The Bob - Summer 1991
American Music Club
Publication: The Bob (#41)
Author: Jud Cost
Date: Summer 1991
Mark Eitzel, singer and songwriter of San Francisco's American Music Club, bursts through the doors of the SOMA Cafe out of breath and apologizing for being ten minutes late. His bike has broken down, so he's had to hoof it from his part-time job working in the children's section of the SF Public Library. Since I've just squirmed through forty miles of afternoon-commute traffic, we're both ready for a few restorative beers. "Yeah, drinking is still my hobby," he grins.
Watching Eitzel onstage fronting AMC, or opening for other local bands as a solo acoustic act, is always mesmerizing.
He's Hamlet with a microphone, raving on about anything that pop's into his skull, frequently singing off-mike or discussing life with anyone with enough lung power to cut through the smokey din.the crowd loves Mark like a younger brother, their feedback rolling over him like heavy surf. Sometimes he hangs ten: sometimes he wipes out.
For reasons no one seems able to explain, AMC's last album, United Kingdom, was released only in Europe (on Demon Records). And their new one, ready to go, is currently being held hostage to wrangling between the band and their U.S label, Frontier. Recently Eitzel has also appeared as lead singer for a reconstituted version of tangential SF punks, Toiling Midgets. "It's just something to do," he claims.
The Bob: How did you and AMC's guitar player, Vudi, link up?
Eitzel: I met Vudi at the Mabuhay Gardens [SF punk mecca] in 1982 when I played there with the Naked Skinnies, a band we'd formed in Columbus, Ohio. It was the night we got banned from the Mab for clearing the house. The Naked Skinnies were kind of a cross between Public Image and the Raincoats - a great band. All our tapes got stolen when our house got robbed, so's there no more tapes of the Naked Skinnies. Our first two songs at the Mab lasted seven minutes each. The first song had one note. Nancy Kangas did half the singing and I did the other half. All my songs were mean-spirited and negative, and hers were natural and free. So afterwards, the owner of the club came up to me and said, "Do you like what you just did?" And I said, "What did I do?" "You drove everybody out." And I liked it. "At least they reacted," I said. Anyway, Vudi liked us a lot. He was playing in the Farmers and brought along two members of the Ironics for a tryout.
The Bob: How did you make the leap from your punk days to the melodic stuff you're doing now?
Eitzel: I used to do nothing but scream. I don't know, I guess it was from working a lot in the studio, where you have to wear headphones and hear yourself and judge your performance - and actually write songs. I had a lot of people telling me, "Sing, Mark, sing."
When I was fifteen I was writing songs that were melodic, but they were pretty blues-based. All I'm doing now is what I was doing then. Sometimes it takes me six months to write a song. Nowadays I just take the finished song to the band. Otherwise they'd fuck with it. I can't stand collaboration, in terms of songwriting. It gives me a canker. Collaborating offers no challenge for me, and for the initial seed and the idea of the song I don't think collaborations are possible.
The Bob: When you write a song, how much weight do you give lyrics versus melody?
Eitzel: I don't give melody any weight...but I don't give lyrics any weight either. It's basically the intention of the song and how clear it goes through you that makes the song live and breathe. This is the kind of crap I live with. You probably couldn't hear this from my own work, but you can hear it through some really good songwriters.
Lyrics? Christ, I write tons of lyrics for every song. Unless I'm really trying to focus in on what I say ,it's all garbage. Great songs that I like such as "Mrs Lee" [The Bobettes] or "Don't Sleep in the Subway, Darling" [Petula Clark], those are really simple and really clear. My trouble is in trying to write songs that don't leave any veneer. I don't want to leave any of me in them. I just want them to be songs. I haven't reached any point where I can do that yet. My favorite records now are After The Goldrush and Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
I'm making this solo record for Matador records with Ben Melnick of the Pounding Birds engineering at Fish of Death Studios, and I'm starting to piss him off. It's a really friendly melody called "An Ecstatic Epiphany: A Celebration of Youth and Beauty, Past, Present and Future". And he mixed it nice, and he'd play it for me in this hopeful way and say, "Wasn't that a nice mix, Mark?" And I'd say, "Yeah, but I've got to re-do the vocals." So I'd put a discordant keyboard on it and re-sing the vocals so they're really sad and ponderous. I don't know why, I just had to do it. I guess I took away all the clear elements and made them muddy - which goes against everything I just told you.
The Bob: Have you ever been satisfied with anything you've done?
Eitzel: Nothing really satisfies me. I don't feel like there's anything I've done that's any good. Except maybe "Last Harbor" [from the California album]. I like that song a lot. And I like "Outside This Bar" - that song's still good. The next AMC album, called Everclear, will be really full-sounding - the opposite of United Kingdom. It'll be really fun pop music which is going to make everyone hate us. Actually that's a lie. I don't think the songs are any happier. I'm really sick of....like in Italy there was this one guy screaming at me, "Don't kill yourself, don't kill yourself". And it really made me think about what I was doing. I just write the songs, it's not that I'm gonna kill myself or anything. I've certainly been through my share, but you don't romanticize that stuff after a certain point. And I have a responsibility now, I feel. There's one friend of mine who claims I portray her life in my songs. So I've decided to make her life better with my songs.