Interview with Evan Dando by James Sullivan
From The Boston Globe, 31st January 2019
Cover tunes aside, the Lemonheads’ Evan Dando remains a true original
It’s been 10 years since the Lemonheads released “Varshons,” their ninth and, until now, most recent album. A sublime collection of cover songs, the original artists ranged from pop princess Christina Aguilera (!) to punk psychopath GG Allin (!!).
Lead singer Evan Dando, the sole mainstay on the beloved Boston band’s long and bumpy road, is finally ready to hit it again. “Varshons 2” comes out Feb. 8. He deserves “some kind of Ultimate Slacker award” for the gap between albums, he jokes: “That’s a pretty good record, actually.” The 10 years, he means.
But the band, formed in the mid-’80s, has survived other lengthy stretches without recording, or doing much of anything. A decade elapsed, for instance, between the Lemonheads’ final major-label album during the grunge years and the band’s self-titled “comeback” album in 2006. (In the interim, Dando released his lone solo album, “Baby I’m Bored.”)
Work ethic is not exactly high on Evan Dando’s list of personality traits. On a phone call to discuss the new album and tour — Europe first, with a likely Boston date in June — Dando is hanging out in Australia, where he’s spent quite a bit of time over the years. On a sweltering morning there, he’s headed to the beach for quick dip.
Dando, 51, has lived on Martha’s Vineyard for ages. He was born and raised in the North Shore town of Essex.
“Cape Ann is definitely my spiritual home,” he says. “It was a great place to grow up.
“My pop always used to joke that we were the only middle-class family in town. We weren’t rich, you know? But we weren’t poor, either.” From a young age, Dando appreciated the old Yankee habits of the area: If you saw a “perfectly good sponge” on the sidewalk, he says, you’d bring it home and use it.
For these covers albums, Dando has been a perfectly good sponge. “Varshons 2” features the Lemonheads’ familiar sweet-and-sour take on crafty songs by Yo La Tengo, John Prine, Lucinda Williams, and Nick Cave, among others, as well as a couple of less-likely suspects: the Eagles (“Take It Easy”) and the “bro-country” duo Florida Georgia Line (“Round Here”).
Asked why more covers, Dando effectively shrugs.
“We have enough songs,” he says, implying that the world doesn’t really need him to write any new ones. His band, after all, had its biggest success with their 1992 cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.”
In the next breath, Dando claims he has in fact been writing new songs, and he hopes to record them soon. The covers are a fun way to “get your feet wet,” he says, to ease back into the studio.
The conversation conforms to Dando’s reputation as a bit of a scatterbrain. Talking fast and loose, he’s chatty, profane, and periodically distracted. He’s been staying at the Hibernian House in Sydney, a graffiti-splashed crash palace that has a Bohemian vibe he says you can’t find anymore in America.
The last book he devoured was “A Journey Round My Skull,” an intense memoir by the Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy.
“I found it in Canada at a flea market,” he says.
As laid-back as Dando evidently is, he jokes several times about the joys of confrontation. He fondly recalls the “crazy blowup” at the end of his tenure as the guest frontman for the MC5, in 2004.
“I was getting way too high,” he says plainly.
He claims he likes to butt heads with fellow Vineyarder Nina Violet, who plays bass on “Varshons 2.”
“She’s very particular sometimes,” he says. “We’re natural antagonists.” (Other guests include Chris Brokaw, Willy Mason, and Violet’s sister Marciana Jones.)
And when Gibby Haynes — “one of my best friends” — produced the first “Varshons” record, Dando says, he “gave me [expletive] the whole time. Struggle is good when you’re making a record. He pulls no punches. I stormed off a couple of times. It was really fun.”
At heart, though, he’s still a sensitive boy. Dando recalls singing himself to sleep at night as a kid. “I had a lot of issues with night terrors, and I needed to comfort myself,” he explains. He realized early on that he liked the quality of his voice, and that he enjoyed sharing it. He began auditioning for school plays.
His instincts, musically speaking, have always veered wildly between soft rock and hardcore. At the Commonwealth School in the Back Bay, he had an English teacher who turned some of the students onto the band Big Star. Dando and his friends became connoisseurs of “cult” bands like the Eyes, an obscure British psychedelic ‘60s group the Lemonheads cover on “Varshons 2.”
As teenagers, he and his friends were impressed by the “Punk Rock Orgy,” a marathon radio broadcast on Harvard’s WHRB. They taped dozens of hours of the program and listened to it constantly.
“I’ve never been a real collector myself, but I just loved music,” Dando says. “I’ve stolen a few records from collectors,” he adds with a laugh. Then he checks himself, like a kid caught laughing at an off-color joke.
“That’s an awful thing to do,” he says, straightening up.