Interview with Evan Dando by Paul Donoghue
From Time Off, April 2009
Hold Evan Dando to account on his knowledge of Australian music, and he will not disappoint. From a friend’s apartment in New York’s East Village – on speakerphone to keep his hands free for the guitar on his lap – Dando espouses a familiarity with Australian music strong enough to put many Australian music journalists too shame.
“Let’s see, we got the Celebate Rifles, we got The Saints, we got The Eastern Dark,” Dando says, breaking into a few lines from a rare Eastern Dark number. Dando notes the quality of the Brisbane and Perth scenes around the end of the 1970s, inquires about Brisbane stalwarts Screamfeeder, and acknowledges the seminal Boys Next Door/Birthday Party era in early 80s Melbourne. “Good country for music all over,” Dando says.
Australia might well be Dando’s musical home away from home. His regular visits started with The Lemonheads in 1991 after the release of their major label debut Lovey, and continued nearly year-after-year in the last decade, around the release of Baby I’m Bored, his first solo record in 2003. The regularity can be put down to the friends he has made here as much as the fan base. Smudge guitarist Tom Morgan has been a collaborator since 1992’s It’s A Shame About Ray, arguably the most famous Lemonheads record, the title track of which Morgan co-penned one morning on a five string guitar in a Sydney apartment. The pair later worked together in for The Givegoods’ only record in 2003. Dando even appeared in a revamped line-up for MC5’s 2004 Australian tour.
“I use to come every year, twice a year, for years and years,” Dando says of Australia. “But I have (been) negligent the last two years, so I am trying to make up for that.”
Dando will be back this week for a solo tour and he will make time, he says, to work on some new songs with Morgan.
Music, however, has not been his main focus of late. With trepidation he tells of his current project, a children’s book. Though he declines to give more information just yet, the idea behind the book is something the Bostonian has been harbouring for over a decade. He will take time off in Byron Bay this month to work on it with children’s author Paul McNeil, of whom Dando is a big fan.
“He did this book called ‘M Is For Metal’. It’s really cool – an alphabet book for kids. ‘A is for Angus, O is for Ozzy, G is for Groupies’,” Dando quotes the book, with a wicked laugh. “We’re doing a thing like that with a certain word.”
The project does not sound entirely out of character for Dando, whose back catalogue covers quirk, innocence and charm inside luminous guitar-pop music. His shaggy, careless image may stem from his attitude towards making music – for Dando, nothing can be forced. After two decades he has realised taking yourself too seriously is shooting yourself in the foot.
“I refuse to do it on purpose,” Dando says of writing. “I’m always playing a guitar but I refuse to go ‘OK, I’m going to write a fucking song today even if it sucks’. Some people do.” Those that do he denounces for being too ‘careerist’. “At least in the old days the industry was fucked but a lot of bands were together, doing it for the right reasons,” he says.
Dando adds his style is more natural – and perhaps rests more on luck and chance.
“Really it just comes out of the sky and hits you on the head like an apple,” he says. “And it comes out in about twenty minutes. That’s when a real song happens. If you have a guitar in your hand, it’s a lucky thing. But sometimes I will be walking down the street and I have to write it down – it’s like this involuntary thing.”
Dando does not count himself a prolific songwriter – “I’ll never do a double album, put it that way.” – and perhaps as a result he’s developed an affinity for covers. Covers seem to crop up fairly regular in Dando projects. There is, of course, that cover – a bumbling college rock interpretation of Simon & Garfunkle’s ‘Mrs. Robertson’, recorded in one take for a film soundtrack, played only a handful of times live, and not a point in his career Dando discusses with much enthusiasm.
He is also currently putting the finishing touches on a new covers record, Varshons.
“It was mostly for a laugh,” he says of the record. I got tabla, and sitar, and a techno song. I did a Leonard Cohen song with Liv Tyler and me and Kate Moss do a song together.” Dando is clearly excited: down the phone line he breaks into a version of GG Allin’s ‘Layin’ Up With Linda’, which will also appears on the record.
A laugh maybe, but he does add: “Because I bought this expensive painting and I had to put it in a budget of some kind.”
Dando is also working on new Lemonheads material, eighteen years after Lovey, and three since the band’s last record The Lemonheads.
“But I think this might be ‘the last Lemondheads record’,” he says. “It might be. I’m ready to go solo now, completely. It’s fun to hide behind that name, but I’m ready to just take it on my own after this record.”
The Bostonian musician, who worked through the commercialisation of the US underground in the early nineties and came out the other side relatively unscathed, has been around long enough now to have seen the monumental changes in the music industry. He says he will have to spend much of 2009 on the road because “it’s so hard to sell records these days”.
But touring is more ‘real’ than selling records, he says: “I think things got a little out of control with that ‘selling records’ thing. Bands all suck when they sell too many records – everyone who gets big. Except maybe the Beatles, they were smart, they stopped touring – I don’t know what they did.”
From that little apartment in the East Village, he seems pretty confident he has not sold out yet.
“I’ve had really fine success but never over the top where it made me totally lose all sense of fucking reality,” he says. “At least I wasn’t really smug about the whole thing. Success is not exactly the be-all-end-all – it can fuck with people too.”