Option - September/October 1988
American Music Club
Author: Andrea Freeman
Date: September/October 1988
He's been called an asshole and an Ian Curtis suckoff; his music's been likened to Morrissey, Peter Gabriel, R.E.M, and Springsteen. Singer/songwriter Mark Eitzel knows a lot of people don't know what to make of him. His second album with American Music Club ,Engine, likewise defies consistent representation: it's "celestial", "garage grunge", "a distant cousin of Born To Run". American Music Club lead guitarist Vudi points out that if you take a thick black pen and draw a line connecting the eyebrows on the cover of Tunnel Of Love, you actually come up with a pretty good Mark Eitzel likeness. Such disparate comparisons meet their match in Eitzel himself. He is as disparaging as he is confident, as friendly as he is withdrawn.
"At age 14, when I first started playing the guitar, I figured it would be dishonest if I didn't write songs about my own experience", says Eitzel, who at the same age was toying with the idea of being a comedian or a jazz singer. American Music Club sets seem to be conditioned by Eitzel's changes of heart. His songwriting spans comedy and moroseness - from the playful, drunken "Gary's Song" to the gloomy and poignant "This Year" to the undignified "Bad Liquor". What binds the ordeal together is Eitzel's moody brand of honesty.
And so, watching Eitzel perform is not easy. In his first show ever, he opened as a solo act for a high school band while his family was stationed in England. "It was a joke. I had bad songs about masturbating, and it ended up being embarrassing for everyone, horrifying". Eitzel also recalls being banned from the punk hangout Mabuhay Gardens years later, when he and his band The Naked Skinnies relocated from Columbus, Ohio to San Francisco.
"We were a great band in one sense, because we considered ourselves artists trying to make supremely pretty music. We thought we were going to make it big in San Francisco. We were brilliant that night. We cleared the club."
One person didn't leave: Vudi ,who told Mark that night that he wanted to work with him, became Eitzel's lead guitarist. Now there's American Music Club. An AMC show on any given night can be reminiscent of such earlier, glorious disasters. To say that Eitzel croons and flails his way through a set is to underrepresent the force of his presentation.
The more modest personal styles of guitarist Vudi, drummer Tom Mallon, and bassist/vocalist Dan Pearson nevertheless provide a backdrop of solid musical accompaniment. Together, they power through songs from the band's first two albums (Restless Stranger on Grifter and Engine on Frontier), and shed light on what's to come with a balance on new material. Then, almost suddenly, AMC switches gears and instruments for the acoustic part of the set. Eitzel on guitar is now backed by accordion, violin and mandolin. Rock shares the stage with the more subtle tones of country, folk and blues.
"The acoustic stuff happened when we lost our original drummer in 1986", Eitzel explains."We were listening to people like Nick Drake, Van Morrison and Neil Young at the time. Since we didn't have a drummer, we figured we could try to play some prettier songs by doing an acoustic set". "It's a lot harder to do than our regular set",adds Eitzel. "You can't get drunk and get way with it. You have to sing, you can't scream. It's also a lot harder to listen to, 'cos you're forced to pay attention".
At one point, Eitzel went so far as to quit AMC. "There were a lot of different reasons for it. We had just come off the first tour, I stopped drinking for two days, and I needed a break. I was thinking about changing my life. What pushed me over the edge was a show we were supposed to do for a record store in San Francisco. The owner decided she was too tired and didn't want to put it together. All of a sudden that kind of tiredness was the root of all evil. She let me and everyone down at a time when I was feeling like I didn't want to have to depend on people like that. No one was sure where to reach me after that night".
Three weeks later, Eitzel resurfaced. "I realized that the band was the best thing I had going for me.It was the one thing holding me together. And those guys really wanted me to come back".
Finding good local management has not been AMC's strong point. "A manager represents you, and how do you find someone to represent you when you're four guys who don't give a fuck?" asks Eitzel. "Take our acoustic sets, for example. They're not exactly fashionable, but it's what we want to be doing. I've been to the big record industry parties, and I can survive in all that b.s, but ultimately it's a waste of time. That's not to say I'm not interested in people hearing our music. But the bans I respect the most are the ones who are clearly doing what they want to do. If they get famous in the meantime, great. That's why I don't really like people telling me how much they like the band, because I don't deserve to be liked for doing the only thing I know how to do. It's too easy to write the songs. The hard part is trying to survive as a musician."