NME - September 1994
American Excess? That'll Do Nicely
Author: Ian McCann
Date: September 1994
Laughing Boy and Giggle Puss are smirking, their mad, mature eyes casting around the room - a modest office overlooking a picturesque London canal - and occasionally meeting to exchange a look that might be cynical, ironic or simply saying, "Are you stark staring bonkers?"
They know each other intimately. Giggle Puss doesn't say much but when he does, it may be to offer Laughing Boy his opinion, such as "Bullshit!" Laughing Boy does not seemed worried about this. They're having the times of their lives at what, by rock 'n roll standards, is a somewhat advanced age.
Laughing Boy is 35-ish, and Giggle Puss hit 40 some time back. Yet not only are they critically feted as the greatest songwriters of their generation, but they're potential MTV stars. They compose songs for everyone. After all, doesn't everyone have birthdays ('It's Your Birthday')? Won't the people of Holland be cheered by ('Hello Amsterdam')? And won't ('Can You Help Me') rekindle the golden era of pop and The Beatles' 'Help'? The future can only be bright for American Music Club.
"We opened for Pearl Jam in front of 35,000 people," says Laughing Boy, more usually known as Mark Eitzel, singer songwriter, and (wrongly) assumed Most Miserable Man in Pop.
"We drove them crazy," spurts Giggle Puss, aka Vudi, a dryly amusing fellow who sometimes gives the impression he'd rather be somewhere other than listening to the ramblings of Mark Eitzel. He can get that shit any time.
"They loved it," confirms Mark, "but I know they don't remember who we were. They're probably like..." Mr. Eitzel adopts a dumb American mainstream rock dude voice. "....Those older dudes were really mad."
Vudi plays Butt-Head: "Yeah it was weird, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings came on before Pearl Jam..."
Beavis: "Yeah, they were really upset about something. They were rockin', but they were really mad. Like my dad gets mad like that and I freak out, man..."
The pair are wracked with laughter but it's a serious joke. How do you communicate the wonders of American Music Club to the grunge kids? Especially when all the world ever hears about them is that they sound like like Kurt Cobain had taken the right option and that they drink buckets. It has been a long, slow process for a band with (pre-goatee generation) beards and hats. Hats! Beards! Weird!
They spent years on indie labels before landing the big band-saving deal at Virgin. And even then they almost gave up after being pipped at the post by Soundgarden for A&M's megabucks.
"They were right," shrugs a wry Vudi. "Who would you sign if you were A&M, Soundgarden or us?"
Soundgarden everytime. Mark wouldn't. He'd sign Skid Row.
"If you're gonna be a rocker, be a dumb one. It's more honest. If I could be a rocker that could be successful just by taking my shirt off, I'd do it. And I'd just do covers." He looks at an incredulous Vudi. "I would. I'm ham enough."
"Yeah," chortles the guitarist. "You could be Sebastian Bach."
"Hey, no problem. He's OK. He's cool. I'd love to be Sebastian fucking Bach. I'd love to have a name like that."
Sebastian Bach went to public school: he's no dumb rocker
"I thought he was just a dirt head from New Jersey!" splutters Vudi. "Poncey public school wanker!"
"Hey, I went to public school!" yells Mark. "People called me that! I was a complete geek. I wanted to be Harold Pinter. And an architect."
Pinter. Architecture. The perfect metaphors for the angst filled agonies that are the muse of Mark Eitzel and his surely ironically-titled band American Music Club. Hear those ringing, torn-from-the-soul guitars. Those unfashionable dreary tempos. The bleak depths of their production. The broken sobs of Mark's voice. The desperation of Mark's lyrics as his friends in San Francisco (title of the new album and AMC's hometown) get struck down by AIDS, alcohol, smack or indifference. Yes, it's all there, Pinter and architecture, twin Doric columns of the Eitzel building. There is another way of looking at it.
"The other night we were in LA driving an Accura Vigor," says Vudi.
"An Accura Vigor. Black," confirms Mark,"....down the Pacific Coast Highway," continues Vudi. "And Norman Greenbaum came on: 'Spirit in the Sky'."
"Oh man!" screams Mark. "Oh! It was like so good. Soooooo good. It was everything you ever wanted God and love and religion to be."
"Punchy, drivin' rock 'n roll sound," says Butt-Head.
"Mean, totally meeeeeen," thrusts Beavis.
"It was amazing, it feathered out to become almost...almost doom-laden," struggles Butt-Head.
"It was incredible".
"It changed us."
Cars and rock. That's what modern rock 'n roll is all about: motors, and itself. Preferably together. And American Music Club are one of the perfect modern rock 'n roll bands. Even if they don't write about cars. Or rock. But get a load of their atmosphere. You can feel the moment in every song. And it's a forgotten art, that ability to get a moment down on record.
There's a reason for this: by the time the average band has finished making a track, it's no longer a moment, but several months tinkering in the studio. The inspiration - gunning the engine and pushing the graphic booster up to "blow the doors off" - is long forgotten.
American Music Club somehow manage to retain the moment. Every song sounds like it belongs in a place and time rather than a soundproof booth. After seven albums they sound fresher than almost any other contemporary American rock band. In fact, you might argue they are the true successors to the gleaming guitar and folky-pop brilliance of The Loving Spoonful. (Who coincidentally, were produced by the same man who produced Greenbaum, Eric Jacobson, a friend of AMC.)
American Music Club? Those miseries sound like The Loving Spoonful? Not exactly, and Mark is clearly someone who could paint a room black with whitewash, but this isn't the 60's. We're not in a time of eternal youth and optimism. And isn't the best pop laden with the angst of outsiders? (You can't simultaneously be a rock star and a dustman.) But if you're talking about the ability to communicate a moment in time in a direct manner - be it a happy or wall-climbing one - then American Music Club are every bit the equal of anyone. You can hear their times in their records.
"That's the only thing that matters, and it's taken us years to understand it," says Mark. "Because we're so fuckin' intellectual in this band, everybody in the band can play thousands of instruments except me."
"Aw, you're not so bad," sympathises Vudi, perhaps ironically.
"No, I'm the dumb one. But it's a stylistic thing. I just don't wanna think about it (musicianship). My favorite things in rock are when you hear something and it's either 'Yeahhh!' or it's shit."
That's just as well, because that's how the majority of fans view music.
"What a record company gives you money for is something that 15-year olds think doesn't suck," reckons Mark.
Everyone assumes indie bands signing to Majors is a bad thing but even the classics are sponsored sell-outs. Nobody complains when they look up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Yet Michaelangelo gave the Virgin of his day - the Catholic Church - what their worshippers didn't think sucked. Handel's 'Water Music' was written for King George 1, who didn't think it sucked.
King George: "Huh huh huh huh...Handel is cool. Bach sucks."
"Yeah, I've done grunge, whatever you wanna say," says Handel. Actually it was Mark Eitzel. AMC is not yet in the position where 30,000 people pay to see them, and they're not sure how they'd cope.
But, says Mark, "I've been around the block a few times .Even if I'm in a foul mood, I remember how to say 'Hello'."
So you're not Eddie Vedder.
"They've got their heads screwed on incredibly well," says Vudi.
"That's right," affirms Mark,. "They whine and bitch and complain, but when we played with them they practised the whole time, they treated us like gods, we were paid well, their crew was cool."
"Their whole thing is music," says Vudi. "They're the biggest corporate rock band in America, yet they're just guys off the street who want to play."
They may be careerist, but to the MTV generation they don't suck.
"We try to be careerist, but we can't. Maybe we just suck," Mark muses. He's in Beavis mode again.
"Beavis and Butt-Head are the only critics that matter in America, maybe the world, because that's who music appeals to. It sucks or it doesn't."
"It sucks or it rules," corrects Vudi.
"It sucks or it rules," agrees Mark. "It's horrifying. For me, I just want the songs to be... transcendent."
Transcendent? That sucks. But even if Laughing Boy and Giggle Puss are no more sure of it than Beavis And Butt-Head, American Music Club rule.