Defying the Odds

B-Sides catches up with elusive Lemonhead Evan Dando, and keeps the faith with Nickel Creek mandolinist extraordinaire Chris Thile.

The Lemonheads

Evan Dando has gone missing.

On this occasion — a scheduled Friday-afternoon phone interview to discuss the re-emergence of the Lemonheads, recently reconstituted for their first album and tour in ten years — the 39-year-old singer-guitarist's publicist is having a hard time locating her client, a proud Luddite who's never used a computer and just recently purchased his first cell phone. The chat is rescheduled for the next day...and once again he's nowhere to be found. Finally, the following Tuesday morning, Dando materializes on the other end of the phone, apologetic, gregarious and candid. He's been on a mission, scouring New York City for a couple of vintage guitars for his upcoming tour. It's a healthy habit, he explains.

"I guess when you're evolving from spending so much money on drugs, you find something else to buy," he laughs from the back of a Lincoln Town Car that's shuttling him to the Sirius Satellite Radio studio in midtown Manhattan. "Back in the old days I was OK doing both, but now I gotta do just one."

Ah, yes, the drugs — Dando's made no secret of the fact that he's sampled pretty much every substance under the sun, and that a crippling addiction to crack and heroin played a giant role in his erratic behavior and the derailment of a once-successful career. But that was the past. These days, the now-mostly-clean-and-sober singer says he's thrilled with how well the touring version of the Lemonheads — which includes Vess Ruhtenberg on bass and Devon Ashley on drums — has jelled; his only worry is that for this second leg, his wife of nearly seven years, British-born model Elisabeth Moses, won't be able to accompany him as she did in the fall.

Still, Dando acknowledges that it was more than just an addictive personality that caused him to break up the Lemonheads after 1996's disappointing Car Button Cloth. "Actually, I was sabotaging my own career on purpose," he explains. "I didn't like where it was going. Whatever this thing was they had planned for being one of those ten-million-selling people, which is what they were saying to me for [1993's] Come on Feel [the Lemonheads], you know, 'This record's gotta sell ten million.' And I buckled. I was like, 'I don't really want that. I see what happens to people that that happens to, and it's usually not good.'"

"Not good" describes the following few years, until he met Moses and got clean. In 2001 Dando resurfaced with a live album, and in 2003 he dropped his "proper" solo debut, Baby I'm Bored. Soon after, he caught wind of a festival in Brazil at which all the bands played nothing but Lemonheads covers, and it started him thinking that he'd like to record again under the Lemonheads moniker. The only problem was that the group's initial ten-year run featured so many lineup changes that there was no real "band" to reunite. So Dando reached out to one of his musical influences: bassist Karl Alvarez, of Descendents and All fame.

"Karl was like, 'I think Bill [Stevenson, Descendents/Black Flag/All drummer] would be up for doing something,' and I was like, 'Fuckin' score, I guess I really am gonna make this Lemonheads record,'" Dando recalls, noting that at age sixteen he learned how to play drums by bashing his kit along to the Descendents' 1982 LP, Milo Goes to College. "Bill was a really important dude to me. And a lot of people don't know that he's a killer songwriter — one of the reasons I'm really proud about the new album is that it really showcases his songwriting, too."

"My initial thought was that Karl and I would be kinda implementing his will and throwing our own flair into it," Stevenson says from his Colorado studio. "But when it came down to it, it was more like he was looking for equal partners. Obviously at the end of the day it's Evan's band, but the whole experience was very open and definitely a three-way street."

Stevenson adds that he was never really concerned about Dando's negative reputation. "My approach was to factor that in as a possibility, and if there was a lateness or a no-show, big deal. That's an easy thing to work around. I'm a guy who's never tried a drug in my life. Never. But I would never judge someone on whether or not they do drugs. That's like judging 'em on whether they fuckin' eat French fries. Who gives a fuck?"

And indeed, on the way home to enjoy a couple more days with his wife before he starts touring again, Dando says he's more content now than at any point in the last fifteen years, and happy to be back. "There's people who feel really sorry for me and stuff — they think I 'blew my big chance.' But I never wanted any of that. Whatever happens — it's amazing that people still give a fuck about me." — Michael Alan Goldberg

8 p.m. Thursday, February 15. VooDoo Lounge at Harrah's Casino, 777 Casino Center Drive, Maryland Heights. $15. 314-770-8196.

Mandolin Wind

In 25 short years (he'll turn 26 the night before he plays St. Louis), mandolinist extraordinaire Chris Thile has guested on albums by such country royalty as Dolly Parton, the Dixie Chicks and Keith Urban; released a pair of discs as a duo with fellow mandolinist Mike Marshall; and recorded no fewer than five solo albums (his first issued at the tender age of thirteen), on top of serving as one-third of Grammy-winning act Nickel Creek for more than ten years. Feel lazy yet?

In an early-afternoon phone call from Nashville (Thile had recorded through the night with bassist Edgar Meyer for yet another album in his "week off" between tour legs), the much-accomplished stringman explains what propels him.

B-Sides: You play several covers on [new album] How to Grow a Woman from the Ground, but still there are angels and devils and the Holy Ghost running through the lyric sheet. At one point you even "pray against" someone. Are you a man of religious faith?

Chris Thile: Religion is a constant concern of mine, as I was raised with it. But as far as where I stand, I'm on the fence about the whole thing. It's definitely something that I take very seriously, and I'm always wondering about, you know, whether it's real or not, or good or bad. How I should be interfacing with it is of, you know, chief concern to me. I guess where I am right now is I'm not sure you can ever really know. And that drives me crazy, because I really kind of like things to hang out in black and white.

"How to Grow a Woman From the Ground" is the name of a song and your latest album, and you're touring as Chris Thile and the How To Grow a Band. How did you find that song, and what does it mean to you?

That's a song my buddy Tom Brousseau wrote, and I just like the honest side of idealism and naivete that that song represents, albeit in a very dark and disturbing way. You know, I think that on the bright side of that song there's this willingness to try anything to achieve one's goals, and you know this poor fellow can't figure out how to talk to girls, so he thinks maybe that he can make one. He thinks that if he's actually this poor woman's creator, he'll have better luck.

How strong is the identification?

Not terribly strong. Certainly I stand in awe of the fair sex and have from time to time had a great deal of difficulty engaging them in conversation, but I actually, you know, have a girlfriend and I'm quite happy in that respect right now, and so the identification more comes on just the whole. I am a card-carrying naive idealist — and that's really what I identify so strongly with. — Rob Trucks

8 p.m. Wednesday, February 21. Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Boulevard. $15 to $25. 314-533-9900.

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