writing music for me.
As to the singing, I’ve had a country band for years (Brush Prairie) and I love singing, but I have a twangy voice and no ear training for harmonies. Brent has sung harmonies his entire life and went to college on scholarships for singing, so he has the harmonies position completely taken care of, so there really hasn’t been a lot of room for me vocally in the Dandy Warhols except for some woos and heys and whispers and some little accent parts and percussive parts. Courtney asked if I wanted to put one of the Brush Prairie songs on the Dandys record and so I brought in High Life which was, at least sentiment wise and lyrics wise, a really straightforward fit. I co-wrote it with a friend who used to play in Brush Prairie (which is a bit anaemic and doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves, but it’s mine and its cute) and I co-wrote that song way back. Actually Eric Shanafeld brought it in and I finished it, is more how it happened, we didn’t really write it together. We made it more psychedelic and a little more rock than it was in my country band. The first time singing it was at the Olympia in Paris to a sold-out crowd of 3500 and it was terrifying – I got all the lyrics in the wrong order but I just kept going. But it was fun too of course.
How does song-writing work in the band, do you do it together?
It’s a little more all over the place these days. It used to be very much that Courtney would write the majority of the songs on acoustic or however he came up with the idea and would track it on his little analogue four-track at home and then bring in the demo idea, and then we fleshed out the song. As the years have gone by there’s been more contribution from the other members, from either bringing in songs or co-writing with Courtney. Brent and Courtney have done some good co-writing. But also Brent brings in demos too. I think I would be more apt to do that except that I’m such a techtard that I don’t know how to demo a song myself, so in presenting an idea as complete as they’re able to I’m a bit handicapped, and this is definitely on my to do list – to finally learn some basics of Garageband so I can demo some ideas – my hopes aren’t high! Computers in general – I can barely make my iPhone work how I want – it’s the easiest way to get me sweaty from anxiety and frustration, anything relating to a computer. Maybe I should go and get an analogue four-track like Courtney has, maybe I would get further faster, I don’t know – but really it has held me back not being able to capture my ideas more than just one instrument on a phone demo. Which is fine, I’ve done that, but it doesn’t sell it as well and get the rest of the guys excited as well as if you show up with a full idea.
Do you use any computers?
My synths are all analogue – there are digital components to the Moog now because it’s a newer Moog and I can store sounds, and I get a little bit sweaty every time I have to save a sound I have to admit. As far as DJ-ing is concerned, I was vinyl-only for a long time but finally it became unreasonable to carry that stuff around from country to country, and I had a boyfriend who was in the electronic music scene and he forced me to learn Serato. I know it just enough to do a DJ set with some good transitions and pull it off, but it’s by no means a format that I feel comfortable with or can troubleshoot if anything goes wrong. I do it because it’s so portable and I have to. So what I really need is a person to hold my hand. I’m not going to learn Garageband on my own there’s no way, but I’ve been inching closer to who’s going to be my Garageband mentor to give me a few lessons to get me to at least be able to lay down three or four tracks.
Dandys have just released your 10th studio album, Why You So Crazy. What do the songs mean to you and how is it being received?
It’s amazing that we’ve made ten studio albums! That’s an accomplishment for any band. I had a good time making this record and the best feeling that I get from it is thinking about my three band mates and being so impressed and so proud at what experimental musicians we all are. To me that’s the real thrill – the experimentation. I’m not big on theory or rules in music and so the rougher the better because it keeps me trying things out, because I don’t really ever know what the outcome is going to be. There is a lot of that on this album, and when you listen to it, it may not be a win for every listener but you can’t deny us the fact that we really put ourselves out there to experiment, and that’s my favourite thing about the record. It’s all over the place, kind of like we are, and it’s got some incredible moments – some confusing moments, some challenging moments – but I think that it’s an exciting ride for anybody, and man, Why You So Crazy – it’s a trip!
I really like Be Alright, I really think that’s a through-and-through DW track, and it might be one of the least experimental as far as we’re concerned because that’s the kind of stuff we’ve been doing for so long. I also really like Terraform, it’s so up my alley and the kind of music that turns me on to make. Be Alright is like a nice day at the office for the Dandys, and Terraform I think had some cool challenges – building the breakdown into the middle was something I was really committed to and enjoyed doing, it was something that I thought the song really needed and was proud to contribute, so I hear myself in that song really well and I hear what all four of us do in that song. And of course I’m just so freaking proud that High Life is on there. So those are my top three.
Looking to the future – where do you want to be in five/ten years time?
We’ll wrap up celebrating our 25th year, which is something we had all collectively committed to seeing through no matter what came up in the rest of our lives. We have all diversified our lives and made the The Dandy Warhols be not the only thing that identifies us, which means a lot more might come up – and then all of a sudden it just might not make sense for us to all four be making music regularly. So, knowing that that’s a real risk, it was nice that we were committed to getting through the 25th year. Next year is the 20th anniversary of 13 Tales Of Urban Bohemia so we will call that the 20/20/20 tour because it’s in 2020 and it’s the 20th anniversary. There’s talk of us touring that album again start to finish in the markets we didn’t cover before on the 13th anniversary, which was the 13/13/13 tour – 13 Tales in 2013 for 13 years – we did a bunch of markets then but we didn’t do everywhere, so it would be nice to connect that up, visit some of the other places and do that album start to finish. After that, there really are no plans – maybe we’ll feel like making another record, maybe we’ll just feel like looking over the body of our work and putting out retrospective or unreleased material – who knows what opportunities may come up. I don’t imagine us ever really splitting – we have been and ever shall be the The Dandy Warhols. So we are just going to have to wait and see. Thinking about this year and next year is about as much as any of us can handle.
There has been much in the media recently about PledgeMusic, the crowdfunding music platform which has recently run into financial difficulties, directly impacting The Dandy Warhols and your fans. Do you want to make any comment on that?
An article just came out today in the Willamette Week with me talking all about it. It’s a bummer – we came in at the wrong time, we got hosed, our fans got hosed, tons of musicians are getting hosed and their loyal supporters. Our music world doesn’t need this kind of behaviour – we have many strikes against us as far as financial independence and success in this world – and having corrupt people come in and just – we really get it taken out of us from corrupt management, corrupt accountants and now this – it’s kind of heartbreaking that these are the most sensitive people in the world who are trying to make it and they’re still victim to predators. I’m a bit fried on the subject – over the last couple of weeks I’ve been emailing fans and posting, brainstorming solutions and screenshots and follow-ups, with all the guilt and heartache and frustration. The loyal fans supporting the artists that they love is what keeps the artists making the art that they want – it’s hard to keep that going. To see something like this stymy the process hurts my feelings so deeply. Musicians are overextended trying to keep their careers going – to deal with something like this is just exhausting and is it even worth it?
Do you still feel you’re “the most well-adjusted band in the US”?
I’m not one for hyperbole as much as Courtney and he’s the one who said that. But as far as the band is concerned, nobody has had to go to rehab, I don’t know if we’ve all had therapy at one point or another, but we’ve all done some aspects of emotional and professional well-being maintenance throughout the last few years. We get along without insult and without argument, we all have fulfilling careers with The Dandy Warhols plus our side projects, we all have families that we care about and we care about each other, we own our houses that we live in – I think we’re pretty high on the well-adjusted o-meter, I think we’re doing pretty good!
Who are your idols – if you could invite six people to dinner, who would they be?
I had a chance to hang out with Bernie Sanders when he was running for President and did the opening key speech – he was delayed and so we didn’t get the hang-out time that we were supposed to, so I would love to have Bernie Sanders at dinner again with me. Willie Nelson – I one hundred percent would love to have dinner with Willie Nelson. Michelle Obama would probably be an amazing dinner guest. I think I would have Janis Joplin show up, and Einstein would be in there. And let’s have one more – let’s have Nina Simone come with us for dinner. I think that would be a wild dinner party. Oh my gosh, Janis Joplin and Nina Simone, that would be amazing – I don’t even know if it would end well!
Keep your eyes peeled for news of The Book of the Dandys, the limited edition celebration of 25 years of the Dandy Warhols by author Justine Penklis and graphic designer Thiago Vidal that is in its very final stages – sure to be a collectable, we’ll keep you posted.
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