Perfect Sound Forever

Mark Eitzel:
The Divisible Man

photo by Chris Buck

Interview by Jeff Arndt (July 2001)

The first time I saw Mark Eitzel perform, I didn't expect the man to leave so much of himself on the stage. It was 1993 and he and his band, American Music Club, were touring in support of their Mercury record. I was a relative latecomer to AMC, Everclear being the first record I had purchased a year earlier. Most of what I had read about the band and Eitzel elicited somewhat clumsy comparisons to other performers (Paul Westerberg, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake) but didn't fully illustrate the band's versatility and truly original sound (I once saw their recordings in the "country rock" section of a music store). I was not prepared for what I saw that night in Chapel Hill.

 Eitzel was indeed one of the most fascinating people I had ever seen on a stage. Much like the music he wrote, Eitzel was a myriad of seemingly conflicting qualities. He was comic, self-deprecating, charismatic, sensitive, menacing, passionate, vulnerable, and just plain honest. Throughout the evening he confounded and amazed in equal parts and managed to hold the show (and himself) together and never compromise the force and beauty of AMC's music. Several things about that show remain vividly in my memory. He gave scathing reviews of his own work immediately upon completing a song: "That song absolutely sucks." He both lamented the loss of and did impressions of a regional performer he had known years earlier that had recently died without ever being insensitive to the circumstances surrounding his death. He stopped mid-song and confronted people in the audience directly for talking during a heart-rending acoustic performance of the AMC classic "Blue and Grey Shirt": "You paid your money. Go ahead and drink your beer. Have fun, right?" He criticized his own wardrobe. He fluctuated between comic banter with the audience and desperate musical tales of loss and sadness. It was a performance that shocked, hit nerves, and made me laugh. Most of all, it was completely refreshing. It was all HIM, I supposed, and I wondered how anyone could give so much of themselves away like this in public night after night. I felt at once privileged and guilty for being there to witness such a gripping display of candor-for $5.

The volatile nature that characterized American Music Club throughout its history precipitated the logical next step in Eitzel's evolution. Following the release of one final record, San Francisco, Eitzel disbanded AMC to embark on a solo career in 1996. His fifth official solo release, The Invisible Man, is due in May and is his second record for indie Matador Records. The record points to a new direction for Eitzel in many ways, most notably in regards to the process in which it was recorded. Most of these new tracks were recorded in his living room with acoustic guitar accompaniment and adorned later with samplers and the help of a Mac G4 computer. But make no mistake; the electronic embellishments here do nothing to detract from the emotional intensity of these 13 songs. Melodies and hooks surface slowly to defy the very way in which they were recorded. The initial jar of this new sound fades with repeated listenings and gradually the record emerges as a work consistent with Eitzel's tendency to explore diverse musical and production styles in his solo outings thus far. This new approach encourages the listener to re-examine his first three records following AMC's demise and appreciate a seasoned artist who is carving out a rich and varied solo career-no small task considering the substantial shadow his former band casts.

While Eitzel's first proper solo outing was the 1991 release Songs of Love Live, a collection of American Music Club numbers performed acoustically at London's Borderline, his solo recording career didn't start in earnest until 1996's 60 Watt Silver Lining. The record found him moving away from the rock-inflected territory he'd mined on AMC's swan song, San Francisco, and showcased a lush, jazz-influenced treatment of eleven original compositions with one Carol King cover added for good measure. The record contains some of Eitzel's best vocal performances. All the elements add up to form a shimmering, beautiful record.

Next came a collaboration with R.E.M. guitarist Pete Buck that yielded West, Eitzel's final recording for long-time label Warner Bros. Buck's influence is everywhere, foregoing Eitzel's usual complex approach to melody in favor of a more conventional pop sound. While many of the songs are complimented by this treatment, there are moments where the relatively simplistic song structures seem to crumble under the weight of Eitzel's lyrical sweep. At times, the arrangements just seem to have difficulty supporting him. His next release would contrast greatly with West's sound.

Eitzel's first outing for Matador, 1998's Caught In A Trap and I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby (whew!), belies the rambling title and is a spare, stark affair. Seven of the eleven tracks find Eitzel accompanying his vocals with an acoustic guitar. He enlists an impressive list of musicians including James McNew (Yo La Tengo), Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth), and Kid Congo Powers (Cramps, Congo Norvell) to serve as sidemen on four of the strongest songs on the record. The sparse production enhances the overall bleakness here. 'Caught is a haunting, austere recording that feeds the common conception of Eitzel as the dour, depressed chronicler of pain and sadness.

While much of his songwriting over the years could make one to believe this description of him as accurate, accepting this as an all-encompassing portrait of the man would be a mistake. My recent conversation with Eitzel yielded several revelations. He discussed many topics at length, including the new record, performing live, his relationship with the press, and his reputation as the morose, gloomy songwriter. I caught up with him by phone at his home in San Francisco at the end of a day that had seen him conduct eight hours of European interviews. He was doing what any self-respecting artist would do after a long day of talking about himself: scrubbing his floors.

PSF: Let's start with the new record. You used a sampler and a Mac G4 and recorded it in your living room. Did you like this process better that traditional studio recording?

 I had to do what I did. I like them both. One is not better that the other but if I work at home on my computer I can work for hours and hours or not at all. All the system really cost me was six days in a recording studio. I can fit 20 songs on an 18 gig hard drive and they all sound pretty good. Purists might disagree, but I'm not a purist.

PSF: Did this new process affect the outcome of the songs in anyway?

Not really. I wrote the songs first on guitar and this was my way of recording the album. I'd recorded the album twice before with different people and it's basically the same record, I just used a different medium this time. The process didn't really change the songs but it is changing what I do now. I'm starting to write exclusively on computer and not even using guitar. That's changing what I do a little bit. It's a whole different feel.

PSF: Do you think it's a better recording process?

It's just different. At the time you're making the record you're also mixing the record. From the ground up you're creating this piece of music that you interact with and it's a really different experience.

PSF: The vocals on the new record seem more controlled and even a bit understated. Was this calculated?

What I had to do was, this was before I figured out compression, I had to sit there in front of the computer and not let it peak, so I was watching the meter as I was singing. It sort of changes the way you sing a little bit.

PSF: Is this new singing style going to carry over into your live performance of these songs?

No, not at all. Live performance is really different. The live performance rocks more.

PSF: Some singer/songwriters who leave bands and go on to record solo feel compelled to divorce themselves from their earlier work once they go it alone. Do you characterize your solo recording period-since 95 or 96-as a distinctly different period in your career than with AMC?

Not really. I'm proud of what I did with American Music Club. I kind of wrote the same after I left. All the songs I used on my first solo record were AMC songs. The best thing the band did for me was that they were a filter. They would say, 'Mark, that's really great' or 'Mark, that really sucks.' So I got a good idea about whether the songs were good or bad. And that was great. And that's why I gave them half my publishing.

PSF: It's interesting how a songwriter like Paul Westerberg, for instance, reacts to his earlier work with the Replacements. He seems, in interviews at least, to want to distance himself from the entire experience. You obviously have a different attitude toward your earlier work..

You can't really blame him for that. He's a great songwriter and he's still writing good stuff. Whether people think it's good or bad, it's the work that's reflecting his soul. I always think it's unfair to say to a songwriter that what you used to do was brilliant and now you suck, when in actuality it was probably in between both those extremes in the first place. Westerberg will probably never write another album like Let It Be again, you know? And I'll never write a California again because I'm not the same person and I'm not in the same circumstances. I don't mind people talking about it and saying that's the best work I ever did because it might be. I can't really judge that kind of stuff. In fact, I'm fine if that's my best work because, really, it's pretty damn good work, you know? At the same time I'm still living and breathing and trying to push my little cookie franchise.

PSF: How does the new record fit into the context of the rest of your solo work?

I have no idea. That's not really the type of thing that I would know. In a way I think it's a lot less, um, what's the word? Desperate, I guess. It's a lot less desperate because I'm not that desperate now. I'm making a conscious decision to make positive music because I need that in my life.

PSF: Each record seems to explore different territory musically. Is this all part of Mark Eitzel's grand scheme to record in every genre of music?

I'm not smart enough for grand schemes, unfortunately. I don't really think about the records in those terms. I don't conduct any market research before I record an album, if that's what you mean.

PSF: What's the difference between recording for Matador and Warner Bros?

It's a trade off because at Warner Bros. you get a lot of money and on Matador you don't. But on Matador you deal with cool people who understand you and the weirder you are the more they seem to like it and that's a good thing for me, actually. I don't make any money but at the same time I can put out records and do my work and they're very supportive.

PSF: Who's in your touring band?

I got a guy playing samples, I got a woman playing keyboards, and a guy playing lap steel.

PSF: Are you planning an extensive US tour?

As extensive as we can afford.

PSF: I've seen you perform several times and you are very honest about your emotions and moods. I sense that you are uncomfortable in front of an audience at times.

I'm like everybody else, you know? Sometimes I don't want to be seen.

PSF: As self-deprecating and uncomfortable as you are on stage at times, you seem to be fearless when it comes to your emotions. You always seem to let people know what you're feeling. I find this refreshing as a member of the audience.

Some audiences like it, some don't. Sometimes I scare people.

PSF: Do you ever regret giving so much of yourself to an audience?

Yeah, I guess. I don't do so much of that anymore. It's funny, you know, I'd leave the stage and I'd just be completely drained and completely depressed. And now I do my show and I get off the stage and I smile at people. Of course, my band might disagree with me. (laughs)

PSF: I would think it would be difficult to keep performing in such an emotionally intense manner for so long.

It's hard, you know, when you do a whole tour, or God, a whole life, and every single time you play it's like some fucking nervous breakdown. It's not good, you know? So now I try to moderate everything. I don't drink before a show and usually I don't drink during a show, except for a glass of wine maybe. All these things help to make what I do a little more palatable just in terms of survivability.

PSF: Did you read Sean Body's biography of you and American Music Club, Wish the World Away?

No, not really. I read like one page of each chapter and gave it away to a friend.

PSF: Why?

Well, it was definitely well-meant. I just sort of felt like it seemed to dwell on a bunch of negative things that I don't even really remember.

PSF: What are your feelings on music journalism and rock criticism? You create and critics react-any thoughts on that relationship?

Well, I go along with it because I decided I'm going to play the game and I want people to hear the record because I'm proud of it. But at the same time I don't think it sells a single record, especially when people write about me. You know, I'll do these interviews and we'll have a really nice conversation and I'll be upbeat and happy and I'll say nice things and talk with pleasure about music and then I'll read the article and it's like, (in dramatic British accent): 'Mark's devastating sadness rifled through the entire interview. He could barely open his eyes.' (laughs) I'm like, what is this, you know? Sure, I can be self-deprecating but it's not that bad. It's one thing for a newspaper to print these things because people throw it away. On the web, though, it lasts forever. It drives me crazy, in other words. I mean, I do write depressing songs at times and I do write about sadness and pain and all that stuff, right? But I do feel a little done in by the whole thing, you know? But let's not dwell on these things.

PSF: Critics and fans alike tend to heap a lot of importance onto your music. I read about an interview when you were still with AMC where you and Vudi disagreed with a journalist who told you your work was great art and you should consider it as such.

Oh, I remember that interview. It's not like we said, 'You're wrong. Fuck you for saying we're good.' We were just trying to say, you know, that it's just pop music. Bob Dylan, at his peak, was pop music. That's all he was and that's a great thing but that's all he was. And that's all we were. It's all pop music and that's how you should look at it, not like it's this important art form. I still stand by that. I still believe it.

PSF: You've said that you feel your hardest core fan won't be there when your 50. Do you still feel this way?

I totally feel that way. I believe it. I know it.

PSF: Why do you feel this way?

Why? It's a pop form that people identify with me and I've been really lucky. Really lucky, man. People tell me that my music was the first stuff they heard with their boyfriend or girlfriend and that's why they love the music and then they say, 'How come you don't make another California?' But that's great, though, and I don't mind that at all because that's all I am is entertainment and a background for people's lives. As soon as I start thinking otherwise then I'm a fool. So unless I do make another California I'm just a part of their history, I'm not a part of their future. I'm just an item they buy off the rack. And that's fine.

PSF: Do you think that way about the artists that move you? They're just items you buy off the rack?

Well, I love them but I have a different perspective than most people. I'm a musician myself and I see the world a different way. I'm not precious about it but at the same time I know what it is.

PSF: One of the things I like about the new songs is that they don't grab me right away.

I know. I do these things on purpose. I can't stand things that grab me right away. I had an interviewer ask me earlier why I couldn't make a regular pop song. I said I didn't know how. I do know how to do it, actually, but every time I try to do something like that I get really bored and disgusted with myself. I can't hang in there and just be the kind of whore I'm supposed to be.

PSF: One of the things I like about your lyrics is that you're very specific about the cities and regions you write about, mentioning places of business, specific roads, people even-in San Francisco, London, Columbus, Ohio.

It's important shit.

PSF: I agree. Is this a conscious decision on your part to document your surroundings or is it just a natural extension of being in a specific place for a certain period of time?

The context of the song defines where the song came from. I kind of go with the Phil Ochs thing where I am a newspaper reporter, you know? Obviously, I don't do that but in some small way I try to keep that in mind because I think that's a pretty smart way to approach songwriting.

PSF: I've seen your work compared to author Charles Bukowski. Do you ever read his stuff?

Yes. I love Bukowski. He's a great writer. I once went to this bar in L.A. with some friends and he was there. I really wanted to say hello but I was just too fucking shy. So we drank a lot in his honor.

PSF: Have you heard the new Mark Eitzel/AMC tribute record, Come On Beautiful?

 Yes, I have.

PSF: What did you think?

I think it's great. The Ida version of "What Holds the World Together" is better than the AMC version--it really is, they really got it right. I really like the record.

PSF: I've always felt you'd make the perfect subject for a documentary film. Have you ever been approached in this regard?

I heard the guy who made Blair Witch Project wanted to make a film about me. I said yes and then I never heard back.

PSF: So you're willing to agree to such a project?

Oh, yeah. I would totally do it. I always say yes. That's my theory of life-always say yes and then let the other guy flake out.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER