If you want to make a Generation Y music freak feel old, go ahead and tell him that the Dandy Warhols are coming up on their 20-year anniversary as a band.
If you were in high school or college around the turn of the millennium, chances are you know a couple Dandys albums by heart and their biting wit, agile lyricism and theatrical pop hooks are etched in your memory amid the youthful debris.
Now touring in support of their eighth studio album, “This Machine,” the band returns to Belly Up on Wednesday, June 13.
They’ve held onto their brand of literate, haunting pop and their ironic rock brilliance, but keyboardist Zia McCabe says they’ve left their days of tour bus excess behind for the sake of age and family.
“I guess we’re growing up,” she told me from a tour stop in Atlanta. “We’re older and wiser and hangovers last three times longer.”
The quartet emerged out of the underground scene of Portland, Ore., forming in 1994, and winning a cult following among “Portlandia” hipsters through notoriously rowdy shows and 1995’s “Dandys Rule OK.” They then won over the rest of the world with their polished breakout major-label album, 1997’s “…The Dandy Warhols Come Down.”
Despite their captivating new album, set lists on the band’s current tour have been loaded with cuts from that art rock classic, along with their best-known songs from “Thirteen Tales of Urban Bohemia,” “Welcome to the Monkey House,” and their entire catalogue.
The too-cool sneer of anti-hits like “Bohemian Like You” and “Not If You Were the Last Junkie In the World” forever endeared them to fans and critics, nudged along by the Dandys’ uncanny knack for crafting infectious hooks.
“I never thought you’d be a junkie because heroin is so passé” might be a forgettable quip if it wasn’t backed by a theatrical melody worthy of David Bowie. Their music has a gothy glamour about it that nobody else has ever quite captured — plucking elements of the Velvet Underground, new wave and psychadelia, yet giving fans those pitch-perfect sing-along moments everybody craves at a good rock show.
The band’s lineup — singer/guitarist Courtney Taylor-Taylor, keyboardist McCabe, drummer Brent DeBoer and guitarist Peter Holmström — has remained intact for most of the band’s history. McCabe says that’s because they’ve kept themselves stimulated, and stayed willing to evolve.
“We are pleasure-seekers,” she says. “We’re not nose-to-the-grindstone people, so we all want this to provide pleasure for us. We’re also curious people, so each album we try to figure out: what are we itching for? What questions do we have about music? And what do we want to learn? As long as we’re doing that, every album is going to be different because your questions and your needs change.”
Yeah. Over the years since “Come Down,” the Dandys have been decidedly unpredictable — taking chances with varying modes of garage rock, synth-pop and sludgy stoner sounds.
McCabe unwittingly found herself a member of the band after meeting Taylor-Taylor in a Portland coffee shop. She’d never studied music, and only recently started to. She learned the band’s mostly four-chord-structured songs as they were written. That’s started to change over the last couple years, as she’s begun contributing to songwriting. She says the new record marks the first time the whole band has written songs together.
“I didn’t want to know too much about the magic trick,” she says of her years of untrained playing. “I was timid to change that. But now that I know, I’m in a place where I feel like the more I know, the more curious I am.”
“This Machine,” released in April, marks the band’s most stripped-down work yet. They had adopted a “wall of sound” style over the years, filled with over-tracking and often thick, textured arrangements. They gave that up on the latest effort.
The result is a new album that breaks the Dandys down to the skeleton. It has a surprisingly grunge-y sound. McCabe says they surprised themselves with it, because the quartet originally crafted their style largely as a pushback against the flannel-clad angst rockers dominating the Pacific Northwest at the time. The band was remarkable in the late ’90s as an alternative to the “alternative” post-Nirvana crapfest that dominated rock. The fact that their poppy songs managed to sound like art was an act of rebellion in the age of Limp Bizkit and Creed.
“We didn’t say, ‘Let’s do a grunge record,’” McCabe says. “We exist because of being so tired of that scene. But we’re not tired of it anymore, so it’s interesting.”
She calls “This Machine” a “transitional album,” giving the band a new foundation on which to build future songs and sounds.
For years, the Dandys were the subject of rock-crit adulation, but inevitably the band has taken its licks from the press as the years have gone on — for being aloof, for their decadent verve. They’ve also inevitably lost (and gained) fans through their evolution of sounds. But the hardcore fans that have packed clubs this spring, McCabe says, have kept the band creatively alive.
“We were darlings of the press and now it seems like even if it’s a compliment it’s backhanded in some way,” McCabe laughs. “So it’s nice to see that our fans genuinely love us and are proud of us.”
Some material on the new record responds to the criticism with a typical Dandy snicker. Taylor-Taylor and company give self-parody a triumphant shot on “Enjoy Yourself,” the album’s standout song. On it, the guy who once sang “All I wanna do is get off” and extolled the virtues of “rockin’ on the horse-size pills” offers a schmaltzy, smirking chorus of “Look at yourself/Enjoy your health” and croons “I used to be cool/Used to be a fool/Too cool for rules, man/Too cool for school.”
It’s a biting slice of awesome that proves they’ve still got it. And, yeah, Dandys still rule. OK?