The Times - September 9, 1994

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Misery Loves A Record Company
Publication: The Times
Author: Caitlin Moran
Date: September 9, 1994

American Music Club had a problem. The critics thought they were fab, but their albums sold like hot ice. Until now, that is. There exists a shadowy sub-world of critically acclaimed singer-songwriters who live in tenement slums situated in the grim parts of major American cities, have had their hearts broken in a variety of tragic ways, and have never played to audiences of more than 300. Their lives are charted in battered, marked-down LPs; hyperbolic prose in yellowing back-issues of music weeklies; and self-conscious reference and reverence during interviews with more successful pop stars.

This secret history extends back to Tim Buckley, Nick Drake and Tim Hardin in the 1960s and 1970s, Richard Thompson in the 1980s, and Mark Kozelek, Jeff Buckley and Mark Eitzel in the 1990s - a memory of grief passed from balding-man-with-guitar to balding-man-with-guitar, a pale, flickering light of pain carefully kept alive so that we all might have a bit of a sob and a sniffle of a Friday night, when everyone else in the world is out and laughing loudly and drinking beer in a really cool way.

Eitzel is the king of all the balding-men-with-guitars; he is their leader, and the benchmark against which all other claims to grief, pain, unhappiness, misery, feeling-vaguely-ickyness and bad head-colds must be measured. His band, American Music Club, invented Mope-Rock; and over the course of seven albums they have refined their art so much that, whereas hankies might once have been moistened by the second chorus, now the opening bars frequently have audiences furtively blowing their noses on their neighbour's cardigan sleeves.

And so, bearing in mind Eitzel's predecessors' histories, one would expect AMC to be busking in the streets of San Francisco by day, and playing to audiences of less than a dozen by night, releasing an album a year which sells just enough copies to finance the next record. And indeed, that's how things were until last year. But then Virgin Records, in Britain, and Warner Brothers, in America, picked up on Eitzel's gentle lamentations about loss and love. They had read the press, checked out the shows, and had decided that AMC were heading the same way as R.E.M. They recognised that, while the world gets darker and more and more sorrow-bound, there is a market in people who speak the language of the damned.

And so AMC now have video budgets for their eighth album, San Francisco, world tours, slots supporting Pearl Jam and a press schedule that would make your eyes bleed. Someone has decided Eitzel is going to be a star. And he can't quite see it, himself.

"Y'know, I'm just this guy with no chin, a receding hairline, and a kind of a belly thing going," The Saint of Sorrow says, tucking into chocolate cake and spilling it all over my carpet. As AMC have been my favourite band for five years now, I decided to show Eitzel my gratitude by buying 20 quid's worth of cakes and inviting the band round to my house. Eitzel and Vudi, AMC's guitarist, turn up. They veto all cake but the chocolate ones. The prospect of lots of uneaten cake being left is not one that makes me desperately unhappy.

"I mean, Virgin are really behind us the new video cost a lot of money," Eitzel continues. "But I'm still just this little person, y'know. I'm just an ant - no, worse than that, I'm just a songwriter and songwriters are two a penny. They're the most overrated commodity on this earth.

Yeah, there are millions of songwriters in the world, but there are not that many good ones. Don't you realise that AMC are the most critically acclaimed band in the world? That you've never had a bad review?

"Oh, we have," Eitzel says. "Sure we have. There was a review in an American paper a couple of years ago. It said: 'Eitzel bellows like a bull.' We've had bad reviews."

It is at this point that you realise Eitzel's reputation as the most self-deprecating man on the face of the globe is not exactly unwarranted. We change the subject. The new album, San Francisco, is much more commercial than its predecessors. The usual, slow-moving displays of wounded affection are as potent as before, but are not quite as, well, depressing. Now the emotion seems to be one of gentle melancholy.

"Yeah, I guess touring with Pearl Jam had a big effect on us," Eitzel says. "Just watching a band like that night after night gives you an idea of how to make an emotion less cloying, or suffocating, but still as intense. I learnt a lot from them."

One hopes that Eitzel will also learn from Pearl Jam how to live with millions in the bank, and MTV willing to have his babies. AMC have been obscure for too long. It is time for them to become obscenely famous.