“You know, they’re pretty good,” said a flat-topped man using the urinal next to me. “But I wish they’d play Sticky Fingers. I want to hear ‘Brown Sugar’.”
I thought I’d misheard him. Here he was at a sold-out concert, part of the thousand-plus people who came tonight to see the Dandy Warhols, and he wanted them to play covers?
But while they certainly are no cover band, the Dandy Warhols do hold up as possibly the most ideal of rock ‘n roll acts around today. They’re every major rock band rolled into one chic, rakishly-coiffed package. They appear in fashion shoots, still have a major label contract, and even have a much talked about unreleased record they call The Black Album knocking around in the vaults. Their new album, Welcome to the Monkey House, was produced by Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes and features guest work by Evan Dando and Rhodes’ bandmate Simon LeBon. The band can namecheck David Bowie as a big fan of their spacey, glam-meets-shoegaze sound. After 10 years of existence they have a firm grip on a rockstar image that might not rival the Rolling Stones but certainly trumps newbies such as the Strokes.
“We’ve been the Next Big Thing for seven years,” says guitarist Peter Loew, who spoke with PopMatters during the band’s recent stop in Washington, D.C. “I’m glad to have not been The Big Thing seven years ago.”
Teetering forever on the cusp of superstardom has its advantages. In an era when few major labels hold onto artists whose sales aren’t chart-topping, Capitol Records has faithfully stuck with them. “We have three major label records on Capitol, each has come out under a different label president,” he notes. And while Capitol waits for those blockbuster sales from U.S. markets, in the meantime both the record company and the band are enjoying success and more than a little free publicity through an often disparaged outlet: advertising. When it comes to getting their songs attached to a product, the Dandy Warhols might be the rock equivalent of Moby.
“A year ago we had four ads running at the same time,” Loew says. “We had Sprint cellphones, we had Michelob Lite, we had a Nissan, we had a Ford Focus, all going at the same time. Nobody really noticed.”
But that’s just in the United States. Internationally, their last record, Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, got a significant sales boost after the song “Bohemian Like You” was used in a multimillion dollar advertising campaign by the cellphone company Vodafone. “All of a sudden ‘Bohemian’ is getting played every ten minutes on every channel on TV everywhere except North America,” he says. “And it’s still running; it’s been running for two and a half years.”
A year earlier, when Capitol released the song as a single, the song didn’t even make the charts. Now, all thanks to the power of a commercial that wasn’t even meant for the benefit of the band, the song was getting major airtime in twenty-five countries. Though they were already in the studio recording Welcome to the Monkey House, they put the album on hold several times to return to Europe for concerts and television appearances. Ultimately Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia went gold and even platinum in several European countries.
The band has also lent its sound to numerous movies. “Pick a bad movie in the last seven years and we’re probably in it,” Loews says, offering movies like Little Nicky, The Replacements and Clockstoppers as just a few. The band’s next appearance on film will be in Disney’s Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, due out next summer, in which they play “the band in a rock star’s loft party.” “We were there for two days, and we were actually working for maybe an hour,” he says. “We were essentially glorified extras. Well-paid extras, but still extras.”
It seems like the band is appearing everywhere but on mainstream U.S. radio, though Monkey House ranked number one on college stations the week after its U.S. release. Loew says that the solution to building a strong fanbase lies in touring more often on this side of the Atlantic, though after a brief North American tour they currently have only European dates planned from October until December of this year.
Standing outside of Washington’s 9:30 Club as the sold-out crowd made its way inside, it was hard to believe that anyone hadn’t heard of the Dandy Warhols, though they may not have realized it at first. Their audience includes men and women from high schoolers to yuppies on their way up the hill. But Loew may have something about the power their concert has in attracting new fans. In a move both as cocky and egotistical as rock can get, they’ve decided to drop an opening act entirely and instead treat the audience to a three-hour set of every hit they’ve had and then some. “Let’s face it, in three hours there’s going to be something for everybody,” Loew says. “It probably helps to get really stoned before coming. I don’t think you have to, but it helps.”
The band certainly isn’t lacking in material, but on this night Loew and his bandmates—singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor, keyboardist Zia McCabe, and drummer Brent DeBoer—possessed perhaps more stamina than the crowd. Pop nuggets like “If You Were the Last Junkie On Earth” and “You Were the Last High” sent the crowd into the an excited bop, but towards the end of the evening, as the band pushed on into psychedelic jam mode, the groundlings began to grumble in protest. It wasn’t just the “Brown Sugar” guy I’d run into in the bathroom that wanted more rock ‘n’ roll hits and less noodling. Cries for “Freebird” and “I Want You To Want Me” flew up over the antsy crowd.
The Dandy Warhols did indulge in one cover request. Rhodes’ part in the production of Welcome to the Monkey House has been brought up in almost every review of the album, which includes more poppy, dance-oriented tracks and a more prominent use of distinctly 1980s-style synthesizers than ever before. Loew insists that Rhodes acted more as a traffic cop than a producer on the majority of tracks, but the accusation of mimicry still hangs over the Dandy Warhols’ heads. Singer/heartthrob Taylor-Taylor seemed almost eager to take up the crowd’s call for Duran Duran’s “Rio”. He and the band threw back a slow, melancholy, guitar-heavy dirge, just barely resembling the shimmering pop of the original, as if to prove they could never and would never be a reincarnation of Rhodes’ main act.
Still, one can’t help thinking that their moody, petulant rehash would go great with an ad touting a pill for social anxiety. Segue it into the sunny rush of their own “Every Day Should be a Holiday” and you have a winning bit of advertising hokum. A properly sequenced set of Dandy Warhols’ songs could run the gamut of emotions needed in almost any primetime commercial break. Loew is right to deny that they fit into any particular genre—they fit into every genre. So far their career has proved them adept at the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. With that type of m.o., there’s really only one place left for the Dandy Warhols, and Loew is already way ahead of me on this idea.
“We talk about making a grunge record next,” he quips.
Whether the packaging will say “As Heard On TV” is still up in the air.