“HEL-LLLLO?” says Evan Dando, his unmistakable husky voice filling my receiver. Then he calls to someone in the same room: “Am I talking into the right side of this thing?” On the other side of the line, I cannot for the life of me figure out what he’s talking about. The phone? Does a phone have sides that can be considered debatable? Or maybe a different Apple product of some type that he’s using as a phone? Seems more plausible. Whatever it is, the longtime leader of the Lemonheads, performing Sept. 27 at C2SV Music Festival in San Jose, is struggling with technology today. An earlier number I called didn’t even ring, it just went dead after I dialed it. Turns out it broke on him, and he hadn’t realized it.
But now he’s on the line, and just a couple of minutes into our conversation, I’m reminded why Dando is the most fun interview in rock ’n’ roll, besides maybe Lou Reed. At one point, the noise in the background suggests he is definitely playing ping-pong while he talks to me. The first time I interviewed him, back in the ’90s, he asked if we could stop the interview for a couple of minutes because the new Beck video had just come on, and since I hadn’t seen it, he gave me a play-by-play call throughout.
It’s more than that, though. Dando manages to seem both scattered and thoughtful at the same time. He often responds to questions with a warm, drawn-out “yeah,” the kind that makes you feel like you just said the most insightful thing ever about his music. Since I’ve listened to his music for a long time, I have a lot of ideas to bounce off him, and sometimes it seems like he’s flipped it around and is interviewing me.
For instance, I’ve long felt that his records after 1990’s Lovey—1992’s It’s A Shame About Ray, 1993’s Come on Feel the Lemonheads and 1996’s Car Button Cloth—form a trilogy of work that in retrospect is remarkably cohesive both in its sonic landscape and its themes.
“Yeah. They definitely are,” Dando says. “They’re the three Atlantic records after we sort of broke a little bit. Lovey is not really a part of it. It’s definitely a trilogy.”
For one thing, those are the records that defined his ability to write epically melodic pop songs that hide a dark lyrical core. It’s perhaps best exemplified in “If I Could Talk I’d Tell You” from Car Button Cloth, which matched a nursery-rhyme melody with lyrics like “Khmer Rouge, genocide quoi/Your place or Mein Kampf, now I’m giving the dog a bone.” Not necessarily what the world was expecting from the man who had broken out with covers of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” and Robyn St. Clare’s “Into Your Arms.”
“It’s deceptively bright sounding,” Dando admits of “If I Could Talk I’d Tell You.” But really that dark/light contrast shouldn’t have been a surprise. It grew out of the band’s early, punkier years, and as Dando’s songwriting matured, it found its way into fan favorites from “It’s A Shame About Ray” to “Rudderless” to “Hospital”—the latter a recollection of his own time in rehab, recovering from crack cocaine addiction in the mid-’90s, that nonetheless glows with the repeated lines “Green, green leaves/Falling from the trees.”
“I always liked that sour-sweet, the combination of the happy, jaunty sounding stuff with some messed-up lyrics. It comes naturally,” says Dando, making it clear why the band’s name is so apt.
Dando is full of the same contradictions himself; he’s proud of records like Come On Feel, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, but he also regrets falling for the music industry’s desire to market his looks more than his music.
“They managed to screw up the record cover. They changed it,” he says. “We had this nice cover, but they wanted to see my eyes and stuff. I totally knuckled under on it, too. I did. I did a lot of stuff like that back then, because I was sort of naïve and young, and I just wanted to be in a band, and it was working out well. But that record’s really good, I like it.”
Rumors have been flying about the record he’s working on now, but most of them are either false or yet to be decided. Ryan Adams is not involved, though Dando says they do want to work together at some point, and original Lemonhead Ben Deily—who co-founded the band with Dando in 1989, while they were in high school together in Boston—may or may not be, either. (He and Deily would like to do something to commemorate the British re-release of their first albums Hate Your Friends, Creator and Lick.) But the album is coming, regardless, Dando says.
“I know my next record’s gonna be really great, so I want to spend some extra time on it,” he says. “It really, really has to come out by spring, so I’ve gotta finish it this winter.”