Comes With A Smile - March 1998
Publication: Comes With A Smile (#2)
Author: Mike Agate
Date: March 1998
"Come in, my dad's dead."
I frown at the intercom by the Ladbroke Grove doorway for a moment. Unsure whether I've misheard or there's really been a bereavement. I lean toward the microphone.
"I'm sorry," I say, hoping that this will do either way. The machine gives a cough.
"Come on in, I'm downstairs," it says more clearly, and I push the buzzing door, relieved. Twenty minutes and some chat later, Mark Eitzel - former main-man of the awesome American Music Club and creator of some of the fiendishly lovely, and self-deprecating songs about love and alcohol, bars, life, God, hell, everything really - arrives at the office of Matador Records wearing his usual woolly hat and outlandish sports jacket. We go to the pub.
His new album ,the superbly titled Caught In A Trap And I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby, awaits release and he's just played a show at the deliciously seedy Reingold Club, a strip joint - sorry - revue bar off Oxford Street, whose red velvet curtains and low ceilings provide the ideal scenery before which to showcase some characteristically downbeat new material.
"I like to play shows like that. Quiet shows where I don't have to rely on the motherfucking PA....I'd play there again."
Sitting on an over-stuffed couch and hoping that the tape recorder will pick up more than the ill-conceived strains of the Lighthouse Family that some bartender has stuck on the jukebox, I ask about being a singer/songwriter, partly because, as he's told me before, he hates being called that. It's a tempting epithet to try and pin on him though, what with him being, well, a singer who writes songs. So if not that, then what?
"I see myself as two things. An incredible reviewer of the truths of our time. And secondly, Mike, the most important songwriter of the later half of the twentieth century. And, if you've seen my performance art pieces, also, I can be a dark angel, speaking the hymns of all those people out there."
I grin and raise an eyebrow. Yeah, but seriously.
He grins too and sits back in his seat, placing his hands on his head and manipulating his headgear into a position he finds more to his liking:
"I don't fucking know! I mean, whatever sells the most records, I'll say, 'cos I really don't give a shit. I write songs on guitars, so I guess I'm a singer/songwriter. Whatever."
These days, though, the chances of a singer/songwriter - or whatever - making the kind of money made by, say, Peter Buck with whom Eitzel recorded West, his last album proper, are pretty slim. I ask him: it may mean that you could never play the Reingold Club again, but is there not a part of you that would love to go for the really big bucks?
"Fuck, yeah. I'd take the fucking money. But I don't see myself, the way that I perform, would get that. I make these records which are really down and that's the kind of music I like to hear. I know I'll never be rich - unless somebody really famous covers my songs."
And it's unlikely that The Divine Comedy's soaring live rendition of AMC's "Johnny Mathis' Feet" will bring in all that much, so he'll have to keep waiting. The song "If I Had A Gun", a live favourite which has been around for a good while now, has finally made it onto an album. It can't be easy to decide what makes it onto each release when, writing as much as you do, so much of your material must fall by the wayside?
"It's weird, because a lot of them go straight out the window because, live, they don't work very well and I can feel people getting restless when I sing them; so I just don't sing them, y'know? A lot of times, too (He pauses to think and to sip some coffee)...I'm an old ham. I'm weird because I don't play very much and because of that people travel like three hours to come and see me and they say, 'I really want to hear 'Western Sky', that's my favorite song', and I'm like 'OK, I'll fucking do it,' because that's what I'm here for. And I love all my songs - I don't hate any of them."
But what about some of the really old American Music Club stuff? People like me still listen to a lot of those older songs, but you've often said you can't stand them now.
"Some of it makes me cringe. You know, like there's some....on the first record especially, there's a bunch of songs and I won't play any off that record. There's like one song on there anyway. It's called 'Hold On To Your Love'. 'Point Of Desire' though, you know, is remarkably embarrassing."
So you're not into the idea of people being precious about their own music?
"There's a lot of people I like who are precious about their music - until I meet them and find out how precious they are, and then I hate their fucking guts."
Watching you perform, although you always seem consumed as you play, the between-songs banter, the gags and the false starts suggest that, maybe, you don't take yourself as seriously as do your fans. Well, kind of...
"I take myself seriously too, but...what the fuck, you know? Also, I'm not really into getting into deep psychological questions. It's nobody's fucking business what I think. I write the songs and that's it."
Does that mean you don't really enjoy it?
"No, I love it. Physically I love singing, it's just...looking into people's eyes; it's hard, that's all."
Thinking about this, the title of the new album starts to make some sort of sense in relation to his feelings about his art. But that would be the kind of question he might just take the piss out of. I guess maybe he's right: if you try and look at things, at people, too hard, there's a serious danger they're going to stare you out and you'll end up having to laugh and look away.
In Mark Eitzel's case, you get the impression that he's laughing back at you which means that there has to be something going on that's either very funny or terribly sad. What makes him so remarkable, is that he manages to make it both, even when he's singing lines like, "I'm an expert in all things that nature abhors, that look of disgust when I touch your skin."
And that sort of thing is a trap from which you really can't back out.
Because you love it too much.