Interview with Evan Dando by David Browne
From Spin, October 2006
The drugs. The bad behavior. The backlash. The near-death experience.
When life handed Evan Dando lemons, he remade Lemonheads.
For a moment, it feels like the '90s never ended. "It would be fun to do Letterman again," Evan Dando is saying, lugging a guitar case while navigating his way past tourists and Wall Streeters through the narrow lanes of Lower Manhattan. Just like old times, Dando's sandy-brown mane swings with each stride, his tan sneakers and striped, long-sleeved pullover evoking the standard, bygone slacker uniform. "Our first time on there was pretty funny," he continues, smiling as he recalls the days when he was singer, guitarist and, he says, "dictator" of the Lemonheads. "I went out with three tabs of ecstacy in this pouch I had around my neck." He and his fellow Lemonheads took the stashed X right after the taping so he'd be coming down off the high while watching the telecast later that evening. Everyone, including Evan Dando, has a favorite Evan Dando story. Some of them - the Letterman episode, Dando nearly missed an important gig because he went off with not one but two women, Dando carting a portable turntable onto the New York subway so he could listen to his 45s - can be amusing. But in the saga that has become the life of Dando, not all the tales are so entertaining. The mere mention of his name still triggers fond memories of the Lemonheads album that made him an alt-rock poster boy, 1992's It's A Shame About Ray, with its songs that managed, pre-emo, to combine the force of punk with winsome pop melancholia. But his name also invokes what came after: crack and heroin dabbling, arrests, shambolic concerts, rumored celebrity shack-ups - everything, that is, except the music he made.
Dando has heard all these stories and listens earnestly as each is brought up, like the time he came onstage in pajamas and soon stalked off. "We didn't play the whole set?" he wonders aloud.
But as he, like many in his generation, approaches 40 (the big day arrives this March), Dando wants to be taken seriously again. Ten years after the last Lemonheads album, Car Button Cloth, and nine years after a stoned Dando announced onstage at the Reading Festival in England that the band was breaking up, he has resurrected the name and with it, he hopes, his career.
Out promoting his solo album Baby I'm Bored in 2003, Dando remarked that he was glad to be done with the moniker, calling it "stupid." Now he has changed his tune. "I realized I put a lot of work into that brand name over the years, and why not keep it going?" he half-mumbles. "T-shirts with your name on it? Nah. It doesn't work."
Seeds of the revival, he says, were sewn when he heard about a Lemonheads tribute concert in Brazil in 2003. With two backup players, he toured with that name the following year; this year's incarnation of the Lemonheads features a pair of pop punk vets, former Descendents and All members Karl Alvarez on bass and Bill Stevenson on drums. The album they've made together sports the simple, starting-over title The Lemonheads; in another nod to his nascent years as an '80s hardcore kid, the record finds Dando back on an indie punk label (Vagrant) and reviving the rush of power-punk hooks, hazy singing, and windshield-wiper electric guitars of early Lemonheads discs.
"For the first time ever, I want to be consistent and be on time and be a professional," he says, traces of his space-cadet slur only occasionally slipping into his phrasing. "I realize it's not about missing the show because you're on acid. It's about playing really good shows and building some momentum and giving people some entertainment. That evil thing, ambition, has finally crept its way into me." His advice for young musicians: "Always make the gig."
Yet nothing is ever simple in the land of Dando. Friends past and present agree he is in far better shape, mentally and physically, than he was during the late '90s; many, Dando himself, credit that turnaround to his marriage to Elizabeth Moses, a British model and metal fan ten years his junior. Yet in those same conversations with those who know him, it's not uncommon to hear variations on adjectives like complex and dark. "He's complicated," says longtime friend and occasional bandmate Juliana Hatfield. "He's incredibly exciting and fun, but it's also frustrating and maddening sometimes to be his friend. He's moody. You don't always know which Evan you're going to get."
"At least we never sold ten million records," Dando says over lunch before heading back to his apartment. "I consider that a real blessing. Invariably, either your lives are destroyed or your music starts to suck. Look at the Stones. Or Nirvana - who were great, but look what happened to them." But what happened to Dando was almost as bad and as tragic.
"Why is this apartment so messy?" Dando asks Moses. He has charged into their amiably cluttered home, with its view of the near-empty construction site that was once the World Trade Center, and indeed, there is a pile of clothes on the couch; books are strewn on the floor.
"Because we haven't been here!" Moses replies, with fake exasperation. The apartment may be as chaotic as Dando's life during the '90s, but what's lying around is equally revealing: a copy of the children's book Put Me in the Zoo; teetering stacks of DVDs, including box sets of Magnum P.I, Dando's current obsession. ("It's really good fun," he says, with no trace of irony.) On the kitchen wall is a framed sheet of wacky Packages parody cards. As former manager Janet Billig says, Dando is "a big kid." During the recording of The Lemonheads, Stevenson recalls having "inspiring conversations" with Dando. About what? Tree climbing.
Such childlike guilelessness seems to be a Dando trademark. As a preteen in Essex, Massachusetts, he lived the life most dream of: a wealthy attorney father, summers surfing in France. After his parents divorced when he was 11 - "the sand in my oyster," he now says wryly - he turned to the Boston punk and hardcore scene to vent his feelings. Out of that sprang the first of many versions of the Lemonheads, who recorded three indie albums for Taang! before they were scooped up by Atlantic in 1989. Bettina Richards, who signed the band to the label, recalls Dando as "always a little flaky, but it seemed endearing. He'd been protected and allowed to maintain a certain innocence that a lot of kids aren't allowed to do." Boosted by a cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" (which still makes Dando cringe), It's A Shame About Ray, the Lemonheads' second album for Atlantic, made Dando - with his shaggy, unthreatening alt-hippie demeanor - a darling of a media world still grappling with grunge. He serenaded the Live With Regis and Kathie Lee audience and was featured in People's 1993 "50 Most Beautiful People in the World" issue, an experience he calls "one of the most absurd things that ever happened." Of that and other mainstream publicity, he recalls, "A friend was telling me, 'Are you sure you want to do this? You'll never get yourself back 100 percent.' And she was right."
Sure enough, things began to unravel faster than one could say "Sassy magazine obsession." Despite Dando's guitar chops, music-geek knowledge, and graceful way with a melody, the emphasis on his stoner-bimbo image invited instant backlash, culminating in the fanzine Die Evan Dando, Die. Even Stevenson owns up to "talking a little shit" about the Lemonheads. ("When you look like a gorilla," he says, "you get jealous of a good-lookin' guy.") The follow-up, 1993's Come On Feel The Lemonheads, was rushed into release, complete with a cover altered at the last minute to emphasize the frontman's looks. "With all due respect to our management, they were just like, 'Let's get all we can out of these kids before they either die or this form of music becomes extinct,"' Dando says. "And I guess they were pretty smart, because it kinda did."
"He was always put in this alterna-hunk slot," says Billig, "when he's James Taylor or John Denver, a guy who writes amazing songs. He was born 15 years too late." The Taylor analogy, in fact, ran deeper. Like his predecessor, Dando was a handsome troubadour who, beneath the laid-back exterior, was a self-destructive party animal from a privileged background. Starting with his band's name - a sly reference to quaaludes - drugs were around almost from the start. "Since I was ten, it was all about doing all the drugs in the alphabet," he says. "And it worked out fine for me."
The articulate Dando that Richards knew a few years before - one for whom "the drugs were more for occasional entertainment than to cope," she recalls-gave way to an erratic stoner. "I was really going for it," he says with a shrug. "I really enjoyed embodying the cliche of what a rock star is supposed to be: being with a lot of girls and doing as many drugs as possible and living at the Chateau Marmont. There you go." Thanks to such unguarded moments as when he confessed he couldn't do interviews because he'd smoked too much crack (and upfront serenades like "My Drug Buddy" and "Style"), Dando's dalliances were hardly secret. He was seen and photographed with the widowed Courtney Love; he denies there was ever any romance. He also says he and certain members of a then-popular band would "shoot dope until we were all asleep on the floor."
"Evan is brilliant," says Billig, "but also his worst enemy. He never wanted the success as much as anyone around him." Dando says the drug use was essentially harmless fun. "I was just enjoying it," he maintains. Others wonder whether his parents' divorce left him without a sense of stability. To Hatfield, who has witnessed his dark days since meeting him in the '80s, Dando is "chemically imbalanced. Seriously. I don't mean he's an addict. He does things to excess sometimes. He's self-medicating. It hasn't been just one thing he's struggled with; he's struggling against his nature." Dando doesn't take issue with such an assessment: "Sure, sure, I've been whatever it is, bipolar. At least that's what my shrink says:"
No matter the reasons, the results had an impact on more than his reputation. Lemonheads rhythm sections came and went. When Come On Feel wasn't a blockbuster, Atlantic began losing interest. Car Button Cloth, which Dando calls "very indulgent," sold a fraction of its predecessors. "It had become this thing, this Evan Dando thing," he says. "I'd become this monster. Die Evan Dando, Die was funny, but it was also, 'Okay, hold on a second - I need to give everyone a rest from me."' To get out of his Atlantic contract, he convinced the company to release a premature hits package in 1998 (which, to date, has only sold 34,000 copies). Five years after his moment, he was a man without a label or a context.
The next few years were a haze of 12-packs for breakfast, doing "way too much coke and going to clubs every night." By then he'd moved to New York permanently. The advent of boy bands and rap metal made his music seem even more unfashionable. His turnaround, he maintains, was twofold: meeting Moses in 1998 (they married two years later) and on September 11, 2001, running to the 22nd-floor roof of his building to investigate what caused that big explosion, only to see the second hijacked plane fly right overhead and into the World Trade Center. After that experience - he and Moses told each other goodbye and prepared for their death - he swore off drinking and, after years of ignoring music, began working on Baby I'm Bored.
"He was in a weird situation when I met him," says Moses (who, amusingly enough, saw Dando perform with the Lemonheads at Glastonbury in 1993, a gig he almost missed when, blitzed on the sedative Mandrax, he was thrown off a plane for harassing flight attendants). "He was kinda bummed out about the music. He wasn't being creative and was hanging out with the wrong people."
Dando's reentry, with Baby I'm Bored, proved a little rocky. "There was some kind of masochism involved with a solo album," he says. "I wanted to see how bad it could really be. And it was pretty bad." Only 17,000 people picked up the disc; friends like Stevenson didn't even know it existed. The more cynical among us would tie Baby I'm Bored's lack of impact with the decision to resurrect the Lemonheads name, and when asked if '90s nostalgia factored into this, Dando cheerily retorts: "Probably!" Yet, he says, "I went in not knowing what it was going to be called, and then it sounded like the Lemonheads to me. So we just decided to go for it. I realized on this record that we actually have a sound."
Vagrant president Rich Egan claims he was "pretty blunt" with Dando when he was approached about signing the revamped band. "I just asked him how he was doing," Egan recalls. "He said he's been clean for a few years. He's off crack. He's totally there."
But his life hasn't completely settled down, either, and one wonders if it ever will. Dando admits to having had a drug relapse during 2004's reunion tour of a reconstituted MCS, on which he pitched in as singer and promptly forgot lyrics onstage ("You know how you think you know all the words from singing along with the records?"). His major vice now is cigarettes, but the self-described "raging alcoholic" still allows himself the occasional drink, and he says he drops acid at least once a summer, "just to rotate the crops. I don't want to swear off anything - I just don't do it every day, the way I used to." He laughs. "Yes, I am crazy and I still take drugs."
Nothing-to-hide comments like that recall the straight-shooting Dando of the '90s. "I respect that so much, and I wish more people were that honest," says Hatfield. Yet, she still worries. "How much can his body and brain withstand? Is there going to be a time when he's not going to wake up? Is he going to hurt himself or get himself in some bad situation where his life or someone else's life is changed permanently? But he seems to be protected. He's strong as an ox."
In his apartment, Dando shows off his collection of rare guitars and identifies a photo on the wall as that of a troubled, alcoholic grandfather. He picks up an old paperback from his coffee table. "It's a good one to read," he says, flipping through pages darkly tinted with age. The title is curiously appropriate: It's Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.