School of Rock

Are the Dandy Warhols a rock-and-roll flowchart or just a rock-and-roll band? You decide.

From a distance, one could make a pretty solid case that the Dandy Warhols are less a band than they are authors of a chronological history of modern rock. Their first album, 1995's Dandy's Rule OK?, explored the 1960s drug rock pioneered by the Velvet Underground; they even titled a song "Lou Weed." They describe (correctly) their last album, 2000's Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia, as having a warm, '70s acoustic feel. And you can't read anything about their new one, Welcome to the Monkey House, without tripping over a handful of '80s references, thanks to producer Nick Rhodes, the newly re-formed Duran Duran's keyboard player.

So if you're actually buying into this whole proposal, what's next for the Dandy Warhols? A pass at a '90s grunge record? Hmmm, maybe.

The idea of the Dandy Warhols modeling their sound after the evolving sounds of rock would be a music critic's dream come true. Rock scribes would be free to make broad generalizations, categorizations and comparisons, all without having to really listen to the music. It's almost too easy. Which is fine and, um, dandy, but upon closer inspection, the Dandy Warhols are just a band after all. Those references to the '80s have more to do with Rhodes than the actual songs. It's just another Dandy Warhols record, not another chapter in a thesis.

"We just sort of stumbled across Nick when we were looking for people to finish the whole thing," guitarist Peter Loew says. "Everything was written, and we had spent a year recording. We like to say he added the frosting and sparkly bits."

As for the allusions to the '80s, Loew admits, "It's not what I expected at all. A lot of these sounds have always been in our records, only they've just been combined with a big wall of guitar, so they didn't stick out as much."

That "big wall of guitar" landed the band a solid fan base and a few TV commercials. But not commercial success, apart from a brief fling when "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth" (from 1997's The Dandy Warhols Come Down) became an unlikely hit. Overseas, it's a different story for the group, which also includes drummer Brent DeBoer, singer-guitarist Courtney Taylor-Taylor and bassist-keyboard player Zia McCabe.

"We can go there, and the tours actually pay for themselves," Loew says. "Sometimes we even come home with money, which doesn't happen here at all." The band is just back from Europe and one of those tours that pay for themselves, including some U.K. festivals that make Lollapalooza look like an open-mike night. Which raises the question: Why does something work over there but not back at home?

"They've just got better radio," Loew says. "They've got radio that's actually worth listening to. Essentially what it would be like is if every state had its own record company. When we go do promo in Europe, we do several countries, and each one gets its own special focus. They don't do that here, not with each state at least. They assume if it works in one state, it will work everywhere."

While touring stateside may not be as profitable as some may think, and definitely not as lucrative as Europe, the Dandy Warhols aren't letting that prevent them from giving their all. Literally. When they play Gypsy Tea Room on September 21, it will be "An evening with..." arrangement; the band plans to take the stage for a three-hour set.

"It takes the pressure off of us, and instead of trying to do an hour and a half and packing the hits, we can slowly find our way and play songs when it feels appropriate," Loew says. "We've had a few people complain, but that's ridiculous. You can leave, and everyone else is having a great time."

Of course, Loew is speaking from a comfortable hotel room in San Francisco, on the verge of the aforementioned U.S. tour, so playing three-hour sets sounds like a great idea. It will be interesting to see if that's still the case a few months from now.

"It will get tiring," Loew admits, "but then it will be time to make a new record. We kid around that we're going to make a grunge record. It's sort of just kidding, but the more we think about it the more it seems like a good idea. Personally, I want to do a reggae dub record."

So maybe the Dandy Warhols can be a band and a model of rock history. Then again, how exactly will a reggae dub record fit into this beautiful equation of categorical utopia? Well, let's see: Ska made a resurgence in the 1990s and, uh, that revival did pull in elements from punk and reggae, and...ah, forget it. Just listen to the music.

 
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