Boston-bred alternative popsters the Lemonheads are a band, despite the fact that the lion’s share of the media attention awarded them has focused on charismatic singer/songwriter Evan Dando. The group’s sound originated in the rough-hewn underground rock scene of the mid-1980s, but it moved toward a more accessible, folk- and country-tinged approach as Dan-do’s compositional abilities matured. Numerous personnel changes ensued, but by the early 1990s the Lemonheads solidified as a trio; even so, they made use of many guest artists.
After attracting recognition for some eclectic cover versions, the band became a big name in alternative rock. Their leader, meanwhile, dealt with the vicissitudes of life as an “alternahunk.” Los Angeles Times reviewer Richard Cromelin encapsulated the appeal of Dando’s songs: “He makes his points with an inviting, tuneful buoyancy rather than withering blasts, offering economical sketches of life that in their best moments resonate with disarming mystery and evocative mood.”
Dando’s family—his parents were itinerant surfers—moved to Boston when he was nine. His parents split during Evan’s adolescence, and the experience left him bitter. Music was always what soothed him; he ranks Motown soul classics like “Heat Wave” by Martha & the Vandellas among his all-time favorites. Dando wrote a lot during high school and described himself as “nerdy” during that time in a Request interview. He struck many of his schoolmates, however, as angry and distant. “He was a snappy, angry punk,” recalled Jesse Peretz—the first Lemonheads bassist—to Spin. “He was really sharp to tell you exactly what was on his mind even if it was kind of cruel, but he always seemed to pinpoint exact truths.”
Dando, Peretz, and drummer Ben Deily began playing scrappy punk-pop together under the name the Whelps while still in school. Their influences included Minneapolis punk-pop innovators the Replacements—whose frontman/songwriter Paul Westerberg quietly became one of the most respected tunesmiths in the business—and such underground heroes as Los Angeles punk outfits Black Flag and the Angry Samoans.
Indeed, Dando informed Request writer Bill Holdship, “The Samoans started our career, because we loved them so much that when they came to Boston in ’85, we baked them a cake with icing that had the blonde girl with the axe in the top of her head and blood coming down [a horror-movie image that the Samoans used on an album cover], so the next time they came through,
For the Record…
Members include Nic Dalton (joined 1992), bass; Evan Dando (born in 1967 in Essex, MA; son of a lawyer and former model), vocals, guitar; Ben Deily (left band c. 1989), drums; Juliana Hatfield (played on 1992 album, guest thereafter), bass, vocals; Jesse Peretez (leftc. 1991), bass; David Ryan (joined c. 1990),drums.
Group formed as the Whelps in Boston, MA, 1986—; released debut single “Laughing All the Way to the Cleaners” on Taang! Records, 1986; signed with Atlantic and released Lovey, 1990; band’s rendition of “Mrs. Robinson” appeared on 25th Anniversary videocassette of film The Graduate, 1992; Dando contributed to 1993 Sweet Relief benefit album and appeared in film Reality Bites.
we got to open for them.” The group gave an early tape to Curtis Casella, of the independent label Taang! Records. “It sounded so familiar at first,” Casella related to Spin’s Mark Blackwell. “Exactly like the Replacements.” It wasn’t that Dando andfriends hadn’t found their sound yet, they had just neglected to erase the Replacements songs from one side of their tape. When Casella heard the original tunes, he was suitably impressed with their “intense energy.” Taang! subsequently released the single “Laughing All the Way to the Cleaners” in 1986 with the trio re-christened the Lemonheads.
The band’s first album, Hate Your Friends, appeared in 1987. The group was soon part of the vital Boston alternative-rock scene that also featured such bands as the Pixies. 1988’s Creator enhanced their underground following. Soon after the release of their next record, Lick— which contained an attention-getting cover version of Suzanne Vega’s folk-pop hit “Luka” at Casella’s insistence and against the band’s wishes—the group hit rough seas.
Deily’s brother Jonno had become part of the lineup, and the two apparently fought with Dando over control of the band’s direction. Dando quit briefly to play bass in the Blake Babies alongside his pal Juliana Hatfield, but returned to the group when Lick and “Luka” generated a buzz on MTV and on the college charts. Faced with the prospect of a European tour, Deily balked. David Ryan took his place, but the Lemon-heads’ new, moderate success was bittersweet: Dan-do was given to bouts of night terror, and Casella once found him howling incoherently while squatting on a sink.
Despite these nightmares, the Lemonheads signed with a major label, Atlantic, and recorded the album Lovey in 1990. Dando found a new place to decompress: Sydney, Australia. The band toured there in 1991 and the singer/songwriter found a community of musical friends—among them Tom Morgan, who would become a frequent collaborator with Dando on Lemonheads songs—far from the maddening crowds of the American record business.
Peretz left the group before the Lemonheads recorded their breakthrough album, 1992’s It’s a Shame About Ray, so Hatfield sat in on bass. Australian bassist Nic Dalton joined the band for its subsequent tour. The album was produced by the three Robb brothers in Los Angeles.
Although Ray marked the full-fledged emergence of Dando’s more intimate, poppy style, it was a rowdy cover version of “Mrs. Robinson,” a Simon and Gar-funkel song from the 1967 film The Graduate, that helped the band make its biggest waves. Originally recorded after Ray ’s release for the 25th-anniversary videocassette of the film, it was added to later pressings of the album. Once again, the band objected: “See, I try to choose my cover songs very carefully,” Dando explained to the Detroit Free Press, “and there’s noway I’d choose that one.” Even so, “Mrs. Robinson” and the freewheeling, low-budget video that accompanied it made the Lemonheads alternative-rock stars almost overnight.
Ray itself benefitted from the attention, but reviewers were clearly more smitten with the original songs. “The secret recipe,” reasoned Danielle Dowling of Reflex, “seems to be Dando’s ability to create songs that easily slip in and out of these genres [folk and punk] without abruptly alerting the listener, exemplified by the title track, a catchy piece both in its pleasant acoustic stanzas and bass-driven groove refrain.” People favored the group’s “less alienating, almost folky feel” over the anger and bombast of alternative heavies such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
The success of Ray also engendered the Cult of Evan; Dando’s sleepy good looks graced scores of magazine covers, and interviewers worldwide ignored the group to focus on its leader’s spacey charisma. This attention threatened to backfire when Dando’s anxiety over recording the follow-up to Ray led him to admit to the press that he’d resorted to heroin and crack for a brief spell.
Ultimately, however, the Lemonheads emerged in 1993 with Come on Feel the Lemonheads, an expansive album that further explored the country influences that had become part of Dando’s sound. With the help of his friend Mac MacCaughan of the band Superchunk, Dando told Option that he’d begun to see that country “was valid, viable American music.”
Songs like “Big Gay Heart”—which employs veteran pedal-steel guitarist “Sneeky” Pete Kleinow—show how country has infiltrated his approach. Hatfield contributed vocals to numerous songs, and vocalists Belinda Carlisle—for whom Dando had originally intended the song “I’ll Do It Anyway”—and Rick James also put in appearances. The album was again produced by the Robbs in L.A. “I’d prefer to be just about anywhere else,” Dando explained to Rolling Stone. “But I wouldn’t want to work with anybody but the Robbs, and this is their place. So here I am.”
The Lemonheads, bolstered by extensive touring, were a tighter band in the studio. The album was an immediate smash in the United Kingdom, and the first single, “Into Your Arms” by Australian friend Robyn St. Clare, made a strong showing on MTV. With “The Great Big No,” the Lemonheads promised to get some attention for an original song for a change. Even so, reviews of the album were mixed. “With each album, Dando’s writing, singing, and guitar playing have grown steadily wimpier,” commented Entertainment Weekly. “But at least he’s a melodic wimp.”
The Rocket, meanwhile, praised Come on Feel the Lemonheads as “a charming pop record” that “establishes Dando as a brilliant songwriter.” While Details felt the album “delivers on the shambling promise” of Ray, J. D. Considine of Musician poured vitriol on it, reflecting a backlash in some circles against Dando’s fashion-model status: “all Dando shows in his songs is smug superiority. So f—him.”
The Lemonheads, having solidified at last as a band and having cleared the hurdle of follow-up to a major label success, seemed at last to have found their stride. Rolling Stone referred to Dando as “a first-rate songwriter, a worthy heir to the Paul Westerberg estate.” The singer—who had been doing some film acting and drumming for the band Godstar with Dalton and Morgan—explained to Musician, “It’s all about learning to relax, for me. It’s really hard for me to relax in the studio and get a good performance.... Someone might even tell you how to do that, but you wouldn’t really learn it until you figure it out for yourself. That’s what I did, and I’m glad I came through it. You know, that’s usually my style. In the last minute, I come through.”
“Laughing All the Way to the Cleaners,” 1986.
Hate Your Friends, 1987.
Lick (includes “Luka”), 1989.
It’s a Shame About Ray (includes “Mrs. Robinson”), 1992.
Come on Feel the Lemonheads (includes “Big Gay Heart,” “I’ll Do It Anyway,” “Into Your Arms,” and “The Great Big No”), 1993.
With other artists
“Frying Pan” (Dando solo) Sweet Relief: A Tribute to Victoria Williams, Thirsty Ear/Chaos, 1993.
Billboard, November 6, 1993.
Circus, December 31, 1993.
Creem, February 1994.
Details, July 1993; December 1993.
Detroit Free Press, November 13, 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, October 15, 1993; November 19, 1993.
Los Angeles Times, November 7, 1993.
Musician, December 1993.
Option, November 1993.
People, November 30, 1992; May 3, 1993.
Raygun, November 1992.
Reflex, November 10, 1992.
Request, December 1993.
Rocket, October 27, 1993; November 10, 1993.
Rolling Stone, February 1,1993; April 1,1993; June 10,1993; September 30, 1993; February 10, 1994.
Spin, August 1992; December 1992; April 1993; December 1993; February 1994.
Us, November 1993.
Vanity Fair, October 1993.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Atlantic Records publicity materials, 1993.