Guitar Player - December 1991
A Guitar Band Without Heroes
Publication: Guitar Player
Author: L.A. Kantor
Date: December 1991
American Music Club's Mark Eitzel can paint a pretty bleak musical landscape. He's an intensely, sometimes embarrassingly honest writer, his songs revisiting the kinds of places most of us would just as soon as forget - the tear-stained-of-the corner barroom, the recurring drunken scene round a kitchen table, or, most frighteningly, memory itself, where these episodes play themselves out over and over again. Imagine the intensity of rock and roll minus the irony, the melodrama of country music without the clever musical or lyrical quip. At their best, that's the American Music Club.
Alone on stage with a strummed acoustic guitar, Eitzel can be a riveting performer, naked and a bit terrifying. It's hard to tell where the theatrics end and Eitzel begins - or if there is a line at all. But Eitzel is most effective with his band, where his jangly if slightly droning acoustic parts mesh with the liquid lines of Bruce Kaphan's pedal steel and the haunting ,feedbacky atmospherics of lead guitarist Vudi. Together, these disparate sounds create a vivid, almost cinematic backdrop for Eitzel's mood-spinning portraits of drunkenness and emotional disintegration.
A song like "Miracle On 8th Street" from AMC's latest release Everclear, is a good example of the band at its most affecting. "We'll turn the brandy into beer/Later they'll say what a miracle," sings Eitzel, his gentle, picky acoustic line illuminated by Kaphan's sweet pedal steel accents. In the meantime, Vudi is hanging back, laying down a quiet wash of feedback that sounds like wind rushing across a darkened alley at night. You can practically see the flickering neon, smell the oil cooling in pools of rain.
"In this group you can't have things too defined when it comes to guitars," says Vudi. "Hopefully the bass player and the drummer (Dan Pearson and Tim Mooney) will do something that's meaty and consistent and groovy. We just have to go with whatever the voice is doing on top of the song at the moment."
In the American Music Club, all the instruments work to highlight the dramatic aspects of Eitzel's strangely angelic vocals. While there are plenty of tasty musical breaks, these sections are almost always fleeting and restrained, serving the needs of the song rather than the ego of the guitarist. AMC is a guitar band without guitar heroes.
Vudi, for example, doesn't even like to solo. "Mainly I just try to add texture and serve the songs," he says. "And every now and again I play a wild solo. But usually only when it's asked of me, because I'd just as soon not play a wild solo. It's nice on a recording, I suppose, but live it's just embarrassing."
Instead, alternating between a Fender rosewood Telecaster with EMG Strat pickups and a Gibson steel-string acoustic, Vudi concentrates on laying down shimmering, ocean-sized beds of sound. An amazingly versatile player, he can come on either dense or skeletal, at home with great feedback washes as well as tasty, country-inflected licks. With a light touch, plenty of amplification, and a fondness for his whammy bar, Vudi is responsible for much of AMC's moodiness.
"Usually I don't have to play very hard," he says, "so there's not a lot of attack. The sound comes from playing really softly and using a lot of amplification."
He runs his guitars through a Roland DEP-5 signal processor and a MESA/Boogie Mark 3 amplifier.
"As far as conventional guitar players go, Vudi has a real strange left hand," says Bruce Kaphan. "He tends to reach farther than the average guitar player to use really close intervals, and that's part of why he gets such a big shimmering sound. It stems from his playing, not just his use of effects."
Kaphan himself has a pretty idiosyncratic approach. These days, when pedal steel seems to do little more than provide a signifier for country music, Kaphan prefers to explore the spectrum of emotions the instrument can evoke. His sound tends to be large and haunting, fraught with ominous echoes, bearing little resemblance to the sickly sweet Nashville-isms most closely identified with the instrument.
"When I play a country gig, I sound like a country player," he says, "But I've just had so much reaction in the past to playing pedal steel in other than country music. No matter what I play, people say, 'That sounds like country music.' I don't want to hear that. I'm being really intentional about trying to make the pedal steel not sound like a pedal steel in this band."
It's not surprising that Kaphan would find himself a home in AMC. Eitzel's favorite subjects - barrooms and breakups, drink and lost love - are almost stereotypically American, and his songs combine down-home rootsiness with modern, Joy Division-style drones. The drones stem largely from Eitzel's detuned Takamine acoustic.
Intrigued with the resonating, droning sounds and the expanding range of possibilities that open tunings afford him. He generally plays in open D, open G and open D-suspended.
"I found my sogs were too predictable sounding on regular tuning," he says. "If I detuned it, I wouldn't know what the fuck was happening, and I liked that. You end up coming up with really strange stuff."
"Besides," he continues, "music sounds more sonorous when the tones drone. It expands the palette; you get all these strange colors. A lot of the songs I write are only one chord anyway. Usually it's just that one chord that catches my ear and makes me feel something in connection with what I'm singing about."
Like other American guitar bands - The Gun Club & Green On Red come to mind - AMC are as popular in Europe as they are obscure in their own contry. In England, for example, Eitzel is revered by the music press as a kind of modern folk hero. The band recently returned from a quick mini-tour of Britain, where they headlined the prestigious Reading Festival, playing to an enthusiastic crowd of more than 4,000. Now they hope to duplicate this success in America. And after a decade of struggling, it appears that AMC might finally get their chance.
Everclear is close to selling out its initial printing of 10,000, and the first single "Rise" is receiving commercial radio play. There's even some vague talk of major label interest. And if that's not enough, even Mark Eitzel, that unrelenting pessimist, seems hopeful: "If Tracy Chapman or REM can go to #1, or Sonic Youth can crack the top 40, then there's hope for bands like us."