“It’s Time To Be A Man”: Mark Eitzel Interviewed

Mark Eitzel's new album was made following a massive heart attack and the death of his former American Music Club bandmate Tim Mooney. He tells Colm McAuliffe about facing death, growing older and leaving his old band behind

The tiny, makeshift stage at the Cellar Door, a drag bar on London’s Strand which once operated as a public men’s toilet, is barely large enough to accommodate anything more than a simple keyboard setup. Resplendent in shabby suit chic and crooning acapella in front of the venue’s bathroom door is one of America’s finest songwriters, Mark Eitzel, ostensibly promoting his new album Don’t Be A Stranger. No longer anchored by guitar playing duties, Eitzel nowadays prefers to fully indulge his sad clown lounge act routine which is amply anchored by his endless stream of wildly rambling anecdotes and self-deprecating song commentaries.

But amongst this gathering of the great and the good, comprised of industry acolytes and semi-famous fans, Eitzel needs little promotion. His unofficial canonisation as a press darling was secured at some point during the early 1990s, as his band American Music Club released album after album to critical exaltation only to be smothered by a deafening commercial silence. The band’s heart-wrenching songs of love and fury, which ripped country, punk and folk from their roots into an iconoclastic re-calibration of the American musical fabric, were a showcase for Eitzel’s bruised and barbed muse, his staggeringly emotional stage presence driving, directing but not always withstanding the often wayward current which propelled their live performances. Stories abounded of Eitzel storming off at key events, stormy inter-band relationships and a propensity for heroic bouts of alcohol consumption. Witnessing him on stage made you either want to offer a consoling arm around the shoulder… or simply slap some sense into the man.

After the band’s demise, Eitzel embarked on a solo career in the mid-1990s, collaborating with REM’s Peter Buck on 1997’s West while also embracing a more electronic aesthetic, which peaked with 2001’s The Invisible Man. American Music Club briefly regrouped for a couple of albums in the last decade but have remained dormant since 2008. Within the last eighteen months, Eitzel has suffered a life-threatening heart attack while long-term American Music Club drummer Tim Mooney died suddenly earlier this year. For a man who’s oeuvre has never shied away from distilling sorrow and misery into his songs, you might expect this run of bad luck to have further fuelled Eitzel’s descent into abject introspection.

But the Eitzel I encounter is, dare I say it, bordering on the ebullient. That’s not to say he’s an effortless interviewee; he has a tendency to digress into colourful anecdotes before abruptly cutting himself off amid a hail of apologies or suddenly suppressing his stories out of some form of misguided courtesy, insisting that I should no longer hear what he has to say. But perhaps befitting a man in his early fifties, Eitzel no longer exudes such a colossal sense of loneliness. The new album, Don’t Be A Stranger, has an elegant, redemptive quality to it, bolstered by the Attractions’ Pete Thomas on drums and sympathetic production courtesy of Sheldon Gomberg. The self-deprecating humour is still intact – ‘I got party talk for all your party guests / My topics include fascism and rising crime / And when I outline the coming doom of the USA / Well that’ll ensure everyone’s good time’ – as are the obscure song titles -‘Costumed Characters Face Dangers In The Workplace’ – but, after fifty-two years, is Mark Eitzel finally reconciled with himself? I caught up with him in the splendorous surroundings of Somerset House to find out.

The new album was bookmarked by outrageous feats of both good and bad fortune. Let’s begin with the positives.

Mark Eitzel: I was doing demo after demo on my laptop and I’m not an engineer, I’m a songwriter, I’m all on my own. I found this man [Sheldon Gomberg] in LA who said “you’re not gonna be a priority because you don’t have enough money but I’ll do it” but I couldn’t even get started because I didn’t have any money. I had been sending Merge Records some amazingly bad demos. My boyfriend was like “I cannot believe how bad this song is!”

That’s the spirit!

ME: Well, I love him and he’s right! He was like “Oh my God.” But then my manager’s friend from Portland won the lottery – $11 million – and this guy had seen me play a couple of times and just gave me $5,000 dollars. We’ve paid him back already.

And this is how you got Pete Thomas involved?

ME: Pete’s not cheap either but Sheldon, my producer, just picks up the phone and everyone comes running. And I had met Pete a long time ago, I used to semi-know that world, back when I shook hands with these people, that brief five seconds of a handshake. Pete came over for two hours and did all the drum tracks. I edited them… can you imagine editing Pete Thomas? I was terrified.

One of the standout tracks featuring Pete is ‘I Love You But You’re Dead’ – was this a dedication from a disgruntled fan?

ME: No, no, it’s punk rock, baby. I was nineteen. The character in the song, Lead Pipe, was an old biker and a meth addict who lived next door to us, we were a punk rock band. He used to lecture us and say that the only way to be successful was to give all the women in the crowd 7-14s [Quaaludes] and then you can fuck them as well because they’ll love you for giving them drugs. So, we were at this gig, it was Ron Asheton on guitar and members of the MC5 – whom I hate – and the female singer came off the stage, I had ripped a poster from somewhere and she grabbed it and wrote “I love you, but you’re dead”.

The imagery of clowns reappears throughout the album, particularly the curious phenomenon of audiences taunting and ultimately trying to dunk Bobo the clown in a tank of water at fairgrounds.

ME: It’s an American tradition, everywhere there’s a state fair. The way the clowns talk and the way they laugh, it’s completely beautiful and as good as art as I’ve ever seen, this great, harmless capitalist thing of insulting people or trying to kill them in order to get their money, it’s art! It’s high art.

Does this symbolism of the clown at the mercy of his audience resonate with you as a performer?

ME: You know, my friend recently pointed out to me that I am always singing about the death of a clown but it’s not the clown that dies, it’s the clown in you that dies. It’s like I’ve lost my vulnerability. If you turn fifty and you’re still vulnerable, it’s kinda embarrassing. If you’re young and screaming, flailing about on the ground it’s interesting but if you’re old and doing it, it’s like “oh…”

How have you combatted this vulnerability?

ME: Well, doing these interviews is a free psychological analysis for me because everyone wants to know all the deep things and, of course, I have absolutely no filter so I just say everything.

Prior to the recording of the album, you suffered a heart attack.

ME: Oh, I almost died. It’s not glamorous or interesting. Just high cholesterol.

You weren’t living the rock n’ roll lifestyle to excess?

ME: I haven’t done coke in so many years and I don’t smoke cigarettes. It did make me face up to my own mortality but not anymore than usual. But fuck, it’s hard to change. I’ve always been vegetarian and now I just don’t drink that fourth whiskey, I keep it to one if I can. It gave me post traumatic stress disorder a little bit, every time I have a pain in my chest I think ‘Do I have $200,000 to pay for this?!’ Because after this, I’m [financially] done. I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I worked in a library up until AMC got signed. Everyone’s tried so hard to make me into a star but my music’s too dark and AMC were just so incredibly negative. Every time we left the stage, someone was pouting – me included – saying "that was shit". Always. Same every time we made an album, someone was always saying "the song is okay… but this part is shit. And that part is shit. And THAT part is fucked." You can say what you want about REM but, when I worked with Peter [Buck], he never said "die", everything was great at every opportunity.

There’s a very lush sound to Don’t Be A Stranger, almost elegiac.

ME: Good! I ripped off Robert Kirby’s string arrangements from Five Leaves Left for the new album. I love that shit. I have been trying [to rip him off] since the very first time I heard him but it’s only now I have the skillset. I also did a musical in 2010 [Marine Parade] where I really learned how to instruct string players. The older I get, I just know these things. I’ve nailed it… but it’s far too late. I should’ve nailed it back in 1984! But yeah, elegiac is a great word. Although you have to say "arcadian and elegiac".

Which might be a good title for the follow-up?

ME: Maybe… but the title for the next album is I Am Not A Serious Person which is what Richard Harris said to the maker [Mart Crowley] of this horrible camp movie from the 1970s, The Boys in the Band. Terrible, terrible movie but it’s the first actual gay movie ever made. It was a really beautiful way of saying “fuck you, faggot”.

American Music Club’s Tim Mooney passed away earlier this year, this must have been a huge shock to you.

ME: It was horrible. The worst thing about losing people is that I hadn’t talked to him in about eight years.

Did you part acrimoniously?

ME: It was a money thing and it was acrimonious. And it was completely childish and stupid. The worst thing is that it was such a shock, he was such a wonderful man and especially when it’s acrimonious, you never think you will maintain that festering anger because you always think you will see them again.

Was Tim a pivotal figure in AMC’s musical development?

ME: Tim was in and out of the band from the start, there were some drug issues [with him]. But we, as a band, were so not into drugs. God, we were embarrassingly clean. We drank a lot but no drugs. And Homeland Security are watching so that’s still the case. But when we begun, I was so anti-rock. I hated rock! I was into The Slits and The Raincoats. You know, with AMC, we played folk music when everyone else was rocking. And that’s one of the reasons I got into the habit of being really confrontational with people on stage because when people said anything, we were aggressively quiet. Very aggressively quiet.

Do you ever feel you give away too much of yourself through your lyrics or performances?

ME: Oh absolutely. A few months ago, a man told me "you know your trouble? You care too much and if you cared less, you’d do better work." And I was like "he’s right." But yet every time I do that, I finish lyrics and then come back to them, it’s like "oh shit." You know, my fans are very, very strict about what they want to hear and don’t want to hear.

Lyrically and/or in terms of, say, your electronic experiments?

ME: They’re not experiments! But I’m not very good at them, I approach electronic music much like Yes approached rock. On the Invisible Man tour, I got shouts of ‘Judas!’.

This must have been a galling experience.

ME: No! I was proud that people cared enough to react.

By the time of AMC’s return in 2004 with Love Songs For Patriots, you seemed to have taken a more abrasively political bent. An Anti-American Music Club, if you will.

ME: Well, I’m sorry, but even today the biggest building project in America right now is a wall to keep out Mexicans. I mean, come on, I’m not anti-American but the despair that makes this okay is just frightening.

With that in mind, how do you feel about…

ME: (interrupts)… how do I feel about the enormous building they are building in Utah which will store every bit of information about every American? But, look, I go to parties and my boyfriend Jeremy says "Mark! No ranting today". Because I do that. Maybe I have too much time on my hands or maybe the despair I see in America mirrors my own despair as an older man losing his touch with the animal in me. Maybe that’s part of the ageing process. When I see journalists becoming targeted for doing political stories, their computers are being seized, they’re strip-searched… when I see that, it’s really difficult not to react. Or political candidates can get money from anywhere in the world and no one has to explain where this comes from. And the conservative agenda is on every single fucking radio commercial and every single fucking TV. It’s a takeover. I really feel that. Of course I don’t want to be strip-searched when I go home because I’m really shy. And these people terrify me.

You spent the majority of your adolescence growing up in the UK, how much of an effect has this had on your outlook?

ME: Well it’s one of the reasons why I’m such a fucking liberal. The thing that defines a place to live for me is when you can hear varying viewpoints from different people. In England, in the 1970s at least, you turn on the radio and it’s Harold Pinter, it’s this beautiful writer… And even John Peel, when I was a kid, I remember him saying “the BBC told me I couldn’t play the Sex Pistols… here they are!” and me just dancing around the room going "fuck yeah!" It can’t happen in America now, I mean, hip-hop – God bless it, let’s all escape the ghetto – but its not shaking the foundations of the belief, it makes people turn away. What is that great biblical expression? A soft word is the tree of life.

Does religion play a strong part in your life?

ME: Not at all, but it did. I was born again twice. It didn’t stick. It won’t happen again…unless despair really fills me. Maybe this will happen – if Jeremy leaves me, it probably will.

Can you ever envisage another American Music Club line-up taking shape?

ME: [unequivocally] No. Not at all. Vudi hates the idea of it when it’s just me and him in the band. A couple of years ago, we wanted to come back as MacArthur Park Music Club because that’s where Vudi lives but we couldn’t get a deal. I tried to figure out a way of using the name and not having my name melt in the rain but there wasn’t. But AMC were a great band until we lost [multi-instrumentalist] Bruce Kaphan. That configuration was the best and it was probably the best music I ever made. Sonically, from the stage and in terms of the beauty of it, Bruce was the whole key to the sound and we did not respect it. We didn’t respect ourselves… it was like "everything is shit, all pop music is shit, we’re shit, everything is shit." We were so stupid. I’m not that way at all anymore, not even slightly. But I want to work with Bruce for I Am Not A Serious Person.

If you encountered yourself from that era, would you like to…

ME: …slap myself around the place? Fuck yeah! I would say "just get over your fuckin’ self. I know this is a cliché but transcend your own ego. Transcend your own bullshit." And that’s what I always wanted to do – I just didn’t have the skillset. If I ever had an idea with AMC, they were like "fuck you, Eitzel". It’s a democracy, it’s called families. It will never happen again. How could it? Who wants to see two old farts? You know, I was doing this [other] interview, I was saying I discovered this young guy singing these emotional songs, I couldn’t remember who it was because it was just on a computer, so I looked it up and it was some Bon Iver offshoot bullshit. I think Justin [Vernon] is a genius but at the same time, it’s a little embarrassing. Jeremy likes Lady Gaga and stuff and he was like "fuck this shit, fuck this and fuck your arty friends". And you know what? He’s got a point. It’s time to be a man.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today