Musician - July 1992

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Mark Eitzel: Underground Hero
Publication: Musician (#165)
Author: Ben Fong-Torres
Date: July 1992

The American Music Club is a rocking contradiction. Those who know their music think of singer/songwriter Mark Eitzel as a man locked in dread. In fact, his loyal bandmates swear, he's a cheerful sort - except, say, at eight in the morning, in a motel room, on tour, facing another trip in a crammed '74 Dodge van that's had more breakdowns than Richard Lewis.

But when Eitzel speaks up for himself, he takes you on an emotional seesaw ride. And he appears to be the last to know which way is up. He is explaining why he'd rather tour than stay at home.

"I don't need to have a life," he says in a sing-song voice, half whining, half whimsical, that recalls his singing. "What would I do with it? Become miserable & make others miserable. I think it's a better thing to keep traveling."

Critics love the American Music Club. Rolling Stone's professional listeners not only listed AMC's latest, Everclear, as one of 1991's five best albums, alongside R.E.M, U2, Nirvana and Guns N' Roses, they also anointed Eitzel "Best Songwriter." The laurels clearly excited the five members of AMC, but they're not sure they add up to anything.

"It doesn't make sense," says Eitzel. "We're getting pegged as, like, the best-kept secret, which really gets on your nerves after a while. Our critical acclaim doesn't help sell any records, really."

In fact, the raves set up too-great expectations. "I've started reading reviews that go, 'When the band came to town, I thought, from their press kit, it'd be the second coming of Christ. But they're just a rock band.'"

Eitzel shrugs. "That's all we are."

And yet, the reviews have finally pushed AMC out of the ranks of struggling young bands. Never mind that they've been together for nine years, put out their first record in 1986 and are all thirtysomething.

They've struggled to get five albums out and have never known how any of them have sold. They all had day jobs and plowed the money they had into the band - usually into repair bills for the van.

"We've been doing this independent crap for a long time," says Eitzel. "We knew we were destined to do something else or come apart."

A few minutes later, talking about the band's new home with Warner Bros. in North America and Virgin Music everywhere else, Eitzel shrugs off the deal. "It's all very well, but we just continue. We're always going to do this."

Eitzel and the band - guitarist Vudi, bassist Dan Pearson, drummer Tim Mooney and steel guitarist/keyboardist/producer Bruce Kaphan - sit around in the living room of a flat that looks like a Hollywood prop man's idea of poverty-stricken musician's place. A visitor is advised to test any chair he plans to sit in. It's furniture even Tom Waits would sneer at.

With their big new deal they're looking to the future. "We're trying to get sponsorship with Rogaine and Hair Club for Men," says Eitzel, pointing to his own receding hairline as well as those of Vudi and Kaphan.

Eitzel, who's 33, sits with a doughnut and a cup of coffee. A year or so ago, he stopped drinking (except, he says, for the "occasional bender"). Talking, he wraps a lengthy piece of thread around his fingers, as if he's about to do some string tricks. When he's excited, his close-knit eyebrows begin to dance along with his voice, but most of the time, he's tying tourniquets on his digits. Over the course of an hour, for no apparent reason, he strips to an undershirt and pants.

"The story of the band," says Eitzel, "isn't anything particularly fascinating. It's just like the story of any rock 'n' roll band. We got together, we started playing and took it from point A to point B."

Sorry, Mark, but, as Columbo would say, there's just a few problems. For one thing, there's the matter of the reactions they inspire. Option, a smart little magazine on the edge of the music scene, calls AMC "an erratic, invigorating and frightening band," while other critics are driven by Eitzel's songs to un-writerly excess. Witness Alan Jones in Melody Maker, who describes AMC's territory as "this landscape of dread, these epitaphs to the worlds soiled dreams, the charred ends of dislocated lives."

To this, and to the endless comparisons of Eitzel with doomed pop figures like Tim Buckley, Nick Drake and Ian Curtis, Eitzel offers a furrow oh his close-knit brows.

"It kinda makes me feel a little dubious," he says, "because nobody writes reviews of those writers and says, 'Oh, the end is near.' They write, 'Oh, this is a beautiful thing.'"

"People like Pinter, Samuel Beckett - who're not exactly up guys - that's more where I'm coming from," Eitzel continues. "I knew I was writing sad music and not compromising on my feelings in my songs. Writing is a way to sidestep issues, and I find these reactions weird because I have to start answering for it."

Eitzel is casual to the extreme about his work. If it's a defense mechanism, he's an accomplished engineer.

Asked when he began thinking of himself as a real writer, he answers with a sing-songy, questioning voice:

"Probably earlier this year?"

As for the paucity of lyrics sheets (only the U.S. release of the 1988 album California carried one), Eitzel remarks: "People can make up better lyrics than I can. When they find out the real words, they're usually disappointed."

In the studio he's the usual contradictory self. He doesn't care about song arrangements, either the band or the producer can do it.

"It can be any style, any genre. I just wrote this new song, "The Torture Of St. Cruelty".' It's about weakness. At first, I thought, 'No drums. It's just going to be acoustic guitar and a string section.' Now, I'm thinking, 'Let's try drums and maybe we'll do it heavy metal.' To me the song's realized as long as it does the same thing to me inside. And if a song doesn't groove, we'll drop it."

Not that Eitzel will let the band kill off just any song of his.

"There's one song Tim hates, but will play one day." Mooney, sitting low in a wrecked sofa across from Eitzel, laughs. "It's called 'I Spent The Last Five Years Trying To Waste Half An Hour'", he says. "It's like the statement he wants to make...forever."

For all the band's kidding, Eitzel has grown in stature as a songwriter. momentarily setting aside his distaste for his own work, he offers his ingredients for a good song.

"Hummability is the first thing. Any bad song can be put on the level of a good song if it's catchy."

Honesty, which Eitzel has in the past placed at the top of his list, comes second today.

"There's not a lot of irony in me, " he says. "If I feel things, I have to say them pretty much as they are. It's corny, but I'm into corn."

And third is "being in the right place at the right time. 'Peggy Sue' wouldn't have had it's kick if it hadn't been Buddy Holly, in Lubbock, at that time."

Eitzel, who was born the year Holly died -1959- is from Walnut Creek, across the bay bridge from San Francisco. Military parents took him to England and Taiwan before he found himself planted, at age 19, in Columbus, Ohio.

By then, he'd tried his hand at songwriting - "really bad poetry set to music," he says - and listened voraciously to the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey (with special attention to Gyorgy Ligeti), Tchaikovsky's "Le Pathetique," free-form jazz and Yes - "when it got really intense, and there were like a thousand things going on at once and intermeshed beautifully. When you really know music, it's not working well at all. But when you're a kid and you've got the headphones on, and you're trying to hear God, it's good for that."

The younger Eitzel also liked Elton John, America ("They went to high school with my sister"), Neil Young and The Beatles. But in Columbus, his first band was punk-rock; his second, post-punk, a shades of Joy Division outfit called the Naked Skinnies.

In 1980, they made the logical decision to relocate to San Francisco. The band, which Eitzel described as "artists trying to make supremely pretty music," made it's way up the ranks of the Bay Area punk scene, ascending to the Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino restaurant -turned - West Coast CBGB's.

One night, the house was packed; a woman known as "Goddess," beloved in the scene, had died, and, in tribute, admission was free.

"Our first two songs were 10 minutes each. I played one note on my guitar and sang atonally. We drove everyone out." He was banned from the Mab. "I thought my life was over," he says.

He soon disbanded the Skinnies and formed the American Music Club. It was a strange group, says Vudi.

"There were two women singers and one guy who played sheet metal and trumpet. They all quit on him."

If Eitzel is an intense performer today - and he's been compared to Van Morrison at his jazzed up, most frenzied state - he was an even more excitable boy a dozen years ago. Eitzel remembers a show in Berkeley when, in the middle of the last number, he fled.

"I went into the Oakland hills and slept in someone's backyard. I was freaked out by the show. I have a tendency to read people when I'm on stage: I take on their load. Sometimes when I fail in a crowd, I get so embarrassed, it's hard for mew to even face myself. I've gotten a lot more seasoned since."

After the AMC fled, Eitzel began gathering what became the current lineup, beginning with two musicians with country roots - guitarist Vudi (who also logged time with a new wave band that got bounced from the Mab for playing too slow) and bassist Danny Pearson.

The 1985 version of AMC (before Mooney & Kaphan joined) made a record, The Restless Stranger, which they released through local musician/producer Tom Mallon, whose studio was the first home for numerous underground bands.

Mallon became AMC's producer and hooked up with the tiny Southern California label Frontier Records, which released their next two albums, Engine and California. By California, Mallon had joined as bassist, and his wife Leslie Rule became the band's manager.

The American Music Club was greeted with raves, especially in England, where appreciators of AMC's mix of rootsy country, folksy angst and punk anarchy seemed numerous. As Eitzel once told an English magazine, Vox, the British "are not afraid of bands that are hard to categorize. Americans have always had a problem with us because how do you categorize the American Music Club? Americans like the broader statement, and I think the English are able to take something a little more subtle."

Americans who had no problem with AMC had a problem finding them. The band was vulnerable to an irrefutable law of the record business. As Kaphan puts it: "Independent records cannot get any distribution."

Eitzel continued to write, and the band worked small nightclub gigs. That's as Eitzel liked it.

"I'd rather play a small bar than open for anybody," he says, even though AMC has reached it's largest live audiences as an opener for such acts as Billy Bragg and Sonic Youth. "We were forgotten after 30 seconds of their first song," he recalls. "And rightly so."

Eitzel is at his best in an intimate setting. When AMC ran out of money recording Everclear, he got a call from Demon Records, the British label, that released Engine, California and AMC's fourth album, United Kingdom, in England. Demon wanted to fly Eitzel to England to cut a live album.

With blessings from the rest of the band, Eitzel did a solo show at The Borderline in early 1991. Unplugged, he was starker and more direct than he ever was with AMC, and the rsulting album, Songs Of Love Live, is as clear as the dark cloud that is Mark Eitzel gets.

While Demon prepared to release Eitzel's live set, AMC had a rollercoaster ride ahead in the United States. Frontier made a distribution deal with BMG, which would have connected AMC with one of the biggest conglomerates in the industry. But the deal fell through, and the band split with both Frontier and Mallon.

Rule left soon after. Alias, a West Coast independent, picked up the band and issued Everclear, which, for all its critical glory, has sold only 22,000 copies worldwide. It was the law of independent records kicking in.

Deciding once again that it was time to move on, AMC and its new management negotiated a buyout from Alias, began talking with the big labels and wound up in a unique situation, signing with two labels belonging to rival conglomerates (Warner Bros. with the Warner Music Group and Virgin, now owned by Thorn EMI).

"We decided it'd be best to bifurcate the deal," says co-manager Wally Brill. "We wanted that care and attention of the people who signed the act. It's hard to get a foreign licensee excited about an act you've signed in your own country."

Virgin UK won AMC over with it's "fervor," says Brill, while in the States, Elektra, Giant and Warner Bros. were the most enthusiastic. "We wanted a situation where the power structure of the company played the record at home because they loved it, not just because they signed it," says Brill. "That's what we have. They're fans."

Aside from allowing him to leave his day job as a librarian and pick up a monitor to use onstage, the rewards of the new deal don't seem readily apparent to Eitzel.

"One good thing about being on majors is that they say, 'We love you guys.'" But, he adds, free-falling into another contradiction, "you know that if we do a record that sells like our records have been, they won't love us anymore. That kind of love is like loving someone because you like her tits. 'I'll love you as long as you have those tits.'"

For all it's years as an underground band, AMC has no aversion to commercial success.

"The sky's the limit," says Eitzel, who cops to trying for a pop single with "Rise," a song he wrote for a friend dying of AIDS. He wrote the song, he says, "because I wanted to make AIDS an issue with the band. I'm not a politician, but AIDS is about politics because our government spends more on every B-1 bomber it makes than it's ever spent on AIDS research. A generation is dying, and it's genocide."

He stops, as if wearied by the subject, or by his own voice. "I don't know; that's how I feel."

Given Eitzel's intentions, "Rise" is strangely elliptic, more anthemic than polemic, with crashing drums and cymbals, rolling bass and swelling voices behind Eitzel as he sings:

Maybe what you need is some food for your eyes
To make them rise...  
Tell me how to make something beautiful flash before your eyes.