Ablaze - January 1992
American Music Club
Publication: Ablaze (#8)
Author: Karen Ablaze
Date: January 1992
Having been suitably astounded by AMC's performance at Reading, I approached the charismatic Mark Eitzel (the band's singer, songwriter and occasional guitarist) to ask for an interview. To my surprise he considered my request (he spoke to me! he spoke to me!) and suggested we talk on the phone as they had planned an immediate escape from the festival.
Ten a.m I was to call him, a dreadful hour for conversation, but he was awake and friendly. I asked him, "How come you always write sad songs? Is it because they're what you're good at, or because you only write when you're sad, or because you're sad all the time?"
"Pretty much yes to the first two, and, uh, it's because that's pretty much what I see - if you look at people's eyes you don't see joy very often."
Do you agree that your lyrics could be construed as sexist?
"Well no, I never thought of that. Why?"
Because you sing a lot about your relationships with women and refer to them as "beautiful," "pretty," that sort of dimension, and how about they should stay with you rather than doing other things....I just hear things like that.
"Well, um, no, um....it's not conscious if it's sexist. I guess I should use the Spinal Tap reply. 'Sexy? What's wrong with being sexy?', but no. I didn't think there was anything sexist in what I'm doing, but if you think there is then I guess there is...I don't sentimentalize anybody, especially because I'm writing about people who, or one person who gets fucked up a lot and does a lot of drugs. It's hard for me to be sentimental about people who do that. Or maybe I'm being too sentimental, maybe the sentimentalism is in its way a little bit of a lie because it's kinda fucked, it's not real."
But if it's something that you feel, how can it be anything but real?
"Well, it can be, pretty easily. A lot of what you think is just phony anyway. It's always pretty hard to find out what is really going on."
Well I met someone yesterday who argued that mathematics is the ultimate reality. Things exist on so many different levels that you can't really say any of them isn't real.
"That's true, even though he's right or she's right, because mathematics is pretty much it, but I don't know, I don't agree; I have this social side to me so I can't go that far."
Where do you live?
"I live in California, in San Francisco."
You refer to your house in a lot of songs.
"I've lived in some houses and I always have trouble living with people. I spend a lot of time at home, so maybe that's why."
Ah, wherever anyone lives, whether it's with your best friends or people you don't know, you always have problems. It's a metaphor for life. Have a lot of your songs been written in the same house?
"Mostly the ones on the early records are about living in the North Beach neighbourhood, and recently they're about living in the Mission so they've all kinda got a more violent turn to 'em."
What do you listen to?
"I'm a big Replacements fan, and I've been listening to Smokey Robinson a lot recently. That's about it, I don't listen to much. There's a band I like in San Francisco called the Red House Painters, sometimes they really suck but they play really slow, really quiet really long songs and I like that, because most bands aren't brave enough to do things that crowds will get bored with."
I can think of a few over here.
"Yeah, but to do it well and to really believe in themselves, there's very few people that'll do that. They're a little too ambitious for me, but just because I'm not doesn't mean they can't be."
You're really not ambitious? You don't push the band?
"I do, but when I deal with other people I'm not a prick. Well,I am a prick; but, like with soundmen, I don't tell soundmen what to do."
Steve Hawkins is doing your sound right now, isn't he?
Well he manages Fluff [he did at the time of the interview, before their tragic demise] they're the opposite of that group, they take one really really brilliant idea and just use it once rather than over and over again.
"Which is what my big problem is! I'm just not really imaginative."
"I'm not. I just have my few chords and I stick to them pretty much. I try and grow out of that, but it's hard to do."
Aren't you more of a lyrics man anyway?
"Pretty much I guess, but even then I'm sure I'm rewriting the same song over and over."
Well some bands really do have only one song and do it again and again, but I've not heard any of that in AMC.
How do you account for your appeal to The Kids? Isn't it old people's music? It's not exactly punk rock.
"No, it's not exactly punk rock....there's all kinds of music that I like, and I guess it is old people's music 'cos it's pretty smooth and it's not very challenging, it's not loud and there's no odd noises, but after a while you get to the point where you can't make weird noises because it get's in the way of the song. But a band like Sonic Youth, they're brilliant, they can do it because it doesn't get in the way of the song; but if they tried to sing about the things I'm singing about they'd probably have to quiet down and slow down. I think what I'm doing is a lot harder - here I am bragging - but it's hard to sing about things of the heart without it being incredibly corny. So,I dunno, I'm always surprised to see people at our shows. We do get all kinds of people and it's weird. Okay, the young people are there maybe because they saw us in the British press.....but I won't put down young people. When I was 18 and 19 my favorite perfumers were Joan Armatrading, Joni Mitchell...it's just that now it's got to the point where everything is classified so strictly, you're not supposed to cross boundaries."
Something that struck me as strange when I saw you, although it's quite superficial as well, is the way you all look: you look nothing like the rest of the bands people were going to see at Reading, you look kind of old.
"We are old, we're all in our early thirties and we don't care about looking young. I don't care about fashion that much."
That's not the important thing anyway.It's just that so many people do the fashion thing, it shocks you to see someone who doesn't.
"I mean fuck, it would really destroy us to have to spend a lot of time thinking about that stuff."
Do you get on all right with the rest of the band?
"Yeah, it's great. I've known Danny and Vudi for about 8 years and we're just really good friends. And I play in another band with Tim the drummer, called the Toiling Midgets, it's kind of a grunge band, everybody plays really slowly and there's lots of feedback. They're an old S.F. punk band, and we've got a record coming out soon on Matador."
What are your audiences like in America, are they different from those in Europe?
"They're about the same....engineering majors! We have good fans, we really do."
You appreciate them.
"I'm intimidated by them!"
I noticed you stopping a song just to find out what somebody had shouted at you. I wondered if that was because you couldn't concentrate or because you're really concerned about what anybody might say.
"Both. I don't make any bones about the fact that performing is a pretty artificial thing and if somebody says something I get really distracted, and it's more interesting really to know what they're saying, 'cos it's more of a kick because it's more of the moment, y'know? And if somebody's saying 'fuck off and die', then I can tell them to fuck off and die, and then I'm happy. Or if somebody's saying 'do another song' and then it's like 'okay, we will.'"
It was really cool the way you got the lyrics muddled up on "Western Sky" and stopped, and told everybody you'd got them muddled up, and pissed about for five minutes, and then went back to the song.
"There's people there who know the lyrics better than I do, and I feel kind of embarrassed - AMC fans ask me 'why did you change the lyrics? Fuck you' as if....well shit, I wrote the song! So why be phony about it?"
For the sake of looking really professional. A lot of people will carry on - really big bands that have billions of fans who know the lyrics by heart and recite them in their sleep. You seem really sensitive about what other people want, which is nice.
"Well it's because it's really uncomfortable to be in a crowd watching a band, I hate it. I don't like crowds much. I mean, I'm not going to tell you that I'm a great person or anything, it really is part of the show, you're in it with this group of people and you're trying to make it good. Basically I'm trying to win people over. I'm not a saint or anything, but I'm aware of how shitty it is to go see a band."
But most people just love it,they don't mind about crowds and they'll take anything from the artists.
"Yeah, but I don't. When I'm in the audience I'm really respectful, I'm quiet and I'm sensitive about the people around me. Most people aren't like that, but so what? If a performer's too nice usually I will hate it, I think 'who's he trying to suck up to?' - so I'm willing for people to accuse me of that, but on the other hand we're not really precious, if people wanna talk all the way through or tell us to fuck off that's fine too. Frankly we're just entertainers. You're being nice and I'm trying to undermine that!"
People who're performing in other ways tend to establish more of a rapport with their audience, whereas many musicians limit themselves to one role and ignore that side of things.
"I never understood why - why are musicians special? They're not."
I think it's throwing away an opportunity really, if you have all these people around you and you're not listening or taking anything from them, it all goes one way.
"I mean, yeah, where's the fun in that? If we had a set that we had to go through really quickly from one song to the other we would fall on our faces.If we had to try to be Sonic Youth or something we couldn't do it, we couldn't imitate any other band, and there's this wall between you and the crowd if you follow the set list really closely and then go home. What's the point of that? Why not just make records and never tour? And also there's this through the '80s, this really crass, really commercial thing with crowds, like 'oh yeah, fuck 'em, let's show them how evil the world is by being evil ourselves,' and I hate that, I hate being in a crowd and having the band just completely hate me."
But also all those people are cooperating because you've got a whole load of people staring at one point, taking everything - the band wouldn't have that sort of power if they didn't give it to them in the first place.
"The whole theory now is that a band tours in order to sell more records, and a band tours in order to sell more T-shirts, and I hate that, I really do. I think a band tours because that's what the job of a band is to do, it's to play in front of people. I hate the fact that the crowd is just something to be shooken down now. I mean, you go to a discotechque and it's like, OK, you pay at the door, and you show your 20 pieces of I.D. to get in, and you get in and you have the people with the little headsets walking around looking at you, making sure that you're not going to be a problem for them, which is more of an expense, then you go to the bar and everything costs about three times as much as you usually get it, and you dance to this robotic music which is just, you know, an extension of the engine of a 747, it's not fun! You're there to be shaken down, 'cos all you're good for is as something to give money. People that come to see AMC, I may just do a set and hate them and tell them to fuck off, or just leave the stage without any communication at all. I've done that many times, but definitely they're not there to be shaken down, they're there to be given an experience, 'cos that's what a musician's job is to do. You perform, you give people a good time for a night. I think that's a really fuckin' good thing to do. I think that's probably why we've been as unsuccessful as we've been, 'cos we're not assholes; we try our hardest to avoid the whole career rock thing, because it's soul destroying."
Presumably you see success in different terms.
"No, I don't have a house, I don't have a car, I'd love those things! Of course it matters, we are playing the game and we're going to continue playing the game as long as they'll let us."
You're having fun doing it though?
"Not really! It's work, it's not that much fun. Like at Reading the other day, we sat around and watched all these other bands, we all got headaches, we waited to play..."
Did you hate the festival?
"I don't know, it was OK, it was kind of weird, I guess it was great. I mean, I like all the bands that were playing. I like Dinosaur Jr - I didn't get it, I never get that music too much, it just seems pretty rote to me - I'm an old punk rocker and all that stuff seems old hat. But I liked Sonic Youth and I liked Iggy and I walked around the crowd and saw people get progressively more wasted and thought "gee, it would be good..." I saw people have their first beer and I saw people take their first drugs and it was touching, it really is! It's fine that they can do it in a safe environment - I saw lots of people face down in the mud and nobody was fucking with them."
The first AMC album isn't available, isn't that right?
"Yeah, and it's shit. As far as I'm concerned I hope it never becomes available. It's absolute shit."
OK. Where did you rip the name off from? It sounds like some tacky cassette mail order company.
"We didn't rip the name off, and that's what I wanted it to sound like. When I thought of the name - it's a shit name, with the three worst words ever in any band name - I wanted it to sound like the most generic thing possible. And it was in '81/82 and all the bands who made it in America were from New Zealand, Australia or England, and I wanted to say "no, let's do American music" even though it's not American music... We do play country, but that's because we like George Jones. There's a lot of soul in country music y'know, and it's pretty much the last American songwriters left that write real songs. Everybody in the band except me has a pretty good country background... but if you take country music and put cool words to it, it's really nice. I really like country music."
Finally, my boyfriend suggested this question, which I'm a bit embarrassed about, but... what does death need time for?
"Well...death takes time just like everything else... it needs a lot of time. I dunno! What a dumb question!! Oh your poor boyfriend."