Evan Dando may be on the wagon, but he's still off his nut. This information isn't intended to malign the ex-Lemonheads frontman, but rather to assuage any suspicions held by fans of his old band that kicking his many habits has killed Dando's creative buzz. Everyone likes their rock stars a little crazy, right? Not like schizophrenic serial-killer crazy, but at least mildly refractory -- subject to mysterious thunderclaps of bad mood, paranoid because no one really understands his/her pain. It's part of what makes "them" different from "us."
"Jesus, did you even listen to the album?" Dando queries, apropos of -- well, it's unclear. "Seriously. I'm tired. In fact, I'm fucking exhausted. Tell you what -- why don't you just make some stuff up?" At which point, an interview that began with enthusiastic hooting abruptly ends.
Yup, he's one of "them." But not just because conversations with Dando fray for no apparent reason. For those who are too young to recall the heady days, back when Dando played East Coast Cobain to Seattle's king of grunge, millions of teenage girls would have once sold their spleens in order to spend 10 minutes alone with People magazine's 1993 "Sexiest Man Alive." Dando has, in the bizarre logic of the music industry, earned the right to pull weird shit. He is, after all, a rock star. He's got his bona fides in hand.
A brief recap: The Lemonheads, the band Dando formed with high school buddies Ben Deily and Jesse Peretz, were the pop poster boys of a Boston rock scene also boasting such big names as Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies, and Buffalo Tom. Their marquee album, 1992's It's a Shame About Ray, became required listening in college dorm rooms countrywide. Music mags devoted precious column inches to the question of whether Dando had deflowered his girlfriend, Blake Babies lead singer Juliana Hatfield, and the fact that Courtney Love had "impure thoughts" about him. A bunch of (undoubtedly) jealous guys started a 'zine called I Hate Evan Dando; a band in Australia wrote a song called "I Wish I Were Him." Then Kurt shot himself, an era ended, alternative radio was co-opted by the likes of Bush, the college kids moved on to either Dave Matthews or Pavement, and the Lemonheads drifted into obsolescence on the back of Dando's by-then-raging drug addiction. (All drugs, any drugs, but the freebasing stories are particularly legion.)
And for a while, Evan Dando pretty much disappeared.
"Really, I only took about two years off," he notes at an earlier, friendlier point in the conversation. He's holed up in a Berlin hotel room, taking a break from a brief European tour in support of his recently released solo debut, Baby I'm Bored. "I was back in the studio, starting to record, by '99 -- and after that, it was four years of off-again, on-again work."
Dando is generous in his replies to the toughest questions: He clearly understands that a prodigal son faces certain necessary inquiries, such as Where the hell have you been for the last six years? and Why now?
"I really believe that love saved me," he says, going on to credit his wife, Elizabeth, with helping him to focus his energies on songwriting. "Love, love, love," he continues, all giddy cheer. "It's so simple. I met her, and suddenly I had this calm and balance within myself I'd never had before. I didn't need to go out every night, getting drunk or whatever. That lifestyle doesn't make for good music -- I mean, unless you're 19. And I'm not 19 anymore."
Although it's Elizabeth's photo on the cover of Baby I'm Bored, Dando's work on the LP was also nurtured by a number of well-placed friends, fans, and well-wishers.
"I didn't even know I was making a record," he notes with a laugh. "I was just traveling around, making music with friends."
He recalls that "Waking Up," one of the first tracks he recorded, began as a collaboration with Spacehog frontman Royston Langdon; Langdon's wife, Liv Tyler, contributed vocals to "Shots Is Fired." Later, longtime Dando admirer Jon Brion (producer of Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann) invited Dando to his studio and sent him off with a couple of finished tunes. And Ben Lee, the long-ago composer of "I Wish I Were Him," came as close as humanly possible to living that dream by donating the songs "All My Life" and "Hard Drive."
Whatever damage the drugs may have done to Dando's body, those two tracks alone are proof that his baritone is as potent as ever, seductively husky and honeyed -- and irresistible. (Women everywhere, beware: Your old crush on Dando never died. It was just resting.) Lee's songwriting channels the taut folk-pop of Lemonheads classics such as "Into My Arms" and makes for the album's biggest nostalgia trip. But, ironically, for a new direction Dando turned to one of his oldest friends, Giant Sand's Howe Gelb.
"Howe and I have known each other forever," Dando explains. "Back in the day, he, Juliana, and I did this tour together -- we called ourselves the Giant Lemonbabies . . . " He trails off, chuckling at some private reminiscence. "Then, about a year ago, I did this gig at the Barbican in London with him, plus Mark from Sparklehorse and Polly Harvey, and Kurt Wagner from Lambchop and the Calexico guys -- and I kind of fell in love all over again with this wide-open Americana sound."
Thus, Dando explains, he and Gelb followed the concert with some recording sessions and ended up with "In the Grass All Wine-Colored," his album's winsomely beautiful closing track. It's the most delicate thing Dando's ever written, an atmospheric paean to simple pleasure that encapsulates his newfound peace of mind better than any quip he might make.
That Barbican gig -- which several English publications named the concert of the year -- also effectively countered the rumors that Dando was washed up for good, paving the way for his reemergence as a "serious" musician.
"This was the first record I was putting out under my own name," he explains. "I spent a lot of time, and my own money, making it. I knew I wanted it to be something . . . real, something I believed in. I had 35 songs and chose the 12 on the album that I was most proud of. And I'm really, really happy with it."
So despite the occasional self-inflicted land mine along the hard slog of press and touring -- such as the one that inexplicably ends our talk after a basic question about the new album -- Dando is driven by an absolute conviction that he's finally back on track. In the larger context of what he has accomplished, the mild flare-ups of rock-star attitude are relatively easy to forgive. It's his career he's rehabbing now.