Interview with The Lemonheads by David Cavanagh
From Select Magazine October 1993
"Quiet at the back! Mr Dando can sit here all day if he needs to..." Follow the increasingly knackered, confused and generally non-linear Lemonheads from a prestige date in the rock 'n' roll maelstrom that is Minsthorpe High School (!) and beyond. The coach awaits: grab the back seats for Our Day Out Of It...
Here's the scale of the indictment. A conclusive 80 pupils have so far quilled the petition expressing the sixth form's collective "anger and disgust" at not being able to wear jewellery to school. Look at us, they say: we're old enough to get married, drive a car and vote. And the H Samuel Nazis are giving us you can't wear jewellery. Wherefore art the justice in that? An ear-ring coup is being mooted; it's good form for a sixth former to be able to flash the old tomfoolery when they're driving the wife to the polling station of a morning.
Lucy's banquet, meanwhile, is being finalised with some terse squirts from the cream canister in the general direction of the strawberry scones. Quiche sleeps under cling film. Coffee is being served to a multi-media assembly that includes senior pupils, the school support band Blue Orange, East West representatives, The Lemonheads' crew, Andi Peters and a team from BBCl's Saturday morning cheese-a-round Live And Kicking, whose big furry boom mikes eaves-drop on Dando's snuffly discomfort. If one more portable phone goes off, you surmise, the Dando fringe and jeans will come off, to reveal a functional green mohican and an axe.
This is Minsthorpe High School in South Elmshall (nr Pontefract) in Yorkshire. What could have turned out a pleasant warm-up for the tour is instead a full-on media cavalcade that constantly dares the passive Dando shore to burst its banks.
"Minsthorpe," he says thoughtfully. "Mi-i-innnsthorpe."
Upstairs a nicotine party led by drummer David Ryan has commandeered the staff room for cigarette purposes. He mingles with intrigued teachers, one of whom says hello and offers to go and fetch his "photographs of rude lemons". That, you would have to agree, is an introduction and a half. After a while you get used to all the bells going off.
Back in the common room, Dando explains that The Lemonheads began as a high school band, and immediately starts coughing. Nic Dalton is shown some designs for posters that the pupils have drawn: lemons oozing blood, men's heads as lemons, the band's logo over a Satanic underlay. "These are sick," he raves. Three hours till show-time. Will Dando make it?
Arriving in Yorkshire, he had been diverted to a doctor's surgery. Diagnosis: ear infection. In search of good health and smooth voice Dando has kicked everything from crack to snouts, caught a cold, exacerbated it on a 10-day European press tour-stroke-flying marathon, and now his immune system is letting him know about it. He looks like he needs about 12 hours' sleep, which is interesting because after today's autographs, photo session, Q&A session, soundcheck, gig and interview with the school paper, he has a punishing drive back to London tonight and a dawn wake-up call to get him to Deptford in time to record for Raw Soup, from where he will go to The Big Breakfast, where he can finally crash out on a bed. Sadly, Paula Yates will also be on it, and another one of those fuzzy boom mikes will be dangling over their heads.
He goes for a stroll on the basketball court and is followed by the cameras. Welcome to your tour warm-up, sir. We'll be around in a few moments to serve Fanta, cola and trauma.
Who'd be Dando?
Melanie Jones is the striking woman with henna'd hair who has given Minsthorpe its bizarre rock 'n' roll kudos, by arranging gigs over the past few years by The House Of Love, The Wonder Stuff, Cud, Red Kross and others. She probably wasn't, the first teacher to rue the fact that her pupils couldn't get into over-18 gigs in Sheffield. But she was unquestionably the first to get the Gigolo Aunts to do something about it.
"I'm a massive fan of this band, believe it or not," she says of Dando's mob, "and I probably won't see them play. There's too much to do. But everybody else'll probably have a really good time."
It's a good set-up. Blue Orange play first (they're OK) and the visiting band takes time out to advise the pupils on points of musicality, instru mentation, engineering and songwriting. Tickets are sold internally at about £2.50.
Don't underestimate these kids, she warns: they're a lot more discerning than you think. So Dando's stamina index takes another body blow. Now he has to go out there and prove himself.
Kaleidoscopic butterfly banners block out the last gloomy light of sundown and Dando finally snaps. He's just noticed that the band's merchandising company are selling T-shirts in the corridor. At a school gig. What goes through these people's heads? The T-shirts say `My Drug Buddy' and look
nice and floppy on the 13-year-old bodies.
The two girls waiting outside the plush hotel in Kensington might be hoping to catch a glimpse of
Debbie Gibson, who is staying here for the entire West End run of Grease. Then the phone rings in Dando's room and it becomes apparent who they're really waiting for. Who'd be Dando?
The bus is being loaded to leave for the Corn Exchange in Cambridge, kick-off of the tour proper. In the hotel, David Ryan's £163 extras bill is being discussed frostily by German tour manageress Gabriella, while he sits in the foyer and grins
the look of the truly guilty. How many phone calls
can a man make? Nic, the Australian Lemonhead, sports a terrific jumper heavily influenced by Piet
Mondrian, star-bright, right-angled and no green.
Dando has cheered up and mutated into Evan, a gangly triumph of the smile glands. Save for complaining that he can smell "candle wax", possibly off his own hair, he is a man of health. He never did make it to Raw Soup, As he passes the two girls outside you get a peek at his international communicating skills. He'll look at how they're dressed - " Oh. I have a hat that colour". He'll listen to the accent - "You're Irish? I spent three weeks in Bray as an exchange student when I was 17". And he'll move on, almost bowing, a man born lop-sided.
His voice is strained. As Minsthorpe's sweaty generation battle to wave into Andi Peters' camera lens, the Dando strains evaporate completely on 'Into Your Arms' and he is instantly immersed in reverb. allowing him to surf a little. At the end of t he song he turns away helplessly. How he still pulls out a moving 'Big Gay Heart' is your guess.
It's rough, but he's determined to see it through, with a combination of fast songs and effusive apologies. Then it finally occurs to him to say something that would encapsulate the poor singing, his cranky mood, the T-shirt thing, the age of the pupils, the presence of the TV cameras and the very nature of the Dando animal.
"Don't take drugs," he pleads, holding up his hands. But he's already played `My Drug Buddy' and anyway, coming from a man like Dando, the eye contact always risks being bloodshot.
As the bus moves away from the Hotel Trust House Opulence and into the west London traffic Evan inserts a tape of the `Heads' recent Mark Goodier session. Unfortunately, he taped it at high speed, so
all the songs sound comically fast, and the Evan timbre uncannily like Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze. In
'Big Gay Heart' he's not allowed to say "suck my dick", so he compromises with "stroke my brick",
still sounds like 'prick'. Strawberries are handed out, it's some of the same stuff they got yesterday
and a few are white and mouldy. He settles back.
It's an enjoyable ride. All three Lemonheads are smart, funny people, not just Evan. On the new album 'Come On Feel The Lemonheads' (which Nic and David only heard for the first time a few days
ago), the pedal steel on `Big Gay Heart' ruined the song, reckons Nic. Evan is shocked. Ruined, really? Ruined, seriously? As in I can't even listen to it? They josh about it for a while, swap the Goodier for 'Blue' by Joni Mitchell and then argue about whether or not it's cool to sing along to tapes in the bus. They do it anyway, Nic hitting the falsetto notes far better than Evan.
Landmarks are pointed out: Westminster Abbey, the Tower Of London, a Lemonheads poster with only Evan's face on it. Nic's not too happy about this, so Evan apologises and says he'll sort something out. Otherwise, they talk about Teenage Fanclub, Juliana Hatfield (inevitably) and Michael Jackson, and stop off at a garage to score Wispa bars and Worcester Sauce crisps. After a while Evan pops back for a discussion.
There's no point even saying goodbye to those woozy eyelids. It's adios Minsthorpe and back to Wakefield to eat for everyone else, but straight to the bus for Dando. As Melanie Jones finalises her
cunning plan to get Porno For Pyros to play the school, the Lemonheads bus hits the motorway and
makes for London. David Ryan settles uncomfortably on the floor, his head inches away from a girder-like tube of metal. That could prove a little nasty if we go off an embankment, he thinks. He wakes up in London; the bus has stopped. The driver is examining the tyres. He assumes they've just had a blow-out. To his amazement, he sees that one of the tyres has been completely let down. The
Lemonheads have just driven 300 miles with a slashed tyre. The great drummer God has yet again looked after one of his own.
"I'm happy because we're making gradual progress I think," Evan says, chiselling his legs down between
the airline seats as the bus negotiates the M11 to
Cambridge. "It (the album) was a little bit of a
problem because they (the management) had us
doing things the whole time we were recording.
Doing interviews, playing these little radio wanks every time, so that it was a very interrupted recording process. And we went on tour a bunch of times during the record. Next time I make a record I'm gonna make it in about a month."
Are you getting used to talking about yourself?
"Suppose so, yeah. You can never tell how fun it's going to be. A lot of it's really fun - it's like analysis. Sometimes it's fun to talk about stuff."
What was it like when you couldn't talk?
"I kind of liked it, actually. I was like a silent observer... Just looking around and I went to have pizza and I wasn't allowed to talk and it was fun."
How did you order then? Point?
"Well, I was usually with somebody. My manager was with me the whole time. I'd write it. I had pads of paper always. And you know the thing about - I don't know if I've established this wellenough, but the whole fuckin' stupid drug thing that came up, that all started because the NME
came all that way from London to talk to me in LA and I wasn't allowed to talk, so I sort of felt like I owed an explanation. That was the only reason and I was thinking it was off the record when I wrote it."
His voice rises in tone hopefully. Nic puts on a compilation tape: Wire, the Flamin' Groovies, The
Saints, The Stooges and Husker Du. Evan had been hanging out with some heavy rock'n' roll personnel (unidentifiable for legal reasons), smoking crack and heroin. He was already known as someone who would not necessarily say no ('My Drug Buddy' etc), but not many figured him as a crackhead.
"And then I decided to cut my losses and talk
completely frankly about it. But it's getting a little
bit tiresome, really, the whole thing."
Was it just a few parties that got out of hand, or were you genuinely in trouble?
"Well, um, just the fact that I talked about it was stupid, you know, I'd rather just not talk about that side of my life. It's stupid that I talk too openly sometimes. But what it was was, yeah, sort of every week or two I'd have a binge - and I was actually pretty cautious about it - and then for a week I got
pretty bad, and I stopped of my own volition"
(This is crack and heroin he's stopping of his own volition, remember.)
"I didn't feel very good for a lot of days," he admits sadly.
Now he has learned his lesson and won't be
doing any of that stuff again. That stuff being talking about drugs, rather than drugs themselves.
"I just know from now on not to ever talk about that kind of stuff again. It's just stupid. People are too interested in it."
You do Gram Parsons songs, you wear the T-shirts, you've stayed at the Chateau Marmont in LA like he did. You're not trying to live the Gram lifestyle, are you?"
"No, I mean, I lived - I was way into drugs like before I ever heard of Gram Parsons. You know, I've given them up now, but Gram Parsons just seemed like another kind of guy that was really out of it and wrote cool music, you know, like Keith
Richards or whatever. He (Gram) taught me a lot about singing. because he just relaxed and sang the vocals, so I like learned a lot from him in that way."
Do you think he would sound anything like The
Lemonheads now if he was still alive?
"I don't know," he grins. "I mean. he was definitely bound for what happened to him (death). I'm not into conjecture that way. But, OK. I could guess that he would end up sounding like - I mean, he might have cleaned up and ended up pretty much like Randy Travis or something. He might have been really boring after a while. Who knows?"
Is it difficult to be a nice guy when people are constantly hassling you
"Sort of is, yeah. Sometimes it gets frustrating. When I snap I just sort of run away. I just sort of go somewhere and slam the door, don't deal with it any more."
What happens behind the door?
"I would smoke, if I only, still smoked. But I'm pretty pliable, I have noticed. I can put up with a lot of horse-shit. I don't know why, but I can."
He's a good raconteur. He'll talk of anything: Morrissey's first name ("what is it - John?"). His
old girlfriend Hannah, with whom he shared a passion for "taking downers and listening to Black
Sabbath". Gabi, the Austrian girl who followed. The
song on 'It's a Shame About Ray that is about them both. The first three Lemonheads album. 'Hate Your Friends', 'Creator' and 'Lick', pop-hardcore learning processes which he would like "to be fuckin' destroyed". Early gigs where he and Ben Deily would swap guitar and drums onstage. The very first EP, 'Laughing All The Way To The Cleaners', which they put out before they'd even played a gig, on the legendary Huh Bag/Amory Arms label. Taang! Records, who signed them and said they sounded like The Lurkers. Plans, even further back, to call themselves The Whelps ("you know like a little dog"). And Jesse Peretz, who used to play bass but now shoots the band's videos.
Now Evan's in a band so bigtime a slight change in name, from Lemonheads to The Lemonheads, had to become an actual legal document. Nic, by the way, still says Lemonheads, but then Nic's commitment is a little less than total.
Evan keeps talking, and 40 minutes fly by. You could be out the other side of Cambridge and into Derbyshire without noticing, if he was your sputnik. Oh yeah, remember when that band he had around 1990 with Juliana and Giant Sand's Howe Gelb, called Fruit Child, Large (the comma was important). Or the Lemonheads line-up that had three Harvard students, making them possibly the best-educated band in America. Evan himself lasted 60 days at college. "Bullet Lavolta, too", he nods. "Bunch of those guys went to Harvard."
Evan, psyched-out by the others' stellar grades, feared himself a loser. This was a good year before the sell-out European tours that convinced him to keep plugging away. So he left the band in '88 and spent eight months in the dropout-compatible Blake Babies with Juliana, playing bass and singing backing vocals.
In the film which will eventually be made about his life, the next scene will have him coming back to the Lemonheads' practice room and saying: "OK, guys, I'm back on one condition. From now on we'll be doing things my way." (Cut to care speeding evenly down the freeway. DJ introduces 'Different Drum' by the Lemonheads. Jesse: "I guess you were right, Evan.")
The weather is holding. Evan Dando, much older but still strangely fabulous, loosk out the smoked glass window of the tour bus. It's slowing down. Outside, a spire dreams, visbily.
"So this is Cambridge?" he says. "Maybe I'll meet my future wife here."
You can tell you're in a literature city when you see book banks in the street. As in bottle banks, except these are ones where you put your unwanted books. "Yes please," they enthuse: "Books, paperbacks." "No thanks," they warn darkly: "Newspapers, mags, phone books." Four girls await the Evan touch outside the venue.
"This place really reminds me of Princetown, New Jersey," he decides. "No, it actually reminds me of New Haven, Connecticut."
While the others grab some food in the Corn Exchange's catering area, Evan slowly makes out the set-list, canvassing opinions on each entry. Too many old songs? Not enough? Is it OK to, like, play songs they haven't heard before? Any of you guys know 'Mallo Cup'?
Nic, meanwhile, explains the story behind the banana photography on the album sleeve. That is an actual Velvet Underground banana. He went to see them play on the reformation tour, introduced himself shyly and ended up swapping autographs with Maureen Tucker, whose son is a big Lemonheads fan. The banana has, regrettably, over-ripened and had to be put down.
"Can we do, like, 'Frank Mills'?" Evans wants to know. 'Mrs Robinson' is not suggested.
"We don't like her very much," explains David.
David Ryan, at 29, is the oldest Lemonhead. he has heard the new album three times. He and Nic played their parts and split, Nic to Sydney and David back to Boston. Evan stayed in LA to finish the record.
"I'd heard stories from mutual friends who'd gone out there," says David, "and the environment was so wretched when the three of us were out there, we'd just go back to the hotel and stare at the walls. Nic and I then left and I think he was probably kind of lonely. And there's plenty of weirdos in LA."
Were the rumours all completely accurate, do you think?
"You hear different stories. I don't think they're entirely accurate. I didn't know what his thing was. I don't quite understand this talking to the press about it."
But did you worry that it might split the band?
"Yeah," he says flatly. "Because I need a job. And I also don't want to see Evan hurt himself."
So relaxed he's virtually bent double backwards over a dressing room chair, David is candid about wanting to "have a life" outside the band. The Lemonheads machine disgusts him at times, and he still reckons they were "tricked" into recording 'Mrs Robinson' - they recorded it in good faith as a promo for the video release of the movie and awoke one day to find it released as a single. On principle, they have refused to play it since. In Boston he plays drums in another band, called Fuzzy.
Music filters through into the dressing room via a little speaker on the wall. It's Eugenius sound-checking out on the big stage. The bootlegging possibilities are enormous.
Then David opens up a little. He reveals that 'Hannah And Gabi' is opne of his all-time favourite songs. Fifty percent of the times they play it live, he cries at some point during the song.
The University Arms Hotel is the kind of place where the bellboys help you with the clues to The Daily Telegraph crossword. Nic Dalton looks as out of place as a small leopard in the Fenners Bar, segued between stiff senior citizens in cravats nursing G&Ts. A party of eight MCC types are loudly discussing cricket at a nearby table: if you're going with Stewart, one of them says, I'd expect to see a spinner and Bruce Roberts there, just in case someone tosses him up a half-volley. (Derision. "But Russell's seen off Bishop. He'd be in anyone's running.")
Evan's talking pressure with a game Norwegian, so Nic pops over to the Select table. Nic, 28, is the off-shore business tycoon in the band. He runs the label, Half A Cow, that puts out Smudge (featuring Evan's co-writer Tom Morgan), Godstar (Nic's own band, also featuring Robyn St Clair, ex-The Hummingbirds and the writer of the new Lemonheads single, 'Into Your Arms') and other Australian bands like Sneeze and Hippy Dribble, which he plays with too. He also has a publishing company that handles this incestuous scene. And, back in Sydney, he manages a devoutly left-field bookshop called Half A Cow, which is the largest outlet in the country for Charles Bukowski's work. Bookshops run in the Daltonian blood. His parents met in one. Now they run one in Canberra.
Nic's perspective on The Lemonheads is an interesting one. Come August, when touring ends, he'll probably leave to concentrate on playing guitar and singing in Godstar. In the meantime, he feels obliged to point out that the current 'Heads sound is remarkably similar to that of The Plunderers, a Sydney band he played in for seven years in the 1980s.
"The new Lemonheads sounds like the sort of stuff I've been playing since '84, and Evan would be the first to admit that, because that's what influenced him - when he came to Australia and saw that we were doing. The Half A Cow scene. That's what gave (him) the new direction."
Evan's the man with the universal vision - and the universal face - and Nic respects that. It's not that he's been killing time as a Lemonhead, more tht he feels he's now got his music widely enough respected to be able to buzz back to Sydney and get his own thing going. Lemonheads fans view him as the moody outsider, Evan's frowning mate who disappears into the venue before the van has even fully pulled up.
"We like the fact that we've helped Evan become a pop star," he says on behalf of his Australian buddies. "Because he's also helped our music get known round the world. But the bigger The Lemonheads get the more I want to get away from them. It's just not my scene."
The scene is in its infancy. The Corn Exchange is rammed (the tour's doing so well they're planning a Forum to go with the already sold-out Brixton) and the band's mood switches from nervous to unexpectedly buoyant, all on the basis of their splendid songs and the sheer volume of the audience's appreciation. Four songs in and Evan tries them with 'Down About It' off the new album. "OK, this is a new song, but I guess it's kinda fast and stuff, so y'kno, it's kinda like all the old songs."
He'd been screamed all the way on - screaming, mind, not just high-pitched cheering. This is an audience that goes right down to about 12 or 13. "If I was a maid could I clean your flat?" Yeeeeeessssssss...
During 'Into Your Arms' it goes skyward so the oldies (ie those in their late teens) can enjoy it too. And Evan's solo set is sweet and moving. "It was fun," grins David afterwards. Their tiny dressing room has become a nest for all kinds of international music biz well-wishers, so it's time to shake some hands and tactfully vamoose. Where's Dando?
At that precise moment he appears down the corridor, asking everyone he meets if they know the address of the hotel he's staying in. He has two girls with him who were not with him ten minutes ago. He doesn't bother to introduce them. Finally, someone helps him out on the hotel.
"OK, let's go get something to drink," he says breezily to the girls and they all troop out together.
Everyone in the corridor raises their eyebrows. Oh well, you think. It's his life.