Interview with Evan Dando by Jud Cost
From The Bob, Winter 1993
Waiting for Evan Dando to arrive at Slim's in San Francisco for tonight's soundcheck, I worry that I won't be able to find him. I've only seen his band, Lemonheads, once before; back in 1989, and can't recall what he looks like. But when he confidently stride in, there's no mistaking who he is. Dando's larger-than-life presence - blond big-kahuna surfer hair with even bigger guitar- illuminates him as the man to talk to, just as surely as if he were dipped in candy-apple metal-flake paint and carrying stone tablets.
Lemonheads probably pictured themselves in 1986, when Taang! Records release their first album, Hate Your Friends, as snivelling punks, no-hopers who would extricate an album from their systems and then get on with the rest of their lives. A mini-career? Pretty doubtful. But there was always something enticing in their frantically deliberate music that hinted at fellow Bostonian smart-bombs, Mission of Burma, but captured in an earlier stage of development. Succeeding layers of the onion (two more albums on Taang! - Creator in 1987 and Lick the following year) uncovered the songwriting prowess of their wellspring, Evan Dando, to the point where they finally hit pay-dirt in 1989 and got signed to Atlantic.
Original bassist Jesse Peretz split after their 1990 Atlantic debut, Lovey, which further pushed Dando's Husker-ish loud pop into the spotlight, though still holding onto a security blanket of flailing drums, mixed way up front, a la Burma. Two years later, it's down to just Dando and whoever he can find at the time to fill the other two lemon suits. Juliana Hatfield (from the Blake Babies) and David Ryan completed the lineup for new album, It's A Shame About Ray. But it's two different bodies on board for tonight's show.
Perhaps feeling unfettered by any original Lemonheads, Dando can now give full rein to his burgeoning melodic sensibility and follow what he considers to be the shining example of Dinosaur Jr.- "that you can play the stuff you grew up with ...and have a cool rock band [since] it's okay not to be so punk." And Ray certainly brings it all back home, crammed with melodies, hooks, and occasional breaks to spare, but not to the point that the donut has become a sticky bun. There's still plenty of pucker left in this band.
Dando and I eventuallv duck across 11th Street to the Twenty Tank micro brewery, joined later by apprentice journalist an man-about-town John Wesley Harding, to squeeze the last drop of anedotal conviviality our of Boston's favourite citrus expert.
The Bob: You were born in a watershed year for rock music, 1967.
Dando: Yeah, in the spring. The next year my parents were gonna take me and my older sister, who was three, to Woodstock, but they didn't. They were really into rock. My dad played guitar, and was really into Jesse Colin Young. Leonard Cohen, and Neil Young. Ever since I was a little kid, Neil Young's been drilled into my head.
I grew up in Essex, Massachusetts, north of Boston, and moved to the city when I was nine, and that's where I went to high school. I remember hearing lots of soul records also as a little kid - Marvin Gaye, Al Green, the Isley Brothers, and the Jackson Five. "Don't Mess With Bill" - that kinda stuff.
The Bob: Did any of the social upheaval from the '60s seep in as well?
Dando: Right off the bat, that Manson thing happened, and that totally freaked me out. I've been obsessed with the Manson thing, ever since I was a little kid, reading the books about it. I've read 'em all. That's why I think a bunch of kids from that age are really detached and hopeless, because they grew up with all that weird shit, from Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy to Jim Jones.
A lot of people give you endless amounts of shit for being into Manson. I can understand it can be looked upon as really lame to be into it. But these people were not good, or any kind of noble. There's just something in there that's interesting. What's wrong with thinking or talking about it, and learning about it? It was my first vision of America.
The Bob: Did you have any trouble sleeping as a kid?
Dando: I was susceptible to being freaked out as a child. I couldn't sleep with the light out until I was like seven. I have really had nightmares still and walk in my sleep, and yell and scream. I have dreams like earth is falling on me, and I have torun away from under it.
When-I was a little kid I was driving with mv dad, standing on the seat next to him, when he had to stop suddenly, and I got knocked out for an hour. But I've met a lot of people who've been hit on the head really hard when they were real young, and it's done them a lot of good. I think it makes you unable to pay attention to anything but the things you're really interested in. So, if I have a kid, you know what I'm gonna do [laughs].
The Bob: Would you like to interview Charlie Manson if you had a chance?
Dando: Oh, definitely. But I'd rather let other people do it. I'd just watch the video tapes and get a kick out of it. I should talk to him sometime, I guess. I've written a lot of songs about the issues he touched upon in his songs. In "Die Right Now" I'm singing from his perspective - his whole theory about it you're willing to die right now for something, you can live forever. There's a Manson sample in that song too. And we covered one of his songs, "Your Home Is Where You're Happy" - that's Charlie's.
The Bob: Did you say interested in music through your high school years?
Dando: When I was in fourth grade I started getting into my own kind of music. That would be Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Then, when I was 13, I got into the Stooges and the Velvet Underground. When I was in high school I just totally listened to jazz one year - Clifford Brown, Max Roach, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk - really cool stuff. And Elvin Jones, who is totally out of control.
Jon Convertino [Giant Sand's drummer] went to see Elvin recently at a really small club, and after the set Elvin actually sat at their table. They had a big glass of Guinness, and Elvin bums a sip and says "Ice cream." Then he bummed a cigarette, takes a drag and says, "I love tobacco." Two Elvin quotes I like to repeat.
The Bob: Do you listen to much current music?
Dando: I'm really into old music, like Charlie Parker and Hank Williams. I figure you can devote some time to what's happening now, but there's so much more stuff to check into from the past. Like the Louvin Brothers, who wrote "The Christian Life" from the Byrds album Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. And I'm a big fan of Gram Parsons.
The Bob: How do you feel about the occasional critical comparisons of your voice to Michael Stipe's?
Dando: I don't like R.E.M. I've never liked R.E.M. I always wonder why people say that. Maybe it's because my voice has the same basic range as that guy. That's just coincidental. I'm sure those guys were into Gram Parsons too.
The Bob: Did you have any bands in high scool before Lemonheads?
Dando: Me and Ben Deily from the original Lemonheads would play Minor Threat and Black Flag songs, and the Angry Samoans. And that's how we got started. We were gonna call the band Rat Velvet. Lemonheads was our friend Ivan's idea. It's a candy, sweet on the outside and sour on the side.
I'd see Hüsker Dü every time they played Boston. they took that whole loud pop music concept another step. Our second show ever, in 1986, was new music night at Chi Chi The Bear's In Cambridge - a couple of bands, then the Pixies, then us, their third gig, our second. Boston was, for me, Mission of Burma, and then all the cool hardcore stuff like SS Decontrol, the Freeze, and Gang Green. But my favourite Boston music anytime, of course, is Jonathan Richman. I got that Mohawk Modern Lovers album [Kim Fowley demos] with all the best version when I was 14. He played a Gram Parsons memorial part in L.A. in 1972.
The Bob: I bet you didn't mellow out any in college.
Dando: I didn't go to college, but I had a wicked good high school education. It was so good I did five years of it. Because I took way too much drugs in the ninth, grade they said I'd better do that again. My high school English teacher, Mr. John Hughes, would write this thing on my papers, "DBATSO"-which means 'Don't Be Afraid To State the Obvious.' I'm finally realizing that I learned a lot in high school. Ray is the first album where I've employed his advice.
But I couldn't hack college. I did one semester at Skidmore, north of Albany, and everyone fuckin' hated me, the students and the teachers. Everyone complained that I didn't want to be there. It was a country club atmosphere, and I didn't fit in, with my 0.32 grade point average. Now my learning is about travelling and checking out different cultures.
The Bob: How did you meet up with Juliana Hatfield of the Blake Babies?
Dando: We became friends six years ago, when we were both starting our bands. She's just a reallv cool girl into music. I like girls who play music. I played bass for a year in Blake Babies, and John Strohm has played in Lemonheads.
The Bob: Did arry Boston labels other than Taang! show any interest in Lemonheads' first recordings?
Dando: We were always a Taang! thing. It's just this guy Curtis, who's really good at remaining a kid. He's cool and has good ears, and put out great stuff like Mission Of Burma and Moving Targets.
The Bob: How did you make the leap from Taang! to Atlantic?
Dando: We covered "Luka", a Suzanne Vega song, and that went number one in Rockpool. In 1989 the major labels swept in and signed Sonic Youth and Soundgarden, and we got signed. I don't think they really knew what they were gonna do with us. We were in on the wave of that major label thing, only now being realized, like Nirvana.
The Bob: Howe Gelb of Giant Sand recently told me about a band you and Juliana and he toured with called Fruit Large. How did that come about?
Dando: I used to go to all their live shows - Giant Sand is always amazing live. And I met them when they contacted Juliana about doing something with them. We were all on the soundtrack to a really bad movie, 'Matter of Degrees.' So we did a gig in honor of the first screening. After rehearsing - we just jammed at the theater after the first showing - we were all sitting around, Howe, Juliana, Jon Convertino, and me. We all had on cool Corduroy jackets, a homey little scene, and it looked like a band to me.
We all lost our cool jackets later on the European tour. My manager got us all hundred-dollar round-trip tickets to London, and I'd just broken up with my girlfriend, so I was ready to hit the road again. It turned out to be one of the funniest things I've ever done, because every night we didn't know what the hell we were doing, so we'd just start jamming in D.
Fruit Child, Large was a terrible name. We were ordering dinner one night after rehearsing, and somebody would say, "Gimme a Coke, large." We started with Giant Lemon Babies. I wanted to call it Lemon Sandy Ana - something from every participant. But the four was really cool. No soundchecks. We were determined to just fuck off, plug in our amps, and have a good time. We'd do five Howe-songs, five my-songs. a couple of Juliana's, and some country covers, like "How Much I Lied" bv Gram Parsons. Howe is really a big inspiration. He made me stay in music after we'd had a rough time for awhile.
The Bob: How did you like recording Ray in Los Angeles?
Dando: Well, I was in L.A. way too long. We were doing videos and taking pictures, and it was during the L.A. riots. I couldn't take it any more. One funny thing, though, was meeting Gunnar Nelson there. He was in the same studio producing a metal band, and didn't know who I was. We got on pretty well, playing songs to each other and stuff. I just said to him one day, "You wanna come in and do some 'OO-EE-OOs?"' I made him sing a part from Ed Sanders' [of the Fugs] book, "The Farpily." In the book he's always going "OO-EE-OO" after saying something really creepy. So I made Gunnar Nelson, this LA. establishment kinda guy, sing some Ed Sanders.
The Bob: I've seen you lumped together with the East Coast grunge contingent, like Dinosaur, Jr. That must make you smile.
Dando: I think they're a major band that said to everyone, You can all relax now and play the kind of music you want to play, which is the Neil Young-ish stuff you grew up with-do a couple of leads here and there, and have a cool rock band. It's okay not to be so punk.
The Bob: You and Howe hung out for a while in New York with Syd Straw?
Dando: I went back to CB's with Syd one night, to this Richard Hell reading party-cool poems-right after Johnny Thunders died, and wound up talking to all those people who toured with the Dolls and the Heartbreakers. They cordially invited me to come to Johnny's funeral the next day. So I went. There were 120 people, really small, at St. Anastacia's church on 45th Street in Queens-a traditional Catholic fiuneral. At the very end they played Johnny's first version of "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory," when he played it into a condenser mike. It was so heartbreaking. They had a black El Camino full of flowers, sent by Motley Crue and Aerosmith. And all the Dolls were there.
We drove to the internment, and everyone was given a rose to approach the coffin and then kiss the rose and lay it on top. Me and Jerry Nolan and Syl Sylvain had to piss really bad because we'd been drinking beer, so we run down the hill to piss in this little shack in the cemetery. By the time we got back, everyone had left, and they were dropping Johnny into the fucking ground. Syl got into throwing the first bit of dirt on him, so they let him throw the dirt, and he's yelling "You motherfucker."
That was really intense. But the last thing Syl says to me is, "If you ever need a cheap producer, call me."