Sounds - October 21, 1989

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Atlantic Crossing
Publication: Sounds
Author: Roy Wilkinson
Date: October 21, 1989


This gawky bear of a man sits on plush velvet in a North London pub, any American verbal confidence sidetracked into a gauche, almost comic intensity. Mark Eitzel’s divergence from the US stereotype is mirrored in the way his music subverts accepted American idioms.

After giving themselves the “all time dumbest name” American Music Club, Eitzel’s band, went on to name their second LP California, after the state in which they live. And, like their name and their second album title, AMC use identifiably American sounds. But they supply their countrified rock ‘n’ roll with undercurrents of sadness. The dream, American or otherwise, heads toward coma.

California's depiction of personal devastation was emphasized by pitting the individual against its sense of scale.

It was a massively widescreen LP, inflating booze, bars and all-American incidentals into some hazy plane, slightly removed from reality. The new AMC album brings a continent-scale shift in style, as its title, United Kingdom, suggests.

But United Kingdom isn’t AMC’s belated attempt to latch onto the Oi! Movement with songs of Union Jacks and bulldogs. The title has nothing to do with this sceptic isle – it’s the leap of emphasis only that’s as marked as the Atlantic ocean is wide. Compared to California, United Kingdom is a massive retraction inward. UK is a much more introspective album with songs worked on minimal arrangements – three are recorded live with only guitar and vocals.

The album’s compactness is reinforced by it not being released in AMC’s homeland. AMC’s American label, Frontier, could only afford two Autumn releases and those have been awarded to Thin White Rope and Fresh Young Fellows. But over here, Demon have taken the challenge and United Kingdom is far from some half-realized, throwaway album.

“I don’t write throwaway songs,” reminds Mark, AMC’s singer and songwriter.

Nonetheless, UK's introspection is dwarfed in sonic spectacle by California. It seems AMC had no option to overwork the songs, even if they’d wished.

Mark: “No, essentially we didn’t have very much time. We had a month to record it."

“But we did the best we could. It’s somewhat of a cop out to make your record rocky because that’s fashionable at the moment. And it’s a kinda cop out to make it better produced. To me, production is about making the songs come out of themselves and communicate better. And I think we’ve produced these songs enough. There’s no rock music on this record at all and if we could avoid using drums we did.

“This is the first record we’ve made which I personally can sit down with and listen all the way through and not really listen and not cringe at.

“Basically, what I’m trying to do is make the most obsequious, subversive and small-sounding song I can.”

Is it a reaction to California?

“Every time I hear aggressive heavy metal music or punk rock I do the complete opposite. I don’t know why. I hear a kick-ass rock song I think, I’m just going to make this the quietest record possible. My favorite songs ever written – even Beatles songs – are always the quietest.”

And as Mark says, these are the hardest to write.

“Yeah, I could come up with the dumb rock songs, if I wanted to, pretty quick. We have a whole bunch of those songs which no one’ll ever hear, because we’ll never record them.”

The stand-out dumb AMC song to date is "Bad Liquor" from California, its use of seasoned rock vocabulary making it almost a parody of a rock song.

“Yeah, I wrote that one in five minutes,” growls Mark. “But it’s not a joke song. It’s a true story, just like all our songs. I love the song, we play it and we have a good time.I love doing rock music. I love screaming and jumping, but it seems like a better thing to play songs that mean something to you, songs that are loaded emotionally. It seems to me that’s a better thing to offer people.

“If there’s somebody in the room who’s having a really bad time I want to sing for that person…I don’t want to sing for the people in the front. Well I do, but basically I’m motivated toward people who are miserable and not having a good time. When I go to see a show I would love to see a band like us, who just sit there and go, ‘Love sucks, doesn’t it? No, it really does, huh?’”

At moments like this Mark is at his most serious and most comic, a hair’s breadth away from some TV spoof of the terminally intense songwriter.

Mark has acknowledged this self-parodic tendency by occasionally playing "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life", from Life Of Brian. But elsewhere AMC’s black humor content is negotiable.

When Mark ho-hummed lines like "Next to a fat lady who just got out of the hospital/She had a major operation" on California, it could be taken as willful self-parody. And who could resist a giggle when he deadpanned the opening to "Firefly": "C’mon beautiful, let’s go sit on the front lawn/And watch the fireflies as the sun goes down/They don’t live too long, just a flash and then they’re gone"?

But, it seems Mark’s tongue was far from his cheek at the time.

“No, that’s not intended to be flippant at all. That’s what people do – they laugh at things that die quickly. To protect themselves or something. I don’t want flippancy in our music, but I’ll sometimes risk an element of it.”

But United Kingdom features Eitzel’s most overt humor yet, the semi-slapstick "The Hula Maiden", about Mark’s disastrous visit to Hawaii.

“It’s like a real bad Don Ho (top notch Bob Hope-standard comedian) song, but I’m still true to the subject. That was hard to do.”

Along with this consciously comic song, United Kingdom offers a leavening of California's bleak mood, which Eitzel calls “anesthetizing”.

Mark: “When I describe California as anesthetizing I mean it as in freezing you, giving no way out. When you console someone you’re saying two things at once. You’re saying, ‘You’re right, it’s fucked, but it’s OK’. I think a lot of the emotions on California leave you with no way out, but this new album does leave a way.”

Similarly, Mark has learnt to give himself a margin when playing live. Nowadays an AMC performance is cathartic. It used to be an emotional self-evisceration.

“I used to think I had to die for the audience every time, do as much as I could, and if the audience was getting bored for even a second, something would have to happen.”

Something happening included the routine abuse of the audience and, in one memorable incident, assaulting a spectator. The crime: applauding.

“Now it’s, Mark, you could pretty much just sing the song and let that take care of itself.

“I stopped drinking during shows, I had to do that. It’s scarier now, but there’s more control. There’s nothing to hide behind. When you don’t drink you don’t have any illusions – I sit there in my clothes and I just feel ugly. I just want to tear my clothes off, but I know if I did that it’d be even worse, right? I think about my shoes a lot, about my feet sweating in my shoes, shit like that. It’s horrible.”

Perhaps Eitzel’s intensity of presentation is because the majority of his songs are based on real events. United Kingdom enforces this. Where California breathed superhuman sadness, UK's songs are more readily equated with the prosaic reality of average life.

“Yeah, I think this is a realer album – 'Dreamers Of The Dream' is pretty real.

“But 'Animal Pen' I haven’t experienced. That’s about a park in San Francisco where a bunch of bums hang out every day. I’m no bum, so I sit there writing in my little notebook – my important thoughts. The Animal Pen is what they call the park.

“I’m trying not to write about my own experience any more, because I’m real bored with my own experience. It’s time to move – I’m just starting to repeat myself and it’s bullshit.”

Your songs are virtually all resigned…

“Yeah, absolutely. The songs are resigned, but I’m not. I do coincide with the songs, but only when I’m singing them. The songs are condensations of a lot of me, so I won’t always be like them.

“How true can a song be? Well, Paula Abdul could tell you that. Iggy Pop could tell you that. I think almost anybody could answer the question. I certainly can’t. Because, though I try my hardest to make them work when I play live, it doesn’t always work…

“Anybody who plays music to dance to can tell you how true a song is – because you can dance to it. I used to be in a band that you could dance to, back in 1979. But I decided it wasn’t right. It wasn’t true. Is that true or not? Who knows, I’m just talking. I’m the eighth member of Spinal Tap.”

Mark crumbles to a stop.

“I’m sorry, but I find interviews very weird. You talk intimately with someone for an hour and then never see them again. It’s odd.”

Mark Eitzel stumbles home, way too intense, way too honest for 1989.