Bucketful Of Brains - April/May 1989
American Music Club
Publication: Bucketful Of Brains (#29)
Author: Jon Storey
Date: April/May 1989
Mark Eitzel, singer/guitarist and songwriter of American Music Club, hurls himself backwards in his chair, rolling his eyes and groaning - and all I did was ask him about a Columbus band called The Cowboys. "How did you find out about THAT" he gasps, seemingly mortified that I've dragged that skeleton out of his closet. Simple really, I read the Demon/Frontier band biography and did a modicum of research.
"It was awful....'Teenage Life' was like white reggae" he recalls with a pained expression like I've just kicked him in the balls. But then, as I was to discover, Eitzel doesn't say much to recommend any of the records he's been involved with over the last decade ,including the two most recent, and widely acclaimed American Music Club LPs Engine and ]]California]].
Like R.E.M's Michael Stipe, Mark Eitzel is the son of an army family. Consequently, he spent much of his youth in transit - living in Japan, China & France before arriving in the UK in time to witness - and enjoy - the onset of the new wave in the mid 70's (The Adverts and The Damned were particularly inspirational). During this period he began to learn the guitar and sing. In 1978 Eitzel relocated to Columbus, Ohio where he joined the aforementioned punk band The Cowboys.Having recorded their sole single, the band split.
Eitzel, apparently THE kingpin punk-about-town, set about forming another band, The Naked Skinnies (Eitzel on guitar and vocals, Nancy Kangas: organ; John Hricko: bass; & Greg Bonnell: drums.) Like The Cowboys, the band managed to produce one 7" single - featuring "All My Life" and "This Is The Beautiful Night", it was released in 1981. When pushed, Eitzel would admit reluctantly that, maybe,"Beautiful Night" really wasn't that bad a song....
By this time Columbus' number one punk had decided that being a big fish in a small and conservative pool (he estimates that there was a total 20 hard core of 20 punks in the town) wasn't the be all and end all of life. Taking the Naked Skinnies with him, he decided to move on to the West Coast, to San Francisco. Eventually though, the Skinnies split (being banned from playing venues like the Mabuhay Gardens for driving away the customers didn't help their cause).
Eitzel continued to play the clubs again, although hardly the most salubrious ones - recalling flophouses in S.F's tenderloin area where the audience might well consist almost exclusively of winos crashed out around the walls and it wasn't heard of to encounter a body, lying bleeding in the street, on the way to the gig. During this period, as Eitzel played with a revolving body of musicians (sometimes up to ten people on the stage), alternating between acoustic and electric formats, the seeds of American Music Club were sown. Like R.E.M, the band claim the name has no significance - it's just a convenient handle.
The AMC line up solidified, in 1984, to include Eitzel, bassist Dan Pearson (another punk veteran, his earlier bands were Snot and The Ironics, the latter got as far as releasing some obscure records), drummer Matt Norelli & guitarist Vudi (who, like Mark, had spent time in Asia - studying Javanese and Balinese music - and had most recently been in an experimental jazz/punk band called The Farmers).
Along the way, Eitzel's unpredictable stage demeanor (often he'd hurl the equipment, and himself around as if exorcising some inner demon - he has been known to assault a member of the audience physically - although Eitzel described himself to me as "a wimp" and the unfortunate victim constituted almost the entire audience...discounting the comatose winos, etc) had attracted the attention of Tom Mallon, now boss of local indie label, Grifter.
Via Grifter, AMC recorded and released a debut album (in fact the label's first LP), Restless Stranger which also featured newly acquired keyboard player Brad Johnson (who had previously played bass with an earlier incarnation of the group).
As, by now, expected, Eitzel has little to say about the album - dismissing it as not very good, not keen on the keyboards and certainly not on a par with the band's later albums.
All I can say is that Eitzel must have ridiculously high standards when judging his own (band's) work, because there are some excellent songs here, specifically the hypnotic and deceptively gorgeous ballad "Room Above The Club" and the bleak and monolithic "Point Of Desire" featuring Vudi's clamorous feedback guitar (not unlike the dark, brooding numbers on the Dream Syndicate's Medicine Show).
What is most remarkable here is the sheer intensity of Eitzel's vocal delivery and a terminally pessimistic outlook in the lyrics, where wishing wells are there to be pissed in and sunny days are spent on the verge of tears (still, Leonard Cohen and Richard Thompson never did have a monopoly on doom and gloom). Musically the album shifts between raging rock ("When Your Love Is Gone") and stark acoustic guitar and voice ("Hold Onto Your Love") and despite Eitzel's comments, the keyboards aren't too intrusive.
In hindsight, the record isn't as consistent as Engine or California, but it is unusually mature for a debut album and now way should be dismissed. Possibly, Eitzel's nomadic childhood had some bearing on this constant self-denigration; at one point in our conversation he reveals he was often regarded as little more than a dumb Yank by the local kids, which probably did little for his self esteem and may well have been partially responsible for his retreat behind this defensive screen.
With the album recorded, AMC (minus Brad, who left to play in a lounge band) moved en masse to Germany where a friend had convinced them that the musical situation was healthier and held out the promise of gigs and further recording opportunities.
Unfortunately, most of this turned out to be little more than hot air and the band only played a couple of gigs - though Eitzel recalls that at least they had the luxury of being "full time musicians", albeit poverty stricken ones, and that, for the first time he can remember ,their rehearsal hall wasn't shared with cockroaches!
Finally running out of money completely, AMC returned to the States in early '86. In the meantime,Restless Stranger had received a fair degree of critical acclaim. Despite the drawbacks, the trip seems in the long run to have paid off - allowing the band to develop their sound - and their next album, Engine shows a marked improvement on their debut. Finally finished in early '87, the album was delayed due to an accident to Eitzel's hand - shut in a car door - and drummers, there are at least three on the record; producer Tom Mallon finally solved the problem - fed up with the band whinging he took over the drum seat himself.
Eitzel might be singing about wanting to destroy the world and turning love into violence on "At My Mercy" but who can resist being carried along by the sweeping rock attack of the band? Even better is the superb "Clouds", a magnificently full-bodied song with an odd but captivating chorus - "Here they come, they've got shotguns and transparent skin"; it's a deserved highlight of the band's live set too, guaranteed to raise the temperatures about 10 degrees, with the lyrics expelling themselves, in a lung-bursting rush, from Eitzel's lips - with an irresistible force like the Alien busting out of that poor unfortunate's stomach in the classic sci-fi horror movie. Awesome,really. Whilst most of the tracks are powerful and electric, lashed by Vudi's vicious reverb-doused lead guitar, "Gary's Song" reveals AMC branching out into lighter sounding Country territory - though the lyrics still have a sting in the tail ("If you drink to much you will drown, and the shame of my life is watching you drown").
Despite the bleak themes and bitter lyrics, Engine is a rich and rewarding album, rather than just the province of a manic depressive, and well worthy of your attention.
During their first tour, in October 1987, the band combined electric sets at regular clubs with appearances at record stores- when they would play folk oriented material (including Carter Family covers) with acoustic instruments, mandolin & accordion. The subsequent (and most recent) album California reflects a move towards simpler, less dense, acoustic-flavoured songs - though usually no less harrowing than before. This is a direction Eitzel says he has been keen to pursue - also revealing that English singer/songwriter (and suicide) Nick Drake is now one of his favorite artists.
On California, more than ever, the spotlight is fixed fast on Eitzel's voice with Vudi's burning lead guitar largely absent - only really to the fore on "Somewhere" and the stop-go "Bad Liquor", a sole excursion into rough-house rock, but adds tortured outbursts to the chilling soundscape of "Highway 5" and great reverberating washes on "Pale Skinny Girl".
In one of his darker moods Richard Thompson sang that "there's nothing at the end of the rainbow", but on California's sleeve, American Music Club suggest an even bleaker conclusion: here the rainbow takes the form of a decayed monochromatic archway disintegrating amongst a dreary desolate landscape. The point, though, is that these bitter pills of songs are beautifully set in gorgeous melodies and illuminated by superb instrumentation (listen to the sweet steel guitar on "Firefly" as Eitzel asks his pretty baby "are you waiting for loneliness to paralyze, are you waiting for Sister Midnight to anesthetize") and thus all the easier to absorb. Even so, I would suggest that by virtue of it's low-key approach the album is not as accessible as Engine; nevertheless it is an equally moving and darkly graceful record.
Bleak and beautiful, pessimistic but pretty, lonely but loud, American Music Club are a series of contradictions and one of the most intriguing American bands of the late 80s. Having listened to their records you may indeed agree with Mark Eitzel that "you don't want me to touch you, you just want me to shut up, you don't want me to keep thinking" ("Lonely") but you'll be doing yourself a disservice, and missing out on some fabulous music, if you take the easy option and dismiss these records out of hand.