Incidental Music

An Interview with Mark Oliver Everett of EELS

by Nathan Pensky

17 June 2011

Photo: Autumn de Wilde 

You've written a memoir now, and then there's the film...

Right, about the book—you’ve written a memoir now, and then there’s the film; does it ever make you feel uncomfortable that people know so much about your family?

Yes, completely. It’s a strange thing to do. Particularly with your friends and with people you know, it’s very strange. A friend of mine said, ‘It would be weird if I read your book, but it would be weird if I didn’t read your book.’ [laughs] You can’t win.

But a memoir is a different way of approaching a person’s life. People who know you well could read it and learn things they didn’t know, without there being some big reveal or whatever.

Well, that’s a joke I have, when everyone’s sitting around exchanging stories about their lives. And it gets to me, and I say ‘Refer to pg. 73 of my autobiography ...’ [laughs]

That’s a handy little reference.

[laughs] Yes, it is.

But your music is also very confessional. So what’s the difference between the way you relate through your music, or through your book, or even through interviews like this?

Well, there are a lot of different things going through my mind ... a lot of my songs aren’t actually autobiographical, even though they appear to be, because my preferred way of telling a story is by telling it from the 1st Person point of view. I think it’s more convincing that way. But a lot of times I’m just making stuff up, like it’s a fictional character in some story. But there’s always something I can relate to in [my songs]. And other times, songs are completely autobiographical. I don’t always like to say which ones are which, because I think, for me, the most important thing about a song is that the listener can do with it what they want and apply it to their lives, and just try and get something out of it. I don’t like to get too far into it ... unless it’s a just a really plainly autobiographical song, like “Things The Grandchildren Should Know”.

Do you feel more comfortable revealing things about yourself through songs than you did through your memoir?

Well, writing songs is my favorite way to do it, I guess ... and writing the book was just an experiment. I didn’t really know if that was going to work. You know, I didn’t have a book deal or anything. I just did it on my own to see if I could turn it into something. And when I was done I read it back, and I thought, ‘Wow, there’s actually something here.’ But it was the hardest project I’ve ever worked on, and I don’t have any aspirations to ever do anything like that again. But it was great for feeling like you get that out of your system.

One of the things that struck me about that book was just how often you described yourself being alone.

Yeah, I know! The older I get the less I am like that, I think, and it’s amazing when I look back and realize how much time I have spent alone. But I was also so driven artistically that a lot of the time being alone was the only option I had. Anything else was a distraction.

Can you talk a little bit about the difference of creative process between your book and your music?

They couldn’t be more different. Making music ... sometimes it’s hard, but more often than not, the fun outweighs the hard. And there’s just so many variables involved, and every five minutes you can just completely change stuff around in dramatic and exciting ways. But writing a book is just so exacting and so lonely ... because it’s just the words and the paper, and there’s nothing else. Particularly if you’re trying to write in the style I was trying to write in ... I wanted it to be very succinct [with] no bullshit, not flowery. Trying to tell a story succinctly and economically that’s also interesting and entertaining is a challenge. And the hardest part of it was that all I did every day for about a year was go out to the tool-house in my back yard and sit there all day, alone. It was really difficult. But I do recommend it for the results. It’s a great feeling of accomplishment, but it was really hard.

And I also, wonder how much of that difficulty was on account of the book’s focus being on the very lonely times of your early life ...

Yeah, it was particularly hard having to spend a year in the past, when your past includes a lot of terrible situations. I don’t like to dwell on that stuff, but it was probably a really good thing for to deal with one more time.

It’s a very unusual story, for someone in the musical world ...

That was why I decided to experiment with writing the book in the first place. A friend of mine who I grew up with, and we’re still friends—he was always urging me that I had a really interesting story. But you don’t really think that, because it’s all you know ... I always thought of my family as normal, when I was a kid, because that’s all I knew, as any kid would. Whatever situation you’re in, that’s what you know. So it took me a long time to see the perspective and start to realize this isn’t very normal.

Your dad was eventually very successful in his scientific work ... and that’s a very analytical, academic way of approaching the world, while your approach to the world is more expressive and, maybe, less analytical. Can you talk about the difference in the way you and your dad looked at the world?

Yeah, it’s strange ... that’s a good point. Because my work is, I guess, emotional ... kind of the antithesis of what his work and life were. But I can’t help but notice that we have a lot in common as far as our personalities go, which is probably a lot of genetic, and also partly because of being raised in that environment ...

Raised in what kind of environment? Do you mean, like your dad’s more analytical way of looking at life?

Yeah, and just being around someone who was so uncommunicative.

And from my perspective of your music, it is interesting to hear that your approach to writing your memoir was very direct and un-flowery. Because I feel like your music is like that in a lot of ways, too.

Well, that’s where I started that idea, because I had been trying to do that with music for a long time. When I was younger I would try to write songs that were too long and had a bunch of stuff in them that they didn’t need. And I started to recognize that, and I just wood-shedded away for years at trying to trim the fat and get to the point. I started to get into short story writers like Raymond Carver, and I started to really appreciate that kind of writing and how ... that’s just what I wanted to do in songs, was just try and be as succinct as possible, and not try and belabor any point. No point in belaboring.

In your book, you talk about music as a comfort. Did you ever have any non-musical comforts, which you could have seen yourself going into?

No, I don’t really think there was any other path for me but music. It’s just the perfect thing for me and serves me on so many levels. And I think that’s a large reason why I got anywhere with it, because I didn’t believe I had any other choice.

It’s interesting to me that your take on it was so single-minded, and almost fatalistic in a way, when your dad’s theory was so based in alternative realities ...

Well, it never felt fatalistic, because I never thought it was my fate. And it’s a really hard situation to put yourself into, when you feel like you don’t have a choice and there’s only one life for you. Because if that doesn’t work out, then it’s horrible. And I guess it worked for me, because I just somehow soldiered through all the rejection and the horrible times where it felt like, it’s not gonna happen and I don’t have a Plan B. I just somehow kept going, and it was really difficult sometimes. And it’s amazing to me, still, that I ever got anywhere.

So I guess to put it in terms of your dad’s theory, the alternative would be a Mark who would strive and strive to be a musician and would be unsuccessful, I suppose ...

Well, according to his theory, there’s a zillion different possibilities there.

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