Ruta 66 - November 1994
How Many Six Packs Does It Take To Screw In A Light?
Publication: Ruta 66
Author: Wendy L. Lee
Date: November 1994
It is difficult to respond to the existential questions raised by Mark Eitzel, a singer normally labeled as 'politely depressed' and the obvious leader of the fairly famous, American Music Club. In this revealing interview, the man known in the context of speaking about pop plagues such as AIDS, denies responsibility for any negative or pessimistic feelings. His roundabout life is no bed of roses, he adduces and for him, there is no other possibility than to be constantly reflective in songs which scratch the deepest emotions.
Amongst other sincere confessions like, ouch! that he was a Supertramp fan and is right now the same person who knows and likes Pearl Jam...
All in all, an irresistible personality, he is the restless poet with an anxious life, whose excellence is already revealed in various songs and to be shown in these pages...
I had been in San Francisco less than 24 hours when I got this mad notion to look up American Music Club's main man, Mark Eitzel. Weren't AMC still based here? A quick flick through the book and I spot M Eitzel (there's only one!) and a corresponding phone number (no street address is given - he obviously values his privacy) and on a whim I give him a call. He sounds quite friendly and approachable over the phone. Stupid ol' me acted like the typical star-struck fan ("Oh-my-God, I can't believe I'm actually talking with Mark Eitzel of American Music Club!!!") I tell him that I'm a writer from New Zealand (he thinks that's where I'm calling from) and would like to conduct an interview with him. We arrange to meet the following day at the Club Latin American on Valencia and 22nd Street in the Mission District. Eitzel tells me that as he is currently 'on the wagon,' it isn't such a good idea for him to be frequenting any bars, but seeing as he knows the guy at the Club L.A., it's OK. He also tells me that AMC are in the midst of rehearsing for an upcoming LP, for which they'll start recording next week in Sausalito, California.
I meet Eitzel the following day at 8:15pm. He is dressed in a rather nondescript manner: brown sweater, black jeans and black leather jacket. A bright green woolen hat covers his thinning hair. The most noticeable feature of his face is his joining eyebrows, which I often associate with people who are quick to take offense and get depressed too easily, thereby creating mental traps for themselves. These eyebrows belong to people whom if success comes, it is unlikely before the age of 35. I introduce myself and we make small talk for a bit, as Eitzel gives me a quick tour of his favorite Mission watering holes. We wind up at this restaurant/coffeehouse/art gallery on the outskirts of the Mission. The following interview took place over Hawaiian crepes, orange juice, strong black coffee and laid-back Spanish music playing in the background...
(NB: this was basically a self-interview, seeing as how I had all the questions prepared and was too busy chowing down...)
WY: Where were you born and raised and what kind of upbringing did you have?
ME: I was born and raised in America, Taiwan and England.
WY: How did you first get interested in music and who made the biggest impressions on you when you were young?
ME: Neil Young, The Doors, The Beatles, Woodstock (both albums)...later on in adolescence, Yes, America, Joan Armatrading and Joni Mitchell.
WY: What was the first record you'll admit to owning?
ME: The first record I ever bought myself, was "Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones" by The Monkees.
WY: What was the first show you saw that made a big impression on you?
ME: That was when I saw the Adverts and the Damned play at Southampton University in 1977, in England.
WY: Were you in any other bands before AMC?
WY: When AMC first started, did you have any ambitions or expectations?
ME: No. AMC has existed in three different versions since 1981. The first version was just a folk version with a stand-up bass and an acoustic player. And that broke and then there was another version which was an electric band, with two background singers and somebody who payed the lid of a car door (?) and a guitar player who played a 'pop' style. And that was no good and that broke up. And this current version I joined because they were as ambitious as me. And I guess that's what I wanted - was to find people who were as serious as I was to be involved in music. And that's what I did. Of course, I didn't think it would take me ten years to get any level of success - but it has.
WY: Do you write all the music and lyrics or is it a democratic process within the band?
ME: I write all the lyrics and music and in terms of music and lyrics, it is not a democratic process.
WY: If so, is there a veto if the band doesn't like a particular song?
ME: Yes. I write a lot of songs that they won't play. They just go, "this sucks."
WY: What happens to the songs? Do they just get shelved?
WY: Do you ever record them?
ME: I have them on my four track. I document them all, for what it's worth.
WY: Are your lyrics autobiographical or based on observations/overheard conversations?
ME: Yes to all three. I write about everything and usually if it's autobiographical, it will be about four or five different things at once. 'Cause it's not interesting just to write about one thing - for me.
WY: Can you give me an example from the last album?
ME: Not without embarrassing myself, no..
WY: Album cover art - who's responsible for the art work?
ME: We are.
ME: That was done by a man named Bobby Neel Adams. He's a local photographer and you can see his work in such things as Research magazine and also the cover of a Life magazine once. He's really good.
WY: What's that picture of on the cover of California?
ME: That's an archway in southern California, in the Sultan Sea, it's called. They thought it was going to be a pleasure resort, but then they found that it would flood every year, horribly in just big salt water lakes. So they couldn't use it. It's just this big deserted holiday resort.
WY: What about the cover of Mercury?
ME: He (Adams) works a lot in Cambodia and that's a deserted temple in Cambodia.
WY: How do you feel about videos and MTV?
ME: Hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate...
WY: So why do you do them, then?
ME: You have to.
WY: I saw the video for "Johnny Mathis' Feet"-
ME: -it's funny-
WY: -yeah, and I saw the one for "Rise" - I didn't like that one.
WY: Recent live gigs - you recorded that one at Slim's (6-15-93) for the CD.
ME: Oh, that was *terrible.* That was so bad. It was terrible.
WY: It's the *only* live one I've got.
ME: It sucks, it sucks...
WY: How come when they record shows, they seem to like record the-
ME: -worst shows, yeah. It was the very last day of our tour, we were exhausted. It was bad.
WY: Who have you been listening to lately?
ME: Jimmy Scott, Codeine, Palace Brothers-
WY: -I've got that CD (There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You)
ME: The new single is *awesome.* It's two beautiful songs - it's great - $7.00, so it's worth it, I think. Another songwriter called Vic Chestnut, albums called "West of Rome."
WY: Who would you most like to meet and why?
ME: There's no one.
WY: Don't you admire anybody?
ME: I do, but I don't want to meet them. I don't want to meet people I admire.
WY: Why not? You're afraid you're gonna be disappointed?
ME: No. I don't care. Why should I want to meet them? I know them through their work.
WY: The new LP. Are you allowed to tell me anything about it?
ME: No. Well, it's going to be a pop album - total pop.
WY: Is it going to be the same producer as-?
ME: No, we're doing it.
WY: So it's self-produced.
ME: (reluctantly) Well...for instance, a song like, "What Godzilla Said To God When His Name Wasn't Found In The Book Of Life," that song started with seeing a hooker's face - "you saw my face fall into a well-worn groove" - at the end of my block and I just took it from there. I just steal everything I can to try to make a song.
ME: No - none of them are. "Western Sky" is really not about anybody - but that sort of seemed to sum up a lot of people who were dying of AIDS. "Rise" was about a friend of mine who died of AIDS and "Johnny Mathis' Feet" was about *another* friend who died of AIDS.
WY: How do you write - ie what seems to inspire your lyrics to make them so decidedly maudlin - ie depressing??
ME: I've just always really liked depressing music ever since I can remember - from John Lennon songs to Doors songs - to everything everybody calls depressing, I never really did. I like describing the limits of strength and I like to take all of my songs from the point of view of somebody who is weak. I'd never take my songs from the point of view of somebody who is strong - because I always find that never speaks to my heart. I think you're missing the point, always. I hear a lot of songwriters and a lot of artists and they're always like, "I am God and you are shit." And that has a validity, but only in as much as that person has a certain sort of charm and a certain sort of pitiful truth. Whereas my pitiful truth is more stated and more obvious and more real. I don't see a lot of happiness or joy around me, so I don't think it's right of me to reflect anything else but what I see. I'm kind of like Ice Cube -
WY: Isn't it a bit unbalanced?
ME: Sure, I'm not here to be balanced.
WY: I mean, isn't it a bit unhealthy?
ME: I'm not here to be healthy, I'm not here to be balanced and I'm not here to make sense, so fuck that.
WY: Okaaaay...next question.
ME: Yeah, it's true, though. I don't have to answer for any of that. 'Cause I once had this old hippie come up to me (this English guy) and he said: [Eitzel feigns upper class British accent - not bad, either!] "Don't you ever feel responsible for the negative imagery you put into people's lives?" And I said, "Well, no. Fuck you." And that's really how I feel.I'm not responsible. If you don't like it, go away. If it makes you think about something you don't want to think about - too bad. If you think it's stupid - fine. You're not ever forced to listen to music. And I have a vision, so I have to write that vision, you know.
Not, that I'm this great artiste or anything. But I don't want to limit myself. And I do write funny songs, like "Crabwalk" or "Gary's Song" or like this new one that's called, "How Many Six Packs Does It Take To Screw In A Light". I do try to write songs that are funny. Like "Bad Liquor" or "Johnny Mathis' Feet". I don't really think it's fair to say that I always write negative stuff. n fact, *nothing* I write is negative. I make big bones to give everything I write a heart. Everything has to have a heart. If it doesn't have that, then it's bad art. If it has a heart and then if it's negative, there's a trap door which lets you out. Because I'm singing from a compassionate standpoint; I'm singing from a caring standpoint, and not from one, where, "fuck you", you know?
Like, Supertramp, they *hated* me when I saw them sing. They were cynical and they were evil when I saw them when I was a child. I *hated* their guts. They did everything by the book and they did everything right. But they made fun of me. And I don't make fun of my audience. Well...I do, but I care a lot about what I say.
And balance is not up to me. There's this great film out - it's about this kid who killed himself - his friend killed himself and he tried to kill himself and he blew away half of his face. Because he was listening to this song by a band - a sort of English-pop-metal band. And it was this song about suicide. Or at least the kid thought so. And he listened to it over and over and over again. And he and his friend decided they were going to kill themselves. And so when it came to trial, they accused the rock band - "it's your fault, because you wrote this song, therefore the kid killed himself." And the real tragedy of the story was the lead singer couldn't even remember the lyrics of the song. And he didn't care about the kid. That was the tragedy. It would devastate me if that happened to me. I don't think it would, because I really go out of my way if I can, not be be too cynical or not to be callous with the way I live. The music has to make me feel something. I embarrass myself by my own music. And I do that purpose, so that I don't get like this rock 'n' roll machine or like any kind of a machine.
WY: Can you say a bit about your albums, do a brief auto-discography?
ME: OK...The Restless Stranger I absolutely *hated.* It's a bad new wave album. Engine is over-produced; California - some of it's good, some of it's not; United Kingdom is pretentious; Everclear has got too much reverb; Songs Of Love Live - it's like me desperately trying to please an audience that already likes me; Mercury is kinda over-produced, too, I think.
WY: I want to talk a bit about touring and fans. What do you recall about your first big tour?
ME: Pretty much the one thing I can brag about, which is maybe what you're asking - is our London show (on the Mercury tour) which was *amazing* for us. Because we always have trouble with people talking, because we play so softly sometimes. And it was 2,000 people perfectly silent. I was overwhelmed. I couldn't believe it. It was like the biggest moment in my life. It was *great*.
WY: Do you have any favorite cities and clubs you like to return to?
ME: Yeah. We always go to New York, of course, Chicago, Champaign, Illinois, Columbus, Ohio, Minneapolis, Minnesota and London are pretty much our favorite places to play. And we *hate* Amsterdam. They hate *us* in Amsterdam.
WY: Why is that?
ME: Well, because no one in Amsterdam has any problems - so they don't understand us, you know?
WY: Fans - how do you treat them and how do they treat you and what sort of a relationship do you have?
ME: Well...they write me a lot of letters and I never write back, 'cause I never know what to say. Most of the letters I get are like: "I've never written a fan letter before, but I really like you guys, so...whatever - bye." (pause) I get a lot of poetry. I like most of our fans, but I'm a little afraid of having fans. You know - I think it's kinda bogus. I'd rather just be myself and having fans seems kinda weird - so I never really deal with it. I basically ignore it. I get free drinks at clubs - that's what I like.
WY: The reason I ask that question is because - a lot of people in your position kind of abuse it and their fans...
ME: I think the thing is, tho it goes both ways. People speak to their own weaknesses all the time. Like somebody, whose in a position like *me*, the fans will probably like him because of his weaknesses, and then when he actually exhibits them, they'll go like, "oh fuck you," you know? I mean, I don't want to become reliant on having fans. I don't want to have to deal with it - because I don't write for fans - I write to touch people, it's a difference. And I know I can easily be open to abuse or something. But I try to be really nice to everybody, 'cause I feel fortunate to have any. But on the other hand, I don't want to let it rule my life. It's like, I live at home and...one thing about San Francisco, is that everybody *hates* me here, so I don't have to worry about it.
WY: How many times has the band been to Europe?
ME: The Roskilde (Festival) was *amazing* last year. It was like 4,000 people dancing to American Music Club - *dancing* - can you believe that? It was *so* weird. And the week before we played at Glastonbury and it was *really* embarrassing. It was 200 people and there was this huge field full of dead hippies. I think we're kinda over in England. And I like England a lot. I like the English. But the whole English press thing scares me - we get such good press and I don't want to deal with it.
WY: What are your impressions of the music scene and clubs in Europe and the UK?
ME: I don't know *anything* about Europe, except for Bettie Seveert, who are OK. And I don't know anything about London. I like the rave thing. I like a band called Ultramarine and Seefeel. I like that ambient music, but then I also like Pink Floyd a lot. (pause) I don't know. I have no feelings...whatever good music happens in England, it's usually ignored. (laughs) And in England, if bands never get enough time to really become anything, 'cause they're usually in the press so quick - they don't have time to really develop into anything. So it's unfortunate that really good bands - even like Suede - I think they're actually a good band. But - I mean - suddenly they're 'rock stars' and that can really fuck you up.
I know I like some local bands and I like some American bands. (pause) I mostly listen to Jimmy Scott - ever heard of him? He's a jazz singer and Shirley Horn - I like her a lot, she's another good jazz singer. I don't know any good songwriters anymore. I don't like Liz Phair very much and she's supposed to be 'the songwriter.' And the last Paul Westerberg album kinda disappointed me. I like the last Tom Waits album, that's *amazing*, Black Rider. It's really good, it's really theatrical...I mean, it's *really* good, like a Kurt Weill record or something. I like singles - two packs....I like Sade...Pearl Jam - I'm one of the only people I know who like them. 'Cause they're great - we played with them, we opened up for them and they're *amazing.*
WY: Before you go on, the reason I asked about the European club situation was, do bands get treated better in Europe than they do over here?
ME: Oh yeah - totally better. You show up even at the smallest gigs and there's usually sandwiches for you when you get there, and there's usually a hotel, that's really nice...
WY: Why is that?
ME: Tradition. The way that they book; the way the agents are; the way that in Europe they like American bands a lot, that's why. It *will* change, because there's too many American bands that nobody goes to see now. And I think Germany, especially, is becoming like Germany for Germans and I think American bands aren't too welcome overall.
And in France they treat you like shit, because you have to become a French band, you know?
WY: Yeah, I know about the French band situation - it's all French music, yeah.
ME: But it's OK - I mean, I love the French, so-
WY: Are they really snobby? They don't speak English to you, if you don't speak French?
ME: Totally. Parisians, *absolutely*. It's beautiful. (in sarcastic tone)
WY: If you don't speak French, they-
ME: -hate you. They're nice, polite, but hate. So...I like them, it's OK with me, it's alright, cause I like the French. So you get treated well, but you have to deserve it, I feel. And you're not going to get treated well again if you don't do well the first time. And we've done *badly*. And we get treated worse and worse and worse sometimes. It gets weird.
Hotel Essex, San Francisco
Eitzel dropped me off about an hour ago. I think I did an OK interview, I only wish I had more time to prepare for it - but that's the way it goes sometimes. On the way back here, Eitzel mentions that there are three local bands playing at the Great American Music Hall (859 O'Farrell Street at Polk and Larkin a 10 minute walk from this hotel) the following night worthy of checking out. The interior of the Music Hall is a great square under carved plaster cupids on the ceiling with gilded mezzanine boxes supported by huge marble pillars. The building dates back to the turn of the century and it is no surprise to find out that it used to be a bordello!)
Anyway...where was I? Oh yeah - Tarnation, Timco and Wade are playing there tomorrow night at 9:00pm. Maybe I will go along and check them out. An interesting aside: (put this in italics or something) Post-interview at the Bottom of the Hill Club (17th St at Texas in Potrero Hill) while Eitzel and I are sitting at the bar nursing Calistoga Mineral Waters. (I don't drink and Eitzel is "on the wagon") I notice him scribbling something down onto a paper napkin. Inspiration for a future song, perhaps? An overheard conversation with a great one-liner? Who knows? These sensitive artiste-types are constantly drawing inspiration from every waking hour (or every sleeping hour, as well, for that matter) for an up-coming LP or book of poetry never to see the light of day?
Yes...there's no doubt about it - Eitzel is an honest-to-God artist and I'm a real pushover for American Music Club - simply because they are so damn genuine and unpretentious and honest. And because they speak to my heart, where it matters the most.