Courtney Taylor-Taylor of The Dandy Warhols on making new friends at Clockenflap, and learning to forgive some old ones
The US indie legends play the Sunday night at this month’s festival. Their popularity waned after a public spat with fellow rockers, The Brian Jonestown Massacre in a documentary – but that’s all in the past, says their lead singer
When bands come to Hong Kong for the first time, their first response to inquiries about what they’re most looking forward to is usually “the food.”
Not The Dandy Warhols. For the American indie legends, whose brand of melodic psychedelia makes them one of the most anticipated acts on this year’s Clockenflap line-up, have family and friends here who’ve kept them up to date on the city’s cultural scene.
And they’re itching to try more than just the local grub.
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“We hope to get the rock-band tour of dudes and bands that live there and see real lives and where they go to hang out in their bars, and meet their weirdo artist friends,” singer-songwriter Courtney Taylor-Taylor says from the veteran band’s studio wine bar in Portland, Oregon.
The four-piece band, whose worldwide hits include Bohemian Like You and We Used to be Friends, are well schooled in the cultural tapestry of modern Hong Kong. They know of the burgeoning music and club scene that’s been fostered by festivals such as Clockenflap (they will perform on the Sunday night of this year’s festival). And they’re into new rock bands coming out of China.
They’re also aware of the sterile mainstream nightlife scene and the tasteless, moneyed denizens that have always bedevilled the city. “My brother in law’s family have lived there quite a while, he’s an international business guy. We also have some fans there who are political types, people who work in the American State Department – so we’ll get the very clean view of the city, from the rooftop, from the 38th-floor rooftop bar-restaurant life,” he deadpans.
Glitz and the high life have never been the Dandys’ sort of thing. Emerging in the mid-1990s, their pretty-boy good looks and catchy tracks provided a kitschy glam antidote to the dreariness of grunge, but they were raw enough to appeal to streetwise indie kids.
With a knowing wink and some killer tunes, they reignited the popularity of psychedelic pop in the 1990s with early singles including Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth and the follow-up album, 13 Tales from Urban Bohemia. By the turn of the millennium, they were one of the most in-demand US bands, filling arenas and festival slots the world over.
But their fortunes turned almost overnight following the release of the acclaimed rock documentary Dig! in 2004, which portrayed them – unfairly, as it turned out – as jealous, vindictive and mercenary dilettantes.
By contrast, the film’s main subject, their shambolic psychedelic contemporaries The Brian Jonestown Massacre (BJM), were drawn as tragic geniuses cruelly denied success while the Dandys raked in the cash with their inferior pop.
“It absolutely damaged the band – you wouldn’t believe what happened to us after that,” Taylor-Taylor says, latching onto a subject that obviously still smarts more than a decade later.
“It was bizarre. We went from being a band that people understood and loved and did great work and could always be counted on to do the right thing, to the f***ing pariahs of the entire world’s music industry. Just shunned.
“It was amazing – like being in a suburban high school and all of a sudden somebody tells a lie about you and everybody believes it and you become the f***ing outcast.”
It was made all the more galling by the fact that the BJM had until then been their best friends.
While Dig! was one of the most entertainingly dark ‘rockumentaries’ ever made, it did no favours for anyone involved in the project except its director Ondie Timoner, who won a grand jury prize at that year’s Sundance festival for her debut feature.
While the Dandys suddenly found their bookings diary empty, the BJM descended into drug-addled madness resulting in multiple personnel changes, inter-band violence and, inevitably, cancelled gigs. Fans in Hong Kong felt the sharp end of it when the BJM failed to make it to Hong Kong for a headline spot at Clockenflap’s precursor, the Rockit festival.
“We didn’t realise the damage we were doing to ourselves by playing along,” he says, adding that the documentary missed the real story of BJM mainman Anton Newcombe’s “schizophrenia, his alcoholism, heroin addiction and paranoia going untreated”.
While the Dandys would never again experience the sort of mass adulation they enjoyed before Dig!, they did pick themselves up to record a string of critically acclaimed albums. They protected each during those bruising years following the film.
“We stayed in Portland and we had the same friends we always had, had a home and things were normal,” he says. “We were not confused, we know who we are and we’re not trying to be anything that we’re not.”
Now all parents – and back on friendly terms with the BJM – the Dandys are in the sort of zone few bands are lucky enough to find themselves. Having tasted success and been burned by fame, they’re happy to be a cult band again. Past glories mean they can still fill large venues, if not the arenas they once commanded, and continued sales of their hits have given them the luxury of their own studio, where they can experiment and release records at their own pace.
“The thing that we found out about fame was that it spoils success,” Taylor-Taylor says. “It’s the unfun part of being successful. It brings a lot of negative s*** and it attracts bad people who want something from you. You don’t get to hang out with cool people any more, you don’t just meet people after a show because you’re surrounded by sycophants.”
The new album, their 11th, sounds like it’s going to be a typically Dandys affair.
“This one is weird,” Taylor-Taylor explains, a little perplexed by his own recent artistic endeavours. “What makes it difficult is that part of it is mid-century dance hall – antiquey with rhumba and country – and the other part is whacked-out, early-’70s electronic stuff. Pretty disparate.
“It’s just in the nature of being creative people; certain tools and instruments and sounds allow you to amplify your thoughts and feelings musically.”
Adding to the peculiar world of the Dandys is Taylor-Taylor’s love of fine wine, which finds expression in – of all things – the band’s very own wine bar.
Not the sort of thing you’d expect of a battle-hardened rock’n’roller, you might think. But you’d be wrong. It’s staffed by a seasoned barman pal who appeared in at least four of the band’s videos, including the promo for Bohemian Like You, and Taylor-Taylor’s preferred clientele are local bands.
“I want to have rockers hang out and drink wine, not just wealthy retirees,” he says. “Everyone drinks wine now – and I would rather rockers drink fine wine than just plonk.”
Clockenflap, Nov 17 to 19, Central Harbourfront, HK$980 (Friday general admission) to HK$1,830 (three-day general admission), ticketflap.com