The Dandy Warhols helped usher in the first rock movement of the new Millennium with their seminal third album Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia. Sam Lambeth assesses its genius twenty years on.
Courtney Taylor is excited. Manning the van he has hired especially for the trip, he gleefully negotiates every turn with the assured exuberance of a middle-aged father taking his kids out to the coast.
As frontman for The Dandy Warhols, he’s been in the driving seat since the Portland oddballs first decided to indulge their love of the fuzz-drenched drugginess of Spacemen 3 by forming their own band.
Driving around the rich cultural eclecticism of the hometown he and the band love so dearly, the sudden rushes of breeze makes Taylor almost forget the tepid response the band’s third album has received.
The hits, the tabloids announce, have dried up. America continues to elude them. No matter, Taylor thinks, it was always going to go this way. After all, The Dandy Warhols – just like their beloved Portland, Oregon – are excitingly unconventional.
Going against the grain and following their own musical spirit had reaped dividends in the past. Whether it be in a month or in a decade, their latest incarnation would yield positive results, Taylor knew it.
“When David Bowie watched us at Glastonbury last year,” Taylor whispers, “he looked at me and thought, ‘that guy has done something I could never do – put a band together where everybody in the band is as cool as I am.’”
It’s easy to forget just how desperately adrift the popular music scene was in 2000. As the new Millennium ushered in feelings of fear and uncertainty, so too did the musical landscape seem a strange and unsettling place.
Pick up any music magazine from that period and you will see the point.
Monopolising the scene are recently bereft boyband stars launching solo careers – your Ronans, your Mel C’s – while the great hopes of rock music are either nu-metal meatheads Limp Bizkit or the somnambulant warbling of Starsailor.
In amongst the detritus are The Dandy Warhols. After inadvertently clutching the Britpop zeitgeist with their 1997 sophomore album, The Dandy Warhols Come Down, the band’s third album eschewed its predecessor’s wall-of-sound sonic detail, instead plumping for blissed-out acoustics.
“In 1999, music was terrible,” Taylor says today in an interview with Vice. “Grunge had become ugly and commercial, while the only other music around was misogynistic rap-rock. Everything sucked. The only thing we could listen to was classic rock.”
Sat in the back of a van, The Dandy Warhols crammed ‘70s classics, becoming students of Dylan, the Grateful Dead and classic Stones. By the time they entered the studio to cut what would be Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia, their sound had shifted dramatically.
“We would drone on these big, fat acoustic guitars and harmonising over the top of them,” Taylor explains. “We had rediscovered classic rock. The ‘70s weren’t cool by 1999, but there’s nothing better to do than engage with something that is uncool.”
Distancing themselves from the current trends was both an unconscious and very deliberate act.
When The Dandys formed, grunge had engulfed Portland (as it had everywhere else). Rather than follow the flannel-flecked movement, Taylor and co donned suits and ties and played cocktail bars.
“It was like, ‘alright, fuck you,’”, Taylor says. “We’re going to snort coke and be full-on, balls out…right now, if you’re not Korn or N*Sync, you’re not getting on the radio. We don’t care if we sell nothing – this is the record we’re going to make.
Taylor stuck to the belief that “nobody could possibly be as cool as us”, and that self-assuredness helped create their finest album.
Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia proved a victory for substance over substances, whereby the Dandies’ erstwhile spaced-out drug pomp was washed away by swaths of brass, melancholic acoustic guitar and country-tinged melodies.
Taylor’s acerbic drawl sneered on the Brown Sugar-aping hipster shtick of Bohemian Like You, and sighed dolefully on the sweetly chiming closer The Gospel.
Elsewhere, distortion colours the disenchanted Big Indian and the abrasive Horse Pills; guitarist Peter Holmstrom’s steam-powered pedals embellish the self-conscious observations of Mohammed and Nietzsche; and mares whinny and chickens cluck over the faux hick hymn Country Leaver.
“We recorded the album in this old gay men’s gym,” Zia McCabe, the band’s keyboardist, said at the time. “We took it cos we were so desperate for a place. The sauna became the drum room, there were lots of shower rooms to record in and one little office that we made the control room.”
While Zia enjoyed “spending a year as a homemaker”, Taylor worked hard on finding the best mixes for each song, enlisting the help of various producers.
One such producer was Dave Sardy, who would later go on to twiddle the knobs for fellow rockers Jet and Oasis. “Dave makes things simple,” Courtney enthuses. “He gets his mixes to have an authentic, almost rustic quality that no one can else can really do.
“The production and really everything about it is just so tidy.”
Sardy’s Midas touch, in particular, helped give Bohemian Like You a pop-enthused buoyancy and a polished, anthemic chorus. Inspired by a girl driving a Mercedez-Benz that stopped outside Taylor’s apartment (“My silly little brain ran amok with the dream of love and vintage motor malfunctions”), Bohemian Like You had all the hallmarks of another smash.
With the album in the bag, it was time for the world to be welcomed to the richly melodic, stripped-back world of urban bohemia.
“We’ve toured all over the western world and we realized that the people who come to see us are all very similar, everywhere,” Taylor explained in 2000.
“It is a subculture and it’s a very bohemian, impoverished, computer-literate, Ken Kesey-reading, Ken Russell/Jean Luc Goddard-watching gang of people, but it’s in an urban setting: Urban Bohemians.”
Only, as predicted, the world didn’t immediately take to Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia.
After enjoying crossover success across Europe with the stomping cynicism of Not If You Were the Last Junkie On Earth, Thirteen Tales…’ lead single Bohemian Like You became, according to Taylor, “the lowest charting single we had put out to date.”
While the record achieved critical acclaim, sales of Thirteen Tales… were disappointing. Then a call came from a certain mobile phone company, looking for an infectious rocker to soundtrack their latest advert. Millions of dollars and commercial adulation suddenly presented themselves.
On the subject of separating art from commerce, Taylor is refreshingly brazen. “People want to say that that’s selling out. But you know what selling out would be? Not taking the $1.2m because of what some asshole thinks,” he explains.
“That’s selling out, not providing for our band, not providing so we can have kids, to have a great life, to enjoy getting wealthy off what we do naturally as artists. You take the money and if you don’t, you’re selling out your entire life for the opinion of like, three shitbags.”
After two years in the wilderness, Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia’s slow-burning chuggers finally received the mass respect it deserved.
Bohemian Like You and Get Off both enjoyed successfully re-releases, with the former hitting the top five in the UK. Lauded performances at Glastonbury and Reading & Leeds saw Joe Strummer and Robert Smith doff their caps. Suddenly, urban bohemia had become quite a vast population.
At the time of its release, Taylor had been in a prophetic mood.
“Maybe by the time this record actually comes out, people are going to be so sick of Limp Bizkit that this’ll open the door for Apples in Stereo and Brian Jonestown Massacre and other cool bands,” he explained.
It took two years longer than he had hoped, but his predictions were right – suddenly, rock returned, adopting the leather-clad sensibilities of the ‘70s with the lo-fi approach of the garage movement.
In the space of 18 months since Thirteen Tales… dropped, the radios had debunked nu-metal and instead shone a spotlight on The Strokes, The Vines, Jet, The White Stripes and, to a lesser extent, the Dandies themselves.
“To have all these ands in the modern rock charts at the same time was fantastic!” Taylor beams today. “We weren’t nearly as big as any of those bands because we had done it at the wrong time. Who knows? Maybe things would have gone differently if we hadn’t released that record.”
In the years since, The Dandy Warhols’ approach has never wavered.
“We’ve always avoided any sort of the weird trends of the time, besides emotional clarity and power,” Taylor explains. “As far as the production goes, if we hear anything that sounds currently right now, we get rid of it.”
It’s this creative spirit that has since yielded some fantastic and frustrating albums in equal measure, from again ushering in a new movement on 2003’s sleek Welcome to the Monkeyhouse to keeping it minimal on 2016’s groove-laden Distortland.
Even the band’s attempt to fit in with the current trends remains wonderfully distorted – in an era where acts playing their most lauded albums in toto is the norm, the Dandies played Thirteen Tales… in its entirety in 2013, for anniversary number thirteen.
Of the album, Taylor has mixed feelings. “It’s such a huge record that it’s so ubiquitous. I have a hard time thinking of it right now and going, “Awww, God I’d love to crawl inside that record.” But the last time I remember listening to it, about a year ago, I remember saying, “God, this is amazing!”
From that fateful van trip around Portland twenty years ago to now, Taylor has never lost that vision of what’s cool and unique.