Melody Maker - January 26, 1991
Dark Side Of The Loon
Publication: Melody Maker
Author: Bob Stanley
Date: January 26, 1991
"Your photographer just left. He made me laugh, he said Americans don't like having their photo taken and I'd better act for the camera. I was saying, listen, I've been acting all my life!"
Mark Eitzel, singer with American Music Club and (in his own words) "America's favorite cripple", is in Britain to play a one off at London's Borderline which is being recorded for release in the Spring. It's the first time he's been to Britain in over a year and the first anyone's heard of American Music Club in as long. The group who bought us the bittersweet beauty of California in 1988 and the sparse, harrowing United Kingdom a year later, seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth.
What the hell have you been up to in the Nineties?
"Well, I got a job in a library, in children's services. And I moved into a house. Errm, not much. It's great!"
More pertinently, AMC's American label, Frontier, signed a distribution deal with RCA. This meant RCA could tell American Music Club when they considered the time was right for the new album - they kept putting it off. The Frontier/RCA deal recently collapsed, leaving AMC with a half-finished album, no record album, no record label, and a barren 1990 to look back on. To add to their problems, the group parted with Tom Mallon, a founding member and producer of all their records to date.
"That was down to musical and personal differences," says Mark, sounding as sincere as a quiz show presenter. "No, it just wasn't working out. Tom was really good at making things sound moody and work hard on every single moment of every single song. And that's great, but on this new album, we wanted it to all sound spontaneous. I wanted it to be pretty painless, sonically big, and just really beautiful."
Frustrated by the problems with RCA, Mark took on a couple of side projects last year.
"I joined another band called the Toiling Midgets. They're kind of dirge heavy metal," he explains.
You sing with them?
"Yeah. Well I stand and scream. I think we'll have a single coming out on Sub Pop. I can't say I'm a Sub Pop fan, though. I heard The Headcoats the other day - they sounded like Slaughter And The Dogs.
"I also spent a month last year writing a song for Al Stewart. His manager liked the song but it all fell through."
You mean Al Stewart, as in "Year Of The Cat"?
"As in 'Year Of The Cat'. Why not? I like to write songs for other people. It's a challenge. I want to write a song for FM radio. You don't have to make the lyrics as inane as possible, you just have to make them.....simple. My new songs aren't about me so much. They're funnier, they're more self-consciously 'songwriting' songs. So hopefully nobody will review our next album and say, 'The shocking confessions of Mark Eitzel' again! That really got on my nerves after a while. Yeah, so I've got this new song and I think it's a radio hit. It's called 'Rise'."
What's it about?
"It's about helping someone to die."
"But it's really positive! No, it's about helping my friend who's dying of aids. He's really sick and he talks about dying a lot and I'm really enthusiastic for him. People die, y'know. It's an act of love for him, he has to deal with this the best way possible so I just thought....'Rise'. It's oblique. In America they'll probably think it's about revolution. I want Northern California to secede from the rest of the union. Iraq can have the whole fucking country except for San Francisco and New York. Take it, take it! It would do the US good to have a religion, anyway."
You can't always tell when Mark's being serious. He'll say, "I dreamt about my underwear last night and it turned into this plant" ands you're not sure if he's acting the "mad genius" part that the music press have landed him with. He argues with himself a lot. He ends a lot of his sentences with "I dunno."
"Do you guys get 'Star Trek - The Next Generation'? he asks. "We watch it every week. Me and Vudi (AMC guitarist) have been convinced into buying shoulder pads. It hasn't won any awards apart from one for set design. It's the best metaphor for America. Twin Peaks is great too. Yeas, I do watch a lot of TV. I dunno.....what the fuck. I ought to say I spend all my time reading books, but I like TV."
Twin Peaks and the Gulf are the two topics of conversation that everyone seems to avoid because they don't want to appear obvious.
"The Gulf pisses me off so much. The American goverment is so corrupt. It's like Nero playing the fiddle while the world burns. The only reason they're out there is to keep defence spending up because you can't let the contractors down. And of course America wants to support another monarchy, another fascist state. I just fucking resent this stupid war so much. But let's talk about me and my career - that's a fucking disaster too!"
Let's talk about something else. Beauty.
"I live in a mission and there's drug dealers across on 19th outside the burrito store and hookers all along the street. It's quite a tough area, but it's San Francisco, and there's more of them all the time. The whores on Capp Street. It's like, what would anyone want from these women? Maybe a handjob. Maybe not even that, just a talk or something. I dunno, I'm not a customer. As I heard this woman say to one guy who was shouting at a whore, 'You got to pay her if you want to abuse her'. So who am I to give them abuse. But I walk past them and they have this tired, drained, washed expression, it's hard work. And all the interaction on the streets has become dollars and cents. Bottom line, always. It's interesting. I mean, it's freezing cold and these girls are wearing pants. It fascinates me. So I write about it.
"The point is...I was talking to a friend whose roommate is saying. He's really afraid. He's into this really weird stuff that blocks him from becoming a human being. It makes all his interactions of a certain kind, just like the whores. Drinking a lot is the same, Everything you want is of a certain nature. It makes you a funnel for very specific things which is good in a way because a lot of people are good at one thing and bad at everything else. Beauty is always there for everyone, but it torments some people because they don't chase it. Some people chase it and love it. It's the old sex and death thing. It torments you. Or you love it. Or both. I dunno."
Mark's deliberate move towards a more pop sound is partly influenced by his current obsessions for The Replacements and Smokey Robinson. Can he see himself as a midway between the two?
"Oh no. I'd say more of a cross between Phil Collins and William Shatner. Yeah, I think I cut a William Shatner figure."
Potential radio hits, uplifting arrangements - blimey, before you know it, American Music Club will be mobbed in the streets by teenyboppers.
"I really like like most AMC fans, they're no denominational. We don't have too many fans who dress all in black, we don't have too many fans who are fashionable - but that's not surprising as we're certainly not! I've got a pair of Doc Marten's, but then they're not so hip at the moment, either.
"There's one fan in San Francisco I don't like....how can you hate a fan? I can. It's hard when people come up to you and say, 'I really like this song on the album, and another song' and you're like, 'Thanks...thanks', and then you wait a bit and say, 'Thanks'. But then there was this girl in New York who said, 'I listened to your LP a thousand times when I was in hospital after my boyfriend beat me up and then I had an abortion. You really helped me through it'. And I'm thinking, 'Fuck, I don't deserve that. It wasn't, me darling, it was you'. I dunno. Maybe she got American Music Club mixed up with Sly And The Family Stone."
Whatever the next American Music Club will sound like, it seems a safe bet that it will feature self-deprecating humour by the truckload. Which makes the title of the forthcoming live set, "Challenger", surprisingly positive.
"Well it was going to be called 'From Chernobyl to Challenger'...."