Zia McCabe, the Dandy Warhols' elfin keyboard player, is explaining how the band liven up their hotel nights. "We do this thing where we drop our pants and start running," she beams, sweetly. "It's usually when we've been drinking all day, maybe started off on white wine and ended up on port or margaritas. You find someone loitering alone on one of the hotel floors, go up to that person and suddenly drop 'em, then make a dash for it with your pants around your ankles. We did it in Portugal quite recently. We were screaming."
As Warhols stories go, this one's rather tame. The band (motto: "Do anything you want unless somebody tells you not to") has a reputation as one of rock's wildest outfits. Their press file bulges with tales of reprobate behaviour: gigs played stark naked, consumption of narcotic substances, and even the innocent-looking McCabe indulging in internet chats about "butt-fucking".
On record, it has been a similar tale of ups and downs, although the band's retro/remodel chic - once described by Rolling Stone magazine as "the most exhilarating 60s-into-90s excursion yet attempted by an American band" - is widely credited as having paved the way for the Strokes and the White Stripes.
The 1998 smash Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth (written about frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor's former girlfriend) appalled many with the blasé line "Heroin is so passe". However, the Warhols' last album, 2000's Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, was dead in the water until the fabulous, Brown Sugar-riffed, hippy-spoofing Bohemian Like You rode to world-wide glory on the back of a Vodafone advert, an irony that delighted the band enormously.
The album subsequently sold 225,000 copies in the UK alone. Now they're back with Welcome to the Monkey House, which unveils a more electronic sound, rooted in 80s rather than 70s Bowie, and the DX7 synthesiser rather than T Rex. "We've always used electronics," says Taylor-Taylor blithely. "We just took the guitars off."
Another Warhols motto is: "Make great records and don't sound like you're trying too hard." The band are in a rapidly emptying eaterie in London and, as expected, chaos surrounds them. The first thing McCabe says - or shrieks - to the Guardian is "A bumblebee just flew into my belly button!", while Taylor-Taylor amuses himself by saying increasingly outrageous things to the blushing Hungarian waitress. He's a curious figure - Oscar Wilde meets an Andy Warhol superstar with a punk-rock haircut, a coiffure he inflicted on himself the day after Joe Strummer died.
But most strangely, rock's most notorious debauchees are looking incredibly healthy, modelling newly toned physiques and ordering eggs benedict and mineral water. Popularity seems to have brought a new (gulp) personal discipline. "We were crazy but we've calmed down. Abso-fucking-lutely!" says Taylor-Taylor, with a mixture of camp and understatement.
"We got sick of being sick," adds drummer Brent DeBoer. "From now on, it's excess in moderation." According to the Warhols, the stories about the band have always been enormously exaggerated and in any case, most of them stem from a period when they first signed to Capitol.
They reputedly blew their advance on booze and drugs, although they now insist most of it went on studio costs as they had to scrap an entire album: 1997's unreleased Black Album, which had been made on drugs. They subsequently returned to the studio to make the mischievously titled Dandy Warhols Come Down.
McCabe hints at backbiting and rumour and would particularly like to make clear that she did not sleep with the president of Capitol to get the band signed. "What sometimes happens is that journalists ask us lots of questions and then one or two about sex or drugs," sighs DeBoer, whom the rest of the band call Fathead on account of his voluminous Afro. "Then the one answer about someone turning up at Pete's [Peter Holmstrom, the guitarist] on acid or something becomes the whole interview."
Despite his lyrics, Taylor-Taylor only admits to trying heroin twice. The band - who he says "have certainly been there and back" - have clearly suffered for their honesty about drug use, but have often been "shocked by what has ended up in print". However, the Warhols - whose notoriety was sealed when McCabe was photographed taking her top off at an early London gig - have certainly not been slow to embellish their own myth.
Taylor-Taylor, in particular, delights in embroidering stories for his own and the media's entertainment. At one point, he is describing how recording Welcome to the Monkey House began on September 11, with the Classic Rock station broadcasting events in the background - "It was Herman's Hermits, then Ground Zero." However, McCabe refutes this: "There wasn't music. I don't remember it like that at all."
Whatever, the Dandy Warhols myth has certainly helped in marketing their art, but as Fathead laments, in a rare moment of vulnerability, "It would be nice to start being known for our music."
In fact, their music is better than ever and an intriguing picture is emerging of a band who enjoy playing with pop's possibilities and exploding perceptions. Their fan base ( "225,000 semi-freaks") may be surprised to learn that the new album has been mostly produced by Nick Rhodes, the make-up wearing, bleach-bonced keyboard player from Duran Duran, and you can hear the influence. Does this mean that, for all their previous pastiches, songs called Lou Weed and their outrageous behaviour, that the Warhols have been secret Durannies all along?
"He is!" The band point at guitarist Peter Holmstrom, whose blond dye-job and immaculate new make-up are clearly inspired by Rhodes. "We were just looking at Planet Earth, the video," adds Taylor-Taylor, "and thought, 'Oh my God, listen to that. Do you think he [Rhodes] still has those keyboards? Yep. Do you think he knows how to use 'em? Yep. Lets do it!' "
Rhodes and Duran bandmate Simon Le Bon (who sings on the album's scintillating funk shimmer, Plan A) have been Warhols fans for a while, and they all bonded - and hung out - over a shared love of Bowie and the Velvet Underground.
"The Dandys are one of the few bands now with a real vibe," Rhodes tells me later, very correctly. "We really need bands like that." Rhodes wasn't intimidated by their reputation. "Drugs? Madness? I'm familiar with all of those."
In fact, Welcome to the Monkey House showcases a new depth to the Warhols - however playfully disguised - with themes that Taylor-Taylor describes as "self-loathing, salvation, redemption, self-doubt, forgiveness, temperance and fear". The title track contains the curious images of Britpop, litigation and depicts the imaginary scenario of Michael Jackson dying while the Warhols are covering the Beatles' song Blackbird.
"It's about the 90s," explains Taylor-Taylor, not usually given to great explanations of his lyrics. "People did bad things like sue each other. Now we're dropping bombs again. In the 90s, it would freak me out that no one would know the Beatles song Blackbird. Now I have much bigger things to worry about."
Seconds later, Taylor-Taylor is describing George Bush as a "crazy murdering sociopath who doesn't relate to real people", and the band have been one of the loudest US critics of the invasion of Iraq. Either they have grown up very quickly, or there has always been more behind the cartoon image of the Dandy Warhols.
Because so much attention has been focused on the myth, little is known about what the Warhols really think and feel. (Intriguingly, some articles insist that Taylor-Taylor suffered from depression in his teens, but he refuses to discuss this - "Things can get sticky when you lay yourself open".)
Even less is known about their personal lives. In their home town of Portland, Oregon - where they came together in 1994 "looking for like-minded souls into T Rex and Galaxie 500" - they are virtually unknown, the result of a long-term policy of non-cooperation with the local press. "We want to have a normal life," explains Taylor.
In fact, their personal lives are almost unremarkable. Both Holmstrom and McCabe recently got married. "That's my wife over there," drawls Holmstrom, pointing out his good lady at an adjoining table. "It's very Spinal Tap." Meanwhile, after a succession of "the type of girls you shouldn't take seriously" (three of whom have "run off" with, respectively, various members of Guns N' Roses, Alice in Chains and Hole), Taylor-Taylor has found stability - if greater physical exertions - with a yoga instructor.
McCabe is reported to have grown up on a "wild hippy commune", although she reveals that she and her mother only spent some time there: the bulk of her childhood was idyllic, life in the countryside, riding horses and fishing for clams, before she was led astray by the Warhols - or, possibly, vice versa.
Keeping their personal lives separate has been a clever move because it has enabled them to concentrate on the exciting things that happen when these four individuals come together and, increasingly, it's a full-time job, which may be another reason why they have toned down the party lifestyle.
For the past few months - since the Vodafone cheque came in - they've been building a Warhol Factory-like installation dubbed the Odditorium, which stretches a quarter of a block, contains a DVD room, movie theatre, rehearsal rooms and lounges and will function as an "arts community" for Warhols and local artists, many of whom worked on it for free. It's difficult to imagine any other modern band that would commit to such an undertaking.
"It's totally tripped out," smiles Taylor-Taylor. "There's corrugated metal and red lights and a wall painted like the desert... it's the ultimate Factory! But it isn't 20ft rolls of copper being urinated on by junkies... although that would be fun, too."
Still, having fun seems to be the essence of the band's survival and underlines everything they do, whether it's ripping up tracks in the studio, getting naked, fooling around at our photo shoot ("I don't normally stand over the drummer's head in a miniskirt," says McCabe), or making "sophisticated statements" in their music - albeit ones that "a child can understand, or feel".
"The biggest enemy of humanity today is hatred and that comes out of tension," pronounces Taylor-Taylor, seriously. "I'm excited by being able to use our new position, even to say something as basic as 'Chill the fuck out in traffic!' in the Guardian. Let's start world peace from there."
However, just for old time's sake, McCabe has one last shock. Asked about the band's plans for the evening, she grins wickedly, then says: "An early night for me. And before that, I'm going to hit the gym!"