NME - December 2, 1989
Author: Simon Williams
Date: December 2, 1989
A European tour isn’t the most predictable event a band could wish for. One night you could be enthralling a captivated audience in a humble German bar. The next evening you might be faced with a French crowd so apathetic and lacklustre it’s teetering on the very brink of dying from boredom.
Mark Eitzel, leader of American Music Club, is fully aware of the performance pitfalls – he’s still mulling over a disastrous booking blunder a week previous, when his outfit found themselves in a Norwegian nightclub.
“We weren’t giving the audience what they wanted,” admits Mark. “Right next door was this huge disco playing Michael Jackson and lots of bad rap music. Every time we finished a song, one person would clap sarcastically and there’d be nothing but ‘I’m bad, I’m bad’ coming from next door. It was horrifying. We drove that audience away after the first song, they weren’t even there.
“Everyone was drunk, they were all 19 and doing the mating dance, and who can blame them? They’d probably paid a lot of money to get in on a Friday night and the fucking band wouldn’t play them a Metallica song!”
And why wouldn’t American Music Club attempt to appease the punters? Why didn’t they adapt, just for an easier life?
“Because we’re not rock ’n’ roll. Every time I hear a one-two-three-four rock beat I get really sad. I mean, why bother playing that kinda shit? You’re not communicating anything, you’re just rocking the crowd, and the crowd is stupid enough to wanna rock. The kind of music we play is geared for who we are, and we’re all 30-ish people, y’know? What can we do about it? We just don’t play rock.”
Mark Eitzel is a man of many contradictions. Just as gigs go from awesome to terrible within the space of 24 hours, so the singer swings from black to white within 24 words. That’s fine. A touch confusing, for sure, but it’s OK by me. Particularly when placed in the context of American Music Club, a “dumb kinda” name for a distressingly eloquent collective.
Their new album – their third – is called United Kingdom. It’s Country, it’s blues and, yes, it’s rock ‘n’ roll, simply because it relies on rock’s traditions.
But the rules are discarded, thrown to the wind by Eitzel’s thoroughly inflamed input which infuses even the most banal moments with a disturbing sense of tragedy and loss: “There was so much I had to offer, but now I’m all alone at 4am and all I’ve got is the midnight shivers,” he moans above an unnaturally intense acoustic accompaniment, searching inside and reaching out. Millions would kill to achieve such low key effervescence. Mark is mildly satisfied with the end product.
“I think it’s a good album, it goes by pretty easily,” he shrugs dismissively. “I’m not embarrassed about any part of it like I am about most albums that we make, I’m not embarrassed by my singing.”
That constitutes a pleasant change, as Eitzel is normally unnerved by virtually everything around him. The innocent tape recorder is a cause of much consternation. The questions make him squirm, as though under constant scrutiny, if not siege. On occasion I honestly feel sympathy for his predicament, empathise with his reluctant urge to force himself to speak, to fulfill his interview obligations. Even in this most basic of surroundings, a perversely plush North London drinking hole, Eitzel stands out like a sore thumb on a fingerless hand.
And the situation is nothing new, for just as American Music Club amble far beyond reasonable boundaries, so Eitzel has been perpetually banished to the outer limits, from adolescence – a teenage Yank thrust into British Public School surroundings in Southampton – to adult anarchy in Ohio. “I was the punk monkey there, but I was the wimpy one – the big one did too many drugs and moved to Seattle, so I was the wimpy replacement.”
Now, a pale-faced, balding, self-confessed “geek” immersed in the sun-tanned, beach bum, surf-all-day Nirvana of California, he’s like a fish out of water. But this fish is starting to breathe.
“I’d like to fit into some kind of environment,” he frowns, “but we don’t fit in, we’ve never tried to. I don’t think I could live anywhere else – I’d rather be alone than have people around me.”
This characteristic is another enemy in Eitzel’s desperate battle to communicate with the audience. An integral part of his torture is facing the crowd, forcing himself out of a half-imaginary shell of self-doubt.
“When I’m on stage I have three priorities: firstly, I don’t wanna bore anybody – seriously, there’s a bit of the normal fucking performer in me, which I need because I’m such a geek; secondly, I don’t wanna bore myself; and thirdly, I wanna lose myself in the music. I try to bring myself somewhere else and try to tell the truth. Can you imagine trying to achieve that every night?
“And the assumptions of people are weird, too. Everybody assumes I’m singing about killing myself, but a lot of those songs are about certain things in my life that are over, a lot were written when I was doing nothing but drinking every day, and I don’t do that anymore.
“I get a lot of people shouting, ‘Don’t give up, don’t go away from us!’, and I’m not gonna give up or go away, but this is how I see the world, this is how I feel. I’m probably the strongest, most alive person in the world. I mean, even Kerouac couldn’t kill himself. He tried, he wanted to for years. I don’t have any compassion for that, it’s a stupid thing to do. Suicide isn’t saying anything, it’s just an act of regression against everyone around you, and it’s against your own soul.”
Nor, according to the singer, does American Music Club act as a catalyst for the morbid listener seeking an escape route. Although no Samaritan service, Eitzel’s words are intended to comfort and relieve the onlooker.
“I don’t see my songs as negative at all. Psychological studies have shown that if someone wants to fight, if they watch a boxing match they’ll be happier, they’ll be calmer. Okay, I’m a pretty depressive kind of person, I’ll listen to John Cale or Nick Drake because he says things I understand, and he helps me get on with it.
“I don’t think I’m good enough to romanticise anything, I’m not a good enough manipulator of people, so don’t believe that my records are suicidal. People tell me that all the fucking time, it really frustrates me because I don’t see it that way. I do this music because this is the kind of music I like. And I’m gonna live until I’m 100 years old. And of course I’ll be miserable all 100 years, that’s my prerogative, right? I think tears are more beautiful than people laughing. Laughter is a really ugly thing.”
So Eitzel is dismissive of the business, believes himself incapable of communicating properly, considers himself to be a social disaster and exploits his own insecurities for the sake of American Music Club. But does he believe he’s talented? Can he appreciate just why he is appreciated so much?
“It’s worse than that, it’s much much worse than you can believe,” he confesses, staring glumly into his beer glass. “People would call it egotistical. Even last night I was writing a new song (about a drag queen, a serial killer and a drunk night back home) and it was like, the world was ordering me to write this song so you have to fucking do it.
“I even go so far with these songs as to imagine that I’m destined to say these things, which is actually a real Californian thing. You don’t even know how much I believe in what I do. It even scares me sometimes, because I’m not that good. It’s like, I don’t work hard enough, I don’t read enough: I used to be a really smart kid. I used to be really intelligent. Now I’m just a rock drone, hanging out in Hamburg cafes trying to seem like I’m German. A dumb rock ‘n’ roller – that’s me.”