A Strange and Surreal World: The Dandy Warhols and ‘Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia’

After talking to the band, it’s impossible to see how Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia was created. But it’s probably best that way.

The Dandy Warhols have a history that seems to have been talked about more than absorbed. Their discography is spotty by anyone’s standards, and their currency was that of amplified apathy masquerading as something more meaningful or sincere, or at least cool.

I don’t know, do you know anyone that truly loves this band? I know people who dig on a song here or there. I know Igby Goes Down benefited greatly from their music. But they have put all their supporters and detractors in the same place: an annoying, somewhat painful purgatory that allows us much room to drift between applauding their strange, surprising beauty and their stuff that clearly exists and can be enjoyed by nobody except the Dandies. A band like the Dandy Warhols — hold on, I should drink a beer.

Ok, there. That tasted good. A band like the Dandy Warhols, too cowardly to put anything heartfelt into the world, or vulnerable … leave the listener a ton of options. And that is how they survive, a plethora of interpretation, likely enhanced by any intoxicant the listener embraces prior to actually throwing on a Dandy album. To be clear, I don’t hate this band; how can anybody? They’re James Franco in Pineapple Express: they’ll offer a bunch of oddball, hippie stuff that you’re not sure if you enjoy, then something you’re positive you dig, and then something oddly beautiful … and but it’s all punctuated by a bunch of bullshit that doesn’t really go anywhere.

The interesting thing with Dandy Warhols though, is they put out one album that does a pretty good job of discarding all the apathetic hippie nonsense, and for the most part, keeps things close to the heart. Or, at the very least, strums along into something worth singing along to. That album is Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia (2000). A strange, totally unexpected mutant twitch of an album that for the most part, completely betrays what we had come to expect form the group, which is of course a pretty and totally forgettable disconnect that is impossible to latch onto in any discernible way. Thirteen Tales DOES mean something to the world, and not in any ironic way. The band seems to be on the road revisiting this wonderful offering, and I had the chance to talk to the group about how this came about.

It’s important to note that I’m not sure how this happened, but the first three tracks on this record are simply fucking phenomenal. Even if you hate this band, and love Anton Newcombe and his crappy crap he’s releasing now under the guise of “music”, the opening three here (“Godless”, “Mohammed”, and “Nietzsche”) are simply amazing. I was curious about how they came about, so I asked Courtney Taylor-Taylor about the background to them:

”Well, the ‘mix’ has a lot to do with the ‘simple’ part. [Dave] Sardy really gets his mixes to have an authentic almost rustic quality that Blake, Lash and Wheatley don’t do. Actually nobody really does.

“Our songs like ‘Green’, ‘Whipping Tree’, even ‘Welcome to the Monkey House’ have the same thing going but the mixes have a more cosmo feel. They will all end up on a live record sooner or later and that will be a funny moment when I get asked why I have so many songs that sound the same. Yipes. I’ve always said that I keep writing the same 11 songs over and over but the production keeps making them new.”

Sorry, guys. I tried. Responses like this make me yearn for the soundbite, buzz-phrases of Stone Gossard or Peter Buck, but that’s the reply I got. Unfortunate, but I’m willing to glide past this bizarro response, because Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia has staying power. It has something that deserves our time, and it deserves us to invest a lot of time and energy into. I remember I got in shit years and years ago when I wrote about Pearl Jam’s awesome Vitalogy record — I said, “Songs can be classified here into three categories: hard rockers, ballads, or weird art-rock experiments”. The editor thought I was over-simplifying the album, even though I was just stating some pretty obvious sub-categories for an album I loved.

I’m gonna employ the same technique here. Songs on Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia fall into three categories: ambient, driving beauty (first three songs, and “Sleep”), oddly catchy guitar pop (basically the rest), and a couple slowed-down offerings that don’t exactly show off the more introspective side of the group, but are effective in terms of just grinding everything to a worthwhile halt. It’s a very confusing yet somehow sensical order of things, and I asked the group how they think it’s aged. Courtney Taylor-Taylor responded, “I’m always pleasantly surprised by how well our albums age. I tend to revisit one album from our past while making a new album. For example,Dandys Rule OK? was my fave Dandys album while recording This Machine. I also notice so many young faces in our audience along side the aging fans that our relevance to today’s audience is undeniable”

Again, I wish I could provide more insight from CTT, who was actually there during recordings (shockingly, I wasn’t) but this is the best we’ve got. It’s more than an interesting album — but it’s also less. Every time it threatens to careen off the rails, it flies back with something pretty. Every time we’re concerned they are experimenting with some alt-country dumb shit, they bring the sound back home to something gorgeous. Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia always asserts itself as a potential catastrophic failure, until it rights itself and makes you feel stupid for considering that as a reasonable possibility. I usually don’t ask bands about their influences but here, it seemed like the right thing to do, so I asked what if they were influenced by anything during the recording of Thirteen Tales. Zia McCabe responded, 

“We make what we need to hear. If we’re dying for guitar rock amidst a keyboard frenzy and nobody is satisfying that itch them damn it, it’s up to us.” CTT said, “Bob Dylan’s Desire, Workingman’s Dead, and American Beauty were what we needed to hear. Nobody was doing it and nobody was going to; I really like Kid Rock as a person and Fred Durst is probably an awesome guy too but by 1999 jezizfuggingkrykey could we just have something warm and comforting that didn’t sound like corporate sissypop? Well yes, we could.”

I don’t know. Take from this what you will. Perhaps these answers to my questions seem oddly brilliant to you. Perhaps they seem useless. All I can say is this: I asked them nine questions, the band chose to answer seven, and these were the most coherent ones provided to me. I’ve chosen not to even include the rest of the answers, just because, why would I include them if they were even worse than these?

The good news is, does that take away from the greatness that is Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia? Well, no, it doesn’t. I mean, who cares about a great record anymore? We have tons of great records that thrive from start to finish in a fairly accepted and partisan recording. Good for them. Everyone should buy those.

But Thirteen Tales doesn’t survive and excel like that. The first three tracks are basically better than anything else on the album, and they are pretty much instrumentals. The only track that rivals them is “Sleep”, which is also fairly goddamn close to an instrumental track. Then you have “Bohemian Like You” plopped in the middle of the thing, and that’s just one of those big, jangly tracks that everyone loves, but assumes it’s part of a one-hit album offering. Well, it is. This is the only hit you will find on here. But it’s surrounded by this completely unexpected collection of songs that somehow fit in together beautifully — like a family that can’t believe they’re related, but everyone who meets them sees the bond instantly.

Talking to Dandy Warhols didn’t do me much good. If you were expecting a great Q&A, it definitely wouldn’t do you much good, either. But perhaps that conversation, or lack thereof, is the logical continuum of Thirteen Tales. It lives in a strange and surreal world, where everyone is bumping into each other, but seems to have a purpose that stretches beyond the obvious linear destination. Does that sound stupid? Maybe, I don’t think so. But Thirteen Tales proves us both wrong. It’s living proof that beauty is easily lost, and that which is a slab of driving monotony can rapidly transform into something truly memorable, transformative. After talking to them, it’s impossible to see how this was created. But it’s probably best that way.