Interview with Evan Dando by John Mulvey
From NME 25th September 1993
Been In The Desert On Some Horse...With No Brain
"Well-meaning Boston boy drowns in LA excess..." These are the scribbled words of a temporarily mute Evan Dando alluding to his current flirtation with very serious drugs and his permanent haunting by the ghost of Gram Parsons.
When Evan Dando shuffles into the room, everything goes quiet. Not from awe, but from sympathy. Now that he's been ordered by his doctor to stop smoking, drinking, singing, even talking, the life and soul of the party hasn't just had his privileges confiscated. He's lost his necessities too. It's a bizarre unnerving spectacle watching someone who's normally so open forced into isolation only able to communicate by scribbling on a pad. In the middle of a bustling Los Angeles studio, electrified by the pressure of having to finish the new Lemonheads album very, very quickly, it's impossible not to sense the frustration.
There's precious little time left and seven songs still to sing, but Evan Dando has been told to completely rest his voice for four days, or risk damaging it forever. As he wanders around, he gives the impression of a big, clumsy man trapped in a soundproof bubble, in the midst of everything but powerless over his destiny. After years of dodging responsibility and ducking punitive workloads, the pressure's finally got to him.
"I'm doing OK," he writes. "This not talking is just infuriating a little. My voice works but it is in danger of getting really f___ed up and I need to sing extra good before I finish the record. My vocal cords are all red and swollen."
"I partied too much for too long in LA and it f___ed up my voice."
He mimes smoking something, puffing away at an invisible object cradled in his hand. Then he explains in his notebook:
An embarrassed shrug. A hapless smile. He's done, but he's honest.
When Evan Dando is in Los Angeles, he always stays at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard; the favourite hotel of his hero, country Hippy Boy Gram Parsons, and the place where the cover of the 'GP' album cover was shot. Elegant, discreet and light years from the crass LA norm, it's here that the famous and the wasted come to misbehave in style. Two weeks previously, down by the secluded pool, Evan hung out with Primal Scream, Ride and Love god Arthur Love; one of the apparently immovable potted palms ended up in the water, and his 'partying' stepped up a gear. Eleven years ago, just around the corner in one of the exclusive bungalows, premium-strength hedonist John Belushi slobbed out and self-destructed. Overlooking all the debauchery-stained luxury, a giant hoarding promotes the new Martin Scorsese movie The Age Of Innocence. Like so much else here, few spot the ironies.
Evan loves and hates LA. The stars come here to indulge and be indulged, to behave in a way they feel obliged to, to keep the grand old myth of rock'n'roll - the absolute mindlessness, the glamorous nihilism, ultimately, the death-wish - alive. The deification of Dando over the past year, as benign, airheaded slacker sex symbol, has made him seem a perfect candidate to slot into this vacuous sun-kissed and smog-dogged lifestyle, to stagnate and degenerate.
But it's nowhere near as simple as that. He may be placid, but he's also intelligent enough to see the absurdities of this city built on neuroses and excess. And then again, he may be intelligent, but he's also perverse enough to lose his mind and mess with crack and heroin "'Cos it's such an obviously stupid thing to do." There's a cynicism and disgust at what America can sink to that makes him repelled by LA, and a wide-eyed drive to experience everything in life that impels him to take it for all it's got.
At one point in this ludicrous long weekend of asking Evan questions and being met with apologetic silences while he scrawls frantically, anxious to get a fraction of his thoughts across, we play a dumb word association game. I begin by writing "LA", and immediately he puts "Crack" down in reply. The obligation to behave badly to himself here has clearly become an all-embracing obsession. A week later, in Britain to play the Reading Festival and with his voice at full power, he'll explain more:
"Crack is a perfect metaphor for Los Angeles. It's instant gratification, but at a certain point your system says NO! LA is the cutting edge of the end of civilisation - everything that's wrong with America is all there; worship of money, worship of youth, racial problems. It's a very interesting place to keep watch on, and an interesting place to live if you're very hardy."
Ostensibly, of course, Evan is in Los Angeles to record an album at Cherokee Studios, the home base of It's A Shame About Ray's producers, the Robbs. A squat building on the edge of Hollywood, it's ruled by three brothers who began their musical career as Del Shannon's backing band 30-odd years ago. Gold records from Steely Dan, Rod Stewart and Johnny Cougar adorn the walls, Herbie Hancock's working in the room next door, and Rick James pops in from time to time to keep himself out of trouble - when he's not in court.
Like Evan's contradictory relationship with the city, The Lemonheads in some ways fit in, and in others are incongruous to such a gleaming temple of, well, 'classic' FM rock. This, after all, is a band who'll welcome Belinda Carlisle to sing with them and then rave about hardcore fossils The Angry Samoans, who'll make lilting, timeless country-rock and then disappear into Australian garageland and tiny, obscure spin-off projects. Beyond Evan's unavoidable - albeit temporarily muted - charm, perhaps it's this straddling of the mainstream and the maverick that makes The Lemonheads so special...
Oh yeah, and the songs. When we first arrive at the studio, Evan's asleep back at the hotel, his body as well as his voice in need of rapid, dramatic recuperation. Dave Ryan, the drummer, and bassist Nic Dalton both left LA long ago, leaving their singer and the Robbs to try and finish a troubled, touching album.
On the mixing desk, there's a photo of Evan jamming with Rick James, a picture of a man with tortoises on his head, a giant toy pig in a baseball cap, a Boston newspaper clipping that slags 'dippy Dando' off for ridiculing his hometown, and a message from him to the producers that reads, "No funny trix, please, just rock". Bruce, Joe and Dee Robb are here, together with Janet Billig, The Lemonheads' manager (who's also executive nanny of Nirvana, Hole, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr and The Breeders) and their American A&R man, Tom Carolan, all trying to pretend this is a minor hiccup in the making of a record already saddled with megabuck-huge - expectations.
The date today is Friday August 20. The album in supposed to be in the shops worldwide on Monday October 11. If all five of them were screaming, panicking, punching first the walls then each other and drafting death threats to Evan, it would be understandable...but perhaps they did that yesterday.
What's finished sounds, remarkable, like an improvement on Ray's careering joie de vivre. Come On Feel The Lemonheads is shaping up to be a big, bold, assured record, and one that sees Evan coming more and more to terms with the mantle of Significant Singer-Songwriter. In London he'll talk, un-self consciously, about being the newest part of a line that stretches from Gram Parsons and Neil Young, through Elvis Costello, to J Mascis and beyond. And hearing the immaculate, heartfelt, country croon Big Gay Heart - spattered by quite staggering pedal steel from Gram's old cohort Sneeky Pete - the ravishing, rushing power pop of Down About It and Rest Assured, and the delicately lurching The Great Big No - the best song Teenage Fanclub never wrote - you can understand his audacity.
Lemonheads now have the confidence and ambition to be an authentically and GREAT band; huge but credible, fun but affecting. If the record gets finished in time, it will piss royally on the so-called other 'alternative' rock releases of the autumn.
"Making records is kinda traumatic," says Bruce Robb, loud and affable, a few minutes later. He sits at Cherokee's conference table upstairs in the wood-panelled boardroom, littered with model giraffes and all those ubiquitous gold discs. "The pressure builds as you get closer to the end, for Evan in particular. There's a lot of people watching this album, there's a whole lot of expectations."
"Evan is a non-linear guy," adds Joe. "There might be nothing going on one day, or two days, or three. Then he'll come in and in two hours he'll do so much, he comes in with these flashes of genius. It's really neat."
"Evan is a very rare and unique person," continues Bruce, in a very rare and uniquely LA way. "He doesn't own a car, he doesn't have a house, he can't even find his clothes on any given day, he just wanders round - he's the real thing. He's like people we used to know in the 60s - your Gram Parsons, your Bob Dylans, your Buffalo Springfields - and not all of them are still here."
"Gram was real talented, a real tragic figure," remembers Joe. "I think Evan recognised similarities without ever knowing the guy. Although Gram was in the middle of the music business out here, he was completely isolated from it. He was one of those people who went to where the business was - and that was Hollywood - but he really had nothing to do with it. And he was a hard liver. He had that dark side to him, the urge to jump off a cliff...Evan's way too intelligent to do that."
Oddly, they never mention crack once.
The next day - the third day of therapeutic silence - Evan's driven up to a health spa in the Hollywood Hills to be pampered and preened, to escape from the pressure and frustration that surrounds the thwarted recording process. Since Los Angeles provides its rich visitors with all they need to destroy their minds and bodies, there's a cosily parasitic healing industry too, dedicated to rebuilding the wrecked. Just before he books in, though, Evan decides he doesn't want to go through with it. It's "too cheesy, too LA..."
So when we return to the studio in the early evening, he's spent the day helping the Robbs mix the album, becoming more and more wound up at the pathetic, fraught futility of the whole situation. There's a mic still set up, just waiting for him to sing those last few songs, and he's not allowed anywhere near it. The novelty of being a laidback mute surrounded by shouting hyperactives has long since worn off, and he's tired and tetchier than usual. He wants to - needs to even - escape from the studio.
This is a good idea, clearly. He's already handed us a message saying he'd like to go out and eat, but his manager's dithering, wondering whether to order food in. Stranded, loitering, in Cherokee's entrance hall, Evan begins to frown, then fidget, then to kick aimlessly at the oppressive air. After five pointless, stupid minutes, he just runs out of the building and down the road, sprinting away from all the shit, out of sight before we can catch him. Fortunately, his T-shirt reads 'Be A Friend'.
Dee and Joe Robb go scouting for him on foot, brother Bruce scans the cityscape from the studio roof, and photographer Kevin Cummins and I cruise around the neighbourhood in the car. There is no sign. The idea crosses my mind that he's somehow making his way to the airport, slipping aboard a plane to his sanctuary of Australia and more secure friends, and just disappearing. He couldn't really be blamed for it.
But Evan Dando doesn't absolve all his responsibilities anymore. He wants fame and acclaim too much now to act stupidly in that kind of way. Forty-five minutes later, word comes from the Chateau Marmont that he's returned there and is ready for some kind of stilted interview game...
We sit, then, by the pool in those deceptively sedate hotel grounds. Behind the world of cypresses, LA's perpetual traffic screams down Sunset Strip past a huge, brash statue of Rocky & Bullwinkle. One day, all interviews with messed up rock stars, high on contradictions, will take place here.
"This city is full of pitfalls and crack is one of them," he writes, resting his ever present pad on a pizza box.
Do you actually enjoy it?
"Sort of - except the taste puts me off eventually - it tastes like an airport terminal."
Were you close to becoming addicted?
He shakes his head adamantly. "No. I was just dabbling, on and off for fun on the weekends. The crack just f___ed up my voice. I don't think I would want to die young of drugs - but I'm not sure. Just maybe better than putting out 10 Lemonheads album."
A grin, thankfully. It's difficult to spot irony when somebody can't speak, when they're trying to hold a normal conversation in writing. Remember the Subterranean Homesick Blues scene in Don't Look Back, where Bob Dylan - hip, alienated, tight-lipped - stands in an alley and holds cue cards scrawled with catchphrase excerpts, while the dense, intense lyrical tour-de-force babbles away on the soundtrack? Evan has been living that film clip for the last three days. No bastard could devise a better punishment for an inveterate chatterbox than this, reducing all those scattershot ideas to a bare bones summary.
"I'm a little angry that everything's so rushed over and I have no time to chill. The pressure probly (sic) led me fully into the drug problems in the first place."
The rumour in London was that you were taking heroin...
"That goes well with crack." He smiles mischieviously. "I've dabbled - that's all - I've never been addicted. I don't think it's that smart to talk about things like that."
A week later, in London, he'll reveal much more. For now, though, the subject's impossible to pursue. So...
Do you see any similarities between yourself and Gram Parsons?
"Pamela Des Barres said our hands are similar. But I try not to get carried away beyond the arena of musical inspiration as far as Gram's concerned."
Gram Parsons died a heroin addict, a two hour drive from here at a motel in the Mojave Desert, twenty years ago this month. Like Joe Robb said, Evan's way too intelligent to do that...
Sunday morning, and Evan's in much better spirits, even though LA's intimations of mortality still dog his every step. As he poses for photographs in the grounds of the Chateau Marmont, a hearse full of tourists pulls up at the gate and a pack of death junkies scurry out, gawping at the place where Belushi bailed out for the last time. Fame, fame, fatal fame...
Increasingly, Evan's finding it entertaining how he close he came to stepping over the edge. Instead of the self-righteous zeal normally associated with casualties who've just cleaned up, he seems to be relishing the memory of flirting with glamorous disaster. We ask him to write down five things about LA to hold up in pictures, and he puts "It's fun", "permanent damage", "culturally bankrupt", "room service" and the name of a notorious LA drug rocker he's been jamming with, which he later supresses by wryly jotting, "I don't want to implicate anyone in my demise."
In the afternoon, we drive to the coast at Santa Monica for more photographs and he jumps, fully clothed, into the ocean again and again. For an hour, he forgets all the hassle and pressure, and expectations and vice and gets out of it naturally. Then he comes staggering, sodden, out of the sea and writes his suggested headline for the story: "Well-meaning Boston boy drowns in LA excess."
Whether he'd be so willingly tragi-comic without that visit to the doctor is very hard to tell.
One week later, at The Garage in North London, the Lemonheads are set to play a warm-up show for their Reading gig the next day. Even so far away from Sin City, though, sick sweet ironies still abound. When Evan ambles out of his dressing room for the first time, Gigolo Aunts, the support band, are slouching their way through a perfectly frazzled version of 'Serious Drugs'. If nothing else, they have a brilliant sense of timing.
When he comes over he's shouting, showing off his revitalised voice, incapable of shutting up, jetlagged but irrepressible. It's strange hearing him talk, as if he's learned fluent English from scratch in seven days. The Robbs had joked about the cruelty of ordering Evan - of all people - into silence and, as the evening progresses, that's increasingly evident. First he wants to carry on singing, then he genuinely wants to meet, greet and talk to everyone at the party afterwards. As Nic glazes over and Dave slopes off elsewhere, he's still going preternaturally strong. Throughout, he doesn't smoke or drink a thing.
At about 2am he's finally dragged, passed the few fans still poised to pounce outside the club, on to the tour bus. Nic and his girlfriend Alison are there, asleep, Mike Johnson from Dinosaur Jr is on the verge of passing out, and J Mascis is predictably indolent, snide and barely audible. Evan, meanwhile, sits at the back, tries in vain to grab the attention of the others and talks, loudly and inevitably about crack...
"This great throat doctor, Dr Flashman, told me these days the stuff that's in crack is things like talcum powder, which he said can kill you really quickly. It's one of the worst things you could actually ever smoke. So the drugs are just no good these days, they're getting worse and worse."
All the time, Janet, his manager, looks on impassively. Perhaps allowing Evan to talk about his 'partying' is a calculated attempt to roughen up the goody-goody 'dippy' Dando image a little - "Courtney (Love) advised me to throw more chairs at people," he had written back in LA. More likely, though, she's long since stopped trying to shut him up.
Eventually, in his hotel room, we finally get to talk properly. Where stars usually hide their vices behind a smoke screen of egowank, Evan is - as ever - startling frank about the problems that screwed up his stay in Los Angeles.
"I was interested in the perverse humour of doing the stupidest thing possible," he begins, sipping from a cup of water. "I've been that way all my life, but in Los Angeles you can really get carried away. You could lose yourself and never come back there, I think. And I had fun, y'know? The friends I was hanging out with, doing drugs with, they were all saying, 'It makes life better'." He laughs, bemused. "And after a while I agreed with them, then after a while I was thinking, 'No, it's absolutely wrong'.
"For a couple of weeks I was smoking tar. You smoke it off tinfoil - which also gives you Alzheimer's Disease, by the way. It's cheap heroin that comes into Mexico. It tastes kinda good, it's a fun ritual... I was trying to escape the pressure that I felt about 'Ooh, I gotta make a really great pop album'. So I tried it for a while and it didn't really suit me at all. It was really dangerous, and it messed up my throat so much that I couldn't talk or sing."
Did you feel you could've become seriously addicted?
The answer's very different from the one he gave in LA: "Absolutely. All I was interested in doing was getting really high. 'Cos it was so funny, like when I was really high I felt really cool. I was thinking, 'It feels cool to feel cool'."
What's the crack high like?
"It's desperate, 'cos you need it again every ten minutes, and you feel real sleazy and disgusting when you do it - which is a kinda pleasurable feeling at first. You do the whole thing where you use this copper wire mesh stuff and you put it in a glass pipe. The ritual is seventy-five percent.. Well, no more like twenty-five percent of the enjoyment. I had a lot of fun with a lot of pretty f___ed up people in LA. They have a real, desperate, indulgent edge to them that I took to quickly. I still love those people, but I can't life that lifestyle, it just wasn't working out for me at all.
"They're all kicking all kinds of things and changing they're lifestyles too. People thought they were gonna die soon, and they didn't wanna go. Ever since I quit a couple of weeks ago I've felt real high without the drugs."
Have you had anything at all?
"NOTHING. Nothing at all. I remember I was a really happy child, really reverent of life. And sometimes when I took drugs it was like trying to get back to that reverence about being alive. I always thought the ecstasy thing was like, 'I'm breathing oxygen into my lungs, and they're filtering it into my blood, which is going all over my body, and I AM ALIVE AND IT'S GOOD!' But I can feel that without drugs, so that's cool."
How long do you think you'll keep it up?
He shrugs. "I dunno. Right now it's just a real pragmatic thing. I just had to finish the record. Plus, if you do drugs all the time you can never party."
Somehow he manages to spill the cup of water all over the table. When we spoke a year ago, he chain-dash smoked through the interview. Now, as then, his nervy physical clumsiness seems to belie the relaxed, unremitting honesty of his words. At least in his new, sanctified lifestyle he has some control:
"I have self-discipline in spurts. When I'm on the brink of completely losing it I can usually straighten up in a really quick way. I first got into taking heroin, just snorting it, when I was 19. I was doing it every day for two weeks, and then I went to visit my Dad in Florida and I was like, 'Whoa, the sun...like...life,' y'know? There's something out there besides getting high and sitting in your room. I'm getting to the point where I think I've experimented enough pretty much..." He pauses. "It's just the track record is not very good for people who clean up. They all turn into crazy nerds or born-again Christians. I don't wanna be that, that's for sure."
There's the dilemma, then. While for now he's getting a kick out of experiencing the world from a 100% pure perspective, there's a real fear of going straight and losing it; That gift, that style, that dubious but desirable rock'n'roll spirit. Again, it's just like Los Angeles; Evan can see the drawbacks but is still irresistibly drawn to them. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, though - and unlike the popular slacker image of him - at least he's discovered a new work ethic to drive him on, to convince him hedonism was worth sacrificing for a while at least.
"I really wanna get my music heard. For the first time, I feel a bit ambitious... Only for a couple of years, mind you, I'm planning on getting really lazy in the not too distant future. But I'm not that good at sitting around. I get kinda crazy and depressed when I don't work. I'm of the opinion that human beings are meant to be doing something."
By now, he's emptied his bag on the floor, rummaged through piles of tapes and CDs, shown off a new, bright yellow fringed jacket the Robbs gave him as a leaving present, and played a few beguiling, half-finished songs on his acoustic guitar. It's that urge to always be doing something, always making music, always finding a song or a tape or a picture to be excited about. It's this restless spirit that attracted him to music and drugs in the first place and, for now, is taking him away from the latter to preserve the former.
The last thing he shows me is a polaroid photograph. A half-open motel door looks onto a desert, with a dazzlingly beautiful reflection where the sun hits the handle.
"That's the room Gram died in," he claims proudly. "I stayed there for three days and it felt great; really really peaceful and calm. Now check that out." He points at the trick of the light on the handle. "Is that not some sort of Celtic cross or guitar or something? Isn't that amazing?"
Looking again, it just could be the head of a guitar - a historic, significant dream of a guitar. A real greivous angel haunting the room at the Joshua Tree Inn where Parsons OD-ed on morphine. One hell of a Holy Grail, ready to be passed on.
"Isn't that amazing?" says Evan again, grinning with excitement. "It's a spirit, I think. I think it's his spirit..."