Lime Lizard - April 1993

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Mercury Reverence
Publication: Lime Lizard
Author: David Cox
Date: April 1993

Ronnie Scott’s, January 31st: Bark Psychosis are playing to an audience who, unaccustomed to sitting at waited tables in semi-legendary jazz clubs, have been hushed into a peculiar and disturbing reverie. Any movement amongst the respectful spectators is immediately noticeable, any incidental conversation is promptly shushed into silence: the members of Bark Psychosis, at this precise moment in time, are probably the closest they are ever likely to get to actually being worshipped.

So it’s quite a shock when in between songs we sit quietly meditating on the musical manna which has just fallen from Heaven into our collective laps (I’m being heavily ironic here), an American voice shouts out: “Can you play ‘Wipeout’?”

It may not be the world’s zingiest heckle, but it certainly does the job, puncturing the bubble of obeisance and jerking us back to the reality of our surroundings. It’s not until later, as we are filing out, that I discover that the perpetrator of this sharply-aimed barb is Vudi, snappy-dressin’, hat-wearin’, goatee-sportin’ gee-tarist with American Music Club. Both he and AMC’s singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel, himself the uncomfortable subject of much veneration, haven’t been in town for much more than a day and already they’re causing trouble.

“I liked them okay,” Vudi says later in the week, when the two wild men of rock (we-ell, they were the rowdiest people in Ronnie Scott’s that night) are safely caged in a Virgin Records hospitality suite. “It was just the preciousness of the whole evening that bothered me. As a performer I’ve always come from a place where you expect the audience to spit something back at you, although you lose that the more acceptance you get. You move away from playing intimate places, where drunk people are, people who are intimately real with one another. I always feel like spitting something back at a rock band. ‘Cos they’re asking for it, even if they don’t know how to take it.”

“I mean, I liked Bark Psychosis quite a bit,” adds Mark, “but when he shouted ‘Wipeout’ I was really proud. It was like, 'yes!' I saw the shockwave going through the crowd.

“I don’t like a reverential tone. You should expect the performer to do his thing and let you have your good time. Y’know, a night out seeing a rock band is just like…well, you go out and you’re in love with somebody and you wanna either get drunk and think about them, or you wanna get drunk and make out with them. Or it’s because you want to find somebody. This is what it’s about. It’s not about this precious music. Who cares? Who gives a fuck?”

Who gives a fuck? Well, an increasing number of people appear to be giving a fuck about American Music Club these days. The band’s new album, Mercury, their sixth, is their first for a major label (Warner’s subsidiary Reprise in the US and Virgin over here) and, for the first time in the San Francisco quintet’s history, the buzz about them has spread from the pockets of deeply committed fans (once you’ve succumbed to your first AMC record there really is no going back) to the mainstream, ‘overground’ press. Just one look at the Virgin press officer’s schedule for the band reveals interviews with The Observer and The Times, among other Fleet Street broadsheets and glossy monthlies.

However, to imply that AMC’s current high profile is down to any corporate publicity push would be to do them a disservice indeed. Mercury contains thirteen songs (there are fourteen tracks on the album, but we’ll get on to the exception later) that could quite conceivably propel any band into the spotlight; thirteen songs that slip seamlessly into AMC’s damn near flawless canon of work. Compulsive and compassionate, filled with a dry, self-deprecating humour and a genuine love of humanity, with all its foibles, that never fail to offset the bleaker moments of self-loathing and despair, they pulse with life, even in the midst of death. Certainly the songs themselves don’t mark a concerted push towards the mainstream – just listen to the harsh, hectic thrash of "Challenger" or the emotional depths plumbed on "If I Had A Hammer" and "Apology For An Accident" (with the sickening, haunting line “I’m an expert in all things that nature abhors/The look of disgust when I touch your skin”) and you won’t find a band that, after spending ten years in the wilderness, are suddenly making compromises in exchange for the warm hearth of commercial success. As Eitzel himself admits in the Virgin press release which accompanied the album: “I guess we make it a little difficult for people to like us, but nothing valuable comes easy.” (Boy, is it humiliating to have to crib from a press release just because you forgot to ask the right question at the time.)

However, Eitzel, Vudi, bassist Dan Pearson, keyboard player and pedal steel guy Bruce Kaphan (who produced Everclear) and new drummer Tim Mooney found themselves forced to make some concessions to their new label home (their sixth in as many outings). For one, they had to hire a ‘proper’ producer. For two (if indeed you can say “for two”), they had to record the album in, gulp, Los Angeles. I can only speculate about the rest of the band but first impressions suggest that neither Mark nor Vudi are “LA kinds guys”:

“Being in LA,” begins the guitarist, thoughtfully, “probably had, in a backwards way, a positive effect on the record, just because it’s such an awful place to be. The only place you can think to be is in the studio, which is usually, in itself, a pretty awful place to be.”

”I don’t agree,” interjects Mark. “I think the location, for me, had a really detrimental effect on my singing, on the way I sang. I really just wanted the whole thing to be over and done so I could get home.”

However, the city, and the denizens therein, provided Eitzel with the inspiration for at least one of the songs on the album – "Hollywood 4-5-92":

“I was in LA, sometime before we recorded the album, at a party, I admit, with all these Hollywood-type people. Anyway, an American rock star, who will go nameless but who was really a self-conscious wreck, was like ‘I’m trying to get this party started, I don’t know where you people came from but I’m going to put on some dance music’ and he put on his own record, which promptly killed the whole thing stone dead. And then the cops came…”

Still, their minds are made up about LA:

“It’s a miserable place,” decides Vudi.

“It’s just desperately sad. Don’t like it,” concurs Mark.

Determined not to be outdone, Vudi finished the topic off with a poetic flourish. “It’s like the manhole cover to Hell. It’s the bunghole, y’know, and the cork is rotting.”

Hmmmm, maybe this guy should write the lyrics more often.

An imposition which proved far more felicitous was that of Mitchell Froom, the first professional producer the band has collaborated with.

“Mitchell himself wasn’t imposed upon us,” corrects Mark, “but it was sort of a label idea that we have a producer so there wouldn’t be any problems. We interviewed quite a few and most of them were really cool. Mitch, however, was dour and uncool so he was the one.

“He had good ideas about clearing up our arrangements and so that was good.”

Vudi agrees: “Mitchell was great to work with. He didn’t impose anything on us. He’d make suggestions and if we didn’t want to do them we’d just say, ‘Well, no’. But he does have very strong musicianship and he tries to get that across when he approaches things. We’d just make a noise and he’d try to make it move along nicely.”

The influence that Froom, who worked on two of last year’s most under-rated albums, Los Lobos’ Kiko and Suzanne Vega’s 99.9, has had on Mercury cannot be underestimated. Indeed, those familiar with AMC’s past work may be more than a little surprised by how far it strays from their regular, predominantly guitar-based arrangements. From the calliope waltz of "Hollywood" and the dance-beat drum pattern on "What Godzilla Said To God When His Name Wasn't Found In The Book Of Life" to the Eastern-tinged break in "Dallas, Airports, Bodybags", and the soaring strings of "Johnny Mathis' Feet", Froom and the band imbue the songs, some of which existed in various forms more than a year before the album was recorded, with strange, often troubling undercurrents. Any fears that the increasingly complex and ambitious arrangements may distract attention from Eitzel’s lyrics are unfounded. If anything, the new, more treacherous musical terrain multiplies the way in which his words can be interpreted. AMC have never sounded quite so rich and remarkable as they do on Mercury.

On the whole, this musical makeover suited the band just fine, although they admit to a modicum of overkill – much of it intentional – on the paean to vacuous showmanship, Johnny Mathis' Feet.

“The orchestra was our idea,” says Mark, at this point happy to take full responsibility. “It had to be there. It’s a corny song so you’ve just got to push it ‘to the max.'"

“Although,” he equivocates, obviously looking to wheedle out of something, “Mitchell did go to town…those flutes,” (shakes his head in a mixture of awe and horror), “those appalling flutes. God!”

“Mitch came up with the flute part,” confirms Vudi, letting Mark squirm off the hook. “That song really got the kitchen sink treatment.”

Mark still looks suitably aghast. “The visions of unicorns dancing in a forest grove, y’know. It’s so bad!”

The songs on Mercury are typically emotionally unflinching. Eitzel rails against a world which cruelly turns a blind eye to the suffering of others, be it those who have died or are dying of AIDS (the victims of which the singer calls “the true patriots of America”) or those for whom love has simply run its course, leaving them lost and alone, scared, scarred and bitter. Even the most cursory of glances at the album’s lyric sheet will reveal that Eitzel is in particularly merciless mood, tearing himself inside-out as he attempts to understand the pathetic deaths, the tortured hearts and the broken souls. I could quote lyrics at you from here clear into the next issue, but these concerns are never more directly stated than in the fragile, aching ballad to a lost love, "I've Been A Mess". Beginning with a consolatory mandolin and Eitzel’s broken voice singing the lines “Lazarus wasn’t grateful for his second wind/For another chance to watch his chances fade like the dawn/And me, I can barely tell you/Just how pale I get without you,” it stretches across miles of pain and hurt and ultimately leaves you at peace, able perhaps to accept, but never forget, whatever personal loss you dredge up in empathy. It’s beautiful, although a friend called it “the most generic AMC song” she’d ever heard.

“Well,” stalls Eitzel, obviously considering and dismissing the judgment at the same time, “maybe I have reached the point where I’m just writing formulaic American Music Club songs. Maybe I’ve reached the point where aged people tend to do the things they know best. I must say I like 'I've Been A Mess'. It’s got the corniest chorus in the whole world. I’ve had people tell me that it’s the worst song I’ve written in my life. But I like it. I like playing it.”

Eitzel may know how to read the map of the human heart, but his ability to capture a sense of time and place should not be overlooked. It’s this talent which marks him out as a truly great songwriter, transporting you to the bars and clubs of "Gary's Song" and "Crabwalk", the lonely highway outpost of "Nightwatchman" or the sun-drenched shores of Waikiki in "The Hula Maiden" with little more than a few evocative lines and some subtly clever musical arrangements. Early albums have titles like California and United Kingdom (where, in Southampton, Eitzel spent his formative years), while songs are littered with references to various streets, establishments and cities. This habit reaches a peak on Mercury with songs such as "Gratitude Walks", "Hollywood 4-5-92", "Dallas, Airports, Bodybags" and "Challenger", a song seemingly about contemplating suicide while in an aeroplane over Detroit.

“Yeah, I noticed that too on this album,” agrees Mark. “Place names are good because they’re details. Everything is about details. Places are brooding, places have their own little thing. I like places.”

“In pop music place names are important,” adds Vudi who, later in the week, backs up his claim by taking a tour through the areas so darkly outlined by Peter Ackroyd in the East London Gothic novel Hawksmoor. “They make songs more real. They’re so evocative and they lead your audience somewhere.”

The finest example of this feat on Mercury is the starkly realistic "Over And Done", which takes us down into the "underwater cave" of Capp Street, San Francisco, a town which has been Eitzel’s home since a brief band relocation to Germany in the mid-80s. Set against a dark, chugging backdrop, he sings about ‘faces that were washed away from innocence and pain’ and being kept awake at night by ‘their sweet songs to the moon’, ending with what’s likely to be the bleakest singalong chorus of the year, ‘We had a good time, we had some fun/Now we want to get the whole thing over and done.’ For once, Eitzel seems to be an outsider, standing apart from and reporting the pain that he sees, rather than experiencing it first-hand.

“I used to live on Capp Street. Across the street there was a drug dealer. Every morning I’d get up and find people shooting up through their pants legs. It was just a whole neighbourhood full of junkies and prostitutes, and also families, and for some reason the whole thing where I lived was just really violent. A month after I moved out the man downstairs shot his wife to death – no, stabbed her to death – in front of the two little children. It’s like ‘why can’t I sleep tonight? Because there’s someone else being killed.’ There’s always automatic gunfire. There’s always some major crisis. It was terrible.”

Eitzel has long since moved away from Capp Street and seems perfectly contented with his latest San Francisco residence.So content, indeed, that even this week-long publicity tour is too long for him to be away from his adopted hometown.

“I used to like staying in hotels, it was a trip. The place we’re at now, the shower curtains smell like armpits. They’re all corroded and everything’s kinda crummy. So, up until about 8 months ago, all the places I’ve lived in were worse than the hotels and motels we’d stay in, so it was always like a really nice thing to do. But now I have this place and I really like it.Everywhere I go is not home, so it’s not good.

“Like, I enjoy spending time here, in London, although it’s got so depressing. People seem so depressed here, compared to San Francisco. I mean, I love London, really, but if you’re alone here it can be hard. I was alone here for two months in 1992, didn’t speak to anybody. I took the Tube all the time, everywhere. I can’t even sit on the Tube now because I get really paranoid about people. You sit facing somebody and they don’t look at you and you don’t look at them, or else they are looking at you, which can be worse.”

Even allowing for the new musical experimentation evident on Mercury, no-one listening to the album for the first time will fail to be struck by the seeming incongruity of the penultimate track, "More Hopes And Dreams". Two minutes worth of barely audible electronic bleeps possessing an elusive and strange melody, it can be either maddening or soothing, depending on your mood. No matter how you react to it, it clears the palate for the similarly hushed and intimate finale, "Will You Find Me?". So the risk pays off, ultimately, although what it is that’s emitting this curious musical sorbet remains a mystery.

“That’s a power station in San Francisco,” says Mark, satisfying my curiosity. “I think it’s a systems check, to say that all the systems are going well. Me and Vudi were out there one night taking pictures and we listened to it and thought ‘This is it! We want this on the album’. We weren’t sure how we were going to use it, we just went and recorded it.”

Before I can question further the wisdom of what seems like quite a deliberately perverse decision, Vudi anticipates my question with a purely aesthetic approach which precludes further skepticism. “It has a nice musical quality. I think there’s a lot of suspense in that little melody.”

There’s no doubt that American Music Club make an unlikely major label band. Both Mark and Vudi freely admit that the ‘grunge revolution’ helped bring them to the attention of record companies who would have ignored them in pre-Nirvana days. However, they don’t feel any great affinity with the new wave of ‘slacker’ guitar bands, whose chief concern seems to be avoiding the extreme emotional highs and lows that Eitzel and co. fearlessly explore. If there’s any one relatively modern band Eitzel is more than happy to draw a parallel with, it’s the late, great Replacements, critical darlings of the 1980s, with a loyal cult audience similar to AMC’s, who signed to a major after the independent success of the seminal Let It Be, lost a brilliant guitarist who had been threatening to pull the whole band down into whatever private Hell he had been occupying, and then gradually disintegrated until singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg emerged as a solo artist in his own right.

“They were a great rock band for a while,” muses Vudi, “they just didn’t have a clue so they were great. With the original line-up, they just didn’t give a fuck and that really helps.”

Adds Mark: “They just wanted to be a rock band in the classic sense and…self-destruction ahoy! Which is fine.”

I guess so. Although you do appear to be relishing that last thought to a rather worrying degree.

“Well, y’know, we try to emulate them, but in our own lame sort of way."