Incidental Music

An Interview with Mark Oliver Everett of EELS

by Nathan Pensky

17 June 2011

Photo: Autumn de Wilde 

There's an infinite number of Es who are out there, trying different things

So there’s an infinite number of Es who are out there, trying different things ...

Right, which is fascinating to think about but also impossible to grasp. You know, I’m like my mother. I’m a very linear thinker. I’ve pretty much got my hands full thinking about this world.

Right, I’m there with you. I have a hard time thinking of another me.

Well, the other you probably has a hard time imagining you, too.

I have a hard time, just in general, thinking about your dad’s theory. It’s a pretty extraordinary thing.

Me, too.

So tell me about the tour.

Well, we’re just excited that we’re gonna go out and rock the world this summer. At this point we’re gonna circle the world for the second time in a year. We’re gonna do over a hundred shows in a year.

That’s a hectic schedule.

It looks like there’s no stopping us. [laughs]

What’s the line-up looking like?

I’m working on that right now. I haven’t finalized it. It’s gonna be exciting. I think it’s gonna be a very musical evening, and a very fun evening.

Musical, as opposed to a more rock-driven show? Because I know EELS have used strings and orchestra instruments in the past ...

I don’t know exactly what I mean by that. I think there will be some rock, and maybe some not-rock, as well. I think it’ll be an EELS show for the whole family ...depending on what your family is like.

An EELS night for your family, say.

[laughs] Yeah.


The tour to which E alludes at the end of our conversation is the current “Tremendous Dynamite” tour, a celebration of the band’s trilogy of albums, Hombre Lobo, End Times, and Tomorrow Morning. These three albums stand out in EELS’ catalogue, both in their concept and the fact that they pointedly tackle genre in a much direct way than the band’s previous albums.

In terms of E’s personal story, this trilogy of albums traces a biographical arc from the anger and desperation of Hombre Lobo, to the relative acceptance of End Times, to the state of grace of Tomorrow Morning. Genre-wise, Hombre Lobo has songs much more hard-edged and bluesy than on previous efforts, as well as achingly raw slower tunes. End Times is a much more successful genre experimentation, expressing resignation through comforting country-western stylings. Tomorrow Morning is the boldest experiment of the three, yet it seems like a return to form. This last album in the trilogy references the band’s early use of samples, while breaking into new territory with strange electronic instrumentations.

The quality of Hombre Lobo can be divided fairly well between the gorgeousness of the quieter, simpler slow songs and those hard-rocking, (and less good) faux-blues songs. “The Longing,” one of the slow songs, is a blistering moan of loss and regret, almost unendurably heartbreaking in its evocation of the family tragedies that have plagued E. Meanwhile, “That Look You Give That Guy” splits its protagonist in two; the singer is one man, unchangeable in his habits, who longs to be someone else, the object of his beloved’s gaze. It is not without irony that the “someone else” this protagonist wishes to be is in such unfortunate contrast with the “someone else” the faster songs seem to affect, a stronger protagonist more content to revel in the pain of his existence.

The faux-bluesy songs of Hombre Lobo work best where the harder edges of the distorted guitars are counterpointed by the tinny-hollow sounds of toy drums, where the artificiality is brought to the forefront. Two exceptions of quality among the upbeat songs are the album’s single, “Fresh Blood”, the least bluesy of the faster numbers. However, the album’s slower, more mournful numbers are gorgeous and immediately evocative of the depths only hinted at in the distracting upbeat songs. The album ends on a very low note “Ordinary Man”, which makes the unfortunate argument that the singer’s bratty behavior is excusable, because he’s “no ordinary man”, which would seem very small consolation to those around him.

Like the album before it, End Times divides evenly between genre experimentations and mournful slow songs with penetrating lyrics. But where the white man’s blues of Hombre Lobo‘s fell flat, the country-inflected pop songs of End Times are beautiful and true. Songs like “End Times” and “Mansions of Loz Feliz” are subtler in their genre coloring and seem to absorb the authenticity of the slower songs. “End Times” is especially poignant in paralleling the end of a relationship with the end of the world itself. Still, just as there are no blisteringly raw (and awkward) attempts at harder edged songs on End Times, there are no slow songs that really cut to the core of E’s pain, like on Hombre Lobo. If Hombre Lobo has extreme highs and lows, all songs on End Times achieve a qualitative medium.

Tomorrow Morning throws the contrast of typically slower “EELS songs” and “experiments” into its sharpest relief yet. Here the experiments are less concerned with genre than with the total dismantling of the song form by way of electronic instrumentation. The strongest songs, again, are the slower songs, though much of their strength is colored by the experimentations that hedge them in on all sides. One of the strongest of the electronic songs, “The Is Where It Gets Good”, uses sounds effects and samples liberally. “I’m the Man” is so good is makes you forget “Looking Up,” a gospel send-up that hearkens back to the bad white man’s blues of much of Hombre Lobo. But the lovely and chill “That’s Not Her Way” picks up the slack directly afterward. Finally, the last song of the trilogy, “Mystery of Life” is maybe the best EELS song in their entire catalogue, the final product of E’s experimentation come to fruition.

In the end, it becomes very difficult to look at EELS songs apart from E’s story. But judging by how much E himself has owned his past, both in his memoir and in his music, this would seem the intended effect. Taken as a set, the music of the EELS and the story that accompanies it paints one of the more fully realized pop culture portraits we have. Any one aspect of it would be interesting, but taken together the story only grows and grows.

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