Interview with Evan Dando by Michael Hann
From The Quietus, May 2017
After The Burn Out: Evan Dando
Evan Dando kicks off a small British tour today. Michael Hann speaks to him about getting chewed up by the machine and spat out the other side
There was a time when Evan Dando appeared to be the most naturally gifted pop songwriter at work. Melodies seemed to tumble out of him, beautiful, sad-eyed songs about nothing in particular: about getting rid of his old stove, about buying pot, about being a young man with plenty of time and the looks and time to live life how he pleased. He understood brevity, he understood how minor chords could break hearts, he understood that appearing not to care about those things would make people care about him even more.
And then he turned into something else, even as the Lemonheads continued to put out those beautiful, bruised records. He tumbled down a rabbit hole of hard drugs - one interview had him unable to speak because he'd smoked so much crack beforehand - and became better known for pretty much everything other than music.
He followed Oasis around Britain; he would pop up in music paper gossip pages for his latest out-of-it misdemeanour. At times it felt as if everyone who went to a gig in London in the mid-90s had a Dando story (my own: going to see Jeff Buckley at the Garage in 1994, and standing in front of Dando, who spent much of the show heckling at extreme volume, while an entourage laughed indulgently).
And then, more or less, he disappeared. After The Lemonheads released the Car Button Cloth album in 1996, there was no more music from Dando until a solo album, Baby I'm Bored, seven years later. There was a minor burst of activity later that decade - a new Lemonheads studio album in 2006, an amusing but inconsequential album of covers in 2009. But, as far as recorded music goes, that's it. His visit to the UK this month to play live shows isn't to promote anything new - it's to support the reissue of Baby I'm Bored, for that all-important 14th anniversary.
"You get burned out," Dando says, looking back on his retreat from the sunlit uplands of alternastardom. "You don't know there are other options. And let's not be too innocent: there are cynical people at the reins who want you to keep going and burn yourself out. The music industry is the worst one, as far as showbiz goes. The most evil, the most venal. It's really fucked up."
To be fair, though, it wasn't the music industry forcing you to live your life in public, while off your nut, was it? "Some pretty funny things came out of that. But what are you going to do? I was hanging out with the guys from Menswear, I was going to clubs in London where people would see you. But the idea was not to fucking care about what happens. That was the whole point."
And did taking all those drugs help you not to care? "Probably. They do do that. That was supposed to be a positive thing: reality plus drugs is a good thing. Get real, everybody. But I really, really fucked up on that one because it looked like a cautionary tale. And drugs are really dangerous. They are really dangerous. But I always think they do have a place in human life."
Dando once said drugs had made him who he was. That displayed both a certain amount of self-awareness as well as a degree of blithe dismissal. If drugs had freed him to be a songwriter, and lowered his inhibitions, they had also turned him into the class buffoon of mid-90s rock. Does he still feel that statement is true? "It's not something you should say in interviews … But if I hadn't done them, would I have played the guitar so much? I met Alex Chilton when I was 17 or 18, and he told me: he didn't want to admit, it but he wondered whether he would ever have done it [become a musician] without speed."
We are talking on the phone, Dando at his waterfront home on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. He's garrulous and engaged, talking briskly. There's no sign of the non-communicative stoner that some interviewers have encountered. He sounds, for want of a better word, healthy. So what's his position with drugs now, given so many interviews over the past 20 years have included sections in which he says he has recently given up drugs for good. "Er," he says, "I don't know. I don't get carried away with them. I'm not above taking acid. I definitely don't not do drugs. I used to do drugs and I still do them. Fuck, they're dangerous, and I had my problems with them. I had to cut back - let's say that. Stick to weed and beer!"
The Lemonheads' beginnings lay in mid-80s Boston, with Dando and the band's other original singer and songwriter Ben Deily among the kids who had been enthused by hardcore punk, before realising their musical ambitions lay beyond that. "It was the weird thing of everyone getting laid and saying, 'Fuck it, I don't want to play hardcore.' That's how all that stuff came out, Dinosaur Jr and things like that. It was an amazing place. We started in 86 and played our second gig with the Pixies. It was their second gig, too. We met amazing people early on: there were people like J [Mascis] out west, and Buffalo Tom and Throwing Muses. There was a really good community in Boston from, say, 86 to 88. It was nice and cosy, and you could feel something happening with people getting signed." It's worth remembering, too, that this was the culmination of a period of 15 years or so in which Boston, as much as LA or New York, had been ahead of the musical curve, with groups such as The Modern Lovers, Mission Of Burma, DMZ, The Lyres and even The Cars being inspirational forces to younger musicians.
Even in The Lemonheads' heyday - let's call it from the album Lick in 1989 to Car Button Cloth in 1996 - the idea that the songs were pouring out of Dando was wrong, he says. He didn't find songwriting as easy as he made it appear (which is testimony, also, to the strength of the eventual songs, because they rarely sound laboured). He had luck, he says, and he also picked good people to hang around with, to bounce ideas off, to write with - notably Tom Morgan of the Australian band Smudge. "He's more effortless for sure," Dando says. "He helped me a lot. And once you hang around with someone like that for a little while you can write your own stuff. I like to bounce off other people, and I didn't write that many songs by myself, but I liked the ones I wrote by myself almost the best."
It's also worth remembering that many of the songs most closely associated with The Lemonheads were covers – not just 'Mrs Robinson', their breakthrough hit, but 'Different Drum' (Mike Nesmith, but a hit for the Stone Poneys), 'Luka' (Suzanne Vega), 'Into Your Arms' (Love Position, who featured future Lemonheads bassist Nic Dalton), 'Divan' (Smudge).
The Australian school of musicians that included Smudge and Love Positions had a profound effect on Dando. His writing had already started moving towards the everyday and the small scale on the 1990 album Lovey, with the song Stove. Meeting these artists when he visited Australia in 1991 took even further in that direction, though even then there were signs of the Dando who would become the what-the-fuck-has-he-done now staple of the music press a few years later. "I opened for Fugazi in Australia in 1991. It was so fun. I was doing a drunk version of [Minor Threat's] 'Guilty Of Being White' every night." And how did Ian MacKaye, who did not drink and wished he had never written that song, respond? "Sure enough: 'I'm flattered. But I wish you wouldn't get drunk and play that song.'"
The new style of writing produced It's A Shame About Ray, the definitive Lemonheads album, an Instagram-before-there-was-Instagram hazy reverie of an album about aimless early adulthood. It's forgotten now that Atlantic had so little faith in the album that in the UK, which proved to be The Lemonhead's biggest market, it was released straight to mid-price, before the addition - against Dando's wishes - of 'Mrs Robinson' made it a hit.
The process of ascending to fame was fun, Dando suggests at one point. "There was a fanzine called Die Evan Dando, Die, and I was like, 'Hmm, I must be doing something right." And then his square-jawed, flaxen-haired, all-American good looks made him a pin-up: the alternahunk. He didn't care so much for that. Nor did he care so much for the attentions of his audience as the crowds grew bigger. "One thing that was a bummer was when you'd jump into the crowd. At first, they'd pass you back to the stage. But later, they would suck you in, take all your shit off you. You'd have to get rescued."
Being successful can be a dangerous thing, too. "It's hard to keep striving. It's hard to even pretend you're striving. I've had a lot of problems, but problems make you a great person."
I saw The Lemonheads several times across those years, and each time Dando appeared a little more tired, a little less inspired, until, finally, the only way he could have made it more plain he was phoning it in would be if he had pulled out a mobile and played the show into that. That was the burnout. And then came the pause. What he do for the seven years from 1996?
"I did all kinds of crazy shit. I had money. I would go skiing for a month and do fun shit. Go to Costa Rica. But that got boring, too. Because if you do all the things you like to do all the time, you can't get satisfied. There's nothing like the grind, right? Nothing like the hamster wheel to keep you going - it's true."
Was he able to rediscover his pleasure in music by stepping off the hamster wheel, though? "Don't get me wrong, getting spat out the other side and still able to make music made me never take anything for granted." All through these past 20-something years, Dando has continued to pop up on stages of varying sizes all over the place, and he recalls sharing a tiny tent stage with the Black Keys in 2000, and the blues-rock duo being astonished by how excited Dando was to be playing.
If music is still a pleasure, when is he going to make some more of it? Well, he says, he's working on a record. A solo record or a Lemonheads record? "I don't really know. I've messed that up. If it was going to be loud I was going to call it The Lemonheads and if it was not loud at all, I was going to use my name. But I've switched it all round. It doesn't matter and I don't really know."
Evan Dando, still slacking after all these years.