Evan Dando’s affection for Australia is well known. In the early 1990s Dando’s band The Lemonheads were among a swathe of punk-edged bands competing for attention in the wake of the Nevermind -led commercial-alternative feeding frenzy. The Lemonheads toured Australia in 1991, and quickly established strong popular, personal and musical links with Australian fans and musicians. That 1991 tour inspired Dando to write a series of songs that would appear eventually on the band’s feted 1992 album It’s A Shame About Ray , as well as establishing a brief songwriting partnership with Smudge lead singer and guitarist Tom Morgan. The Lemonheads would go on to cross over even further into the mainstream with their cover of Simon and Garfunkle’s Mrs Robinson ; yet it was the 12 song, 30 minute, It’s A Shame About Ray that broke the band.
Equally well known is Dando’s volatile reputation and penchant for indulgence. At a gig in Adelaide in February 1994 he concluded the show with one foot standing on his guitar, the industrial strength feedback effect in acidic harmony with Dando’s moaning intonations. The crowd, perplexed by that erratic finale, filed out in frustration. Some years later Dando would concede that the entire tour was characterised by a diet of amphetamines and acid; not surprisingly, his memories of the tour were vague. Subsequent tours – both solo and with later incarnations of The Lemonheads – had their own peculiarities (including a show in Melbourne featuring Missy Higgins in a cameo role)
In 2006 Dando revived The Lemonheads, and released the band’s first album in almost 10 years. In 2008, The Lemonheads received a classic album award for It’s A Shame About Ray at the NME US award ceremony. Dando, true to form, was said to have thrown the award in the bin after the ceremony concluded. “Yeah, that’s true,” he replies, when asked if the story is true. “I didn’t really like the statue, but I was honoured to get the award. But I actually gave the statue to this other band – I forget their name, but it was a long name,” he grins.
Dando is at his most effusive when talking about his first tour of Australia, during which he met the members of the fledgling powerpop band Smudge, and various Sydney independent musical identities, including Nic Dalton. Dando’s initial encounter with Smudge came by way of an invitation from the singer to play on a record. “It’s all about the band Sneeze,” Dando recalls. “Nic wanted us to play on the Sneeze record. And then we realised we both really loved the Velvet Underground.”
Prior to It’s A Shame About Ray The Lemonheads had released a quartet of tougher punk albums – Hate Your Friends, Creator, Lick and Lovey – before deviating down the powerpop road that would provide the band with their greatest success. The reason, Dando says plainly, was simply to differentiate The Lemonheads’ brand. “After Nevermind punk rock became too big, so we decided to get quieter,” he figures.
Overall Dando is positive about It’s A Shame About Ray, which The Lemonheads will perform in its entirety during their forthcoming Australian tour. The change of style wasn’t intended to solicit commercial attention. “If we really wanted to go for success, then we would’ve done it more professionally,” Dando says. “It was just exactly natural for us.” Almost twenty years after the album was released, Dando says he remains proud of the record. “At the time I did think it was a good record,” he admits. “Looking back on it, I still think it’s really good. It’s unique. It’s a bit warm, and it’s good a couple of good words on it,” he concedes.
The lyrical inspiration was drawn directly from Dando’s experiences in Australia, including Alison’s Starting To Happen – a tribute to Smudge drummer Alison Galloway – and the title track (co-written with Smudge’s Tom Morgan). “[The song] It’s A Shame About Ray was written after we read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald,” Dando explains.
“The article was about a Catholic boy, and what happened to him. It all seems illogical now, but it made sense at the time we wrote it,” he deadpans. As for Alison’s Starting To Happen, Dando says Galloway was “a bit flattered and embarrassed” at being the subject of the track.
Probing further into the inspiration for the songs on the record, it’s asked whether it’s true that My Drug Buddy was written about Dando’s then-girlfriend, and Lemonheads bass player Juliana Hatfield. “No, it’s about an Australian girl,” Dando replies. That relationship with Hatfield concluded not long after the release of It’s A Shame About Ray, but Dando still concedes her influence on the album. “She’s got a good voice, and she practised with us once a day, and she made up all the bass lines on the record,” he remembers.
Unfortunately, at this point in the interview Dando appears to become distracted, and possibly annoyed at the line of questioning (by this time I’d decided not to ask to whom he was referring in Bit Part). “I gotta go now,” Dando butts in, as I prepare to ask him a question about The Lemonheads’ future musical activities. “I gotta go do something,” he concludes, before putting the phone down. I suspect his competing activities are about as pressing as cutting his toe nails, but deep down, it’s not entirely surprising Dando has cut the interview short.
In the remaining half a second I thank Dando for his time, and it’s all over. Sometimes it’s perversely satisfying to be stood up by a rock star with a reputation for dysfunctional behaviour.
THE LEMONHEADS bring their It’s A Shame About Ray tour (where they’ll play the thirteen songs off …Ray , and a selection of favourites from their other eight releases) to Australia and play The Corner Hotel this Thursday December 2 (sold out), and The Espy Gershwin Room on Friday December 3 (tickets from handsometours.com, espy.com.au, oztix.com.au, 1300 762 545, The Espy bottleshop, Polyester, Greville). EVAN DANDO also plays a solo at The Northcote Social Club on Sunday December 12 – tickets from handsometours.com, northcotesocialclub.com, 94861677 or The Corner box office.