Interview with Evan Dando by Adrian Deevoy
From Q Magazine November 1993
This, like, really sucks. The temperature is gently nudging the nineties; the orchids are in bloom; the air carries a pungent citrus scent; a hummingbird is busily going about its business; a Californian super-woman with a chest the size of Cardiff splashes playfully in the shallow end of the pool. The sky, as the song goes, is too blue.
Perched poolside in Hollywood, Evan Dando is deep inside his own grim, personal hell. He's prone to depression but this one seems as black as it is bottomless. He would try to explain but he cannot speak. Doctor's orders. Instead, he shrugs hopelessly, sighs like a tube train door closing, takes out a yellow notepad and pencil and writes "Sorry". He thinks for a while, studies your eyes, then adds in large, rounded handwriting "Substance abuse".
The story runs thus: Dando had been holed up in Los Angeles attempting to finish The Lemonheads' new album, which boasts the ironically funtime title Come On Feel The Lemonheads. The songs, written mainly in Dando's adopted home town of Sydney, were widely believed to be an even stronger set than those on last year's It's A Shame About Ray, probably the best 29 and a half minute album of all time.
Their fourth album proper, Ray's dozen small but perfectly formed songs (the album comes, these days, with the addition of their punked up work-over of Mrs Robinson) established The Lemonheads as the undisputed princelings of "bubblegrunge", a cute media term for overdriven guitar pop with memorable tunes. It also set Dando apart from the plaid shirt, centre-parting herd as a songsmith of occasionally astonishing talent.
Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, Dando, bassist Nic Dalton and drummer David Ryan had successfully recorded backing tracks for Come On Feel The Lemonheads with contributions from Juliana Hatfield, Belinda Carlisle and pedal steel maestro Sneaky Pete. The Robb Brothers, wearing the production trousers once again, had woven their particular magic, then Dando came to sing but it just wouldn't come out right. Suddenly the full pressure of having to follow up such a popular album bore down upon him. The frustration turned into that curious emotion that exists between fear and flight. The only solution he could come up with was the one to which he always resorted when all else failed. Drugs.
He had, over the years, developed an intimate acquaintance with Category A pharmaceuticals. He's written about them with greater insight and accuracy than virtually any other songwriter of his age (consider the grubbily real line "Is this some of the same stuff that we got yesterday?" in My Drug Buddy and it's thoroughly uncomfortable description of being over-stoned: "I'm too much with myself, I wanna be someone else"). So, as the album completion deadline loomed, Dando embarked upon a two-week bender. A crack bender. This, unsurprisingly, triggered a vicious circle: he couldn't sing, he became depressed, he smoked some crack (with a heroin chaser to take the edge off the freebase), it damaged his throat, so he couldn't sing again.
It is a few days after this potentially suicidal spiral that we meet Evan Dando. A visit to a throat specialist and a health spa have been planned and for the next week he is sworn off drink, drugs, tobacco and, unhelpfully, speaking. Normally goofy, garrulous and infectiously affectionate, he cuts a rather sad figure mooching aimlessly around the hotel Chateau Marmont (where, incidentally, John Belushi availed himself of the ultimate express check out facility) in knackered jeans and a crumpled T-shirt. The lifeguard good looks - Dando, it must be said, has never been beaten with the ugly stick - are marred by a scowl, the lanky six-two frame diminished by a round-shouldered slouch. The feature-framing ~drapes of hair (a lock of which many a hormonally-maddened fan has bayed for) hang lifeless and unwashed. What a state.
Regularly issuing scrawled apologies for his inability to talk, he silently directs the car to Cherokee Studios where the last six songs on the new album are patiently awaiting the return of his voice.
Once inside the studio he perks up considerably and, for no apparent reason, starts to present pieces of what can only be described as "stuff" he has accumulated on his travels: a small lump of manhole cover he found in Shepherd's Bush; a Barbie doll's leg; a green ribbon; a broken maraca; a blurry snap of him singing with wayward funkateer Rick James (jamming a song, poignantly called I Don't Wanna Be Stoned); a cutting from a local newspaper claiming that he has turned his back on his home town of Boston.
As the engineer spools back the album master tape, we attempt a brief written interview to keep amusement levels up.
"What do you remember about losing your virginity?"
"A girl called Bola at a party. I was 15. I was trying to be a shyster."
"Are you aware of your appeal to the gay fraternity?"
"It exists. Perhaps it could grow."
"Did you vote for Clinton?"
"I'm not a political type guy."
"How do you believe Gram Parsons died?"
"Took too many drugs."
"Have you ever abused your position as a pop star?"
"I've really tried hard not to. I use it to flirt with girls more effectively. I like to flirt."
"How do you feel about Boston?"
"They should use the neutron bomb on Boston because there's so many pretty buildings there (joke!)"
"What would you most like to do at this moment in time?"
"What's the greatest pop song ever written?"
Tape rewound, tracks from the album begin to fill the small control room. The production. you note, is similar to R.E.M.'s first two LPs with audible vocals. "The Byrds!" Dando scribbles, indignantly underscoring the words. There's a looser limbed, country rock feel to certain songs. One is a gorgeous love song called Into Your Arms, another a queer-bashing protest ballad with the title Big Gay Heart. A psychedelic scramble called Dawn Can't Decide and I'll Do It Anyway, "a mock Go-Gos song with Belinda on back-up" rattle by before a godawful Lick My Love Pump-like piano instrumental intervenes ("I just sat down and played this. Oh dear. Sorry.") It's About Time, he jots, is about Juliana Hatfield (bassist on It's A Shame About Ray, now solo artiste and rumoured paramour of Dando). Are they, you ask, in love? "Old friends," he writes. "Yes, love, but. . ."
By now he has whipped out his song notebook into which are stuck assorted cigarette packets covered in odd couplets, a doily with a complete song on it and various scraps of snatched inspiration. Elsewhere, the lyrics to the new album are written out in their entirety, often accompanied by doodles, phone numbers and frantic crossings out. He guides you line by line through a fruity number entitled Down About It ("because the chords descend") and a moving, tragi-comic masterpiece, Favourite T, with a strange refrain that runs: "I'm still a girl/And it's just a horse/And I got the reins", which, if you're not very much mistaken, is the best song Evan Dando has ever written. "Thanx," he scribbles bashfully. "I'll tell you about it when I'm allowed to speak."
A week later, backstage at the Reading Festival is the chosen location for our next encounter with Evan Dando. And what a contrast. He is impossibly happy, unstoppably talkative and clean as Betty Ford's whistle. He is, however, wearing a cotton flower-print summer dress, his hair is up in two bunches and he is currently drawing suspenders on his thighs with black magic marker. "My mum and my sister dressed me as a hooker when I was 12," he gabbles. "I wore a purple satin mini dress and a mink stole. I've always been into wearing dresses. I think it's fun and really all guys like to do it." Twenty minutes later he is up on stage, stealing the show, playing a blinder, singing his heart out. He concludes the set by crocking his guitar and sashaying sexily into the wings.
Frock off in his portacabin dressing room afterwards, he seems desperately keen to talk about Los Angeles, crack, smack, sex, stress - the full nine yards. His conversation is punctuated by a gurgling laugh that brings to mind a donkey who is partial to inhaling helium.
"It all started," he begins referring immediately to his recent period of excess, "when my friend Johnny Depp, the actor guy, was opening a club. He's totally straight by the way, he stopped doing stuff a long time ago. But I played at the opening of this club and my dad came over from Martha's Vineyard to LA and it was cool. Shane MacGowan played too. Anyway, we partied a bit and that was the beginning of that really bad weekend.
"Then I started partying too much. I was hanging out with a lot of people who were really cool and they were doing a lot of drugs. I don't want to say exactly who they were because they're in bands and they wouldn't appreciate me telling the world that they were doing drugs. I'll incriminate myself but I don't want to incriminate other people too. So I was smoking crack, like, a lot. Crack's weird. It's a perverse thrill; it's like the stupidest thing you can do and you can think it through carefully, but to start smoking a lot of crack, as a singer, is really stupid. The humour in it was really there for me. It was really fun. But a lot of people have the feeling about drugs that they make life better and, sure, you feel good for a little while, but really drugs make life worse in the end. You don't have your normal glee left at all, you just have that very reliable, unnatural high.
I experimented with some really horrible street drugs for a while and got out of it about two weeks ago. You know, some crack has talcum powder in it that can kill you instantly. But, and this is completely stupid, at the time that appealed to me. I've always done dumb things on purpose. I was always the guy who'd dive into the trashcan for no reason. But I got down because I couldn't sing very well any more and I went to the throat doctor and I told him I'd been smoking crack and he said, Don't do that, man, That's dangerous. And I'd like to impart this message to anyone who might read this article: don't smoke crack, it's, like, really bad for you."
And was crack all it is, um, cracked up to be?
"Having done it now, I'm not sure it is," he grimaces. "It's like (puff puff) and then you get a 10 maybe 12-minute high. The ritual is what I found fun. You buy this copper brillo pad shit and you get a little glass pipe and then you have this poker thing and you put the copper pad in the pipe and then get your crack going. It's funny, you always think there's one more hit left in the pipe, so you roll it around and heat all the bowl. It's a ritual. But every time you take a hit of crack, it does permanent damage. The smoke isn't like cigarette smoke, you can clean that shit out, but crack becomes like varnish in your lungs. Actually, I regret doing it at all ever."
Was it not valid as an experiment?
"Yeah," he frowns. "Valid but stupid."
How did you feel after the binge?
"Bad," he says. "It wasn't just crack. I was also smoking Tar, which is this really crude, horrible heroin that comes up from Mexico. And I was smoking it off tin foil, which can give you Alzheimer's disease. l don't know why I was doing it but I was going headlong into disaster. I felt so much pressure about the record. It was like, Oh wow, I've got to do a record that everyone's going to really love. When I quit the drugs, I realised that all I had to do was make a record that I really, like, loved and that's its own reward and any kind of monetary gain from the record is incidental. For me, it's about making music that makes me happy and other people happy.
"As soon as I gave up trying to escape the pressure by doing drugs, it came to me that there is no pressure," he smiles slowly (he claimed earlier that someone once told him he smiled like a dolphin, which isn't entirely inaccurate). "I just have to relax and make the kind of record I want to make. Relaxation is the key. I'm trying very hard to relax."
But isn't drug-taking a part of your inspiration? It seems to crop up in a lot of your songs.
"I guess so, but I want to keep it to coffee now. When I was down in Australia, we'd take meth, speed-snort a line here and there-and we'd be up all night and by the time 4.30 hits and you start getting a nice light outside, that's when your brain gets crowded up enough, so that really interesting things just start to pop out. But if I can do that with Espresso, I'd be happy. I could do that by just making myself stay up - sleep deprivation can be an inspiring thing. A lot of the songs I've written have come out of staying up and taking speed all night and in that respect the drugs have been a tool for me, but a dangerous, treacherous, inadvisable one."
Do you worry that if you stop taking drugs your inspiration might dry up?
"The track record for people who straighten up and continue to sing their hearts out is not a good one, is it?" he laughs. "But we'll see. Right now, I feel great and I'm doing things that do not require any substance abuse at all. Going out and playing, performing, is better straight. I'm not saying that I'm never going to indulge again and I don't want to come off like someone who is endorsing drugs: I'm just saying that they can be OK for me. They're definitely not cool. Listen, kids, you can get the same effect from doing a painting with a strobe light on and playing the guitar at the same time. Or something. I dunno. I mean, isn't life weird and interesting enough anyway? The way the twigs fall in a particular pattern on the ground. At times, everything starts to mean something to me and then I turn into Metaphor Man and I want to kill myself."
Have you ever been through a groupie stage?
"I never really went for that," he shrugs. "I mean, I've had my less than totally monogamous situations but I haven't had a girlfriend for two years and maybe once every month or two months, I'll have sex with someone. I've gone six months without having sex in the last year. It's not that my sex drive is low but I can't just have sex with someone I don't even like."
Do you become Masturbation Man?
"Yeah, that's just about it," he nods enthusiastically. "But other times, it seems like a harmless enough situation and ... you know, sometimes I have to have sex. So I get a condom on and get it on. I don't have a girlfriend and occasionally I need sex. I can't have a girlfriend because I'm not anywhere. I don't want a girlfriend coming along with me because that would mean she didn't have her own life unless she was in the band and that's a bad dynamic. That broke the band up in 1990, me having a girlfriend."
What stage in your life do you feel you're at?
"The busy stage! I'm taking the Concorde tomorrow. I can't wait. I am excited. I have to go to New York and then to LA, so by this time tomorrow I'll be in the studio finishing the album."
How does that type of travelling affect your head?
"I actually find it harder to keep my head together when I'm in one place. This life is easier. I'm going through this thing right now of streamlining my possessions," he says hauling a small shoulder bag across the floor so that its contents might be inspected. "I'm constantly editing my belongings."
Could you be accused of running away from any form of responsibility?
"I guess so." he shrugs, "but I feel I have a lot of responsibilities. It's just that at the present time those responsibilities seem to be to myself."
Where do you feel you are as a songwriter?
"I think that song Favourite T is real good," he says with a hint of pride. "I'd love to play that to you now." He hunts in vain for a guitar then fishes out his song notepad and tugs at his Be A Friend T- shirt. "It's kind of about this shirt, that song. And it's about envy. It goes from funny to sad. Don't you think that's a thing a lot of people have been through? Losing items of clothing to girlfriends. At first it doesn't seem to matter, then it starts eating away at something. And then time heals and the pain or the jealousy fades. In that song. I'm playing the part of my old girlfriend Hannah. She has a bunch of my clothes and I guess she must wear them. There's a reference to her Danish boyfriend in the first verse. He was actually Austrian but that didn't sound so good and Danish conjures up a certain good-looking stereotype. Memories are weird," he muses, heading off on an unexpected trajectory. "As my life gets shorter, because of the memories, it becomes more infinite."
"What is life if not a series of moments remembered?" -some philosopher said that.
"Really," he says, open-mouthed. I'm 26 now, March 4 is my birthday, '67, year of the goat, same as my guitar. I feel young again. When I was doing drugs I felt old because I was abusing my body so much, but now I really feel young."
During your recent drug period, did you never worry about dying?
"I'm physically hardy and it would take a lot to kill me," he says, before reconsidering. "But I guess that's what everyone thinks. I wasn't too worried about dying but I could really have fucked up my career. But I could have died. You know, why am I so into Gram Parsons? If I stepped back and looked at myself, I'd find that a little suspicious."
A huge handshake, a dolphin smile, a donkey laugh and he's off to "party a little and crash out on Concorde". He stops in the doorway and like a child in a school play repeats, "What is life if not a series of moments remembered?' Wow! That's so cool."