Interview with Evan Dando by Barney Hoskyns
From Mojo Magazine November 1996 (issue 36)
Driving through the sheeting rain from the miniature airport that serves Martha's Vineyard, the guy at the wheel informs me that we're heading towards the "way-coolest" part of the island. The part in question is the South-western tip of this squillionaire's summer playground, and it's called Gay Head. Big Gay Heart, Big Gay Head.
"Gay Head is the last, like, funky part of the island," the driver tells me. Moments later he narrowly avoids forcing a jogging squillionaire into a ditch. The guy shouts "Asshole!" at him.
"I'll get that motherfucker on my way back," the driver grunts.
After another 25 minutes in the car - passing en route such Vineyard landmarks as John Belushi's Grave and the old Jackie O estate - we turn down a rain-sodden track and approach a house that could just about pass for "funky". Evan Dando's family has been coming to the island for most of his life, but this summer he's renting his own crash-pad. In the heavy rain, Gay Head looks not unlike Cornwall.
As I make a desperate and drenching dash from car to crash-pad, I can hear what sounds like Nick Cave's voice issuing through the window. My first thought is that Cave himself must be a house guest, but as I push open the screen door I see Dando hunched over an acoustic guitar in the middle of the room, barefoot and unshaven and droning his way through a discordant medley of Saint Nick's favourite murder ballads - all to the hoarse-throated mirth of a tattooed and goatee-bearded party animal who rocks from side to side on a battered sofa. Between the two figures is a table crammed with crushed cans and up-ended bottles.
Welcome to the world of the reformed head Lemonhead, mid-August 1996.
Evan Dando has been holed up and holding court here since July 14, when he finally finished work on Car Button Cloth, the first Lemonheads album since he began an infamous near-three-year 'lost weekend' in late 1993. The says he feels less exposed to temptation on Martha's Vineyard than he does in the city, able to stick to booze and pot and steer clear of more perilous substances. He does not say what is pretty obvious, which is that the place has become the part house of choice for a select group of Gay Head slackers.
"I come here, and there's not much urge when it's nice, hangin' out with really cool people. Havin' a beer, swimming, playing guitar. I'm not a city kid, I'm really not it never agreed with me. It makes me destroy myself. There's too much commotion and it's too loud. Come to think of it, that's why I started taking heroin a lot when I was 20 years old or something. It was just 'cos of all the screeching noises in Boston, which isn't even that loud. I just wanted to cushion it all somehow."
Later he will concede that the partying can get a little out of hand. "You've gotta watch it 'cos sometimes your drunk crazy friends become just too annoying to deal with. I mean, I never have parties here, right? But sometimes they just.happen."
As if on cue, four more Gay Headers pour in from the rain. They're planning their daily run to the West Tisbury dump, a trash site where rich people casually dispose of things that you or I would spend months saving for. It seems to me that most of these kids are younger than Dando. One of them turns our to James Taylor's nephew; like Dando, James Taylor was a heroin addict and an habitué of the psychiatric wards of Boston.
One of the songs on Car Button Cloth is called Hospital It's a sinisterly pretty ditty about "a disease going around" and about "green leaves falling from the trees". I was written at Silver Hill Hospital in Boston after Dando suffered an acid-triggered breakdown in Sydney and been flown back to America by his family.
"I went crazy and forgot that I was addicted to heroin, and I started doing all these other drugs down in Australia. I hadn't slept, and then I took a hit of acid and fuckin' lost it. I was imagining laser-gun sights on my face, and I was feeding coins into grates, thinking I was going to - poof! - back to America. 'Cos it said "In God We Trust" on the dollar bill."
The only thing that cheered Dando up was learning that Edie Sedgwick has once been committed to Silver Hill. "When I started to feel better, I'd start strumming Just Like A Woman, trying to conjure up the spirit of Edie!"
Dando's combination of pretty-boy amiability and hopeless self-destructiveness suggests a cross between Keanu Reeves and Gram Parsons, one of his great heroes. It would be an empty comparison if Dando wasn't such a gifted songwriter and musician - if he hadn't recorded the almost perfect It's A Shame About Ray (1992) and it's underrated follow-up Come On Feel The Lemonheads (1993); if indeed, he hadn't recently defied all odds by finishing the excellent Car Button Cloth. In the post-grunge world, the guy still stands out as one of the most distinctive talents in American rock.
Car Button Cloth should astound anyone who'd written Dando off as a lost cause. It's very different to Ray or Come on Feel - there are virtually no acoustic guitars on the record, for starters - and it's also considerably more varied: The Many, Many Mood Swings of Evan Dando might be a more appropriate title. (Dando's explanation of the actual title: "In second grade we were told to go home and fill up our tub and put things in it to see what floated and what sank. I had a racing car, a button and a piece of cloth. They all sank.") Moving from affable drollery (The Outdoor Type) to hoarse desperation (Something's Missing), from churning Ramonarama (Six) to sleepy soulfullness (C'mon Daddy), it is an album of resilience, even a certain repentance.
Three tracks in particular make much of Dando's previous work sound almost frothy. Taking up where Style (on Come on Feel) left off, these are the albums real killers. Break Me is as beautiful as Ray's Rudderless but five times as intense. The slurred Largactyl vocals and slashed guitars of Losing Your Mind marks for a harrowing account of mental instability. And Tenderfoot, a track co-written by Adam Young and Tom Morgan (Dando's collaborator on a handful of songs on Ray and Come on Feel), is a searing song of contrition that recalls vintage Hüsker Dü. On all three, Dando overcomes his instinctive dopiness and gives us a real sense of what he's been through since 1993. "Just can't decide if I should lie or tell the truth and try to hide," he sings on Losing Your Mind. Here, at the very least, he's come out of hiding.
"This is the first record I've worked really, really hard on," he says. "Every time I've finished a record before I've just split to Australia, but this time I even went to the mastering. I has this really pompous idea that I wanted to make some lasting contribution to music as a whole, so I really went for it. I'm actually really serious about this work, which is why I have to get so silly in interviews. It's so hard to talk seriously about music, because music and talking don't have that much to do with each other. For the person making the music, they'd rather not do it, so why not completely bullshit your way through interviews? That's why I created the force field of the idiot dope fiend around me, sating 'Yeah, cool, man' all the time. That was just my way of shielding it.
"My whole persona, where I was all optimistic, was always slightly ironic. I was trying to play it up to the hilt for the sheer perversity of it. The dark shit was always underneath, but it definitely came out on this record. We were on tour in Spain at the same time as The Bad Seeds, and Nick Cave told our bass player that we weren't dark enough! We had a good laugh, but it was good advice. In fact, we were gonna call the new record that - The Lemonheads Aren't Dark Enough!"
Does he think Car Button Cloth will restore the credibility he's lost?
"If I'd cared what people though about me, I never would have dare go forth and try and make a career in some kind of creativity. There must be something wrong with me that makes me seek approval on a mass scale - something to do with my parents getting split up, all that bullshit people talk about in interviews - but it doesn't matter what people think of you if you're having fun making the music. The people that vilify me - whoever the hell they are - don't know me, and if they do I probably hate them back just as much. I don't care!"
Looking back over Dando's protracted 'lost weekend', one could ate the first signs of trouble to the late summer of 1993, when he was holed up in LA's Chateau Marmont in druggy emulation of Gram Parsons. As it turns out, the problems had started years before, while he was growing up as privileged wild child on the streets of Boston.
"I was a horrific, horrible demon vandal child when I was 10. I mean, my goal was to break as many windows as possible, and that's probably why I got on a peace kick for a while - I just felt so bad about all the stuff I did when I was a kid. I was the typical really bad little kid. It was always 'No TV or skateboarding for a month!' And I think drugs sublimated all my destructive urges - I got to destroy my brain instead. I did so much acid in ninth grade they made me do it twice, and that's why The Lemonheads exist, because I was put in a cooler grade with the two guys [Jesse Peretz and Ben Deily] who were gonna be in the band. Every day after school we'd get together and jam on acid."
Formed as The Whelps in 1985, when Dando was 18, The Lemonheads were just one of the innumerable bands who emerged from the quagmire that was alternative American rock between 1985 and 1990 - between hardcore and grunge.
"We started out wanting to be a horror-rock pink band, 'cos our favourite bands were The Misfits and The Angry Samoans. The Samoans gave us our first break. We got to support them on a couple of East Coast dates because we baked them a cake and brought it to their hotel room." (Dando says he still steals lines - "The brown acid's kicking in!" and "My goal in life is to die at an Ozzy concert!" - form former Samoans frontman Metal Mike Saunders.) With vague leanings towards the sound of Hüsker Dü and The Replacements, The Lemonheads changed personnel several times and made dismal albums like Creator (1988) and Lick ('89). Their 1990 Atlantic debut Lovey showed some of the distinctive touches that would blossom on It's A Shame About Ray but was otherwise headed towards the same bargain bins as all the other sub-Mudhoney albums pouring out of college-town America at the turn of the decade.
"I find the earlier records very erratic and variable in quality now, but there are bursts of something that I could still make it through listening to today: Mallo Cup, Circle of One, Die Right Now.a few things that we're gonna do on the tour. I'm glad we didn't get big quickly, 'cos I never was complacent. That we survived at all was all down to our lawyer [former NME Big Apple correspondent Richard Grabel], who got us a 'Two Firm' clause in our contract, meaning they had to put out two records, and had the 'Commercially Viable' clause struck from it."
It's A Shame About Ray, assisted by the UK hit cover of Simon and Garfunkel's Mrs Robinson, made Dando a golden-haired poster boy for what some dubbed 'bubblegrunge'. Its 12 short tracks included timelessly tuneful songs like Confetti, The Turnpike Down and My Drug Buddy, as well as harder-rocking numbers like Rockin' Stroll and Alison's Starting to Happen. The crisp, assured sound was like an electro-acoustic Ramones fronted by a feckless Mark Eitzel, veering from pining heartache to slacker irony. Come on Feel the Lemonheads was only slightly less satisfying, including as it did the fine single Into Your Arms and the divine Big Gay Heart, the ravaged Style and the Tom Morgan country charmer Being Around. After the last of several exhausting tours, the most durable of the band's many line-ups (17 to date) dissolved. David Ryan is currently playing drums in Fuzzy and writing screenplays; Nic Dalton running his Half A Cow record label. "The last line-up was very successful, but it definitely came to its fruition and stopped being as fun for everybody. No-one could do anything anymore, so I had to get new people."
Seasoned Dando watchers will tell you that things started rolling downhill when the signed opted to stay in England after the Come on Feel tour ended. The spectacle of the lanky Yank jumping onstage to rattle a tambourine on Oasis' UK tour of 1994 is indelibly etched in the mind of anyone who cares anything about retaining dignity in rock'n'roll.
"That was when I said, Hey, these guys look like they're onto something. I think I'll hang around and help lug equipment and see what goes down."
What actually went down was that Dando became progressively more wasted and ridiculous as the tour rolled on. A Britpop backlash against him culminated in his ill-judged decision to play, two hours late, to an impatient crowd of Portishead fans at last year's Glastonbury Festival. Unceremoniously booted offstage, it looked as though the former press darling and 'alternahunk' had hit the nadir of his career. It now looks, moreover, as though the one thing he had to show for all his cronying with the 'Sis - a throwaway Dando/Gallagher song that would not be out of place as a third track on an Oasis CD single (and that was intended to be the first UK single from Car Button Cloth) - will never see the light of day.
"We were running around Amsterdam in 1994 trying to scare people and stuff, and we bought this terrible not-coke, you know, just white powder that burned and made you feel like you wanted to die. And we almost got in some kind of tussle with some guy in a bar, and we got home and I went, Wait a minute, guys, I've got some real drugs, legal drugs, in my knapsack upstairs! And they were these pills that a doctor had prescribed me, which looked liked purple parallelograms. And the next day we all sort of woke up singing the song."
(Quoth Noel Gallagher about the song: "I don't particularly like people trying to sell records on the back of my name." Ouch!)
How does Dando look back on the last three years?
"It's been like a gradual defoliation, getting to the core of the real me, which I gotten so far away from. My last statement to the press before I didn't do any more interviews was, I'm just gonna get in my dune buggy with my gun and my girlfriend and drive to the next town and kill everyone who isn't beautiful! And that was one of the reasons I freaked out, 'cos after that I went out on tour with Oasis and went to Australia and had my nervous breakdown. Part of the nervous breakdown was, Woah, what a fucked-up thing to say! That I had that much anger in me."
Back in America, Dando had a brief respite from his drug use when he was cast alongside Liv Tyler in Heavy, a movie about small-town life in upstate New York. "Heavy damn near saved me. It stopped me doing drugs for a while, 'cos I didn't need to do drugs hanging out with this amazingly cool 16-year old girl all day. The main thing was that I was away from rock, doing something productive, with some really cool people like Debbie Harry and Shelley Winters." It was through hanging out with Tyler that one of the album's standout tracks, C'mon Daddy came about. "Right after Heavy, I was having dinner with Live and Bebe [Buell, Tyler's mom] in New York, and Liv told me the whole story about how she met Steven [Tyler of Aerosmith] at a Todd Rundgren show when she was only nine, and she went home and wrote in her diary, 'I feel like Steven is my daddy and I don't know why". And that became the first line of the song. It's strange, I think about Liv as a normal girl, and all of a sudden she's gotten real famous."
By the spring of this year, Dando had gathered enough songs, and was in good enough shape, to end his long silence. Going into Dreamland Studios in West Hurley, New York, with producer Bryce Goggin (Pavement, Breeders) and a cracking band compromising ex-Dinosaur Jr drummer Murph ad Aussie guitarist/bassist Bill Gibson, he spent six weeks tracking and two mixing the record at nearby Bearsville Studios. The record sounds very fresh, helped by great arrangements ad some incidental extras - whistling solos, off-the-cuff percussion, discreet Moogs and mellotrons - that lend it a raw, rough-hewn feel.
"The sessions went pretty well. I only had to go to the hospital once, and that was only because I started hyperventilating after doing the vocal for C'mon Daddy while lying under the recording console. It wasn't easy, 'cos I was real excited about making the record and couldn't sleep. There are no acoustic guitars on it apart from one noodly part of Tenderfoot, and that was just because we didn't want to be totally dogmatic about it."
With a first single in the infectious and hummable If I Could Talk I'd Tell You (written after doing lines of coke on Napoleon's draughting table, an item belonging to "a very, very rich and famous family whose name you know and which I probably shouldn't say") and a creditable cover of The Louvin Brothers' Appalachian murder ballad Knoxville Girl, Car Button Cloth may not quite be It's A Shame About Ray, but it's far better than we had any right to expect. Dando says he's looking forward to touring again, with the Car Button Cloth band fleshed out by returned Lemonheads veteran John Strohm. "I thrive on something to do," he adds. "I don't really get that bad a drug problem when I'm working."
How does he feel about the devastation that heroin is once again causing in the rock fraternity?
"I don't know, it's beyond me. I have no idea and it's very sad. But knock on wood, man, I can't, I don't wanna go out like that. I got more important things to do. Like, I'm a godfather now, I really care about this kid, and I wanna have a real relationship with her. I wanna send her postcards."
Dando's pals return with a present from the dump: an absurd blue pajama suit, several sizes too small, into which he somehow manages to squeeze himself. A girl named Meadow giggles and puts her arms around his shoulders like he's her big brother. The local store is about to deliver the evening's supply of alcohol.
From the basement beneath us comes the crashing sound of a drum kit.
"Woah, that's my friend Jet Craze," guffaws Dando. "We've recorded this really horrible loud jazz-rock album with Tarka Cordell [song of the late Denny], and I'm gonna release it on my new label Breath Of Salt Water. I'll play you a tape of it!"
He jumps up and puts on a tape that sounds like three very stoned 16-year olds assing about in their parents' garage.
"This is a song called Mr Creepy!"
As I listen to the tuneless and rhythmless din, I'm wondering when the real Evan Dando is going to stand up. Is this him, or is it the guy who wrote Break Me and Losing Your Mind?
"Hey, look at me in my house," giggles Evan Dando. "I'm like a suburban housewife, taking the occasional Valium, getting a little upset about my record, doing the dishes, putting on my Texas Chainsaw Massacre video, going to the dump, listening to Murder Ballads.
"You know, it's my intention just to stick to the booze, and a little pot maybe. I toy with the idea of completely, y'know. I take breaks from drinking, and I take breaks from smoking cigarettes, but when I really get clean I think I'm gonna stop playing rock. Really. I think I'd rather spare everybody the gory details of me getting clean on record, making an album without anything to, like, release the demons. I don't know what all that stuff does, but it works, I think. Rock'n'roll and alcohol and drugs go really well together. I mean really well together! Oh no, I'm damaged! I'm damaged goods!"
He grabs a can of beer and gets back to work.