Evan Dando, leader of the Lemonheads, is trying to describe a feeling he gets when things aren't going well.
"You know when you're a kid and you play really hard all day? And then you sit down and everything's still moving?" he asks. "I still feel that way sometimes. I'll be driving around on a flat stretch of road and if I'm in a bad mood, it'll feel like I'm driving straight downhill."
Dando's self-described "weirdness" is the mood that runs through the Lemonheads' latest release, It's a Shame About Ray. Songs like the title track and "Turnpike Down," a direct reference to Dando's unsteady driving habits, teeter with an apprehensive, acoustic-electric touch.
It's a Shame About Ray has proven to be a quick hit on the indie-alternative charts. And Dando, a scruffy, good-natured sort, is evolving into a minor media presence. Dando's picture is plastered throughout various music magazines, and the lead Lemonhead was interviewed in his pajamas on MTV's 120 Minutes a couple of weeks ago. Dando answered questions about his fast friend, actor Johnny Depp (who appears in the video for "It's a Shame About Ray), and showed a surprising fondness for the likes of Gunnar Nelson, the candy-coated pretty boy from the pop-metal band Nelson. Young Gunnar, credited as "The Shameless One," shows up as a background singer on the new Lemonheads disc.
"Gunnar's a good guy," Dando says of his blond-maned buddy. "He was hanging out, producing some metal band down the hall from where we were recording. I had this one vocal part that I just didn't know what to do with. So we got Gunnar in there."
Gunnar's contribution consisted of singing "ooo-eee-ooo" on "Allison's Starting to Happen," a Lemonheads love song with both straightforward lyrics (I never looked at her this way before/Now she's all I see) and weird words (She's the puzzle piece behind the couch that made the sky complete), and a title inspired by "a friend coming off a fun drug thing she had taken."
Mind-altering substances are a recurring theme in Dando's music. The new disc includes a wistful song called "My Drug Buddy," and the Lemonheads' previous album featured a tune titled "Li'l Seed," an overt celebration of cannabis.
"I'm one of those people who think drugs should be legalized," Dando says, matter-of-factly. "I think if we'd decriminalize the stuff, we'd make real headway in stopping a lot of the violence that's going on." Dando adds that he would "never promote drugs to anyone. But I don't deny that I've had some valuable experiences with them."
Dando's experiences with the Lemonheads began six years ago, when he and a few childhood chums formed the band in Boston. The new group went into the studio the day after graduating from high school and recorded a four-song, buzz-saw-punk EP for about $100. Three years and a couple of indie LPs later, the Lemonheads got lucky with a mangled but charming version of Suzanne Vega's song "Luka." The Lemonheads' rendition was a big hit on college radio--so much so that the underground band soon found itself kicked upstairs with a major-label deal on Atlantic Records.
Dando laughs a little about "Luka" being such a hit. "That one song, which isn't even ours, is pretty much the reason we got signed," he says. "I guess we kinda tricked em."
Dando's fascination with other people's tunes includes less profitable but equally adventurous recorded versions of "Plaster Caster" by Kiss, "Brass Buttons," off Gram Parson's legendary Grievous Angel LP, and Michael Nesmith's pre-Monkees chestnut "Different Drum," made famous in the Sixties by Tucson native Linda Ronstadt. The Lemonheads' tendency toward obscure cover material continues on the new CD with a startling resurrection of "Frank Mills," one of the more memorable numbers from the rock musical Hair.
"It's kind of mysterious how ideas for covers come around," Dando says. "But those are good songs. They're fun to play. And more than anything, this band is about having fun."
Dando's idea of fun apparently includes shifting musicians in and out of his band. There have been five different Lemonheads lineups on as many albums. The current roster has Dando on guitar and vocals, along with drummer David Ryan and Australian bassist Nick Dalton, the latter who wrote one song, the clap-happy "Kitchen," for the new album.
But Dalton doesn't actually play on the new CD. That responsibility went to ex-Blake Babies bassist-singer Juliana Hatfield, who released a solo album earlier this year and is currently supporting the Lemonheads as an opening act. Hatfield, a onetime student at Boston's prestigious Berklee School of Music, has long had a working relationship with Dando. She's contributed her alternately sweet and strident vision to past Lemonheads LPs, and Dando's appeared on a few Blake Babies albums, primarily as a bassist.
"We're great friends," Dando says of his relationship with Hatfield. Mr. Lemonhead puckers a bit, though, when asked if there's a love connection between the two. "Well, you know," he says, "we, uh, we don't have a commitment or anything like that."
Dando is more certain of his future travel plans. They involve the completion of the Lemonheads' current six-month tour, followed by a "summer vacation" in Australia starting in November. Dando says he loves it Down Under and plans to stay there for at least a couple of months, maybe longer.
"It's such a nice, relaxing, laid-back environment," he says of the areas around Melbourne and Sydney. "I've got lots of friends there, and it's great for natural stuff--you know, wildlife, unspoiled seacoasts. The country's as big in size as America with as many people as a rush hour in Manhattan."
Dando says he's already made three trips. His latest visit resulted in many of the songs on It's a Shame About Ray. The title track, for instance, was inspired by some rowdy mates in Melbourne who routinely address everyone they know or meet as "Ray." But with lines like "If I make it through today/I'll know tomorrow not to put my feelings out on display," Dando infuses the song with a depth of feeling that belies the title's yuk-it-up origins.
Indeed, there's a feeling of maturity hovering over the 12 short songs on It's a Shame About Ray. Dando, 25, says his songwriting, once wrapped in punk rage, is now more thoughtful.
"I had an English teacher in high school who said that you shouldn't be afraid to state the obvious," Dando says. "Lately, I've been remembering a lot of that stuff. Like from James Joyce's Dubliners--very specific language that emphasizes the sounds of words. Right now I'm trying to write my songs with that idea in mind."
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