Evan Dando's model work ethic
The Lemonheads' frontman asked Kate Moss and Liv Tyler to sing on his new album. He tells James McNair why
Friday 03 July 2009
Some musicians conduct their interviews in pristine, un-slept-in hotel rooms, but only a TV-set-shaped hole in the window could make Evan Dando's West London suite look more lived-in. The Lucky Strike ciggies that someone has purposefully disembowelled; the beer-soaked bed sheets and randomly strewn personal effects; these and other details make you wonder what went down in his room the previous night.
The likeable ball of amiability before me is the leader of 1980s and 1990s indie darlings The Lemonheads. He is breakfasting on vodka and orange. Despite retaining the Lemonheads moniker, the good-looking, Boston, Massachusetts-born singer/guitarist is effectively solo. Today, we have met to talk about his new album, Varshons, a skewed cover-versions collection that features Liv Tyler and Kate Moss on guest vocals.
Covers – witness The Lemonheads' grungy 1992 take on Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs Robinson" – have long augmented Dando's fine originals, but on Varshons he tackles obscure and (for him) unlikely material, as well as obvious crowd-pleasers such as Gram Parsons' "I Just Can't Take It Anymore". The Christina Aguilera hit "Beautiful" is re-invented à la Led Zeppelin's "Thank You", and there is a trippy take on "Yesterlove", a song by Motörhead's Lemmy's pre-Hawkwind band, Sam Gopal.
"People are too hung up on trying to write new songs when there are so many great ones out there already", says Dando. "Patsy Cline and Elvis Presley probably wrote about three songs between them, but it didn't do them any harm. A lot of the material I've chosen here came from mix-tapes – or mix CDs, actually – that my friend Gibby [Haynes] of the Butthole Surfers made for me. He's really generous that way – he'll fill an iPod with songs and give it to people."
Dando and the aforementioned Liv Tyler go back a bit. He first met the actress in 1994 when he played her demanding boyfriend in the 1995 film Heavy. The pair became firm friends, Dando famously co-writing the song "C'mon Daddy" for her with the late Kevin Paul Godfrey, aka UK indie act Epic Soundtracks. "C'mon Daddy" addressed Tyler's paternity; specifically her discovering, aged nine, that her father was Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler, and not – as her famous model mother Bebe Buell had maintained – Todd Rundgren.
On Varshons, Tyler duets with Dando on his version of Leonard Cohen's "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye". "I think Liv sounds really bounteous and American" says Dando, "kinda like Marilyn Monroe singing 'Happy Birthday" to JFK. She has a great voice. Liv came down and sang that song in the only six-hour window she had available."
Elsewhere, Kate Moss sexes up Dando's take on "Dirty Robot", a song by Belgian dance duo Arling and Cameron. "I think it sounds better than a lot of the stuff she's done before", says my host. "It was great to hear her sing in that cold, clinical way."
Dando occasionally strums his battered Gibson acoustic as we chat. Its front is decorated with photos: a shot of his goddaughter and one of his English fashion-model wife, Elizabeth Moses. The guitar's headstock has a little sticker depicting cartoon character Roadrunner. "That was a present from a girl called Estelle", says the singer. "She also gave me that dress I wore at Reading in 1993."
The previous year's It's A Shame About Ray album saw The Lemonheads go stratospheric, but their effortlessly charming leader was using crack cocaine and God knows what else. Adrift, yet still game, he befriended Oasis and squandered his talent on tambourine on their 1994 UK tour. Something had to give, and the story of "Hospital", from The Lemonheads 1996 album Car Button Cloth, is telling: Dando wrote it at Boston's Silver Hill Hospital after an acid-induced breakdown in Sydney, Australia.
The singer tells me he's working on a new album, and kindly strums me a few bars of a work in progress. The chords and guitar melodies are beautiful, but there are no lyrics yet. Dando says a piano at home would help, as would a change of scenery.
He and Elizabeth live in Manhattan "just two blocks from where the Twin Towers were", but he doesn't want to stay to see The Freedom Tower go up. He wants to move to Red Brook, Brooklyn, where he can smell the ocean. "I love fishing for bass and skipjack tuna" says the singer. "My pop's got a boat on Martha's Vineyard that I can go to. I caught a big striped bass there once. Twenty pounds. A keeper. Latin name morone saxatilis. Unfortunately he twitched his head and the hook went through my finger. I drove to the emergency ward with the fishing rod stuck to my hand; Elizabeth was freaking out."
Would he still be happy if he wasn't able to do music professionally? "What, like if I was doing drugs and I messed up my tendons? I've thought about that, believe me." He adds, "Right now I'm doing a book with a friend of mine who does these amazing drawings, and we're using the letters of the word 'pesto' as the basis for 35 acronyms. We've got some great ones like 'Pearl emerges shining, thanks, oysters!' The visuals should be great."
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