London -- After a run of independent-label releases in the late '80s, and a barely noticed big-label debut in 1990, the Boston-based Lemonheads finally bounced beyond their college cult with a grunge-pop remake of "Mrs. Robinson" and the album "It's a Shame about Ray."
As lead Lemonhead Evan Dando became alternative music's cover boy of the year, the threesome won over radio, MTV and concert crowds from L.A. to London to Sydney. So with its current album, "Come on Feel the Lemonheads," the band certainly has reached a milestone.
"Good morning, the Milestone," chirps a woman at the front desk of a London hotel, named for a historic mileage marker outside its front door. She confirms Mr. Dando is registered, and a short time later, the lanky singer is bounding across the street for a chat in Kensington Gardens.
Mr. Dando is the first to admit he's gained as much attention in the past year for his charming looks and slacker manner as for the Lemonheads' effervescent rock and roll. All struggling young bands should have such problems. "I'll go along with people telling me: 'Do this photo shoot. It'll get your music heard,' " he says. "So I do it, then it ends up just getting my picture looked at."
The Lemonheads' shifting lineup (which included former Blake Baby Juliana Hatfield playing bass on "It's a Shame about Ray") has always revolved around Mr. Dando, his pithy, power-pop songwriting and jangly guitar attacks, inspired by bands from the Byrds to Big Star. However, with bassist Nic Dalton of Australia's Hummingbirds joining him and drummer David Ryan, the Lemonheads are "more of a band than we've ever been. We went out and played for a year straight and then went into the studio."
There's nothing like success to help make friends, and "Come on Feel the Lemonheads" features a fair share. Belinda Carlisle duets with Mr. Dando on the Go-Go-ish "I'll Do It Anyway." Slide/steel guitarist Sneaky Pete Kleinow of Flying Burrito Brothers fame adds a country-rock lilt to an anti-gay-bashing ballad, "Big Gay Heart," while allowing Mr. Dando to play Gram Parsons for a day. And Rick James lent his funky vocals to the loopy "Rick James Style," one of two album versions of the song "Style," about indecision and mind-altering substances -- two topics of interest to Mr. Dando lately.
Mr. Dando worked on more than half of the new album's 15 tracks in Sydney, Australia, with collaborator Tom Morgan, a friend. After the Lemonheads toured Down Under in 1991, Sydney became a favorite retreat, where Mr. Dando could drink from the same well as like-minded rockers, such as Hoodoo Gurus and the Saints. He and Mr. Morgan hit it off.
"The key thing is one guitar between the two of us," he says of their songwriting style. "We have a couple of riffs between the two of us and we fuse 'em together, sort of grabbing the guitar back and forth between us. I think if we both had a guitar we'd be lost."
With four-track demos in hand, Mr. Dando and his bandmates returned to Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles, where they had recorded "It's a Shame about Ray" with the Robb Brothers -- Dee, Bruce and Joe -- at the board.
"It was a completely blind date," says Mr. Dando, who was unaware the Robbs once backed up '60s rocker Del Shannon. The brief guitar quote from "Runaway" in "I'll Do It Anyway" makes it clear he later found out. "I sort of feel an association with Del in a way, like I'm the new friend they make music with," he says of the Robbs.
If only the same could have been said of Mr. Dando during the sessions for the current album.
"I was depressed and nervous about making the record," he admits, "and I thought I could escape it with drugs. And it didn't work." The sessions in the L.A. studio alternated with sessions smoking crack with unnamed musician pals and brief tastes of low-grade Mexican heroin. "I just dabbled a little bit," he says, emphasizing that he now has even quit smoking cigarettes.
As if that wasn't bad enough, Mr. Dando also broke the press silence that normally protects such dumb pop-star exploits. Because his adventures screwed up his voice, Mr. Dando spoke to a few journalists about his bender. "I was, like, 'What have I done?' " he recalls, smacking his forehead. "So, since I'd blown it, I had to be completely frank. And it's an annoying domino thing. It's going to come up a lot.
"But I have nothing to hide. I'll talk about what I've done. The only thing I'm worried about is giving the wrong message to kids. I don't want people to think it's cool to take drugs. You overdramatize your predicament when you take drugs, and it just gets worse and worse.
"It's all about learning to relax," adds Mr. Dando. "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."
A Lemon aid
To hear excerpts of the Lemonheads' "Come on Feel the Lemonheads," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6179 after you hear the greeting.
What: The Lemonheads, with Buffalo Tom and Gigolo Aunts
When: Sunday, 7 p.m.
Where: Pier Six Concert Pavilion, Inner Harbor
Tickets: $12 and $9.91
Call: (410) 625-1400 for tickets, (410) 625-3100 for information