Sounds - March 25, 1989
Author: Ralph Traitor
Date: March 25, 1989
"Elektra were gonna give us a $300,000 distribution deal through Frontier so we had full artistic control. Then they saw a video of an interview I gave and said they’d never want anybody on the label saying the kinds of things I was saying – I might put down my own band and stuff, but it’s not true. I think we’re the best band in the world, sincerely. Majors approach us, get scared shitless, and then retreat!”
American Music Club are scary – hence the anecdote above, told by Mark Eitzel, the band’s leader and self-proclaimed “ugly, balding geek”. Eitzel writes AMC’s scary songs that plumb emotional depths and soar to heights of melancholic oblivion. As they say in San Francisco, AMC’s home, the band have “an attitude problem”. Problem is, they haven’t got an attitude.
Only three years old, AMC – Eitzel (guitar and vocals), Vudi (guitar), Dan Pearson (bass) and Tom Mallon (drums and producer) – have already made two seminal albums: Engine (1987) and the current LP, California. Engine (which was preceded by their Restless Stranger LP that’s now hard to find) is an astounding record. It’s tough and tender, mining veins of human desperation and alienation too deep for most songwriters to find, let alone excavate. But then Eitzel is no ordinary songsmith. He calls himself “a regional songwriter, writing about the Bay area”, but that doesn’t explain why his songs, regardless of arrangement and delivery, are so intense and driven – generally to despair. A telltale lyric: “Once I knew the secret of happiness, but now it’s gone.”
California is notably less aggressive than Engine. Its pacific sleeve and acoustic bent, accentuated beautifully by yearning pedal steel in places, tell their own story. Eitzel’s songs are about relationships – often messy affairs – but ultimately, their honesty and humility is uplifting. Eitzel explains the difference between Engine and California.
“We tried a lot less hard to make it sound as good, we just sorta winged it. The hardest music to do is slow and depressing – and it’s the hardest to listen to,” he laughs. “Tom said the problem is that California is too precious, while Engine is too bombastic.”
“We all recorded in isolation from each other,” adds Pearson. “And that’s why it worked, because all we could do is sit there and listen to each other while we played. Tom’s and my conception of the album had a lot to do with the power of something you hear coming from the other room – suggesting something different from the blatant and obvious.”
“Tom and I hacked and burnt the whole thing: he kept wanting to cut things out. It started out twice the length it is. It’s very gentle, but I’d like it to be more so – get all the rock out of our songs and have this incredibly pale, insignificant thing.”
A large part of AMC’s embryonic legend is their curious live reputation. Eitzel is notorious for abusing himself and the audience, haranguing at will.
“We’re weird,” muses Eitzel. “Sometimes we’re really good and sometimes we’re really boring. We opened for some major acts in San Francisco and we were scared being on such a big stage, but seeing the other acts, we just wondered how they got to be ‘major’. All three, including us, had miserable singers.”
“We played a shopping centre in Santa Rosa, a little town – pretty scary!” recalls Pearson. “But we moved people. They’d never heard anything like it in their lives… there were only four walk-outs, which is pretty good. When we play San Francisco we play to the same small circle of friends. We know them but they won’t talk to us, they just leave afterwards.”
Eitzel dismisses the band’s considerable impact on the indie press with, “I guess we’re well-publicised … I don’t understand it, but hell, I play along. I’m not exactly star material, I don’t dress well – I don’t care… I’m not exactly likely to succeed in any form, but I don’t care. None of this shit matters; anything I could ever say in an interview is a grey area, has no relevance to what I really do.”
California's content varies widely from the gutter rock of "Bad Liquor" (a late addition at the behest of the band’s followers) to "Jenny", a particularly poignant ballad. Eitzel, on form, merely says “I’m the same dumb asshole in both songs”, but you know that, deep down, he draws far finer distinctions for himself. Likewise, Eitzel’s claim that California was chosen out of numerous possible titles because it’s “the stupidest” belies his dedication to capturing the essence of his environment. He says: “Engine was gonna be the big rock classic that everyone’ll love until they die… but, of course, it wasn’t, so we gave up and made California".
But Engine is a classic. And both albums are ones to adopt and live with. Though Eitzel frequently denigrates himself and his songs in interviews, no one is more aware of American Music Club’s importance than he is. Eitzel’s American Dream may be darker than the norm but is no less compelling. His well-drawn, simple vignettes sum up much about a nation and a generation adrift in delusion and disillusion, not to mention dissolution.
“I only wanna play songs for people that are hungry for songs,” Eitzel explains. “Us opening for Sonic Youth would be like, as Vudi said, Bob Dylan opening for the London Philharmonic. Sonic Youth are awesome, but I wanna play songs, ‘cos that’s what sustained me for years… forever, actually. I’ve always loved songs.
“We played the Fillmore, a big show, and I didn’t understand this whole sheep mentality – a thousand people crowding in to see a main band that don’t give you anything. They’re afraid of giving you their heart. They’re up there singing about the devil, or hate, or modern angst, and those are all non-subjects as far as I’m concerned! I was thinking, Christ, if this was my crowd I’d give ‘em something! They probably wouldn’t like it, or stay for it, but I’d try my ass to do it!”
Eitzel warns that he’s “got stuff written for another three albums” and, were it commercially viable, would gladly make AMC’s next release nine sides long. He has a lot to get out. Bemused by people’s perceptions of AMC, Eitzel finished on a humorous note.
“They drove us out to a graveyard to take our pictures today and I was, like, really dubious! I thought, Hey, c’mon! We’re trying to smile, get out of it somehow but… look, if you’re gonna set me up as an Ian Curtis clone at least make me 23, alright!”
Mark Eitzel is 30.