When I set up a phone interview with Mark Eitzel, the last thing I expected to hear were Britney Spears jokes. The singer-songwriter's work with American Music Club and on subsequent solo albums points to a despondent, dreary soul. Though underground-music mavens have anointed him one of the country's greatest living songwriters, many have speculated that Eitzel would rather not be living at all.
His lyrics are downtrodden, perhaps morose. Even the name of his publishing company is a bummer: I Failed in Life Music. But in our relatively brief conversation, a parched, cynical wit rose to the surface, brightening the corners of his supposedly dim little world. Eitzel is planning an exhaustive tour -- which will bring him to South Florida for the first time next week -- and is in the middle of a barrage of interviews to promote his latest release, The Invisible Man, on Matador.
After living in England and soaking up the punk aesthetic, Eitzel relocated to San Francisco and crafted the literate, often depressing agenda that became the stark, bare-bones American Music Club. The band's late-'80s work solidified Eitzel's tragicomic approach; the ensemble, led by guitarist Vudi and pedal-steel/keyboard master Bruce Kaphan, lent his words grace and subtlety. Everclear (1991) boasted slick production and an obsession with death, collapsing friendships, and AIDS. The public ignored it, but Rolling Stone loved it, naming Eitzel its Songwriter of the Year. Reprise then snatched up AMC, but by the time Mercury arrived in 1993, Eitzel had already quit the band more than once and released a solo record. A year later San Francisco was the band's disjointed, dejected swan song.
Eitzel's first album after breaking up American Music Club, 1995's majestic 60 Watt Silver Lining (Warner Bros.), is the heartbreaking masterpiece he always had in him: a late-night, smoke-filled, Chet Baker-and-cocktails affair that alternated between somber and joyous. His 1997 collaboration with Peter Buck, West, reintroduced the rock angle, while 1998's Caught in a Trap and I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much Baby contained a few darkly pretty songs, wry observations, and a rhythm section recruited from Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth.
Like all his material, the songs on Invisible Man walk a fine line between corny and clever. Eitzel is still a mess, a barfly, a self-deprecating madman, and a slave to schmaltz, but there's an unforgettable beauty to songs such as the austere "Anything," the tongue-in-cheek "Christian Science Reading Room," the lushly lamenting "To the Sea," and the uplifting "Proclaim Your Joy."
New Times spoke with Eitzel by phone last week at his home before he departed on tour.
New Times: You've been in San Francisco for a long time. Is it just ruined now?
Mark Eitzel: No, not really. It just feels like everything else in America. If you're poor, fuck off. That's what the city is becoming.
NT: Are you besieged by 24-year-old millionaires with their sushi and cell phones?
ME: Yep, they're still here. But that's OK -- everything changes. I'm not one of those people who absolutely despises them; in fact I kind of like it. For instance last night I was at this bar, and this man wearing a white costume playing panpipes was wandering around the neighborhood. And he was so good! He was about 60 years old. And I kept thinking, Jeez, if he'd come on a Saturday night, these kids wouldn't know what to do with him; they'd totally mock him. Whereas we were like, "Hey, it's the piper. Cool!"
NT: The first time I saw you in concert, you were opening for Everything but the Girl...
ME: [audibly wincing] Ooh!
NT: ... and it seemed that you were having a terrible time. In fact you later wrote a song ["Helium"] about that very experience. What's the story?
ME: There's no real story. I just remember performing and listening to a secretary talk about how she couldn't believe that her coworker dressed like the way she did on that afternoon. I was up there performing one of my songs thinking, Wow. She's really got a loud voice. Opening for Everything but the Girl [sighs].... I love the band, but the crowd is the same crowd that goes to Urban Outfitters and thinks it's hip. Then, after that particular show, we got in the car and drove through a thunderstorm. It was great. [Pause.] But it was kinda horrible, too.
NT: On your new album, you've put it together by yourself at home on a computer. You haven't always embraced high-tech music-making.
ME: I always had a love-hate relationship with technology, from guitars to computers. Technology is a bitch.
NT: But the record doesn't have that surgical, cut-and-paste feel.
ME: It's 'cause I don't know what I'm doing. I wasn't really trying to make a computer record. Local reviews have slammed me for it. I've been playing here for 15 years, so they're used to me only being one thing. So, you know, people are like, "Mark, put your computers away and just be that sad folkie." And that's fair enough. I understand that.
NT: What kind of computer are you using?
ME: A [Macintosh] G4. A fuckin' G-fuckin'-four!
NT: You're always using ocean imagery in your songs.
ME: Well, I grew up in Okinawa and Taiwan and England, so I've always been pretty close to the ocean wherever I've lived. The only time I felt landlocked was when I lived for three years in Ohio. So it's really not just that I live in this city by the ocean, but I've always lived by the ocean my whole life. My dad was a marine engineer. He built ships.
NT: You've made records with Mark Isham, Peter Buck, Steve Shelley, Kid Congo Powers.... Who else are you hoping to work with?
ME: I'd make a record with anybody if they asked! Well, no, that's not true.
NT: Britney Spears?
ME: Um, you're right. I could not. She's a powerhouse of talent. Or is it breasts? [Laughs.] Sure -- I'd do it!
NT: Are you disappointed that your records haven't sold in huge quantities and that record labels like Virgin and Warner Bros. have dumped you when the records haven't done well?
ME: It's always been this dialogue with American Music Club and myself: Do you make a record for hundreds of millions of people or do you make a record for your own heart? Britney, of course, would argue that you make a record for your heart.
ME: I never understood the relationship with commercialism. I mean, I always preferred Rimbaud to the Archies when I was young. I remember someone saying, "Mark, you just don't have anything to say to the 12-year-olds." And that's absolutely true. Even when I was 12, I didn't want to be 12. When I was a teenager, I wanted to be an old man! [Laughs.] I never really had that mass-appeal perspective. I mean, I wanted to be a success, but I never pictured...
NT: What are you listening to these days?
ME: Let me take a look at my collection... uh, right now, pretty much a lot of Aphex Twin. That new Godspeed You Black Emperor. I'm into music that's about ascension. I was offered a chance to tour with this punk-rock band -- it would have been a weird match -- and I turned it down. I don't want to say who it was. But they had a lyric in one of their songs that went, "The heart is just a muscle."
NT: Wow. That's virtually the antithesis of what you've been saying all these years.
ME: That's exactly right! It's a demolition of what I'm trying to do. The song was trying to tell a girl: "Stop it. Don't think that you can feel anything with your heart." I was like, "Oh, man -- I'd hate to be your girlfriend. Shit." Because I want music to be about ascension, you know. John Coltrane had it right, it's about spirit. But of course, he was a miserable human being.
NT: Do you ever listen to any of your own records at home?
ME: Never. I never put any of 'em on. Well, once I had to make an AMC compilation; there was that. I listened to some of that, and I liked it quite a bit. I think I'm really proud of what I've done. AMC was great. I like tracks off each one, but I don't like any particular record more than any other record.
NT: Fifteen years ago did you ever imagine that you'd be making records at home on a computer?
ME: No. But I never pictured anything 15 years ago.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.