Search The Line of Best Fit
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Evan Dando
Nine Songs
Evan Dando

Having seen everything from roadkill in Boston mosh pits to a new generation of pop star on Martha's Vineyard, The Lemonheads chief manufacturer Evan Dando walks Will Yarbrough through one song for each of his nine lives.

12 January 2024, 08:00 | Words by Will Yarbrough

Evan Dando can make anyone's song his own. After all, his band first tasted fame with their fast and loose cover of “Mrs. Robinson".

“There are millions of songs that I had to leave off”, Dando says about making his Nine Songs selections. "I mean, we've got 276 years of recorded music on our iPods".

As we FaceTime, he paces around his soon-to-be new home, only stopping to sit with his guitar and strum the songs that did make the cut. “I just picked the ones that I knew I could talk about”.

Of course, Dando has penned plenty of hits himself. For those of us who grew up on Schoolhouse Rock, it’s hard to believe that The Lemonheads started by tapping into the same blown-out vein as Hüsker Dü. “It wasn’t the most groundbreaking”, he says about his band’s punkish beginnings. “Some people called us The Descendaplacements”.

But The Lemonheads always stood out from other '80s hardcore bands. With each album, they added more sugar to the mix. The riffs grew bigger and brighter, more jangly. The vocals evened out, too, smoothed beneath Dando's gentle baritone, without watering down their sneakily sour aftertaste.

"The lyrics are sort of grody, but the music is clean-sounding, which is a good contrast", Dando offers, tying a nice bow around his songwriting's hard candy philosophy.

By the mid-'90s, The Lemonheads had cracked MTV's regular rotation with such nonchalance that other, less handsome acts mistook their stoned apathy for dumb luck. The quality of their releases never dropped off (“Poughkeepsie” is a perfect punch of scrappy power-pop). Still, once their loving odes to drug buddies struck too close a chord with Dando's offstage antics, the ease with which they'd churned out Billboard gold dried up faster than a stick of Zebra gum.

“It's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy”, Dando says about his most recent dry spell. Now, he did deliver the goods on his overdue solo album, but despite two volumes of unexpected covers, we've had to wait an awfully long time for the next Lemonheads album. “You get a stigmatism about not writing a song”, he continues. "It makes you very short-sighted".

Lemonheads Fear Of Living credit Antonia Teixeira
Antonia Teixeira

But even though it hasn't always been pretty, Dando is blessed with a cat-like ability to land on his feet. After flunking out of Skidmore College, within months of moving home to Beantown's North Shore, he and his band of hated high school chums scored a deal with local indie Taang! Records. Although, The Lemonheads might've never gotten started if an earlier setback hadn't pushed him to discover the most important band on his list.

“I had one of these ideological pimples”, he remembers. “I made this qualitative judgment that rock 'n' roll wasn't as good as jazz or classical”. Picturing Dando as an aspiring young music snob is amusing, though that's not exactly how he paints out his teenage self. “I got kicked out of the jazz band. I was 15 and on acid. I played this really good solo during 'God Bless The Child' but didn't know any of the major scales”.

As if to prove a point, he hunches over the guitar and feels his way through a choice cut from The Velvet Underground. “They weren't really applicable though, because that's when I went to see Flipper. It was my first hardcore matinee, but already, I could see my future. Everyone kept telling me, 'Oh, Evan, you should start a hardcore band!'”.

Once The Lemonheads graduated to a major label, the lineup turned into a revolving door of Gen X icons, but Dando remained their ringleader. Even throughout the band's lengthy second hiatus, he stayed in the headlines thanks to cameos in Reality Bites and The Goldbergs, not to mention feuds with Oasis and Jawbreaker.

“I've managed to stay alive somehow”, he says, smirking perhaps at those Hollywood insiders who rumoured him dead. “I haven't had to get another job, which is great, though it's not like I'm afraid of going back and waiting tables”. As if seriously weighing this option, he sets down the guitar. “Actually, I'm terrified of doing that”.

Fear not. Dando has quieted those doubts with the first new Lemonheads song in nearly 20 years.

“I needed the perfect song”, he says, “and this was it”.

“Fear of Living” is slightly shaggier than we've come to remember The Lemonheads. The drums shamble behind a riff that's murkier than some back-alley dealings in a neo-noire. Even Dando sounds groggy and laden with remorse. But he still knows how to brighten up a chorus about how life is short and unforgiving.

“I wrote some riffs around it”, Dando shrugs before heaping most of the credit on Dan Lardner, his late songwriting partner. Lardner came under his wing when the two toured together last year. Sadly, any future plans with the QTY frontman were cut short. Lardner died in June. He was 34. But this parting gift helped pull his mentor out of a rut.

“Dan wrote some great lyrics”, Dando remarks about "Fear of Living". “I just turned it into a Lemonheads tune. Someone had to. It might as well have been me”.

The Lemonheads wrapped up 2023 by celebrating the 30th anniversary of Come on Feel The Lemonheads. Dando appreciates the nostalgia for their old albums - "We needed the money" - and while his memoir is almost finished, I get the sense that he's done looking back. “I was doing this stupid life in a trailer. Hard drugs. Scratch tickets. Horrible girlfriend”, he admits about hitting rock bottom in Martha's Vineyard of all places. “But I'm out of that now”.

Indeed, Dando is enjoying a real change of scenery, now that he's moved on to São Paulo, Brazil. “This place is just mellow. We're in the rainforests with monkeys and hummingbirds”. The new digs inspired him to try his hand at abstract art. “I make fish hooks, and then, somehow, I connect them with colours”, he explains, though you can see his process at work on the cover for his new single. And yes — he's written a boatload of new songs.

“We've got 14 songs already”, he reveals. That includes "Seven Out", which came out earlier this week. It’s fitting that his newest single is a twangy, faithful cover of Eugene Kelly, another former tour mate and collaborator.

“It shouldn't be allowed, how much fun we're having. The studio we're recording in is tiny but crazy. It's got all the shit John Lennon used to record ‘Imagine’”.

With a new Lemonheads album squarely in his sights, Dando walks us through one song for each of his nine lives.

“Waterloo Sunset” by The Kinks

BEST FIT: This song came out in 1967, which happens to be the year you were born.

Nic Dalton is a really nerdy record collector. He owns Half A Cow Records. He's always telling me that I'm a "Waterloo Sunset" baby.

It's timeless, though.

It's a perfect pop song. The Kinks are one of my favorite bands. Just when you think the song couldn't get any catchier, they just hit you again and again and again. It's such ear candy. I love the major scales. There's the weird, jazzy drumming. It's even got the sentimentality.

I read it’s where Ray Davies used to watch the sun set over the Thames from St. Thomas Hospital.

Did he have a fever or something? You know, Neil Young wrote "Cowgirl in the Sand" when he had a fever.

He was recovering from a tracheotomy, when he was 13. The orderlies used to wheel him out onto the balcony at sunset.

That's beautiful.

I have to admit, I didn't take The Kinks seriously until my sophomore year in college, when I checked Something Else out from the library. Did you fall for "Waterloo Sunset" as soon as you heard it?

The song was on the radio. But my friend, Alex Star, told me to listen to it again for the riff, which is just so beautiful. I had some great friends in high school. Thanks to them, I got the good word early.

“Cool It Down” by The Velvet Underground

My friends and I got into the Velvet's third record first – the quiet one, with "Candy Says" – which was weird. We were 14 and would get stoned and listen to that record every night. It was a great time.

But "Cool It Down" is more of a Stones-y Velvet's song. It's the loose double that I love. Lou even changes up the lyrics sometimes. He always keeps you guessing, that Lou Reed.

BEST FIT: The part that always gets me comes during the bridge. "Gives me double you L-O-V-E" doesn't make sense on paper, but when Lou Reed sings it over top of that scummy rhythm, I know exactly what he means.

I love the name Linda Lee. Lou's really good at naming people along the way.

The bands I grew up with are like comfort food for me. Would it be fair to say that The Velvet Underground serves a similar purpose for you?

I mean, The Velvets have songs like "European Son" and "The Black Angel's Death Song" that are full of broken glass and toilets flushing. There's always a heavy bassline, too. So yeah [smiles]. It's definitely comfort music.

That's funny, because some fans think Loaded sounds too clean. Even Lou Reed dismissed it.

Lou was thinking about giving everything up until Brian [Jones] and Keith [Richards] came to his house. But I think Loaded is a great album. They were going for it, though they didn't cross over until VU, which is kind of funny. It took the starkest, most intense record. The drumming on "Foggy Notion" is just…Wow.

“Express Yourself” by Charles Wright Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band

BEST FIT: Speaking of drumming. This song skips to such a classic beat. It's so simple and snappy. The snare has a perfectly dry tone.

The drumming is always the most important part. But really, I like everything about this song. It's dance music. It makes you feel good. The bass is sick. The horns are amazing. The vocals are relaxed. But yeah, the drums are certainly right on.

"Express Yourself" came out in 1970 but is still a huge cultural staple. I heard this song all the time growing up and I'm a '90s baby. I'm guessing you heard it a lot too?

I don't know. I don't think it was that prevalent when I was growing up. I think I would've remembered. It wasn't all over the radio.

I really got into Motown when I started going to Soul Kitchen in New York. This was in 1987. DJ Frankie Inglese played Roy Ayers and all kinds of shit that I hadn't heard. I hung out with Q-Tip. It was rad.

“It Takes Two to Tango (This Is for the Girls)” by Todd Rundgren

BEST FIT: You've run in a lot of famous circles. I'm assuming you've met Todd Rundgren?

Yeah. When I met Liv Tyler, her passport actually said Liv Rundgren. That whole thing is wild.

We all played at her wedding - myself, Todd and Steven. It was so cool.

Have you always been a fan of Todd's music?

I grew up with this song. We had Something/Anything? at the house, but it was a long time before I even heard "Couldn't I Just Tell You". Because really, we only played that first side. That was enough for me. I used to do that a lot, actually. I'd get so into the songs on the first side of a record.

But I love that whole record. I've got the expensive box set now and it's great. When he adds the whole band on the last side? That's great, too. Some really interesting people play on it. There's like 55 people on the D side. He really made up for doing the whole first side himself.

“As” by Stevie Wonder

BEST FIT: Stevie Wonder also got a ton of people to play on Songs in the Key of Life. Herbie Hancock chips in on Fender Rhodes, along with some of the handclaps on this song.

I was behind Stevie Wonder in airport security once. He's a tall motherfucker.

Really? I've always imagined him as a little man.

I don't know. Maybe he was wearing big boots. Apparently, he can see — kind of. Like, shadows. So George Bush wasn't really out of his mind that time he waved at him. Because if you're really in the know, you can wave to Stevie.

Is this your favorite Stevie Wonder record?

Actually, my favorite is either Talking Book or Music of My Mind.

I'm an Innervisions guy.

They're all so good. I mean, what can you even say about "As"? I love Stevie's drumming. He's got a great hi-hat style. It's so bad-ass. Of course, he can do astounding things with his voice. Especially when he does that crazy growl?

I'm fascinated by his growl. It's like a cross between the Cookie Monster and a Baptist preacher.

And that crazy syncopated rhythm shit that he does when he growls? "Sooo ma-ke sure when you say / you're in it, but nooot of i-t". It's so good.

This song has so many layers, too. There's funk bass, jazzy drumming, Herbie's scatting fretwork, a cosmic backing choir. I think he even uses two different keyboards.

I know! There's a bit of optimism, but there's also realism. There's fire and brimstone. All that.

“Outdoor Miner (Single Version)" by Wire

BEST FIT: Tamla made Stevie Wonder cut a radio edit for "As" to get the song more airplay. But "Outdoor Miner" might be the only time that a band had to go back and record a longer version for the single. Did that ever happen to The Lemonheads?

No. That was so natural for us. I think it's a mistake to pad songs out like that. That's the cool thing about a song. You know when it's done.

Why did you pick this version?

I love that middle part, where they sing "Ahhh-ahhhhhhhh". I think they took a little chunk out of the recording. It's the only time I can think of when a band did something like that.

Me too. The piano solo that they added for the single version is a nice touch. It's not flashy, but it's so pretty.

I love Wire. Those guys were really onto something. They're right up there for me.

I discovered Wire through my local Circuit City. They had a copy of The Black Session. How did you discover them?

I also had a weird live compilation. But Minor Threat helped. They covered "1 2 X U".

There used to be this great thing at Harvard radio, where they'd have these orgies.

[Laughs] Excuse me?

They'd have these orgies, where the DJs played British punk rock for 30 hours straight — everything from The Wasps and The Adverts to The Users. I remember they did this one block during the springtime. It was 200 hours of punk rock from everywhere in the world. That was so important to us Lemonheads. We never thought punk was going to catch on. It was so uncool at the time.

“Get Away” by Flipper

BEST FIT: Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned having a falling out with rock 'n' roll. But Flipper pulled you back in.

Those guys were always up for anything. Steve DePace has the craziest sounding snare in all of hardcore or post-punk. Like, what does he do? Is he putting the mic up underneath or something? It sounds crazy. It's got all this gate on it.

That snare hit me right away. The sound is so harsh. It's almost like someone is smacking you in the face [laughs].

Flipper don't really sound like anyone else. But "Get Away" sounds a little bit like Bob Dylan meets The Gun Club.

I can hear that. The lyrics are sort of Dylan-esque for telling this sad, sordid tale about San Francisco punks. I know you've told this story about Flipper before. But were people in the pit really kicking around a dead squirrel?

They were throwing it (smiles). I saw them pick it up. It was gnarly. The Channel really was scary like that. You could get hurt easily. Will Shatter was walking around with cuts on his bare feet. He was pouring vodka on his feet, just sitting there being all fucking intense. Bruce Lose was losing his hair a little by then, but he was still so good.

Hardcore is having a moment right now.

Yeah, but isn't everything having a moment right now?

I guess it's just harder for me. The scene was already so much different in '89 than it was in '85. Like, I got laid (even bigger smile). I didn't need to play hardcore anymore.

[Laughs] That's one way of looking at it.

I'm sorry, but it really is like that!

Real hardcore was about not getting laid that much and going to shows. Sure, you might be getting some on occasion. But nothing regular. You need an outlet. All that fucking testosterone, it makes you want to have a good ol' time running around and being rambunctious with your friends.

“Tower Song” by Townes Van Zandt

BEST FIT: I wasn't surprised to see Townes Van Zandt on your list, either.

Townes grew on me, actually. This girl out on the West Coast of Australia introduced me to his music. This was back in 1992, when no one had really heard Townes. We were big Ingram Cecil Connor fans. She even made me a Gram Parsons t-shirt.

But she also made me this amazing Townes tape. She wasn't pushy about it. We would take a bunch of Valium and listen to that tape every night. It did take me a while to get into. That tape had all these great songs on there, though, and "Tower Song" was the first one.

This is another song on your list with two different recorded versions. Townes first laid this song down toward the end of 1970 for Delta Momma Blues, but then a different version showed up on A Far Cry From Dead, which his wife helped release after he died.

It's such a bitch. Trying to find Townes Van Zandt on YouTube can be very frustrating. You want this one version, but then it's so hard to find. He was overproduced early in his career. They used too many strings.

What was it about this song that made Townes click with you?

That guy can get away with singing the most fucked-up, hackneyed, Hallmark shit and it still sounds great. "A mother's breast. A newborn child. A poet's tear and a drunken smile". Like, are you fucking kidding me? (laughs). But you don't even question it when he's singing. That's a true gift.

That, and throwing yourself off the roof just to see what it would be like. 'Cause he did that too!

“Perfect” by Lucy

BEST FIT: I was familiar with every song on your list except for one. Tell me, who is Lucy?

That's the Vineyard. There's a couple of bands out there that are all great.

So my understanding is that Cooper B. Handy — who's behind Lucy — cut his teeth in a SoundCloud rap collective?

Actually, Cooper started out as a rocker in this band called The Taxidermist with my other friend, Sal. Then he got into all this weird, sped-up music. His girlfriend made a tape. She was like, "It's different, but this is what he's doing now".

What did you think of the tape?

I grew to love it. "Perfect" is great. The way Cooper sings the chorus, it's like a soul song. "She's perfffectt / The way! That! She looks!".

The video looks like an ancient artifact from the MySpace era. It's shot on what I can only guess is a camcorder and uses all these old special effects that could've been copied and pasted out of PowerPoint.

Cooper is so cool. He's doing well for himself. I saw a video of him performing live and he's playing to a good amount of people.

I think there's definitely some post-irony at play with "Lucy". The dancing is so awkward. It makes me think that Cooper must be in on the joke. But like you said, his singing and the simplicity of his lyrics makes me feel like this song is really sincere.

Yeah, Cooper Handy (nodding with firm approval). That guy's got a ton of talent.

My guess is he made this song on GarageBand. Have you ever played around on there?

I've used an iPhone, which is great. It's compressed as fuck, way more than any Walkman. You can record a whole band with an iPhone. It blows my mind. Actually, it kind of fucked me up. I always recorded my music on a bunch of cassettes. If I needed a bridge, then I'd dig up the tape that had all my bridges on it.

That's nifty.

It was so much easier! Because now, I have hours and hours and hours of shit. It really caused a problem for me. But I have finally conquered the digital age. "Fear of Living" feels like my first record. I didn't put out anything for so long. And now? I'm making these crazy, elaborate demos. It's just great. I'm really happy.

It makes me happy to hear that, Evan. You've lived one heck of a life.

The people around me are miserable (flashes a big, sheepish smile). But I'm happy.

Fear of Living is out now. Evan Dando starts a month-long solo tour of the U.S. in February

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