The Sound of Songwriting: With Courtney Taylor of the Dandy Warhols

“Songwriting? That’s something that I don’t really know how to do.” Courtney Taylor felt that I ought to know this before we even began our interview to discuss that very subject. As we sat upstairs in Webster Hall on a chilly November day in New York City, the Dandy Warhol’s lead singer and songwriter wanted to make this one point clear: “I don’t write songs, they just happen to me.”

In 1995 America, when the popularity of grunge was in a swift decline and a new wave of punk-ska was heating up around the country, Taylor was writing music inspired by bands like the Velvet Underground and My Bloody Valentine. In one of the Dandy Warhol’s earliest music videos for the song “Ride”, Taylor is fashioned like a young Mick Jager, fresh faced with neatly trimmed bangs, while Zia McCabe shakes a maraca and the entire band spins around in a tiny kaleidoscopic room—a very subdued and stereotypical “British” looking music video. It shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise that at the time the Dandy Warhols—who actually hail from Portland, Oregon—were playing to full clubs in Europe while remaining virtually unknown back at home.

The Dandy Warhols have a full and all-inclusive sound; it feels like the four band members are always present and aware of maintaining a song’s equilibrium. There is rarely a moment where any one member tries to rise above the others—which is interesting, considering Taylor alone is credited with writing all of the Dandy Warhol’s music.

Taylor’s lyrics are typically cryptic and terse, which could lead a listener into thinking he’s a bit remiss. But it’s in the final product, with the entire band supporting him, that the lyrics are translated back into his original emotions. Often, it’s more about conveying a subconscious feeling than a literal meaning.

Songwriting is Taylor’s profession. It’s his passion, but it’s also a burden. When he confessed just how taxing it could be, I wanted to stop him and interject, “Why do you do it to yourself? Is there ever going to be a point in your life where you’ve just written enough songs?” I was brimming with curiosity—but I needed to let him come to his own conclusions and work it out for himself.

Can you tell me about how you would approach the band with a new song?

God, I don’t know. I guess it’s usually when we’re standing around at practice. If I’m by myself, I start to play, and if I have the beginning of a song I just play the chords and sing it to see if it’s actually a thing that would work live. ‘Cause I write songs… [pause]. It’s weird for me to even say I write songs—let me just preface by saying that, because I don’t feel like I write them. I wait for them to happen to me.

So when the beginning of a song happens to me, I’ll fiddle around with it at home for a bit. And generally it happens by just murmuring to myself. I don’t sing aloud, I do it all falsetto in my head while quietly lying in bed. But ultimately, I need to check it out on a microphone and see if it translates to standing there and actually doing it. And so this is how we swap ideas. I’ll be like, ‘Pete, that is an amazing riff!’ Millions [of riffs] have gone away, but if someone is like, ‘that’s fucking amazing,’ well then, it’s great.

So is it a numbers game? You put out 10 ideas and hope that one sticks?

When it comes to guitar riffs or keyboard riffs? Then, yes. But if there’s a word for ‘the opposite of prolific’ in the dictionary, then there’s a picture of me under it. I think every song I’ve ever written in my entire life has gone on one of the Dandy’s records. I mean, I’m dredging stuff up from 15 years ago, constantly, just to fill in these records and make them seem complete. Twelve songs every three years is about my average. It’s kind of pathetic, and it’s probably given me ulcers and high blood pressure, because it’s scary when you do that for a living and it’s not coming. They’re not coming! Then six months go by! Nine months go by! And a year goes by… and nothing. Nothing.

I don’t know where the hell they come from, and I don’t know why. All I can figure is that if I continuously put myself in fucked up situations where I feel like I’m out of my depth, or in a vulnerable situation where I’m out of my depth then… Look, if you put yourself in a vulnerable situation someone will hurt you; somebody will fuck you. And you can usually get a good song out of that. Something that makes you angry enough for long enough will give you the stick-to-it-ness to finish a song. Starting songs is easy; finishing songs is hard.

And then you transpose these vulnerable situations into music?

I don’t transpose it or even think about it—it just happens. The cathartic instrument is a guitar: An acoustic or an unplugged hallowed body. I’m just lying down and stewing about something and then the right hand’s strumming and the left hand is moving around playing random chords until accidentally three chords—or two chords back and forth—something like that happens on the guitar and unlocks the flood gates. C to Am to C to G. And then it’s like, ‘Oh whoa!’ That tempo and that rhythm is exactly what I’m feeling inside. It creates an equilibrium inside the cell wall between what’s going on inside of you and what’s going on outside of you, and then it’s like osmosis.

The lyrics come after?

Yes.

Do you consciously try to follow an idea, or do you subconsciously just follow the feeling?

It’s one block of words around a feeling, and then you have to figure out how to tell the story in order to add perspective to what is going on inside yourself.

Is there a time limit with a song? A pressure to say, ‘Okay, it’s been two months and I’ve got to get this song finished right now.’

It seems like 15 years is the longest I’ve ever let one go.

Which song?

’Wasp in the Lotus’ [from 2008’s Earth To The Dandy Warhols]. 15 years.

On the latest album [The Capitol Years: 1995-2007] the song “This is the Tide” was the first song written by Brent [De Boer, drums] and Zia [keyboards]. How was this different for the Dandy’s?

Instead of me spending 15-hour days in the studio for two weeks and then everyone else coming in for an hour and a half and laying down some neat shit, they got to spend two weeks in the studio, and I came in and spent an hour and a half. It’s fucking perfect. I haven’t written a song in a year and a half—coming up on two years. And I’m not worried now because we’ll be fine. Fathead [Brent] is getting really good. He’s amazing. [long pause] Can you imagine what a relief that is?

Well, why haven’t they written songs before?

Right! Yeah exactly.

Had you approached them about this?

Well, that’s how this happened. I showed up and I was like, ‘What the fuck? This is amazing, where did it come from?’ and Fathead was like, ‘Well, it goes back about four years ago. One day I was playing this riff and you were like ‘That’s an awesome riff. Let’s make a song out of that.’ So better late then never. I think things are going to get a lot better, a lot more productive for us now. [breathes a deep sigh of relief]. God, it’s so cool. I can’t believe it.

Is there a moment of vulnerability when you approach the band with a new song? Do you worry they won’t like it?

It’s only happened a couple of times, and I just dropped it. Never to be heard of again.

Would you consider yourself a lyricist?

No. I didn’t grow up writing poetry. What I write is far more in the realm of prose than it is poetry. Poetry being decorative language and prose being holding a mirror to reality. I write prose [speaking lyrics], “You got a great car, yeah what’s wrong with it today?” [from 2000’s “Bohemian Like You”]; “Boy’s better beware” [from 1997’s “Boys Beware”].

It’s social commentary. Emotions. Or a scathing criticism of myself. I’m not trying to connect with people; I just want to get this shit off my chest and get it out there so that I feel better. And the best way to do that is to just let yourself go and admit what a small, icky piece of shit you are. And then you take some huge sonically powerful guitars to protect yourself from the opinions of others. It’s like, ‘You can’t have these opinions of me! I can have these opinions of me! And here is the cage that keeps you out!’ The cage is the music.

Is it the band, or is it the music?

It doesn’t matter who is in the band—it’s the music. When you’re making a recording it can be this band, extra musicians coming in, nobody but one other person. Music is music. You just have a goal of emotional clarity that you’re trying to achieve.

And when you achieve it, do you have a sense of pride afterward?

Pride is a small part of what you have. The cathartic experience is like the ultimate two-week-long orgasm. It’s like redemption, and it’s forgiveness. You name it and it’s just like… fuck! [exhales slowly] I’m ok; I’m ok; I’m going to be ok for a minute.

Is there one song where you can look back and think, “I can die now that I wrote that one”?

The last two songs I wrote… because it occurred to me several years ago that all my songs are just attempts at “the song.” And then I wrote two songs a year ago, and they were so quintessential. One is “the me song”, and one is “the her song,” and I was like, “Wow that really sums me up.” But I don’t know what to do with them; I tried recording both of them with the band and they never quite achieved it. So I’m going to demo them and do a recording where I play all the instruments and see if that works.

Once I achieve that—‘the her song’ and ‘the me song’—I don’t feel like there’s a lot more that I need to write about. I’m a person who is pretty happy in life, and they say a happy man does not write his memoirs.

So if you stop writing then is this the closing chapter of the Dandy Warhols?

We could have eight more years if Zia and Fathead keep coming up with songs.

Watch: Dandy Warholds, “Bohemian Like You”