Specializing in snide glam-pop for the past ten years or so, the Portland-based quartet has formed itself in the image of the Velvet Underground, and that parallel has never been more clearly drawn than on the cover art for their latest record, Welcome to the Monkey House. On it, we find a marriage of two Andy Warhol images: the banana from the Velvets' seminal, eponymous recording, and the cover of the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers, which featured a bulging male crotch encased in skintight jeans, barely contained by a real zipper.
"We hired this artist, Ron English, to come up with a trademark for us, kind of like the Rolling Stones' mouth," explains Warhols guitarist Peter Holmston. "That was one of the things he came up with, and it sort of suited the band, so we kept it."
Projecting a collective persona of oversexed, overnarcotized pretty people, the Dandy Warhols remind regular folks of those weird druggie kids who were so dangerously alluring in high school. Much of this image-building came courtesy of front man Courtney Taylor-Taylor, who was once quoted as saying that the band spent days on end doing every drug known to man, showering together and fucking each other's brains out.
"It's one of those things where I don't know what he was talking about," Holmston demurs. "I mean, all bands have fun, we were young, we went a little crazy. But the way it all got blown out of proportion, especially by the British press, made it look like we did nothing but do tons of drugs and have sex constantly. Which is just ridiculous.
"I just read an interview with the Warlocks, and it looks like they're having the same problem. They write a couple of songs about drugs and that's all anybody wants to talk about. And I guess it makes good headlines and sells more magazines, but it's kind of a little bit boring."
Obviously, the media's perception of a band's, ahem, members often obscures the real truth behind the players onstage, but what is truly important -- the ultimate reason why anyone starts talking about any band -- is the music. In the case of the Warhols, the band's sound has undergone subtle but important changes in the three years since The Dandy Warhols Come Down, the record that first got them noticed back in 1997.
Come Down was a dreamy, psychedelic head-fuck that immediately won over music fans with a penchant for sarcasm and snide humor set to lush guitars. Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia followed three years later and displayed a musical and lyrical maturity that served only to enhance the same swirling, acidly atmospheric music free-play alongside balls-out piss-takes like "Bohemian Like You" (a college-radio hit) and "Horse Pills." No target was safe under Taylor-Taylor's gaze, which made for a deliciously wicked romp that never grew stale, even upon dozens of rotations.
And now, another three years later, comes Welcome to the Monkey House, the band's third release on Capitol. Nearly two years in the making, the record boasts production and musical assistance from Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes and Simon Le Bon, and is widely reviled by critics and longtime fans.
And justly so, as this record is a bit blah and lacks the bitchy oomph of its predecessors. The titular intro is classic Warhols, chock-full of snide falsettos and Taylor-Taylor's affectedly bored delivery. Sadly, though, the album slithers downhill pretty quickly, reaching its nadir with "The Dandy Warhols Love Almost Everyone," which begins with someone saying, "Let's see if we can get this in one toke, er, take." Cue the sounds of a bong hit. What is probably an attempt to seem subversive just comes across as childish.
"I wasn't in the studio when that happened," says Holmston. You can almost hear his eyes roll over the phone. "I came back and it was there and I was just like, 'Oh, boy, here we go again.' The rest of the band and everybody else involved smokes a lot of pot. It seems to be about as important as food or water."
Perhaps not unrelatedly, part of the problem seems to be the band's inability to actually finish a record in anything like a timely fashion. "We work on our own to a point where we can't do it anymore and need some sort of outside influence to help us wrap it up. This time it was Nick" Rhodes, says Holmston. "We used ProTools this time, which really allows you to not make any serious decisions until you mix, so you end up with 128 tracks of different ideas, none of which really work all that well together."
It would seem, too, that the band is less than wholly satisfied with the final product, a feeling inspired by their reliance on ProTools this time out. "It was a good and bad thing," he sighs. "It definitely sort of gets in the way of the natural feeling of our music, because nothing is set. You can move anything anywhere. If you put the chorus in the wrong place originally, you can move it somewhere else or add a bridge or whatever. You can construct choruses out of verses and little extra bits. So I don't know if it's just because I know what the music's been through, or if you can actually tell, but the music to me on this record feels very chopped up. It doesn't actually flow, really."
Interestingly enough, if the band had used a more organic process, it probably would have been a very warm and moving record. Monkey House sports some of the most wounded, emotionally open songwriting in the Warhols' catalog, especially on the poignant "The Last High," in which a lover bids adieu to his latest love, the most potent and the last drug he'll ever encounter.
Holmston isn't sure why the writing is so much more vulnerable this time around, although he has an idea or two. "Courtney is always in the middle of a big breakup when we're recording a record; this time it seemed to hit him pretty hard," he says.
Therein lies the paradox, it seems. Lyrically, the group has stepped away from the more tongue-in-cheek playfulness of its earlier work and attempted a bit more warmth and less detachment, but ended up overproducing it dramatically. The end result is a chilly, clinical near-hack job that sorely misses the organic rush of previous Warhols releases.
"We needed to make a record on ProTools completely just so we'd learn what happens, how far you can go up your own asshole, I guess," says Holmston resignedly. "Hopefully we'll never do a record completely on ProTools again."
And, if the band is lucky, their fans and critics will return from the disappointment of a record that could have been so much more.