The Big Takeover - 1997
Death Of A Band
Publication: The Big Takeover (#40)
Author: Jack Rabid
It's a cliche, but Mark Eitzel needs no introduction. Hell, he's had so much press lavished on him, by right one could easily just skip this bit and go straight to the interview. However, mark my words. There's some stuff in this conversation you might not have heard before. As will be mentioned in a moment, they bear comment here. Firstly, I don't feel sheepish to admit that I was a late convert, and thus an addition to Eitzel's cult following in the press, a late voice to add to the multitudes.
I always respected American Music Club, and even loved a tune or two ("Rise" off Everclear especially), but largely missed the boat. Oh well, can't be on top of everything. But then San Francisco came out in 1994, and slowly it hit me. The LP was so damn good, and the concerts to promote it so strong, it wasn't long before I enrolled in my own AMC history course, devouring such previous textbooks as Mercury, Everclear and United Kingdom, all fabulous LPs, all rollercoaster emotional affairs. I no longer cared about what used to bug me - I still say Eitzel's voice sounds like Springsteen's, but his to-the-gut passion and smarts blow away that blowhard. But as soon as he/they'd won me over, over a decade into their career, they suddenly capitulated. (Figures! Damn it!) Next thing we heard, Eitzel had fired everybody, and was going it solo.
With the release of the very different, almost jazzy, but still invigorating first effort 60 Watt Silver Lining, it was time to corner Eitzel and call him into account for the ending of a band I'd just, regrettably, discovered! More to the point, the above anecdote is not offered in an excuse in self-indulgence. Over the course of 1995, whispers arrived that it was San Francisco itself, the instrument of my new-found faith, that had in fact caused the groups demise!
Such rumours seemed ironclad when Eitzel largely, routinely, ignored this last AMC opus in his solo acoustic sets, while performing generous helpings of the LP that preceded it. So, prior to this interview, I introduced myself to the always-available-at-his-gigs Eitzel, and asked politely. I received a confirming diatribe about the whole experience that was in fact doubled below, when I got him to speak for the record.
To his credit, Eitzel is perhaps the most candid man in rock, a genre known for mountains of bullshit and public relations manipulations instead; in fact, he's often embarrassingly frank, where most even up-front people at least massage for the sake of gentility.
This total honesty led him to heated disagreements with his former bandmates on Eitzel's lyrics, as you will also see below, further contributing to Eitzel's early exit to a career where he has no one else to answer to creatively. And where as other interviews have obviously touched on AMC's demise, perhaps this one goes a little bit further, the result of a confidence that led Eitzel to open up a little more on the subject.
A lot of the problem is Eitzel's immense, total hatred for the production hob on San Francisco by Joe Chiccarelli, a man I am proud to call a personal friend, and someone who produced my own band's final album in 1993, as covered in the interview below. From that explosive topic, we move on to the more familiar waters of Eitzel's long history, tastes, and tales. My thanks to much longer-time Eitzel fan Paul Regelbrugge for the transcription, and the folks at Warners Publicity for the help in setting up this interview, which took place in one of their conference rooms. And to Jason Soma for the bang-up photos on the street out front of the Warner's building as heavy traffic buzzed us all.
JR: The one time that you and I spoke at Brownies after one of your gigs here in New York, I mentioned to you that my former band Springhouse had made an album with Joe Chiccarelli, called Postcards From The Arctic, but a year before he produced your final AMC LP San Francisco.
Mark: Oh wow, another one. That's right. I just talked to a guy in The Dharma Bums who had an album produced by him. I just talked to Kid Congo (Powers) (formerly of The Gun Club, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, and now Congo Norvell - JR), who had an album produced by Chiccarelli.
JR: Were they all as displeased as you are?
Mark: Uh-uh (negative). No.
JR: Yeah, we were knocked out by the work he did for us. Whereas I noticed that you almost never play anything from San Francisco these days.
Mark: Yeah, I'm bitter. I can't bear to listen to it; I can't bear to think about it. 'Cause that album is what broke up American Music Club.
JR: Just the process of making it?
Mark: Yeah, the process of making it, and the fact that it went like $50,000 over budget.
JR: What about the songs themselves, don't you have...
Mark: They suck.
JR: (amazed) You have no affection for them?
Mark: Okay, they could be good, you know, and I just wish I didn't hate them so much. But I've got a relationship with the songs and I just hate them all.
JR: Even your original demos and everything?
Mark: No, those are OK, but, did you ever make an album that lasted three months and went $50,000 over budget (note: Springhouse's recording sessions lasted two months, yet only went $2,000 over a $20,000 budget, which Chicarelli ate out of his own expected fee, something we could not believe - this almost never happens in music - and loved him for -JR); that you hard Tom Lord-Alge - I'm sorry, his name is Tom Lord-Pig - remix one of the tracks, and then you had Bob Clearmountain remix the same track, and you had Joe Chiccarelli tape like four different remixing sessions at $2,000 a day studio time?
Mark: "Wish The World Away" was remixed four times by Chiccarelli; once by Lord-Alge; and once by Clearmountain. It all came out of my royalties, except for Warner Brothers paid for Clearmountain and Lord-Alge. On that song, Chiccarelli hated the original demo; he said it sounded like garage-rock, and we were like, "So?" 'Cause he heard the "hit" there, so he tried to make it into hit-rock, which to him translates to Pat Benatar. And so he would spend like two days working on a fuzz tone sound for a guitar. Two days! Or he'd be doing things like harmonizing my vocals, because they were out of tune.They were out of tune to an extent that I can't tell they were out of tune. So he'd be there for a solid day by a harmonizer, trying to make me feel guilty for not singing in tune because I refused to sing anymore overdubs 'cause you're overdubbing like one word in a line? I won't do it! That's a waste of time.
When he threatened to quit - not once, but twice - I should have fired him. But instead I said, "Oh no, it's OK. We can work it out mutually." I went through the whole thing and tried to be so nice, until finally I just kicked him out of the studio, and the rest of the band as well. I mixed it with Jim Scott, who is really great. And the reason we had to get Scott was because the engineer that he (Chiccarelli) hired, he drove so crazy, that he tortured him to death, that the guy could barely work. The first month working with Chiccarelli was great. The second two were completely stupid.
JR: And what he said to me when I had breakfast with him in San Francisco was that this LP had to break your band, now that you were on a major label and needed to start selling more records. And we all know that a band needs at least an "underground" hit song to do this, whether we personally care about such things or not. Moreover, we ourselves all had a super positive experience working with him...
Mark: Good! He's a great guy! He is truly a sweetheart, but...I had a really bad experience with him.
JR: And you say this is what cost you the group, itself?
Mark: It did! Because basically it brought to a crisis the whole American Music Club; it brought into relief the fact that we were a democracy, and that a democracy doesn't work in a band.
JR: Now wait a minute. How did you manage to bypass that for five other albums?
Mark: (ponders) I don't know! But in this case, that's what happened. I mean....I don't know.
JR: Were there no other factors involved in the breakup? There must be. There's never really one reason, right? There's always a bunch of things happening in a row, and after a while you just kind of capitulate.
Mark: Well, I've never said to any journalist anything but Chiccarelli before. I've stayed up late at night, like, "Why the fuck didn't I just step in there and just totally take control?" Once anyone threatens to quit, fire him immediately, on the spot, without asking any questions. "Okay, bye."
JR: No power plays, you mean.
Mark: No power plays. None of that shit, it's crap. He was going behind my back to my managers complaining about me and the band, and to us, he was sweetness and light. And, to be fair, we were going behind his back too, later. He started this in the first month, we started it in the second. When he mixed the roughs and we heard them all, I went ballistic because I hated the way they sounded. They were totally bass-heavy, and reverbed-out, and I was like, "This isn't what I want."
Me and Bruce (Kaphan - pedal steel etc.) and Danny (Pearson - bass etc.) hated the way they sounded, but Tim (Mooney - drums,etc.) and Vudi (guitars) loved the way they sounded. So they were like, "You're wrong, Mark. What are you talking about? I think you're crazy." But me and Bruce and Danny were like, "This is shit!" And so, I tried to be diplomatic, but then it got to the point where Chiccarelli overheard me say something, and then the shit hit the fan. I don't know what I was thinking. I should have stopped the recording session right there.
JR: That's kind of difficult in the middle of a major label album though, isn't it?
Mark: Yeah, uh-uh. But I should have anyway. Because the way the album turned out didn't make me happy; it made nobody happy. The way Chiccarelli mixed it was all bass. The kick and the bass guitar weren't all together, and formed this big rumble deep down, and the rest sort of sat on top. And that's not the way I hear music, ever. The only Chiccarelli mix we ended up using on the album was...I forgot the name of the song....It's about love...Oh yeah, "Love Doesn't Belong". And that's great, 'cause it was a "rough" mix he did, and we thought, "OK, this one actually works" - although I still hate it - but we tried remixing it four or five different times and we couldn't fix it. Because the way he recorded it was so that he could mix it with the bass really, really strong. And so I was listening to it on a car stereo, and it was like, "pppllllhhh." All the bass speakers were totally blown out, because I had to turn the bass all the way off to hear the song.
JR: I was really shocked when I first heard these complaints of yours at Brownies, because not only were we so thrilled with his work with us, largely because of that sort of sound you abhor so much, but more interesting, the reason why we worked with him was because we really liked "Rise" so much! (single off AMC's Everclear, which Chicarelli mixed) We hired him and asked him to get us a sound like that!
Mark: No, that makes sense. The reason we worked with him is because we produced that album ourselves and brought Chicarelli in the mix and he was great! He was awesome when he mixed that record! I love the way Everclear sounds. But the people who "produced" that album were me, Bruce and Vudi. The reason it sounds so good is that we made all the original sounds on Everclear the way we liked them, which were really real sounding. But I liked the way Chiccarelli mixed that album a lot.
JR: I think this is all a real shame because, not being involved as you are, I think San Francisco is a real strong record; in fact it's my favorite of all yours. Some of the b-sides off it, as well, are fantastic. Too bad.
Mark: Too bad. Thanks, though!
JR: Let's go by contrast to flesh this out a little. Was working with Mitchell Froom (producer of AMC's masterpiece and debut for Warner Brothers Mercury, as well as Suzanne Vega, Los Lobos, musician in Gamma, etc.) a much more positive experience? I tell you, yours is the only LP he's produced that I've ever liked. In fact, I blame him for thoroughly ruining the first LP by the once-great Del Fuegos and his work with Suzanne Vega and all those others are travesties.
Mark: Yeah, in the end it was a much more positive experience. At the time,i t was: "Are these guys really working for the money they're getting?" I mean you don't understand how much these producer guys cost. You know, for yourself and for other artists, Joe Chiccarelli's fine. You know what I mean? It's like, he's a really good guy, and he's a great engineer as well, I want to make this clear. It's just for us - with the constraints of us and him working together, it just didn't work out. I think he's never dealt with a democracy the way we were, and it was hard for him to get into it. And he didn't understand the way I could sing out of tune and be happy with it! You know, this was my eighth or ninth album, and I know how to be in a studio and I know what I want to hear now. And I don't want things to be perfect, I want them to be really emotive. One of the other things that was really bearing down on me was that I became a diplomat for everyone else's wishes. Instead of just being a songwriter, all I would ever do is facilitate everybody's else's needs. The managers would feel this, about this member of the group, so I would have to talk to the group member and the managers and go in between them and....let's say a club owner, or an agent was slighted by one of our managers, I had to go in between. Or, let's say someone wanted to do a photo session, and one member of the band wanted to do it in a forest an hour away from San Francisco; another member couldn't make it Tuesday, Friday, Thursday, Saturday, but could make it the Sunday of next week; the photographer couldn't make it until...I mean, I had to organize all this shit, and I had these managers that didn't do any of it because they weren't "hands on" managers. So I just felt inundated with this garbage which I shouldn't have even been dealing with. And then, when there was no money, I had to pay their taxes! All this stuff - and I'm not their fucking dad! I got the publishing deal, and I got that because I write all the fucking songs, I'm sorry. And when we first started, I said, "Everybody write songs. Come on, let's all make this happen." But they didn't know about publishing deals then. And when they found out about them, it was like, "We'll write songs." And by that point I was like, "Come on. No you're not. Fuck off. I want the money!" (laughs) 'Cause I work for it, you know, I'm a freak "I'm a freak now, 'cause you're not!" And everyone was getting like, "We're not going to tour now unless it's a certain level." There was this pressure of a certain kind of hotel, etc. But we weren't selling any records! So fuck it all! And so on January 1, 1995, I quit the band. I fired the managers about two weeks later; and I fired my lover. A clean slate. I had enough.
Mark: I didn't "allow." I didn't even show up for the recording session! I was busy. I was like, "Can I have a day off?" And Vudi didn't want me to sing. He doesn't like the way I sing his songs, because I'm not a melodic singer. So,"fine..."
I'll tell you, one song on San Francisco, "How Many Six Packs Does It Take To Screw In A Light", one of the members didn't like the lyrics. I wrote these words like, I was in love with this guy, who was a sailor, and we had this weekend with his girlfriend. And I wrote words like that, and at first they thought, "Great!" But then everybody heard the song, and they were like, "No. We can't do that on an album." And I said, "Yeah, it was a great time. We've got to do it on the album." But they said no. And I insisted. I forced the band to do the song.
In the studio the drummer was bitching the whole time because I made him play this groove beat; it was the very last thing we recorded, on the very last day of recording before the b-sides, and it was the least important song. I ended up having to change the lyrics because there was more bitching, "Um, we're not sure about this..." And I felt terrible! I said, "Oh God...fine, I'll just change them!" (to what they are now on the LP) And then later we were done with the song, and I thought it was the best song on the record! And I had to force them to play that funny synthesizer part in the middle - which I love, but everybody else disliked. And that made me really upset, to have to change lyrics.
Or like "The President's Test For Physical Fitness" (b-side to "Wish The World Away," that also appeared on the vinyl LP version, and later on the Hello Amsterdam EP). That song was originally about a journalist in Holland. I had a big fight with a journalist there - me and Vudi - because the guy was kind of self important.You know, some journalists are these self-important assholes...
JR: I wouldn't know anything about that! (both laugh)
Mark: And this guy's like, (in mock Dutch accent that actually sounds German to me) "OK, you know, you have certain albums out, and you have a real interpretation in music. What do you think about songwriting in the history of art...?"
JR: Sounds like the host in "Sprockets" (from Saturday Night Live), actually.
Mark: And me and Vudi went, "Fuck that! Songwriting is pop music. It's pop! It's garbage, it's a newspaper. You read the newspaper, you wipe your butt with it, you throw it away. That's what we do." And he said, (again in mock accent) "I think you're insulting me. You think I am stupid, ya? You think I don't know what I am talking about?" And I said, "No, of course you do, but that's your thing. We're telling you...." And he goes, "OK, you Americans have this attitude." We just said, fuck you! "I'm not being an asshole. I'm just telling you what I think!" So anyway, one of the band members was upset because, on an album track, I'm going to insult a journalist. "That means we'll never get any more interviews." He also said, "Who wants to hear about a rock personality whining about giving interviews?" But the point was not about interviews, it was about arrogant pre-conceptions of what music is all about. That's what the song is. It's like the President's Test for Physical Fitness; it's a test I can't pass. And the member in the band just said, "Well, I won't play on it." So I changed all the lyrics, again, to what they ended up to.
JR: Just for him.
Mark: Yeah, because he's in the band, and it was important to me; that people in the band, it's their song too. I write for the band.
JR: I'm almost disappointed that it was originally about a journalist because I really have the best laugh at the lyrics on the record. I was going to try and take guesses as to which important rock star it was you ended making fun of. It could be any of them! You made him seem like such a clueless, arrogant dick!
Mark: Well, as it is, it's about a band in the Bay Area. A heavy metal band who got very big by playing very quiet, acoustic music. I won't tell, you can guess easily enough! You know in the 80's, the only way a heavy metal band could get a big hit was to get close and personal, and sing a song about their feelings and shit? (Jack laughs)
JR: I vaguely recall, but I've tried to block it out.
Mark: That song is a true story. Me and Vudi were at Black Market Music and looking at other guitars. Black Market Music is this great guitar store in San Francisco.
JR: He (Vudi) works there now, doesn't he?
Mark: Yeah! How did you know that?
JR: I have my ways. (thanks Eric Moffatt!)
Mark: And these guys walked in, and they were from this famous band. It's like, (in mock dumb rock-ish voice) "Alright, man. Cool! Yeah, you know, I'm fuckin' at night and my fuckin' wife won't put out..." This whole sort of macho thing. Me and Vudi were like, "Ewwhhhh!"
JR: Did he really tell you to join a health club?
Mark: No! (laughs) No, that part's not true. But it was one of those introductions where it was like, the guy behind the counter, who's a sweetheart - the guy who owns Black Market is like awesome. He gets along with all these different kinds of people, and I love him. And he said to them, "Hey, do you want to meet Vudi and Mark from American Music Club?" And the guy goes, (again mockingly) "Oh yeah, alright, um, American, um, Music Club. Alright, cool man. What sort of music do you play?" That lyric was true. And we just said, "Um, don't worry about it." (both laugh)
JR: Carry on! You will decline to name who the individual was?
Mark: Sure, fuck yeah! It was lucky that happened, because it's about exactly the same kind of thing: arrogant rock assholes, and they exist all over the world. Fill in whoever you like!
JR: So now let's get into the new album, your first solo LP. After that experience, I would think that would make the new album the biggest pleasure you've ever had. Or, did you find it actually is somewhat difficult calling all the shots for the first time?
Mark: It's really difficult calling all the shots, yeah. But, it took like four or five weeks to make, as opposed to three months! It cost a third of the money.
JR: It sounds a lot simpler, in general.
Mark: It is. I could tell everyone what to play; I didn't have to cow-tow to anybody else's opinion, which was good. The engineer, Mark Needham, was great. Actually, it was a pleasure, I just wish that I hadn't done jazz the way I did it.
JR: It seemed when you played the shows here with the back-up band as if there were three times as many trumpet parts than on the album. As you were going along, you found more stuff you could use?
Mark: Not really. Well, yeah, like on the end of "Cleopatra Jones", to include the trumpet in the last verse, and in the outro, OK, yeah totally. That should have been on the record. Also, Marc Capelle's easier to tell what to do than Isham is. I can say try this, and he'll say OK. Whereas Isham you have to pay triple-scale; fly him out...
JR: I was trying to figure out how he (Capelle) could play the keyboard with one hand, and the trumpet with the other!
Mark: He's pretty good, yeah!
JR: I've never seen that before. They're not exactly like the same discipline, like a guy playing two keyboards at the same time.
Mark: Yeah, Capelle is someone I'm going to play with for a while.
JR: He seems to have a good idea what it is you're trying to do.
Mark: He's been in gospel bands for about 12 years. He's like the only white guy in this gospel band called the Spiritual Corinthians.
JR: When you were sitting down to write this record, did you have anything in mind, or did it just come about that you'd make sort of a jazzy, torchy kind of......
Mark: Yeah, I sort of avoided all the darker material on this record. 'Cause I wanted to prove to Warner Brothers and the world that I could make sort of a "light" record.
JR: Maybe in tone, but not in lyrics.
Mark: Oh yeah, the lyrics are kind of light. Compared to all the other stuff I was writing at the time. You think about it, a relationship, a manager, a band all broken up at once! And then having to deal with lawyers, with all the stuff that I've never done in my life, like producing a record, hiring musicians. I got two record deals that year, one in England and one in L.A. A lot of legal stuff.
JR: So, in deference to that, what you are saying is that it's surprising how light a tone your record is.
Mark: Yeah, 'cause I wrote a lot of songs that year, and a lot of them were pretty dark! And now, I'm sort of filling those out and working them out.
JR: Is it true you didn't want the Dusty Springfield song ("No Easy Way Down," written by Carole King) to start the record?
Mark: No, I totally wanted it to start the album. It was my idea. The record company was, "Are you sure?"
JR: That's sort of a sombre song, though.
Mark: Well, I wanted to start with that, as opposed to say, "Sacred Heart", because I wanted the album to start off quiet. That song either fits the end, or it fits the beginning. I couldn't find a place for "No Easy Way Down" in the middle. In the end, after "Everything Is Beautiful", it just seems like another down song. No let it end there and put "No Easy Way Down" at the beginning.
JR: One thing I found is that there wasn't really a precedent, other than the occasional track like the second version of "The Thorn In My Side Is Gone" with the string bed (on the Hello Amsterdam EP). Had you had in your mind this kind of a sound all along? This kind of torch, jazz, cocktail, smokey bar....
Mark: Yeah. It started with Mercury. The engineer, Tchad Blake, had a 78 player in the studio, and he had all these 78s like Fats Waller, "Smoke Dreams Of You," and a couple of Billie Holiday 78s. (Holiday is name checked by Eitzel on one of Mercury's songs). And I taped all the 78's he had, 'cause they sounded so fuckin' good. And you can't find that version of "I'll Be Seeing You" by Billie Holiday anywhere. - it was out a few years ago on some compilation, but that version is great. Just in general, I just started listening to a lot of jazz. Shirley Horn's record came out in '94 and one of the things that Mitchell (Froom) taught me about all that music is how people sing behind the beat. How they just let the music go and sing behind it. You find the place, as opposed to....
JR: Yeah, you do a lot of that on "Saved".
Mark: Yeah! I do that everywhere. I do a lot of it now.
JR: Particularly on the chorus of that song. You're laid back real far.
Mark: It's great. It's the way to sing. It's hard to do. I mean Jimmy Scott's the king of it. So it started there, in '94. And I tried to sing a lot of Mercury like that too, 'cause I was really turned on by it.
JR: In bit's of "I've Been A Mess".
Mark: Yeah, that's where it started.
JR: Of course, by making this sort of LP, you've risked alienating a good deal of your following, and I have indeed heard some stringent complaints.You know those influences aren't big in the indie crowd, sadly.
Mark: You know, I just don't hear a lot of what I want to hear in indie rock. 'Cause I've grown old. I've grown so fuckin' old that when I hear "Smells Like Teen Spirit," I hear the ultimate teen record. I don't hear a song that really affects my life that much. I think it's the best album of '91 and I think it's deserving of all the praise and everything, but for my money, it's not what I need. Hell, I just got into (David Bowie's truly scary, unique 1981 LP) Scary Monsters (Mark laughs) again two days ago. It's a great album! and Heroes, you know, I just got back into.
JR: Yeah, that's my teen years! I know every inch of old Bowie LPs.
Mark: Exactly, but I hadn't listened to that stuff since then, you know?
JR: How can you do without (Heroes) "Blackout" all these years?!?!
Mark: Exactly! "If I don't catch that plane tonight, nothing to..." What is it?
JR: "I've nothing to lose, nothing to gain/I'll kiss you in the rain/Kiss you in the rain."
Mark: Great! Great! It's all about heroin, too, that record! I'm old enough now to realize it's all about heroin. I didn't know it at the time.
JR: Great paranoid sounds all the way through, fittingly.
Mark: Great, yeah. So, I mean that gives me more of what I need than something like Nirvana, 'cause I'm a different generation, I guess - if it's that simple.
JR: Well, aside from the fact that we both loved that sort of music like Bowie as kids, which is far more complex than Nevermind's raw and basic appeal, you also make references in one of your songs to having punk rock posters on your wall ("Johnny Mathis' Feet"), so this shot must seem very old to you!
Mark: That's right. Yeah, in 1977 it was really exciting.
JR: Especially for you, since you were living in England then? You were in the midst of it, anyway. It was all around you.
Mark: Right! So now I hear it and I'm like, so what? Well, listening to Nirvana's Unplugged, it's interesting hearing some of the weird chords they're using - that's really cool. You can hear how the music is really smart, and not just like...
JR: Sham 69 football choruses etc. I like that LP and In Utero 1000 times more than Nevermind, for the reasons you mentioned. The production just makes this special, punkish band with good songs seem like just another old punk/metal knockoff to me, good as it might be. Whereas the songs, and the chords, weren't such old news, after all. Hey, what punk rock records were really big in your past? Anything unusual?
Mark: Well, for me it was the Sex Pistols' Nevermind The Bollocks but also The Stranglers' first album was a huge album for me.
JR: What, (1977's) IV Rattus Norvegicus?
Mark: Oh yeah. You know, "Hanging Around".
JR: "Cause she's alright in the city/'Cause she's high above the ground."
Mark: A great fucking song. What else? Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True. But that wasn't really punk. I was never a punk rocker, anyway. I was....
JR: New Waver. Periphery.
Mark: I guess I was a new waver, yeah. (Jack laughs)
JR: Well, that was a time when new wave was actually good music.
Mark: Was it though? I mean you listen to like "Turning Japanese" (The Vapors) or something.....
JR: No that was much later new wave, more turn of the decade into the'80's - that's when it gets bad! All that awful Martha & The Muffins and all these crap bands in skinny ties trying to be quirky!
Mark: Yeah, right. For me new wave is like Wire's (third LP) 154, or like, what's that song? It's not the Buzzcocks - though they were great too - it was called "Standing In The Light."
JR: Oh, Magazine! From Real Life (first LP,1978).
Mark: Right, it was by Howard Devoto, the old Buzzcocks' singer. Yeah, that really changed me as well. Well, everything changed me. Everything still does. I'm really open to things that are going to change me, but I mean am I really supposed to be tricked and fooled by - and I was for a minute - by Portishead? For a minute I thought that album was going to be the most revolutionary album of my life. I don't at all know, I think it's phony bologna. I mean, there are some lyrics on there which are better than I could ever write in my whole life, because it's about a kind of a simple thing, it's like people at a fashion cafe. It's like things I can't do in my life, but I love them and respect them, but I can't do them.
JR: Last year when you were doing some of your solo shows, you kept stopping songs half-way through because you said they were too painful for you.
Mark: That stuff was a lie. The truth of it was I couldn't remember the lyrics. (Jack laughs loudly)
JR: You old put on. Still, sometimes when I sit down and listen to one of your songs I - maybe it's just the hopelessly romantic part of me - I imagine a guy singing on his knees. You sound so pained, so hurt, so broken. In all my years, I've encountered this very infrequently with any credibility.
Mark: I often think about singing on my knees! Yeah. I just get too distracted on stage sometimes. I get kind of freaked out, so then I can't remember the words. I start thinking about other shit, so then I can't remember the song. It's just a lack of focus.
JR: Is there any of your material that's more painful than others to sing?
Mark: No, not really. A new recorded song is called "If I Had A Gun," and when I sing that I'm reminded of what the song's about, and that makes me feel sick. That's why I put it so early in the live set, because it really grounds me. It makes me go like, "This is what you do. You ain't no fuckin' entertainer, you do this." And that was good. One thing I like about rock 'n' roll is when people are like, "Alright, I'm gonna fuckin' blow you're mind. I'm gonna entertain you until you can't believe it." That's the best shit. And you don't see that very often. People are afraid to do stupid crazy shit, but like a 17 year old stupid kid - he doesn't care.
JR: He just goes up and does it. The spiritual descendant of the young Iggy Pop.
Mark: He's just gonna jump around, he's gonna fall on his back. You know, their set's started by him falling over and breaking his guitar within like 30 seconds. (laughs) And then they have to find a new guitar.
JR: The punk era was filled with those kind of performances for me.
Mark: Me too! I used to do them all the time!
JR: Yeah, you're kind of legendary for that, aren't you?
Mark: Yeah, I love it! (both laugh) But I can't do it now. Last time I jumped up in the air and fell on my knees, I couldn't walk for like a week. It was awful. (uproarious laughter)
JR:Yeah, I still remember the Bad Brains' singer H.R. doing all these back flips all the time, then as the years went by they started disappearing (Mark laughs). Down to one a set, you know? For the spectacular ending of "At the Movies." And even then you'd kind of miss it a lot of the times.
Mark: Well, that's kind of formulaic.
JR: Not if you saw it! Those people were possessed when they were on stage, like nothing I've seen before or since.
Mark: Really? Cool.
JR: You likewise seem to surround yourself with some temperamental characters in your life (referring to two different acquaintances of Mark's who are now in rehab, one of whom is described in San Francisco's "I Broke My Promise")
Mark: Yeah, but I don't have any more friends - that's the weirdest thing. I used to have all these friends, but now I don't have any more friends 'cause they're all either dead or they've moved away from San Francisco. I only have like five friends, so one is in Providence, one in New York, two of 'em live in L.A., and the rest of 'em are dead.
JR: No wonder you spend all your time in bars!
Mark: Yeah, that's true! (laughs)
JR: So what else have you got to do?
Mark: I've got nothing else to do, you know, it's shit. All my childhood friends, most people keep friends through life, but I don't seem to be able to do that.
JR: Are you just too weird for them or something?
Mark: I get bored. And, every time that I enter into people's scenes, anytime that I meet people who aren't interested in the fact I'm in American Music Club, or that I'm an artist, or that I travel, and they're really cool people, and I want to hang with them and they don't know anything about music...Then I go, like, "I'm just about to go and do a promotional tour in Milano, Paris and London for two weeks, so I'll see you later." And they're like, "Milano, Paris and London? You gonna be gone for two weeks? Oh, fuck off! (laughs) Goodbye!" Then I lose touch. Then I do this (promotional interviews) and I'm in New York for a month and then I go back. You know what I mean?
It's hard to get involved in people's lives now when you do shit like this, because the more you do interviews, the more you become the person who's interviewed, and the less you become a real human being. 'Cause people are always telling me, "Oh, I read your interview." And no one's ever saying, "Well, how you doing?" People already know how I'm doing!
JR: That's the one thing about being liked by the press. Most people don't get to do many interviews, you know! A lot of bands are crying to do some, it's very different being ignored by the press, you know, when you are trying to let people know about the existence of your music!
Mark: Yeah, it's such a fucked up thing though, because I do all these interviews, and I love doing 'em because people are cool, usually - like yourself - and people are usually knowledgeable....And so you have this nice conversation about yourself - which is the best conversation topic for me, ever - and then you think that it's going to sell your records, and it doesn't! And then you get to do "phoners" like I was doing, and they ask all the same questions all the time, and you feel reamed. And it's like, "What am I doing this for?" I'm not selling records, I'm putting myself in this whole netherworld of personality. I'm talking about myself to become a personality that I'm not necessarily. You know what I'm saying? It's a weird trip. 'Cause everyone is interested in my music, but nobody wants to listen to it. I was talking to someone recently - night before last - and we were at dinner, and this is somebody who has a record collection of something like 50,000 records or something ridiculous, you know? And he said, "Well, you know the thing about music nowadays is that it's become a fashion accessory......a lifestyle accessory."
JR: Yeah,I think about that all the time! It bothers me more than I can say! I always wonder if other people nowadays hear and see the same thing in music that I do.
Mark: And nobody actually listens to anything, it seems.
JR: And the big record labels wonder why the bands they sell millions of now, like Spin Doctors, don't really build up a genuine following, and their records flop big time when the kids move to the next accessory the MTV and radio hands them.
Mark: Yeah! 'Cause nobody actually just sits down with an album, and listens to it. It's like Son Volt, I really like that album. A lot of my friends, they hear the country rock; "It sounds like Lynyrd Skynyrd," and they hate it. But I'm like, "But just listen to the album, like, a few times. Try! And, just let it sit, hear how it feels, let it feel something in you." And they're like, "Why?" (Mark laughs) There's no argument to that. Or the Geraldine Fibbers. That's a great new band I saw in Austin. I was overwhelmed. And I was talking to some of my record company friends and their only comment is, "Sold one record."
JR: Yeah, that's all they care about! I can't stand that as well! Everyone in the record industry is so damn phoney, they all hitch their wagons to what is rising, and have no real love of music itself, it seems.
Mark: But, if you're talking lifestyle accessory, you've got to push units to be a lifestyle accessory. Details has to really like you and you have to do a great photo session in Details. You know? Beautiful young people who look like Calvin Klein ads have to be totally fuckin' into it, and drop your name all the time. Isn't that how it is now? I mean, or am I just missing something?
JR: You couldn't ask for a world more stupid. I'd say we need the next Never Mind The Bollocks or Stranglers, or something, to shake this fashion-consciousness out again, but I don't think it will ever happen again. I agree with you, everything but the music and the ideas matter now, and I hate it.
Mark: You know, I'm desperate for someone to look at me and say, "You're an old fart, and you don't know what the fuck's going on." But unfortunately, I have an awful feeling that I know exactly what's going on, even if I am a stupid old fart. "Never trust anybody under the age of 29?" Is that what I'm supposed to be saying now? 'Cause it ain't true. But when I was growing up the New York Rocker was a really big, important magazine. Back then (late 70's/early 80's) everyone was looking for the weirdest and strangest and most fucked up things they could possibly get into. So I went through the whole route. I read all my Baudelaire (Charles Pierre, 1821 - 1867, French poet and critic); all the 18th Century surrealist writers. I tried to get into as many weird things as I could. I lived with these old hippies, I learned about all this stuff on purpose. I did as many drugs as I possibly could. I mean it. Just because, that's what you did back then. And now, I don't know if people do that. Things are already so fucked up and screwed up now, that people just feel like, "What do I need to do reading this stupid shit?" Maybe they do, maybe I'm just really cut off from what's going on, but I don't hear it in the music. When I listen to Bush, or when I listen to Alanis, or even songwriters who are new and fresh, I don't hear inventive new ideas that drive me nuts very often. The thing I like about Son Volt is it's complete parochialism in a lot of ways. It's not trying to hard to be anything more than what it is. He's (leader Jay Farrar, formerly of Uncle Tupelo), talking about passage of time, he's talking about mud, he's talking about the south, and he's talking about driving. His palette is four colors. And I love that; I love that kind of songwriting. It's for real. And Vic Chestnutt is a great songwriter - witty, poignant, all those things. But who else? I don't hear a lot of people. Marcy Mays (of Scrawl) is great. I'm talking specifically of American songwriters....
JR: You know her from when you were in Columbus (Ohio) right?
Mark: No, actually I didn't know her from Columbus.
JR: You were gone by then? They started around '83.
Mark: Early '81 I left. Anyway, Robert Pollard (of Guided By Voices) is a great songwriter, (flipping through pages of Big Takeover #38) Radiohead, the guy Thome Yorke is a good pop songwriter. "Creep" is amazing, as a pop song.
JR: I agree, and the last LP was genius. But let's move on. Why did you think you were so shit when you played with Bob Mould, here in New York at The Academy?
Mark: You know why, because I hadn't left my house in about four weeks, literally. I hadn't talked to anybody except for people in bars. So, I came to New York City, and I got off the airplane, and I got to the club, and I was completely and utterly shell shocked. And suddenly I was in a crowd of 4,000 people. So it was nuts. It was really hard for me to relate, that's why.
JR: Maybe that's why you were so good that night, in fact, best I've seen you. You were all but falling apart when you sang "The Dead Part Of You" and your throat was real hoarse. I thought you were going to lose it.
Mark: I don't think I was that good. It's funny 'cos some guy started heckling in the back, and I thought he was telling me to shut up, and so I said, "Fuck you!" But someone told me, they were standing right next to him and he was saying, "You're great, Mark! We love you, you're great!" And I said, "Fuck you!"
JR: Yeah, I remember you said something indignant back to him, like, "I don't have to do this. I just came to play with Bob Mould, I don't have to do this. You want to come up here and do this?" Which made the crowd roar, they loved it.
Mark: I know! Yeah, I made a fool of myself. I was just really out of my fucking mind. I just really get into the songs, and I really get in that place. And sometimes when I'm in that place, in those songs, in front of a weird crowd I don't like, I don't trust myself and I'm not sure what I'm doin', then I freak. I remember I got off stage, put my guitar in my guitar case, gave my laminate to somebody outside and walked into a cab. (Jack laughs) I didn't get paid or anything! I just sort of left. Oh no, I didn't just leave - I went upstairs. Bob left really worried and he came out, "Are you OK? Is that alright? How's the crowd?" And I said, "They're fucking assholes. They suck. I hate them." Then I'm like, "Well, see ya!" (Jack laughs) He's such a sweet man ......But that's how I get!