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Interview with Evan Dando by Bob Mehr

From Memphis Commercial Appeal, February 2007

 

Evan Dando turns 40 next month -- and the Lemonheads leader already knows how he's going to celebrate. "I'm going to get really high and jump off a cliff," he says, with a laugh.

Not all that long ago, such a proclamation wouldn't have seemed like a joke. For years, pundits predicted that Dando would expire in that very kind of spaced-out, chemically fueled blaze of glory. After all, no one among the indie-rock generation so perfectly embodied the indulgent sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll lifestyle better than Dando.

Despite being born to privilege and ferociously intelligent, Dando earned his fame by playing punk, acting dumb and partying to mind-numbing excess. During his mid-'90s ascent, Dando displayed a rare talent -- to steal a line from Nick Kent -- for mixing the Byronic with the moronic. Yet his value system -- one that placed veracity above virtue -- always remained consistent. When a New Musical Express interviewer famously asked a mute Dando to explain the reason for his shredded vocal cords, he simply scrawled the words: "Too much crack."

That same off-putting candor and uncontrived oddity made him a target of derision and scorn during his reign as the leader and one constant of the Lemonheads. The band had begun in Boston in 1986 as a high-school hardcore outfit, but eventually, riding Dando's good looks, pop hooks and insouciant charm, mutated into million-selling post-grunge heartthrobs, with albums like 1992's It's a Shame About Ray and 1993's Come On Feel The Lemonheads.

It was the kind of success that the carefree and indulgent Dando was hardly prepared for. He encouraged the inevitable backlash: starring in Gen-X film fodder like "Reality Bites," being photographed in bed with Courtney Love shortly after Kurt Cobain's death, posing for "People" magazine's "50 Most Beautiful" issue, hanging with a run of Hollywood starlets, and even guesting on "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee." At one point, Dando's ubiquitous slacker beefcake image provided inspiration for an anti-fanzine called "Die, Evan Dando, Die."

As sharp as Dando's rise was, his fall was equally precipitous.

A nonstop two-year run of recording, touring and drugs resulted in a well-publicized meltdown at an Australian airport where a bleeding, acid-damaged Dando was arrested in 1995. Rehab followed, as did a new Lemonheads disc, 1996's Car Button Cloth -- but Dando and his music had clearly run out of steam.

Deciding he needed to make a dramatic break, Dando announced the end of the Lemonheads on a stage at the Reading Festival in 1997. Considering he was the band's only real member at the time, it was a curious -- perhaps symbolic -- act of self-immolation. He later asked Atlantic for a release from his contract (the label obliged in exchange for the rights to a Lemonheads best-of), severed ties with his management, and basically disappeared from public view for much of the next seven years.

Quietly, Dando slowly began to rebuild his life, starting with his marriage to Elizabeth Moses, a Newcastle, England-born model, in 2000. Dando re-emerged as a solo artist a year later with 2001's underrated Live At The Brattle Theatre album. Recording casually over a period of years, he also amassed enough new tracks to release 2003's mellow, moody studio effort Baby I'm Bored. But both his solo efforts were received with little fanfare: The live album wasn't even released in the U.S., while Baby I'm Bored, had uninspiring sales.

By 2004, Dando had begun seriously considering a return to the Lemonheads moniker and sound. "The thing that got me thinking about it was a Lemonheads tribute festival that happened in Brazil," says Dando, calling from a tour stop in New Orleans, en route to Memphis for a show at the Young Avenue Deli on Tuesday. "All the bands got up and did our songs. I figured if it was going that good down there with the old material, maybe there was some interest left in the band's music."

A year later, during a tour as a guest singer for a reunited Detroit proto-punk the MC5, Dando began writing a new batch of songs. "I wrote the first one, 'Rule of Three,' in Miami, then I wrote 'Black Gown' in 2005 on tour with the MC5. So I'd started coming up with all these songs that sounded like they belonged on a Lemonheads record."

Dando performed a handful of Lemonheads shows in 2005, including a set in London playing It's A Shame About Ray in its entirety. He'd joined forces with drummer/producer Bill Stevenson, and later bassist Karl Alvarez, both members of legendary pop-punks The Descendents. "When The Lemonheads started, The Descendents were one of our biggest influences," says Dando. "So hooking up with those guys was pretty significant in restarting the band. It was like bringing the whole thing full circle in a way."

In late 2005, Dando began recording at Stevenson's Blasting Room Studios in Fort Collins, Colo., determined to turn out a new Lemonheads album.

The sessions began with Dando and the band working out songs through a series of extended jams. "We did the whole jamming thing for a long time... (Bill) said that recording the album was like having sex, and that jamming was like making out in the car. He had these weird metaphors."

The material on the resulting self-titled album -- released by L.A.-based punk-pop label Vagrant last fall -- ranges from the explosive Paul Weller-inspired "Black Gown," to the melancholy crunch of "Become The Enemy," to the soaring, jangling "Pittsburgh." Stylistically, the disc covers a wide spectrum, touching on elements of the Lemonheads' early punk roots, their mid-period pop material, and the gauzy Americana that Dando has long favored.

"That's what we were trying to do," says Dando. "We were trying to get the spirit of the band on tape. For me it was some attempt to get back to basics and to move forward at the same time."

Although the album mostly features the core of Dando, Stevenson and Alvarez, several guests do check in, including Dinosaur Jr's J. Mascis, the Butthole Surfers' Gibby Haynes, and most notably, The Band's Garth Hudson, who adds his signature organ sound to a handful of cuts. "I did a Poe poetry reading at a church in [New York City] and met Garth there," recalls Dando. "When we were recording, there were a couple songs where we just thought: 'Wouldn't Garth Hudson be perfect for this?' Like the stuff he played on 'Whispering Pines,' all those creepy sounds he makes. I figured that would be a good way to take away the pop-punk aspect, to dilute it heavily with some real Garth Hudson gauze -- he's the master of gauze, that texture."

Dando hasn't been diluting the punk-pop aspect of the Lemonheads live set, however. The current band -- which includes bassist Vess Ruhtenberg and drummer Devon Ashley of Indiana outfit The Pieces -- has been playing sets that mix a half-dozen songs of the new record with the balance coming from the group's catalog, "We do early stuff like 'Hate Your Friends' and even 'Mad,' which is the first song I wrote for Lemonheads. We go all the way back."

Dando is planning on looking through his back pages even further for a forthcoming expanded reissue of It's A Shame About Ray, which Rhino/Atlantic plans to release this year. The disc will include an extra disc of bonus tracks, including the original home demos Dando recorded.

Dando hopes to reissue Baby I'm Bored as well. Even though the disc sold fewer than 20,000 copies, he remains particularly proud of the record -- comparing it to other "lost classics" like Bobby Charles' similarly homespun 1971 self-titled album, a particular Dando favorite. "Baby I'm Bored is definitely one of the best things I've ever done," he says. "I think it could still be discovered."

Dando isn't only looking backward. He's still kicking around the thought of cutting a country covers LP, something he's long been planning to record. "I don't know if it will be sooner or later. But at the moment, I kinda feel like doing another Lemonheads record. It's hard to say right now. When you're on tour it's hard enough to think about getting through the night and then the next day, much less the next record."

But Dando promises that, 40th birthday or not, there will be more records to come. "I'm a very slow learner," he says, laughing. "So I feel like I'm still figuring things out. I've made 11 records, so far. I'd like to make at least five or 10 more before I hang it up -- or decide to jump off a cliff."

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