The Dandy Warhols' Zia McCabe talks Dig!, Bowie and the Capitol years — Sungenre Interview

The Dandy Warhols’ Zia McCabe talks Dig!, Bowie and the Capitol years

Dan Webb
Zia McCabe is the longtime keyboardist for Portland alternative rock band The Dandy Warhols, the band behind such hits as “Bohemian Like You” and “We Used To Be Friends”. On April 1st they released a four hour long album called Tafelmuzik Means More When You’re Alone. No, it’s not an April Fools’ prank.

Thanks so much for your time, and thanks for talking to me through this futuristic medium.
I forgot how to put funny backgrounds on Zoom. Have you tried that yet? I had the Tiger King at my last branch meeting.

Oh nice. So you’ve been watching Tiger King?
Yeah, I watched it right when it came out. We needed somebody that looks slightly weirder than our president doing slightly weirder things than our president.

Sure. And how else have you been keeping? What else have you been doing in quarantine?
Well, I always ride my bike a lot, so I guess that’s the same. Just a ton of gardening, organising, building a chicken coop. The kind of thing that Portland people do… I just noticed, sorry, I do have my own band shirt on, just to get that out of the way.

Nice, nice. Just in case we’ve forgotten who you are.
Yeah, exactly.

Cool. All right. Should we jump straight into it?
Sure.

Awesome. Well, in the age of 15 second TikTok videos and shortening attention spans I find it interesting that you decided to release a four hour long album. Now I understand that you’ve been sitting on these recordings for many years. Was it always your intention to release a four hour, mostly instrumental album at some point? Or were you planning to chop these recordings up and use them as samples and loops and things?
No, no, they were always intended to stay just as they are. I like that point that you made though. I hadn’t thought of that as being the opposite of – everything’s getting shorter and shorter and we went longer. Which really, if you think of our career and the choices we’ve made, that really makes sense. When everyone was making guitar-driven albums, we made synth based records, right. And so we’re always kind of going against the grain in that respect. So I guess it makes sense that we would do something like that. But since we weren’t really writing songs, we were just experimenting with playing different instruments that we weren’t used to playing, it was more an experiment of, how do you all play together with the only thing that you’ve agreed to is the key? That was the only rule, what key, then we go. And Pete (Holmström) would get a drum machine rhythm of some sort going and then we would play. So how do you still create that kind of trancey experimental vibe all based on just intuition and sensitivity to each other. We’re not a very showy band as far as complicated solos. I don’t think any of us really ever get accused of overplaying, maybe over effecting, but never over playing. And so it was really just a truly self-indulgent experiment for us in music.

And then once it came together and we were listening to these long meandering pieces, Courtney (Taylor-Taylor) realised that it sounded, or it had the vibe of some of his favourite music, which was really popular in the 16th century, Tafelmusik. Which is music of a lighthearted nature that was meant to be played by a small band in the corner playing background music for banquets and gatherings. And so then the intention became to put out an album that was for that. You could have your own dinner party and here was the music that went in the background. It’s not distracting from conversation, it’s not overpowering emotionally or dynamically. And then that’s how it eventually had a true concept. And then that was it. It just stayed that we didn’t put it out. Ten years later, it had never been released. We’ve only used it for some of our own gatherings. And then once the pandemic hit, we needed something like, “Hey, we’re not playing shows.” I realised that all the fans were like replaying old live shows and videos and trying to keep themselves occupied since there was no shows to look forward to. And I thought, “We really need to put something out for these guys.” And it didn’t take me long to realise that this Tafelmusik actually works really well as a background for solitude too. You don’t need a group of people for this music to make sense. You can listen to it taking a bath, doing gardening, checking your emails, making dinner. And especially with – it’s got this kind of upbeat, lightheartedness that’s very genuine. It’s not like a canned, in the hotel lobby type sounding music, I guess because it’s so organic sounding. But I thought, “Man, this is perfect. This is exactly what people need right now.”

I think that really, we’re always just trying to scratch an itch… we’re always doing what isn’t popular, but not to be contrary, but to satisfy what we need in music that nobody else is doing.

The band has undergone a number of stylistic musical changes over the years. Would you say that this has been prompted by a push internally from within the band? Or perhaps it’s been brought on by changing labels or from other external forces?
I wouldn’t give labels a lot of credit for anything to do with our sound other than ways to rebel against what they wanted. I mean, specifically Welcome To The Monkey House (2003) versus the version we mixed our own, our sound, there’s some label influence there. I think that really, we’re always just trying to scratch an itch. What do we need? What sounds exciting? What are we curious about? And so the external world can influence us because the way trends hit you usually end up getting saturated in one type of thing or another. So like I said, if everybody’s really guitar rock driven, it makes sense that we would need a synth album. And so that always keeps us kind of not on trend. We’re always doing what isn’t popular, but not to be contrary, but to satisfy what we need in music that nobody else is doing.

I think because my imposter syndrome was so intense… I was so worried about just seeing myself as a legit musician that any kind of treatment that I got, I would assume it was because of that.

As a sole female member of a rock band around the turn of the century, were you ever subjected to differential or unjust treatment as compared to your male counterparts in your view? Either from fans, other bands or perhaps from the press?
I think if I was, I didn’t really realise. And now looking back on it, I think because my imposter syndrome was so intense – I only learned that term within the last year. I was so worried about just seeing myself as a legit musician that any kind of treatment that I got, I would assume it was because of that. Because I had not played an instrument before I joined the band, because I was so much younger than the rest of my band members, because I was from a small town and I wasn’t hip or experienced or cultured. I was so busy worrying about all of those things that I didn’t go, “Hey, that’s because I’m a girl.” which is kind of nice. It protected me from that. Looking back on it, probably, who wasn’t? I can’t imagine I wasn’t treated that way at some point by somebody. But I, for good or bad, never noticed.

One of the benefits of being in quarantine at the moment is that I’ve had a lot of spare time on my hands, as I’m sure you have as well. I had a chance to watch the Dig! documentary the other day.
For the first time?

For the first time, yep. It comes across to me as a very insightful and captivating, yet ultimately very heartbreaking documentary. What was your personal initial reaction to watching the footage? And would you say that it’s an accurate depiction of your band at the time?
My first reaction was, “Oh my God, this could have been so much worse.” There were moments that as you’re watching it, you remember things you said that didn’t end up in the scene and you’re like, “Wow, I really just had no filter.” We completely trusted Ondi (Timoner). So that was my first reaction. And then the next reaction was kind of, “Hey, we thought this was going to be about music and it’s not that much about music.” So we have these mixed feelings of, do we try to get all the old footage and put out stuff about music. It wouldn’t be as interesting for most people cos it wouldn’t have the arc or the drama. Also, we would have to expose ourselves to all of those things we’re so lucky didn’t end up in the film. So I think we’re just going to let that all stay. And as far as being an accurate depiction, it’s an incomplete depiction. The focus is on conflict. The focus is on drama. The focus is on substance abuse. And yes, all of those things happened, but they were a very small percentage of the story and she made it the entire story. And so for us, it’s a very sensationalised dramatic piece focusing on dysfunction. And anybody that really knows my band, we’re all relatively functional people, especially when compared to most artists. We don’t miss shows, we don’t miss interviews, we don’t miss rehearsals. We do our job. Which was kind of used against us in that film. That made us seem like less legitimate of artists because we weren’t as fucked up. And the more messed up you are, the more real you are, the more tortured, then the more legit of an artist you are. And the film is funny. It’s fun to watch. I laugh, I cringe, I laugh, I cringe, I laugh. But it’s also not a great message (laughs). I would like people to know that you can strike a balance in life and that you can be an artist and have functional relationships. That was definitely not the message of that film.

I would like people to know that you can strike a balance in life and that you can be an artist and have functional relationships. That was definitely not the message of that film.

And I understand that you have a teenage daughter now. Has she seen the documentary?
I don’t think she has. She can discover that on her own.

Would you be open to watching it together?
Yeah. No, we will not watched that together. I mean, I’m a very transparent, liberal parent. So if she wanted to, we could of course sit down and watch it together. But because the Dandys and rock ‘n’ roll and concerts was such a big part of her life, she doesn’t really care about any of it. I mean, she likes going to shows, but she’s not as impressed by me as most other people are (laughs).

Yeah. That’s fair. So one of the aspects of the documentary sort of focused around this feeling that you guys had at the time of sort of striking success in Europe and being relatively unknown in the States. What was that feeling like at the time?
It made it very surreal. I mean, I guess I’m sure it would have been surreal no matter what. But when people would ask us, “What does it feel like to be a massive rockstar?” We didn’t know we were. So we didn’t know how to answer that because we just thought we were, I don’t know, average rockstars, not massive rockstars. We were just doing our thing. If that had happened in the States, I think it would have been more noticeable. The good side of that, looking back on it is that we were able to not suffer some of the downfall of that. It’s pretty easy to lose yourself in fame, I mean, as we know and have seen in a million documentaries. And because we didn’t get massive in the States, we didn’t lose our sense of self and our sense of humanity and decency and how to be a good person. And I mean, we got close, we got pretty wrapped up in ourselves for a minute and then it sort of peaked and tapered off and we came out of it fairly undamaged, which I’m grateful for.

It’s been well documented that the first album that you recorded for Capitol took two attempts. Is there any truth to the rumour that the band’s advance for The Black Album was blown on drugs and alcohol?
Well, I’m sure a significant percentage, yeah. I mean we just got signed to a major label and handed a wad of cash to make a record with. And, you know, you gotta have some parties. We were not quite as focused when we made what’s now called The Black Album. Have you heard it? It’s one of my favourites.

I’ve heard a bit of it, yep.
Yeah. It’s one of my favourites. It’s so raw, it’s so organic. I think there’s this essence and spark of songwriting and I think one of the biggest challenges is to not lose that during the tracking, mixing and mastering process. The Black Album suffers none of that. And that’s one of the things I love about that album. And was it drug fuelled? Absolutely. I mean, there was a flood going on. We were also stuck inside, like there was a torrential downpour and flooding happening in Portland while that record was being made. I think it’s pretty funny that Capitol’s like, “You guys, there’s no singles on this. What are you doing with your budget? You need to start over.” Some songs did end up on (The Dandy Warhols) Come Down (1997) that were on The Black Album. Yeah, it was a funny start to major label life for sure.

Well, speaking of, few people know what it’s like to have been signed to a major label, let alone dropped from one. What was that experience like?
Well, it’s an experience that I don’t think many people will really ever even have access to now. We were kind of right at the fall of the heyday of major labels, of unlimited expense accounts and these labels running around and just basically hoarding bands. And one of the saddest things that we would see was a ton of bands that would get signed at the same time as us would just be shelved. Bands that could have probably really thrived on an indie label, were instead now owned by a major label that didn’t care about them at all. They were buying in bulk. And so we were one of the few that maintained some level of attention and respect, maybe. Which was better, we came out better than a lot of those bands. We also were very defiant. A lot of bands when they get signed to major labels kind of lose themselves in these people telling them how they should look, how they should sound. These aren’t artists, these are business people and volunteers. I mean they just don’t know. And so every time they tried to interfere with our vision or our image, we were very defiant. So for us it was tumultuous. To be on a major label was constant fighting about what they said we should be like, or who we should be, versus us kind of sticking to our guns and saying, “No, you signed us because we’re us. This is who we are.” And I mean maybe The Black Album, our first attempt at …Come Down was a way to establish that right from the start. Like, “By the way, we’re not going to cooperate and just do whatever you say.” If we didn’t make it perfectly clear with that album, I don’t know how we could have been clearer. So for us it was just constant battle, you know? And I was also so much younger and so naive that I really didn’t know what was going on most of the time. I mean, the saddest part was I really tried to establish relationships with these people. And so for those first couple of records, I would go down with my roller skates in the Capitol building and you know, roll into the different offices and establish these relationships. And then the next record would come out and it would be all different people. And so you realise, or for me personally, how disheartening it was, there was no point. They’re just a machine and we’re part of it and we just have to fight to stay ourselves and fight to stay represented. And that’s all there was to the game. And that was a bummer for me. I’d rather make friends and have a working relationship and build our future together, kind of idealist thing. And that’s not how it is at all. Wasn’t the best thing to be on major labels I guess.

Okay. So if few people, as I said, have been signed to a major label or dropped from one, I would say that even fewer people have toured and performed on stage with David Bowie, as you did in 2002. You once descried in an interview the relationship as, “This weird uncle trying to be your friend.” Surely it was an honour to find yourself in his inner circle of friends?
Of course it was an honour. But I mean also, you know, you’re playing these ginormous venues and they’re not theatres, they don’t have a vibe. They’re hockey arenas, enormo domes, I think they called them in Spinal Tap. And so we were very sequestered, we were very far away from Bowie and his artists, his musicians, his band, and so we saw very little of him. We had a few fun dinners or he came to the studio and we had one really epic sort of jam session that is memorable. But mostly, and that’s kind of why that quote came about, was everyone wanted to know what it was like to hang out with him. And really it was always sort of stilted and awkward and we didn’t connect. Like Tom Petty, instant connection, Robert Smith, instant connection. Those are two of the people that, you know, I wish I had – obviously I’ll never get to see Tom Petty again. And I’ve ran into Robert Smith over the years and it’s always like that. It always feels good, always just comfortable and relaxed. But with David it was, I just never knew really what he was talking about. He would be trying to make kind of jokes. Like I said, it’s like a weird uncle when you’re 12 and your uncle is trying to relate to you and you just kind of want them to go away because you don’t understand what they’re talking about. That is to be 100% honest what it felt like hanging out with David Bowie for me.

As much as we want to think that Biden is kind of lacklustre, doesn’t have a lot of personality and seems somewhat confused, he could at least rely on people that have beliefs that align with mine.

Okay. Well from one superstar to another. In 2016 you introduced Bernie Sanders on stage at a rally, saying that, “I’ve never felt this inspired by a presidential candidate.” Given that he’s now dropped out of the 2020 race, I’m wondering, are you prepared to endorse Joe Biden for president?
Well, it’s not like I have a choice. No, I mean there’s a really great meme that’s like, “Look, if you write in Bernie, you’re voting for Trump. If you vote as an independent, you’re voting for Trump. If you don’t vote, you’re voting for Trump.” And I think that’s really important for Americans to understand that, because as much as we want to think that Biden is kind of lacklustre, doesn’t have a lot of personality and seems somewhat confused, he could at least rely on people that have beliefs that align with mine. And when people say, “Well, voting for Biden will just be like having Obama back.” I’m like, “I am totally okay with that.” It’s not progress in the way that I want, but it is climbing back out of this horrific hole that we’ve dug for America that looks a lot like a grave. It’s pretty bleak here with this lunatic as our president. We have to vote for Biden, we don’t have a choice. And Bernie has made some really progressive moves in politics even if he never becomes president. So we have to at least celebrate that as a booby prize, I guess.

Yeah, from an outsider’s perspective here in Australia, sort of following the Democratic primaries quite closely myself, it really feels like Bernie’s made a push for a rise in the minimum income and a push for universal healthcare and things like that. I think domestically he’s made a huge impact. So he’s going to leave a lasting legacy either way.
Yeah. He’s made the platform for all Democrats more liberal. And also now I think that people are mad that he pulled out when he did. And I think it’s because it’s more important that he help endorse all of these people in the House and the Senate and our more local government. If he can take his powers of persuasion and instead of focusing on himself when he knows he can’t win at this point, to turn and focus all of that on these other people that we really, really need. Whether Biden wins or not, we need these people in government. In Oregon, I’m not necessarily paying attention to who’s running another state, but because I care so much about what Bernie has to say, I’ve donated for state elections that don’t feel like they have anything to do with me. So he’s helping us kind of understand how to unify, that in a way that I don’t think that voters have really ever paid attention to. So that alone is good too.

Awesome. All right Zia, well I’ve got one final question for you. If you could collaborate with any artist in any medium, who would it be and what would you create?
Okay. It would be either, well, okay, number one is Willie Nelson. I don’t care what we make, it could be a cover of one of his songs. I just want to hang out with Willie. So that’s just done. And I have a little country band side project. It could be a Brush Prairie song, it could be a Willie Nelson song, I don’t care. But as far as outside of that, I would say either Peaches or M.I.A. Just because musically that’s really in my wheelhouse and they’re both really dynamic, interesting, edgy musicians. That would be – I mean, once I got over kind of my like starstruckness. Well, Peaches and I have hung out plenty. But yeah, I think that would just be the most fun. You just make some rowdy, edgy electronic music. I mean, in The Dandy Warhols I don’t get to be kind of on that sexual end of the spectrum as I would like to be if I wasn’t making music with those three guys, so I would get to fulfill that. I would get to scratch that itch with those ladies.

Awesome. All right. Well thank you for your time Zia. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
Right on.

I hope the album goes well. And hope you enjoy the rest of your quarantine.
Yeah. Yeah. So good. I mean, I’m having a good time so far.

Good luck with the chicken coop as well.
Yeah, thanks.