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Fine and Dando

Evan Dando has gone missing.

That might not be surprising news to anyone who's followed the 39-year-old singer/guitarist's frequently brilliant, frequently maddening two-decade career, both as leader of the Boston-bred punk-turned-alt-pop trio the Lemonheads and, briefly, as a solo artist. For a while there, Dando had a penchant for not turning up at gigs and appearances. And, of course, there was that stretch of years from the late '90s until 2001 when he seemingly vanished from the face of the Earth.

On this occasion — a scheduled Friday-afternoon phone interview to discuss the reemergence of the Lemonheads, recently reconstituted for their first album and tour in ten years — Dando's publicist is having a hard time locating her client, a proud Luddite who's never used a computer and just recently purchased his first cell phone. The chat is rescheduled for the next day... and once again, he's nowhere to be found. Finally, the following Tuesday morning, Dando materializes on the other end of the phone, apologetic, gregarious, and candid. He's been on a mission scouring New York City for a couple of vintage guitars for his upcoming tour — it's a healthy habit, he explains.

"I guess when you're evolving from spending so much money on drugs, you find something else to buy," he laughs from the back of a Lincoln Town Car that's shuttling him to the Sirius Satellite Radio studio in midtown Manhattan. "Back in the old days, I was OK doing both, but now I gotta do just one."

Ah yes, the drugs — Dando's made no secret of the fact that he's sampled pretty much every substance under the sun and that a crippling addiction to crack and heroin played a giant role in his erratic behavior and the derailment of a once-successful career. I've witnessed Dando at his best and his worst: A 1993 Lemonheads show in Washington, D.C. — at the group's critical and commercial apex — was nothing short of spectacular. In 1997, however, during a show at New York bar Hogs & Heifers, Dando was as wasted and pitiable a performer as I've ever seen. But that was the past. These days, the now-mostly-clean-and-sober singer says he's thrilled with how well things are jelling with the touring version of the Lemonheads, which includes Vess Ruhtenberg on bass and Devon Ashley on drums. His only worry is that for this second leg, his wife of nearly seven years, British-born model Elisabeth Moses, won't be able to accompany him as she did in the fall.

"It's so much easier with her around, because she'll block everything and everyone from me, you know, the bad influences from my past and stuff."

Dando chuckles when I ask if that remains an issue. "Oh God yeah, you kidding? That stuff never dies. Once you're a dope addict, you're always gonna have people that are still dope addicts that know that you're vulnerable, and they're gonna bring you dope. It's hard, it's hard... and I have fucked up a couple times, y'know — it happens. I'm just being honest with you. But I don't have any plans to do it again. I'm totally fine now."

Still, Dando acknowledges it was more than just an addictive personality that caused him to break up the Lemonheads after 1996's disappointing Car Button Cloth, the band's fourth album for Atlantic Records. "Actually, I was sabotaging my own career on purpose," he explains. "I didn't like where it was going. Whatever this thing was they had planned for me... me being one of those 10-million-selling people, which is what they were saying to me for [1993's Come on Feel the Lemonheads], you know, 'This record's gotta sell 10 million.' And I buckled. I was like, 'I don't really want that. I see what happens to people that that happens to, and it's usually not good. '"

"Not good" describes the following few years, until he met Moses and got clean. In 2001, Dando resurfaced with a live album, and in 2003, he dropped his "proper" solo debut, Baby I'm Bored. Soon after, he caught wind of a festival in Brazil at which all the bands played nothing but Lemonheads covers; it started him thinking that he'd like to record again under the Lemonheads moniker. The only problem was that the group's initial ten-year run featured so many lineup changes that there was no real "band" to reunite. So Dando reached out to one of his musical influences — bassist Karl Alvarez, of Descendents and All fame.

"Karl was like, 'I think Bill [Stevenson, the iconic Descendents/Black Flag/All drummer] would be up for doing something,' and I was like, 'Fuckin' score — I guess I really am gonna make this Lemonheads record,'" Dando recalls, noting that at age 16, he learned to play drums by bashing along to the Descendents' 1982 LP, Milo Goes to College. "Bill was a really important dude to me. And a lot of people don't know that he's a killer songwriter — one of the reasons I'm really proud about the new album is that it really showcases his songwriting too."

Then, Dando lets out a perturbed groan. "Fuck, the guy let me out of the car, and now I don't know where I am. I don't know where I'm supposed to go, at all! Call me back in a couple of hours... [click]."

It's a perfect opportunity to ring up Stevenson at his Colorado studio, where the disc was recorded, to get his take on collaborating with Dando. "My initial thought was that Karl and I would be kinda implementing his will and throwing our own flair into it," Stevenson says, "but when it came down to it, it was more like he was looking for equal partners. Obviously, at the end of the day, it's Evan's band, but the whole experience was very open and definitely a three-way street."

And, Stevenson added, he was never really concerned about Dando's negative reputation. "My approach was to factor that in as a possibility, and if there was a lateness or a no-show, big deal. That's an easy thing to work around. I'm a guy who's never tried a drug in my life. Never. But I would never judge someone on whether or not they do drugs. How can you judge someone on whether they take drugs or not? That's like judging 'em on whether they fuckin' eat French fries. Who gives a fuck?"

Damned near bubbly when I reach him later that afternoon, Dando almost seems high, but he's just in a particularly great mood after a fun time at Sirius. On the way home to enjoy a couple more days with his wife before he starts touring again, he says he's more content now than at any point in the past 15 years and happy to be back. "There's people who feel really sorry for me and stuff — they think I 'blew my big chance.' But I never wanted any of that. I mean, I wouldn't mind getting back to... I dunno, not that weird point where you sell a million records and it's not enough but maybe the point where it's a miracle if I sell 500,000 records. But whatever happens — it's amazing that people still give a fuck about me."

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Michael Alan Goldberg