Evan Dando is sitting in the garden of the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood, talking about the new Lemonheads album, when he suddenly fixes his gaze on a tree.
“Wow, look at that bird,” he exclaims.
It’s just a noisy California jay, but it’s new to the Boston-raised musician.
“They don’t have those kind of jays on the East Coast at all. They’re not that color blue,” he says. “I love birds.”
A quintessential moment from the new rock’s nature boy--a strapping, long-haired golden youth who says he feels really human only after swimming in the ocean. Throw in those blue eyes and boyishly rugged features and you have the MTV generation’s dream date.
If alternative rock, as defined by its front-line warriors Pearl Jam and Nirvana, voices its followers’ confusion and rage, Dando represents an altogether different province. 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.
Beyond the music, there’s that face, and a genuine, casual charisma. Where Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder are contemporary rock’s tortured auteurs , he’s the dreamboat--now featured in teen magazines such as Sassy and Seventeen instead of the punk-rock fanzines that profiled the Lemonheads in their early days. He was even enshrined in People magazine’s list of 50 beautiful people.
“I think it’s funny,” Dando says of the sex-symbol mantle. “It doesn’t bug me. It’s really weird though. . . . People really put stock in that stuff sometimes. And maybe I do too. It’s scary, the whole thing. The whole thing freaks me out. The world’s weird.”
If his answer seems a little non-linear, that’s just the way things are these days as Dando negotiates the tightening curves of his late 20s, watching warily as the pure fun that music has always represented is threatened by success.
Last year’s album “It’s a Shame About Ray” topped the college radio airplay charts, and the surprise popularity of the Lemonheads’ bouncy version of “Mrs. Robinson” (included in the 25th-anniversary videocassette of “The Graduate,” and added to later pressings of the “Ray” album) pushed the Lemonheads--who headline the Palace tonight and Monday--from the middle of the pack to the front ranks of contenders.
They’re still not huge mainstream sellers--the new “Come On Feel the Lemonheads” (see review, Page 72) entered the sales chart last month at No. 56 and then dropped to No. 71--but the combination of critical support, media attention and substantial fan base definitely makes the Lemonheads a band with a buzz.
Just what every young group aspires to, right?
“It’s horrible, I hate it,” Dando moans. “It was like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s gonna be the record of the year,’ all these things. It drove me crazy for a while there when we were making the record. I was kind of panicked.
“Then I was like, ‘My God, it’s stupid.’ All I’m doing is having fun, making a record, nothing else. . . . I don’t care if it sells; I just want to make something that I like.”
Dando, 26, seems both relieved and restless as he sits, barefoot, in a corner of the garden that’s shielded by a hedge from the Sunset Strip, where he occasionally plays and sings for passersby on the sidewalk.
He’s friendly and forthcoming but still seems a little shell-shocked from the high-stress recording process, which he completed only the day before with the final sequencing of the songs. He doesn’t smoke during the morning interview, on orders from a throat specialist who helped get him through the final album sessions when his voice threatened to give out.
Dando figures to mellow out much more when he flies to Australia the next day. Music will be just for fun again when he plays drums on a short tour with the group Godstar, part of an incestuous circle of friends who play on each other’s records, populate each other’s bands and serve as characters in each other’s songs. Nic Dalton plays bass in both Godstar and the Lemonheads, and Godstar guitarist Tom Morgan co-wrote most of the new Lemonheads album with Dando.
“I see the pressure quite a bit when he comes down and when I speak to him,” Morgan says by phone from Sydney. “He’s totally into being in a band--that’s all he wants to do--but I think that the reality sort of gets him down sometimes.”
Pressure notwithstanding, Dando seems set on scampering through his music career with the same zest and sense of discovery he felt when his family moved to Boston from rural Essex, Mass. He was 9, and he raced around on his skateboard exploring the city.
“I was pretty solitary,” he recalls. “I had a couple of good friends, but people called me a loner. I was into solitary sports--skiing and skateboarding. I’d keep to myself, and I was into watching birds. I always loved nature. Go walking around looking.
“I never thought about what I was gonna do. My theory was always that just to live life is enough; there’s nothing you have to try to do. If you’re alive that’s plenty. You can enjoy yourself, look around. So I was absolutely willing to let things happen as they were. I was having a great time.”
Music was always part of the fun:
“I remember when I was a little kid, you know, making my bed and hearing pop songs on the radio. And if I had a crush on some girl, I’d hear this song and I’d think, wow , and I’d be the protagonist in the song.
“Things like ‘Heatwave’ by Martha & the Vandellas and stuff. It seemed like the potential to make people happy with music was very high. So obviously I’d hope that that would happen with our songs sometimes. I love it when someone says like, ‘That thing you wrote really made sense to me in my life at that time.’ ”
Dando taught himself guitar by studying Beatles songbooks, and now he lists Neil Young, Gram Parsons, Paul Westerberg, Bob Dylan and Cole Porter among his favorite writers.
“I like the way words sound, and I like the way things look. I like to describe,” he says. “I wrote short stories all through high school and tried to not use too many words and say something and make it sound cool. Just like describing sensations of what it’s like to be alive, trying to do it really specifically.”
Says Dando’s longtime friend Curtis, owner of Taang Records, the Boston-based independent label that released the Lemonheads’ first three albums: “Nobody I’ve worked with listens to as much music as Evan does, and I’ve put out 80 records.
“He’s really into the music aspect of it,” continues Curtis, who uses just one name. “The other part of it, the hype, the teen idol thing, he doesn’t care at all. He wants to make records. His idols are like Gram Parsons and Tom Waits, people who make music for the sake of making music, not for the sake of being a glamour boy.”
The Lemonheads (originally called the Whelps) were inspired by punk bands such as L.A.'s Black Flag and Angry Samoans, and they earned some attention with their first EP in 1986. The first album was 1987’s punkish “Hate Your Friends”; then Dando’s songwriting kicked into gear on 1988’s “Creator.” “Lick,” which included a profile-raising, novelty-edged version of Suzanne Vega’s “Luka,” followed in ’89. (Taang Records recently reissued all three albums.)
It was a volatile blend of personalities, and Dando left the group for a while to play bass with his Boston pals the Blake Babies. After he returned, the Lemonheads signed with the major label Atlantic Records and released “Lovey” in 1990. Last year’s “It’s a Shame About Ray” found former Blake Baby Juliana Hatfield on bass. The current lineup is Dando, bassist Dalton and drummer David Ryan.
Now, as success simultaneously beckons and threatens, Dando tries to stay above the fray, a footloose troubadour clinging to his original vision of “an adventurous life.” Still, growing up works some inevitable changes, as he found out when his voice started disappearing.
“I’m learning that I have to not be so stubborn,” he says. “I don’t know it all, and it’s not all magic. There’s a bunch of pragmatic things. I have a lot of willpower when I want to. I stopped drinking, everything. I even stopped talking.
“I’m amazed at what must be some sort of ambition inside me that wants to really do good. I was really nerdy and safe and good about it. I did what the doctor told me. He said I was one of the best patients he’s ever had. It was a real awakening for me to realize there are things that you can do that really make a difference.
“All I know is that I’m really grateful to be able to travel around and that people like our music at all. And if people don’t like it, it’s not such a big deal. That’s cool. I’m just real grateful to be able to do what I do at all, so I’m reverent of it still.”