Legendarily louche art-rock provocateurs-turned-iconic hometown heroes, the Dandy Warhols are the least likely poster band for aging gracefully. Yet they’re about to enter the third decade of a singular career path fueled by staunch civic pride, die-hard global superfans, and restlessness equal parts deadpan whimsy and keening ambition.
On Thursday, March 16, the Dandy Warhols will come on down to the Schnitz for a one-night-only collaboration with the Oregon Symphony, for orchestral renditions of greatest hits and deep dives plucked from their daunting songbook. While finishing a brief East Coast tour, Dandy-in-chief Courtney Taylor-Taylor and Zia McCabe spoke to WW about the much-anticipated concert.
WW: How’d this all come about?
Courtney Taylor-Taylor: I’m not really sure. Prior to COVID, there was some talk about playing with the [Oregon] Symphony. Then, one day, there was a pair of Australian composers—Tamil Rogeon and Louise Woodward. (Tamil is the conductor as well.) They knew a lot of our songs and had strong ideas about which ones they wanted to score. I guess, at that, we just let them and, three years later, now here we are.
Zia McCabe: Chris Bergstrom, one of our sound guys, also works at the Schnitz, where he met Louise. Louise was already a fan, thrilled at the idea of collaborating, and she brought in her good friend Tamil to arrange orchestrations for 18 songs from our catalogue.
Had you imagined full orchestral versions of songs before?
Taylor-Taylor: When I was in music college, we used to record symphonic music off the radio and try to fit it into our recordings since we could not afford much in the way of classical musicians. I did that trick at the beginning of …The Dandy Warhols Come Down, our first Capitol Records release. But, to the best of my knowledge, I have never thought of playing with a full symphony. That’s probably because I have a fundamental understanding of how much work it would be to [write a] score for that many instruments.
McCabe: The thought had never crossed my mind, but when Chris and Louise pitched the idea, I was instantly on board. What an amazing opportunity to perform our songs in a totally new way. Next level! The first digital track they put together to demonstrate was “Bohemian Like You,” and I’m pretty sure all of our minds were blown!
There was an option to play the first set with just the four of us and bring in the symphony for the second. After hearing just that one digital mock up, we all knew there was no way we weren’t having the Symphony play with us for every song. I don’t see myself as a music pro as much as a total hack so this feels like a really really big deal to me
How difficult was translating the Dandys’ usual touring set list to this format? Did some songs just not work? Did some album tracks unexpectedly benefit?
McCabe: We figured, if the composers chose the songs through their classical lens, it’d keep us from just sticking to what we knew. This resulted in some really interesting choices. At least two that I can think of have never been attempted live. “Easy” and “Don’t Shoot She Cried” have never even been attempted live.
Taylor-Taylor: The composers took our records and orchestrated around them using classical instrument samples on digital music-creating programs.
Once they had rough drafts of everything, we sat and listened through and did some editing with them to preserve the integrity and feelings of the songs. As you can imagine, it is quite easy to bury a relatively straightforward song under dozens of horns, woodwinds, strings, etc.
And yeah, they picked some album tracks that we have never played live, so that should be interesting. Well, at least once it stops being nerve-racking.
McCabe: Once we went over all the notes so Tamil and Louise could do a final pass of revisions, it really started to feel like a collaboration between the six of us. The interesting part was when the compositions conflicted with the original emotion, and it was also kind of funny realizing that most of the notes could be summed up in a few words: “Darker, sadder, more miserable.” Turns out a few cheerful strings or flutes can really take the sad out of a song.
Did anything change during rehearsals?
McCabe: It’s very different to play along with digital mock-ups of a symphony playing your songs. We’ve just started rehearsing with Tamil conducting us. Now it’s getting really real. Imagine the symphony as the big spoon, the Dandys as the little spoon, and the conductor sort of the handle. That will be our stage setup for the concert.
Fave examples of rock bands playing with a philharmonic?
McCabe: Souixie’s Dreamshow with the Millennia Ensemble Orchestra is pretty amazing.
Taylor-Taylor: I don’t have even a single one. The only times I can remember hearing rock bands with symphonies have been complete aberrations. And, perhaps, that is also why I’ve never thought of having us integrated into a symphony.
“Bittersweet Symphony” had that sample borrowed from an album of orchestral Stones hits…I assume that it was just symphony, not rock band with symphony.
Do you remember the first time you saw the Oregon Symphony? Or, at least, became aware it existed? School trip? That Cosby Show season with theme song played by James DePreist and OS?
McCabe: My first memory of classical music is an old Peter and the Wolf album I used to play every Christmas when my nieces were little. They would ask me to play the “big CD.” We’re really lucky to have such great classical programming in Portland. I listen to 89.9 whenever I’m driving in the rain. So, I listen to classical quite often.
Taylor-Taylor: I can’t remember the first time I went to the Oregon Symphony, specifically, but my life has always been filled with classical music—a 600-year span I’ve reduced down over the past two decades to pretty much just 1492 through 1608 (aka the Renaissance). When classical nerds start talking to me about antique music, I like to say that I only listen from [Guillaume de] Machaut to [Johann Heinrich] Schmelzer.
And…they, of course, were….
Taylor-Taylor: The last great medieval composer and the first great Baroque composer. Don’t worry. Nobody finds that funny.
So, you weren’t particularly intimidated at the idea of sharing the stage….
Taylor-Taylor: I grew up playing in symphonies. Actually, when Peter [Holmström] and I were both in high school, that’s where we met—a symphonic music summer camp at Willamette University.
Wait, really? Is that known? The Dandys started at band camp?
Taylor-Taylor: Peter and I never hung out there, so it’s not much of a story. We just happened to meet at that camp, but we didn’t become friends until two years later.
Finishing up with one more hometown pride query. You’ll soon have played Enchanted Forest, the Kendall Planetarium, and the Schnitz—are there further locally beloved venues to conquer?
McCabe: Ambient set at the Portland Art Museum? On a flatbed truck in the Rose Parade?
Taylor-Taylor: Oaks Park? The Skyline Drive-In? Don’t really know, but I’m certainly open to suggestions.
Concert Set List:
“Beast of all Saints”
“Don’t Shoot She Cried”
“And Then I Dreamt of Yes”
“Well They’re Gone”
“Bohemian Like You”
“The Legend of the Outlaw Trucker”
SEE IT: The Dandy Warhols and the Oregon Symphony play at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, 503-248-4335, portland5.com. 7:30 pm Thursday, March 16. $29.