Monday, December 11, 2006

Evan Dando

I don't have any qualms admitting that I still love the Lemonheads' 1992 classic It's a Shame About Ray. Like most, however, I'm a fairweather fan and that's about as far as I go; I never bothered to investigate the back catalogue, and certainly didn't have the patience to navigate Evan Dando's drug-fuelled disaster of a career ever since. His 2001 acoustic comeback album Baby I'm Bored only lived up to its title, an all-too-obvious open invitation for cheap shots.

The new, self-titled Lemonheads album is out on Vagrant Records. It's certainly not embarassing, but it's of no great consequence, either. If you're the kind of fan who still pulls out Ray on a regular basis, I'd recommend it. It will help pad the live show well enough so that he doesn't become a museum piece. A major career resurrection is unlikely.

These days, however, disdain for Dando seems to grow with each passing month. He has the gall to be an unapologetic recovered addict, one who freely admitted to being hooked on crack in the 90s, and who got out not only alive but with his California blond good looks relatively intact. His hero Gram Parsons--another creative rich kid who did too much drugs--didn't get out alive, but Dando did. The nerve! On top of that, he's happily married to a model (his mother was one as well), whose body is proudly displayed in the CD tray of the new Lemonheads album. He formed said band with an entirely new rhythm section (borrowed from classic California punk band the Descendents), and has already replaced them in the ever-growing list of former bandmates and collaborators (or, his harshest critics would argue, crutches). But for many rock history geeks, his cardinal sin was talking his way into the role of co-lead singer for the recent MC5 reunion, which many saw as outright sacrilege. What's not to hate/envy?

I don't have any strong feelings for or against the man, but thought it was would be at the very least interesting to talk to him about the recent Lemonheads reunion--if you can call an all-new band backing the original singer/songwriter a reunion. It's more like the resuscitation of a brand name.

As you'll see, he's a bit of a goof. There's not a lot going on underneath the surface, shall we say. I've read other articles on him that treat the subject like a turkey shoot. I don't like that kind of writing; it's usually done by a writer trying to prove how cool they are after they've had a perfectly normal conversation with an unsuspecting subject. But in the case of Dando, he ended up saying some pretty ridiculous things and, as you can see, I did not put words in his mouth.

The article this was commissioned for ran in Eye last Thursday. The Lemonheads play Lee's Palace in Toronto tomorrow: Tuesday, December 12, with Vietnam.

Evan Dando

December 1, 2006

Locale: walking on his cell phone in Salt Lake City

Situation: third attempt at this interview, after two scheduled times fell through due to him not answering his phone.

Hey, is this a good time?

I’m ready. I’m sorry we had to put it off a couple of times. I was actually asleep. It’s been a gruelling tour. But I’m happy to speak with you.

What’s made it so gruelling?

I guess it’s because I’m older now, and not using, uh, crutches so to speak. I’m not taking speed, which used to make it easier. But hey! That’s life on the road and it’s my chosen profession and I’m not complaining. We’re having lots of fun at the shows. It’s all the in between stuff that’s typical Spinal Tap stuff.

What about coffee, is that a crutch?
Coffee, yeah. I mean, at this point I don’t rule out anything. I just don’t do anything regularly anymore.

The new Lemonheads include the Descendents rhythm seection on the album, but I understand there are new guys on the road.

Karl [Alvarez] was in Gogol Bordello right before we started the tour. It turns out he left that band and we could have had him, but I had this plan, these two aces from Indiana who were my first choice, so I hunted to see if they were available. Lo and behold they were, and they’re both musical and can both sing. It’s going great and we’re getting better every day.

Would anyone recognize their other projects?
United States Three, the Pieces, Mysteries of Life… all Indiana stuff you might not have heard before. We brought the Pieces on tour before and I got hooked on them.

How does it feel fronting the Lemonheads after so many acoustic tours in recent years?
It feels really great to play loud again. We’re starting to get there where we’re hitting some nice, transcendent moments. We’ve been playing for two months now, so we’re starting to get good.

Do you think the Lemonheads has a specific sound no matter who’s in it?
We have characteristics, sure. Quirky sounds, weird chord changes, abruptness, nonsense, fantasy. There are themes. The sound of the music is there. They’re a good version of the Lemonheads. It’s a liquid organisation, granted.

Your songwriting …

Ah, shit. (beep)

Uh, hello?

Oh, sorry. That was a typical 21st century moment. My iPod fell out of my pocket and then I dropped my cellphone. I feel like such an idiot. I was jaywalking here in Salt Lake City, which is dangerous in itself.

Those Mormons are crazy.

I actually like this town, and I like it more each time I come. I have a couple of girls stashed here that I’m married to.

Only in Salt Lake City. During the time you weren’t playing music, did you consider other careers? Did you think, ‘Maybe I won’t play music anymore’?

I always thought I was a writer so I never thought it was over. I knew I was going to go back to it. I took two long breaks. One from 94 to 96, and then another one from 97 to 2000. I was basically spending tons of money and living it up. Then I got close enough to the bottom of my bank account again to be motivated artistically. It’s weird, money is bad for me. I’m by nature a lazy person. If I have tons of money in the bank, I just want to go skiing or bird watching or take a nap. It’s good when you need to work again.

Does that reinforce notions that rich people can’t make rock’n’roll?
Yeah, man, I don’t know. I definitely don’t feel it when I have money. Recessions often brings lots of good music. The dustbowl had Woody Guthrie and stuff. And I think the crash of ’87 had something to do with the whole alternative whatever, grunge thing, because that’s when it started to heat up. Hard times are good for real music.

Should Lemonheads fans hope that this album doesn’t do very well, then?

With any luck, this record will do terrible, and we’ll still be working really hard. I’ve been really lucky. I’ve had enough success, and I still want to do better. It’s a good place to be. I wouldn’t know what to do if I sold 10 million records. A lot of bands who do that, their next record is awful or they kill themselves or something like that, or they’re sleeping with eight-year old boys. That’s what happens when you sell millions and millions of records. Look at the Stones—they haven’t put out a good record in ages. They still do a great live show, though.

You’ve seen that up close, I imagine. You’ve had friends who have sold millions of records, have you not?

Totally, yeah. It’s funny, because the press makes it out like we were some kind of critics’ darling band who never sold any records, but we actually sold quite a bit. It’s a Shame About Ray, worldwide I think is about a million records now. It’s enough for me, I’m happy with it. With the internet these days, it’s hard to sell 100,000 records. I’d be very happy to sell 100,000 of this record. Obviously, that’s not what it’s all about. There’s a bigger picture.

Reading the liner notes here I’m wondering why [ex-Doughboys, All Systems Go’s] John Kastner is credited as being “Pittsburgh guidance counselor.”

He helped me write part of the segue into the verses of the song “Pittsburgh,” so I’m chucking him some of the publishing money for that song. He helped me with one section of it, but it’s my song. I’ve done that before with my friend Tom [Morgan], who might have done one little thing in a song, so I chuck him ten percent and that’s that. I think of that as being like a guidance counselor. That’s what they call it in the States, anyway, I don’t know if that’s the term they use in Canada.

They do, actually. You’ve played with All Systems Go, then?

They were on the first Lemonheads reunion tour, which was in South America. That’s really why we’re all here now, because these people did a festival in Brazil of all Brazilian bands doing Lemonheads covers. That inspired me to get the brand name going again. If that’s happening, then fuck it. Then I found the perfect people to call with Bill [Stevenson] and Karl. I didn’t want it to be half-assed. The musicianship had to be ratcheted up quite a bit, and those two are the people to do it with. They’ve got real character and heart in the way they play.

Was that a large festival, or was it just a night in a club?
I don’t think it was that big, but it happened.

Have you seen the Dinosaur Jr. or Sebadoh reunions?

We did a gig in Spain with Dino. My pedals got lost, so I borrowed some of J’s, which was excellent.

Did you automatically play better with his pedals?
Actually, one of them was amazing.

What do you learn from seeing bands like that or the Blake Babies reunite?

It’s just really great. Lou, Murph and J, man, they’re the best band in the land. I definitely prefer them to Nirvana, which might be a controversial thing to say. I just like their style. They’re my favourite band of that era. They’re ridiculously great live. And we got J on the new record, which is great.

What did you learn about reunions from the MC5 experience?
That set me into band mode, that experience.

What about watching those guys recapture something from so long ago?

That was just really fun. I had an amazingly fun time with that. I got a bit of shit about it at the beginning, but I got really good at it by the time we got to Japan. Anyone who was negative about it might have been a little jealous. Singing those songs—“Looking at You” and “Shakin’ Street” and stuff—it was so much fun. I’d be jealous too, if I was watching from the audience.

The first show was in Toronto, wasn’t it?
Yeah, it was rough. I was a little lackadaisacal about it. I knew the records so well, I thought I could just get up there and it would come out of my mouth. But I had to do my homework a bit.

What are your memories of that night in general?

I flubbed the words on one song, and I think people noticed that Mark [Arm of Mudhoney] and I had cheat sheets on the ground. But it was alright. It wasn’t one of the great shows. We started getting really good on the west coast, and by the time we hit the Pacific Rim it really took off.

I was doing some research, and the last time you played Toronto, it sounds like you left the stage early because people were talking in the back.

I did a full set. Saturday night is not a smart night to do an acoustic set, I’ve learned. People want to hear drums that night. It was a perfectly good gig, but it ended semi-sad. We’re going to erase all that with this show, which will be a joyous rock’n’roll experience.

For a guy who’s happily married, there are two very bitter love songs here [“Become the Enemy,” “Baby’s Home”]…

Yeah, you know.

You didn’t write either of them, though.

That’s the thing. (laughs). I’m off the hook. But I love singin’ ‘em.

Where do you think they fit into the record? Because one of them is really violent.

It’s a song I’ve wanted to do since 1991 when my friend Tom wrote it. He was 19 then, and you can tell that he’s trying to sound more mature than he was at the time. It’s a well-crafted song and one of my favourites. It’s great live.

Can you talk about what “In Passing” is about? [“You’re welcome/ you just overstayed it/ I simplify the card was dealt before you played it/ Your sense of community is kinda dated/ Taking care Jerusalem is locked and gated/ Making sure we all hate who we always hated/ Till your lust for blood is well and truly sated.”]

It’s a bit of stream of consciousness, it’s a bit of politicising on the second verse. It’s a bit of a jam. There’s a Sabbath part on the middle, complete with sirens. It’s the most typically Lemonheads song on the record. I don’t know really know what it’s about. It’s about Bush sending people to war and whimsical wordplay in that not-really-the-best-song-on-the-record kind of deal. I like it, though.

I’m curious, because that and “Let’s Just Laugh”…

That’s my favourite one.

George Bush has inspired a lot of previously apolitical people to come out and comment, and to the best of my knowledge, that song is the first time you’ve written something that could be construed as political.

Yeah, yeah, exactly. “We got two more years to kill.” Exactly. “I hope you’re tried and fried before you’re finally fired.” That was fun to write.

At the same time it seems to glorify apathetic defeat. [“Let’s just laugh/ we can never do anything about anything anyway/ Whatever will be I guess we’ll see/ so let’s just laugh.”]

Yeah, it slacks off majorly. It’s an apathy anthem.

It’s a real mixed message.

Yeah, it is. Ying and yang. Me and Bill, we wrote it together. I wrote the angry part and he wrote the beautiful chorus.

What’s going on with Garth Hudson [keyboardist of The Band] on the last track, “December”?

Yeah, he’s all over the place, man! That was inspired by the whole MC5 thing too. I’ve been listening to that song “Skunk (Sonicaly Speaking)” a lot. It’s the most free-form shit we’ve ever done, for like two minutes. I’m really proud of that, I love it. I’m making these weird noises in the back, too. I you listen closely, there’s a lot of shit going on in there! And I found this tape of people reading from this weird—I don’t even know what they’re reading. You hear that on there, in the jam, people’s voices and stuff? In the old Lemonheads we’d always put cassette stuff in songs. It’s sort of vintage.

Garth Hudson is not a guy I’d really expect to find on a Lemonheads record.

No shit! It was a lucky thing. We did a thing together. Hal Wilner set this thing up together in 98 where we all read Edgar Allan Poe poems together on Hallowe’en, and he was playing this church organ. I met him, so I thought it would be okay if I called him and said, ‘Please, please, please play on the record.’

So you purposely left that part in the song open for him to go nuts.

Yeah, that’s where he shines.

Are you based in New York or Paris these days?
It’s a dream we have to live in Paris. We were just there the other day and we were tantalised again. But we’re in New York, the prison built and guarded by its own inmates. I think it’s in that movie My Dinner with Andre, where everyone’s always saying they’re going to leave New York but they never do. Manhattan is an addictive place.

What keeps you there, then?
When you go anywhere else, everything seems so slow.

What attracts you to Paris, then?
It’s so quiet and beautiful and I love French. My wife’s English so we can live there, and if you can do things, sometimes you want to. We want to move to Madrid, too. I don’t know what we’re going to do.

One final question, and it’s a ridiculous one.

Oh, good.

Speaking of Paris, you played the Elysee Montmartre in 1994. A 16-year old girl gave you a hand crafted Fimo necklace shaped as a lemon.

Oh, I remember that! Michael Hutchence and Helena Christiansen were there. He was a really nice guy. We were labelmates and all, and his girlfriend was awful nice, too. I remember that night, and I do remember that thing. I think I still have it in a box somewhere.

Well, she’s going to be at the Toronto show, so I’ll let her know.

Cool. We’re totally looking forward to it, coz I love Lee’s Palace. Call me hokey, but I love it.

You’ve played there many times, right?

I think in the 80s. We played with the Nils there, I think.

Oh, you probably heard that tragic news.

Yeah, just horrible. I loved that guy’s songs. Kastner told me all about it.



cee ehm said...

I'm no Dando hater, but I still think the greatest thing he ever did was inspire Ben Lee to write that great song about him.

mmmbarclay said...

very true. even better is the version by kathleen hanna (le tigre, bikini kill" that closes one of the kill rock stars comps of the mid-90s. it was years before i realised she didn't write it. i thought it was about kurt cobain, her bandmate's ex-boyfriend.

cee ehm said...

Actually, the Kathleen Hanna version is the one I'm most familiar with as well. I'm pretty sure I played it way more than I should have on my radio show, back in the day. I frequently get the line "He looks real good and drinks Diet Coke" going through my head. Ahhhh, I wish I WAS him...

Anonymous said...

If any one cares, Evan Dando sings on a song on the new Nils album Shadows and Ghosts. The song is Lonesome Rendezvous. It is pretty good. In fact the whole album is pretty damn good.