Interview with Evan Dando by Fiona Stuges

From The Independent 14th March 2003

Evan Dando: Out of the darkness

How did the golden boy of Nineties US indie rock find himself in trouble and in rehab? Evan Dando tells Fiona Stuges about the perils of stardom - and why it's all looking so much brighter now

"Rock'n'roll is a cure for boredom," Evan Dando announces. "It's about making your own fun. When you grow up in a dreary place, like I did, you get good at making your own fun." Fun is not the first word you imagine Dando, at 35 one of pop's most notorious screw-ups, using to describe his own rock'n'roll experience. He was the toast of the early-Nineties indie-rock scene with his band the Lemonheads, until his very public fall from grace culminated in his being set on by five policemen and arrested for possession of drugs at Sydney airport. Dando was high on heroin and LSD at the time and, word has it, was found handing out flowers to strangers and feeding money through the grates in the pavements.

"Yeah, it was pathetic, but I don't regret any of it," he says, putting a Jesus and Mary Chain CD in the stereo. "It's all part of the human experience. If you love something, you do it until it almost kills you. I think bands should take as many drugs as possible when they're young. I know that's probably bad advice, especially coming from me, but the idea of rock'n'roll bands without drugs - well, I just don't buy it."

We meet in Miller's Residence, a west London hotel owned by the family behind the antique inventory Miller's Collectibles. The room is like a high-class junkshop, stuffed with snuff boxes, statuettes, vases, candelabras, books, prints and paintings. Never one to understate things, Dando says it's the best room he's ever been in.

He's good company, if a little twitchy, getting up three times to change the record and again to light one of the candelabras. Once he leaves the room without saying a word. Just as I'm wondering whether he's given up on the interview, he returns with a fresh can of non-alcoholic lager. "I know it's gross, but it's necessary," he says, holding up the tin. "I haven't had a drink for nine-and-a-half months now. I'm steadily getting more happy and healthy, and I've rediscovered skateboarding."

He's here to talk about Baby I'm Bored, his first release in seven years. It's a beautiful album containing tender reflections on life, love and drug-induced folly set in soulful, country-tinged guitar pop. The title refers to the car sticker "Baby on Board" and to the period of peevish inertia that preceded the album's recording. The tone is confessional, but Dando never goes for the sympathy vote and retains a wry humour.

I ask what made him finally release a record under his own name. Since the Lemonheads was basically a one-man operation with an ever-changing cast of backing musicians, this could just as easily have been a Lemonheads album. "I think a lot of people are afraid of using their own name," he ponders. "I didn't want to end up like Cat Stevens or Paul Simon. I'm trying to think of my name as a band name. I always liked to hide behind a name. The last three Lemonheads records were solo records anyway, but having the name was important then. But now I'm ready to brave it. It's a very daunting thing, putting out a record with your own name on it."

Is he happy he did? "Absolutely. It sounds embarrassing to say it, but I guess I'll say it anyway. I'm starting to find my voice. Of all the albums I've made, I think it's the best thing I've ever done. There was It's a shame about Ray, I guess I knew that was something. But the other Lemonheads albums? They had a couple of good songs on them, but they were basically crap."

Conversation with Dando can take some strange twists. When I ask how he's spent his time in the seven years since the last album, he says: "I caught a big fish." Really? "Yeah, I was on an island between Australia and Papua New Guinea and it was black marlin season. After just two hours this monster comes up. It weighed about a thousand pounds. It was like catching a Porsche."

It takes a few more random anecdotes to ascertain that Dando has spent the last few years playing low-key acoustic shows and travelling. There were periods, he says, where writing songs was impossible and visiting new places was the only way to clear his head. A few years ago Dando also met his wife, a model named Elizabeth, who adorns the album cover. "Meeting her has really grounded me," he says. "When we first met, I would complain to her, 'I really want to write this album but I can't figure out how to do it any more. It's like I've lost my powers.' She would say, 'Don't worry. It will all come back to you as long as you don't rush it.' Having a close buddy like that frees up your mind creatively. You know you're not alone. Some people say they make better music when they're miserable and alone and taking drugs all the time, but I tried that already. It's horrible."

Dando founded the Lemonheads in 1987 with his high-school chum Ben Deily. After their first tour in 1989 Deily left and Dando recruited David Ryan on drums, and signed to a major label. It's a shame about Ray in 1992 was the Lemonheads' breakthrough album, though it was a cover of "Mrs Robinson", released against the band's wishes, that garnered most attention. By now Dando's face was on the cover of every magazine. If Kurt Cobain was the loveable loser, Dando was the campus heart-throb, indie-rock's most reluctant poster boy. He was voted Sexiest Man Alive by People magazine; Courtney Love even confessed to having "impure thoughts" about him. "What a load of crap that was," he grumbles. "Nobody seemed interested in the music when they talked to me; it was all about my private life. It's enough to make anyone take drugs and zone out."

Superstardom clearly didn't agree with Dando and by 1994 things started to unravel. His drug habit was becoming a problem - on one occasion he smoked so much crack that he was unable to speak to an interviewer - and gradually people stopped taking him seriously. At Glastonbury he was booed off stage after making the crowd wait for nearly two hours. Eventually he headed for Australia where, after his ignominious arrest, he was admitted to hospital with a nervous breakdown. When he got home his family persuaded him to go into rehab.

By 1996, Dando had sorted himself out sufficiently to make the album Car Button Cloth, although the songs "Break Me" and "Losing Your Mind" revealed a man still at odds with the world and himself. The following year, in the middle of a performance at the Reading Festival, he announced that it was the Lemonheads' final gig. Dando and his wife now live in Manhattan, just two blocks south of where the World Trade Centre stood. "Everyone left, but we stayed. It was horrible for a while, but we got a grant and a free vacuum cleaner."

There are times, he says, when he has come close to giving up on music altogether. He cites the suicide in 1997 of his friend Epic Soundtrack, from the band the Swell Maps, as an all-time low. Now he's optimistic about his work and the future. "I don't plan on quitting, ever," he says. "I want to play until I'm bedridden, and maybe even after. I could do an hour's concert a night on the internet from my bed when I'm 112."

Sounding dangerously like a business motivation coach, he talks about giving his career "110 per cent". "I have to make sure it works," he says, excitedly. "I care so much about music these days, so much more than before when I was a crack addict. But now that I've stopped drinking and doing hard drugs, I feel like I have a responsibility to my audience. Even more than that, I have a responsibility to myself."