The story goes that it was Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy of Uncle Tupelo who spurred the whole alt-country movement forward in 1990 with the No Depression record, produced by Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie. That same year, however, these producers worked with another three-piece band, the Lemonheads, who released Lovey on Atlantic Records. Unlike Uncle Tupelo (whose members would go on to form Wilco and Son Volt), Evan Dando and his then-bandmates tackled neo-hillbilly music head-on by covering a Gram Parsons tune ("Brass Buttons") while also offering up their own country-tinged rockers ("Half the Time," "Ride with Me").
Lovey also contained buttloads of Sabbath- and Zep-inspired heavy metal, Minor Threat-influenced hardcore and even proto-emo tracks like "Come Downstairs" and "Year of the Cat" that wear their hearts securely on their sleeves. In other words, the Lemonheads were an alt-rock band so far ahead of its time that it's very easy to forget how Dando paved the way for everything that followed, including the genre-blending greatness that was Nirvana.
"Sure, a lot of bands looked up to us back then and went on to do their own stuff," concedes Dando during a recent phone conversation. "I hear even Green Day had a thing where on Sundays, they'd sit around, drink coffee and listen to Lemonheads records. It's kind of cool in a way. That's what we always wanted to be--a band that would inspire other bands. We looked up to the Replacements and the Ramones ourselves. If they can do it, we thought, so can we."
Formed in Boston in 1986, the Lemonheads began as a throwback to the days of classic old-school punk--except that the band was made up of precocious 18-year-olds with a knack for pop songcraft. The band's full-length debut, Hate Your Friends, released on the small Taang! label, is choked with alternating sweetness and rough patches of grinding distortion. Already, the Lemonheads had settled on a recipe for success--one that Kurt Cobain would polish to perfection just a few years later with Bleach.
Of course, the band's big breakout was 1992's It's a Shame About Ray, with its big, jangly guitars and sunny melodies that refuse to leave your head. Ironically, though, it was a tossed-off cover of "Mrs. Robinson" (to promote the video re-release of The Graduate) that catapulted Dando and Co. to fame, glory and the Billboard Top 10.
"We never would play that song live," reveals Dando, confirming his legendary ability to frustrate label and audience expectations. "If we ever did, we'd invite people to come up onstage and sing it, with disastrous results. But if the song encouraged just one kid to watch The Graduate, then the song did what it was supposed to do. We had nailed (the song) on the first take in a Berlin studio while on tour by relying on a Xeroxed Simon and Garfunkel fake book."
After Ray, the Lemonheads continued to stay gold in terms of record sales with '93's Come on Feel the Lemonheads and '96's Car Button Cloth, both of which took the limited genre of power-pop to new plateaus.
Exhausted by the constant media glare, the Lemonheads eventually packed up their toys and called it a day. For the last 10 years, Dando performed consistent (if sporadic) solo shows and released one live solo album and another studio one. But it wasn't until last year's self-titled comeback album, released on the emo-centric Vagrant Records label, that people recognized that Dando wasn't washing dishes back in Boston. Instead, he and Descendents drummer Bill Stevenson and bassist Karl Alvarez had coalesced to reintroduce the Lemonheads' signature style of songwriting to a new generation of fans.
What's more, Stevenson provided a wealth of new songs for Dando to choose from, including the soaring relationship primer "Become the Enemy" and the poignant "Steve's Boy," a father-son confrontation that rivals Dando's own narrative masterpieces like "My Drug Buddy" and "Stove."
"Bill had a couple of songs for baritone, and I really like 'Steve's Boy.' It has those descending chord changes, and then speeds up. He laid it down for me on tape, and the chords are fun to play, and trickier than you first realize. I think Bill's a great songwriter."
The head Lemonhead has sought out inspiration and songwriting partners in unusual places. While many tracks on Lovey reference the songwriting of Charles Manson ("I've always been a fan of his music," remarks Dando. "He's a Perry Como kind of crooner, too"), it's Tom Morgan of the Australian band Smudge that Dando leans on most often.
"Tom has so many old songs that came out of those Smudge records," he reveals. "I call him and say, 'Is it all right if we do that song?' He's opened me up, gotten me out of many a rut and enabled me to be more poppy and not be afraid to fashion nice melodies."
But it's Dando's solely penned compositions, like "Poughkeepsie," that really shine. With its loose feel and near-throwaway texture, the song possesses those ephemeral yet melodic qualities that make for the best pop.
"I had the riff and came up with the first verse. But the guillotine was coming down, and I had to get the record done, so I said, fuck it, it's gotta be done now. Although I work very hard on my lyrics, a lot of those lines were written in the studio."
Having survived the music-industry stardom machine, Dando--who once nursed his psychic wounds at Hotel Congress for five months in 1997--says that he'd go through it all again if he had to.
"I'm amazed to still be doing what I do," he confesses. "I enjoy it; I'm not going to object to anything. These days, people can make money through song placement in movies and video games. Managers are fighting tooth and nail to get in the new Mazda commercial! Things have been turned upside down. It wasn't like this when I started out."
With a new Lemonheads album slated for release in 2008, Dando remains tight-lipped and mysterious about what fans can expect.
"You'll know more about it before I do," he jokes. Until then, he's working on material and trying not to over-think the songwriting process
"A lot of what I do comes from ignorance. Like this chord I'm playing on the guitar right now--it has a name, but I have no idea what it is."
By all means, let the mystery be.