Enduring is Endearing: Zia McCabe's Band Survival Guide

One cannot speak of the state of psychedelic music without implicitly referring to The Dandy Warhols. Founded in 1993 between four friends who “needed music to drink to,” the Dandies’ emergence helped stake a claim for the Pacific Northwest in the musical atlas, and has since carried them from humble beginnings in Portland, Oregon to find success, failure and embroilment all over the map. In their longevity as a band they have endured no end of hardships and pitfalls, many of which were famously suffered at the hands of long-time friends and foils from the Brian Jonestown Massacre; another band who were developing at the same time that rival, both literally and figuratively, their genius arrangements and competitive drive for success. This love-hate relationship was documented in painful candor in the 2004 documentary DiG!, which pitted the Dandies’ self-described “well-adjusted” approach to music and politics against the volatile, drug-powered, steam engine of creativity that the Brian Jonestown Massacre quickly became. Yet, the film is not as divisive between its subjects as it lets on; both bands continue to survive and make resplendently cogent music, with most of their respective original members on board. Clearly, they must be doing something right. I took a call from Zia McCabe, mother of one, Suicide Girl, DJ and founding keyboardist of “the most well-adjusted band in America,” to find out what that might be.

Please state your name, occupation and favorite color for the record.

Zia McCabe, musician, and… I can’t answer that. My favorite color has been changing ever since I was a kid. Sometimes it’s black, sometimes it’s green.

Speaking of green, you’re a public supporter of marijuana in the battle for legalization. Are you bummed California failed to pass Proposition 19?

Yeah, it’s a disappointment, but it was closer than it’s ever been, so we just have to keep at it I guess. At least it’s still incredibly easy to get a marijuana card.

I saw a youTube video in which you declared that pot makes you a better mom. On behalf of my mother, who just informed me that she’s turning my room into an indoor grow op, I’d like to thank you.

That’s great! Do you think it has made her a better mom?

I think so; we’re all much happier these days. It definitely helped combat problems with alcohol that have occurred in the past.

That’s really nice to hear, I hate how it’s become more socially acceptable to drink than to smoke. There’s no kid out there who’s been neglected because his parents were too stoned. Tragic, really.

Do you see yourself as a habitual smoker?

Not every day. I’m not one of those people who are good at habits. I’m a necessarily inconsistent person. When I need it, I smoke it.

OK, let’s talk about music stuff. The Dandy Warhols just released The Capitol Years, which, in addition to all the hits you produced during your years with Capitol Records, features a new song that you helped write. What was that like? Can you describe your song-writing process?

Writing is so new for me… I don’t even know what my process is. In this situation it was just a bonus track because it was too different from anything the Dandies have released. They had the track written with the chord changes and all, so I just helped write the lyrics from line to line. Deadlines are really helpful for me as a writer. It was a strong deadline and we really had to bust out, and it turned out quite well. It’s been getting a lot of radio play. We haven’t gotten that much radio attention in a while.

Radio is something the Dandies have a notorious history with, if we are to believe your documentary, DiG! Do you think this is true? To what do you attribute your rabid success in Europe over North America?

Well, for “Bohemian Like You,” it was a single being released on Radio One and it got the album a lot of attention. But, before that album, I think we were successful over there mainly because European radio doesn’t have as much of a formula as American radio. North American radio doesn’t know what to do with us. We don’t really fit in with adult contemporary or new rock, and alternative stations often don’t understand us. We’re just thankful for all the licensing and movies and commercials we’ve been getting.

It’s funny that you are thankful for something that many artists would be fearful of.

We want to make a living making music. If film makers and TV show writers are going to play our songs, that means they like us, and we consider those people part of the art world more so than radio execs. And they pay us. Radio stations don’t pay us. It’s a really good platform—it’s too bad there’s such a stigma against “selling out.”

What are you listening to these days?

Harry Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire” has definitely been the song of the tour. It’s a great song, I’ve been hearing it around often so it must have been used in a movie recently. Besides that—MIA, old-school .Sub, lots of electronica. I DJ a lot so I’m always working on playlists.

Cool! What do you use to DJ?

I prefer vinyl, but it’s heavy and hard to bring on tour, so I don’t deal with it unless I’m for sure booked on several gigs. I can do computer, but I can’t do Serrato or anything fancy, so I usually just stick to playlists.

Do you try to keep the DJ thing separate from the band stuff?

It depends. I do a lot of Dandies after-parties, so my band knows the music will be good and not too loud. They pretty much won’t go to after-parties unless I’m DJing. I’m also doing J-Lounge once a month at home, as well as a ton of other bars and clubs, so it’s more separate from Dandies stuff when I’m on the job at home.

It must be nice to be able to call it a job.

[laughs] Well, that’s what it is. I mean, I love it and it’s a ton of fun, but it’s still a job.

Is it ever not fun for you? How do you keep going when it isn’t?

Sure. When there are deadlines and I don’t feel like doing stuff. When there are songs that need to be ready and still four more interviews to do. Sometimes it sounds like shit on stage and you can’t get it fixed, and you just have to play the show. When things don’t go right I just try to sort of reset, go to bed early, and get some downtime. Always make the next day better.

You did a Suicide Girls shoot five years ago. Have you thought about doing any more work with photography?

[laughs] You mean nude photography?


Well the interesting thing was that they wouldn’t let any Suicide Girls do pregnant shoots, but I thought it was cool that they let me do it, and I don’t think they’ve done it since. It got thousands of mostly positive responses, but some people found it really offensive. A few people cancelled their accounts. That was really painful.

I told myself I wouldn’t talk about DiG! too much, but I just wanted to mention the ending. The film left me with the impression that The Dandies have moved on and really figured things out. Do you think this is true?

I think it would be naïve to say you’ve got everything figured out, don’t you? I think we had a little more of a game plan going and some goals in sight that were realistic, while those guys [from Brian Jonestown Massacre] were a wreck. But they’ve totally pulled it together. Anton’s sober, they’re all married, and they’re all playing great shows. Joel and Matt are back in the band. There were a few months of weirdness where Anton’s craziness was sort of borderline dangerous. We didn’t know if we should be concerned and try to get him some help. But he’s living in Berlin now, and when he comes to town, we all get on stage with him and have a blast.

I saw them at Coachella in 2009 and they seemed rather placated.

Alcohol does fucked up things to people. Touring constantly without sleep and eating only junk food does crazy things to people. Throw drugs on top of that, and you’ve got a recipe for chaos and hurt feelings. Especially if you have any sort of emotional instability as a person, like Anton did.

Any parting wisdom for all the musicians in the great battle for success?

I was so lucky because I joined the Dandies when I was 18. I can’t come from the place you would like me to come from. Not everyone can succeed with a career in music. I think you have to accept that music is either a part of your life or it isn’t. That doesn’t mean stop trying, but it does mean you have to accept a certain amount of hardship. Ask yourself: are you really determined to keep going?

The Dandy Warhols are coming to the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco Dec. 11
posted by Levi
26.11.10, 0 comments