Things happen for a reason, and not talking to Zia McCabe prior to The Dandy Warhols’ December 11 gig at Neumo’s was one of them.
Instead of eking out a few scant minutes of conversation amidst the tumult and noise of an impending show, we spoke one week later at leisure, over the phone for a good forty minutes. McCabe oscillated between committed artist, doting mom, restless kid, and music geek—a combination that makes for many engaging tangents.
In a lot of ways, the keyboardist has undergone more intense personal transformations than any of her bandmates. McCabe was still a teenager when she joined The Dandy Warhols. Now, to a great extent, she’s a full-fledged grown-up—the first of her comrades to juggle parenthood as a rock musician (band leader Courtney Taylor-Taylor, now an expectant father himself, follows her example in just a few weeks). As she explains, though, she’s still not the mini-van-and-picket-fence type.
How did the tour go?
It was only three shows [two in Portland, one in Seattle]. They went really well; I don’t know if you stuck around for the Seattle show, but I think that was the best show we’ve ever played up there.
I was there. I’ve seen the band live three times, and I’d definitely agree that it was the best I’ve seen you.
Courtney pointed out that we hadn’t played in Neumo’s in forever, and aside from them being absolute Nazis about their backstage rules, it just shreds in there, sound-wise. There’s such a fun, super-rock sound in ‘Mo’s that I think it made it really easy for people to move around and feel the music. That kind of reflects back to us…. It was an easy gig to play.
The audience was definitely into it. It’s the most packed I’ve ever seen Neumo’s….
…And Seattle crowds aren’t usually super-responsive to us. It felt more like a Portland show than a Seattle show.
I just saw your interview for the Rock N Roll Mamas documentary, and wanted to talk to you about what it’s like being a parent in a working rock band.
I’m sure it’s different for everyone, because band dynamics vary so much from band to band, but the rest of the guys have been really supportive. I think that, overall, it’s been good for everybody involved. You know, if we’re tired or stuck in traffic trying to get to the hotel from the airport, and people are complaining and [Zia’s daughter] Matilda’s not, they kind of realize, “Hey, the four-year-old’s handling this—How come I’m not handling it so well?” And that’s been kind of a good way to keep people in check, mood-wise.
When I saw you last week, you looked really fit and relaxed. It sounds like you’ve made a conscious decision to be healthier, to take better care of yourself…
Of course! That’s one of the unexpected perks of having a child on the road. There are times when I feel like I’ve missed out, but the next day—[but] when I see everybody else hungover—I feel like I didn’t miss out. I lucked out by not going and making the dumb choice to stay out late and have a couple extra drinks. I love that. And I also love getting to see these different parts of the country again. We’re revisiting most of these places when we tour, so I’m getting to see them through her eyes. It’s fun being a travelling family; I feel like we’re gypsies sometimes. Or circus people! [laughs]
You do have a unique vantage point, just by virtue of your occupation and being a mother.
That’s true. We just did our first parent/teacher conference with [Matilda’s] pre-school teacher, and [the teacher] said that it’s so obvious that Tilda’s been raised around artists and intellectuals. Her language skills are just so advanced because of that, and her sense of humor, and the way that she relates to adults and other children. You can tell that she’s been exposed to some pretty cool elements. That’s a really neat thing to be able to share with a child.
I read on a Portland news site that you’ve been working on some solo material. How did that come about?
I started it when Matilda was pretty small: It’s called Songs for Matilda. I wanted to record a collection of the songs that I’d sing to her at night. Luckily, I found out that the majority of them were all public domain. I didn’t even look into that at the beginning, but that’s gonna make things a lot simpler to release. There are twelve songs, and only one’s an original written by me, Travis [Hendricks, McCabe’s husband], and Matilda…. I’m committing Mondays in January and February to just getting in the studio and finishing that record.
I don’t quite know how to describe it. It kind of sounds like those old church organs, where the automatic tempo comes out—the waltz—it has that sort of sound to it, with folk instruments recorded over the top of it. I don’t know if it’s gonna come out sounding completely innovative, or completely nutty, but I think Matilda will enjoy it, and that’s who I’m making it for. That’s about as much pressure as I think I can handle making my first solo record. [laughs] I really just want it for her. I’ll put effort into releasing it, and tying it into a charity.
Who’s involved in Songs for Matilda besides you, Travis, and Matilda?
Brian Coates—who engineered a huge portion of Welcome to the Monkey House and recorded Brent DeBoer’s [forthcoming solo] record—came in. We’ve got seven basic tracks so far. I just went down to see him on this organic farm in California wine country. We got the family in the car, drove down 101, and set up the studio right in this little trailer in an apple orchard.
Is it going to be released on Beat the World Records [The Dandy Warhols’ self-owned indie label]?
I don’t know. I just want to get the record done. One step at a time…I’ve been working with the engineers in the studio and more on my own, kind of seeing what it is I do when I’m not trying so hard to stay within the realm of the band.
We’ve also remixed tracks from the album [Earth to…The Dandy Warhols]…. We each, separately, took three songs and remixed them; Volume One and Volume Two are online. It’s each of us [in the band] going into the studio on our own, remixing a song off of our record, and doing whatever we want with it. And from doing that, we’ve kind of realized what each of our individual tastes and styles are, a little more than we understood before…. You can really hear the difference when you listen to each one of our remixes.
So how would you personally summarize your style? What you bring to the remixes that you’ve done?
Well, the first remix I did, I took our most heavy-metal song, “Wasp in the Lotus,” and slowed it down 16db and turned it into “Dub in the Lotus.” The one I’m working on for Volume 3 isn’t done yet. It’s got some old-school breakdance stuff to it, but it’s a little bit slower. More than the other guys, I’m kind of obsessed with what makes me get out on a dance floor…what makes me get up and move my body to music, and so I’m constantly playing specific songs that make me dance, trying to figure out, “What are the tricks? What happens in these songs that does that to me?” And now I’m trying to create these things for myself.
It’s interesting you mention this, because Earth to The Dandy Warhols is already a very danceable record. What influenced that sound this time out?
We were all definitely loving Dr. Dre’s engineering and producing talents. He’s been a big inspiration, and I think it inspires me to just go into more shameless dance music. Not like cheesy-techno-Night at the Roxbury…
…But something with a serious, old-fashioned groove.
Yeah! You could say that I’d even go more disco than the other guys [in the band] would. It’s exciting to see what we’ve gone and branched out on, on our own, and then how we bring all that back together. We’re sort of right in that transition, right now.
Courtney’s sort of known as the mastermind of The Dandy Warhols, but it seems to me—especially watching the band onstage—that it’s a much more collaborative experience than people think. How would you describe the songwriting process, and how has it changed in recent years?
The way it’s always been easiest for us to describe it is: Courtney always brings in the skeleton. He brings in the chord changes, and maybe partial lyrics, a melody where some lyrics fit in. Sometimes he has a whole four-tracked song. During that time, it could change keys, the arrangement could change a little…. The longer the process goes on, the more comfortable we are making suggestions to pieces he’s done, and the less protective he is of the pieces he’s done. And that opens up a lot more opportunities for collaborating. I think that’s something that we have grown into…. With the next record, and with Courtney having a baby [on the way], not wanting to be in the studio so much, I’m really curious to see what happens.
What was it like to work with Nick Rhodes as a producer on Welcome to the Monkey House?
I didn’t work with Nick Rhodes! [laughs] I mean, I know him, and I know Simon a little bit, but I had so much recording left to do when the rest of the guys went [to the UK] that I just kept tracking, sending new tracks over; they’d send me mixes of things, and I’d say, “No, no, no, check out that song three mixes before, it was way better!” I didn’t think I was missing out at the time, honestly, because I was so excited to be having so much to do, and having so many ideas in the studio. Then I was asked so many times what it was like to work with Nick Rhodes, I eventually gave up and started saying, “It was great!” and just leaving it at that [laughs]….
Sorry to be contributing to your anguish by asking you yet again…
[laughs] No, it’s totally fine. It was a really good time to be in the studio. I had carte blanche: I could record for as long as I wanted, lay down as many keyboard tracks as I wanted. Monkey House was a fun, pivotal album for me.
Speaking of keyboards…At the Neumo’s show, the keyboard mix was really sharp. I could hear a lot of the little details and textures you were contributing…Especially on “Wasp in the Lotus.” That song has such a great heavy sound, with those scary roller-rink-from-Hell keyboards…
Isn’t that sound just crazy? I totally stumbled on that sound. I love playing that. It’s probably the only song where I get to play all three keyboards at once, live. And yeah, that’s pretty cool.
Back to some name-dropping: You guys opened for David Bowie. What was he like?
He’s a really awkward man…. You know, if anybody could actually say they “became friends” with Bowie, it would be Peter [Holmstrom, the Dandy’s guitarist]. But whenever I was around, it was always awkward…. It’s not like we didn’t get along, there was just no connection.
Tina Turner always said that David Bowie was, literally, The Man Who Fell to Earth…
He’s a weird dude. He’s not a down-to-earth guy! [laughs] He’s not an easy-to-talk-to guy. Peter is sort of strange and introverted as well, so I think that may be why they connected better.
You know who was amazing, though—speaking of name-dropping—was Tom Petty. Courtney was talking to Mark Knopfler when we were playing a show outside of San Francisco. So I walk by both of them, and Mark stops and says, “Zia, you’re Tom Petty’s favorite Dandy Warhol!” That right there was enough to make my night….
So we’re watching the show, and Tom Petty’s wife introduces herself and says, “You have got to come up and meet Tom. He’d love to meet you,” and I’m like, “No, I would love to meet HIM!” [laughs] So she takes me up to the backstage area, and between encores, he comes off-stage, and says, “Zia, it’s so nice to meet you! How do you get those great sounds on your keyboard?” And I’m like, “Oh, you’re so cool, and I’m so happy to be here,” and so on. The last thing I wanted to talk about was my keyboards! [laughs] I should’ve gotten his wife’s number, so that we could’ve talked about it later…. It was amazing, though, and one of the best compliments I’d ever gotten.
What’s your onstage setup like? What kind of keyboards and settings are you most fond of?
I’m not much of a tech-head. I like to dork out on my stuff, but I don’t know about all keyboards. Personally, I use a Korg MS-20: I own three of them, so there’s always one onstage, one next to the stage plugged in and ready, and one in the shop; and they just rotate. It’s the best-sounding keyboard in the world. There is no keyboard that has as many good sounds. I also play a Moog Voyager; it’s the 25th Anniversary edition, so it’s really pretty…and it’s programmable, so I can save sounds, which is really nice.
What are you listening to lately?
Let’s see…What’s on right now? Oh, Bob Dylan’s Desire; I’m about halfway through Bob Dylan’s Desire right now. I go back-and-forth. I have vintage country spurts, sometimes I want to listen to Fleet Foxes, TV on the Radio, and Bon Iver—indie-rock. I DJ every Monday at Karaoke from Hell, where you can sing in front of a live band; I sing in front of [the live band], and then I DJ their intermission. I’ve been doing a lot of “versus” sets lately—The Stones vs. the Beatles, Johnny vs. Willie; I think I’ll do the Kinks vs. The Who next time….
It always seemed to me that The Dandys had a much more receptive following in Europe than you have here. Do you think that’s still the case?
You know, I think it’s evened out a bit. The main difference—always—was radio. Radio doesn’t—or at least for a while, didn’t—have such a strict format over there. They were a little more open to playing us. We were better received by radio, which means more people heard us, so more people knew us, so more people got to our shows. So I don’t know if it was so much the people as it was the radio. You know the song, “Welcome to the Third World” [on Earth to The Dandy Warhols]? We were playing that song in Europe live…. It was really cool over there. It worked live; it was sparse and weird, and then we played it in the States, and man, nobody got it.
…Which is funny, because I love that song. It goes back to the rhythmic disco sound we were talking about earlier. It’s like Talking Heads gone Chic.
It’s really in vogue now for indie-rock bands to adopt a strong rhythmic or dance element, but it seems like the Dandy Warhols were way ahead of that curve….
Courtney started out as a drummer. That’s so intrinsic in him. Then we have Brent, who’s a cool drummer himself. Rhythm’s the most important element to me when I play…and Pete is just a texture genius. So rhythm’s not something that’s gonna get missed by us in a song.
When I first heard Welcome to the Monkey House, I thought it was an incredibly catchy record, and it was surprising that it didn’t break bigger stateside. What do you think happened?
Well, shit was going bonkers with the label [Capitol] at the time. It’s hard to have something just sitting in a vault. I always think that’s an incredibly poor excuse for bands to blame the label, but sometimes there really is no other reason.
DIG! was a real eye-opener for a lot of folks who didn’t realize how wrenching it can be to deal with a major label. It’s quite the jungle.
Yeah, it is. But fortunately for us, in so many ways we came out ahead from that whole relationship with Capitol. We didn’t leave owing them; we left with them owing us, which hardly ever happens. We ended up owning all the rights to our first record…. There were all these things that were just silver linings for us. So Capitol didn’t make us massive; maybe that kind of fame would’ve wrecked us as people. You’ve got to know that maybe it wasn’t supposed to happen.
Is there something else in the long term that you have your eye on, creatively?
I’m getting more independent in the studio. I’m doing the soundtrack for the Rock N Roll Mamas documentary; that’ll be a whole other learning experience. I want to score more films; make more cinematic music.
Where do you see yourself and the band in ten years?
That’s a good question…. Your path seems so linear when you’re on a major label. Now that we have our own label, we want to be the tastemakers. It’s like diversifying your stocks. [laughs] I guess that’s kind of what we’re doing right now.
In ten years I’d love to see us still touring festivals in the summer. We could go back-and-forth; “Hey, let’s do the European circuit this summer, let’s do the US circuit next summer…” I want to be one of those bands that people look at and say, “These guys have been together for twenty years.” And it’d be nice to show how many bands came from the music we put out…that we did actually influence someone in rock and roll.