Interview with Nic Dalton
By Roo Simpson
First off, could you tell us a bit about your forthcoming album "Home Of The Big Regret"? The line up with bluegrass musicians and members of the symphony orchestra is pretty unique - what sound should we expect?
I've been planning my debut 'solo' record for about six years (in 1998 I released an album of early recordings from 86-88 called 'Romolo' under my own name) and knew I would be recording it before I turned 40 (which was last November). It wasn't always going to be a 'bluegrass-folk-pop' record. Originally I had planned to do it with a regular line-up of electric guitars, keyboards and group vocals (folk-rock maybe) as would be expected from me with a few psychedelic overtones.
It was the breakup with my longtime girlfriend Lucy Lehmann that steered the album into the direction it took. We lived on a farm in the Central West of NSW for 3 and 1/2 years - until recently I lived there by myself for a further year and a half - and we listened to a lot of country, bluegrass, folk and singer-songwriter music. We also began to write songs together. When I was away on a Sneeze tour, Lucy wrote 'A Century Too Late' and I thought it was one of the best songs I had ever heard. I thought "I'll have to record that for my solo album", which was still a couple of years away.
At the beginning of 2004 when I started to list all the songs I wanted to record, it dawned on me that half of them were either written by Lucy and co-written with her. We'd broken up a year earlier but had remained long-distance friends. It was looking like this album was about our relationship - a breakup album. So I called Lucy and told her this. We wrote a few more songs together to bring the concept to full realisation. It was around this same time I decided I would make the music completely acoustic with a Bluegrass rhythm section and strings on every song. This would reflect the music that we listened to living in the country and suit the style of most of the songs.
I was lucky to have some genuine Bluegrass musicians play on the album plus longtime friend Bill Gibson on the bass and Mr Bungle drummer Danny Heifetz playing on most tracks. Danny, who had recently moved from San Francisco to Sydney, met me by chance in the street and after realising we were both musicians, it was decided that he play on my solo album. Again, this was nearly two years before recording started.
So the sound to expect? I've found it impossible to describe exactly what it is. It's not strictly Bluegrass (as traditional Bluegrass would not use drums and strings - they'd have a fiddle instead) and the songs aren't Bluegrass songs. I've used the Bluegrass instruments as the backing rhythm section rather than the standard guitar/bass/drums. It's not a 'country' album either (the pedal steel was banned from this one). The songs are folk, country and pop. Okay, it's a singer-songwriter album with scored strings on every track. Like what I imagine a 60s country-pop artist would have released. A breakup album written with the ex-girlfriend - after we broke up. There, we have it!
Do you have plans to tour the new record? If so, are the full recording line up likely to be on board?
Yes I do. The record has been ready since December (it's now June) and I promised myself I wouldn't release it until I had put a band together (Nic Dalton & The Gloomchasers) to tour the album. I have the players but we haven't had a chance yet to rehearse! They are learning the songs at home and I have no problems with that. They are all good players and when we get together the songs will sound great. I recorded the album in Sydney with Sydney-based musicians and have recently moved to Melbourne, so the band is made up of Melbourne musicians (guitar, banjo, mandolin, electric bass and drums). When we tour Sydney I'm sure some of the album pickers will be hopping up on stage for a song or ten! Lucy will also be playing gut-string guitar if she is in the same city as the Gloomchasers.
Any chance of European dates?
I would love to tour Europe and if the album takes off and there's the airfares there, will definitely be heading out to the airport.
You've been a member of many bands over the years: Sneeze, Godstar, Love Positions and Lemonheads to name just a few - which of your projects to date would you say you have most enjoyed?
I have enjoyed all the bands I've been in for all sorts of different reasons - it's like picking a favourite child or Beatles record - impossible! But the two bands I have really enjoyed playing on stage would have to be my two main bands since I started playing music - and they are the Plunderers ('84-'92) and Sneeze ('91 to now). The Plunderers was pretty much the first band and it's the time when you're in your early 20s that you have the most fun. And musically, Sneeze is top of the pile in what Tom Morgan and myself have achieved with our songs and playing them on stage. On the right night, we are the best band in the world!
I think this one was sort of answered by you describing Sneeze as 91-now, but... does the release under Nic Dalton and The Gloomchasers Orchestra signal an end to your time with Sneeze, or can we expect more recordings and shows from that band?
Not at all. Sneeze will keep going as long as Tom Morgan and myself want it too. We have the follow-up to 1993's 41 tracker to come out next year if all goes to plan and have just started recording for a 10 inch record that will come out in Norway. Shows are a bit thin on the ground, since Tom and Leti live 3 hours north or Sydney and I live 12 hours south and Bill and Simon are busy in Sydney. I love Sneeze too much to give that one away! Sneeze are the best band I have ever been in.
How are things going with Half A Cow? Can see on the website there's a few releases lined up for the coming months - any you'd particularily advise us to look out for?
After the quiestest year in 2004 (with only the Smallgoods and Sneeze being released), 2005 is a fresh start for the label - with a new distribution deal with Shock Records and a whole lot of renewed energy, a new web site, 7 albums due out in July-August. Ones to look out for are all seven, of course. They are Warmer, The Triangles, my Gloomchasers one, Smudge's Manilow reissue, The Purple Hearts and Wild Cherries from the 60s and the Someloves from the late 80s. And the label is 15 years old this year.
There seems to be a lot of crossover between members of various bands on the label, are you really just one big happy musical family as it appears?
Not really - but over the years there have been friendships, fights and heartbreaks between a lot of the Half A Cow crowd. But the crossover is usually centred around myself and musicians who are too good for just one band. Like you'll see the names Bill Gibson and John Encarnacao pop up across a few records - that's because they're excellent at what they do.
Now, the Lemonheads years... when and how did you first meet Evan Dando and how did your joining the band come about?
I was playing bass for the Hummingbirds, 'subbing' for Robyn St Clare who was pregnant with the future Milo. The Hummingbirds did a national tour with The Lemonheads around Australia and Evan and I quickly became friends. It was like being 14 again, running around, being crazy. This was in June-July '91. Evan then came out to stay with me in Oct-Nov '91 and it was then that he asked me to join the band. I initially said no, but he said it would make my new record label Half A Cow known around the world, and a few other friends persuaded me. so I said yes - thinking it was going to be for about four months.
Despite Juliana Hatfield being the bassist for the recording of the bulk of It's A Shame About Ray, many people seem to remember this album as a product of the Evan/Nic/David lineup (perhaps due to your appearances in the Ray era promo videos). How do you feel about this misconception?
There was talk of me coming over in early '92 to record the album, but two things - Evan needing to record the album before a US spring release, and me sorting out my affairs in Sydney before heading to US - made it easier for Evan to get Juliana on the bass. This was fine by me. Apart from seeing them on the Hummingbirds tour, I hadn't really heard much Lemonheads and didn't think much of the whole thing at this early stage. I joined the band after the album was finished and the first thing we did was the original Ray film clip and photoshoots - this was in May 1992. Juliana performed a wonderful job playing bass on that album. Even when I hear the tracks off Ray I think it's me playing, as I toured it. It's a funny misconception that I know a lot of people have - but I do feel such a part of that record - as it was myself, Tom Morgan and Sydney that inspired Evan to come up with the concept.
Evan has frequently gone on record as saying Mrs Robinson is the worst song the band ever recorded, and shouldn't have been released - what do you think of the track?
We recorded it in Berlin, during a European tour around October 92. We ran through the song once or twice and then rolled tape. We didn't think much of it and recorded a loose and fun version of an old standard - thinking it would just be going on a re-release of the Graduate video. But once the record company heard it, they said this will be a hit and re-launch the band! And they were right. The Lemonheads was cruising along in the indie world, selling okay I think, and me thinking I'd be heading back to Australia soon, but then suddenly BANG! It was everywhere and the record took off and we kept touring for another 20 months. And we only played the song live about 15 times over the next two years. We didn't think much of it. It's just a cover, you know?
Around the time of your joining the band, things were really starting to take off, how did you find the extensive touring and promotion? Do you have any especially fond (or not so fond) memories from this period?
I have only fond memories of that time. I was 27, touring the world in a rock band, making friends, writing songs, painting, etching my guitar, reading, laughing, crying and putting on a party every night that you didn't have to clean up the next day! You'd do it all again in the next town. The promotion was okay - it was mainly Evan that had to do all that - David, John and myself were quite happy to not have that responsibility all the time. Living out of a suitcase got a bit much after 2 years and losing track of friendships back home was a bit tough... but when you're young and crazy and full of beans, it's the best job in the world.
For a lot of fans, your time with the band was the favourite line up of the many combinations the Lemonheads have gone through. How did you find working with the guys?
I had a great time, travelling the world with David, Evan and (later) John. Plus the crew - Steve Morgan, Ray, Ian, Stephen, Jackie, Gabriella, Dino, Edwin (and a few more I can't think off the top of my head). All great people and we had a ball. I think one of the reasons why we were so popular for an ongoing period during 92-94 was that we were always touring and to tour that much you just have to get on. I spent 24 hours a day with these guys, more time than with any girlfriend or family and we became very close. For a while there we felt it was us against the world. We had to stick together. And, apart from the very end when David and I decided to leave, we always got on - we never fought and bitched at all that whole time - if we did, the touring would have ended earlier.
How do you feel about the Come On Feel-era material?
Come On Feel and Ray...I can't separate any of it, to me it was all one long rock'n'roll song. We started touring Ray in about June '92, recorded Come On Feel during more touring about a year later and more than half those songs were added to the set during the previous touring. So, to me, those two albums are like twins. One is happy and excited, the other a bit drunk and tired, yet still happy. They are great pop albums. As I played bass on Come On Feel, I should feel closer to it, but as I played the Ray songs live night after night, I feel just as close to those as well. We spent a long time recording Come On Feel and Evan even longer trying to do his vocals (!), I was used to whipping out recordings in an afternoon, or a few days. We spent a lot of time listening to the producers (the Robb Brothers) talking about LA in the '60s, which I found fascinating. I even got to smoke pot with Harry Nilsson.
Would you ever consider playing with the band again if the right situation arose? (A question especially at the front of my mind with the Lemonheads gig in London later this year where they'll be playing the whole of Ray)
Most definitely. In fact, if I hadn't got sick during the middle of 2003 I believe I would be touring with Evan even as we speak. When I heard Baby I'm Bored, I thought it was the best record Evan had ever done, he'd finally found himself and done the dark country pop record that was in him. So he asked me to play bass on the up coming Austy tour and then I was going to continue touring in the US starting October '03. Evan sent through a set that was 12 Lemonheads songs and 8 Baby I'm Bored songs. I rehearsed on the farm for over a month, all the songs coming back easily. We'd call each other up, excited that we were 'reforming' and couldn't wait to start playing. Then disaster struck. The night before our first band rehearsal in Melbourne, I was in Sydney at a Sneeze recording session and had a brain haemorrhage. I didn't realise that's what it was at the time and the next day flew to Melbourne for the Evan shows, I thought my back had gone again and given me the worst migraine. Rehearsal was okay, but the first show... I don't even remember being there. That was the last time I saw Evan. Six days later my Dad took me to hospital where it was discovered I'd had a brain haemorrhage. So that was the end of touring with Evan. I'm fully recovered now, although my right hand still can't play keyboard, strum or write as well as I used to.
So, despite being busy with my own music here in Austy, I reckon I would have been part of the new Lemonheads and this Ray tour may even have happened last year. Who knows? Luckily, I got sick here at home (free medical) and not in the States (I'd be bankrupt now!). But, the short answer is, I would love to play with Evan again. He's a great musician and singer and he's loads of fun to spend time with.
It's funny, because I 'left' the Lemonheads, people always assume that Evan and I had a falling out. We never did. I love him like a brother. I left the band because I had other stuff to do - at the time I owned a bookshop, a record label, had another three bands to play in and friends and family to get to know again. I was going crazy, we all were, and I had to get back to Sydney to put the pieces back in place. In hindsight, we should have had a six month break, but I was being pressured by my label manager to concentrate on the Half A Cow label. It's a little known fact that in early 1996 I returned to New York and rehearsed Car Button Cloth with Evan and Murph. Evan taking me out to dinner and giving me love drugs, rubbing my shoulders saying "Nic come back!" Man, the temptation was strong but I really had to get back to my own thing. The consolation was Evan, David and I reformed for one song at an Irish bar in New York. It was the night of the Oscars and word went around that the Lemonheads were reforming. In true Evan spirit, in front of about 50 friends and fans, we played 'Into Your Arms' with another band's gear.
As well as playing with the band, you wrote a couple of the songs, including Kitchen (with Tom Morgan) before you were an official Lemonhead. Was this song always intended for Lemonheads to record?
No, 'Kitchen' I wrote by myself in 1990 for me - it's basically a diary entry. I did a recording of it (with subject matter Alison on handclaps) in 1991 (which first appeared on a Godstar 7" for the Bus Stop label in '92). In the middle of '91, I gave a tape of this to Alannah from the Hummingbirds (as I was playing bass with the H'birds at the time) and she loved it so much she wanted it recorded by the Hummingbirds for their next release, so we (the Hummingbirds) started rehearsing it. This was when Evan was back in the country in Oct-Nov '91 to write for his next album (which became Ray). So Evan was in Paradise Studio when the Hummingbirds recorded and he actually drummed on it and I recall that Alannah sang it (there were two versions - I have neither, not even on a cassette, pity...). So that's where Evan got to know the song.
Fast-forward to early '92 and when Evan was putting together his list for his new album, he kept coming back to 'Kitchen' as one of the songs, as it reminded him of his time in Austy when the album started to take shape. And the song never made it to the Hummingbirds 'Know My Mind' EP (I think because the Lemonheads ended up doing it).
Aside from Dawn Can't Decide, were there any other Dalton-penned tracks considered for Come On Feel which didn't make it to the final cut? If so, were these ever recorded with one of your other bands?
There was song called 'Lenny' which I mainly wrote, along with Evan and David (in the tour bus, about Lenny Kravitz and Vanessa Paradis), that was just a little too silly to be recorded properly. A short version of it (with Evan on guitar and myself on the drums) appears during 'The Jello Fund'. I've always been meaning to record the entire version one day (and that will be the one and only Dalton/Dando/Ryan composition). But I wouldn't know what band to release it under!
'Dawn Can't Decide' has a very interesting story. The first verse was a song in the making for the Godstar 'Sleeper' album I was in the middle of writing the songs for (I wrote the verse during the Ray video clip in the Californian desert - Dawn was one of the film crew that Ev got friendly with). The song was unfinished and wasn't going to be called 'Dawn Can't Decide', it was going to be a sad song.
A few months later, Evan and I are in a studio in New York and he desperately needed some B-sides for the 'Confetti' single. He and his manager persuaded me to let him record the at-the-time-as-yet-unreleased Sneeze song 'Shaky Ground', which he heard on a tape. He still needed another song. As the engineer kept playing back 'Confetti' (as a remix was being done), I realised that my unfinished song (which had been going around in my head the last few weeks) fitted over the 'Confetti' drumtrack.
I told Evan, played it to him, we finished off the song (that's why it's quite throwaway - I think we both were wearing ex-bass player Jesse's boxer shorts that day!) and recorded it over the 'Confetti' drumtrack - which had been bounced to new tape. This was a trick I had done quite a few times before, using existing drum tracks, sometimes slowed down, sometimes sped up, for other songs. So 'Dawn Can't Decide' was born and stayed with the same arrangement when we recorded it for Come On Feel. When we started playing it live we just had to say to David, "just play 'Confetti' you'll be right!" He cracked up after the first time - he played a new song he'd never heard perfectly.
So one day you'll hear a song of mine and you'll say 'hey, he's ripped off a Lemonheads song!' when in fact it's just the opening verse (and that's all) of a song that morphed into a Lemonheads B-side.
Evan and I wrote a song called 'Major Tomato' that was more like a Sneeze song, which may appear one day. It's a good one. Sneeze recorded an unreleased (actually unwritten!) Evan song called 'This Is The Song Only Young Girls Can Hear' that I remembered Evan singing to a young girl in Austria one night (I even have a photo of him serenading her from a staircase). It's on the vinyl version of Lost The Spirit To Rock & Roll.
Evan wanted to record another song of mine for Come On Feel called 'And So The Story Goes' - one of the first songs I wrote, back in '84 or '85 - but we never got around to it. I never suggested any songs of mine to be Lemonheads songs the entire time I was in the band (other than 'Dawn'). That was up to Evan to decide.
Were you aware of Lemonheads earlier career, and did you follow the band's work after leaving? Are you still in contact with Evan and David?
Being a music fan of lots of types of music I was always aware of a band called the Lemonheads from Boston because the Taang! label had released Sydney's very own Hard-Ons in the US. But I can't recall ever hearing any. In the late '80s and again in the early '90s I had bought Hate Your Friends and Lovey - but didn't like either record. Even before I'd joined the Lemonheads I used to have this quote: "it's impossible to buy everything and like every new band - I'm into Husker Du, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr and not the Replacements and Lemonheads." Later, sitting comfortably in the L'heads tour bus, I told Evan and David that I had bought then sold Lemonheads records, thinking they would get a laugh out of it, but they weren't happy at all! There was silence for a few minutes. It was strange joining a band whose albums I'd previously rejected - it took a while before I 'fessed up.
I did have 'Luka' though, I liked that song and bought the single. Then, when Alannah Hummingbirds mentioned to tour promoter (and my best mate at the time) Stephen Pavlovic that he should bring out the Lemonheads, Stephen gave me the Favourite Spanish Dishes 12" (to get the vibe going for the band he was about to tour). I loved it! Different Drum (great cover) and these two fantastic originals, 'Ride With Me' and 'Paint'.
So when the Lemonheads arrived in '91 to tour Australia with The Hummingbirds, I was only really aware of a handful of songs. I've always held the opinion that if I was a fan of the band, my relationship would have started out differently with Evan and we wouldn't have become the close friends we became (and I wouldn't have suggested he and Tom write songs together, etc). So, in hindsight, it was a good call I sold Lovey (which I now think is a great album - I was just into so much other music at the time).
It was very easy to follow The Lemonheads after I left. There was at least two years of nothing (and I saw Evan quite a bit during this time - he stayed with me for a month back in Sydney when I left! We were so used to being with each other that it strangely continued...) and in early '96 I rehearsed at least half of the Car Button Cloth songs with Evan and Murph in NY (with a borrowed cherry red Guild Starfire bass owned by Paul Simon which was exactly like mine that I've owned since 1984 - no one believed me when I pulled it out of the case!). Anyway, it was easy to follow the Lemonheads after I left - there was one album and a year or so of touring and I got to see the Bill Gibson line-up when they came to Sydney in 97. I was always one of those guys persuading Evan to go solo and was very excited when Baby I'm Bored came out. He finally did it!
I last spoke to David Ryan when I was in New York in 1998 and we last emailed each other about two years ago. Like me, he likes to keep the curtains partly closed. I'm the brother that headed back to the deep south, the real deep south. I would love to sit down with David one day or month and have a big chat about what we went through. Evan, he's like an ex-girlfriend, and I'm still very close to all my ex-wives. I love Evan, he's a great musical friend of mine, We just don't see each other as much as I know we'd both like to - maybe every one or two years and talk on the
phone every six months or so. If I hadn't have gotten ill a couple of years ago, we were on our way to a big get-together!
What brought about your decision to part company with the band?
We were all going crazy. All of us. What was originally a 4-5 month tour turned into over two years. Like I said, I had quite a busy life back in Australia. It wasn't so much to do my own music, I was more than able to be in a few bands at the one time, it was more about getting back to Sydney to oversee the Half A Cow bookshop and to steer the Half A Cow label in the right direction.
And mainly my own head and personal life. I'd recently broken up with Alison and felt so removed from the 'old gang' and my family. I needed to get back 'on the 470 bus' and into my old life, which I knew I was always going to do. I got sick of living out of a suitcase for two and a half years and travelling around the world in planes. Oddly enough, I was still living out of a suitace in 1998! Just couldn't shake that habit. I always knew at one stage I would simply leave the Lemonheads and pick up where I'd left off. I actually made this decision in October '93 when we officially started touring Come On Feel. I told the management that I would stay with the band until the last show promoting Come On Feel - eleven months away!
So when that time was getting close, and David had decided to leave as well, there was a bit of tension in the band. You could tell Evan was feeling it - that his bandmates, for no reason other than we had other things to do, were leaving. A wall slowly came around Evan. Especially during that last US tour in the height of summer. The oppressive heat. It was quite tough. But there were no fights, ever. We were still a family. I have to say that, despite the English press (and press in general) being dismissive of Evan and the Lemonheads, the band were getting more popular and popular all the time. I used to hear people say that it was 'all over, the kids have moved on', but this just wasn't true. The crowds were getting bigger.
I always think of two songs that remind me of the Lemonheads breaking up - the Stylistics 'Go Now' and the Flamin' Groovies 'You Tore Me Down'. Released on Godstar's Coastal album, the version of 'Go Now' is the last song the Evan-David-Nic line up ever recorded and I will always think of the sadness of leaving when I hear Evan's beautiful electric guitar in that song. And we started playing 'You Tore Me Down' in the last few months of touring. I always felt it was directed at me. Shows how crazy I became to let the ego believe that. But I still think that and can picture Evan looking over at me as he's singing it.
We are about to release volume 2 of our tribute CD to Lemonheads and Evan Dando - if you had to choose any song from the back catalogue to record your own version of, which would it be and why?
There's lots of songs I would like to do - a slow cruisy 'Paint', 'Ride With Me' (no, that one is too good - a cover would only frizzle away into the sunset), 'You Can Take It With You'... but the one I would record for a tribute cd would be 'It Looks Like You' from Baby I'm Bored. Folkrock at it's finest!
© Copyright evandando.co.uk 2005