Interview with Evan Dando by Jaan Uhelszki
From San Francisco Chronicle, 19th November 2006
Lemonheads co-founder Evan Dando puts his pioneering alternative rock band back together like clockwork every decade. First formed in 1986, while Dando and Ben Deily were still students at Boston's Commonwealth School, the alternative educational institution founded by Charles Merrill (the heir to the Merrill Lynch fortune), the duo took the school's ethos that the only rule was "no roller-skating in the halls" to the stage and made their name with a rather imperfect mix of hardcore and ragged tunefulness, much in the spirit of other neo-indie rock bands like early Mission of Burma and the Pixies.
But, despite their punk-rockish beginnings, the band first nabbed national headlines with a cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" in 1992.
"We never play that song," says Dando, the singer-guitarist, when asked about his band's peppy cover of the classic tune. "We never did it live. We just recorded that song out of love for the ("Graduate") for the 25th anniversary of its release. We didn't really like the song. We did it because someone bought the rights to the movie and they wanted some band to cover that song, to promote it. And that was all it was. We became that band and somehow it turned into our whole career." He pouts.
But the disconcerting thing was none of their other songs -- they'd already released five albums -- sounded like "Mrs. Robinson," perplexing some of their newfound fans. But confounding fans is something that the Lemonheads do well. From an inconsistent lineup, to the reason why they chose the rather cartoonish name to how they see themselves, this band is a study in contradictions.
"The name Lemonheads is just an organizing principle," says Dando, who named his outfit after hard, yellow candies, insisting the name was perfect because his band was "sour on the outside and sweet in the middle. Sometimes I think I kept it just because Iggy Pop said he liked the name," he laughs. "I had dinner with him in a restaurant in Japan and he told me how much he loved the name. Now, that's worth something."
It's worth a lot, apparently. Just coming off a solo tour in London last year, Dando heard there was a Lemonheads festival in Brazil, and he wasn't even invited to make a guest appearance. Dando thought that oversight indicated that he should get busy resurrecting the band.
"Yeah," he said. "I believed that was a message that it was time again."
Rounding up drummer Bill Stevenson and bassist Karl Alvarez, the ex-members of '70s punk band the Descendents, he recorded an album of all new material this year, which he calls his "pink and red phase." Why? Because that's the color of the album art.
The last time he felt the urge to reassemble the outfit was in 1996, when he changed the name from Lemonheads to the Lemonheads, convincing Boston pals John Strohm and Murph from Dinosaur Jr. to join him. But this is a journey into Dando's own personal heart of darkness, with discombobulate guitar songs like "If I Could Talk I'd Tell You," "Break Me" and "Losing Your Mind" proving that something in the musician was coming apart. And it was true. Spiraling into a world of excess, the photogenic singer took the next nine years off.
"I do a lot of that waiting. I always kind of know when it's right again to make a move," Dando said. "But I've been lucky with my timing, though. I just thought it was a good time to get out of the situation, at the height of the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys. I thought maybe it was a good time to duck out for a while and wait for things to change. Of course, then Strokes came along and rock came back in fashion for a while there. I don't know what's happening now, we could be entering a drought again. Who knows?"
The only thing you can be sure of is that Dando will be in the thick of things, and there will be a lot of guitars. In fact, the lanky musician is rarely seen without one, taking them to interviews as a protective device. "Yeah, I'll do that," he admits a little sheepishly. "I always really do bring a guitar along with me because it's something to do. I get nervous," he says strumming a tuneless melody.
Perhaps the nervousness also has much to do with the fact that the musician is sober for the first time in years. "Well, it's not like I haven't been sober before," he says a little defensively. "But I have to say that sober you tend not to mess up as many chords, and you don't want to be drunk because you hit a lot of clams."
But Dando, who has been happily married to English model Elizabeth Moses since 2000, now makes less of a mess of his private life then he did during his halcyon days in the mid-'90s, when he exercised a disconcerting propensity to party a little too fervently in an already rather dissolute decade.
Hopefully now people can see the musician for what he really is, rather than the beautiful people he's seen photographed with, or the sum of the drugs he's taken. Unfortunately, he's almost better known for his rather public feud with the Gallagher brothers, Noel and Liam, of the band Oasis; or for dating starlets or rock goddesses, like one-time Smashing Pumpkin Melissa Auf der Maur; or even the tabloid photos showing him kissing Courtney Love in a New York hotel room, hugging her teddy bear-shaped knapsack that contained the ashes of her dead husband, Kurt Cobain. Dando later explained the tableau by saying, "I had such respect for Kurt, and I was giving him a hug because I thought we could have gotten to be good friends."
What no one appreciated at the time was his wry left-of-center sense of humor about the incident, and his highly developed sense of self. After all, the Lemonheads did get signed on the strength of a single song, "F*cked Up," the rather self-aware thrashed-up paean to '80s alternative rock progenitors Husker Du.
What probably hurt his reputation more than anything wasn't the drug use, or diffident record sales, but when he was chosen as one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" in 1993.
"I don't think that's a catastrophe, all that stuff really is not that important," he said. "But I've got a lot of other things to offer than just looks. But that was a tough one, that one, because I sort of went along with it. And, I mean, I should have said no when they called me up about the being one of the most beautiful people in the world, but I just thought it was really funny. And so much of the stuff I was doing at the time was so unconnected to reality and so ludicrous that I thought, 'Just go along with it and see what happens.' You know, I was never very careful about stuff and neither was my management company. I think they saw me as someone that was going to politely overdose, you know, like after a couple years. But I didn't, and I don't seem to be going anywhere. It was easier to go along with it than to say 'No, I'm not doing that, I'm not doing that.' "
But Dando was and is incredibly photogenic -- his mother, Susan, appeared on a number of Vogue covers in the '70s, and Dando and his sister made their debut in a television ad for Jell-O, immortalized in his song "The Jell-O Fund."
But his good looks are daunting and make many overlook his keen sense of absurdity, brainy introspection and all his subversive lyrics masking as pop. But with Dando, what you see is never what you get, and that's not really a bad thing. Rock always benefits from mystery.
"No, I don't like to let my guard down much," he says with a rather tight reserve. "I like to be misunderstood, or at least mercurial in interviews. Well, maybe not really, but I certainly don't want to be obvious."
Not that anyone would ever accuse him of that. Ten years after the release of "Car Button Cloth," Dando is back with two new Lemonheads -- Stevenson and Alvarez -- in what amounts to a coming of age record, showing how far his songwriting has progressed and how deep his thinking really is.
While less anthemic than 1992's high-water mark, "It's a Shame About Ray," Dando can still capture small, telling moments with cinematic grace, shedding a strangely philosophical light on romantic conflagrations like the one in "Let's Just Laugh," which kicks off with the subtlety of a cluster bomb, "I say out with it, you're not drinking," before criticizing his inamorata for "texting strangers," "or seeming to confess, without really revealing anything at all" in the fractured poetry of "Pittsburgh."
"I think my best work is ahead of me," says the musician, who will be in San Francisco with two other Lemonheads, bassist Vess Ruhtenberg and drummer Devon Ashley, Friday and Saturday at the Independent. "I want to work harder and harder at what I do and then try to get some result," he says. "The only results that matter to me is the way the record sounds and getting things to sound still better. I don't care about anything else. And I'd like to at least be able to pay my rent and stuff," he says, fully meaning it, despite all the claims that he is just an unrepentant rich kid.
Why? "Because I live by something Katharine Hepburn once said: 'Success and failure, treat these two illusions the same.' "