Interview with Evan Dando by Keith Phipps
From The Onion AV Club 9th July 2003
On his official web-site journal, former Lemonheads frontman Evan Dando recently transcribed "Fern Hill," Dylan Thomas' beautiful, despairing account of youthful pleasures. Heavy stuff coming through Dando, a man who once made his living, in part, by performing a straight-faced cover of New Kids On The Block's "Step By Step." But Dando's life has entertained similar extremes: He's had widely reported drug freak-outs, cleaned up and fallen off the wagon in public several times over, and achieved enough of a teen-girl following to require the coining of the word "alterna-hunk," all without quite finding lasting mainstream success. So who is Evan Dando, really? Baby I'm Bored, a solo album that ended his seven-year recording hiatus following The Lemonheads' Car Button Cloth, probably comes closest to answering that question: It alternates quiet confessional material (sometimes written for Dando by others) with the pop instincts that made Lemonheads albums so frequently delightful. The group broke into the '80s Boston punk scene, attracted notoriety by covering Suzanne Vega's "Luka," found unexpected inspiration in the music of Gram Parsons, and then, in 1992, released a perfect pop album called It's A Shame About Ray. The cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" that was included on Ray's later pressings attracted widespread attention, and in the years that followed, Dando became famous for all the wrong reasons, including his looks, his copious drug consumption, an are-they-or-aren't-they relationship with Juliana Hatfield, and, later, hazy scene-making appearances with Oasis and Courtney Love, among others. Two half-brilliant, half-puzzling albums followed-Come On Feel The Lemonheads in 1993, and Car Button Cloth in 1996-and in the ensuing years, Dando surfaced only for the occasional tribute album, solo tour, import-only live disc, or gossip-page item. Now married and touring behind Baby I'm Bored, Dando has sought to return the focus to his career. But that didn't stop him from talking to The Onion A.V. Club about the fan he took to the prom.
The Onion: Were you concerned that the longer you waited to put this album out, the more pressure there would be for it to be a knockout?
Evan Dando: Yeah, yeah, I guess it did. I mean, no. It was reverse in a reverse kind of way. I just waited until I had enough really good songs. I didn't want to put anything else out in my whole life unless it was what I considered really, really good. I waited until I had the songs. So it wasn't like a lot of pressure. I put no pressure on myself. I was going to put nothing out if I didn't come up with anything I thought was worthy, that was sort of like a step beyond. I think it's a step beyond anything I've ever done. I just kept recording and recording, from '99 on, finally throwing out a bunch of tracks. I ended up with 12 tracks that are cohesive and make a whole. I'm very proud of it. I worked very hard on it.
O: Do you think you would have been just as happy if you hadn't put anything out?
ED: Yeah, it would have been all right. But it's better the way it worked out, because I wanted to put a record out. I did have the desire to put something out, so it would have been a disappointment if I hadn't come up with the goods. But I did.
O: Are you a prolific songwriter?
ED: No, I'm not at all. It takes me a while, and it's in bursts. I'll write a couple of songs really quickly, and then I'll go for a long time without writing. A lot of the stuff on the last records were 50/50 co-writes between myself and this L.A. cat, Jon Brion. We just get in a room together, and we can write a song really quickly. It's good fun. He's a great inspiration, and it's fun to watch him work. For example, whenever we get together, I make him play, like [Queen guitarist] Brian May licks for 20 minutes. He's fun to be around because he can do anything.
O: The last three Lemonheads albums were essentially solo albums. Did you find that releasing something under your own name changed your approach at all?
ED: I think it's a bit like... It's just a daring thing to do. I just had to come to grips with it being under my own name. It's a heavy thing to do, and it's sort of a lame thing to do to. [Adopts mocking voice.] "Oh, a solo album." I've never wanted to do one. But now here we are. I didn't want to cop out and make up a really stupid band name, although I made up a bunch of them.
O: What was your favorite?
ED: For some reason, I wanted to call myself Jardine. Yeah. But that was about as far as it got with that. I think that I can always change my name legally, and then my name would be like a band name, and I could be called, like, Al Smith or something, legally, on my passports and credit cards. I've been thinking about doing that, using Evan Dando as a band name.
O: You've said you were less proud of the albums after It's A Shame About Ray.
ED: I may have said that, but I really like Come On Feel The Lemonheads. I'd say that the ones before were more uneven, so on the whole, I'm very pleased with all those albums, starting with It's A Shame About Ray. Those at least have a couple of tunes on them each that are good. With a lot of my favorite records, when I think about it, I only really love four or five songs on the record. That's one of my theories about albums. If it's got four really great songs, the rest of it can be just all right.
O: You kept this album short when a lot of people are putting out long albums.
ED: That was a conscious decision. I wanted to keep it under 34 minutes, but it ended up being 37 or 38. I just don't think it's good for people to make such long records, because it invariably leads to filler. With this record, I cut out all the filler, and it really came together. The material is from all these different recordings, but I think it holds together really well.
O: Do you feel that the press has focused too much on your private life?
ED: Yeah, definitely. What's with that?
O: More you than other people?
ED: Yeah. I don't know why. It's weird. I guess I sort of set myself up for anything, once I agreed to do the cover of Interview magazine. Once you do that, you might as well... You've given yourself away a little bit. But I could have stopped. I guess I was just so eager to have my music heard that I went and did too many interviews over my career. As a result, the accumulated knowledge out there of my life was... And I was always stupidly frank with people about stuff like drugs. I set myself up for that. But people seem to be pathologically interested in my life. Some people, anyway.
O: What do you like talking about in interviews?
ED: Well, I don't know. They're sort of something I have to do, especially now. Since I haven't had a record out for so long, I have to at least herald its coming out.
O: You play a lot of covers in concert. How do you choose what to play?
ED: Sometimes, I'll start playing a song that I've never played before. That goes back to my days of learning about rock 'n' roll from The Replacements. When I was 16, we would go down to Providence to see them, because they didn't play all-ages shows in Boston back in '85 or '84. In Providence, they would always play all-ages shows, and they weren't afraid of breaking out the covers that they didn't know. It was really fun, and it comes from my education through them.
O: At the same time, there are certain songs that you've played for years, like the Misfits' "Skulls." What is it about that song?
ED: I don't know. I always thought it would be funny to have a really sensitive, folky version of that. I'm a huge Misfits fan, and I had to pick one song, and that's the one.
O: Was punk your way into appreciating music?
ED: Not at all. I briefly got into The Clash and the Pistols for a while, but between 15 and 16, I stopped listening to rock music entirely and listened to just jazz-Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane, and Cannonball Adderley, and Bill Evans, and Coleman Hawkins. I had a big jazz vinyl collection, and classical. I stopped listening to rock completely for a whole year in the idealism of youth. And then I heard "Communication Breakdown" or something on the radio one day, and thought, "What the fuck am I doing?" [Laughs.] Then I got into hardcore. I went to see Flipper, and that changed my life. I saw Black Flag and the Minutemen so many times.
O: "Big Gay Heart" was the closest you ever came to recording a protest song. Did anything prompt it?
ED: That song just kind of happened. It was sort of time to reclaim the word "gay" for "happy," and it was also... There was a lot of humor in it when we wrote it. We thought, "Let's write a song called 'Big Gay Heart.' Like an insane trucker ballad. Wouldn't that be funny?" We just went about it in this serious way. Like most things that are funny, you kind of have to go about them seriously. You kind of have to go through the emotions. It's a weird mix of humor and a real song.
O: Can you think of any way that growing up in Boston affected your songwriting?
ED: Well, growing up in Boston... When I was 14, I got into The Modern Lovers, and at least I had a hometown band I could be really into. It's a good place to grow up, because it's so boring there, you have to make your own fun. It's one of those sorts of towns. That's why a lot of good music comes out of Boston. It's a really boring place. There's just not much to do there. It's not as boring as Akron. And it's more expensive, so it's not ideal. Of course, I don't know what Boston is like these days, but back in the '80s, it was a really good place... It was affordable, and there was a lot going on in '87, '88, '89, what with Dinosaur, and Pixies, and Throwing Muses. There was a lot going on then.
O: What's the strangest gift a fan has ever given you?
ED: I can't remember. I know it was in Japan. They give you all kinds of weird handmade and hand-sewn stuff in Japan.
O: Will you talk about the fan you took to her prom?
ED: It was Dunwoody High, near Atlanta. She was at a gig, and she came up to me and said she didn't have a date for the prom. And I was like, "Well, I'll take you." I found a blazer somewhere, and I went. It was really funny. I still see her when we play Atlanta. She's a really nice girl.
O: Baby I'm Bored contains a lot of songs that seem to speak to your own life. Is it fair to read it as autobiography?
ED: I guess that's fair. It kind of sucks. [Laughs.] I always go back to where I truly believe that it's just a collection of... It's a series of collections of noises, really. It's not anything but that. I really like to think of it as a collection of sustained... How do I say this? I think of it abstractly. Like a collection of noises. How do I say this? A series of collections of noises.
O: That may be the vaguest possible response to that question.
ED: But that's what it is, really. Sounds with words chucked in there, too. And drums and stuff. You go in the studio and you try to make something that sounds cool.
O: How do you know when it sounds cool?
ED: I can't really pin that down. But there's a certain point where you go, "That sounds cool."