Incidental Music: An Interview with Mark Oliver Everett of EELS

[17 June 2011]

By Nathan Pensky

The phrase “deceptively simple” is overused, but for EELS it really works. The simplicity of EELS’ bare-bones pop songs really does belie some very profound musical moments. And judging by the memoir of the band’s lead-singer and main creative force, the simplicity of these songs really is the product of a painstaking creative process, both aesthetically-speaking and in terms of his underlying personal story.

EELS is a band known for standing tall in the background of the larger pop-cultural consciousness. Its name elicits wrinkled brows from Top 40 radio listeners but exclamations of “Oh, yeah! I love that song!” when its music is actually heard. EELS make songs most easily recognized for providing the soundtrack to scenes from films like, American Beauty, Hot Fuzz, and the Shrek movies, or for the band’s first break-out hits, “Novocaine for the Soul” and “Beautiful Freak”. EELS’ music is unique for its lack of adornment, eschewing genre, lingering in the mind long after being heard. Genre-less music can either capture the collective imagination of a mass audience, or dither into obscurity. Thankfully, the band has accomplished the former, maintaining a strong fan-base despite having few easy pop markers. But while EELS creates masterfully simple pop songs, the story behind the music is anything but simple.

EELS are the creative vehicle for Mark Oliver Everett, or just “E” as he’s most often called. For all intents and purposes, the EELS is E; the use of a band name was only a commercial contrivance suggested by his manager. And E needs a little bit of marketing, because he is certainly not the most rock and roll front-man in the world. His appearance is that of a bearded recluse, and he shows zero interest in creating the kind of larger-than-life rock persona that goes over with pop audiences.

But the incompatibility of E’s personality with the world of pop/rock runs much deeper than his quiet manner and scholarly aspect. E’s story is the kind where as the particulars fill in, the mystery remains larger than ever. E could have continued to release his distinctive brand of rock/pop songs forever, without revealing anything more about what lies underneath them. Instead he wrote the memoir, Things The Grandchildren Should Know, filling in an epic back-story. As it turns out, EELS songs as incidental music to the story of its maker dwarfs the Hollywood plots of the movies for which it so often serves as soundtrack. Things The Grandchildren Should Know recounts E’s experiences growing up in a household plagued by the distinctive pain only unrealized genius can create.

E’s father, Hugh Everett III, was a U.S. government defense analyst, whose Columbia Ph.D. dissertation eventually came to be recognized as one of the defining moments in the development of quantum theory, the “Many Worlds Interpretation”. There is such a thing as the “Everettian” school of quantum physics, and every time you hear about “parallel universes” or “alternative realities”, you’re hearing a popularized version of the work of E’s father. At the time these theories were presented to the scientific community, they flew in the face of established thinking, such that Hugh Everett was laughed out of academia. The Many Worlds Interpretation did not start to become respected as an alternative to the more widely held “Copenhagen Interpretation” of quantum theory until well after Hugh Everett had lived a lifetime as a frustrated government worker.

Hugh Everett died well before his theories flowered within the scientific community, and E talks at length in his memoir about his father’s odd household behaviors in the wake his unrealized potential, his extreme reticence, his behaving more like “furniture” than a father. It was E who actually found his father’s body upon his early death at the age of 53, though this would prove only the first of many family tragedies he would endure in the coming years. E’s sister Elizabeth also died young, taking her own life in 1998; in her suicide note, she mentioned joining her father in a parallel universe. E attributes his sister’s mental troubles and drug addictions to growing up in a household haunted by the tortured genius of their father.

E’s mother died of cancer only a few years after his sister, and he wonders whether her illness was brought about by the constant presence of the prototypes of “new gadgets” in the Everett household, reflecting Hugh’s interest in new technology. A cousin of E’s on his mother’s side also died young, as one of the flight attendants on the plane that hit the Pentagon on 9/11. With his typically dry humor, E conjectures about the real possibility of whether his cousin’s plane crashed into the Washington office once used by his father.

In Things The Grandchildren Should Know, E describes his music as an imperative to survival of the demons of his past, often stating that were it not for his creative outlet, he would have taken his sister’s way out long ago. I spoke with E briefly about this defiant act of psychological rebuilding: his strict discipline of formal simplicity both in his prose and musical style, the loneliness of his creative process, and what kind of parallel universes might exist for him.

* * *

In your memoir Things The Grandchildren Should Know, you characterize your family as very tense and uncommunicative. Is that a fair picture?

Well, there were certainly tense times. But [we] were also a really funny family. That was our main way of communicating, through humor. And there are a lot of things about my family that I miss, that I would love to be able to go back to.

You mention in one part when your father, who was typically quiet around the house, all of a sudden starting yelling at your cat. I just thought that was so funny ...

[laughs] Yeah that was one of those things that just really bonded my sister and myself. One of those rare moments, when my father actually acted human. The first thing we did [when those moments happened] was we’d look at each other and say, ‘What’s happening here?’

And I love how you talked about how your family has catch-phrases, because I think that’s something that a lot of families do.

It’s funny, because [that time when my father yelled at the cat] brought about one of those catch phrases, when he yelled at the cat, “Shut up or die!” And there’s all these different translations of the book now, and in some countries they change the titles, because in some languages it’s hard to translate the title, Things The Grandchildren Should Know. The French version just came out last week, and they entitled it, Shut Up Or Die! I’m proud to see that my sister’s and my favorite catch-phrase actually became the title of a book.

What about the title? You obviously don’t have grandchildren. Would you care to expand on who the “grandchildren” are, metaphorically speaking?

Yeah, well it comes from ... I have a song that I wrote called “Things The Grandchildren Should Know”. And all I was trying to do there was ... I was trying to do something that I wish my father had done. Because I never had a chance to just sit down and ask him, ‘Hey, what’s it been like in your life?’ So I was thinking, maybe if ever there ever is someone who feels that way about me in the future, I better put something down.

When you look back on your childhood in your book, you say that you didn’t know that your father was this scientific genius ... do you feel like you would’ve made this connection with him if it hadn’t been made known that he made this important breakthrough in quantum physics?

Well, it’s been a really nice surprise for me that I never saw coming. I just feel so lucky that I had someone come to me and say that they wanted to make a film about my father, and they wanted me to participate in it. [E is referring to the production Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, a BBC documentary where E visits his father’s university colleagues and the scientific community from which his theories originated.] And in the process [of making that movie], I ended up learning so much more about my father and got to know some people who knew him well. And I was so grateful ... and it let me get to a really healing place, as they say, that I didn’t see coming. Yeah, I’m glad he had that breakthrough. Because no one would have cared otherwise, and none of that would have happened. And he would’ve just been an uncommunicative father. And that would’ve been the end of the story, probably.

I just watched the film, actually, and it seems like up to that point you had gone through a lot of healing, and that the film was just another level to it.

I had done some healing that comes with time, because it had just been so long. But it wasn’t like what I got out of doing that film. I mean, I had written the book, and that helped a lot. But the film really helped more.

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.

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.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/143713-incidental-music-an-interview-with-mark-oliver-everett-of-eels/