Paid to Smile
Evan Dando has always marched to the beat of a different drummer.
Emerging amidst the onset of '90s grunge, the Lemonheads inadvertently lived up to their namesake — they were a sweet-and-sour candy in a ruling sea of sullen flannel cookie-cutters.
Dando, the band's handsome front man, is known as an ennui-filled anti-lead-singer, as well as for his repeated battles with drug addiction. In fact, Google courteously autofills a search of his name with two potential subsequent words: "drugs" and "crack."
Albums like 1992's It's a Shame About Ray and 1993's Come on Feel the Lemonheads are as listenable today as they were when recorded. Since then, however, the Lemonheads have flown lower on the rock radar, undergoing numerous lineup shuffles and lengthy recording hiatuses.
The only remaining original Lemonhead, Dando released two interesting recordings last month. Hotel Sessions is a dusted-off acoustic session from 1992, while Laughing All the Way to the Cleaners is a best-of compilation only released in the UK.
I am a big Lemonheads fan; the band has held an unwavering spot among my personal Top 5 list for the past 15 years. I've seen them more times than I count, in cities including Austin, Chicago and New York.
Before our scheduled phone interview, I pace with anxiety preparing to call one of my rock idols. I'm also unnerved by rumors of Dando's unpredictable mood swings.
I make the call. "Hi, I'm Evan! What's your name?" he asks me lightly. Chatting on a cell phone as the band drives "somewhere between Omaha and Des Moines," we talk casually for a couple of minutes as my nerves ebb away.
Dando turns out to be far more affable than I'd convinced myself he would be. "I like playing Houston," he offers. "We've played these, like, metal-type places there."
The Lemonheads last played the Houston area at Scout Bar in 2007, and a show at the now-closed Engine Room four years earlier.
"Houston is one of the weirdest cities in the country," he continues. "It's pretty hardcore — the whole 'syrup' thing down there. DJ Screw and stuff."
Joining Dando on this tour are some industry vets, including drummer Chuck Treece (Urge Overkill, Bad Brains) and bassist Fred Mascherino (Taking Back Sunday).
"I have really great musicians on this tour, and it makes all the difference," he boasts.
"The band is developing as we go, which I think is the best way to develop a band," continues Dando. "You don't really get a band going by just practicing — you have to get out there and play."
"There's so little that has changed in music since the '90s," he adds. "The only difference is no one sells or buys records anymore, so touring is all bands can really do now — which, in a way, is better."
While the Lemonheads aren't currently touring in support of any new material, Dando sounds particularly pleased with Hotel Sessions. "I think it's kind of cool," he says.
Hotel Sessions is an intimate, lo-fi album documenting a "late Sunday night" Dando spent recording new songs in a hotel room in Bondi, Australia. It cost him only $53 to make.
"The Walkman was 50 bucks, the tape was three bucks," he says. "That's it."
"It's always something I've wanted to do," Dando swears. "And now that things have gone completely digital, Hotel seems even better because it still sounds, like, 'normal.' It's so analog, and was recorded onto a Walkman, but it still sounds nice and warm. I like it."
Also interesting is Hotel's between-song commentary, during which Dando offers rare insight into his songs' inspirations. ("This one's about Juliana Hatfield," he says casually about his former flame into his Walkman before playing "It's About Time.")
Meanwhile, although Dando claims the conception of Laughing All the Way to the Cleaners was "not my idea at all," he was involved with its production and hand-picked most of its 47 tracks.
"Laughing All the Way to the Cleaners was the name of our first EP. I'm proud of my little wordplay, there," he jokes. "I made it up in high school."
While he crows about the compilation, Dando also sounds dubious about its "best-of" label. "I was asked to do a really long, like, 'retrospective'-type record, but I should have left the 'best-of' crap out of the title," he explains. "I mean, there are 47 songs on there. It's not a 'Best Of,' it's, like, a fucking bunch of songs.
"It should have been called 'Evan Dando's Top 47 Lemonheads songs,'" he laughs.
Dando may claim he's been "paid to smile," but he seems more like he's "paid to couch-surf." He's the textbook vagabond musician.
"I got rid of my apartment and I'm back to, like, that time from 1991 to 1995, when I was just nowhere — no apartment," he says. "I live on the road, and just rent places when I'm off tour. It's a fun way to live, just deciding where you want to go. I think I'm going to spend March and April in Kauai."
"My self-discipline is not that good," Dando admits. "But I like to be working, so I just keep touring, and that's perfect for me."
He refers to Australia as his "home away from home," but the Boston native has lived in New York for much of his life. "I didn't like my last apartment," he recalls. "I had moved to Brooklyn after living in Manhattan for 18 years, and was like, 'Fuck this.' I hated it!
"It's a nice place, but it's just not for me," Dando adds. "I'd had a rough couple of months there, when I was not working. But it was just a phase, and now I'm enjoying having something to do every night on tour."
"I'm never going to live in the city again," he swears. "I want to always live in the country from now on."
Our conversation ranges in topics, covering travel, music and Dando's spontaneous sprinkles of endearingly random enthusiasm, reminiscent of a child who forgot to take his Ritalin: "Wow! Those windmills are huge!"
"I've been lazy with checking out new bands," he laments, as the conversation suddenly shifts back to music.
"We were just listening to Hotel Sessions, actually," he admits, laughing. "I'm serious."
Dando cites the Lemonheads' current tour opener (and former Family of the Year member) Meredith Sheldon as the songwriter he is "most psyched about."
"And I like Rihanna," he adds. I search his inflection for notes of sarcasm, but find no trace.
"I also just rediscovered my favorite Bob Dylan record, New Morning," reveals Dando. "You know that record, right? If you don't know it really well, you should listen to it more."
As for what fans can expect at Fitzgerald's: "Mayhem, blood, champagne, methamphetamines, fire...stuff like that," Dando jokes. In reality, the band has frequently been playing It's a Shame About Ray in its entirety, as they will Friday.
Our conversation wraps up as quickly and easily as it commenced, but not before Dando adds excitedly, "I look forward to seeing you!"
Evan, the feeling is mutual.
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