Interview with Evan Dando by Grant Smithies
From Stuff, May 2017
Evan Dando: A broken heart and two black eyes
The man GQ magazine recently proclaimed "The Grunge God of Style" sits beside the water, stick in hand, gazing out to sea.
Is he elegantly attired in sharply-cut angler's tweeds? Is he wearing waders of the latest style? I couldn't say.
All I can tell you is that Evan Dando, painfully handsome leader of 90s indie band The Lemonheads, is fishing when I call to discuss his upcoming New Zealand tour.
He's in a tiny hamlet called Menemsha in Martha's Vineyard, in his home state of Massachusetts. The population, if you don't include passing fish, numbers around 900.
"It's real nice out here today," he tells me over a scattering of what sounds like polite applause, but is really little waves slapping on rocks.
"It's a beautiful old fishing village with a couple jetties poking out into the inlet. There's all these lovely old houses all around. What can I tell you? I'm a happy man."
And he really does sound happy, which is nice, because the narrative that usually adheres to Evan Dando is one of missed opportunity, squandered talent, emotional damage and addiction.
Both solo and with The Lemonheads, he has made a handful of great records, but Dando is widely perceived as a master of self sabotage, frequently derailing his own career with drink, drugs, duff albums or foot-in-mouth interviews just as it starts to get some serious traction.
Is he sick of reading about his own troubled life?
"Oh, yeah! But I brought it on myself, I guess. Some of the things I've done haven't helped me much career-wise. I did all these interviews where I was a little too honest about the fact that drugs can be fun sometimes."
And there it is: a mighty understatement, hovering in the air above Martha's Vineyard like an incoming storm cloud.
Honesty has not always been the best policy for this particular fisherman.
There was a time in the early 90s when Dando was big news. The Lemonheads' fifth album It's A Shame About Ray was a huge underground hit, and Dando was in high demand, touring relentlessly, seemingly on the brink of major mainstream success.
The band's mix of dirty noise-rock guitar fuzz, jangling folk and sing-along pop, coupled with Dando and bandmate/girlfriend Juliana Hatfield's good looks, made The Lemonheads the kind of band record company marketing departments dream about.
The youngest child of a wealthy Boston property lawyer and a former fashion model, Dando was declared the "doe-eyed pin-up" and "slacker sex-kitten" of 90s underground rock, and for a while there, his damaged pretty-boy schtick seemed certain to make him a huge star.
But Dando was a little too personally and artistically unreliable to follow through, and he failed to realise that journalists were not his friends, sharing his tales of
epic meth, acid, ecstacy and magic mushroom benders in Australia and the UK; of booze and mandrax binges that got him thrown off planes; of being so smacked out at dinner that he face-planted into his bowl of steaming tagliatelle.
In one interview at LA's infamous Chateau Marmont, Dando admitted he'd descended to a very dark place after playing at a party thrown by his mate Johnny Depp, spending several days alone in his hotel room smoking crack, with intermittent heroin chasers to take the edge off. The crack pipe gave his throat such a hammering that Dando lost his voice, and had to complete his interview using paper and a pen.
He admitted he'd had a "once a week" heroin habit since way back in his 20s, but his intake ramped up sharply after he divorced English model Elizabeth Moses in 2010. Dando claims he finally kicked heroin in 2013, but "still likes weed and coke".
Somewhere along the way, the loose-lipped junkie persona started to overshadow his music, and worse, he told so many tales about his own wasted exploits that he committed the cardinal sin of any pop star: he became a bore.
"Those interviews turned into all these stories about me going off the rails, you're right, but that sort of honesty deepens your understanding sometimes. I remember Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine once talked about how certain drugs made your music change in very valuable ways, and I respected him for being so honest.
"But being truthful gets you in a whole lot of trouble sometimes. People begin to treat your life as some sort of cautionary tale. It gives certain moralistic individuals the opportunity to push for prohibition, you know? And it also gives them an opportunity to say 'I told you so' if you do f-- your life up a little bit. Even so, I'd rather be honest. I don't want those sort of people winning."
Dando rejects the much-touted notion that The Lemonheads could have been "bigger than Nirvana" if he'd been a little less hedonistic. And besides, his ambitions have always been modest: to pay his rent, enjoy life, and write good songs.
"I just wanna make records I can be proud of, and that's far more important to me than commercial success. When people sell too many records, it often f---s up either their music or their life. I don't want to have some big resounding reckoning with the universe because something I do is suddenly huge. I wanna have a lot more failure to give some contrast to my success."
And he laughs, a big gravelly croak erupting down the line. It's a very endearing sound - goofy and unguarded, like the man himself. He may be 50 years old, but Dando still comes across as a pretty loose and immature dude, an eternal teenager of sorts.
This current world tour revolves around his first solo album, Baby I'm Bored, from 2003. A much-loved transitional album in his back-catalogue, with distorted electric guitars giving way to a more mellow acoustic sound, it was recently reissued on vinyl for Record Store Day, with a second LP of worthwhile demos tacked on.
"I'm still really proud of that record after all these years. It's like my answer to Some Girls. You know that Rolling Stones record? It was an album where they changed direction, and I did that, too. It was a necessary record for me, a new start."
With arrangements quiet enough to reveal a lovely weary tone to Dando's voice, Baby I'm Bored had a clear lineage back to folk heroes Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt, singers he'd admired for years. The Lemonheads, he says, were always "lumped in" as a grunge band, but solo he wanted to do something "quieter and a little more thoughtful".
It's a strongly autobiographical record, full of tales of breakups and breakdowns, bright flashes of joy and damp downpours of distress.
"A broken heart and two black eyes/ but you should see the other guy…" he sings on The Same Thing You Thought Hard About, one of many fine songs where dry wit and extravagant self-pity collide.
The second disc mops up unreleased material from the same era. A surprising standout is country parody Au Bord Du Seine, in which an American redneck ponders his hatred of liberals while sitting on a riverbank in Paris.
"Well, I'm fat, broke, bald, armed and angry," wails Dando over weeping steel guitars, a slow bar-room waltz unfolding beneath a wry tale in which the protagonist casually admits he once blew up a bus on its way to a gay wedding.
"That's a funny song, right? On one level, it's pretty throwaway, but on another, it's pretty apropos of right now, unfortunately, given the kind of people supporting Trump."
How do songs like this come to him? They seem to just swim past in his subconscious, he says, and occasionally he manages to pull a good one out.
"It's catch and release, you know, just like I'm doing right now. A lot of ideas you need to throw back, but every now and then, if you're lucky, you pull up a real beauty."
Over the years, a lot of his musical inspiration has come from down here, in our neck of the woods. It's A Shame About Ray was written after a prolonged stay in his "second home" of Australia in the early 90s, that oddball album title a headline he tore from a local newspaper.
The album's most famous song, My Drug Buddy, talks about scoring drugs in Sydney's Newtown and getting wrecked with a friend while cars fly past up King Street.
New Zealand also feature prominently on Dando's musical radar. He even has a "Flying Nun tribute band" side-project called TSP (The Sandwich Police) with girlfriend Marciana Jones and good mate Willie Mason. They toured America last year with rising Australian star, Courtney Barnett.
"I've always loved The 3Ds, Chills, The Bats and The Clean, but also all those AK79 punk bands like Proud Scum and Spelling Mistakes. I love Bailter Space and Street Chant, too. We toured with both those bands, which was huge fun. I remember driving down into Dunedin one time on tour, over that mountain (The Kilmog), and I was so happy to finally see the place. I got into some of that music right when it was first happening in the 80s, too, 'cos there was this radio station in Boston that did a show called Punk Orgy, where they'd play a certain specialised type of music for, like, four hours straight. One time, it was all New Zealand punk and indie stuff. Changed my life, man."
And then, all of a sudden, there's a shout and a splash, and he drops his phone. I hear Dando racing around, whooping and hollering.
"It's down between the rocks!" he shouts from a distance. A couple more splashes and he's back.
"I just caught a real nice fish, man! It's a striper! I don't think you get 'em over there. Hang on - I'll just get it off the hook."
Cue another 30 seconds of mumbling and rustling. "Oh, I wish you could have seen that. Stripers are such beautiful fish, man. But I let it go. They have to be 28 inches and that wasn't quite big enough to be a keeper. Just like songs, man - catch and release."
Evan Dando's Baby I'm Bored world tour plays Christchurch Blue Smoke on Saturday 3rd June, Auckland Tuning Fork on Sunday 4th June. Tickets via Ticketmaster.