Interview with the Lemonheads by Steve Lamacq

From NME 9th June 1990

Are Boston's Lemonheads the new Hüsker Dü or merely grim-faced arena-rock graduates with all the crossover appeal of a dead duck?

evan dando jesse peretz david ryan nme 1990.jpg

Just five days after finishing their new LP in America, Boston's Lemonheads are back behind the wheel of their tour machine ready to embark on Phase Three of their erratic career.

Phase One was the hungry, sore-throat punkiness of their 'Creator' and'Hate Your Friends' LPs. The second was last year's burgeoning popularity around the gritty third album `Lick'. The latest episode looks like being the most interesting yet.

Having just signed to major label Atlantic in the States, the current three-piece tine up are at once solvent and determined - if a mite drawn after a bumpy trans-Atlantic plane journey. This time they're here to reaffirm their success in Europe with a whistle- stop tour that starts and ends in the UK and coincides with the release of their excellent summer pop single `Different Drum' - already NME Single Of The Week.

There are no champagne celebrations as The Lemonheads' tour bus pulls up outside Brighton's Zap Club for the opening date of their busy itinerary. As well as being jet-lagged, the band have been shell-shocked by returing to the Real World after weeks in the recording studio. In the startling sunlight down by the beach they look as disorientated as a bunch of tourists in Oxford Street.

The Lemonheads are a classic example of the American touring band whose chemistry relies on a subtle sense of humour and a deft sense of the understatement. They are also a cult band coming to terms with the pressures of their popular credibility.

"Evan's always had a dream of raking up all the beaches of the world into one big pile," says bassist Jesse Peretz of singer/guitarist Evan Dando as he glances over the shoreline.

"No, no, I've always wanted to be a window washer," protests Dando.

"When I went to college I got 0.32, that was my grade point average," he continues. "That's like one D and three Fs. I did one term and then left. I could have been thrown out, but slyly I slipped a note of resignation under the office door, packed everything into my car and drove off into a snowstorm."

"Nuclear engineering, that's what I'm looking into outside the band," adds Peretz hopelessly. "Nuclear janitor maybe..."

"I'd like to come up with a new mathematical theorem," says drummer David Ryan. "I don't know anything about maths but I'd like to do that eventually... no, well I do want to write. Rock'n'roll's great but only if you can live off the royalties - and being a drummer I wouldn't necessarily be afford that luxury - so I'd like to be a writer. That's what's so great about this band, I get to keep journals and learn stuff. I'd never been to Europe 'til I met these guys!"

Now he's hardly out of the place. Up 'til last summer The Lemonheads were pretty much an unknown quantity outside of their native America-despite underground sales of their early LPs on import. But last summer, in tune with a growing UK appetite for US outfits like Buffalo Tom and the more extreme brethren at Seattle's Sub Pop stable, all that began to change.

London-based Rough Trade World Service picked up and released their third album 'Lick'- ironically a cobbled-together collection of old and new recordings designed to get them out of an existing contract with US label Taang. But it was the release here as a single of the band's Suzanne Vega cover 'Luka' that got the ball rolling.

With its shady, flickering video. 'Luka' was transformed into a lazy-hazy melody with a gruff vocal and spiked edges. Not exactly a wild, indispensable punk rock cover but an endearing hatchet job all the same. The follow-up, destined to sell stacks more copies is another cover, `Different Drum', penned by ex-Monkee Michael Nesmith and a hit for (cough) Linda Rondstadt.

Again it's an off-beat choice for their gnarled guitars, but the 'Heads' reworked version is bright, surprisingly sassy and summery, with a wild bit in the middle that 'Luka' lacked.

Quickly passing the buck, the band lay the blame for this season's scorcher at the hands of original scribe Nesmith.

"It all comes from liquid paper," explains Dando. "You see, the reason Michael Nesmith could write such a happy song was because he was so affluent as a child. And that's because his Mom invented liquid paper. "We recorded it in February and basically we knew we wouldn't have the LP ready in time for it to tie in with the tour, so we decided to refase it as a single - just for Europe so that people would have something new to get hold of."

Thus 'Different Drum' is bing licensed to Europe via various different labels - including one in Germany who phoned up the band and told them the track was "loud enough for deaf people to hear it" before trying to acquire a quieter version. In the UK it's out on one of Fire's two new off-shoot labels, Roughneck Recordings - and with flourishing pre-sales it could graze the Top 100.

After this however it's off to pastures new and Atlantic Records, and hereby lies another tale.

Why is a major label in the States signing a band with the crossover appeal of a dead duck? It's not even as if The Lemonheads are moving in a poppier direction - one listen to the new songs they aired later at the Zap Club proved they're still holding their own in the grim-faced arena of nuts-and-bolts rock.

The answer lies in credibility. Some five years back WEA dabbled in punk in the States by signing Hüsker Dü as potential Rock Gods. However the label cocked up the marketing and the band, with more than enough problems of their own, buckled under the pressure.

The majors in the States are far wilier now. With the growth of college radio and 'alternative' music (remember even The Mighty Lemondrops are popular in America) the Big Boys are exceedingly anxious to avoid looking, what's the word, square?

Atlantic Records, who've gone as far as to set up their own alternative A&R department, zoomed in on The Lemonheads - despite baffling them with a 57 page contract (I kid you not).

"It's something that really burns out with Europeans," admits Peretz. "The thing about signing to a major..."

"In terms of America, the majors are really trying to become credible," confirms Jesse. "That's why they're signing these bands. They're not thinking 'Oh The Lemonheads they're going to make us really rich', they're thinking, 'The Lemonheads are going to make us look like we're willing to experiment,' so the more f___ed up the product we do the better. Well thats an exaggeration...

"But everyone's going to go to a major now, all the indie bands you know over here - maybe cooler ones like Dinosaur Jr will sign in England, but everyone's going to go."

The Lemonheads certainly don't look or act like major material in the mainstream sense. Dando, stocky and sometimes lumbering, even with his girlfriend in tow, is sarcastic; Peretz, donned in a crap green jumper is quick-witted and modest; and Ryan, a nice bloke despite his moans that he's never featured in group pictures.

Meantime the catchiness of 'Different Drum' isn't a pointer to a new commerciality. The forthcoming album - set for release in September - reportedly sounds as biting and bitter as its three predecessors. And that's where the beauty of The Lemonheads lies, in their grinding melodies and hurt tirades. The way they use a dash of thrash, fused with pop, to make up a set of bombarding underground rock'n'roll. Maybe not as resiliant as Hüsker Dü were, but certainly as enthusing and far sweeter than Mudhoney.

"The new album's totally in keeping with Lemonheads tradition," says Dando. "It's really erratic and all over the place. I don't think there's anything as commercial as 'Different Drum' on it, well maybe one track, but I wouldn't jump on the single as an indication of what it's going to be like overall.