BAM - May 1997

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Mark Eitzel Moves Himself Ahead
Publication: BAM
Author: Bill Crandall
Date: May 1997

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"I'm moving somewhere. I'm just gonna get in my car and drive."

These are not new lyrics from Mark Eitzel's new record; these are his plans, as told to me outside a Hayes Valley cafe. Eitzel is back in San Francisco, the overcast canvass of the first 10 years of his songwriting, for one reason only: he is broke. He needs enough money to paint his Bernal Heights house so he can rent it, and then....well, you know the rest.

Eitzel spent the past year in New York (the city with that suddenly depressing "If I can make it there..." slogan) in relative bliss. The trouble was the city by the Hudson is even tougher on the wallet than the city by the bay.

"I just just spent a lot more money on drinks, you know? Bars don't shut 'til six. And I just haven't earned any money since 1994."

Ah,1994. Things were really looking up then. Eitzel and American Music Club, his band of moody men who made "sadcore" a provincial household word, released San Francisco, the album that finally was to show America what the critics had been talking about all those years. After 1991's Everclear, Rolling Stone named Eitzel best songwriter in it's critics poll; and after 1993's Mercury, Melody Maker dubbed him "one of the greatest living songwriters." But your cousin in Pleasant Valley still had never heard of American Music Club.

San Francisco was another collection of wondrous stories told in a more upbeat - rather, less lugubrious - fashion than it's predecessors. And the boys even served up a cover of "California Dreamin'". But, despite more critical praise, lyrics like "A manic depression that just wouldn't go away/Like Peckinpah with a bouquet of poison ivy" clamored for commercial failure.

In 1995, when Eitzel came to terms that he could not write pop songs that "could sustain everybody's salaries," AMC disbanded. The next year, Eitzel released his solo debut, 60 Watt Silver Lining. Drastically departing from AMC's three-guitar sound, Eitzel transcribed his guitar parts via computer to piano and then brought in ex-bandmate Bruce Kaphan to play with them. With further help from Mark Isham on trumpet and Danny Pearson (also from AMC) on acoustic bass, Eitzel tried his hand at quiet, jazz crooner.

Again, commercial failure. Tired of being a ghost of a great band past, Eitzel moved 3,000 miles away to New York, where folks don't trade tales of his drunkenness while spilling Sierra Nevada on their shoes, and audience members shout, "Are you gay?"

"I belonged there," he tells me. "I could make friends on my own terms and not worry about having been Mark Eitzel for 10 years."

Eitzel's newest friend is longtime fan Peter Buck. Soon after the two met at one of Eitzel's Seattle shows, Buck came to San Francisco and they began writing songs in Eitzel's living room. The songs are a collaboration in the truest sense of the word: Buck's music and Eitzel's words, hammered out in a three-day flurry. Buck then booked studio time in Seattle and employed his new supergroup, Tuatara, to back up Eitzel.

What resulted is West, Eitzel's second solo album. Far and away the most focused thing Eitzel's ever been part of, West is Buck at his most jangliest. The songs actually zip, and, unfortunately, Eitzel is already getting his hopes up.

BAM: Talk about the new album?

I like it. I think it's great. It's something me and Peter did together and I'm proud of it. I remember when I first started working with Peter I was on this American Music Club mailing list on the internet and I used to read all about me. It was totally narcissistic and evil, but I did it. I need something to make me feel good. Most of them are really nice people, but then as soon as I started working with Peter, there was all this stuff about how I'm selling out and how I'm over and they can't believe I'm doing it. And all I could say was, "You didn't treat me like a friend; he did. You didn't like buy me a bunch of beers and try to hang out with me and speak in the same kind of language I speak and talk about music in the same way I talk and have the same kind of excitements that I do about things."

They didn't, you know? Fuck 'em. I wrote this poor guy a long, long e-mail and ripped into him like the asshole that I am. So I got off the mailing list. I just thought, "With fans like these, fuck it."

It sounds terrible.The whole thing about having fans, being somebody, is completely undermining to any kind of normal work. I was at Tower Video last night. The guy knew me and I was in a really sour mood. And if you're in a sour mood, the employees at Tower Video usually want to amplify that for you. So I was like, "Here's my fucking video card. I'm sorry I didn't have it out right away." And he goes, "Oh, you're Mark Eitzel." And I was like, "Yeah, so?" He said, "Well that's not such a bad thing to be, is it?"

It's not such a bad thing to be: it's a great thing to be. I'm lucky I can do this.

BAM: How did the Peter Buck Collaboration come about?

He showed up at a show I did in Seattle, and he came the second night as well.