Pulse - September 1991
Angsters Of Love
Author: Harold Demuir
Date: September 1991
"I really have grown up a lot," says Mark Eitzel. "At this point in my life I'm not about to go on any huge drinking binge that involves cadillacs, uppers, downers and whores, and I'm not about to wear a black trenchcoat and hang myself. As soon as I start saying shit like that, of course critics are gonna start saying, 'It's over, he's lost his edge.' But,I don't care."
Longtime fans of Eitzel's band, American Music Club, may bristle at the news that the American underground's most brilliant, chronically depressed songwriter has become a boring adult. Fortunately, one listen to the San Fransisco combo's new album Everclear, will allay any thoughts of Eitzel as new-sobriety poster boy.
Since 1985, AMC has been making some of the best and most overlooked records to arise from America's indie jungle. Like tragic heroes Tim Buckley, Ian Curtis and Nick Drake before him, Eitzel writes brilliantly crafted songs that breathtakingly tread the thin line between love and violence, between intoxicating melancholy and crushing sadness, Eitzel sings his compositions in a wounded and wise voice that's a perfect match for his words, while the band - including longstanding members Vudi (guitar) and Dan Pearson (bass) - eloquently supports Eitzel's dusky vision, rocking out or laying back with equal eloquence.
Now, with the release of Everclear, the band's first for Alias, the general consensus seems to be that AMC is just too damn brilliant for the world to ignore any longer. Though this view implies some fairly naive assumptions about the public's ability to recognize great art, it is worth noting that early indicators suggest that, at the very least, Everclear will end up reaching significantly more listeners than its predecessors.
New converts, then, will find a dip into the AMC catalog a rewarding experience. Though a bit of a hodgepodge stylistically, the band's 1985 debut, The Restless Stranger (on producer Tom Mallon's Grifter label), marked Eitzel - a much traveled Army brat who'd previously recorded a single each with his two Columbus, Ohio-based bands, The Cowboys and the Naked Skinnies - as a remarkable writer.
1987's Engine (AMC's first under Grifter's distribution arrangement with Frontier) marked a significant leap forward, both lyrically and musically, with Eitzel honing his knack for incisive self-flagellation on "At My Mercy" and "Outside This Bar". It also showed the band taking tentative steps toward a more distinctive musical approach. The next year's California took a smoother and more accessible direction, but Eitzel's songs maintained their bittersweet power, as evidenced by the chilling grace of "Firefly", "Highway 5" and "Western Sky".
In 1989, Demon released the spare, largely acoustic, import-only United Kingdom, released mainly as a marketing stopgap for the UK market; Eitzel says he hates it, but he says that about a lot of his records.
Like most great artists, Eitzel's brilliance lies largely in his willingness to make a fool of himself; his power as a writer derives from his ability to drop his guard and confront the dark truth.
"It's weird how much shit I get about that." he says."I just write sad songs because I can write sad songs, and because most people are just being fucked over. Are my songs accurate portrayals of my life? I don't know; maybe they are, or maybe they're just a big stylistic whitewash and I don't even know it. But I don't think any of those questions are relevant anyway. All that's relevant is, are the songs groovy? Are they beautiful? Do they reflect anyone's life?"
"I definately understand the weird cult of personality thing that's sprung up around Mark, because I became part of it myself the first time I saw him," says Vudi, who was in the audience the night Eitzel's volatile stage antics got the Naked Skinnies banned from the legendary punk club Mabuhay Gardens. The band self-destructed soon thereafter.
"There's not too many performers who can come out and really frighten you," the guitarist recalls. "He was just this little wimp, and anybody could have kicked his ass if they wanted to, but he was clearly frightening. There's a place in everyone that most people won't face - a place that's hollow, that's afraid of the dark. Mark's songs, when they're at their best, recognize that and stand face-to-face with it, and their strength comes from that."
"I think the songs on Everclear are more compassionate," Eitzel says. "A trap is a trap, and you have to acknowledge that, so these songs are basically saying that maybe love is the only way out of the trap. So is it an upbeat album? Yeah, it really is for me, because a lot of the songs are about saving yourself or about saving other people. If I could fault myself for earlier songs I've written, it would be because they sort of romanticized being so drunk or so depressed that you can barely keep your eyes open. I really can't stand destruction now. A lot of these songs are pretty obvious and clear about what they're saying. Maybe people will accuse me of getting dumb, but sometimes it's good just to blurt things out without hiding behind fancy poetry."
Everclear's biggest surprise, perhaps, is "Rise",which Eitzel says he wrote about a friend who was dying from AIDS.The song's haunting atmospherics and anthemic chorus have convinced Alias to promote the song as a potential radio breakthrough.
"'Rise' was just us trying to make a normal rock song with giant drums and big guitars," says Vudi. "We thought we'd failed, but when we played it for the record company they said, 'It's a hit - let's make a video.' But Mark can write that kind of song in his sleep. The subtle stuff - the stuff that sounds like there's not a lot going on, like 'Miracle On 8th Street', is a lot harder."
Indeed, while more aggressive tunes like "Crabwalk" and "The Dead Part Of You" carry considerable weight, what really distinguishes Everclear are such quietly devastating numbers as "The Confidential Agent","Jesus' Hands" and "What The Pillar Of Salt Held Up".
"We've always been taken to task for not rocking out,for being too quiet and whiny," says Eitzel."I like bands that rock out but that can get old. I really love Sonic Youth, but if I listen to Daydream Nation back-to-back with Revolver, I think Revolver sounds tougher. I'm easily intimidated, but I'm confident in what we do, and the whole band pretty much feels that way now, and if people find us boring they can just leave."
In the process, Eitzel has acquired a reputation as an unpredictable character whose live performances found him so deeply wrapped up in his material that he occasionally engaged in physical confrontation with audience members.
"People have these ideas about what a monster I am, but that stuff was really exaggerated," he says. "But it was inevitable that I would have that kind of relationship with audiences, because of the way I used to approach performing. Nowadays I know better than to attack anybody for liking AMC."
Indeed, Eitzel's stage persona is considerably more amiable these days, with no apparent loss in overall intensity.
"I don't drink anymore; that might have something to do with it. There's also the survivability factor - if I really pump it out and lose myself in the songs, I can't sleep that night. And a lot of people now find it annoying if I perform that way. It's better and more healthy to just go out there and try to have some fun. And maybe I feel I don't have to sell my songs so hard anymore, because a lot of people have the records now."
Most of Everclear was written as far back as 1989, but the band's efforts to get out of it's Frontier deal resulted in what Vudi now refers to as "a Byzantine labyrinth of legal issues," which temporarily sidelined the band's recording career. More significant than the change in labels, apparently,was the band's split with longtime mentor and sometimes drummer Tom Mallon (who'd produced all of AMC's previous records) during the early stages of recording Everclear. With Mallon out, the band - with pedal steel player Bruce Kaphan at the helm - took charge of the production.
"Tom was a very important part of AMC," Eitzel says. "He's the one who told me, 'Mark, maybe you should start writing songs with choruses.' But in the past, we were pretty much excluded from decisions in the studio. This time, we got to put in all the dumb ideas that we weren't allowed to put in before, and I think the record is more exuberant because of that. Yeah, there's faults on it because we produced it. But for better or worse, this record's a more accurate reflection of the band than anything else we've done."
In the time between AMC releases, Eitzel did some touring as an acoustic solo act. Demon recently released Songs Of Love Live, a recording of a show at London's Borderline, with a poignantly vulnerable Eitzel reprising AMC classics like "Last Harbor" and "Blue And Grey Shirt" while unveiling several new tunes. American fans, meanwhile, got a limited edition seven inch, "Take Courage", on the Matador label. Though Eitzel dismisses his solo performances as merely a cost-effective way of promoting AMC when the band can't afford to go on the road, both discs stand on their own as moving testaments to his talent. Eitzel also moonlights as vocalist with S.F. grunge merchants Toiling Midgets, whose drummer, Tim Mooney, also now drums for AMC (Mike Simms drums on Everclear).
"I'm not really part of the Midgets: they're essentially an instrumental band now," says Eitzel, who appears on the Midgets' forthcoming Matador album, Son. "It's kind of the opposite of AMC; all I have to do is stand there and scream, with my eyes closed or my back turned."
With the ironically titled Everclear finally out, the band out on the road (as a four-piece, with the overbooked Kaphan joining them on selected dates), an album's worth of new songs already written and Eitzel happily on the wagon, things definitely seem to be looking up for AMC.
"We've all made a lot of decisions about what we want out of playing music," says Eitzel. "There's still a part of me that says, 'You're not about to kill yourself Mark, and you're not half the singer George Jones is, so you're really cheating people.' But,I'll deal with it. Our records are hard to promote, but I'm not worried, because the stuff we do is really good and I mean good in the real sense. But then I suppose you could say that about Ratt."
Mark Eitzel's Desert Island Discs
1. Hats- The Blue Nile
2. Heroes - David Bowie
3. Pink Moon - Nick Drake
4. Closer - Joy Division
5. Desertshore - Nico
6. Lust for life - Iggy Pop
7. Let It Be - The Replacements
8. Back in Your Life - Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers
9. Never Mind the Bollocks - The Sex Pistols
10. Harvest - Neil Young