Interview: Zia McCabe (The Dandy Warhols )


Zia McCabe is the only female member of Portland-based alternative rock band, The Dandy Warhols. This past April, I sat down with Zia before their show at Ace of Spades in Sacramento. The band was touring to promote the release of their latest album, Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia Live. While Zia grabbed a quick bite to eat we talked about life on the road, the formation of The Dandy Warhols and their career, and the magical power of music. 

How long is the tour this time?

We always look at each leg of the tour as a tour, but when people talk to us, it is a world tour if you look at the whole rest of the year. This leg is like three weeks but when it’s all totaled, it’s like three weeks to a month on; and then [there is] between one week and a month off; and then back and forth [between tour and break]. So, we do one in the US, two in Europe, one in Australia, and then around the US again.

Yeah, I noticed you guys have a lot of popularity with your albums in the UK. Do you guys still have a pretty big fan base there?

Yeah, the UK’s fine. I think it’s kind of similar to the US. Actually, everything’s sort of evened out when we got so much TV shows and movies in the states, where we’re really thriving is France and Australia.

That’s cool.

We were massive in Greece but they’ve got bigger — you know, problems.

I don’t know if I’d want to go to Greece right now.

I mean, I went. It’s gorgeous, but they just don’t have… they’re just very preoccupied with their situation. They can’t organize things like international PACs coming in there so they don’t really get to do it. When I DJ’d in Athens last summer it was really fun.

When you tour do you bring your daughter with you?

I did until she started school, and then she had to be in school. Homeschool is not an option for me.

That’s understandable. There’s always that stigma against home school kids. And you’re also doing a lot of other stuff.

I mean, if I could homeschool her that would be… But I am bringing her to the one-month European tour. She loves, loves…loves tours. But she’s been in school or we do flying gigs and it’s just too much to bring her flying — she’s too much. She wants to be in a tour bus.

She’s still young, right?

She’s nine. She watches Family Guy and The Cleveland Show. She was Ron Burgundy for Halloween. That was totally her idea. She’s like “I really want to be Ron Burgundy” and I was like “Who even let you watch that movie?” She did — it was so cute. She would go trick or treat and she’d say “You may not know me, but I’m kind of a big deal.” With a wig on and mustache, a little blazer and tie, corduroy pants. Oh my god it was too cute.

Is it hard to balance being a mom and being on tour and being in — you’re another band as well, right?

Yeah, I have a country band called Brush Prairie and I DJ as well — Dj Rescue: I save good parties from bad music. I think parenting in general is pretty tricky, but I’m really lucky that me and her dad, my ex, are pretty close to being best friends. We talk everyday on the phone, we support each other through everything, and I mean we’re still technically married but we’ve been broken up for three years so it’s like there’s just no animosity. There’s just a lot of kindness and understanding, and that right there is a huge bonus for anybody that has split up. And so we do fifty-fifty, so we switch every other week. Every Sunday we trade so we have a whole week to get your routine, your thing going, and then you switch. If I leave so I’m gone for three weeks, I’ll come home and have her for three weeks. So we always stay fifty-fifty. And if he’s got a gig, his band is kind of blowing up in Portland right now — they’re not on our label but it’s Souvenir Driver and you should check ‘em out. Their record just came out and they’re really starting to happen in Portland right now. They’re having a lot of fun with the attention they’re getting.

Do you remember when you were discovered in the coffee shop? Because you were a barista, and Courtney just asked you to join the band when you had no experience was basically the mythology of it.

Yeah, there was a go-between. There was a guy named Kirk and he was in a band, and I thought that was the neatest thing because I was going to see bands all the time, but they seemed like otherworldly to me. Like I would never even consider that I was going to do that. And when he was saying he was in a band I’m like “I know you. How is that possible? Wait, you’re in a band? He was like “Yeah dude, what? I play guitar.” So I told him “I’m gonna do that then if you can I can.” And he’s like, “That’s not how it works, but sure Zia, whatever you say.” I’m like, “Just let me know, if something comes up.” And Courtney’s like, “I just want a girl that, you know, she doesn’t even have to know what she’s doing. I just want her to play really simple parts and do whatever I say.” And he’s like, “Dude, I totally know who you’re talking about. Her name’s Zia.”

So the number got passed to me (this was like, pre-cellphones) and then I got the phone number and called up Courtney like five months, it took five months for the number to make its way to me. And, um… or at least five months from when I worked at Starbucks. And yeah, I called him. [He] was like “let’s meet at the Starbucks in Northwest.” So I drove to Portland to go to a different Starbucks. And we hung out, and he would say key words like, “That’s A.” and “When I change chords go to the other one.” and I was like  “Okay.” and we just started building it from there.

So, do you think that’s how you maintained closeness as a band considering you kind of all started together — your music career just kind of started with this one band that ended up being wildly successful. Do you think having such a tied-in history together kept you guys close over the years? It’s been around twenty years.

Yeah, from my anniversary it’s June 20th, and absolutely. Well, what keeps us close is we have totally our own lives. We don’t see each other a lot between rehearsals and stuff, you know, a few events, a Christmas party, and things where we get together. And we just have the same goals. We want to make music together, and we want to have fun. Like, when we got back into rehearsal now that our drummer lives in Australia, we don’t get to see him as much and there’s a lot less like, just getting together to play which is kind of sad. But when we got back for rehearsal I was like “Guys, this is so great. Look, we’re all back together.” and Courtney was like “This is the most comfortable place that we could possibly be. This is where I feel the most comfortable.” Because it’s been twenty years. And we know each other so well, and we know the shitty things about each other and we just mostly ignore it and just keep focusing on the good stuff. And we have our motto that says, “When it’s good, it’s fun. When it’s bad, it’s funny.” And so when shit isn’t going right it’s all of our jobs to find the humor in it. There’s usually one day about three weeks into tour where everybody’s having a hard time finding the funny parts, but you get through that day together and you keep going.

How do you choose which show you want to record live?

The one in Portland where Courtney just got a bunch of drunk friends with cameras and set up to pay them — where we can get people for cheap. And it’s great, it sounds so cool. My only qualm is, like, really, our first live album is the only time we’ve ever played an album live start to finish. I love that our set lists are so creative and diverse and draw from all of our albums. One tour in our life we do an album start to finish live and that’s the one we record and release. But it’s our biggest album and it sounds great so, it’s cool. I’d like to release a live album that’s a little bit of each thing. It has all the live deviations that we’re known for. All the trippy, trance, stuff that we drag out at the end of the songs. None of that’s on this album because it was meant to be the album live. It’s okay. It sounds really good and it just came out. So, that’s out and we’ve also got two tracks that are almost completely done and a bunch of others starting.

Ok, so how do you guys go about naming your albums? I mean, I know Welcome to the Monkey House is just Kurt Vonnegut, but the cover’s a Velvet Underground- looking thing.

I mean it’s Kurt Vonnegut, but he was referring to Capitol Records.

And that’s around the time you guys left?

It’s around the time that we were getting pretty fed up. And also taking some things for granted. There’s some things about being on a label that are pretty nice, like money.

Are you guys happier, would you say, a few years down the road from the split? Or is that just kind of a loaded question?

It’s an impossible question to answer. We’re happy, we’re grateful, we’re still going. We left them not owing anything we left them owing us which is totally rare for a major label. It is what it is. There’s definitely some things that we weren’t, uh …we have a little bit of a different perspective than we probably expected to have right when we left. We were like “Screw you guys!” And then later we were like “Um, that was actually kinda nice having a label.” People knew we put out records. Case and point.

But I mean, I would say you guys still have a major relevancy. I mean, when I’m on Spotify half of my friends they’re still listening to you guys and I still do— you guys have really maintained relevancy.

Totally, I mean Pandora, because we have country songs and super chill songs and like, we can be on the Tom Petty station. We can be on the — whatever, we’re on everybody’s station. The genome picks us up the way the way that radio stations never could. We were just in Pandora and they showed us exactly how it works — it was so cool. Humans listen to every single song. It is not computerized. I mean it’s fed into that project. 1.25 million songs so far have been done, or something. And they have to fill in this category like: tempo, all the subcategories of the way the vocals sound are they gravelly are they affected to 1-5 so guitar twang: 2. Guitar distortion: 4. Each song has this whole- all these things they have to check 1-5 on.

So, do they hire music experts? I guess you’d have to have a degree.

They have twenty-something employed experts that have done that. That’s what they do all day long.

Of all your songs that you guys have come out with, what was your personal favorite? Or can you pick a top five?

Let’s see. Good morning is way up there. It’s usually the first one I mention. I love it live, I love it recorded. And Then I Dreamt of Yes— absolutely love it. And the videos for both of those. I love all our videos. I really love The Legend of Last of the Outlaw Truckers. When I dj, Creep Out is one of the only ones I actually dj because it’s not totally obviously ours, and I can rock it and it’s cool and nobody really knows it’s me— playing my own music, which is kind of embarrassing, thought expected. I wear our own band shirts, but I feel weirder playing our own music. Cause I have to stand there for the whole four minutes in the dj booth going like “Don’t look!” Especially when I’ve just played a show I’m like ok I just did all these songs for real, why would I play the recorded version?

That must be weird to like, hear yourself recorded or see the audience when you Dj your own songs? Because it’s not like you live, so is there like a different reaction to how people dance to your music?

The funnest way that we did it was my boyfriend that I had last year I did a European tour just Dj-ing, that’s why I played Athens, and that was so cool he helped me book the tour and he’s from Israel so we did a few shows in Israel which is really neat. So we would take turns Dj-ing so when he Dj-ed, he would play Dandy Warhol songs then I could dance around with everybody out on the dance floor. That was fun because I got to enjoy my music the way a listener does,  and it’s like sometimes when you look in the mirror and you catch a glimpse and you know that you’ve gotten an objective look in the mirror and you go “that’s what I look like to other people.”

But if you look again, it’s gone. Or a photograph. Every once in a while you get what feels like an objective—it’s the same with music. That’s what it was like for me getting a live album. Because this is what it sounds like when people hear it, not when we got to spend unlimited amounts of time in the studio. I put it on in the car, and Pete’s just [makes a distortion sound] sound that goes in the beginning when Godless comes in, and it’s like [makes reverb sound] and then his guitar starts. And you’re like “woah this is so trippy. Wow this is what people are experiencing in the audience. This is fun. We’re a cool band.” And that was like I got to enjoy that and I just sat in the car — I got home and just stayed in the driveway and like, checked out my band.  It was really fun.

You guys are pretty rock n’ roll I would say. I mean, looking into earlier shows it just said there was a lot of nudity and running around and fun and all that. But you guys also have this really strong commercial appeal with having the Veronica Mars song. How do you guys maintain this dichotomy of being really badass but also commercially appealing? 

Well it’s, you know, something you really have nothing to do with because you just have to, I think, ultimately if you’re doing a good job as a musician or an artist, you have your things that you need to express — and then you need to, once you start expressing it, you have to be respectful to what starts to manifest. And look at it, and let it become what it needs to become. Sometimes we could start a song with an idea — once those ideas gave us the energy to put that one foot in front of the other, then once it starts to take shape, you have to sort of just let it take shape and just kind of stay out of its way and help it get to, you know, come to completion.

And then, when it’s done, and you’ve spent all your time like totally involved with this piece, a painting whatever, sculpture, a building, then you see where it’s going to make contact with the world. And a lot of our stuff happens to be very cinematic. And so filmmakers and commercial — people that chose music for commercials, they ate it up. There’s not like, everyone’s in the studio saying “this is gonna be in a drama,” or “this is gonna be used in a pop culture TV show.” You just can’t. I mean, maybe some people can, but we certainly — we do not have that sort of premeditation. It would be stressful trying. And most famous quotes of artists on the subject talk about how it’s utterly useless to try to do that stuff.

I think we just do what we do, and because our interests are so varied and our attention span is so limited, we’re constantly doing different things. And that keeps us — I think its part of what’s kept us so diverse; it’s part of why Pandora is so good for us. It’s because we’re all over the place — for radio, we’re a disaster. And that’s part of why we had such a hard time taking off in the US, we took off in the UK because they used us for a Vodafone ad, they did like a multimillion dollar ad campaign where we were the song of the summer. Because the commercial is like, people jumping off cliffs into the water and running through the gates to the festival and like a three minute, million dollar rock video.

For us, that’s what totally separated our paths between Europe and America — and Vodafone also went to Australia. America, they were like “we don’t know what to do with you guys. We have — that one song’s alternative but that other ones adult contemporary.” We’re like ,“Tell everybody! And market it to everyone.” They’re like “That’s not how we do it.” So we didn’t fit in their system. We were un-formatable. Pandora though, it’s genome — one person gets to love Sleep. Sleep is a hugely popular song that would never be a hit on radio — ever. Maybe like at college, and we’ve always done well at college radio because they’re more free.

I mean, we have a freeform radio station, so our radio station has metal and then hip-hop and then my show where I just play garage and lo-fi — I mean, whatever I want. There’s a lot of freedom, but you know in 90 % —  of radio it’s just this format— in this hour is all gonna be what Subpop sent you.

Which isn’t right! Yeah, and all it is is really just making noise between commercials. Cause that’s where their focus is, is the advertisements.

I want to be able to turn on the radio, hear something new, and say “oh, this is sick! I’m gonna look into this band more!” But I feel like a lot of it is force-fed.

Not on commercial radio, rarely. Hip-hop. Because I’m so far, like, not tapped into the hip-hop scene so there will be impressed, from time to time, with hip-hop shows I’ll be like “that, mmhmm.” And mainstream hip-hop is cooler than mainstream rock anyway.

Yeah and pop— a lot of it is that rock has kind of become more pop. Especially LA’s major rock station that I grew up listening to— I went home and it was just. KROQ was my radio station growing up and I wanted to work in music my entire life because KROQ, and because I saw Almost Famous when I was 8. And I was like “that’s gonna be me.” And then I grew up, and the reality was “Oh yeah, that totally shows how young I am.”

Pennie Lane was at the show last night — the real Pennie Lane. Yeah, she lives in Sauvie Island outside Portland. She hangs out with us she was totally at the show last night. Random, but I get it and now KROQ is who the whole United States would listen to. They were the trendsetters. But they’re not setting any trends. Garbage.

I grew up wanting to be Kathleen Hanna and Courtney Love. I was being fed that, and that was my media, and then now I’m older and it seems like the days of like, rock and roll to that level are just dying.

They’re not dying, they’re just not on the radio. What’s beautiful about that is that it’s become a world of niche. The mainstream is this other thing that you can participate if you want and yes, sadly, still the majority of people that is their source of music. But for the rest of us, we have access to so many new ways. Because of the internet, we’re not dependent on radio. So thank god. At least when radio totally crapped out, we had the internet to take its place, which gave us access to the world of music. I am tripping out on record collections of Kenyan music from the ‘70s and 80’s. Nigerian. That shit is so fucking good.

Listen to Jombo, the song is Squeeze Me. It is the best — we have it on our phone, if you want to hear it. It’s the best, most ridiculous. We’re into, I mean we have the second largest vinyl collection on the West Coast.

Are you serious? I mean, I have the third. But I have a lot of records. Well, everyday I walk through the house with new records. I’m like “what are you doing?” And they’re just like growing out of the wall. And I have one of those like cube walls of vinyls with books mixed in ‘cause I didn’t want it to be a wall of vinyl and kind of oppressive, so instead they did like, because when I’m done dj-ing I don’t want to just put them away, they just go “rrrrrrrrr.” And then the shelves are like half full because I’m so overwhelmed with the task of like — cause if you put them away, you have to know where they are. If you leave them out, you can flip through. But that’s at your college radio station?

Yeah, we have a vinyl library. We have original apple pressings of the Beatles. We have like ridiculous history. We have weird, random reggae and African music. We have — I mean we’re an open library you guys can stop by.

I wish I could have known, I could have been doing a guest dj set today down there. That would have been so fun. Good to know. My dad had a great record collection. I grew up in a cabin and I would sit under the kind of steps you can like see through, you know? I get underneath there with the 70’s speakers that he had built, and then just like records between the whole thing, and pick through and be like, by the cover, right? So I’d be like “What’s this triangle with this rainbow going through it?” Put that on and they you’re like “Mmm, this is amazing.” Beatles White Album. Black Sabbath, Sweetly. You know, like all these. The top of my head just like, popped off and the whole world just like, opened up to me. Because like, listening to those cool records.

The experience of putting down the needle and then that little crackle just before the song — there’s nothing like that.

I know… the anticipation. My daughter’s been rocking Michael Jackson’s thriller on my player and I’m just like “she is getting it.” I always do, um, Rumors. Rumors is so good and the drum sounds are fantastic. Try this one — Eurythmics, Love is a Stranger. Omg. I have full-on alone moment dance sessions to that song in the living room.

It allows you to feel the music. Which sounds totally druggy.

That’s why I don’t do drugs for shows. Drugs are another way to tap into that shit. I mean, pot enhances. I’m totally ok with pot. I can’t do it for shows because I forget shit. I can do it at other people’s shows, it’s great. I just get super baked at shows and I’m there, in the music, paying attention all of it.

I wanted to ask about your Suicide Girls issue. I have a public affairs show where I talk about fringe communities and I am interested in that kind of stuff— I mean what made you decide to do that while pregnant?

I knew a couple of the suicide girls. And it seemed like a really cool, indie — I would have done it before pregnancy but I don’t think I really knew about it yet, so I just asked the girl if I could do it.  And she was like “They have turned down a lot of pregnant girls who were already suicide girls.” But because I was like a quasi-celebrity they let me do it. So I think I’m still the only pregnant suicide girl ever. And it got, like, ten thousand comments and people were like, canceling their accounts. I was six months pregnant and they weren’t super erotic. Like, I was watering my garden. It was this whole metaphor of like “how does your garden grow?” And I had a migraine, it was like one hundred degrees out, it was the only time we could do the shoot. So it really wasn’t even the best shoot ever.

But I’m glad that I did it and I liked making the statement of “you don’t have to be a tatted up rail-thin, you know, stripper-styled image to be beautiful and naked.” Like, nudity has so many facets and it’s either like, the hot-pink thong, fake fingernails, blonde, fake boobs look, or you’re like the rail-thin, sort of janky-chic look. And those are the two like, accepted forms of sexuality and nudity and natural, just being natural, isn’t really celebrated the same. And I think that was part of it. And I wanted pictures of me being pregnant. It’s just some prick who owns it though, just like American Apparel.

Interview by Kate Chambers