Peter Holmstrom is sitting cross-legged on top of a conference-room table, looking very much like the young Keith Richards he clearly aspires to be. A little touch of eye-liner darkens his visage, and chipped silver polish shines on his guitar-strumming nails. We talk a little about art, which is apparently a subject of interest to him, given the name of the band and the fact that he is a former NYU art student, while Zia McCabe, the resident sexy girl in the band, slips out for a mysterious personal phone call.
A girl with a video camera is shooting our interview for a documentary she's making on the Dandies and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, adding a little spark to the conversation.
It's been an inordinate amount of time since Zia left, and when she returns I jestingly grill her on where she's been and whom she was speaking to as the camera zooms in for a tight close-up.
"If you really have to know, I was scheduling an abortion," she says. Her face turns bright red, and her eyes begin to water. The camera retreats to a safe distance, Peter lowers his head, and silence sinks in. "Is that going to be the focus of your interview now?" the 22-year-old asks indignantly.
In a few minutes, though, she's well over it, smiling and cheerful, showing off the T-shirt she wore (inside-out) in their new video, "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth." It's got a big crossed-out syringe on it and says, "No Hope in Dope."
This is a band that deals with things strangely.
"Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth," which touts the catch phrase "heroin is so passe," has got to be one of the most annoying songs to come along this year. It's one of those songs that gets in your head and won't leave no matter how much you wish it would. The song itself is passe, not to mention trite and uninteresting...a made-for-KDGE insta-hit.
And yet, it was obviously inspired by some heavy emotional trauma. "The song's snotty because Courtney [Taylor, the Warhols' vocalist] was like, 'You're making me feel bad that you're an addict because we broke up,'" McCabe says. "Well, what if he would've written a really deep song that was seriously dealing with the situation? You would've been so much more turned off."
On the issue of timeliness, McCabe reminds us that the song was written more than two years ago. "We didn't even want it released as a single, because it's not a song that I would say, 'If you like this song, then you'll like the rest of our album.'"
Indeed not. At their show the night before this interview, the crowd lit up when those familiar words rang out, but as the Dandies strayed off into the atmospheric, morosely psychedelic waves of sound that compose much of the rest of The Dandy Warhols Come Down, their major-label debut, many people stood about as though they had dropped something important on the floor.
Come Down is, at its best, a wonderfully minimalist, droning album that calls to mind Galaxie 500 and Yo La Tengo. The better pop songs, such as "Minnesoter" and "Good Morning," are on the same level as Luna and Jesus and Mary Chain (think Darklands era). But the only two songs you're likely to hear on radio or MTV are the aforementioned "Last Junkie on Earth" and "Boys Better," which recalls the worst of Blur.
That's because Capitol Records has this Portland, Oregon, band by the balls, so to speak. After initial success with "TV Theme Song" from their indie debut Dandies Rule OK (again with the strange sense of humor) the Dandies scored a big record deal. And being reckless young rock stars, they blew all the money and didn't deliver the goods, a la My Bloody Valentine. "Yeah, that's exactly it," Taylor says. "I told everyone we were pulling a My Bloody Valentine--taking a week to record the sound of one cowbell."
Fortunately, unlike MBV, the Warhols got a second chance. But they're on a tight leash now. "We're living on about $400 a month each," Holmstrom says. "Which, in Portland, is just enough to pay your rent and bills."
McCabe is no stranger to poverty, though. "I grew up in a log cabin across the river from Portland," she says. "My dad built it. I was raised in sort of a commune. It was weird--like Jimmy Buffett used to hide out a lot there [to escape drug warrants]."
Log cabins and Portland are a far cry from England, though quite often, the Dandies are confused for being Brits. "That's because most of the bands we like are British," McCabe says. "It's just a matter of taste. We've toured with like Love and Rockets, Spiritualized, Echo & the Bunnymen."
"And we've got Brit-boy hair cuts," Holmstrom adds. "But we're an American band--we sound American, other than we've got a lot of melodies and harmonies that American music doesn't usually have. If you wanna see real British rip-off bands, go to San Francisco. They even talk with fake British accents over there."
"I didn't like London," McCabe says. "All the people looked unhealthy and unhappy. It was overcast and polluted. We're totally American kids. We even smell a lot worse than the Brits."
Still, the Warhols have gotten slagged pretty heavily by the press at times, both for being British wannabes and for making artsy, pretentious music. "There was this one [critic] who went on and on about how we just offended his universe," says Taylor. "He wrote, like, 'These guys play two chords for 20 minutes, then just put a bunch of effects over it.'"
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"We were, like, Two chords for 20 minutes? Wow, all right! That sounds great!" shouts McCabe.
"He totally understood us, but just didn't get it," Taylor says. "That's exactly why we formed this band."
As a live band, the Warhols might best be described as a combination of Bis and Stereolab. Amid the slow-moving waves of sound there's a consistent boppiness that keeps your head bouncing from side to side. Like Bis--a band that comes off infinitely better on stage than on your stereo--the Warhols have a live shine that Dandies Rule OK and Come Down just don't put across. Even songs like "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth" come off as...enjoyable. "It's a fun song to play live," McCabe agrees.
"Any last messages to the world?" I ask her. "Like don't do heroin?"
She laughs and says, "Don't do a lot of heroin," then notices that drummer Eric Hedford is mysteriously missing from the room. "Where did Eric go?" she asks. "This is the time where he goes, 'If you're gonna go up...you gotta be prepared for the down.'