Uno Maas - May 1997

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It's my Party and I'll Cry if I Want to: An Interview with Mark Eitzel
Publication: Uno Maas
Author: Jim Saah
Date: May 1997

The self-deprecating, ill-at-ease Mark Eitzel is not so oppressed by himself to keep from trying new things and making interesting music. Since his excellent band, American Music Club (AMC) disbanded, he's been busy.

AMC had an adult contemporary aspect to them, but with an edge to the lyrics and either an intoxicating pop hook, or such sweeping grandeur to the tunes that it sets them head and shoulders above most others in that category. His first release after AMC, 60 Watt Silver Lining, had a mellow jazz, Burt Bacharach, feel to it. His new record, a collaboration with Peter Buck and members of his pop-jazz side project, Tuatara, is still another step in a different direction.

With vibes and squawking, raging sax, this record is quite a bit different from the rainy day mood of 60 Watt. He also has another record coming out soon that's a collaboration with Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley from Sonic Youth.

One of Eitzel's strong points is his ability as a writer. His lyrics manage to be uncomfortably personal and obtuse at the same time. You're relating to the songs and feeling whatever it is he's emoting, but you're not sure why. And emote he does. One complaint I've heard is that he has a kind of whine to his voice that makes him a little too emo. I find his voice to be very powerful and interesting, with the emotion in it well directed.

Eitzel took a break from cleaning his apartment to talk to me on the phone before he embarked on tour with Tuatara and The Minus 5.

UM: So you've got a new record coming out, that's another collaboration with some other guys?

Eitzel: That's right.

UM: I thought one of your main reasons for getting out of AMC was to write music on your own.

Eitzel: I've always wrote songs on my own. But, I don't know, it was a lot of reasons why AMC broke up. And when people ask you why, you can't list, like, the 3,000 reasons. So you just say, "Well, I'm tired of being in a band." But I wasn't really. I spend a whole year trying to get over the fact that I wasn't in a band.

UM: Is it different writing songs without a band?

Eitzel: In a way it was easier without the band because I didn't have to write within the lines. I could just write... whatever. But it was difficult not having a group of people around that had the same interests and were concerned about the same things. You know, that WAS different. And that was kind of hard. So it was kind of nice writing songs for Peter (Buck).

UM: What kind of experience was that?

Eitzel: It was more of a friendship experience. He came to San Francisco with the idea of maybe I would play on one of his songs and he would play on one of my songs. We didn't expect to write all of these songs together -- so it was kind of a really great thing to do. It was really very fun.

UM: Your first solo record, 60 Watt, was more jazzy or adult contemporary and the new record seems to have a return to a more pop sound, like San Francisco.

Eitzel: Well, the weird story about 60 Watt was I spent a lot of time arranging the music and trying to work it out because I wanted a different sound than AMC. I'm kind of anti-rock these days. But, after I was done with that record I kind of went, "Oww, yuck" and I toured it and I thought, "Geez, if I ever hear another fucking trumpet solo in my life, I'll kill myself." And then after that I made another solo record called, Caught In A Trap And I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby. And that one probably will be released at the end of the year on Matador.

UM: Didn't you collaborate with someone from Sonic Youth or someone on that?

Eitzel: Well, they played my song. Yeah, Steve Shelley, and James McNew from Yo La Tengo, and Kid Congo. But mostly the record is me and acoustic guitar. So this record was... I didn't even expect to do it. I met Peter in May and we exchanged numbers and I said, "If you're ever down in San Francisco, give me a call, dude." Although I hardly ever say the word, "dude." So he came down, called me, we hung. And that's how that happened. And then when we ended up writing all these songs it was like, "Well, let's document them." You know, let's just put them on tape somewhere so we can have them. And that ended up becoming a record. So it was never like this intentional thing that THAT was going to be my next record. So it was like this gift, you know?

UM: Did working with Peter inspiring in any way?

Eitzel: Yeah, well it was liberating not to have to write the music. You know? He's just -- and I use this word in the strict sense of the word, I mean, I like this word -- he's as glib as I am musically. You know? He's always coming up with stuff. And so it was inspirational because he's just as quick as I am to come up with things. So it was a challenge to write these songs. He's like, "Okay, Mark. See what you can do with this." And I'm like, "Yeah, okay, here... yeah, I can do this." So it sort of became that, I guess. It was great.

UM: Do you still do AMC songs when you play live, on tour?

Eitzel: Sure I do because people come and want to hear them. I don't like, I mean, you know, I'm not going to do "Crabwalk" again as long as I live. But songs like "Western Sky" or "Blue And Grey Shirt", fuck yeah, why not? People want to hear them. What the fuck?

The thing is, like, I'm frustrated because a lot of my quieter songs, they're really hard to sell. And I get frustrated. I mean, I haven't really been in a situation where I can actually sit down and learn all of my new songs and play them because I haven't had, I don't know, I don't really have a love of playing music any more.

I don't like playing out live as a solo artist. A lot of the new songs are so quiet that people have to shut up if they want to hear them. So it's a situation that I can't play a lot of new songs. Just because I play so many and... the only time I've ever played all of my new songs was at South by Southwest. A bunch of people kept shouting for the older songs so I said, "Okay. Here. Fuck you." And that was kind of weird.

UM: Were you with a band there?

Eitzel: No, solo.

UM: Some artists I've seen with a band, for instance John Cale and Graham Parker, have been more powerful as solo artists. I think they kind of use the band as a crutch or something. Why do you think that is?

Eitzel: Well, I think you're rare for wanting to hear acoustic music. I think you're just more into music than most people. I think most people want to hear a band. I like bands, too. It's a matter of finding the right band.

I'm doing this European tour in June and I'm trying to get together people to do it, and I'm getting Danny Pearson from AMC and maybe Barrett Martin, who's playing with me in Tuatara. But I'm trying to play, like, really small places that are really quiet. Just to make myself happy about my music. You know? But the thing is when you play in a band, that's really what people want to hear. They don't want to hear acoustic music...

UM: I like hearing songs done acoustically because its a different way of hearing a song that's familiar. I saw Son Volt recently and folks were complaining that he sticks too close to the record, that it's like listening to the album.

Eitzel: Well, he's not a show man. He's great, though. One of the best song writers around.

UM: You said you don't like playing rock much and you're trying to get away from rock these days. Who do you like to listen to?

Eitzel: I like rock music, I just don't like doing it myself, you know? I mean I love Son Volt. One of my favorite shows of last year was Son Volt. But, who else? I don't know. There's a lot of things. The Rachel's I like a lot. I like Palace a lot. Vic Chestnut I like a lot.

UM: You're a vocal artist. Do you get inspiration from the vocal artists from the past?

Eitzel: Yeah, Bob Dylan and Neil Young are great. Are you talking about classic jazz singers?

UM: Yes. Or more traditional vocal artists of the 40's.

Eitzel: No, because I really don't know any of them. I know Fats Waller and he's amazing. But I don't really know much about it. Most of the stuff I listen to now is like ambient or instrumental. It's funny, the only band I listen to is Son Volt, right now.

UM: Yeah, his writing style is similar to yours. His songs are obtuse in a way so that it's not obvious. leaving you with enough to either know what the song is about or give you a strong feeling.

Eitzel: Yeah, that's the kind of song that I like.

UM: Have you ever considered writing prose or poetry?

Eitzel: Yeah, I do a lot of that, actually.

UM: Do you plan to ever get that published or is it just for yourself?

Eitzel: Yeah, there's a publisher that's interested. But I'm not going to give anything to her until I feel like its done and I've got something to offer. I don't want to take her money for nothing. You know, singers that write... usually it's really a mistake. And I want to do something that's good.

UM: I heard Jim Carroll say once that he always would miss the drums when he was reading his prose. But then he's a writer, not a musician, really.

Eitzel: Yeah, definitely. He hates my stuff, oh man! I drove him out of the room once. I felt kind of bad about that.

UM: That's strange.

Eitzel: Well, I was doing "Mission Rock Resort", I think. [Lyric: Well, you know, you're afraid because you forgot to use bleach in the needle, so what]. I think that's what did it.

UM: Does he feel he's the only one who can write about drugs?

Eitzel: Well, I don't write about drugs. I'm like this Pollyanna who doesn't like drugs. You know, which is kinda not true but that's what was in that song.

UM: There's a bit of a retro thing going on with jazz and swing. Have you checked out any of the new swing bands, like the Squirrel Nut Zippers?

Eitzel: No. I know there's one, the New Morty Show, they're friends of mine. But I'm not into that shit. You know what, I'm really not into jazz or Burt Bacharach anymore. I mean, I kinda played with that for a while. Because I thought that was a really lucid voice. And then I went like, "Eh, fuck it." I kinda made decisions about my song writing last year. And I just sort of figured, you know what, "So I write really obtuse art songs that most people find meaningless. So what?" And I think when I was playing with Burt Backarach and trying to do that with 60 Watt I was looking for a different kind of voice that I've abandoned since. So, I'm not very knowledgeable, or not even much of a fan. I mean, most of the stuff I listen to is electronic these days.

My favorite album these days is this group from San Francisco called Tipsy and they kinda do bosa nova electronic music. And I like them a lot. In terms of swing bands and that kind of thing, I don't know. You know, its kind of like this weird trip where good luck to who ever gets a hit by any means necessary.

I used to see a band called the Royal Crown Review, at the Derby in Los Angeles, where we used to hang, and they were great, you know. It was kind of a cool scene but you gotta understand I'm this old fuck and like, when I was in the early 80's I used to hang out with all these rockabilly cats in Columbus, Ohio and before the Stray Cats came along and made that commercial. So for me its like, "You know, whatever." I don't care. I'm not into that much of anything except when it's really great song writing or when its dark music, now. You know, when it's really dark and its really psychedelic-like, kind of fucked up sounding, I would probably like it.

I remember, like, I was in a car and we were listening to the new album by the Chemical Brothers and I was like, "Oh, I hate this shit," because to me that sounds incredibly commercial and crass. And then we put on "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and I was like, "Well, I like this!" But I don't know. So its kinda weird. It's like I got interviewed by this German guy last week and he was like, [German accent] "How does it feel to be a throwback? To be writing songs in this way. Now all of this other music is modern and you're not." I was like f-u-c-k you. You know? I just love song writing and I love all kinds of it... I don't care how it exists or where it comes from. It doesn't matter to me. Well, I don't know if I answered your question but there! It's just that I'm not knowledgeable to comment...

UM: Yeah, that's fine. You're not interested.

Eitzel: I guess I don't care about trends or styles or anything. It's funny because people used to ask me, "Well, what do you think of the Red House Painters and Low and all that kind of music? Because they say you started it. And I'm like, "I didn't fuckin' start it.

I mean, I just gave a tape to somebody. And then of course the ironic thing is the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock prints their review of American Music Club on all of our nine records and all they say is, "Well, Mark Eitzel is a drunk. He stopped drinking for a while and now he's drinking again. And his records were kind of a minor thing in the 80's." And then they say, "American Music Club's biggest influences... Red House Painters," because they say that with everybody. That's sort of my place in history.

UM: You've always been sort of a critics darling. Didn't Rolling Stone pick Mercury as their album of the year?

Eitzel: Everclear. I know, weird, huh?

UM: How do you feel about the record business. It seems like a pretty rough business, especially for someone like who is talented and a critical success but never really sells many records...

Eitzel: I don't know, we'll see. I don't know what my future is. I mean, Warner Brothers seems pretty behind this record. And, uh, Warner Brothers treats me really well.

UM: The objective of most record companies is to make money, not to make music. But they keep putting out your records....

Eitzel: Yea, I know. I mean, I keep telling them, "Are you sure you want to put out my new record?" And they say, "Yeah, yeah, no problem."

UM: Do you think its because they want street cred, you know, having one of their artists getting critical praise?

Eitzel: No, I don't think so. If they wanted street cred they could sign a million bands. I guess they think I will make money for them some day.

UM: I always wonder why certain things don't sell.

Eitzel: Yeah, I'm surprised, too. I always wondered by AMC didn't sell more. And then I got down to, "Well, you know, I don't look like Roger Daltry."

UM: But Hootie and the Blowfish aren't really attractive guys, either.

Eitzel: Yeah, but they play really mediocre music, which helps. Actually, I don't think it's mediocre, its just simple. But you know those guys worked really hard, too. I mean, they were like a frat rock band... the ironic thing about that one as well is I met the bass player once, and he was like, "Oh, we used to come see you." (laughs) So back in the 80's those guys would come to the AMC shows in South Carolina.

UM: When I interview song writers I find that a lot of them feel they write better songs when the subject matter is of a darker nature, stuff like break-ups, heartache, loss. And when they occasionally write a happy song, they end up dumping it because they think it sucks. Your songs run the gambit of emotions. But you do tend to lean towards the darker side. Why do you think that is? Do you feel that way about yourself and your writing?

Eitzel: I don't only listen to dark music. Another band I like a lot is the Gentle People from London. Which is hilarious, lounge-dance music. And I must say the first two B-52's records were some of my favorite of all time. I like comedy rock a lot. I like comedy rock. I thought Bongwater was great. Not that that was comedy rock. I don't know, it's a weird thing, you know? I don't really think of myself as any one thing.

And as for the songs I write, well, it's just a mater of making it real. Like with Peter, he would write this music like "Free Of Harm" or "In Your Life". And I think, "Well, yeah, okay, that sounds real. That sounds right." And so I would sing these songs... Lord knows, if I sat down with my guitar, my tuning, and my way of writing songs, I probably would never have written "Free Of Harm". I probably would have shelved it as being just Pollyanna.

I write most of my songs when I'm happy, and when I'm in a good mood. I think that you, I mean for me, my bent is really more literary than anything else. But I think people connect on a deeper level when it's about pain. And I think that a lot of music that I hear, like when I hear bands and they talk about, "Well, I know, I really don't like that gloom and doom stuff. I think bands should out there having a good time." And I don't even buy that. You hear a lot of country western swing bands, and basically they are dance music.

And all the music is heart ache. Or when you listen to soul music, and especially dance music: heartache and loss. But that's really what gets you on the dance floor. That's what gets you excited. It's like, hey, you know, this is it. I might take it a little too far. Certainly, I don't write dance music but the roots of good music are, "How come you don't love me? I love you and you don't love me." Or, "I'm lost without you, baby." That's the best kind of music. Or political music. There's a lot of great music which is politically done, but its because of pain and heartache. In fact, I can't even think of a song that doesn't. Unless it's by the Presidents of the United States or Blind Melon. But you know, I don't mind that music at all. There's some music that's so upbeat that I find it insulting. But then even the Cardigans or Bis, they're cuter than hell, I mean, what's wrong with being 19 and jumping around and dancing, I mean, that's fuckin' awesome. I mean, don't tell them that punk rock's dead, though. I might find new wave to be a total bore, but, still, I can't put them down.

I don't distrust their motives. It's just that, essentially, if you deal one to one with someone and you play them a song, they'll be like, "Okay, that's great. That's funny." But they're not going to be like... I don't know. It's not instantly a soul thing, and that's really what I'm interested in doing. Because I think when I write a song for myself or I write a song for an audience, I want to change my life, and I want to change other people's lives. And to do that I write these protest songs about betrayal and heartache and loss. And I might do too much, and I've got that awful kind of whine in my voice, that plaintive aspect to it. And who knows where that comes from. I don't really like to analyze it too much. I like doing what I do. I think it's really good. And I like hearing people who do it. That's the biggest way you connect.

UM: Is honesty a big part of it?

Eitzel: I think so, yea. At least honest on some level. Even if I'm making up shit, it's got to be honest. I think the definition of honesty means that you are vulnerable enough that if somebody says, "You know what, you're full of shit." That you can say, "Well, okay. Right. I understand why you say that." That's as honest as you can be. That you can accept that your songs can be bullshit. Or you can absorb a certain amount of criticism and still be fine.

UM: A lot of your songs come across as being about or sung to someone specific...

Eitzel: They are and they are not. I mean, sometimes I just make it up.

UM: Do you embellish real things or do you just make a song up?

Eitzel: I usually embellish real things. Usually, I just see people on the street or I meet people that I don't really know, and I just make up stories about them.

UM: The AMC song, "Can You Help Me" is a positive, hopeful song. It seems like you apologize in the line, "I can't believe all the stupid things I'm saying now." Having a chorus of, "Loving you is the only thing that's going to get me by." That's a great notion, and its an old notion, but did you feel you had to apologize for it because you were embarrassed by it, by throwing in the other line?

Eitzel: Sure. We live in such a day of irony and cynicism, I think unless you cop to the fact that you're singing a fact that's completely open... Well, that's also the kind of person I am.

Somebody asked me about the Peter Buck record and "Free Of Harm". It goes, "I'll keep you free of harm, I guess that's because I'm a little shallow." Which is sort of a funny ways of saying, "Yeah, I guess I'm stupid, I'll... protect you!" You know? And I guess that's just the way I am, more than anything else. I've lived with cynicism and irony and I don't trust them, but I think you have to cop to it.