London Student - March 7, 1991
Publication: London Student
Author: Nick Terry
Date: March 7, 1991
For those who have heard them, American Music Club are making the greatest music in the world right now. With a trio of albums, Engine, California, and United Kingdom, they have managed the feat of exceeding not only any current kindred spirits but also their influences. That someone can come up with California so late in the game is miraculous and inspiring.
AMC do not really fit in with the convenient divide of singer/songwriter and band; they simply trash the categories. Mark could well branch out on his own, but without the band, he would merely be yet another singer with guitar, albeit an excellent one. Onstage, he seems stripped of any artifices, save for a very black sense of humour, usually reserved for himself. Watching him at his recent solo Borderline show, it is apparent that this is no game for him.
Like Michael Stipe of REM, he was dragged around the world as a child, never settling down, never having the same chances to make friends as other people. In his high school years he ended up living outside Southampton, moving every year for six years.
"It was a really strange upbringing. I met an old girlfriend, my old high school sweetheart, and I told her I hated school because they hated me because I was American. She said, 'No Mark, they hated you because you were weird.'"
"I never had any friends and in high school in particular I never had any friends. As most children do I had a very rich interior life. Most people thought I was on drugs. I listened to a lot of Yes, with the headphones on and in the lotus position. This was in 1972. All the other kids were into glitter and they were cool."
As with so many, this changed with punk. No more Yes. "In 1976, when the Sex Pistols came out, I was buying all the punk singles. I was listening to John Peel every night. I refused to dress up, that was my little comment. So I was still wearing flares. Then the girl I was with dropped me for a guy wearing peg leg trousers. I don't blame her."
Returning to America was a considerable shock for him. First, nobody knew about the English bands he liked, then hardcore burst onto the scene.
"We had a band called The Cowboys which was like the punk rock band in Columbus, Ohio. I actually quit because of hardcore. I'm a total hippy now but at that point I was like 'I hate hippies.' And the hardcore kids, they had the same attitude, that everything's acceptable. They were playing at being punk, everything had to be just that way, everything had to be punk and that's not what it was about for me. I felt really threatened. Punk wasn't about becoming violent at shows, becoming violent fucks. Also people started using a lot of drugs around me. I moved to California, moved in with someone, went from 21 to 55.."
Eitzel has followed the same path away from punk's initial brash noise that the likes of Morrissey or Nick Cave have. The compressed minimalism of punk guitars gave way to focusing on The Song. It is a route that a later generation of hardcore musicians have also taken. Bands like Cowboy Junkies and Bark Psychosis, hardcore singers like Bob Mould of Husker Du, Paul Westerberg of The Replacements and Michael Gira of The Swans, even, to an extent, Kurt Ralske of Ultra Vivid Scene have all joined in this mass defection away from rock noise. Alex Chilton, Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake became their idols, covers and conscious reworkings, their methods. Eitzel stands out among this disaffected generation of songwriters as the one making the most novel interpretations of The Song.
"I wanted to find a new thing to do that had nothing to do with fashion. I tried to write songs specifically about the West Coast. Initially, AMC was all-acoustic. When you write songs very deliberately - now I'm different - you don't want to mess up the words. But I had a real punk rock sensibility where you put absolutely everything you have into the song and you don't bore the audience. So I would scream the song and fall over. But AMC was a reaction towards quiet music. I didn't like going to smoky rock clubs with gallons of sweat and gallons of attitude."
Mark's love of the very English Nick Drake comes across in California and United Kingdom; on the latter, songs are often as under arranged and acoustic as on Drake's Pink Moon. When AMC do come over at full throttle, as on the Birthday Party-ish "Bad Liquor", or the gorgeously arranged "Outside This Bar", they are as devastating as any rock band. Mark, though, winces at the memory.
Mark, to be frank, is a wonderful liar and self-critical in a way most people would find almost morbid. Engine, California and United Kingdom, in the view of just about anybody that has heard them, are three of the most perfect records ever made a fact which in large part came from Tom Mallon's obsessive production.
"Tom works on things really hard, to the nth degree. He likes to take a song, strip it down, strip it down again, right to the basics. Tom always makes the most timeless albums he could without regard to style or fashion."
On California, Mallon did indeed strip the music down, only to rebuild it. On the framework of individual acoustic songs would be hung Vudi's colossal lead guitar lines. With "Highway 5" and "Western Sky", AMC achieved the deserted vastness that Shiva Burlesque suggested when they sang "Smile, it's the edge of the world. Perfect as it was, the tensions involved just grew too much.
"We needed a whole new way of arranging those songs. It was a mutual situation between me and Tom. He quit."
The new album is being produced by the whole band.
"It's going to get universally panned. I don't know it's any good or not. It's just got more of a lighter quality. We didn't arrange the songs much. This album's slower. It's more like Engine in terms of feel, it's more lush. I don't want it to be that rock sound, when all you hear from 100 yards is the snare. We didn't put all the drums in perfect time. We're not competing against a disco. I'm sure you'll hate it. But I'm writing good songs now, I'm really full of confidence. Psychologically, it's wonderful to show up for practice, although I still don't!"
Mark's black sense of humour cannot resist summing up his reasons for wanting fame and fortune for American Music Club in the most outlandish terms possible.
"It's the difference between retiring when you're 60 to this room above a bar with your dogeared collection of porno magazines, and retiring to a nice suburban house with your porno magazines. And your porno magazines can be better, more upmarket ones. Bigger. Embossed with gold leaf! I feel that when I'm 60, my sexuality will. Maybe it already is!"