Interview with Evan Dando by Matt Ashare
From No Depression #45 May-June 2003
It wasn't all that long ago that Evan Dando seemed to be on the verge of conquering the world as the leader of a little punk band out of Boston named after a little box of sour candies. Then again, in the always fickle realm of pop music, where the shelf life of a major trend has only continued to shrink as the information age has taken root and an entire career can be encapsulated in a couple of successful albums, the former Lemonheads frontman has been out of the spotlight for what counts as ages.
By any measure, though, Dando's first flirtation with mainstream success was a brief and messy affair - one that began in earnest, almost accidentally, with the release of the Lemonheads' heavy-metalized cover of the Suzanne Vega tune "Luka", tacked onto the end of an otherwise marginal 1989 album called Lick (on Taang! Records).
The band subsequently signed with Atlantic. Their 1990 major-label debut Lovey was largely overlooked, but 1991's It's A Shame About Ray earned critical acclaim and modest commercial success, reaching #68 on the Billboard charts. Their 1993 release Come On Feel The Lemonheads peaked at #56 on the charts and produced their sole #1 modern-rock radio hit, "Into Your Arms", but the album was largely written off by a significant chunk of the alternative nation that had embraced It's A Shame About Ray.
Along the way, Dando seemed all too willing to play the part of the dumb-blond coverboy, to talk openly about the drug use that had begun to take its toll on Lemonheads live shows, and to play the music industry game -whether that meant posing for tell-all cover stories, or delivering a cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" to Atlantic at their request (it was appended to later pressings of It's A ShameAboutRay) in a transparent attempt to replicate the success of "Luka".
The band didn't flame out so much as just sort of fade away in the wake of the failure of one more spotty CD, 1996's car button cloth. By that point, after eight albums and a handful of EPs, it hardly seemed like anyone really cared one way or the other what the future held for Evan Dando. In five years he'd gone from being a promising young post-punk artist - not to mention the songwriter of one of the better pop albums to come out of the '90s - to playing the cliched part of the premature rock 'n' roll casualty, something that seemed all too common in the '90s.
His facade of slacker cool (he is the son of an attorney and a fashion model) had cracked, revealing a prematurely spent Dando who seemed intent on doing himself in one way or another. What had passed for the joyful noise of youth prior to It's A Shame About Ray just sounded sloppy as the band's live shows went from bad to worse. At one such show, a co-bill with fellow Boston alterna-rockers Buffalo Tom at the Tweeter Center in Mansfield, Massachusetts, Dando openly asked John Strohm, who'd been drafted from the Blake Babies to be the band's second guitarist in their final incarnation (Strohm had filled in on drums in an earlier lineup), what chords various songs started with.
If nothing else, though, Dando survived. And he did quite an excellent and extensive job of qualifying himself for a lead role in one of VH 1's "Behind The Music" specials. He certainly fulfilled the first two requirements for their blueprint, which is set up to document the rise of a promising young act followed by its slow and steady decline, and finally redemption in the form of a comeback album, a friendly reunion, or just a successful stint in rehab.
Drug abuse, internal conflicts, and any other of fame's potentially lethal side effects are almost always part of the story. The more, the merrier. Motley Crue are practically the poster boys for the "Behind The Music" concept. In fairness, though, Evan Dando isn't far behind. The ratio of promise to product in Dando's case ranks him as one of the major disappointments of the '90s, especially to anyone who came of age in or around Boston when the Lemonheads were getting started in 1984, when the effortless talent with which Dando played guitar (not to mention drums and bass) and wrote and sang was so apparent.
The one thing that's remained conspicuously absent from the Dando resume for the past half-dozen years is that crucial redemption part of the story, which is usually accompanied by some sort of comeback. But he has seemed almost defiantly determined to maintain a low-profile, even as he has slowly worked to rehabilitate his career in little ways - by contributing, for example, a rather moving reading of "$1,000 Wedding" with his old pal Juliana Hatfield on the 1999 album Return Of The Grievous Angel: A Tribute To Gram Parsons (Almo), and by embarking on the occasional solo tour, which never failed to feature at least a couple of tempting new tunes.
By Y2K there even seemed to be an organic groundswell of support for Dando's return to active duty. One Rolling Stone review of a Foo Fighters album compared Dave Grohl's songwriting favorably to Dando's and ended by calling for Dando to come back because all was "forgiven." Rumors of a country album surfaced and receded, though in 2001 Australia was treated to the 2-CD Live At The Brattle Theatre/Griffith Sunset EP package, which seemed to confirm that Dando had headed off in a rootsy, acoustic direction.
And Dando alternately turned up in the company of two young singer-songwriters, Ben Lee and Ben Kweller, reportedly working on new material, though it was never clear just when, where or how that material was meant to come out. Until, finally, at the start of this year, came the announcement that Dando had indeed finished his first solo album and was ready to at least take his first few tentative steps on the comeback trail by agreeing to release the disc - Baby 1'm Bored - on the independent label Bar/None.
The last piece of the "Behind The Music" puzzle was finally in place, or so it would seem. But, even if those who might have been put off by Dando's unpredictable behavior or the inconsistency of his work in the '90s are ready to forgive him at this point, it's not all that clear, when I finally get a chance to chat with him, that Dando's all that interested in being forgiven.
"I don't want to be forgiven because I didn't do anything wrong," is his first response to the whole idea. "There's been a lot of talk about forgiving me, and I'm very confused by that because I didn't really do anything wrong. And, whatever I did do was such a long time ago that I can forgive myself for all of it because I just didn't know any better.
"If other people can't forgive me for posing for stupid pictures and doing that stupid cover of `Mrs. Robinson', then it doesn't bother me because I've gotten over it myself. My attitude is very much that I want to keep myself healthy and sane. And the only way I can do that is to make my music in my own little bubble, without caring about what happens outside that bubble:"
If Dando seems a little defensive at first, well, it's a little hard to blame him. After all, he has had to endure an awful lot of nasty press over the years. And, regardless of who's to blame for any or all of what happened, it couldn't have been very pleasant for Dando, especially after It's A Shame About Ray was greeted so warmly by both the press and the public.
"I hate to say it, but It's A Shame About Ray was effortless," Dando professes, though he quickly changes his mind. "Well, it wasn't effortless the whole time. It took us like six weeks and we were working really hard. But there were moments when it was effortless in the studio. And then there were times when it was really hard."
I spoke to Dando back in 1991, a few weeks before It's A Shame About Ray (recorded with Juliana Hatfield on bass and backing vocals) came out. What I mostly remember is the praise he had for the Robb Brothers, who produced the disc, and the excitement he had about the time he'd just spent in Australia, where he'd written much of the album and met a group of supportive fellow musicians.
It also struck me that Dando was one of those natural musical talents who had the innate charisma to achieve rock stardom - the same charisma that made it so easy for him to play the dumb blond under-achiever. The Lemonheads wouldn't have amounted to anything more than an amusing post-punk diversion if Dando hadn't written such good material on It's A Shame About Ray. But once those songs had been recorded, he seemed all too willing to get by with as little work as possible.
As he's now willing to admit, "I used to think if I could get three songs that I really, really, really loved on a Lemonheads record, then I could go take more drugs and fuck off to Australia again or whatever. Because I just remember thinking that most records only had three good songs on them. I mean, the Lemonheads was just something that happened - it was a whirlwind thing. We were in the right place at the right time and we were good, so we did well."
Their time in the limelight may have been a whirlwind, but the band actually had a fairly extensive history. The first incarnation of the Lemonheads recorded their debut EP the day after graduating from high school in 1986.
"Of course I look back fondly on my days as a Lemonhead," Dando says. "Nearly all of it was great fun. And we were trying our hardest. We just didn't have our shit together. That's why I really do think of the new album as the beginning of my real musical career. The things I did before was just me scratching around, trying to do music. I took charge of this record, and I had a really good time with it."
The result isn't just the best album Dando's made since It's A Shame About Ray, but one that brings to mind some of that record's best moments. From the unexpected twists that skew the tunefully chiming guitars of the disc-opening "Repeat" (and the hint of uncertainty that infects his husky croon on the same tune), to the sing-along melody and uplifting guitar solo that drives "My Idea", Baby I'm Bored sounds an awful lot like the album the Lemonheads really should have made after Ray, even if there are also mellower tunes here (such as the almost loungey "Waking Up").
While some of the new album's lyrics reveal an older, wiser, ah, adult Dando ("All My Life", for example), there's always been a world-weary quality to his delivery that offsets the playful Lemonheads side of his persona - the part that gets a good chuckle out of the fact that the title of the new album was inspired, as he puts it, "by those stickers on cars that say `Baby On Board."'
It's not hard to get Dando to agree that things didn't exactly go well for him and the Lemonheads after Ray. "We tried with Come On Feel... ," he says quite seriously. "I mean, we went right back into the studio while we were in the middle of a two-and-a-half-year tour and tried to make a good record. I suppose if we'd had someone really looking after our best interests, then they would have told us to take a few months off before even thinking about making a new record. But that wasn't the case. So we ended up with Come on Feel..., which I still really do love, even for all its imperfections and weirdness. But I know that It 's A Shame About Ray is a better album, and I know why."
It's a little tougher to get to the bottom of what exactly has changed about the way Dando, who is now married and living in New York, does business, whether it has to do with how he handles his personal life, or how he approaches making music. In fact, our first phone conversation ends rather awkwardly when I try to get him to talk about the process of recording Baby I'm Bored. After simply reading down the disc's liner notes to inform me that he collaborated with producer Jon Brion in Los Angeles, with the members of Giant Sand (Howe Gelb, Joey Burns and John Convertino) in Tucson, and with Spacehog brother Royston Langdon in Brooklyn, Dando's frustration reaches a peak and he decides to cut things short.
"Good press is way worse than bad press," he suddenly points out. "So this is all just bullshit. To a musician it means nothing. It's just something that you have to do to let people knw your record is out there. So let's just get this over with as quickly as possible. I mean, I'm at the end of my rope here. I've had enough of this shit. I'm just not in the right mood right now. I don't want to be employed at all, and I'm being employed. And I feel like an asshole. So I want to get off the phone. I just can't help it. I've been on the phone all day. I'm just not in the right frame of mind right now. I'm a joker, I'm sorry. I'm just in no state to do an interview right now. How about you give me a call back in a half an hour. I'm sorry.... When you call back I'll be ready to talk about the record..."
Fortunately, as promised, round two goes much more smoothly. For starters, Dando's obviously still working on overcoming his fear of revealing too much of himself, something he has certainly done in past interviews, particularly when he was open about his use and abuse of drugs. "That's always been my downfall - being open with the press," he concurs half-jokingly. Then, on a more serious note: "That's why I get uptight sometimes."
What follows is a somewhat incoherent story about a British press junket that apparently didn't go well. And, while Dando doesn't explicitly blame the situation he's attempting to describe on his use of drugs, he does end the story by explaining, "I'm not anti-drug, I just can't take them myself anymore. I can't even drink..."
In and of itself, that probably accounts for a great deal of the focus that's reflected in the songwriting on Baby l'm Bored. The disc has plenty of rough edges, including what sounds like a live take of the countryish number "Why Do You Do This To Yourself", in terms of production. But the songs all sound finished in a way that Come On Feel... just didn't.
"I'll tell you what the deal is," he finally says. "This record was just the cumulative process of gathering enough tunes. I threw away way more songs than I've ever thrown away before. We have tons of B-sides and odds and sods and whatever. Because I really wanted to get to the point where I had twelve collections of noises that I could really stand behind 100 percent. I don't think of them as songs. They're just collections of sounds. I waited and waited and waited. I was spending my own money, going into studios, and waiting until I had twelve songs that I really liked and that all fit together as an album.
"The way it was always done before was just in one session in like a month or two," he continues, "and it would all be the same studio and the same people. This one was a very nomadic experience. It was all done in fun over the course of four years in Brooklyn, in Arizona, in L.A.
"Meeting Jon Brion was a big boost for me because, well, it was like a big shock because he's so talented. And we were able to write songs together right away, which is really weird for me. In the end, though, I looked at this record as me walking down a really, really, really long beach and finding twelve shells to bring home with me to put on the sink in the bathroom. I picked up a lot of shells and threw a lot of shells away, but I finally found the twelve that I wanted. And
the twelve songs that I finally found all fit together on the sink in the bathroom of that imaginary beach bungalow that I'm talking about!"
If the album eventually came together with relative ease, it didn't quite start out that way. And Dando is the first to say that if it weren't for the combined influence of two "young Bens" - singer-songwriters Ben Lee and Ben Kweller - he would have had a much harder time simply starting the process of recording a solo album.
"Definitely, before I met Jon Brion, Ben Lee and Ben Kweller were my main motivating factors," he says. "They were like, 'Get off your ass Evan. Come to my house and we'll write a song. It's not a big deal, don't worry about it so much, just come over and we'll write a song. I was just by myself and maybe over-thinking things. I wrote a bunch of songs but I just wasn't feeling it. So it took some kicking in the ass by some young Bens to get me moving again."
Now Dando has made an album that's good enough to buy him a second chance at, well, at what? The prospect of fame clearly doesn't sit well with Dando, unless he's changed an awful lot since his last shot at mainstream success. Yet he still has the looks, the tunes, and probably even the connections to be a real rock star if he wants it badly enough.
Indeed, the road to "Behind The Music" redemption almost requires an artist to come right out and declare that they're reaching for the brass ring again. And it's hard to imagine Dando doing anything even remotely like that, given his mindset at this point.
"I've never been envious of what's happening in the limelight," he says. "I mean, look at what was really big while I was gone - N'Sync or whatever. It doesn't matter, though, because I was never accepted as authentic. I'm just not alternative enough."
So how would Dando like the world to see him? "Hmmm ...that's a good question. I'm a singer, a songwriter, a drummer, a guitar player, and I play some organ on this record. Oh, and did I mention bass?" You have now. Somehow, though, wherever this chapter of Dando's story may eventually lead, bass playing probably isn't going to be a featured role.