Interview with Evan Dando by Neal Alpert
From Amplifier, October 2006
Baby He's Back!
F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked that there are no second acts in American lives, but that was long before the likes of Evan Dando were around.
For much of the 1990s, Dando seemed destined to be a player in his own Behind The Music sweeps spectacular; nothing more than the latest version of the tragic, swaggering musician who gets bested by his inner demons.
But, lo and behold, the man who gave us It's A Shame About Ray has been slowly and unexpectedly laying the foundation for an intriguing second act. Rather than ending up as an afterthough of the grunge era, Dando has resurrected the Lemonheads for a crisp new album on Vagrant Records, and for the first time in a long time, it seems that the man gives a damn. The singer-songwriter carries a decade of baggage and expectations as he attempts his comeback however, and the question hanging over him in 2006 is can he pull it off?
Listening to the eleven tracks on the new disc, simply titled The Lemonheads, it certainly seems like he's on the right track. Dando is now the lone constant in a band that has featured a rotating cast of members, just as the Brian Jonestown Massacre orbits around Anton Newcombe and Guided By Voices revolved around Robert Pollard. But Dando is intent on reestablishing The Lemonheads as a cohesive unit, and not merely as a backing band for his latest solo outing.
Amazingly, the new line-up sounds just like you would expect The Lemonheads to sound. Dando has recruited Bill Stevenson and Karl Alvarez from legendary punk band The Descendants, and the trio collaborated as a true band, complete with the other members composing new songs for the disc. The chief Lemonhead takes pain to explain that he never intended the band to be a relic of the past.
"I always planned to out another Lemonheads record out, that's why I called the best of compilation The Atlantic Years, to give myself the option to put out [another]," he says during a phonecall from his apartment in NYC. "Basically, when I was on tour with the MC5 in 2004, I just got into more of a rock mode, and it's reflected on the new album. I felt like doing a rock record, and I figured if I got into that mood again I'd put out a Lemonheads record." Dando describes the give-and-take of the songwriting process, saying that "...I brought a lot of songs in, two of them were by Tom Morgan, and as usual, we had a couple of Toms from Australia and a collaboration with Bill Stevenson, and then two of his songs. The songs evolved through some minor adjustments. We put them together in the studio. They were just acoustic cassette demos, and I brought them in like that."
The musicians churned out a ragged, melodic rock discs that stays true to what made The Lemonheads so fun the first time around. The album starts off with ominous, stark piano chords, but quickly gives way to teh chugging rhythm guitar and contagious punk hook of "Black Gown". This bleeds directly into the sunny power pop of "Become The Enemy," which is contradicted by the moody lyrics Dando sings: "It's not your fault that things didn't turn out the way you dreamed at school/ and now you're raising two/ But it's your fault when you raise a pointed finger at one who loves you/ Oh what you say to me, it's now how love's supposed to be/ And oh what you do to me, when you become the enemy." Dando says that all similarities to vintage Lemonheads are purely intentional.
"That sound took a lot of hard work. We just played in the studio until we got a good sound going," he says. "We didn't want to release something unless we felt it lived up to the spirit of the band. " The disc is markedly more consistent than the band's last album, 1997's Car Button Cloth, and Dando attributes this to his excitement at working with a high calliber of musicians. He believes that his longevity is the industry has afforded him the ability to pick and choose who he plays with, and he says working with Stevenson was a perfect fit.
"The record is mainly just me and Bill, puttings our heads together. I mean, we produced it together," explains Dando. "A lot of this record is like a dream come true for me. I mean, I got to play with Bill . When I was like 17, 18, I learned to play drums by playing along to 'Milo Goes To College.' I remember [The Lemonheads] were once called 'Descenda-placements' in one review somewhere, so it's kind of funny now that we're actually part of The Descendants. It's just all falling into place."
In keeping with maintaining the classic Lemonheads sound, there are a couple of familiar names on the album. Dinosaur Jr.'s J. Mascis, who regularly crossed paths and mingled with The Lemonheads during their heyday in Boston, seemed almost destined to contribute to this set. "J was playing a gig in Boulder when we were recording, and we went down and handed him a CD, and he said 'that sounds cool.' But that's all we heard from him," Dando says. "And then later he called to find out how many bits - whatever the terminology is - and we got the solo from him in the mail, with the address written in purple on the envelope, of course!" he says, chuckling.
A less likely guest, Garth Hudson of The Band, might seem more of a fit on Dando's previous, more acoustic-based solo album, Baby I'm Bored, but Dando says the keyboardist fit right in on The Lemonheads. "The track we thought he'd be great on, 'Become The Enemy,' was sort of like a Band song. On the chorus, I was trying to sing a bit like Rick Danko, and then we didn't even end up using him on that one. But then he really shone on the jam on the last song, 'December.' We did it up in Woodstock, New York, and we emailed all the information over, and worked like maybe 7 hours in this cool studio in Woodstock."
Dando acknowledges that he's continuing the return to form that began with Baby I'm Bored in 2003, and the two discs feel almost like companion albums. "I never really thought of it that way," Dando says, "but I can see that. Baby I'm Bored is one of the best things I've ever done, and Vagrant is gonna be re-releasing it in a few months. It's kind of like [Neil Young's] Rust Never Sleeps, where one side is all quiet, real acoustic and the other side is really rock. Baby and the new one could've been like a double album, really."
For many fans and observers, Baby I'm Bored seemed like a minor miracle. Dando had spent a good deal of the 1990s bumming around, indulging in alcohol and drugs, appearing intoxicated at his sporadic concerts, and seemed on a path towards oblivion. It took an extreme jolt to his system to snap him out of it, and unfortunately, it ended up being a jolt that shook many people all over the world.
When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in NYC five years ago, Dando was living just blocks away with his new wife. "I was there when it happened. I'm looking at Ground Zero right now," he says. "That was very intense. It made me stop drinking. I quit drinking for four years after that. Well, I had to have a drink that day. It made me look at my life; that I hadn't died. I mean, we really thought that we were gonna die that day. I've never felt so close to death. It was just insane. When the building fell, we were so close that our building rumbled, and of course we thought our building was going to come down, too. The electricity went out. My wife saw the people jumping from the towers to their deaths. All the money in the world can't buy you a near-death experience, and it does a lot of good for you. I mean, it taught me that you should definitely look at things like you're looking at them for the first time, or the last time. It was a real eye opener." Suddenly, the drug and alcohol problems, the years of erratic stage and studio work, and the unfulfilled potential all seemed to matter a little less, and the business of just getting on with life a little more.
While Dando never sped back with a number one album or had the vindication of sell-out tours, he has quietly gone back to making music because it matters to him, and the results have been telling. He made an appearance on the Blake Babies' reunion album in 2000, toured with the re-formed MC5 across the United States, and vigorously edited his new material to be certain that the new Lemonheads disc would be a disc to be proud of.
To Dando's credit, the new songs capture all the energy, enthusiasm, and spirit of the It's A Shame About Ray-era, and those elements have all been on display during a series of live shows during the past summer. As of this past August, the reconstituted Lemonheads had just concluded a run at the Somerset House Festival in the UK, playing alongside bands like The Sleepy Jackson. "They were great gigs," enthuses Dando, "lots of fun. The venue used to be the Hall of Records and is just an amazing old building. Backstage, there's a museum with all these paintings from the 1700s and everything. It's pretty foolhardy to put rock bands back there," he adds with a laugh, "but they do it." The Lemonheads only attempted one new song, 'No Backbone,' because Dando "...never really liked playing that many new songs before they come out. I know a lot of bands will do that, we used to do that, maybe do some gigs that were advertised as the new record, [but] it was just a normal gig, and we'd just stick one new song in there."
One thing that wasn't a factor in choosing the set list, or in crafting the album, was the notion of audience expectations. Dando states that he doesn't try to think about living up to other peoples' ideas of what he should sound like. Rather, after playing the game for so long, he says, "I just try to make good music and hope it turns out alright." He explains that he has no grand ambitions for the music, no over-arching game plan. "I'm just hoping to break even," he says with a laugh.
Last summer's shows did more than just give the band a chance to gel; they also gave audiences a chance to get reacquainted with Evan Dando - musician, and not Evan Dando - fuck-up. Reviews were mostly positive, though some critics did display a little smirk in bringing up the musician's past troubles. Dando is aware of the whispers, the rumors, and the innuendos that have circulated over the years regarding his personal problems. Indeed, he has been forthcoming about acknowledging his struggles with alcohol, and many music fans can atest to the stories of a drunken Dando barely making it through his shows in the mid-90s.
Given all that, it is not surprising to learn that he tried not to pay much attention to his own press. "I don't think about that stuff. Like, the press is a necessary part of this job, but it's not the part that matters," he says. "Doing this [interview], it's part of what you have to do, but it's not why I'm in it. My job is to go out and play music and make records, and that should be spontaneous, ya know? I know what I want to do, and I do it, as far as the music goes. " After many years in the wilderness, the once and future Lemonhead has a renewed focus as to why he's still in the game, and it's delightful having him back off the bench.