Interview with Evan Dando by Kitty Empire
From The Observer 9th March 2003
Evan Dando arrives clutching a bulging notebook, a can of non-alcoholic lager and a copy of Homer's Iliad. It is an uncommon set of props, but then the gangling Dando, 36, is an uncommon figure even among former pop stars, with their prim draughts of mineral water and hidden crystals. The bulging notebook contains, among other things, the artwork for his imminent album, Baby I'm Bored. The lager is a forthright symbol of his former dependency.
'I quit drinking nine-and-a-half months ago, except for these fuckers,' he confides, gesturing at the weird tin. 'Yumm. It's pathetic, right? But it helps.' The Iliad, meanwhile, is a reminder that Dando is a deeply intelligent man, something often forgotten when he was known as a 'slacker sex-kitten'.
'I've just reread The Odyssey,' he says, matter-of-factly. 'But I've been struggling with The Iliad. I bring it down with me and say, "I am still reading this book", but look, I've got to page 36. I haven't read these since I was a kid.'
It is a little odd to be savouring Greek epic poetry with a figure who was once voted Sexiest Man Alive by People magazine; the same man who was once photographed in a state of disarray on a bed with Courtney Love, who once wrote a song called 'Purple Parallelogram' with Noel Gallagher and who, at the height of his fame, once smoked so much crack and heroin he physically could not speak to an interviewer.
He is just about to release his first album in seven years, Baby I'm Bored. It is a warm and confident return for a man who fell from pop grace with the same enthusiasm and knack for spectacle as he once just about achieved it. It intersperses sweet, countryfied confessionals with Dando's trademark languid guitar pop and easily wipes the floor with most of the US singer-songwriters who have come in his wake.
His band, The Lemonheads, were always more or less a one-man show. 'I just hid behind the name, 'cos I didn't want to be this wanker solo artist. Now I don't care. It makes more sense, because there are solo artists now. Back then, the stigma was like Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Paul Simon.' It is, however, for a cover that most people will remember Dando. The Lemonheads had a Top 20 hit with Simon and Garfunkel's 'Mrs Robinson' in 1992. Conceived as a throwaway B-side, 'Mrs Robinson' became a hit. For the well-educated son of a lawyer and a model (he went to Boston's prestigious Commonwealth School; its summer camp featured a tent where Ulysses was read aloud 24 hours a day), it was all going very right. Except it was all going wrong. Dando kicked against stardom.
'Oh I wanted to fuck it up as much as possible,' he emphasises. 'I thought that was the funny part. Just because I'm a self-destructive and perverse person! We played that song, like, 10 times when it was huge and we didn't play it again after that.'
Did it hurt that their big hit was a cover?
'Oh I don't care about that. What can you do? The universe is going to burn up, why waste your time worrying about stuff like that! It'll all be gone one day, that fucking cover will be gone one day.'
The more teen magazines he graced, the more Dando felt the need to restate his rock'n'roll credentials. He hung out with the Cobains, and Love confessed to having 'impure thoughts' about him. But his more underground peers viewed Dando's tender, amiable tunes and good looks with suspicion. At one point, there was even a fanzine entitled 'I Hate Evan Dando'. Mostly, though, people were fond of 'Dippy Dando'. One Australian band penned a song called 'I Wish I Was Him' about Dando in 1993. Ten years later, their songwriter Ben Lee is now fast friends with Evan. Intriguingly, Lee has written one of the most candid and poignant songs to be found on Baby I'm Bored, 'All My Life'. 'And I'm so impatient/for a new sensation,' it goes; 'God knows what I thought I'd do/I bit my own sweet heart and blew it/All my life/Thought I needed all the things I didn't need at all'
How did it feel having someone put confessions in your mouth?
'It feels great,' Dando bats back blithely. 'I feel lucky to have such great and talented friends to give me songs.'
By the summer of 1993, Dando was under pressure to repeat, or better, the success of 1992's It's A Shame About Ray. Its successor, Come On Feel The Lemonheads, was being hurriedly mixed and a mute Dando was interviewed by NME. It was not the first time a journalist had drawn parallels between Dando and his idol Gram Parsons, but the similarities between the two good-looking, fucked-up posh boys with acoustic guitars were very much to the fore. Refreshingly upfront about the drug bender that had left him without a voice, the incident marked the beginning of Dando's gradual glide to earth.
By the time the 1994 Reading Festival rolled around, rock had changed irrevocably. Cobain was dead and Dando was wearing his coat, a hugely symbolic gift from Love. A fraying Dando took to hanging out with Oasis.
Did he remember much of 1994?
'I remember it all! Well, actually, '94. I thought you were going to say '93. I remember all of '93! But '94, I don't remember all of it. I went on tour with Oasis right before Definitely Maybe was coming out. We had been touring for two-and-a-half years off and on since Ray came out. I was like "These guys seem cool, I'm going to hang around with them", and they were like, "come on!" There was something very exciting about Oasis, then.'
The Lemonheads reappeared briefly for Glastonbury 1995, several hours late for their set, and their unannounced appearance was booed by disgruntled ravers. Then Dando was arrested at Sydney airport, high on acid and bleeding. He reportedly begged officers to release him so he could go and find his mind. Many feared Dando might turn out to be the next Cobain. The band played their final gig at Reading in 1997 and Evan Dando finally fell off the radar.
So what has Dando been up to in the intervening years?
'Doing monitors for Enya', is the sarky riposte on the press release for Baby I'm Bored. Here is what really happened. 'I went to Aspen and skied for a month,' he says. 'I've skied ever since my mom first took me, right before my second birthday. So I went skiing for a month and then I drove over to Telluride and then afterwards to Denver. I love driving by myself, I can think so well. Everything was going so great. And then I got back to New York and, umm, freebased for two weeks. So I was back to square one.'
Was he having trouble writing?
'I was having terrible difficulties writing. My signal got weak. I have cycles, where I'm not quite as there.' He pauses. 'You have no choice, anyway. One of my best friends - Epic Soundtracks from the Swell Maps - committed suicide in '97. Everything was going,' he stumbles. 'And the Spice Girls were coming out.'
Gradually, Dando kicked drugs, fell in love with his wife Elisabeth, whose picture graces the cover of Bored, got 'anchored and earthed' and set fingers to frets once more. In 2000, he met Jon Brion, his latest songwriting foil, and started recording.
He really changed, though, when the planes hit the towers. 'The time when I really thought, "I want to make something of my life, I wanna not get my own way and not be self-destructive" was 11 September. I live two blocks south of the World Trade Centre, I was on my roof and I saw the second plane come screaming over my head. Our building shook when the towers fell. We really thought we were going to die that day, a few different times. I thought, from now on, I've got my hands, my feet, the grass is green.'
Baby I'm Bored, then, is not a contrite record. Ask if he regrets the Herculean quantities of fun he had and Dando replies, 'Fuck that! I am happy for every fucking microgram of drugs I ingested in my whole life!'
Dando has no real desire for a quiet life, although for the past seven years he says 'you could hear a pin drop'. On the back burner is a supergroup with Ryan Adams, former Smashing Pumpkin James Iha and Courtney Love's former bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur. It is not a little ironic, considering Adams is now the loose cannon gadabout star of Americana that Dando just narrowly missed out on becoming.
'Fuck calm! I mean, I love calm sometimes, but calm all the time, that's almost verging on mellow. What does Woody Allen say? "I don't do mellow, because after a while I start to ferment". It's words to that effect.'
He wants to take art history classes. Fame meant he missed out on going to university. But touring with The Lemonheads took him to other places. He was never bored, because he was never boring. 'I didn't need to sleep much at all so I would get up early and climb every cathedral of every beautiful little German town. I've been to the Gaudi towers, seen Hieronymus Bosch, the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam 10 times. I'm gonna go again tomorrow. I thought, fuck university, I'm gonna go do this band, and that'll be my education.'