Interview with Evan Dando by Sylvia Patterson
From NME 14th September 1996
It was all going so well for Evan Dando and The Lemonheads. Following their 1992 breakthrough album 'It's A Shame About Ray', Evan was hailed as the pin-up, slacker king. Then, oops! he went barmy, took a warehouse-load of drugs, hung out with Oasis and became a general all-round embarrassment. But he's back from the brink with storming new album, 'Car Button Cloth'.
We chart the fall and rise of slackerdom's prodigal son.
In 1993, when Oasis were not yet truly born, Blur, Pulp and The Prodigy were cult concerns, the world was flailing itself around the plaid-shirted chest to The Smashing Pumpkins' 'Siamese Dream' and the flag for British music flapped at half-mast for Suede alone, Evan Dando was on his way to being as famous as today's Noel Gallagher, and revered as almost as gifted. Arguably, he was more beautiful than Liam. Definitely he took more drugs than the two of them put together.
His friend Kurt Cobain was not yet dead, but Kurt and the era's attendant kings of pain were difficult where Evan was a brand new, goof-grinned dimension in accessibility and thus it was Evan who plucked the gilded plectrum of our adopted US guitar-pop superstar. He was NME's Man Of The Year, appeared on the cover of the prestigious Interview magazine naked in a bathtub with 300 lemons, as photographed by icon chronicler of our times, Bruce Weber, his future so bright he had to wear shades. Man.
Yet, by the end of 1994, he was the most spectacularly fallen idol of a generation without being dead, a roaring washed-up drug freak, grasping at the shrivelling tendrils of fame by association - association, specifically, with brand new drug buddies, Oasis. He practically joined the band, forever lurking on stage, tambourine aloft like some blithering Bez who wasn't on the payroll, clad in a disgusting ripped'n'stained overcoat which once, allegedly, belonged to Kurt Cobain. He was the arch buffoon of the gossip columns - officially the most despised man in pop - scorn for whom became not only a national pastime, but a career move: one of America's biggest fanzines was Die Evan Dando Die. The game was up. So he went away, passing into the hazy mists of mythology: And Damon Albarn thinks he's got it bad.
The ten-year-old ever-evolving 'college rock' collective of The Lemonheads is back with Evan still the main songwriter, bringing us their eighth LP, 'Car Button Cloth' - an extraordinary affair of musical and emotional extremes. And so we've come to Martha's Vineyard, the holiday island off Boston favoured by President Clinton and Princess Diana, where Evan rents a beach house, and where he's spent his summers with his dad since he was 11 years old, the year his parents divorced.
The news, already, is not good. The last time NME met Evan in America he couldn't speak, banned from talking by his doctor, after he wrecked his throat, in a bender of suicidal proportions on crack and smack during the recording of unfeasibly triumphant seventh LP "Come On Feel The Lemonheads", the 'interview' was conducted by paper and pen.
This time, he cannot be photographed. This morning, his US spokeswoman received a phonecall: Evan's had an allergic reaction, says his face is "all swollen up". We drive to peruse the damage through the Vineyard's endless country roads passing by the huge, white, wooden townhouse where Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller once lived on this millionaires' paradise, which appears to be no more than a gigantic forest with some houses in it. And a beach. More rural majesty than you can find in Yorkshire and you won't get run over by hundreds of idle millionaires in baseball hats on bicycles. Much entertainment you could glean, however, locating John Belushi's nearby grave and listening for sounds of underground whirling - rested as he is on an island which is 50 per cent booze-free.
Evan's house resides on a hillock in Gay Head, a light, wooden one-bedroom bungalow with a surfboard propped against the back-door porch. Expecting a man whose head has turned into a Halloween pumpkin in the shape of the rolling hills of Pontefract, we confront, instead, a swollen top lip.
"It's all puffed up, I'm sorry," says an unshaven Evan, rising from his big white sofa, in jeans (which, if you get close enough, you can actually smell), bare feet and a rust-coloured cord shirt with a safety pin holding the front together. "I dunno, I'd rather not do the story than look weird."
His hair, once the subject of a billion international swoons in its sandy-blond chest-length glory (until he cut it into a crop in disgust at his own hunkdom,whereupon he looked even more handsome than before) hangs limply at shoulder-length. He's a little heavier than before, a lot slower and carries the demeanour of the disturbingly glum. We'll wait a few hours and see what happens with the lip, it's subsiding already with a drug the doctor prescribed, Manadril.
"It was a reaction to this," - says Evan, thrusting a gnarly old hash pipe under your correspondent's nose, "there's some bad old resin dogged up in there..."
His taste in music remains impeccable, Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield funking from the sound system bestrewn with tapes, CDs, glasses and bits of paper. The plain walls host a few spidery scrawls, the largest being: 'Can a phone call change your life?'. The bathroom mirror has been marked with the words, 'Love you kidzzzzz', with the 'z's falling backwards down and across the mirror. The kitchen's littered with empty 1.75 litre-sized bottles of Jack Daniel's. On the dining room table sits one naked blade. A few friends wander in and out, girls in bikinis, boys with 'interesting' hair. Clearly, this a 'party house', but there's no party here today.
Welcome back. I think. "Thanks."
It's been quite a hiatus.
(Huge pause) "Vacationland of the soul."
Evan Dando appears to be as interested in serenading his own comeback as he is on ridin' the surf on the beach now visible from his living room window. Which is to say, not at all. Alone, he's at least twice as glum, the monotone voice and facial expression combining in a fair approximation of Droopy the very glum dog. Sat stock still on the sofa, he moves only to light endless Camels, or answer the phone, punctuating sentences with enormous pauses. Eventually, he slides downwards, chin propped up on one hand, head turned completely away. Maybe the wonky lip makes it hard to smile. Maybe it's the lip drug. Maybe it's the head drug, puffing steadily as he is on grass from a makeshift bong made out of a cola can. Whatever, this is a photographic negative of the man we once thought we knew.
In 1992, a scarcely-known combo called The Lemonheads were "tricked" by their record company into releasing a rumbustious version of the Simon & Garfunkel classic, 'Mrs Robinson', instantly an enormous international hit. Just as instantly, the band stopped playing it live.
Too late. Evan, a strikingly handsome fellow in a huge, red, cuddly overcoat was the toast of the 'underground', hysterically so after the release of their sixth potential-realising LP, 'It's A Shame About Ray', a sunstroked rock and country pop collection of story-led songs strum-full of melodic elegance, wit, and charm hailed as, "The greatest 29-and-a-half minute LP of all time".
It was the character of Evan Grifflth Dando, aged 25, however, which illuminated our times. He didn't hate himself and he didn't want to die, he was a jolly child of the universe! The pop personality of the decade who walked lopsided and, 'smiled like a dolphin'. He was a nomadic minstrel with no home, whose favourite phrase was, "The universe is unfolding as it should be". He was always losing his shoes. His speech was peppered with a hillbilly, "hurgh! hurgh!" gurgle and the words, "wow!" and "cool" and occasionally, "dodecahedron".
He was an elite-schooled Bostonite of 'groover' pot-smoking, rollerskating, surfing parents (mum a sometime model, dad a lawyer) who was a child model himself (debut: aged six in a TV commercial for Jello), who quoted Blake when musing on his lack of need for a watch: "Who needs time when you've got angels in the trees?" He loved the telephone, "'Cos when it rings, like, man, that's the unknown!" He had four tenets of life by which he lived (and could say in German): "The cat has green eyes", "Where is the playground?", "Life is beautiful" and, "Is your father a chemist?". He was the dreamer's dreamer in a T-shirt bearing the words Be A Friend. The New Dylan had comeamong us. The one off The Magic Roundabout.
Naturally, then, "Wibble!" swooned the girlies, "Tosser!" baulked their boyfriends and Dippy Dando The Bubblegrunge Slacker Sex Alternahunk! trilled the tag-line across the spectrum of the planet's media.
Almost inevitably, he came to be loathed. He turned overexposure into an art form, turned up everywhere with his blasted guitar forever stuck to his chest. He was the uberflake du jour and the joke wasn't funny any more, neither were his new `revelations' about depression, drug addiction, self-destruction and suicidal tendencies. He perpetually turned up for festivals late after incidents such as taking a Mandrax "too soon" before a flight and being booted off for taking Polaroids of the air stewardesses while bombarding them with queries as to what their mother's maiden name might be.
After instructing the world in print on how to smoke a Mexican tar heroin off tinfoil, which can lead to Alzheimer's disease and/or kill you, he mused: "I've always done dumb things on purpose". Furthermore: "I wasn't too concerned about dying, but I could really have f***ed up my career."
Last sighted on the acoustic stage at Glastonbury '95 being bottled off by Portlshead fans confronted by some hippy with a guitar, The Late Evan Dando promptly disappeared off the face of the Earth.
"I guess," says Evan in the summer of '96, staring into his living-room table, in his first major British press meeting of the year, " I got a little lost there for a while."
And a silence follows, the size of the ocean itself.
Today, he's, "Just happy to be making music for the sheer fun of it," now that '...Ray' and 'Come On Feel...' have gone gold in the US (they were gold in Britain on their release). "That's way successful enough for me," he says, "I've already had my fair share. So, if people wanna, y'know, buy the new record, they will."
He puffs silently on his cola can and that appears to be that.
Evan's hiatus was spent between friends' homes in Australia and Britain, his apartment in New York and this house ("So I'm definitely not the wandering vagabond any more"), with most of this year spent rehearsing and recording the new LP.
In between, he waited for the songs to come to him. He couldn't tour any more, anyway, as the other two then members of The Lemonheads refused to go on the road again after three solid years.
"It was... Well, what am I gonna do now?" he sighs. "People need something to show up for and for almost two years I had nothing to show up for. I had a girlfriend who was a farmer and I used to drive her to the farm every morning at 7.30 and pick her up at six. So that was something to do. And that ended in the fall because the farming season was over."
Today's Lemonhead partners are Murph, the "unsung hero" of Dinosaur Jr, Australian punk legend Bill Gibson and John Strohm (occasional Lemonhead member of yore). 'Car Button Cloth' includes collaborations with Tom Morgan (long-standing Lemonhead of yore), Eugene Kelly from Eugenius and Epic Soundtracks (Swell Maps/These Immortal Souls), and is produced by Bryce Goggin (Pavement, the Breeders) who had Evan lying under the console for an 'interesting' sound-effect technique.
The result is a soundscape spanning the most beautiful piano-led mourning in the history of the broken heart to perky indie jangle-pop; from Pistols-esque bluster to Hank Williams' country prangs, from sparse, Smithsian guitar sorrow to a full-on death-metal workout fit for the exploding iretboards of Slayer. Lyrically, the romance, whimsy, and jestiul asides are gone, the 'thrust' you can glean from the titles alone: 'If I Could Talk I'd Tell You' (inspired by the post-crack LA interviews); 'Break Me', 'Hospital', 'Losing Your Mind' (`What a comfort to find out you're losing your mind/There aren't any clouds and there aren't trees/And-there aren't any birds and there's no cinder caught in my eye.' Gulp.)
A lot of the album's...
Extremely sad, I'd say.
And some of it's insane.
"Well... anyone who knows me well will tell you that I'm sad and crazy."
A huge pause, another puff.
"However skewed my wiring was when I went into this whole pop star fiasco, it got a lot worse during and after. Then, when I wasn't even allowed to go on tour any more, that made me have to address myself and look within and what I saw was not always pleasant. So I had to exorcise that out of me, at least talk about it. If only to myself."
'Car Button Cloth', the title, comes from a schooldays experiment involving filling up a bathtub and seeing what sank and what floated. Evan went home, filled the tub, and his race car, a button and a piece of cloth sank. This could be seen, of course, as a metaphor for himself.
"It's just a pessimistic outlook, I guess." Well, well. Whatever happened to The Happiest Man In The World?
"Tss eheh," almost chortles Evan. "Right. It was just... an elaborate hoax."
Evan, unlike Liam, loves to tour. it's when he stops the trouble starts. Back in August '94, Evan found himself playing the same festivals as Oasis, "So I just jumped in the van with those guys and lugged gear 'cos I didn't want to stop."
The day after 'Definitely Maybe' was released, Evan and Oasis were in Amsterdam and as Evan remembers it, and his memory is supernaturally excellent, they were celebrating by scouring the streets searching for drugs. They couldn't find any, so Evan administered a prescribed drug he'd been given for insomnia which he nicknamed 'Purple Parallelagram'. The next morning, Noel started strumming a tune using the words and it became a song which would appear on the new LP.
A few weeks after this conversation took place, the song was vetoed by Noel who has since said he, "can't remember" writing any of the song in the first place, and furthermore, "I can't even say it!". Of Evan he's said, "I love the guy, he's a really beautiful person, I just don't like people using my name to sell records." They're both now agreed the song wasn't much cop anyway, which it actually is in its throwaway punchiness - a purest jangle-pop number to which pretty much exactly the same chorus as 'Roll With It' goes: "Purple Parallelagram/I got in Amsterdam/Made me dream a dream I didn't understand."
"It wasn't planned," says Evan, "it just happened, it was my phrase and Noel's beginning part. There's a DAT tape of it somewhere, of us trying to figure out the song. When I was on tour with them, when I was just really f***ed up, Mark Coyle, their sound man, a great guy, said the best thing - and this is what made me love Oasis so much - I was feeling like I was just about going to die, going, 'Oh God, y'know, phoo, Mark, I think I'm gonna die", and he was going, "Well, y'know, you don't want that on the history of your band.' And then he said, (mouths speaking out of the corner of his mouth) 'Actually... that wouldn't be such a bag thing." And I was like, 'You guys are awesome'. Hurgh."
Were you aware of being the unwanted Bez who wasn't on the payroll? The Bez they tried to hide?
"Yeah yeah yeah," he nods, " and in the back of my mind I knew that all this stuff doesn't come without a cost. I wanted to live out the rock'n'roll myth, just once, to the hilt. And it's much more fun to be famous if you're high on drugs. I tried to say the most obtuse, flaky stuff, because I thought hiding the real me was the best idea, so I played the idiot. And I don't regret it 'cos it was very funny. One tabloid said I had a Mustang and I loved in tents in people's gardens and I was gonna buy the actual original site of Woodstock. Very funny. I was just... 'Thank God I'm not me'."
He thought that Die Evan Dando Die was "hilarious: 'Evan Dando's head and a pointed wooden stick - any ideas?' Hurgh. I was going to thank them on the record."
The one thing he didn't find remotely mirthsome was the photograph which appeared in America's foremost tabloid newspaper, The National Enquirer, of he and Courtney Love in bed shortly after the death of Kurt Cobain. Within seconds the image was transported around the globe in appalled damnation of the scarlet twosome.
"The picture," he spits, " that made me really sad. Because there was suspicion about me having some fling with Courtney before Kurt died which is completely unture. We were on tour together and me and the whole band were taking pictures and we were really high and just crying about how Kurt was dead. Me and Courtney said, 'OK, let's do one where we pretend we're kissing' and the kiss is like, (feigns pouting into the air) it's not like a real romantic kiss - to be really perverse, saying, 'Imagine! This'll probably end up in the Enquirer! Ha ha ha.' And the next thing you know, someone steals the pictures from my room and it's in the Enquirer. So. We had that coming. We had to learn that lesson, that you leave pictures around and someone's gonna make 70 grand on them. All I want is my development costs back. (Taps tape recorder) Let it be known! That whoever stole those, all I need is ten dollar and 50 cents and we're square."
Today, he feels most of the scorn towards him was borne out of the indignation of the wearers of a working-class chip.
"I think I was a little too lucky for people to swallow," he says. "I came from an upper middle-class background, was exposed to things like Kafka's Diaries when I was in tenth grade, people knew I had myself a real interesting life. And I have a very expensive imagination. I didn't care other than I didn't want to make it impossible for me to continue making music. So I'm excited that I can. And now I'll do what's required. (Coughs) I am a professional."
And you laugh. He doesn't.
1995, Sydney, Australia: Evan's trying to get back home to New York and this time he's really losing his mind. He's been up for three days on a concoction of drugs and on the third day takes some acid, just as the withdrawal symptoms from the heroin kick in. He knows this is dumb, he just, you know, completely forgot he was withdrawing, and the third day is when they really start to come.
He's looking at the back of a dollar bill where it says, 'in God We Trust' and he's thinking, 'Why is that on money? What does that have to do with money?' He starts thinking about credit cards and how it doesn't say, 'In God We Trust' on those. He looks at his airline ticket and it says, 'Not for use in magnetic strip reader' so now he's thinking, 'They're not gonna let me back because credit cards are God! Because they don't have the information needed!'
He goes to the airport anyway with his ticket and his passport but he's left his luggage back at his friend's house So he gets a taxi and just, you know, forgets to pay the driver and the next thing he's in this police car back at the airport, handcuffed, and his wrists are bleeding all over the handcuffs, so the policemen put rubber gloves on his hands to protect them and make him drink water. He can see they're worried and he's thinking, 'That's a very heroic thing to be, a good cop'. His flight was booked from New York to London to Sydney and back to LA to New York and he cancels them, insists on it, he has to go round the other way, retrace his steps, find whatever it is he's lost because he knows, 'Something's gone horribly wrong here, actually'.
"I lost my mind," says Evan, telling the story with his face completely turned away. "I lost my marbles down there in Australia. I was going off on this private conspiracy theory, learning weird handshakes and feeding coins into grates thinking I was gonna 'pooooof!' back home. I lost it so hard. I went beyond. And looking back I'm glad I lost my mind completely once. As long as you get it back it's a wild experience, I highly suggest (sic) it. And it gave me material, a lot of material to write about. And my friend Mandy came with me, the whole way, just to bring Evan home, so God bless her, she saved my life. Pretty much. Shwoooooo..."
Evan lets out an almighty sigh, reaches over and switches the tape recorder off. "Let's take a little break there..." And he leaves the room
Evan's family, on his return to New York, could see he wasn't 'saved' enough. His father and sister ordered an intervention, and he was placed in rehab. He cleaned up, wrote many of the songs on the new LP. came back out and, "Started shooting speed and stuff". A heroin user since he was 20, he finally kicked all hard drugs six months ago, "Because I think I was gonna die or something. So now all I do is drink and smoke pot. So far it's working. You don't really need 'em. I've had enough of 'em."
Evan doesn't do drugs in a Shaun Ryder, 'top fookin' buzz, pal' kind of a way, to let the good things out. It's more to stop the bad things getting in.
"Why I take drugs..." he's pondering, "'cos you feel like you're just going through the motions and then you see people around you that have some sort of membrane that doesn't let the real world in, that keeps them content. It's like an ozone. And there's a big hole in my soul membrane. My ozone layer. I let too much in and it's overwhelming. And to create a false forcefield, a false sense of wellbeing and well-adjustedness, there's nothing better than smack. So, there's ways to cope and for me it's singing and playing and listening to music and reading books."
Evan Dando's had a sleeping disorder since he was seven-years-old after, "a little bit of a car accident". He wakes up in a trance state every couple of months and has terrible nightmares with his eyes open. Child psychologists suggested drug therapy, "some kind of long-term thing like Prozac", but he didn't take them, accepting the problem as "a part of me".
At school he was known as Mr Popularity: "They were being ironic. I was the loner on the swings."
He thinks it's pretty funny sometimes, "when I wake up and I'm running down the street in my underpants." Things haven't improved and he now suffers a syndrome once in a while where, "for two weeks, I leave my body. I'm walking around looking basically the same, but I'm not there. I just...disappear. Then I come back all of a sudden. So all you've got to do is remember to hold on until that feeling of not being in your body goes away. I've gone to shrinks, I've gone off drugs for months at a time, that doesn't work, the same thing happens. It's a chemical thing."
In the last year, "crazy amounts of my friends have committed suicide". One of them did the very thing Evan once contemplated, driving up to the Blue Mountains in Australia and jumping off a cliff. The supposed suicide of another has led to a murder enquiry. This very day he heard another friend died of cancer. ("It's all turning into a Jim Carroll song before my eyes.") You can't really blame him for not dancing atop his surfboard with a paw-paw on his head.
"I get freaked out when sad things happens," he says, melting into the sofa, "because I love life so much. So now that I know what it feels like to think, 'I could've done this, I could've done that'. I don't wanna pin that on people, I could never do that. I have too many great friends and my family. I'm not staying alive particularly for myself, but I am for other people."
Would you say that you were, you know, happy?
"I'm incredibly happy," he states blankly, "and incredibly sad, that's all." He's still no use at finding himself a
"Mainly it's random victims these days. I'll believe it when I see it. I hope that I'm... alert enough to recognise true love when... if I ever happen to run into it."
Meanwhile, he'll tour for just one year, after which he plans to write a children's book, for his God-daughter.
"I don't wanna say the name," he says, "a friend's child. I wanna write her postcards from the road all the time and never forget her birthday and go to the christening and that's one of the most important things in my whole life, definitely. It gives me a reason to want to wanna carry on. To stay alive."
It seems like you haven't got too many reasons.
"Well, I have my God-daughter, my new record, the ocean out there to swim in and... plenty things. Some nice guitars. A cool drum kit. So I got plenty of things to wanna... to wanna stay, to keep on living. C'mon, let me show you my drum kit..."
Several minutes of battering expertly on a beautiful original '60s drum kit in his basement later, Evan, now in his grandma's superb antique trousers, decides his lip is normal enough to be photographed. He drives us round Martha's Vineyard in his battered old jeep littered with rubbish: bottles, cans, papers, packets, food cartons, bits of clothing, broken forks, tapes labelled 'Wig Out At Dando's'. In the front seat it's piled practically knee-high. And the dashboard ashtray could well be a work of art: hundreds of tab ends piled up until you have to stick one individually into the throng creating a majestic multi-pronged stalagmite sculpture effect.
We find some swings and Evan wanders off alone, swinging to and fro, bare feet scuffing the sand, like the loneliest boy in the world, just like all those years ago at school. He spots a youngster on a bike and says, "I used to be one of those."
There's one last place to visit, the graveyard and Evan's favourite grave, commemorating Nancy Luce, aged 79, died 1890. For the last 15 years, a collection of hard plastic, flamingo-pink chickens have kept sentry around her gravestone. No-one knows why.
"I'm soooo tired," he sighs, and quite simply keels over where he stands, right there on the grass, right thee in front of the gravestones and, arms framed around his head, closes his eyes and goes to sleep. The phrase 'totally flaked out' enters the next dimension. And it's a vision of quite staggering, surreal beauty. Perhaps the dope is finally wearing off, perhaps he's glad the press ordeal is at its close, perhaps the spirit of Nancy The Chicken's Friend has given him a resounding boot up the backside, but from this moment forth, he perks up no end.
Back at home, a girl called Maya has dropped by and left him a huge leaf as a gift. He's so delighted he puts it on his head. Then he puts a fluorescent pink fluffy lobster on top of that, grins, starts playing his guitar and talks about a lyric idea he wrote down the other day: God's Own jelly-bean jar. He puts Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On?' on the stereo, pours himself a glass of red wine with the toast, "Drinking gay wine in Gay Head to Marvin Gaye." He wanders onto his porch and looks out where the sea meets the sky, where everything's "gone purple", which it has, and contemplates whether or not the road to excess really does lead to the palace of wisdom. And he should know.
"Yeah," he decides finally, sliding down to the floor of his porch, "I would say I'm a little wiser. And a little less intelligent. I've learned a bunch of tricks to keep things... barely OK."
Bloody Nora. Sounds like your expectations are pretty low!
"Herghergh," he gurgles, "the really good times are never planned and the really bad times are never planned, so the stuff you plan you better plan to, at best, be OK."
D'you remember those four tenets of life you used to live by? The ones you could say in German?
"Oh yeah," he says with a great big olden days goofy grin, "yeah yeah yeahyeahyeah. Wo ist der spielplatz? Die katze hat grune augen. Liebe ist schon. Ist dein voter ein aperiaker? Where is the playground? The cat has green eyes. Life is beautiful. Is your father a chemist? I've no new ones."
And is life still beautiful?
"Of course," he says, straight away and you somehow feel he actually might mean it, somewhere on the parallel plane of his very own unfolding universe, as he raises his ruby glass to the purple skies. "Of course it's beautiful. It hasn't really been much better than this ever, for me. Well. Except maybe when I was five."