Volume - April 1993
American Music Club
Publication: Volume (#6)
Author: David Cavanaugh
Date: April 1993
Eitzel eyes the life-size cardboard cut-out of Boy George speculatively. He looks like he's expecting it to do something for charity, right there in front of him. Balding underneath his bobble hat and exhibiting what looks like paint flecks in his beard, Eitzel emits a loud sigh and takes his seat.
"I feel like my father," he says. He will not explain this.
"Boy George," says Eitzel in the semi-hysterical tones of someone who's clearly joking, except you know they're serious, "is my all time favorite pop star."
He's immediately on the defensive. Since his band signed to Virgin (our meeting takes place in a small back room, where they've farmed out to grass the unwanted cardboard cutouts) he's assumed that coming within even sniffing distance of major labels will have alienated AMC's audience, who have cherished their little secret and will now be outraged. It's an inevitable progression from popularity and acclaim - but then popularity and acclaim sit badly with Eitzel.
"Eight months ago nobody would piss on us, and I don't know why that changed," he says. "My new big thing is the assembly line. This is the assembly line. This is the big assembly line. And the trick is not to step on it."
Well, you're not going to make the same mistakes as him, are you?
"Who, George? No, I have too many people around me who wouldn't let me take those drugs." He peers at George's retina-disaster-invoking glam garb. "Or wear those fashions."
Vudi returns, a tall man with a stern though polite bedside manner - and even more bald than Eitzel. Somewhere in the Virgin circus, a video director is going to have a wild time with these two.
"All I have to do is write," explains Eitzel.
As soon as he finished writing the latest AMC album, the excellent Mercury, he started writing the next one. As a prolific writer (he also wrote the Son album for San Francisco's reformed Toiling Midgets) he says three albums a year would be comfortable tally.
"I'm writing better now," he says. "It's funny because I have so many fans who say, 'You've never made a good album since 'Engine'..."
"No, it's OK, I don't care. 'Why don't you write more songs like Blue And Grey Shirt?' Why don't I? I do. I don't have any conception I'm writing any different."
How do you know you're writing better, then?
"There's only two things in my songwriting that make me ill. And that's the corniness of them, and the cleverness of them. Those two things I revile, and try to delete as much as I can. But it's hard. In the words and in the music."
It's a typically fortright Eitzel manic depressive bender. He's always complaining his interviews are miserable, but when he crticises himself so comprehensibly, what can you do? Looking over at Vudi (who, it must be said is gazing distractedly around the walls), Eitzel goes on:
"The arrangements I write are frustrating for the band because they're all very formulaic."
"They're not frustrating for the band," drawls Vudi in a stupendously bored monotone.
"Oh?" splutters Eitzel, not looking at him. "Well, every time I bring in a new song, it's like, 'OK, Mark, it's in three [3/4 time] and it's in D - whadda we do?'"
"There's nothing wrong with it being in D," sighs Vudi patiently.
Eitzel seethes a little.
His own admitted tendency to be a "petty dictator" aside, something very weird happens to his songs in between him writing them and them ending up on AMC records. Vudi's role, in particular, is quite mystical - often not playing for ages, then hitting a surge of sad notes, then some soft but chaotic ambient chords. It's a very generous way of making records.
"OK, so it's a group of petty dictators," concedes Vudi.
Do the others ask him what the words are about?
"Rarely," says Vudi. "Sometimes the odd line."
"That's because I'm not going to interpret them for you."
"Nooo..." sighs Vudi patiently.
Eitzel's notebook lies open on the table, a closely written chicken-scratch jungle of words. It looks very intense.
"No it's not," he says.
He wrote a song yesterday.
"I can write a song really easily now," he says. "It's frightening. I don't know if that's good or bad."
His indecision is not helped by his inability to decide, even after they are recorded, whether his songs are good or not. He wanted two songs taken off Mercury, but left it too late. Vudi tells him not to say what they are.
"Because they're all good," he insists.
Eitzel: "They're not all good."
Vudi: "They're all good."
Eitzel: "One of them sucks so hard."
He wouldn't feel so bad if he hadn't forced the band to include them in the first place, before changing his mind.
One of them certainly wasn't the strange instrumental "More Hopes And Dreams", of which he and Vudi are really proud, possibly because neither of them played a single note on it. It's the sound of a power station in San Francisco Bay, which they overheard one day while out walking.
"It's a famous spot for people to go and trip," explains Eitzel.
Neither is too sure why it makes that noise - an eerie Close Encounters cluster of notes - although Eitzel thinks it might be a systems check. Now it's an AMC song, and it goes straight into Eitzel's voice, dramatically close, coming in on the final song, "Will You Find Me". A great moment.
And nor is one of the two offending songs "Johnny Mathis' Feet", in which Eitzel dreams he meets Mathis, and Mathis, after slagging off all of Eitzel's work ("I've never seen such a mess in my life"), advises him "to disappear in the silk and amphetamines."
Was Mathis a bit of a speed-freak, then?
"No!" contends an affronted Vudi. "Johnny's one of the cleanest guys ever!"
"It applies to any successful American," Eitzel explains, amused. "You have to learn how to conspicuously consume. It's not something that I like doing. And I don't like amphetamines. But I think it's ingrained in American culture. I tried using other all-American crooners ,but I'd just had an argument with somebody about Mathis so I had to use him. And I was writing about this whole stupid success thing - because that was when all these stupid record companies kept taking me out to dinner in all these fancy places where the waiter's better educated than me, and silk and amphetamine is just this weird stupid fake world that I can't relate to, but I seem to have to relate somehow. It seems to be part of what I've always wanted."
He thinks for a bit.
"But yes, I am worried that it'll be associated with Johnny, and I've already thought what I'll say at the court case."
When he discusses other music Eitzel is either a master of the perverse or a genius wind-up merchant. Either way, he has an off-putting delivery. He saw Duran Duran in LA, and loved them. Not in a kitsch way. He just loved them. He liked Suzanne Vega because she was real.
"But Duran Duran were the realest of all," he says firmly.
You scrutinise his mournful face for signs of irony. There aren't any. You stare him out. He stares back.
"They were so sincere."
You stare harder.
"Because there was no irony in them. I don't like irony." (God, he must mean it) "They're back," he says triumphantly.
"Yeah but you like Betty Boo," scoffs Vudi.
"What's wrong with Betty Boo?" demands Eitzel, annoyed. "She's honest, she's sincere...Yeah, well after four vodkas I like just about anything in the world."
He's well into the argument now. His rarely reported years as a teenager in Southampton (he moved to the States when he was 19) saw him as a progressive rock fan, into Yes, King Crimson and Genesis.
"Although I hated ELP," he says.
Vudi is now creased up; Eitzel flashes him an irritated look.
"I was a mess right?" he snaps.
The only thing the two agree on all day is that AMC are just a pop band, just purveyors of wallpaper. Yeah, they'll settle for that.
"Yeah," says Eitzel, chuckling, "What's the quote? It's better to make good wallpaper than bad art."
What a stupid thing to say. Who said that?
He stops chuckling.