Contrast - Winter 1988
American Music Club
Date: Winter 1988
Mark Eitzel is an asshole. He'll tell you that. But then he'd probably say anything to denigrate himself and his band, American Music Club. Never mind that Engine, their second and most recent LP, is one of the best of 87 - Eitzel, AMC's lead singer and songwriter, will be contrary. That's just his way.
The group's name is a classic case of Eitzel's chronic self-effacement. "It's horrible," he says, "but it stuck because we couldn't think of anything more generic." And generic is the last word to describe American Music Club. Against the backdrop of brooding ballads and rough-edged rockers, Eitzel's deep, unbridled vocals map out a desolate vision of loneliness, sex and death.The naked emotion of his voice, combined with haunting melodies and highly evocative, personal lyrics, create AMC's sublime and uneasy music.
The first time I saw the San Francisco-based quartet left nearly as indelible an impression, but for completely different reasons. Last August at the Music Machine, AMC roared on gloriously while Eitzel repeatedly threw himself down on his knees, dropped the mic, and careened about the stage wildly. It was quite overwhelming, but seemingly at odds with American Music Club's personal, brutally honest lyrics. Is it an act or for real?
"Sometimes I'm just singing and suddenly I'm on the floor, and then I'm happy because then I'm getting somewhere, even if the only thing I'm getting is a puerile, preadolescent urge to fall on the floor in front of other people," says Eitzel in an interview the day after AMC's recent show at Club Lingerie.
"And I don't know if it's for real. I don't think so. I would lay odds that it's just nothing but a phony manipulation of the audience to try and make them think that I'm really feeling something," he continues, adding in typically self-depreciating fashion, "as opposed to true manipulation of the audience. And that's probably why AMC has never gotten anywhere, because I've never truly manipulated that audience. I've only done it in the most phony, the most bombastic, the most...."
Eitzel isn't the easiest person to understand. Throughout the interview he edits his thoughts mid-sentence and later contradicts himself. Maybe he was trying to capture the truth of the moment. Maybe it was a defense mechanism. Maybe he was just putting me on. One thing was clear, however: no matter the subject, Eitzel cares a lot about what he has to say.
"That thing about the stage is just, for me, a stage is a place where anything can happen."
Punk was a primary influence on Eitzel's decision to pick up a guitar and pen. Born in Walnut Creek, California, Eitzel lived overseas as a kid.He spent ten years in England and was in high school there during the punk explosion in the late 70's.
"I never would have opened my mouth in front of a group of people if I hadn't seen The Adverts and The Damned do it,"he says."I wrote my first song the same night I saw them.I didn't sleep all night,I was so excited.It was fuckin' great and that's still a big part of it.You get up on stage, you start with no preconceptions, and you do the simplest, dumbest thing you can think of and it's perfect."
On the other hand, Eitzel will tell you that what American Music Club does is not so simple; they're trying real hard:
"The best review we got said that this album (Engine) is sprawling and pretentious as fuck, and he's right. I've got to apologise; I do constantly to the the band, but I try really hard to be honest and that may be why it might be slightly dishonest."
After he returned to the US, Eitzel lived in Columbus,Ohio for three years.He played in several bands there, including a punk band, The Cowboys, and The Naked Skinnies.He then moved to San Francisco and formed American Music Club with Vudi, who had played guitar with The Farmers, an experimental jazz/punk group. AMC had it's share of problems - there have been a series of drummers, and at one point the band was tricked into moving to Germany for four months. On their "world tour" the band played a total of two gigs. Allegedly, there have been three editions of American Music Club, including all-acoustic and all electric versions.
The current line-up, which alternates between the two modes, includes Dan Pearson on bass and Tom Mallon, who was inducted to play drums this year while producing Engine. Their first album, The Restless Stranger ,also produced by Mallon, was released in 1985. Eitzel now claims that he can't stand the album, although the band still performs a couple of songs from it. The record is uneven but its best moments ("Room Above The Club" and "Tell Yourself") anticipate the power of Engine. While the writing on The Restless Stranger is a bit scattered, its successor is the focused work of a mature artist.
Columbus, Ohio served as Eitzel's major source of inspiration for the material on Engine. "Clouds", in which he sings about people with "shotguns and transparent skin" who'll "stand around my grave," addresses the east side of Columbus - a wasteland of freeways and suburbs where people are waiting to die.
"It's fine; you have the satellite dish and you have your pastel colours to wear, you have your K-Mart, and you have all kind of superstores all around and you have your job, and you just hate and you hate and you hate and you hate and then you die. It's a beautiful thing."
In reference to "Nightwatchman" Eitzel mentions a revelation he had one night sitting on the steps of his house in Ohio.
"There was a stormy sky - the sky was beautiful. You look down from the sky and everything is stupid. Everything is a waste; everything is asleep and dead. And I looked up at the sky and it seemed like the sky was trying to say something to me. If nobody could hear the pain up there ,if there was nobody to witness, then the world is completely and utterly desolate."
As you may expect, much of American Music Club's material is moody and rather downcast. Does Eitzel write only when he's depressed or is he depressed in general?
"I just love to revel in my own crap, I guess. I think about morbid things all the time," he replies. "I've always loved sad songs and songs that were about nebulous subjects."
"Sometimes on stage I'm in the middle of singing these lines and suddenly I stop and go 'God, Mark, these people don't want to hear this stuff, and you don't want to hear this stuff.' But what can I do? That's the kind of music I love so that's what I write, although sometimes it is a little overwhelming. But that's how I set myself up - life's too short to hide. And sometimes you've gotta take the risk of changing your life, changing yourself. So sometimes these songs are like brutality against myself just to get me somewhere."
Indeed, AMC completed its first tour of America in October. Hitting about 13 cities, the band embarked on a unique tour of record stores and a few club dates. While performing electric at clubs ,they became an acoustic band at record stores. In these performances, the band's folkie side emerges. Vudi straps on an accordion. Pearson plays a mandolin and even sings Carter Family covers. It's a schizophrenic arrangement, they admit, and they talk about someday melding the electric with the acoustic.
But you never know what to expect from American Music Club.The week before the Lingerie show, Eitzel quit and then rejoined the band. Yeah, you could say he's unpredictable, but he shows signs of attempting to be more positive.
Says Eitzel "I'm trying to get way from writing about sex and death and into dreams and fantasies," he says, laughing.
"Like Olivia Newton-John," suggests Vudi.
"Yeah, like Olivia Newton John. Exactly like her."