By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Aug 08, 2023 at 1:19 PM

For almost 30 years, The Dandy Warhols have not once ceased making music. The Portland-based alternative-rock band has released a dozen full-length albums since 1994 – more in the early days than recently – but other than when COVID kept them off the road, they’ve toured throughout.

If this a band that you think you’ve heard of but can’t place their music, trust me, you’d recognize their bigger hits, like "Bohemian Like You" and "We Used to Be Friends," but the albums from which those singles came are musical masterpieces from top to bottom. And that’s taking nothing away from 1997’s “…The Dandy Warhols Come Down,” and their newer work, as well.

While their last full-length rock album came out in 2019, the Dandys are working on a new one, teased by a remix single with Debbie Harry. And, for the first time since the “before times,” they return to the Midwest via a gig on Wednesday at The Metro in Chicago.

I’ll just stop you right now, however. The studio albums by the Dandy’s are all stellar in their own way, but this is a band you have to see live to fully appreciate. If you’re on the fence about whether to take the short trip to Chicago for this show, give a listen to 2017’s “Live Sonic Disruption.” That will give you an idea why I’m previewing a concert 90 miles away from Milwaukee.

While I’ve unashamedly been a fan since I first heard the Dandy Warhols in 1997, I always find my interviews with members of the band to be fascinating on a personal level – speaking to each of the four full-time members, they remain extremely self-aware, and carefully thread the work-life balance of rock stars and family life.

So, with their first Chicago show in four years on tap this week, I caught up with keyboardist, percussionist and bass player Zia McCabe, for a phone interview in advance of their upcoming gig.

As usual, McCabe spoke freely about the internal and external challenges of her life on the road, while reaffirming her passion for her community and for her art.

OnMilwaukee: I’ve seen enough Dandy Warhols shows over the years that they start to blend together. But looking at my phone’s photos, I realize that the last time you came through the Midwest was in 2019, just a few months before the pandemic. It feels like a lot of things have happened since then, doesn’t it?

Zia McCabe: Oh my God, yeah. The world has changed. 

You’re back on the road, but is it weird to plays shows after all that time off? Did it take a while to get back into the vibe, or did you just kind or snap back into it?

I think our tour pace had already shifted. We only go out for what we call exotic weekends – when we're out playing rock shows and not home being domestic. And then we'll do two weekends and some filler days. Three weekends are pretty much our absolute max.

Other than during the pandemic, the Dandy Warhols have never really stopped touring, right?

We've never stopped touring, but we've also rarely done the really hardcore months on the road. When we were younger, we would do a three or four or five or six week tour, come home for two weeks, then do a whole year of promoting an album. But we haven't done that in ages. We just tour here and there when it makes sense for us. We've got families and being on the road is not for everybody. And we love it, but we love it in smaller doses these days.

You haven't put out like a full album since 2020’s “Tafelmuzik Means More When You're Alone,” which isn’t a typical Dandy Warhols record. You've done a couple singles, though, including a new collaboration with Debbie Harry. Are there more Dandy’s albums planned for the future?

We have a whole new album that's just not out yet. It's looking like we have landed on a label that likes us and we like them. That Debbie Harry collaboration is actually a track off the new album. You are hearing the remix first, which I think is kind of fun. That's not the song. The song is much more, Nick Cave-y, actually. The remix, I don't know, I wasn't part of that conversation. It just came out like that. I thought it was a really kind of a fun, bold move to do it that way. 

Will you play songs from this unreleased album on Wednesday? Or are you holding that back until you release it?

That's the idea. But here's the conundrum in our lives: this Midwest tour is gonna be with Pat Spurgeon, our touring drummer who does shows with us when Brent (DeBoer) can’t come. He is awesome. We love him. We always thought we could never ever deal not having Brent. And then in a few emergency situations we had to, but now we have Pat. I think he is a product of the pandemic of us, just dying to play music in Portland more regularly. Brent, of course, will always be the Dandy Warhols, and, and we will take him as our first choice anytime we can get him. But we gotta be flexible as we get older and life changes happen if we wanna keep doing certain things. And so this was our way to bend kind of towards the way that our life paths have taken us. And Pat is an unflappable human, just lovely and mild mannered. We call him Pathead instead of Fathead. 


So, no Fathead on this tour and this Midwestern tour, but you got Pathead instead. 

No. And so then here's the issue. We gotta learn this new song. Well, we're gonna have two rehearsals just to kind of refresh the set that Pat knows. Will we get a chance to work in a new track in two rehearsals? I wouldn't bet on it. So if we do play one of the new songs, it would be a pleasant surprise.

What was it like collaborating with Debbie Harry? I mean, that’s Blondie.

They just sent the file over and then she sent the file back. 

Oh, it wasn't in person? 

No. That ship has sailed long ago with modern technology. The sad side of that is you don't get to be in the studio with the people, like when Duran Duran played on our record while we were standing there. But for convenience sake, that means you have access to way more collaborators. So were we gonna fly to New York and get Debbie Harry in the studio and she's gonna hang out with some strangers she doesn't know? No. But will she go with her people and send something to our people? Yes. So now we get have Debbie Harry singing on our f*cking record. I mean, what the hell? 

I mean, between Duran Duran and Debbie Harry, that's kind of the dream, right? 

That's pretty cool. We've had so many great gifts. I don't know if I'm supposed to give away all the surprises, but on this record we also had Slash  …

I wouldn't think of Slash as a Dandy’s guitar player. 

Well, he's not, and this record is quite different. I think that we have well established ourselves as an experimental band that adheres to no genre, that makes no commitments to reproduce anything that we've ever done before. And some people, they want more of the same, we're not gonna be that band in certain aspects. But it reminds me that some of my least favorite work that we've done is some other people's favorites. And that's beautiful. 

Being at a Dandy concert is like an out-of-body experience for me. But you're playing these wonderful songs for the millionth time. Is it hard to play the same songs for years and years, or can you still find joy in it? 

There are times where you phone it in because life is hard. We have shows where I have a migraine and I've been under ice or puking all the way up until the show. Is that gonna be my best work? No. I have sunglasses on, I'm lit from behind, and I'm having pretty much a disassociated experience and just doing what I know how to do out of muscle memory. Not out of passion or joy. But even woven in there, I do still have some profound moments, because music is magic. What's so cool for us is because we're never trying to sound like the record, we're not trying to sound like even the day before. We are trying to make sure that every piece of music we're making as we're making it, is doing something for us. We make this music to have an experience. And you guys are invited to be part of that experience because the integral role of the audience is emotional feedback, right? So we get to magnify our experience through amplifiers and giant speakers, and you guys get to amplify yours by your collective energy. 

McCabe in Milwaukee in 2014. (PHOTO: Mike Morgan)

Do most of the fans in a Dandy's concert know a lot of your work? How do you entertain people who are just there for the hits they heard on the radio? 

That's a mainstream behavior. “Oh, I love ‘Veronica Mars,’” or “I'm gonna go see the band that did ‘We Used To Be Friends.’” That might be why they came, but I think by the end of the show, I would hope if they were at least open to having profound experiences through music, they would come in because they know a few hits and leave going, “That is not what I thought was gonna happen.”

Well, it’s my happy place. If I could just bottle that moment and bring it out when I need it …

Oh my gosh. Me, too, and especially we have this beautiful work balance where we are not doing shows to the level of burnout. So every show, I just feel intense gratitude at the end of the show because we're still doing this, we're still blowing our own minds. We're still blowing you guys' minds. We're still having these incredible musical performances that are filled with surprises and little experimental nuances that keep us on our toes. And we are using old, weird gear that's unpredictable with the different power of the old, weird buildings. So things sound different every day. So we bend to the will of what's happening in that moment and try to extract from it authentic experiences.

So even though we play “Bohemian,” and sometimes it’s like “Meh, that song didn't do anything for me tonight.” But then lots of nights I'm like, geez, Christ, that song rips. 

I'm glad you still feel that way.

Oh dude, we wouldn't do it if we didn't. We're not making so much money out there. We do this for the passion of the music. 100%. 

So speaking of money, are you are you still rocking the real estate thing

Oh, f*ck yeah. I love it. I'll be in a barbecue with a bunch of friends and realize I got half of them houses, and possibly some of them wouldn't have houses if it wasn't me in particular that helped them, because I really dug in and showed them that they could do it. And that is really, really rewarding. 

You really are the unofficial ambassador of Portland. When I was out there and had coffee with you two years ago, I knew what to expect because I saw how much you hyped up your own city.

I do love this city. You know, we're on the cover of the New York Times right now for our homeless drug crisis. Again, we're not the butt of a joke, but we're talked at like we're just this f*cking problem. Well there are some f*cking problems, there's no doubt about it. Massive problems. No joke about it. But you can also be amazing and have problems at the same time. It's not mutually exclusive. All the good things didn't go away. We just have this systemic disease of homelessness and hopelessness and abuse in this community that we have tried all these more compassionate approaches, and lenient approaches did nothing to solve the problem. They exacerbated the problem. Everybody's so f*cking insensitive. Not everybody, but I see these comments and I'm so, so, so triggered people being shitty about the impoverished and the addicted.

You’re also walking the walk, as the whole band is deeply involved in the community. Over the years, I’ve talked to Courtney about the Odditorium. But I want to know about the show you did with the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

I couldn't even post about it after the show. I still never posted pictures or my thoughts. I just never mentioned it again because I couldn't, at first, even put into words what a incredibly big reward it was. Like, oh my God, you've played all these clubs and you've played rock and roll and you've done done all this stuff. And now you get to play with the Oregon Symphony with two incredible composers who turned our music into a whole other thing without taking away from what we've done. 

It only added to it by bringing in this orchestra to support the message of each song. The collaboration of working with the composers was amazing. The learning curve was steep. It was exciting and scary. I know that there were people who had probably hadn't seen us since the ‘90s and were just like, “Well, I'm going today.” It was a moment for the Portland music scene in this special way. And you could feel the collective, not just excitement, but pride. I felt like my city was proud of me.

Speaking of these out-of-body experiences, did you feel like you had one when you heard your own music performed by a symphony? 

No. Because you are working so hard. We still haven't gotten to listen back to a recording of it all together. Which will be interesting because we'll have notes for the next time.

Are you going to release it? 

We can't release that one. It is cost prohibitive, but we can use it for our own information. Then, say we do some cool old theater in Prague or whatever, and it's where they don't have those kind of exorbitant costs. So someday, yes, that is the dream that there will be a released version of this. But to answer your question, what was sort of along the lines of that out-of-body experience was turning around when we're going through it – you only play with the orchestra once before the show. Everything else is digital versions. We've never played with click tracks. I've never used in-ear monitors before. So we were making all kinds of adjustments that were new and then, you get to that morning because you rent the orchestra …

There's a lot of stuff about classical music that I just didn't know. It's a different world. So (the musicians) sit there and they look at the sheet music, and a lot of times they're doing stuff they can't stand. They are hired guns for whatever act comes through, so a lot of times they're grumpy and they complain. But one of the cool things was they absolutely loved it. They said that they were beautiful compositions. They loved the music. They were smiling. First chair violin was behind me, which is like the dad of the whole orchestra. I didn't know that. And he is looking at all my instruments, and I'm playing a melodica, which is like kind of a toy in the instrument world. These guys are, of course, so talented. We're all walking around with massive imposter syndrome.

Yeah, I would imagine so. 

But just seeing those guys all sitting behind us and, and sometimes there would be lulls in my job where I could hear the symphony swell into my ears, and oh God, it was great, and the place is so beautiful.

The Violent Femmes are doing a show like that in Milwaukee this fall with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra …

I hope it goes great. I’m a huge Violent Femmes fan. 

I should point out that you did this symphony performance right before you were in a car accident and suffered a major concussion. How are you feeling now, and are you ready to tour again?

The worst of the concussion, which I'm now learning, kind of goes in phases. There are ups and downs, but if I started at a 10, I was lucky enough that when we went and did the tour in May, I had dropped out of that like absolute hell, because I can't even really tell you anything about the month after the wreck. But it dropped right before that tour. So I could still have fun and have a great tour. Could I work all day on a computer? No way. Two days before we went on tour, I could feel my brain start to like process information at least to the level that a musician maybe doesn't need to be as sharp as a realtor.

But you're pulling it off. You're doing all right?Oh, yeah. And now I'm down like probably one more layer. So now I'm down to a four or five. Also your own brain can't assess itself. So you can only really tell each time you get a little bit better. You look at how that compares to how you just were. And then you can kind of be OK. But it's weird. I've never had a concussion or a traumatic accident before. This has been totally new territory for me.

In addition to working as a realtor, McCabe also moonlights at Dj Rescue

Did the accident impact your DJ career?

For the tour in May, I didn't do any DJ shows, and I didn't do any real estate. I didn't even open my computer. I just did a tour and just played music, and it was really nice. It was really nice to just live simply and be a free, fun-loving musician for a month. I'm only just now able to work. 

I couldn't believe that you did an after party after that last show in Chicago. First, you played this intense concert. Then you walked across the hallway and basically spun a full-on DJ set with dancing. Where do you get this kind of energy? 

Um, I'm not sure. And I always think it's funny when people say that because I don't feel like I'm running around with a ton of energy. I feel like I'm running around trying super hard to keep up. But I guess compared to other people, I come across as super energetic. I honestly don't know.

You’re a pretty vocal cannabis enthusiast. Now that Illinois is legal, what would you recommend fans consume for a Dandy Warhols show?

I think one of the tricks is to not be loyal to any one strain because then they become less effective. You wanna have some variety in there. But “Durban Poison” is a pretty great, I think that's a sativa-leaning one. That’s kind of a fun daytime one.

I saw that you and the Brian Jonestown Massacre are on a shared bill at a festival coming up in Austin, right? 

We just headlined Levitation in France with them, and that was epic. We'll be doing Levitation in Austin with Brian Jonestown and the Black Angels. It's a sick bill if you look. II want a photo of the three bands together. 

So you guys are still good?

The only people that aren't good are Brian Jonestown fans that think that that rivalry is like legit or funny. 

But, as you’ve said since “Dig!” came out, it's not a real thing.

We thought that joke was tired the day they presented it. Like the Blur-Oasis thing. We don't want that. We just wanna play music with these guys. 

OK, this question comes from a female friend, so it’s not creepy. She wants to know how you stay in such good shape with your insanely busy schedule?

I did yoga, pre-Covid. I should shut up with yoga until I bring it back into my life. But, by writing, dancing, stints of keto, intermittent fasting, I just constantly experiment and try to just be really sort of keyed into what my body is going through. I've got fat phases. I was pretty chubby the last time we were in Australia, and I didn't feel super comfortable in my body. The other thing is I've made a commitment to myself that no matter what size I am, even if I'm not loving my body, as much as I loved it a different size, I treat it with the same love. I am just as free with the skinny dipping and the nude sunbathing. I treat this body like the goddess that's on the inside, no matter what I'm feeling about the outside. And I think that practice helps you keep a healthy attitude because I can get very critical and I can feel the pressure of all the photos that are out there of me. I can't hide when I wanna hide, necessarily. So I have to have to have a good love affair with my body, even if it's going through changes that I can't keep up with. 

Are you embarrassed about the photos of you that are already out there? 

No, but I can look at every single picture and tell you exactly what I weigh. I'm aware all the time, but I don't let that hinder me from enjoying life and showing up physically. And also sometimes you just gotta learn how to dress like a fatty if you're a fatty! Just don't wear the same clothes. You gotta work with your body and not just try to force it into being something it's not right at that moment, or else you're gonna be disappointed in the photos.

That's actually a great transition for my last question. You post a lot about your teenage daughter as she gets older. Does she play music, too?

She's an incredible singer. Her voice, she's just naturally good probably from hearing my warmups and lessons and bullshit as she's been growing up. It's second nature to her to just sing perfectly. She is a great creative writer, poet and lyricist. She's a great 2-D artist, too. And she is getting ready head to Guatemala for her college credited gap year where she's going to learn Spanish and permaculture, Latin cooking and this amazing stuff.

OK, so my last question, really. You talked today about body positivity, about finding a work-life balance. You’ve also fully lived that rock and roll lifestyle. Maybe you wound’t put it in these words, but are you a role model for girls?

Tilda (asking her daughter in the other room) … am I a role model for girls? He's asking if I feel like I did a good job sort of imparting a healthy life and self-image attitude to my daughter. She says, “Be a bad bitch.”

The Dandy Warhols perform Wednesday, Aug. 9 at the Metro in Chicago. General admission tickets for the 7:30 p.m. show start at $53.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.