What a glorious Eeling
Published 08/03/2013 | 18:00
It is one of the occupational hazards of songwriting: offending family, friends and loved ones in verse. For a brutally honest musician like Mark Oliver Everett – the guiding light behind the singular US indie outfit, Eels – it is a problem he faces time and again.
"At times, you have situations in your personal life where you write a song about a girl, let's say, and maybe the wrong girl thinks it's about her," he drawls laconically. "It can be complicated. It can be a delicate tightrope walk."
There's a hollow chuckle: "There are worse problems to have, I suppose."
Everett – or E, as he prefers to be known – has just arrived in Boston for the latest date of a world tour to promote the new Eels album, Wonderful, Glorious. As its title suggests, it's an optimistic, upbeat record that's very much at odds with his best-known work – which is dark, melancholic and troubled, albeit shot through with great humour.
But E is quick to dampen suggestions that he is in a happy-clappy place right now. "An album like Wonderful, Glorious comes out and everyone just assumes that every day is great for me," he says. "But that's not the case at all. Putting an album out is a painful process that I don't recommend to anybody. It's a mind-fucking experience about how it's perceived – people can read all kinds of stuff into the songs but, hey, what can you do about that?"
Yet, he insists he takes great pleasure from the fact that, 20-odd years after his first release, there is an audience for his bittersweet songs.
"I'm constantly walking around in a daze of appreciation," he says. "It's easy to appreciate the better times now when you can contrast it with all the awful times of my younger life."
There's no exaggeration. By any yardstick, the Virginia-born songwriter has experienced a Shakespearean level of misery.
His father, Hugh, was a renowned quantum physicist whose parallel universe theories were dismissed as hokum during his lifetime only to be hailed as groundbreaking after his death. He was a distant figure to the young Mark and spent his days holed up in his study with a bottle of whiskey for company. His mother, Nancy, suffered from depression and was prone to uncontrollable crying fits.
It was left to his sister, Liz, to raise him. She was just six years older and the two would be inseparable growing up, particularly in those formative teen years when Mark first started making music.
The first hammer-blow happened when his father died of a heart-attack at 52. It was Mark who found him and he was profoundly affected by the loss, especially as the two were only beginning to forge a relationship.
Then, years later and in a remarkably short period of time, he lost both his mother and sister to, respectively, cancer and suicide. He was especially pained by the death of Liz, who had struggled with schizophrenia in the years before she took her own life.
His anguish is captured in several of the early Eels albums, especially 1998's Electro Shock Blues. And he wrote candidly about this pain in a memoir, Things The Grandchildren Should Know – which makes most rock autobiographies look pathetically tame and self-serving by comparison. The book also detailed his short-lived and unhappy marriage to a Russian woman, who is thought to be the subject of his 2010 break-up album, End Times.
"It was really difficult to write it and I don't aspire to doing it again any time soon," he says. "It's very personal. It's choc-full of very embarrassing details about myself and to put that out there is a very vulnerable feeling. But I felt it was something I had to do. My goal after writing it was to lead such a boring, undramatic life that it wouldn't warrant writing a sequel. I don't want any more crazy, fucked-up drama in my life."
Yet, he admits that he owes a debt of gratitude to the dark days. "I think if I'd been raised in a so-called more normal environment," he says, "I'd probably be a completely different person and would possibly not be making music at all.
"It's part of the reason why I'm thankful for a lot of the shit I had to go through because I was strong enough to get through it all and now I can appreciate that there's a lot of nice things about my life today."
Yet, much like an indie-rock Woody Allen, E can't help but wonder if he is unlucky by nature. He was set to appear in the hit movie, This is 40, only for director Judd Apatow to cut his scene with Paul Rudd from the film completely. "I'm used to disappointment," he says, good-naturedly, "so it doesn't faze me. Judd historically shoots way too much for his films, so I sort of expected it to happen."
He turns 50 next month and says he still can't quite believe that he has achieved his "ultimate, most far-fetched dream" of making music full-time. "I just feel fortunate that I started it when I did because it's so much harder for bands today. All the music business is about nowadays is the next big thing. Everything's reduced to that.
"You know, we were the next big thing once upon a time but I was smart enough then not to get caught up in the BS that was being spoken and to know that there would be 30 next big things the following month."
The first Eels album, Beautiful Freak, spawned two far-reaching singles, Novocaine for the Soul and Susan's House, but E and his largely anonymous band mates have rarely troubled the zeitgeist since – content instead, it would appear, to plough an intriguing leftfield furrow.
Still, even such avowedly artistic, non-commercial bands are not immune to the all-pervasive culture of having their music ripped online for free. "Obviously, far less people are buying music than before and that brings its own challenges," he says. "The game is constantly changing and you're constantly playing catch-up about how it works each time you put a record out. You have to pay attention to it to some degree or you'll get left in the dust."
Wonderful, Glorious is the 10th Eels album – and fourth in five years. "I think artists who release a lot of stuff like me are desperate cases," he says. "There isn't much choice involved in the situation."
He took a different approach to recording this time around. "I decided upfront that the plan was to have no plan. I told the guys, 'On this day we get together for a month and I don't know what's going to happen'.
"I figured it would be a worthy experiment even if it was a complete failure. The first day, honestly, felt like it was going to be a failure and then halfway through it, something clicked and it never stopped clicking for the remainder of the month.
"Nothing had been written in advance – it was all written in the studio. It is the way some people made records and I always thought that was crazy – to go into a studio without anything prepared. But nowadays, when you own your own studio you can afford to get away with something like that.
"It's not like the old days when you'd be paying $500 an hour to write a song that you should have written before you got there. And, believe me, we've been there."
He says he "has no great plan" for the future. "I can't write when I'm on tour, or think of anything but that night's show."
Yet, he has allowed himself to contemplate the timing of his Irish concert next week.
"They're just before St Patrick's Day," he muses, a mischievous note in his voice. "It might be time for us to bring those leprechaun outfits with us once again."
Eels play The Olympia, Dublin, on March 15 and 16. Wonderful, Glorious is out now