Interview with Evan Dando by Max Bell
Photos by Barry Marsden
From Vox Magazine August 1994
It's a shame about Evan. Maybe we have a case of wrong time, wrong place, but dark moods are written all over his scowling, handsome, hounded face. The expression says: "Why am I doing this? I don't want to do it." The lights are on and Evan's in; he just doesn't feel like answering the door.
Perhaps Evan has been too co-operative - or too naive - to cope with the voyeuristic demands of the press machine in the past. Yet here he is again on a Saturday morning, much against his judgment, or so I'm informed. Evan looks like he's just got out of bed; he probably didn't even go to bed, but, girls and guys, he looks good. He is wearing standard-issue pop-mode 1965 pencil cords, office suede loafers, a casual track jacket and today's favourite T; an REO Speedwagon model given him by Hole drummer Patty Schemel when the Lemonheads and Courtney's crew were on tour together. "She insisted on it for some reason. I dunno why," he shrugs, slightly baffled, as if Schemel was trying to suggest something uncomplimentary. "I mean they weren't a very good group, were they?"
So, you're wearing it for kitsch value?
"Yeah, something like that," Dando ripostes, in a tone that intimates: 'I don't remember asking you for your opinion, but when I want it I'll come round and clean your driveway with my tongue.' You don't need great powers of intuition to realise that Evan is not in a great yippee-it's-Saturdaymorning-no-school type of mood. Indeed, by the look of him, he is nursing Friday night's hangover. And Thursday's. Maybe he should be getting paid overtime?
"Yeah, right. And you know what that would be for me? Nothing plus nothing." He snorts dismissively, but eventually softens like a kitten. "I mean, I feel kinda disconnected from it all," he mumbles. "People want to read about it, people want to write about it. That's fine. Sorta."
What we might call "the ongoing ennui of Evan Dando" provided the Lemonheads with a recurring theme on Come On Feel..., particularly when he fingered the hapless manipulators of his privacy in 'Paid To Smile', the Lemonheads' version of The Rolling Stones' acerbic ditty 'The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man'. Evan has trodden this path before, notably on the hugely underrated Lovey album, whose ultra-Hendrix pastiche 'L'il Seed' (aka 'Society') rails venemously against the Fourth Estate, sneering at "...the press criticisin', theorisin; analysin' - tell me, what do they know?'. Huh! It's a total classic.
"I get the feeling I'm being bullshitted too often," Evan confesses later over endless draughts of caffeine and nicotine. "People are overly nice but mostly they just want to kiss my ass. The thing is they don't even try to pretend it's not an act. My mistake is trying to do too much, when all that should matter is whether I'm happy with my records... and I am.
"I guess I'm about ready to promote myself in a more human way. I don't feel quite so insecure. It is hard, though, 'cos record labels love to boss you around. I won't let them do that anymore. I want to call more shots. Some of our stuff ends up looking too corporate. I'm going to be a lot stricter from now on."
Too late. Everyone knows everything and more about Evan Dando. We know about his drug buddies, his visits to Mexico in search of cheap heroin (Tar), his alleged predilection for crack cocaine (ongoing, by all accounts), his sexual mores, the periods of abstinence, the fling with Kylie Minogue. And so on. "You know more about me than I do about myself, that's probably true." Evan shakes his head.
Of course it's no secret that Dando is one of rock's great socialisers. As a party animal he may not be on a par with F Scott Fitzgerald, but he is a bona fide pop sun who attracts minor satellites and the debris that surrounds them. Many of the people who fall under his sway feel the desire to chip off a chunk of his undeniable charm or lead him seriously astray. Even people who only met him once glow with pleasure when they remember how Evan saw them in a club and came over to chat, like he didn't have to do that. He is much discussed, especially in his absence.
"I was hanging out with Jonathan Richman last night," says Evan, who holds the world record for hanging out. "Jonathan's a fellow Bostonian so we had plenty to talk about and, er, I told him I had a bunch of interviews to do. He gave me a list of ten clues." Somewhat reluctantly, Dando pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket bearing Richman's meticulous instructions and reads from it.
"As soon as you start disliking the interview, wrap it up. To prevent distortion, use short sentences. Don't talk on world issues." Evan chuckles- at Richman's manifesto like a Tex Ritter possum. Yuk, yuk, yuk.
"I can identify with Jonathan Richman a lot. He hung out with Gram Parsons in Los Angeles. Although he was quite opposite to Gram, who did all the drugs, and Jonathan didn't do any, they got on real well."
Do we see a parallel here? Lift up the stone. Richman and the Modem Lovers played at Parsons' "wake", a bizarre cabaret event organised by Gram's self-elected cremator, Phil Kaufman. Also on the bill were a Johnny Cash impersonator and Bobby Pickett And The Cryptkickers. The five-dollar admission got you a Gram Parsons T and a bottle of beer. Evan's most treasured possession is his bootleg copy of that shirt.
Keep lifting. Phil Kaufman is the man who produced Charles Manson's album Lie - The Love And Terror Cult. Evan covered Manson's gruesome `Home Is Where You're Happy' on the Lemonheads' Creator LP. The very late Beach Boy Dennis Wilson used to hang with Manson, lending him his Benedict Canyon mansion and a Rolls-Royce, which Charlie's girls used to go on their "garbage runs" - Chuck's tribe lived off discarded supermarket produce.
Don't put the stone down yet. Evan is pictured on the Creator sleeve beside the police photograph of Manson. He is wearing a Mobil worker's overalls -just like Manson. Of course it's all a joke. Or is it?
Evan used to give out the bon mot: "I was born in the spring of 1967, the Summer Of Love, and I've come to say hi!" Now he tells me: "Being born in 1967, with Manson looming so large, must have had an effect on me. By the time I was nine he was like this huge celebrity. The Manson Family - ooh, spooky. His life is a sad story but there is great black humour in it, too. All those middle-class `60s chicks getting into warm groovy blood and that call Manson had: oo-ee-oo!"
And Dennis Wilson? "People say that I remind them of him. Dennis is my soulmate from the '60s." Although Evan signs his autograph with a heart and the numerals 666 - the mark of the beast, oo-eeoo - it's OK, kids. Don't have nightmares. Uncle Evan is more Huck Finn than Sexy Sadie. He isn't planning on setting up a drugs and bizarre sex commune in the Californian desert just yet.
"Nah, my life's pretty ordinary. What do I do? I lie around and play guitar, that's something I do for sure. In fact that's all I do, I think. Oh no, wait. I go to museums sometimes." He says this without much conviction, emphasising the "sometimes". "I used to be into skiing, that was my big sport. And surfing and baseball. Skateboarding. Bird watching. I just do regular stuff. I read Mark Twain's short stories. I wanna learn about the history of New York City and I would like to read more books about the Civil War. It's funny-ever since I left school I've started loving history. I think it's because I don't have to memorise dates."
He reels back 13 years. "When I was 14 years old, I was a huge fan of the Velvets, the Stooges and the Modern Lovers. They are my three favourite bands. I never get sick of 'em. See, to me, rock'n'roll doesn't have any point. It's just fun. It has a million different angles and they're all valid. But I think rock might be a world issue."
Evan Dando is still perceived as a pop-star pinup manqué in America. This means he is not taken seriously. In theory, there ought to be nothing wrong with pop stardom, the natural by-product of the trade. But pop has pejorative, stigmatic connotations for the Yank, so Dando is victim of a certain fascism.
"Yeah, as if there's anything wrong with pop music or anything inherently meaningful about Pearl Jam. People think because Pearl Jam are so angry they must be intelligent. Pop doesn't have to be brainless."
You only have to listen to Lemonheads albums from 1987 to 1994 to realise they done him wrong. Look at the small print of the Lemonheads career and you notice neat little facts.
Example: Jeff "Skunk" Baxter from Steely Dan plays the pedal steel guitar on '...Ray'. Coolsville. "He was weird, man. He came into the studio with a gun and put it on the desk. Then, before he played his part he said: 'Don't nobody disturb me, or...', and he pointed at the gun just so we understood." Example: Gram Parsons' old pedal-steel guitarist, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, twanged on 'Big Gay Heart'. Immaculate. Gotta hand it to him - Dando's got taste. "I prefer playing with those side-guys, people who are on the fringes of heroes. It would be too daunting to play with someone like Neil Young, even though he is a big inspiration to me. But Sneaky Pete was great. I didn't bug him about Gram. Not too much, anyway."
Given all his inheritance of brains and beauty -he is the son of a real-estate attorney and a former fashion model - Evan was destined to climb the stairway to the stars even before his mother Susan pushed him to become the "Jell-0 Boy" in an advertising campaign for the sweet comestible.
Growing up in the affluent suburbs of Essex, Massachusetts, on Boston's North Shore, Evan was a celebrity long before he got jammy. "Girls always loved him and he always loved girls," Susan attests with maternal affection. "He was always an angel."
The Dandos moved into Boston when he was nine. "I took off on my skateboard and discovered the city. It was a great time. I was lucky 'cos the 0'Jays were the biggest band. There was even a skateboard wheel called the Ojay. Everything made sense back then."
Inspired by Susan's collection of soul groups and jazz singers, Evan will still become animated over Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter or Stevie Wonder's 'Music Of My Mind'. "Late '60s, early '70s, warmsounding soul is where it's at. That stuff is so much better than anything coming out now."
Although his subsequent musical tastes have included Metal, punk, modern jazz and hardcore, what Dando loves now is high-mountain harmony singing. This hunk's a hick. Mr Nudie, get your scissors out.interpretation perhaps people everything is beyond help. Y'know, it 'What can we do apart from make music in a nice environment, and don't try to help anything, but throw our hands up in horror and just try to have some fun?"'
It's precisely this complacency which Curtis Casella, the Boston DJ who first signed the pre-Lemonheads Whelps in 1986, cites as Evan Dando's dilemma. Casella still keeps open house for Dando and bass player Nic Dalton whenever they pass through town. Casella's Taang! Records launched the Lemonheads' career-one that may not last too much longer, in his view.
"Evan's throwing his hands up. He isn't taking the initiative. He's too used to having things done for him. Evan's got so many people telling him what to do, he's losing control of his own career. He's 27 now-I give him two more records, then he'll get into acting. People already look at him as an actor type, so why not?"
Casella is convinced that "they"-presumably Gold Star Management and Atlantic Records- have boxed the boy into a corner. "He was mis-marketed as a sex symbol. He didn't want to be David Cassidy, but more people know about Evan Dando than the Lemonheads and that's going to make it very hard for the band to get back to their original intentions."
According to Casella: "Evan has changed quite a bit. He's gone through some shit that's made him very different. The music used to come from inside him. Now he worries about what to put out, what's acceptable. It's a compromise."
Not all of the media perceptions of Evan Dando ring true, either. "He was told during an Atlantic campaign to shatter his pretty-boy image by putting himself over as the tortured soul. Which happens to make good reading. All that drugs stuff is also guaranteed to get mothers finding the magazines under their 14-yearold daughters' pillows and ripping them up."
Finally, Casella senses a fatal bias against the Lemonheads among fans of mainstream bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam. "It's OK for pop radio to play the Lemonheads and for girls to like him, but the guys, the heavy record listeners, they are turning away because of this cover-model image. Whereas those other bands made it as teen idols by playing live and selling records first, Evan was a pop star before he'd made it. They promoted him the wrong way round."
The Lemonheads' immensely likeable Australian bass player Nic Dalton tells me he must pick and choose his words carefully, after quotes concerning Gold Mountain Management caused ructions within the camp "and bummed Evan out."
Yet in Dalton's down-to-earth opinion, there shouldn't be any kind of Evan Dando problem. "He's never all that happy any more and, yeah, he is sick of touring and maybe it hasn't panned out the way the label, the management, friends and magazines told us, but he should be content with what he's got. Like, I've got this other band in Australia (Godstar) and we sell bugger all and get zero press and I'm completely happy. Making music for a living is better than no job and 41o living. Y'know, I'd say,"'relax Evan, it's only entertainment. I suppose I'm lucky in that my energies are channelled elsewhere, whereas the Lemonheads is Evan's band, it's his ball. We just tag along. He's got to write the next songs, but before he does, he ought to take some holiday. He can always learn to say no to these people."
At least here, everyone is in agreement. Evan says he will take four months out, beginning in September, to compose the Lemonheads' seventh album, which, unlike Come On Feel The Lemonheads, .will be written on my own".
Dando's collaborator, Tom Morgan of Aussie band Smudge, has given his pal the challenge. "We worked well together... like magic, really. We used one guitar, that was the secret, and we'd wrest it from each other when one of us had an idea. That way you can get good songs written and edited in 20 minutes. It was a fun experiment but I need to work alone now. Next time I'd like to make a more cohesive record like Ray, because Come On... is smattered all over the place."
In the meantime, movie scripts land at Curtis Casella's house every week with Evan's name on them. After a bit part in the twentysomething movie Reality Bites, audiences will be able to see whether Dando's got the right celluloid stuff in Upstate Story, co-starring Deborah Harry, Liv Tyler and Shelley Winters. Dando plays a petrol-pump attendant, has real dialogue, and guess what - he sings a few acoustic songs! Elvis Presley, eat your big gay heart out.
During the past year, entries in Dando's bursting diary have grown ever more credible. They include him jamming on drums with Nirvana during the making of In Utero, singing 'In My Solitude' with Tony Bennett (for an Unplugged spesh on the wizened old crooner who left his heart in San Francisco) and an American tour supporting Bob Dylan in August that will feature the revamped Lemonheads, with former Blake Baby John Strohm on guitar. If one ignores the press-angled angst for the baloney it patently is, I'd say our Ev's got it made in the shade. Like the man in the crucifixion queue in The Life Of Brian, he is a lucky bastard. Let's face it - even Lemonheads B-sides are better than most groups' entire careers.
So maybe it's not such a shame about Evan, after all. Maybe he could actually get happy with his gold records and put them, with his image, on the shelf for a -while and concentrate on what he's good at. As Curtis Casella says: "He gets a lot of flak for being a pop star, but some days he loves the American blitz. The worst thing is, he's an intense human being who has got a lot of soul, but you'd never know it from the way he's been marketed."
"My image?" Evan has pondered. "Yeah, what is my image? I think in America it's all been determined by MTV and we've only ever Made one good video - for 'It's About Time' [the "let's have sex real soon" song Dando penned from Juliana Hatfield's perspective. She loves it... not]. I did the treatment for that one and that's why it worked real well," he remarks immodestly. When I tell Evan I actually don't give a flying fuck about videos-his or anybody else's-and furthermore consider them to be the most heinous scourge and the probable ruination of rock'n'roll, he rapidly concurs:
"Yeah, they are pretty shitty. CDs, too. Totally corporate. They look real cheap and soulless and they don't smell of anything. But ya have to make videos in the States. Usually ours just look too serious. We haven't got it together. The last thing I want to appear as is serious, but people sometimes miss the humour.
"On Lovey we put on this song - '(The) Door'which used every rock'n'roll cliche, lyrics and music, and people took it at face value. So I learnt before we made [It's A Shame About] Ray that you can't be very subtle at all in America. People have definitely missed the sense of humour in the Lemonheads and, y'know, my life is determined by the fun, amusing things I like to try. Even the bands I dig don't have a history of attaining mass consumption. Urge Overkill, Redd Kross, us... we're hardly likely to make the quantum leap to double platinum. I guess that might be a good thing. Success, fame, or whatever, it's been so gradual that it has been easy to deal with."
"Yeah, really. I mean we're not quite a Gold band in America and that makes it feasible to go on. I need the money. People don't understand how little money you make in a band. We are in the black as far as expenses go, so at least we're in a good area. I'm not desperate to reach ten million people."
Before we shake and split for a museum, I feel an absurd obligation to ask Evan about his Samsonite hair cut. It's what you might call a Michael Hutchence (Kylie Minogue made Hutch cut if off, remember). Evan says no, he didn't get it trimmed to military length as some kind of anti pop-star statement. "I used to have a sort of spiky haircut and it just feels better to have short hair again." My guess is he had it cut for the movie. But who cares?
"Is that it?" Evan asks. Yes, it's a wrap. No more world issues today, Mr Dando. "Hey, that was pretty painless," he smiles. "Are you sure you don't want to talk about drugs?"
BORN: 4 March 1967 in suburban Essex; Massachusetts. Moved at the age of nine to Boston's North Shore.
FAMILY: Mother Susan, a former fashion model, 'whom Evan described as "an indie rock scene queen". Father Jeffrey, a real-estate lawyer. One older sister, Holly. Parents ("purely middle-class parents, not wealthy at all") split up when he was 11.
SCHOOL: Commonwealth High School; Boston-met original Lemonheads Ben Deily and Jesse Peretz. Skidmore College-gained "four Fs and a D" and eventually dropped out.
FIRST PUBLIC APPEARANCE: As the Jello Boy, 1975
PREVIOUS BANDS: The Whelps: Dando, Deily and Peretz. Made their first public appearance at The Rat in Boston. Indie single, 'Laughing All The Way To The Cleaners', led to deal with independent label Taang! and a name-change.
Blake Babies: Left the Lemonheads after their third album because of tension between himself and Deily, to play in long-time friend Juliana Hatfield's band. Seduced back by success of breakthrough single 'Luka' and the offer of a European tour.
Dando has also been known to play drums for the Aussie band Godstar.
LEMONHEADS ALBUMS: Taang! - Hate Your Friends (1988), Creator (1988), Lick (1989); Atlantic - Lovey (1993), It's A Shame About Ray (1993), Come On Feel The Lemonheads (1993).
ALL-TIME FAVOURITE RECORDS: Black Sabbath Volume Four, The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds; Miles Davis Live At The Blackhawk
INFLUENCES: Dinosaur Jnr, Urge Overkill, Superchunk
INSPIRATIONS: "My parents and the desire to travel."
EXTRA-CURRICULAR ACTIVITIES INCLUDE: A small part in Ben Stiller's Reality Bites; appearance in the up-coming Upstate Stoty alongside Deborah Harry and Shelley Winters.
HAIRCUT HISTORY: Shocked his mother as a teenager by having first blond then blue spikey hair. Shocked his fans this year by cuffing off the locks that had won him a People magazine nomination for most shaggable male.