Evan Dando of the Lemonheads

by Greg Prato

On "Mrs. Robinson," "It's A Shame About Ray," and getting pranked by Kurt Cobain.

Since the Lemonheads enjoyed success with cover songs in the '90s (specifically with "Mrs. Robinson" and "Into Your Arms"), it certainly made sense for the group, led by singer/guitarist Evan Dando, to issue an all-covers album, Varshons, in 2009. Now, ten years later, a follow-up has been issued - Varshons II - which features renditions of tunes by the likes of Yo La Tengo, Nick Cave, Paul Westerberg, Lucinda Williams, and the Eagles.

Speaking to Songfacts shortly after the album's release, the one-time '90s alt-rock heartthrob (who looks remarkably the same - over two decades later!) was kind enough to answer questions about how the songs were chosen for Varshons II, his approach to songwriting, and the stories behind several Lemonheads classics.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How were the songs selected for Varshons II?

Evan Dando: They're a bunch of old ones that I really liked. Just favorites of mine. Sometimes I have issues with the initial recordings. Like, "Abandoned" by Lucinda Williams sounds a little bit "'80s-y" - late '80s kind of production. Sometimes I think I can get the production right, or I just think it's a good song to cover. It's really a bunch of reasons, but they're a bunch of old favorites of mine.

Songfacts: Did any of the songs prove challenging to cover?

Dando: Yeah. We were going to do the Bee Gees song "To Love Somebody" but never got it quite right. You've got to watch those really great songs - sometimes, they're too good of a song, the originals. We'd never do an old Velvet Underground song, or the Stooges, or Modern Lovers. There are certain songs I won't try to do.

Songfacts: How do you find you write your best songs?

Dando: Usually, the music comes first, on the guitar, then I fit the words in there, somehow. I've been writing some songs lately, and I'm going to get together a new record soon.

It usually comes with a motif on the guitar or piano - usually the guitar - and then it goes from there. Or else, you can be walking down the street and you come up with a melody. A melody can come in your head when you're walking around.

Songfacts: You just mentioned working on a new album. When do you think it will come out?

Dando: I hope to record it after this tour in the summer. I hope to record it in the fall.

Songfacts: Let's discuss the lyrical inspiration behind some of your songs, starting with "It's a Shame About Ray."

Dando: Me and my friend Tom [Morgan] wrote it when we were down in Australia. We were pretty young back then, and we stayed up a bunch of days in a row. We came across a newspaper article that said, "It's a Shame About Ray," and we just liked that phrase. From there, I had the music and I just wrote it really quickly - about half an hour or an hour - and then we had it. We brought it down to our friend's record store and played it for him, and we were all excited about it. That was the first song we had written together - myself and Tom Morgan from Sydney, Australia.

It's spooky. It's about a disappearing person. It's a very open-ended, grey sort of song. I think it's one of those things, like The Trouble with Harry. Like a mysterious sort of song.

Songfacts: "My Drug Buddy"?

Dando: That's a really good story of a night back in the day when we used to do speed. It was me and my friend Nicole - she was actually my friend Tom's girlfriend. I was trying to tell the story as forthright and as normal as possible, without many rhymes or anything. There's something like a chorus at the end - it's not really a classic song structure. It's sort of taking the model of Frank Mills as far as composition goes.

There were no rhymes. It was about a night in Sydney with my friend Nicole, and I just tell the story of the night.

Songfacts: "Big Gay Heart"?

Dando: That was from my friend who was renting this house from this rich steward who had all this gay art on the wall. We called it "the big gay house," and it just sort of went on from there: "Big Gay Heart," like anti-gay bashing.

It was a combination of a comedy song and some political activism. It was a bit wacky, that song, and it caused a lot of people to wonder. But it was just a really weird song, and we finished it, and decided to record it.

Songfacts: "The Great Big No"?

Dando: That one started as a parody of a '70s song. It was like a cover of a parody - the beginning is making fun of some '70s tune. But then after a while, we started getting really into it and finished it. That's a co-write with Tom Morgan: Tom started it, and Tom and I finished it together. It's a song about disappointment and nothingness.

Songfacts: "If I Could Talk I'd Tell You"?

Dando: I wrote that with Eugene Kelly from the Vaselines. That song comes from when I would lose my voice and I couldn't talk, so I would write down, "If I could talk I'd tell you." I wrote that down once, and I thought, That's a good title for a song.

I wasn't allowed to talk because I was trying to get my voice back for touring or recording. So, that comes from that one - I would write everything down on a piece of paper. Eugene and I happened to write it. We didn't even know we wrote it - we went back and found it on a cassette and said, "That's a song, I guess."

Songfacts: How do you feel about collaboration compared to writing on your own?

Dando: It's tough. I really like both, but I think my best songs are written all by myself. But I also like the ones written as collaborations and I like doing other people's songs, too. And if a friend of mine has songs, I'll be happy to do them - Ben Lee wrote a couple of songs for me that I really liked.

Songfacts: One of the most unlikely covers you ever did was the Kiss song "Plaster Caster" [for the 1994 tribute album, Kiss My Ass].

Dando: Oh yeah! We met Cynthia Plaster Caster as a result though. She came to our soundcheck in Chicago once, in 1987 or something. She was nice. We were big Kiss fans for a while - after the fact. Way, way after the fact. We should have been Kiss fans. I wasn't really a Kiss fan growing up - I got into them when I was 19.

To most casual fans, the Lemonheads first came on their radar when they scored a pair of alt-rock radio hits in the early '90s: "Mrs. Robinson" and "Into Your Arms." But their career stretched back to the previous decade. Since forming in 1986 in Boston, the group has been led by Dando, and has endured countless lineup changes over the years, with a hiatus from 1998-2004. Starting off sounding quite Hüsker Dü-ish (check out their debut, Hate Your Friends, for the proof), the band enjoyed the height of its popularity when they focused on alt-pop material - especially 1992's It's a Shame About Ray and 1993's Come on Feel the Lemonheads, both of which were certified Gold in the US.
Songfacts: Looking back, what were the pros and cons of two songs you didn't write becoming hits: "Mrs. Robinson" and "Into Your Arms"?

Dando: I have no problem with "Into Your Arms." My friend Robyn St. Clare wrote that song, and it was a great song. But "Mrs. Robinson," I never liked it, but I think it made good recently when it was in The Wolf of Wall Street, because I thought, If it's in a Scorsese movie, it's finally making good for me. I'm OK with it.

But for the longest time, I couldn't believe we did it, and a lot of our fans were disappointed that we put that out. They thought we were better than that, that we were kind of selling out.

Songfacts: Who are your favorite songwriters?

Dando: Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Gram Parsons.

Songfacts: Why do you think so many great songwriters and artists came out of the '90s, as far as rock music?

Dando: I don't know, it was just a moment when real music came out again. It seemed like real music got popular again. I think it was because there was a little bit of a recession, which maybe helped it along. When there are recessions, people need more real stuff, I think. So, maybe it had something to do with that. But it was just a moment where really good music was popular for a second, it seems like. There were a lot of good bands at that point.

Songfacts: Who were some of your favorite artists of the '90s?

Dando: I like Screaming Trees, Dinosaur Jr., Mudhoney, Nirvana.

Songfacts: You just mentioned Nirvana - didn't Kurt Cobain prank call you once?

Dando: Oh yeah, that was funny. That was when they were making In Utero. They were calling a bunch of people and doing prank phone calls. I was happy to be included.

It was an inside job though, because we had their tour manager. It was orchestrated very carefully through our tour manager, who was friends with them. So, it was easy for them to do it, because they had an inside thing to tell me, "Madonna is trying to call you." My tour manager told me that, so I had no reason to think it wasn't true. I've heard it - I think it's funny.

Songfacts: Were you friendly at all with Kurt?

Dando: Could have been friendlier. It was sort of a weird situation with his girlfriend, Courtney [Love]. We toured with Mudhoney [who were friends of Nirvana's and toured with them]. We just never really hooked up until afterwards. We went to their rehearsal once and had a good time. We knew each other a little bit, but not very well. He was a good guy though.

Songfacts: What can fans expect from the upcoming tour with Tommy Stinson?

Dando: I don't really know, either! I know our band is really good. Me, Chris Brokaw on guitar, Farley Glavin on bass, and Lee Falco on drums is a really good band. Our band is tight, and we just did a European tour. We're looking forward to bringing Tommy out. I've never seen his solo thing, so I don't really know, but I like his music, and I like his general spirit, so it should be a fun tour, and a pretty good time for all.

May 1, 2019
For more Lemonheads, visit thelemonheads.net.

Further reading:

Chad Channing
Mark Arm
Lee Ranaldo
Frank Black
Matt Pinfield On 10 Of The Greatest Alt-Rock Videos of the '90s
Fact of Fiction: Grunge
100 Things Pearl Jam Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die - An Excerpt

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 3

  • Michelle Debeyer from Central Coast AustraliaLuv MUSIC stumbled on yr page........STAY METAL✌
  • Dan Macintosh from CaliforniaGreg,

    Nice job! I just saw Dando last night. It was a great show! I really appreciate the questions you asked, as they include many of the songs he performed.

  • Ivan from São Paulo, BrasilWhy was not he sincere and said he had sex with Courtney Love?
see more comments

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