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Mark Eitzel

by D. House

January 10, 2009


For over 20 years, Mark Eitzel has had a remarkable career both as the leader of the the American Music Club and as a solo artist. Throughout, he has been critically lauded for his powerful voice, passionate performances and brilliant compositional prowess. His fans are deeply loyal and have helped to firmly cement Mark as an artist with a fierce cult following. This interview took place over several whiskey and beers, and would not have been quite as engaging without the questions and participation of one miss Amy.

You recently got back from two months of touring in Europe. Was that solo or with a full band?

Mark Eitzel:

It was for American Music Club.  It’s down to just me and the guitar player.  We have a drummer who lives in LA, a bass player who lives in New York, and another guitar player who lives in Berlin.

Is the guitar player still [Jeff] Vudi?

Mark:

Yeah, from here in Echo Park.

She always wore bracelets and big full gowns, and always drank wine by the box.

What are you up to at the moment? Are you recording? Are you playing?

Mark:

Right now I’m writing a solo record that I’m going to put out as soon as I finish writing the songs. I’m doing a musical in England, which I have to write a couple more songs for.  I’m doing a soundtrack for a film in Pittsburgh if the fucker calls me back.  And then I’m writing the American Music Club record for April.

Wow...that's a lot! What label is the American Music Club record on?

Mark:

Merge.

Is all the material being written by you, or is it more of a collective process?

Mark:

I write it all.

Turn this shit off, I can’t stand it. It’s like having somebody piss sugar in my eyes.

Has it always been that way?

Mark:

Yeah. It started with me saying, ‘Let’s all write it,’ and they said, ‘No, you’re the freak, you write it. We’re the Journeymen rockers.’  Until the first publishing check came in, they were very much like that.

How many years has it been since the first American Music record?

Mark:

That record was 1985. That was on Frontier...Lisa Fancher. She's a sweetheart.

You’ve been on Frontier, Alias, Reprise, Warner…

Mark:

And on Virgin and Matador and Merge and Cooking Vinyl.

For me, happiness is when I’m not reading other peoples’ minds.

What have been your favorite memories, experiences on labels?

Mark:

I don’t know.  If they pay the bill, I love them to death. [laughs] I’d say Merge, they don’t have any money, they don’t pay very much, but they stay in business.  They’re good people.  They’re honest, and they pay the royalty.  They’re great, I love them.  Same thing with Cooking Vinyl.  I don’t know them very well, but I’ve got no complaints.  No ups, no downs.  I’ve always been treated really well by record companies.

That’s rare.

Mark:

Well, I’m such a freak they don’t know what to do with me.  They figure, just let him go because we don’t know exactly what he does.

Is your focus more on American Music Club or doing solo records as Mark Eitzel? Or do you really see them as one and the same?

Mark:

It’s project by project. Right now, doing an acoustic record seems like the project I want to do now, so that’s what I’m doing. These songs could be American Music Club songs easily, but the way they’re conceived, they’re all about silence and acoustic guitar. Staying in a cabin in the woods for two weeks – this is the sound I want, the sound of nothing.

My secret fear is that I’ll stop feeling it from here. That I won’t be on stage for a reason.

The record West, I was curious how you hooked up with that particular group of musicians.  Was that basically R.E.M.?

Mark:

That’s all Peter Buck.  He was a fan and wanted to work with me. He pulled the group from Tuatara, this jazz band from Seattle with Barrett Martin at the helm.

Barrett Martin was the last drummer in my old band.

Mark:

Insanely good drummer, insanely good artist.  A good old-fashioned, serious artist.  I love him to death.

How was the experience working on that?

Mark:

It was easy.  The only regret I have is that Peter didn’t put his name on the cover.  It should have been a Mark Eitzel/Peter Buck record because he did, I think, half the work, and a lot of it reflects his musical tastes.  But it was really easy for me, all I had to do was write the lyrics.  And sing them.  I didn’t write any of the music except for the last song on the record.  He wrote everything.  Also, give it up for Scott McCaughey, because that man worked really hard too.  A lot of the arrangements are him.

And he’s now part of R.E.M.’s touring band?

Mark:

Yeah, god bless him.  I saw him in San Francisco, and it was a good, honest show.  [Michael] Stipe stopped wearing that horrible eye make-up, that raccoon thing.  He was a good, honest, very friendly performer.  I loved it, I thought it was great.

“Johnny Mathis’ Feet.”  Is that fictional or autobiographical?  What was the inspiration?

Mark:

It was Christmas time, and I was hanging out with an old friend of mine.  She’s an old punk rock chick from Columbus, Ohio with a huge beehive.  She always wore bracelets and big full gowns, and always drank wine by the box.  In San Francisco, I was going out with this girl at the time who has her best friend, and that’s how I met her.  So I was at her house during Christmas, and I walked in and heard her listening to this Johnny Mathis Christmas record.  Of course I’m Mr. Punk Rock, Mr. Know-it-All about music, and I said, “Turn this shit off, I can’t stand it. It’s like having somebody piss sugar in my eyes.”  And she said, “You know what Eitzel? You can sing all your stupid, self-conscious, depressing little songs. You can boil them all down, and it still wouldn’t equal one Johnny Mathis hit.”  And I was like, “Ok, yeah, so what’s he singing about? His collection of dildos?”  She told me, “You have to get up and leave my house. This is Johnny Mathis we’re talking about.”  I immediate put it in my head and thought, who the fuck am I to say these kind of things, so I wrote a song.  I laid all my songs at Johnny Mathis’ feet.  I was on Regis and Kathy Lee, not physically, but he held up my CD and said, “Why the hell would anyone write about Johnny Mathis’ feet?”  I never saw that, though I’d love to.

What is your musical about?

Mark:

The musical is co-written by Simon Stephens.  It’s about making decisions, love, and people not deciding.  It features five couples.  It’s not Altman-like because the couples never meet or interact, but it’s five couples in a hotel.  One couple is an ex-girlfriend begging the ex-boyfriend for £2000 because she needs it, but she won’t tell him why.  The next couple is a 14-year-old girl fucking her 25-year-old boyfriend for the first time.  That’s actually the positive one, because it’s her decision.  As an aside, it’s directed and produced by women.  There’s an older couple in their 50’s.  He left his wife for her twenty years before and finally decides that it was wrong.  There’s the owner of the hotel and the maid who fuck occasionally.  She’s going to leave for college, and he tells her he loves her and that she has to stay.  Then there’s the one character loosely based on me who’s the lonely, crazy guy by the ocean, railing at the sky.

Is that how you see yourself, as a lonely, crazy guy?

Mark:

Oh yeah.  That’s how everybody sees me. [laughs]

I’ve always thought your songs have a mournful, melancholy quality, but at the same time there’s almost a duality of hopefulness underneath as well.

Mark:

I look back, and no one lives without regrets.  One of mine is that I put too much of myself in my music early on when I was younger when I didn’t know what I was doing.  A lot of people like that, but it forced me to be the story I was telling.  As if I was in the way of the listener.  Now I listen back to old songs and think, why the fuck did I sing it like that?  I was watching some model TV series, and I heard “be the clothes.”  That’s how I should write a song.  How superficial am I that that would even change me, but that’s good, ‘be the song.’

So has the music influenced your life as opposed to the other way around?

Mark:

Both at the same time, that’s the interchange.  But when you talk about the duality, I think it’s only because I’m blubbering into the microphone as if I’m going to kill myself and the song itself is not so hard.  Perhaps.

You’d know better than I would.

Mark:

I wouldn’t.

As a musician, do you feel as if a song is therapy, but later on you think, ‘I revealed too much, there’s too much of me out there.’?

Mark:

I get in my voice, and having that voice and that idea about singing kind of garbled the song.  It made me a stumbling song-writer as opposed to a sure one.  I saw Leonard Cohen this year at a huge festival, and I was one of 40,000 people in this parking lot in Spain, and it was absolutely incredible.  He was the song.  It wasn’t about him, it was about here’s the song.  Leonard Cohen was so joyous.  I can’t say the same thing about Morrissey four hours later.

There’s something really joyful about being able to put on a costume, wear it and be it, and then take it off two hours later.  You don’t have to play yourself, it’s something else.

Mark:

It’s wonderful.  I’m a punk rocker from 1977 with that brutal honesty in a fake way.  Did you see how Paul Simenon aged?  I was actually looking at a few pictures of J.J. Burnel today, the bass player from the Stranglers.  When I was a kid I used to think he was so hot, and he aged well.  That’s what I’m writing about these days.  The waste-dump of history.

I don’t even think at the end of your life you have that much enthusiasm about any one thing.  You burn it off.

Mark:

It depends how you live.  I swear to god, it depends on how you fucking live. I know a lot of people my age who are completely done.  I’d think, you’re 35 and you’re done.  You look like you’re 50, you can’t speak to anybody, you’re bitter, and the whole jewel of your life is now a fucking prison you can’t get out of.

It’s like people resign themselves to their lives and think they don’t have any other options.  And they’re 32.

Mark:

That’s it. They figured out this is how you survive, this is what you do, these are rules, and they know them.

Maybe it’s more exhausting to put yourself out there.

Mark:

But energy comes from that work of always reading the book, thinking the thought, listening to the music, and living.  It’s about trying to meet new people that aren’t like you.  Just engage.  Most people don’t do it, and it’s kind of a freak that the freaks are the ones who are engaged silently, and no one wants to hear from them.

I think that freaks all tend to find each other and gravitate toward each other as they recognize themselves.

Mark:

That’s why me and Vudi, after trying to work with the other two guys from American Music Club who I love to death and think are great musicians, but I found that with Vudi he is that person. I’d play him my songs, and he’d play along. It was so fucked up, but there was hope. And I’d think, oh, this song doesn’t suck. It can live. Whereas when I played with those other guys, I’d think this song sucks. That’s it, that defines it. There is hope, and there isn’t. There is next, or there isn’t.

Do you think it’s that black and white?

Mark:

Yeah. I’m just a human being and to parse it down to subtleties is completely beyond me. All I know is that you walk away when the negativity is it. The smartest people I know are the ones who understand the process. The dumbest people I know are the ones who know every single fact in the world.

Those people who had the World Book encyclopedias as children and read them all to quote back to you?

Mark:

They’re idiots, but god bless them. In terms of just trying to live a life where your head is just vulnerable, it’s hard. Those people I respect. I have these friends, she’s now 65 and he’s 68, and they’re both wonderful artists. She was thrown out of an elders’ drawing competition because she channels these drawings of dogs with huge penises and big, fat men fucking them. So that’s what she does. When she talks, she’s alive and open and free and happy. There’s a light in her eyes. That’s what you want.

At the end of the day, it seems the only thing you can have or not have is happiness, whatever that is for the individual.

Mark:

It’s not just happiness. There’s a lot of despair when you maintain that vulnerability over years. It’s hard. When you walk down the street or take a bus or train, you look at people, and everyone looks fucking miserable, including me of course. When you go to the supermarket and stand in line, you don’t see anybody. There’s no one to see because there’s no one with light in their eyes.

Nobody says hi to you. If you drop something, nobody will pick it up.

Mark:

It’s more than that. There’s just nobody looking back.

I think that’s the first step. I love to go into different parts of different neighborhoods and actually start talking to people and see the surprise in their faces. I literally expect them to go, ‘are you talking to me?.’ Nobody ever talks to me, nobody says hi.

Mark:

Well I’m not going to talk to you. Don’t come in my neighborhood! [laughs]

Everybody loves the sad bastard.

Mark:

No, they don’t love the sad bastard, and I’m joking by the way.

That’s the dichotomy between the hopeful and the melancholy. There’s a whole lot of people who have a whole lot less than any of us, and they don’t talk about a happiness. They talk about a sense of peace, contentment. Maybe that’s what happiness is for those people.

Mark:

For me, happiness is when I’m not reading other peoples’ minds, and I’m participating with them.

Do you think your creative life and your music brings you more into that headspace?

Mark:

I don’t know, maybe. I just went on tour, and it changed me. It was such a positive trip. There was no one angry or violent or mean, everyone made money and it was great. January through April, the shows I did then, there was somebody in the band who was always unhappy, always complaining. It killed me.

Do you feel getting away and being by yourself, which seems to resonate in your writing, helps you turn things over in your mind, process thoughts and ideas?

Mark:

Yeah. I have an ex-boyfriend who always complains I don’t remember anything about our relationship. Mostly because it was just this constant churning of stuff that I never felt I could process a thing. It never came from my place, it always came from his. I still love him; he’s a great film-maker. I went on this tour and I was on such a high with my brain processing things in a really good way, I wanted it to sink in and not just disappear in my San Francisco days.

If you’re social and interacting with people, you forget those experiences. You don’t have time to really process. You forget quite easily what it was that you felt so excited about.

Mark:

If you travel when you’re in a different city every single night for two months, you forget everything.  It’s like being in a washing machine...or a blender.

For you as a performer, what’s a fear that maybe other people wouldn’t know?

Mark:

I have horrible nights on stage when all I feel is the disbelief of the audience because I can’t overcome it.  At the same time, why the fuck should I?  I feel like I’m bumming them out and not doing my job, which is pulling the audience together and making a moment.  I can do it really well if given the right circumstances, but I can also really do it badly.  My secret fear is that I’ll stop feeling it from here.  That I won’t be on stage for a reason.  The best nights I have are when I’m not even in control, it’s just here.

Any words of advice? Words of warning?

Mark:

Words of advice: don’t get lost. Words of warning: don’t be like me.

D. House

Daniel House was bass player in proto-grunge band, Skin Yard, and spent fifteen years as the president and owner of Seattle based C/Z records, where he worked in every capacity including A&R and marketing. He moved to L.A. in 2003 and was responsible for the launch of one of the first genre-specific digital music download sites, DownloadPunk.com. In 2008 he launched RocknRollDating.