Slow Thrills - February 1998
Publication: Slow Thrills
Author: Jonathan Greer
Date: February 1998
Hero worship time again! I've been a huge Mark Eitzel fan ever since I heard American Music Club's magnificent California album. The blend of Eitzel's melancholic story songs and the band's sympathetically bleak arrangements signaled that this was something very special. That was years ago, before the band entered major label land and ended up going their separate ways. Mark Eitzel remains committed to the music though, and after a couple of well-received solo albums (60 Watt Silver Lining and West - the latter in the company of REM's Peter Buck) he is now well and truly established as a solo performer. At the beginning of 1998 he released Caught In A Trap And I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby. The title was inspired by a tedious support tour he had to take on, with a band he loved, although he hated the experience of touring with them. Although mostly acoustic, the album was a major return to the glory of American Music Club, and there was even the semblance of a band at times with the backing of Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth), Kid Congo Powers (Gun Club) and James McNew (Yo La Tengo). I jumped at the chance to meet him when he was touring to promote the album and I had to ask him how he got connected with such a fine group of musicians.
"Well basically I said to my manager that I wanted to record a proper rock album and I asked him who he knew that he get in my band and he said Steve Shelley - so we called him and he agreed - and James McNew was exactly the same. I guess they were just into the idea. I know Kid Congo Powers from New York, I met him through a mutual friend. I was conscious of people thinking that I was using these people for their names, but they're good musicians and you have to accept that good musicians are sometimes famous!"
Most of the album is basically a solo performance and they only play on four tracks. Why did this happen?
"We did eight songs and I threw away four of them. One of them I cut just because the song was really bad and two of them went because I didn't think that the recording was that good, and the fourth I just took it off at the last minute - I just changed my mind I guess! I replaced them with a lot of acoustic songs. For a start to record with that band costs money, and I knew that James was going on tour and I wouldn't be able to get him back in time. The tour I've done for this album has been on my own because I can't afford to hire anybody - the touring budget comes from the CDs I sell after the gigs!"
"I think it's a Mark Eitzel and Peter Buck record. I wanted to put his name in the title but he said no. I didn't really know him but he came to a show I did in Seattle and we hung out afterwards and took it from there."
I've seen you on your own and I've seen you with a band. Which do you prefer?
"I don't have a band at the moment, but I would love to have a band again - a big loud, noisy band, but I can't afford it! When I'm in New York I'm going to find some musicians, but they're going to have to work cheap! I totally miss the American Music Club thing. I miss everything except the fact that we were broke, and when people have family and wives and kids or whatever, they think in terms of that monthly cheque and American Music Club just reached the end. Even with a supposed 'major deal' it was still tough."
The American Music Club songs still feature strongly in your set.
"Yeah, they're still alive, and some of them have had the odd lyrical change. Some really old AMC songs, like 'Gary's Song' for instance, I just won't do, and I won't do 'Bad Liquor' again unless I get really really drunk on stage."
Has your songwriting changed in any way since AMC finished?
"Well yeah. It's different now that I don't have to take all my songs to the band and spend a week arranging them, so now I just write them and I know pretty much how it's going to sound. It's good and bad. In fact it's mostly worse, if I'm honest."
Going back to the AMC days for a moment. Given the band's huge critical acclaim, how did you feel when all that didn't translate into sales - it literally wasn't paying off?
"That's kind of how I took it. It was like, this is great but give me some money. Not to denegrate anyone who has written that stuff, but newspapers are toilet paper really."
What do you say when people accuse you of being maudlin and depressing?
"I say I'm not! What's wrong with that anyway - I don't mind it. As long as they don't sit there and say 'maybe you should take Prozac!'"
The subject matter of your songs is still based around people you meet and their everyday lives, isn't it?
"Yeah. I'm kind of between New York and San Francisco at the moment, and I would say that I have friends in almost every major city in the US! The songs are pretty much autobiographical, I guess."
Is drinking still a big part of things?
"Not in my autobiography, but definitely a big part of my evening's fun. That's how I socialise. If you're talking to me without a drink, it's like talking to a piece of cardboard!"
So what keeps you going?
"I just work a lot at music. I'll keep doing it til I have to get a day job I guess. I'm just going to make as many records as I can."
And what's next?
"Well I've written some songs for the soundtrack of a movie called The Left-Handed Woman and they'll be sung by a woman, and the next release should be two albums on one CD, basically because I've written two full-length, totally distinct and different albums - they're going to be recorded really differently, too."
A lot of people say that you're very modest.
But there are times when I've seen you live when you've really put yourself down.
"Well yeah, but people are there to see you, they've paid money, and if you're behaving like the cat's meow then you better be the cat's meow."
What about new bands, is there anyone you really like?
"Son Volt, Laika, Belle and Sebastian. As far as songwriters go I admire all of those people as well as Vic Chesnutt and Will Oldham. Will's great, he's more impressionistic than I am, I'm more of a storyteller."