BAM - March 8, 1996
Sadcore Silver Lining
Author: Rob O'Connor
Date: March 8, 1996
It's the beginning of December, but winter has decided to come early to the Northeast United States - Hoboken, New Jersey to be exact; a bona fide "meat market", if there ever was one. This town is usually abuzz with horny college post-grads walking Hoboken's main drag. Washington Street, in search of the right place and the right time.
The town has over a hundred bars in its one mile stretch. But tonight the streets are relatively quiet, since the largest "buzz" in town is happening at the famous indie rock club, Maxwell's, tucked in at the corner of Washington and 11th, a world unto itself, with a legacy all of its own.
The breeding ground for Hoboken's sorta-legendary Feelies to current nationally known faves Yo La Tengo, Maxwell's, for the past decade and a half, has played host to thousands of out-of-town bands from R.E.M to Nirvana, from Sonic Youth to Soundgarden, from Smashing Pumpkins to...well, you get the idea. It's one of the few places where artist and audience mingle on a nearly equal level - literally.
The stage is all of two feet off the ground, and to access it, you must walk through the crowd. And it can be a humbling experience for an artist to ask ticket-holders to move out the way. Especially when they don't recognize you and think you're just some opportunist schmuck looking to get a better view. It happens from time to time, but tonight there's no mistaking Mark Eitzel.
In his standard white button-down shirt, black jeans and black wool cap, the former lead singer of San Francisco's critically acclaimed (to say the least) American Music Club has become an automatic "standing room only" performer. Although he's 3000 miles away from his home base at the moment, he's still in a bosom of music-dom that nurtures its artists very generously. Throughout the show he will pause, unsure, midway through, not wanting to go on.
Later, he will admit to me that his recent opening slot with Everything but the Girl actually killed his confidence. "I was reduced to hoping people would heckle me so I would have something to say between songs", he laughs. But these stops and starts are legendary.
I'm reminded of what my friend Joe Albanese told me after seeing American Music Club at the Hotel Utah many years before, "They played this incredibly emotionally draining set, and at the end, the singer walked off the stage, out into the street, and just kept going 'til I couldn't see him anymore. I turned to the guitar player, and he just laughed, saying, 'He's the real deal.'"
And only a month and a half at Brownies, a club in the East Village of New York City, Eitzel stopped during several numbers, claiming the songs were hitting to close to home. Tonight, it's happening again.
After beginning in high gear with impassioned readings of "Gratitude Walks" and "The Thorn In My Side", Eitzel reels off "Apology For An Accident", one of several cornerstones from 1993's flawless Mercury LP. It starts in a fever pitch and as he delineates each setback in the reach for the object of his affection, he emotes further, literally writhing in his little spot onstage, tripping on the guitar cord as it winds up his leg.
Someone in the front row turns to their friend and nods. There's no doubt: For better or worse, few performers reach the emotional peak Eitzel aims for without even thinking about it.
Eitzel's opening slot for Everything but the Girl still haunts him, even though the experience is now safely over. EBTG had covered his "When My Plane Finally Goes Down" as duet between Mark and Tracey Thorn - and he can't stop expressing how nice the band were to him. Nevertheless, the gigs were tough. Eitzel's new Warner Bros. solo album, 60 Watt Silver Lining, may be a bit more "adult contemporary" than anything in the American Music Club catalog, but it's still a far cry from the polished stylings the average EBTG fan is used to hearing. And the entire experience has left Mark, in the interim between album completion and album release, a bit edgy about the album's expected reception.
"I don't think it's going to be reviewed very well", he says matter-of-factly. "So I'm already looking forward to the next project." Still, Eitzel's more than ready to lose his rock-critic support while searching for the music forever flowing within him that's attempting to get out.
For 60 Watt he kept things simple. With the help of engineer Mark Needham, most of the tracks were recorded live and feature just Eitzel on guitar and vocals, pedal steel/pianist Bruce Kaphan and bassist Danny Pearson (both AMC hold-overs), and Simone White (Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy) on drums. There are also several guest appearances from Mark Isham on trumpet. And the album's lyrics are a further continuation of Eitzel's often bleak obsessions of love, death and the absurd. "Everything's beautiful/but babe not you and me," he sings. Exactly.
And yet, offstage, the man can be very different. Depending on his shifting mood, he can be amazingly open-hearted and forthcoming with information. Or he can bring an interviewer to near tears, as the knowledge sinks in that today he's not talking, and the piece in need of being written is going to be done with very little help from the artist himself. And the guessing game begins.
But Eitzel is relaxed with me today. He sips cappuccino and remains playful throughout our interview, only occasionally pausing to tell me to fuck off when I tell him what a great talent he is. Which is just a reflection of where he is today.
After 12 years leading American Music Club to critical acclaim, Eitzel no longer has to bend over and accommodate the whims and desires of anyone but himself. If he wants to stop a song mid-verse, he can do so without incurring the wrath of anyone but the audience, who often resemble a self-help group more than your standard tailgate party rock audience.
"I got so frustrated doing the music and the tour (for San Francisco, AMC's seventh and final album). I just wanted to rock", he explains. "We spent all this time playing slow music and other bands do it better. We decided we can't play silent anymore. That tour was one of the reasons I quit the band. That and San Francisco - the classic end of career problems. I just want to be a crazy musician. I don't want to be a careerist. All I was doing was agreeing with people and then waited for phone calls so I could agree with people. 'I really like that mix. I really like that idea'. Fuck that, I want to have a hissy fit."
American Music Club formed in 1983. Their beginnings prepared no one for the emotional rollercoaster the band would soon be forced to ride in a desperate attempt to find their musical niche - and the even more impossible task of helping others find it as well.
1985's The Restless Stranger, released on original band member Tom Mallon's Grifter Records, displayed a band still unsure of themselves - keyboard-heavy but brief glimpses into the ever-evolving songwriting voice of displaced Columbus, Ohio, native Mark Eitzel. "That's our bad New Wave record" is all Eitzel says about it today.
"Yeah I love those songs," says Eitzel. "But the band hated it." Although he's quick to add, "This is me talking. I'm sure you'd get four other stories that are completely opposite. 'Mark was really an asshole the whole time. We don't know exactly what was wrong.'"
The schism between Mark's songwriting and the band's own idiosyncratic delivery - highlighted by guitarist Vudi and his trademark "Vudi-soup" and bassist Danny Pearson's three stringed ass-ended bass - created a sound all its own - sometimes country ("Firefly"), sometimes pub rock ("Crabwalk"), and sometimes an intricate hall of mirrors where post-punk and sensitivity clashed to great effect ("What Godzilla Said To God When His Name Wasn't Found In The Book Of Life").
"We were never consistently one thing, which might not be my fault", says Eitzel. "But probably is. In the context of AMC, I was just another member. In terms of the whole scheme of things until the very end, I was the least important member. I was just the little drunk they led around."
Except this little drunk was writing songs that equated Charles Bukowski with Paul Westerberg with English folk hero Nick Drake.
It was American Music Club's Everclear that ultimately brought the band to national attention, winning the Rolling Stone Critic's Poll alongside Guns N' Roses and R.E.M for "Album of the Year", with Eitzel winning best songwriter award. It was also Everclear that nearly broke up the band the first time. Kaphan, AMC's resident engineer (when not hidden away behind the pedal steel and piano), recorded the album, while Joe Chicarelli was brought into mix it.
"We had agreed to have Joe come in and mix it, since after four albums that couldn't be played on the radio, we decided we had to have one," recounts Eitzel. "He was doing us a big favor. Joe completely changed the sound of the record, which, of course, drove Bruce into a frenzy."
It was around the same time that Eitzel began getting noticed as a solo performer as well. "We finished recording Everclear in October 1990 and nothing was happening, so I did that Songs Of Love Live thing (a live solo CD on Demon UK label, never released domestically) for a free trip to England. My manager at the time said 'No, it's a bad idea,' because I was letting down the band," concedes Eitzel. "At this point, it was like I didn't even think there was a band anymore. So, then I did the Toiling Midgets thing."
The "Toiling Midgets thing" turned out to be an album called Son, which featured Eitzel on many of the vocal duties. It's also where Eitzel convinced drummer Tim Mooney to join AMC. "Tim is God," says Eitzel, leaving it at that. The addition of a solid drummer allowed the band to reach further into the groove.
After the major label bidding wars were over, AMC signed to Reprise, booking time in the studio with producer Mitchell Froom and his engineer Tchad Blake. "He's used to working with solo artists," says Eitzel. "With AMC, with the whole band, he went out of his way to work on the arrangements. So, a lot of the arrangements are him teaching us to arrange. In other words, don't play all the same things at once."
The resultant album, Mercury, may be their best. From its multi layered production to the hyper-kinetic metaphors of Eitzel's lyrics, the album twists and turns with all the ambivalence and ambiguity that most emotionally starved, ego-messed children grow up dealing with. The album's got drama, fueled by Eitzel's hard drinking past and the eventual introspection that occurs when middle age gets closer and immortality is no longer an illusion to be pursued.
When asked about all those boasts of his drinking, Eitzel turns a grin. "Oh yeah! We hired Saatchi & Saatchi, the public relations firm, to do some market research on somebody with our characteristics in our age group - and we worked out that for a triple A [Adult Album Alternative] radio audience, exactly the private things this target audience would want their band to do. It didn't cost much. think the whole study cost 200 grand. It was worth it - we came up with dysfunctional sex life, big drinking problem, balding. It all seemed to workout somehow!"
And work it did! "Hot Band" in Rolling Stone! Four-star reviews! Crazier shows highlighted by a drunker Eitzel knocking back drinks while the band careened through AC/DC's "Highway to Hell". They were poised to take over the world. Except Mercury had no real single - and as you may have noticed, singles still make the pop world go 'round.
"I've Been A Mess" may be the greatest lonesome loser song of all time, but it was a waltz! And, as Eitzel puts it, the strategy changed." Like Pepsi will change its marketing campaigns, so did we."
Eitzel began writing at a furious pace. The "Best Songwriter of '91" intended to do better. He did. Previewing the songs for what would become San Francisco, Eitzel performed a solo tour in the fall of 1993 that stands in my memory as among the greatest shows I've ever seen.
His performance of the original versions of "Sleeping Pills", "President's Test", "LA Is My Woman" (later, "In The Shadow Of The Valley"), "Can You Help Me" (introduced at one show as "My Life Is A Little Fluffy Pillow If Only You Believe"), "I Broke My Promise", "Cape Canaveral" and "Hello Amsterdam" stood among his greatest body of work ......and eventually his most mis-served.
"Well, they had to be arranged for a five-piece band," he explains, "People tell me they like me solo; then they turn around and tell me they like me better with the band. They tell me I suck now. I'm in the indefensible position, because I'm the prick. One of the members was very concerned (with "President's Test"). Originally it was about a journalist and he said to me - and this is a quote - "Who the fuck cares what some welterweight rock star thinks about his sad little life being interviewed?" And you know, he actually had a good point, because I tend to be kinda pretentious and overbearing in interviews about my poor sad life. Which really ain't that bad. So, the song lost its feeling."
The band holed up with Joe Chicarelli, preparing what was meant to be their big breakthrough.
"Yeah," agrees Eitzel, "San Francisco was meant to be our major selling record, and, of course, no one bought it. It's like every year I think we draw 10 more people to like us. I decided that when I retire next year, I'm going to play one show every year and have a hundred people give me a thousand dollars each. And you know what? I wouldn't attract a single person."
At the time of San Francisco however, Eitzel had a different take. In an interview with him just before its release, I asked what the chances of him doing an all-acoustic album.
Eitzel: "I don't think that'll ever happen. In fact I doubt it. Because by the time I'm done making albums with AMC, I think I'll be done making albums."
"Oh it's like the Brotherhood of Man?"
"No, it's like we have a six or seven album deal with Warner Bros.!"
I mention this to him now and he laughs. After all, lawyers have squared away a deal and given him the chance to make a clean break as a solo act.
"Now I have these lower budgets, and I can do what I want," he says, happily. "I know this record (60 Watt) probably won't sell nothing. But I like it a lot. It didn't cost me as much to make. So, maybe Warner Bros. will keep me on because I really like Warner Bros. I want to keep making records. The ultimate goal is to just keep making music."
And as for the impossibility of that all-acoustic solo album?
"This one was going to be all acoustic, but I'm doing one for Matador Records, and that will probably be all acoustic. When I get some time off I'll probably record it in one of two ways, I'll either go to New York City and record it in a studio with two musicians, who I can't name yet 'cos I don't know if they want to do it, you wouldn't have heard of them anyway. Or I'm going to get some gear, and I'm going to get in my car and drive down to the Grand Canyon, and record it in a motel room."
Which leads to the point that Eitzel has finally realized a way to simply get his songs out there.
"I don't like to sit on them 'cos I lose interest in them, and I rewrite them and they're not the same," he admits. "60 Watt is what I wanted it to be. But halfway through, I suddenly thought it wasn't what i wanted it to be. Since then, I've written this other record to just sort of reply to that record. It will be solo acoustic. Or else it will be someone playing a drum and my acoustic guitar. I think what I'm going to do from now on is tone everything down - not work with anyone, but just do it myself."
Which doesn't mean he's ruled out working with his old bandmates.
"I try to explain that a good fifty percent of it comes down to money. You have people with wives and children, and they deserve to be paid, but....there's no more money. We weren't successful. We didn't sell any records. We were a cult band until the end. It was stupid, but that's what we were."
"I had one of the best bands in the whole world," he opines. "I think what I'm doing is burying myself. I hate people in great bands who go solo and then they suck. I think that's going to happen to me. I think 'Do I suck now?'"
So, where does 60 Watt Silver Lining fit in?
"That whole album was a transition for songwriting," says Eitzel. "I spent a lot of time not writing choruses. 'Wild Sea' is like that. I kinda tried to explode my songwriting, so I didn't have to write three verses or with any firm rhythm in mind. I wanted to improvise. Once you're in a studio, musicians have a hard time going for it unless everyone is really high on dope. And I never have any dope in the studio - or anywhere else for that matter, he said for the record." He laughs.
Eitzel shakes his head. "At least I didn't try to sing in tune! I tried to keep it loose and free. It's actually more of a Chet Baker-contemporary jazz, hip-hop crossover record." He laughs.
But the changes are deeper than just music. Eitzel has look of someone who's spent enough time on the road wearing and tearing to know that music doesn't just change at whim. It changes because your life changes; because the world you once believed to be a certain way is actually not that world.
Eitzel agrees. "I think it's because I got a car. I'm 35, and now I've got my own car. So it's like,'Don't fuck with me!'"