Comes With A Smile - Spring 2001
Mark Eitzel (Part Two)
Publication: Comes With A Smile (#7)
Author: Martin Williams
Photos: Steve Pitman
Date: Spring 2001
With a provisional title, I'm Bound For The Stars, and a slated release date of early May, Mark Eitzel's new album seems to be a tangible prospect at last. After false starts and lapsed record deals and a self-image best cast as Freudian ("I'm holding onto everything") his extended studio hiatus - intensified by some inspiring recent live shows - looks set to be broken in prizewinning style. Made up of songs laid down at various times, with various players and engineers, the mixing of the record has been handled by Eitzel himself, with roughly half of the three dozen recorded songs having been mixed and a track listing to be subsequently narrowed down. This is the second installment of an interview conducted last year on the first of his two British stopovers.
You seem to fluctuate in your attitude towards fame and whether you'd tamper with what you do in order to reach a larger audience.
Well, I used to fluctuate. Like, last night we met Courtney Love, and I've met her on-and-off for the last twenty years. And I was really shy, I was really nervous, because she didn't recognise me and I was standing in front of her. And she's always been really sweet to me. Half my friends hate her and half my friends love her. Well, 99% of my friends hate her and one of them kind of likes her. She's like a lot of women I know, I think she's great, she's a loudmouth, kind of, but I think she's great. And Kristen said something really revealing as we got in the cab. I was like, "God, I can't believe I was so nervous, but I really wanted to talk to her." Kristen said, "Well, you've had a taste of that, you've had a taste of that fame drug." And I do Jones for the fame drug. I do like the fancy hotels and I would love to fly Concorde. Even if it crashed.
She's someone who's definitely gone out of her way to get fame.
She's always wanted the fame drug. It's like Michael Stipe. I love Michael, I've hung out with him one-on-one and he's a completely intelligent, sweet man; kind of weird, but he's great. But then in a crowd with his cell phone in his ear, rolling calls constantly, surrounded by people. It's so strange to me. I'm attracted to hanging out with him because he's famous, but in a way I'm completely repulsed. Now I've come to this place where I'd rather be in coach than do what I have to do to get into business. I'd rather not talk with the millionaire, because all they talk about is restaurants anyway, and you have to be very careful about what you say. I'd rather not do that, because you can't write songs like that and the only thing that makes me happy is thinking or writing. And rich people are like everyone else. They'll buy you all the drinks you want as long as you're part of the party, but if you're starving and you need a meal, forget it. They're just like everyone else, we're all alike, this whole culture that we live in, the First World, we're all these people who have too much.
Does your songwriting depend on a certain state of mind, a certain way of life? If you had that well-off existence, could you produce the goods?
No. I mean, what am I going to write about? Nice restaurants? Or that IKEA rug I bought, shit, it just didn't fit the room. And look at the job she did on my nails, fucking bitch.
Do you feel that people miss the artifice of what you do and take it as just your diary in song form?
It is my diary in song form. You know, I don't care, you can do anything you want.
It doesn't bother you to be characterised in the way that you often are?
That bothers me because I get characterised - and I know I've had two beers and I know I complained about my hangover from earlier - as the sad, drunken clown. Which begs the question, 'are you?' Actually you're right, that really does bother me, it really does pigeonhole you. I could milk it, I could be that.
Why would you want to?
Maybe it's who I really am. Like Victoria Beckham. I saw her on CD:UK and I couldn't believe it, I couldn't believe how vain it all was. But she moves good. And I'm sure she could talk for hours about her new look.
Things her stylist advised her to wear
Right. The sunglasses with the straight hair and the fringe just so. Modern and retro at the same time, incredible. It's a completely artificial thing, but it's who she really is. And it's what most people want. Most people think that if they put on the right clothes and the right make-up they're going to be beautiful. But that's not how you become beautiful, it's not how you become interesting. To rise above the hell of day-to-day life is what we all want, and some people drink a lot and some people eat a lot and some people fuck a lot and some people do drugs and some people have fancy cars and fancy houses and some people are famous. But everybody's just terrified of dying and terrified of the narrowness of day-to-day life and to escape it is, I think, everyone's goal. And you can do it, you can lose track of time and feel something incredible about this world if you want to. But you don't do it by putting on fancy clothes, that's the wrong direction. The right direction is to be alive.
Do you agree with a reading of your songs as existential?
Uh, man, I don't know. I have no idea.
But you're supposed to know Mark! Make an effort, for God's sake.
[Laughs] I'm sure that Kristen knows more about my songs than I do, and I'm sure that my manager knows more about my songs than I do and I'm sure that my lawyer knows more about my songs than I do. Because they actually listen to them, and I don't, I just write them and sing them. I remember when I was 19, I took this class in yoga. This teacher thought that my involvement in the whole punk rock/rock'n'roll thing was going to destroy me, and I was like, "yeah. Of course." And he was a writer, a really good writer before he got involved with yoga.
Like it's bad drugs or something.
Well no, because what he got out of yoga was a transcendent feeling, and he didn't have to sit there and struggle. When people die they struggle with death, it's hard, it's frightening, it's inevitable. He read some of my stuff and told me I had a lot of work to do and started giving me lists, like 'that's good poetry, that's not good poetry.' And I was more pretentious than I am now, which is a lot. Of course I didn't listen to him. He said 'you should really investigate the spirit.' And so I stopped the yoga because I didn't want to be in heaven on earth, I wanted to talk about people, because I felt that was a wiser path, to actually be involved in the human race in some way. And struggle, struggle with death, struggle with pain. I'm wrong, of course. I remember listening to the Dalai Lama; someone asked him, "What regrets do you have in life?" He said, "My biggest regret is that once an old monk came to me and said, 'How do I transcend?'" And the Dalai Lama said, "you can't, you're too old. You have to start this stuff when you're seven." And so the other monk went and killed himself. But the Dalai Lama really regretted that. And it was kind of great hearing him say that, because we are like blind rats, we really don't know anything for sure.
Which makes me think of Primo Levi, who I know is someone you've read.
Yeah, why did he kill himself? What the fuck's up with that? I do believe in God and I do believe in evil, mostly because I don't think I'm smart enough to think of anything better, I don't think I'm smart enough to actually consider anything else. I don't think we have the capability to think in a different way which might actually free us from the whole slavery to evil and good.
You use a lot of religious images, but I wouldn't have thought of you as someone who believed in God.
Oh I do, because I know fear and I know that when you're afraid, you pray. In our First World, where the only thing you have to worry about is the train being late. A lot of people all over the world have to really think every day about whether they're going to live through the day. We went to the Tower yesterday. I love tourists, I love being a tourist and I love these places. Like you see the Domesday Book and first of all, where did anybody get so much time that they could make this book in this perfect script? Nowadays we have no time because we have to do this, we have to do that, and then 'what's on television later?' We're always doing these things which distract us from what the truth is. The whole culture of beauty and fame, it's just to distract us from the fact that we could die at any minute. But I don't want to seem like a doom-sayer. I love being distracted, lord knows, I love living now, but you got to see it for what it is, it's not the whole world.
Do you feel fans make demands upon you?
They make no demands.
Wasn't the tone of the response to West on the Firefly Mailing List that you owed people something?
I wasn't on it at the time. I heard about it though and I replied to one person. There was one review that said seeing me play with Peter Buck and Tuatara was just a bunch of rock stars jerking off together. And I really resented that. It's about the only time I've ever sent a really rude, horrible email back. Peter gave me a lot. Peter is super-smart, he's one of the most talented people I've ever met in my life, and one of the most ambitious, and he knows how to live. I really love my friends and when people insult them I get really mad and this guy was just stupid. I wrote these songs for Peter because he's a friend, because I thought that what we had was pretty good and I put it out as a record because I thought it was pretty good. I'm not happy with all the mixing, but whatever. I didn't know that Warner Brothers was going to make it into such a big deal. And that it was going to be my last hurrah.
I saw you at an in-store at the time. Afterwards there was a queue for Peter to sign things - you looked so forlorn.
I wasn't happy, it was really difficult to do that. I'm a proud person and it was a little galling to do that, but at the same time he was trying his hardest to help me out and he was working really hard.
The way you talk makes it seem like charity work for him.
No, he liked the album, he was proud of it and wanted to support it. My one regret is that I wish it could have been 'Mark Eitzel and Peter Buck' as opposed to 'Mark Eitzel', because we co-wrote all the songs and basically the music was mostly his.
He said it should go under your name?
Yeah, because he couldn't contractually put his name on it. And that was hard, because then he could take half responsibility for it. I think it's a good record and I think people will look back on it as a good record. It's funny because I do get a lot of people that come up to me and say, "West is the best record you ever made." But I'm an American and I just go, "thank you very much." And I don't think about it again, because it's not worth it. I only complained about the guy in Birmingham who told me I could save my career by playing old AMC songs because when I shook his hand and said, "thank you very much." He wouldn't let my hand go. And he was like, "No. You have to understand what I'm trying to say." Yeah, you're drunk and you're going to repeat yourself twenty times and I already understand what you have to say. And I don't even care. Do you remember in Don't Look Back, the Bob Dylan movie, there's this one moment when these three beautiful, sweet girls from the north of England come up to him and they're like, "We love you Bob! Why don't you do one of your folk records again?" And this movie is amazing because you see him as a real person, kind of as a vain person, kind of as a twenty-two year old, kind of stupid. He very patiently says to these girls, "you like me don't you?" And they're like, "yeah." "And you want me to be happy, right?" "Yeah." "Well, I'm going to be happy by making the kind of records that I want to make. You wouldn't like me if I didn't do that, would you?" And one of the girls goes, "I made him mad!" So sweet. But you know, I wish I got it more because it would demonstrate that people really cared.
Do you feel any responsibility to provide what people want?
Yeah, I do actually. Did you ever watch that movie about the lawsuit brought by the parents of a teenager who tried to kill himself after having listened to a Judas Priest song? It was a great documentary, most of which includes this kid who has no jaw trying to talk. One kid blew himself away with a shotgun, then he tried and it was all based on the lyrics of this one song.
Does he articulate that it was because of the song?
Well, he still loves the song and he quotes it with vehemence. It really influenced them to kill themselves, his life was over. And the guy from Judas Priest, god bless him, he says, "I don't remember the fucking song. The lyrics? Don't remember them." Which was really super-heartless and also kind of for real. But I don't see anyone ever killing themselves listening to one of my songs, because A. most of my songs you don't even know what it's about because I write so obtusely, and B. there's no hollow spaces left, I've pretty much filled up all the slots. When I write a song I've thought about every single possibility of every single word and every single moment in the music. There's a couple of throwaway songs like "Proclaim Your Joy" or "Tell It To The Lonely Fairy In The Forest". Like, "Blue And Grey Shirt", it doesn't exactly give you much hope for the future, but at the same time I care so much about the song and the moment when I'm singing it, there's no subtext, there's no heartless subtext. In a lot of heavy metal, in a lot of men who think that testosterone is the only way to have any self-statement, there is heartlessness and it's the subtext to a lot of music. Ms. Beckham, y'know, it's heartless. Britney Spears, the whole vibe of it is that you've got this under-age porn star and the subtext is, "I want your fucking money, fucker!" What's the other one? The one who married the boss of her record company? Mariah Carey. She's the template for all of this kind of music. Once I was sitting in this cafe - and I hate this cafe because it's run by kids who think they're cutting edge, but they're just assholes - and they were playing Mariah Carey, I didn't know it was her, I was trying to have a thought, trying to have a feeling. But this music was all like sugarplum fairies and candyfloss. You could just imagine My Little Ponies wandering around on Marshmallow Mountains, it was horrifying.
There's a fantastic quote attributed to her, along the lines of how terrible it is to have starving people in the world, but they do have such great figures.
Think about that. It's perfect. I'm going to use that in a song.
If one of those pop sensations picked up one of your songs and felt she could do something with it, would you have any qualms?
No. I need the money. It's so hard to write that kind of music. To put the words in the mouths of whores. I went to a songwriting conference in the south of France last year, it was put on by the man who used to own IRS Records [Miles Copeland]. He owns a chateau and there were about fifty songwriters there and every day you're given two other songwriters to write with and you have to come up with a song that day and record it. And the thing lasts fourteen days and you've got fourteen songs. I worked with some people and it was great, I worked with some people and it was impossible. A lot of these songwriters were born-again Christians and think that it's cheating to use anything but a normal tuning. A lot of them are very careful about what they say in the songs. I talked to this big Nashville songwriter, who I loved, he was the most lucid man, he wrote all of George Strait's hits. He said he has this man who is his filter, they talk about this stuff. And a filter is somebody who will let you know whether or not K-Mart shoppers will get it. And this guy comes up with perfect cornball phrases which are amazing. As a songwriter, I've never seen anything like it in my life. A little bland for my taste, but I begged to work with him. We worked with a Brazilian star, and I'd come up with all my ideas and, no, nothing I said would pass.
Is this lyrically or musically?
Both. I think I came up with a minor chord or a passing note. And I think I came up with like three lines. In that world I was a complete crap songwriter, because I love mystery and I love things that don't make sense and you can't do that as a real songwriter, and these people were real songwriters who had actual number one hits. And they love to talk about the craft of it, which I despise. Craft? What's craft? Craft is energy and passion subverted to formula. People like to listen to things they already know. I worked with Jane [Wiedlin] from the Go-Gos. She said to me, "What do you do?" So I said I'll play you one of my songs. And she was great, she was such a pop star, she hated my guts and let me know it. I did my song and she said, "Stop. You know, I don't play that sort of shit. I don't play depressing." And actually the song that she wrote, that we kind of nudged her into, was really great, my hat's off to her. But, oh boy, that was a hard day, because none of my ideas were good enough. I worked with a Scottish guy, he's a song doctor for a living, he'll have his name taken off songs and take a cash payment instead of publishing. He's a genius, an absolute genius.
Have you heard the AMC tribute record?
I know about it and I'm trying to maintain a distance from it, because I don't want to have to approve or disapprove. I'm honoured.
What's the status of the AMC reissues? Will there ever be a 'best of' collection?
Warner Brothers told me they would release the last two AMC albums they have, but only if Tom Mallon will also give the rights to have them manufactured by a third party, because he can't do it himself legally. And he doesn't want to, so I have to try somehow to get him to allow me to do it. I would love to do that. And I would love to do a remix album where I remix some of the songs myself, not change them, but make them sound big and strong, because the way they were originally mastered was piss-ant. I'd love California to sound big and strong. And Tom, god bless him, the gear he had was cheap and kind of shitty and I'd love to do it through a big board with a good engineer. And that's another pipe dream that will never come true because there's no interest and there's no money.
I was surprised that you collaborated with the biography Wish The World Away. Happily?
Not really. It was a drag and I wasn't very nice to him, and therefore I think that translated into the book as if I was this nasty little prick. I liked the book, but there's so much detail, he worked his ass off to make all the myriad details perfect and of course still didn't get it all right, mainly because I didn't tell him right or because others didn't tell him. I read about six pages of it. When you think about the biography of your life, it's horrifying.
It implied that you could be your own worst enemy. Do you recognise this?
He implied that over and over. I recognise it, but, you know, the horrible thing about that book is that if you read it you really don't want to hear the music, because it makes us sound like these miserable old fucks. And the truth of it is AMC was a great band and what made it a pleasure to do was playing live and as soon as the live performances started to suck, there's no point doing it. I mean, we made transcendent moments. A lot of them.
Can you single out one songwriter that you would put above all others?
Well, no, not one. I can talk about periods in people's lives when they really affected me. Bowie circa Low and Heroes, I thought was amazing. I thought Elvis Costello, everything between My Aim Is True and Get Happy is perfect. Nick Drake with Pink Moon is perfect, Iggy Pop with Lust For Life is perfect, Neil Young with Harvest is perfect, and also with On The Beach.
Any interest in having your writing published at all?
No, I've no interest at all. I mean, I have to change my life around. The reason people stop making art is that their energy goes and they get distracted by the fact that they've lived a life and they have regrets and they're unhappy. They get distracted and they lose their ability to create because you need a lot of hope. It's that Kierkegaard thing. He's Modern because he believes in the impulse more than he does in any kind of intellectual structure. Kierkegaard was Rambo- go in there and do right just cuz, there's no rational reason for it, just have to do it. And I think with a lot of art you have to do that too, regardless of how hungover you are or how fat you are that week or how ugly you think you are or how much your life sucks or how much people hate you. Despite all these little demons that torture you, you still have to do something brand new, you have to find it somewhere. And the older you get the harder it is to find, because you spend all your time working to make money or working to live and you have kids and you have responsibilities and you have to be an adult, all that crap.
So how come you haven't handed in your cards?
Because I was lucky enough to get a publishing deal in 1994, and I don't spend a lot of money.
Do you have a day job?
No. I have to get one soon and I'm terrified because I have no skills.