Interview with Evan Dando by Steve Daly
From NME 25th July 1992
Dodging flash floods and LA looters, partying with Gunnar Nelson and hanging out with old 'friends' of the Manson Family - it's a wonder Evan Dando ever got around to recording the Lemonheads' new album 'It's A Shame About Ray'. But he did - and it's - shock horror - an acoustic-tinged classic.
With the release of their fifth album, 'It's A Shame About Ray', the Lemonheads justify your love.
For years, Boston's wayward janglers stubbornly refused to make the record they were clearly capable of, as leader Evan Dando put all his energy into juggling line-ups and finding more wacky songs to cover. This year, with former Blake Baby Juliana Hatfield (Dando's lady do jour) on bass and long-time Lemonhead David Ryan on drums, Dando's soulful gems at last have the setting they deserve.
"It was definitely time for a change," admits Dando, hoarse after two nights at New York's CBGB's with Hatfield's new band supporting, "and I figured LA would be the place to go."
So Dando left his native Boston for the Left Coast and a blind with the Robb Brothers, Atlantic Records' bizarre choice of producers. These LA studio veterans had previously distinguished themselves by aiding such notable emissaries of teen spirit as Rod Stewart and Art Garfunkel.
"They're some pretty slick dudes," notes Dando, "but, looking back, I wouldn't want the record to have come out any other way. They're great guys, we totally clicked."
Even if the Robbs hadn't swept the Lemonheads to power pop perfection, they'd at least have supplied him with enough stories for a career on the chat show circuit. "Those guys lived through the '60s like no-one else I've ever met," marvels the singer. "They were really good friends with John Sebastian and knew all The Byrds really well, and Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
"They had the ranch next to Charlie Manson in '68, and all these little girls would come on to their property and start picking their oranges because Charlie told 'em to. So the brothers said, 'Well f___ Charlie!' and after that they actually had some hassles with Charlie. Tex Watson, the most vicious killer of the Manson family, drove up to their porch with his pick-up truck - he just sat there and glared at them."
Another advantage of working with the Robbs was their formidable pool of Heavy Friends, including one-time Dylan keyboardist Barry Goldberg and ex-Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers facial hair pioneer Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter, who plays pedal steel on 'Hannah and Gabi'.
"I was looking for Sneeky Pete from the Burritos," says Dando, "but he was too sneaky, we couldn't find him. So Skunk just came down and did it. He seemed like a nice guy but he's a wild man, really into guns. He had his gun on the mixing desk while he was recording his part, kinda like 'Don't tell me anything'. He's a true American, I think he's a cop or something these days. Actually, I can't determine whether he really is or not..."
Much to Dando's delight, the Robb Brothers' life seems to resemble one long episode of The Dukes Of Hazzard, where our heroes vanquish ne'er-do-wells with a mere flourish of an automatic weapon. "During the LA riots they built barricades and had spotlights up on the roof of their studio," reports Dando. "They have all these guns, AKs and Uzis and stuff, and Rick ('Superfreak') James was with 'em, 'cause he was recording there.
"All of a sudden ten cars pull up and like a hundred guys get out and start looting the Radio Shack across the street. Then someone runs across the street and busts the window of the studio, so the Robbs had to let loose with fire over their heads. After that, whenever anyone would pull up and get out of their car, Rick James would wait for just the right amount of time and yell 'GET THE F___ OUT OF HERE!" on the megaphone."
Fortunately, Dando and his posse had just fled LA, possibly after a hasty consultation with Nostradamus. "Our time there had perfect book-ends: we came there and the city flooded like it hadn't flooded in like 100 years. And then at the end... it burned."
Potentionally more frightening was an encounter with the anti-Kurt himself, Gunnar Nelson, so Californian hair farmers Nelson. The ever-resourceful Dando turned the meeting to his advantage, though, and soon had the blow-dried buffoon lending his angelic tonsils to 'Alison's Starting To Happen', the album's roister-doistering stand-out.
"He was in the studio every day producing some band," says Dando, who himself inspired a Cute Band Alert in pulse-of-teen America mag Sassy. "I'm a rather sociable person, y'know, and why not say 'hi' to Gunnar Nelson? What I did was, I made him sing something from a book called The Family by Ed Sanders from The Fugs, one of the first really good books about the Manson family. In the book, every time Sanders says something really spooky, he writes 'Ooo-eee-ooo'. Gunnar's this king of LA icon, so I figured I'd have him sing that without him knowing it, just as a little weirdness.
"He went in there and wrote out this 12 part harmony for thislike, two-chord Ramones part of the song."
Having finally made the seamless pop classic his fans have always yearned for, Evan Dando just wouldn't let it lie. He closes 'It's A Shame About Ray' by yet again (ahem) indulging his predilection for loopy cover versions. Shimmying into a cosy kaftan, Dando croons the gender-specific love song 'Frank Mills' from Hair, a rock musical that was perpetrated in 1968, when he was two years old.
"I wouldn't ever want to give up the joy of doing a really weird song my own way," pleads the lead singer. "When I was 14, that was all my girlfriends' favourite song and it just brings back good memories. It's a good little story."
One of those little vignettes, 'My Drug Buddy', is, according to Dando, the best thing he's ever written. Flying in the face of America's ongoing drug paranoia, the song gives a verité account of waiting for the (Antipodean) man.
"It's exactly how I can recall one particular night in Sydney," says Dando. "A friend came over to my house and made the phone call for the drugs. When I saw her smiling I was like, 'Cool!' We went over to another house and did all this speed - which is funny, because it comes across like smack song - and walked down by the harbour and the Opera House and back. The next afternoon we wrote 'It's A Shame About Ray', so that whole cycle was really cool.
"'My Drug Buddy' isn't about trying to promote the use of drugs," Dando continues, "but it's my view that wanting to try drugs is human nature, and our government has to accept that. Drugs need to be legalised and recognised as a health care problem. But it's gonna take ages, and our society's gonna unravel way before that. A kid growing up in the ghetto who's really smart can't get out of there any other way than getting on the scene and dealing with drugs."
Evan Dando was no-one's idea of a smart kid when he dropped out of college with a D and four Fs in his late teens, to the horror of his lawyer father and fashion model mother. Lately though, Dando's folks have begun to see the point in this rock dodge - especially mom. "She actually goes to all these indie rock shows of her own volition - she went to see Swervedriver at CBGG's and met them afterwards," grins Dando. "When I presented her with my new record, she said she was really upset that the guitars weren't loud enough."
If there are any other 'Heads devotees who find 'It's A Shame About Ray' a little anodyne, they'll be relieved that Dando hasn't lost his appetite for destruction onstage, where he puts the new songs through the power trio shredder. Ultimately, though, Dando stands by the album that's put the Lemonheads atop every college rock chart in America. "I'm glad it came out in that weird, acoustic way, because I think that it's a little bit of a unique record. It has songs that sound like they should have guitars in there - but they still stand up without them.
"Another reason why I didn't make a record like the old Lemonheads records, with the guitars up there, that guitar pop thing. Of course, I could have made those songs really sound just like Nirvana, but I wanted to put out a risky record... there's plenty of time to sell-out later."