Interview with Evan Dando by Matt Ashare
from Boston Phoenix 17th April 2003
Evan Dando's slow and steady return
"Come back Evan, all is forgiven." It’s been almost four years since Rolling Stone changed its tune on one of alterna-pop’s more notorious lost souls of the ’90s with those six words tacked onto the end of a fairly positive review of what was then the new Foo Fighters CD, There Is Nothing Left To Lose (RCA). And that wouldn’t have been a bad title for an Evan Dando comeback album in 1999. After all, by that point the one-time bubblegrunge bad boy with the smooth blond voice and straight blond hair had exhausted most of his artistic capital as the leader of the Lemonheads, a mutable trio who’d burst out of Boston with a punkish cover of Suzanne Vega’s " Luka " just as MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball was being eclipsed by the Lollapalooza-loving alternative nation.
It was Dando’s devil-may-care attitude mixed with a sensitive boyish charm that made " Luka " such a compelling crossover - jaded punks heard it as an irreverent and amusing send-up of singer-songwriter schmaltz à la the Dickies’ " Knights in White Satin " whereas all those alienated teens who worshipped Kurt Cobain as a damaged saint found an undertone of empathy in Dando’s plangent reading of Vega’s child-abuse vignette. The song swung both ways. But it also helped sow the seeds of Dando’s demise: its easy success on college radio would come to mark the Lemonheads as a joky cover band. Pressed for a commercial-radio single after the 1992 release of the otherwise flawless It’s a Shame About Ray, Atlantic persuaded the trio to record a less compelling cover of " Mrs. Robinson. " The track quickly found its way onto new pressings of Ray, a move that, when paired with Evan’s controversial coverboy feature in Interview magazine, raised issues about the band’s artistic integrity - something that mattered in the early years of the alternative revolution, when the only thing worse than punk pretenders flying fake flannel flags was an Eagles reunion.
Unlike Cobain, who was ashamed of his own drug use and went to great lengths to play the part of the scruffy, anti-establishment punk-rocker, Dando seemed to embrace the trappings of rock-stardom even before he was a bona fide rock star. If Kurt’s In Utero was a veiled chronicle of the horrors of addiction, Dando was happy to make jingle-jangle ditties like " My Drug Buddy " (later shortened to " Buddy " by Atlantic so as not to offend Wal-Mart), party with Rick James (on " Rick James Style, " from 1993’s Come On Feel the Lemonheads), and joke openly about smoking crack (as he did in a Phoenix interview with Brett Milano in 1996, after the release of car button cloth). He dabbled in films - a token appearance in Reality Bites, a bigger role in Heavy. And in the wake of Cobain’s death, a photo of Dando and Courtney Love in bed, both looking wasted, turned up in the New York tabloids.
But the real proof was in the spotty follow-ups to It’s A Shame About Ray. Sure, each album had a catchy single or two, but the one from Come On Feel the Lemonheads, "Into Your Arms" was a silly little love song that wasn’t even written by Dando - it’s credited to Robyn St. Claire. Ditto for Car Button Cloth: "The Outdoor Type" which seemed to reflect Dando’s healthy capacity for making fun of himself, was in fact written by his long-time songwriting collaborator, Tom Morgan. By that point, it almost didn’t matter. Dando had become an alterna-joke; there were even mean-spirited fanzines dedicated to him like Evan Dando Must Die. Rather than going out in a blaze of glory or a tabloid drug-bust scandal, the Lemonheads just fizzled. The last time I saw them was on a double bill at the Tweeter Center with Buffalo Tom. Dando kept starting songs in the wrong key and had to rely on second-guitarist John Strohm, formerly of the Blake Babies, to guide him through half a dozen tunes. It was a pathetic sight.
The Evan Dando who’s headed to the Coolidge Corner Theatre this Wednesday to support his first full-length solo disc, Baby I’m Bored (Bar/None), is something of a new man. He’s married, and if nothing else, that seems to have kept him out of hotel-room beds with Courtney Love. And if he’s not exactly a reformed prodigal son, he at least seems to accept responsibility for some of the missteps of his past.
"The Lemonheads was just something that happened," he explains over the phone from a hotel room in NYC where he’s set up shop for a day of phone interviews, even though he has an apartment of his own in the city. "It was a whirlwind thing. We were in the right place at the right time . . . so we did well. Nearly all of it was great fun. And we were trying our hardest. We just didn’t have our shit together. I mean, 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 or whatever."
All the same, he’s not too thrilled about being "forgiven" by Rolling Stone. "I don’t want to be forgiven because I didn’t do anything wrong. There’s been a lot of talk about forgiving me, and I’m very confused by that because . . . whatever I did do was such a long time ago that I can forgive myself for all of it. . . . I just didn’t know any better. And 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 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."
Building that bubble has been a long process for Dando. The last time he played a theater show in town - at the Brattle in October of 2000 - he seemed poised to launch a solo career. Although it was a loose and casual acoustic set, he breathed new life into Lemonheads nuggets like " My Drug Buddy," "The Outdoor Type", and "Ride with Me" a tune from 1990’s Lovey that he wrote by himself. He even broke out a couple of promising new tunes, including one, "The Same Thing You Thought Hard About Is the Same Thing I Can Live Without," that turned up on an import-only Australian release, the two-CD Live at the Brattle Theatre/Griffith Sunset EP. He dubbed it a "Tribute to Hank Williams" and indeed it found him veering off in a more countrified direction, perhaps inspired by a moving duet with Juliana Hatfield, "$1,000 Wedding," that they recorded for the 1999 album Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons (Almo). Rumors of a full country Dando album circulated for a time, but in spite of a few one-off gigs here and there, he didn’t seem all that eager to be back in the spotlight.
Part of the problem is that his best material has always come out of collaborations with other songwriters. And Baby I’m Bored was very much a process of Evan hooking up with various partners in crime, including two young Bens he’s spent the past couple years playing shows with. Ben Lee wrote one of the new album’s most arresting tracks, " All My Life, " an acoustic-based number centered on the confessional chorus " All my life, I thought I needed all the things I didn’t need at all/All my life, I thought I wanted all the things I didn’t want at all. " Given his history, the song is almost custom-built for Dando, and he sings it as if he meant it. Ben Kweller may not have any songwriting credits on the disc, but he was instrumental in getting Dando on track to complete the album.
" It took some kicking in the ass by some young Bens to get me moving again, " Dando half jokes. " I was just by myself and maybe overthinking things. I wrote a bunch of songs, but I just wasn’t feeling it. Ben Lee and Ben Kweller were both like, ‘Get off your ass, Evan. Come to my house and we’ll write a song . . . don’t worry about it so much, just come over and we’ll write a song.’ "
Baby I’m Bored also took Dando out to Tucson, home of the Giant Sand collective of guitarist Howe Gelb, bassist Joey Burns, and drummer John Convertino. They back him on two of the disc’s rootsier tunes, the simple country-folk numbers " Hard Drive " and " In the Grass All Wine Colored. " A good deal of the initial work on the album was done closer to home with help from former Spacehog guitarist Royston Langdon, Come guitarist Chris Brokaw, Ben Lee, and producer Bryce Goggin. But the project finally came together in LA, when Dando hooked up with multi-instrumental studio wiz Jon Brion, who co-wrote the disc’s hard-driving opening track, " Repeat, " which bears welcome shades of It’s A Shame About Ray, and produced four tunes that he also helped write.
" Meeting Jon Brion was a big boost for me, " Dando admits. " We were able to write songs together right away. In the end, though, I looked at the record as me walking down a really, really, really long beach and finding 12 shells to bring home with me to put on the sink in the bathroom. I picked up a lot of shells along the way, and threw a lot of shells away, but I finally found the 12 that I wanted. And the 12 songs that I finally found all fit together on the sink in the bathroom of that imaginary beach bungalow. "
In other words, Dando’s no longer happy with the write-three-songs-and-fuck-off-to-Australia method of recording. And it shows. Baby I’m Bored isn’t always fully engaging, but it’s never boring, and it doesn’t have that tossed-off quality that too much of the Lemonheads’ post-Ray material suffered from. How well Dando will handle his emergence as a solo artist remains an open question. But so far he seems to be on the right track. " The things I did before was just me scratching around, trying to do music. Using my own name frees me up to just go and find the best players for the best songs. And that’s why I really do think of the new album as the beginning of my real musical career."