Hard Luck and Hard Work: An Interview with the Eels’ Mark Oliver Everett

Tomorrow Morning
E Works

For almost 20 years, Mark Oliver Everett — better known by the single-letter nom de plume, “E” — has been making eclectic, lovably quirky pop records that have earned him a global cult following. He is perhaps best known for the minor pop hit “Novocaine for the Soul,” or for emotionally candid records like Electro-Shock Blues and Daisies of the Galaxy, in which he confronts his tumultuous upbringing, childhood traumas, and the deaths of family members with both sincerity and wit.

Everett’s latest full-length, Tomorrow Morning, continues in the Eels tradition, reveling in observations that are at once both darkly comic and deeply sentimental. At the same time, the album diverges from E’s previous work in some pretty striking ways. All of the album’s 14 tracks are shot through with a palpable optimism, as a quick glance at the tracklist will reveal (“In Gratitude For This Magnificent Day”, “Oh So Lovely”, “Looking Up”, “I Like The Way This Is Going”). On “Baby Loves Me”, E refuses to let life’s little pitfalls ruin his day, while on “What I Have to Offer”, he lists off his best qualities in a personal ad set to music. Perhaps most surprising is “The Man”, wherein one of rock’s most reliable mopes turns up with an alarming amount of swagger in his step. We sat down with E to discuss the new album, his unlikely success story and his upcoming tour.

The thing that really struck me about Tomorrow Morning, on first listen, is how different the arrangements are from those on previous Eels records. It seems like the songs on here are split between lush arrangements — featuring choirs and strings — and pared down, almost minimal arrangements, consisting of little more than drum machines and keyboards. Is there a reason why you decided to pull in two very different directions simultaneously?

Well, in my mind it wasn’t two different directions. I wanted to create an environment where there was a lot of experimentation and anything was possible. So in my mind, it’s all part of the same thing.

Tomorrow Morning also finds you using certain elements like samples, programmed beats and found sounds that hearken back to some of the earliest Eels records. Did it ever feel like you were revisiting an earlier aesthetic or method?

Yeah, I mean, we’ve certainly used the cut-and-paste kind of approach in the past and it has been a while, probably, since we did anything like that. But it felt like I was more interested this time in instruments that are normally associated with a colder kind of music, like something you would imagine someone in a drafty apartment in Berlin making. I thought it would be interesting to use those kinds of keyboards and drum machines in an effort to try to make a warm, celebratory album.

What was it about this batch of songs that made you feel like that would be an interesting approach?

Well, I got excited with the idea of trying to make a warm album — in my mind, something that was full of love for the world and the things that I enjoy about life and the good things around me — using those kinds of instruments, because then it would become its own thing, its own modern celebration. Especially coming after a record like End Times, which took much more of a traditional, acoustic, singer-songwriter approach.

Speaking of End Times, while you’ve generally been pretty prolific, the last year and a half have been particularly productive for you, seeing the release of three studio albums. Do you plan to keep up this pace?

No. [Laughs] It was just for these three…I think back in the early days, given my druthers, I would have put out an album every six months if I had been allowed to. But now that I’ve done it — and it’s been a really fun experiment — I understand now why the Beatles stopped doing it every six months the minute they stopped doing speed. It takes an enormous amount of energy to put out an album every six months! It’s not just the making of the album — that’s the easy part — it’s all the stuff that comes after it, like doing this and promoting it. Doing all of that three times is tough. Although I cheated because I didn’t promote the last one, so that made it a little easier.

Did you record all three of these albums back-to-back or was the recording process staggered?

No, they were all done individually as albums onto themselves. They were all designed to hopefully stand-alone, but also be part of a bigger picture in the end.

Yeah, you’ve said in some previous interviews that you see Tomorrow Morning as the redemptive conclusion to a three album cycle that began with Hombre Lobo and continued with End Times. And it seems to me like you’ve explored this idea of having some kind of thematic continuity between albums before. For example, Daisies of the Galaxy feels like a life-affirming counterpoint to Electro-Shock Blues in a lot of ways. Do you plan in advance for there to be these sorts of dialogues between your records or has it just worked out that way?

Well, in the case of like Electro-Shock Blues and Daisies of the Galaxy, it just happened. In the case of these three records, something interesting happened where I planned it in advance and things were going on just at the right times in my life during the making of each of these that were perfectly timed.

Something else that Daisies of the Galaxy and Tomorrow Morning seem to have in common is that they both feel really seasonal to me — more specifically, they both feel like springtime records. There’s a lot of renewal and rebirth on both albums. Even the titles and cover art seem to hint at those kinds of themes.

Yeah, yeah, I definitely think about that because in the ’80s, I remember Prince would put a record out every spring. And, especially when I lived on the east coast, that was a real part of the listening experience, what time of year an album comes out. And I’m very conscious of that. I specifically wanted End Times to come out in the winter and Tomorrow Morning to come out in the summer. To me, Tomorrow Morning is more summer than spring, even. And I agree that Daisies of the Galaxy sounds more spring, probably. But yeah, I’m very conscious of that…the thing I really notice is that if I hear some song that I liked a lot when I was younger, the first thing I think about is what the weather was like when I was first listening to it.

So, going back to Tomorrow Morning, this is the first full-length record that you’ve put out on the E Works imprint, which has previously been used for live albums and such. Does that mean that this is essentially a self-released record?

Well, this is the first one that hasn’t had a record company involved like, let’s say as the home office. But in a way, it’s almost like the same thing, because it’s still being distributed by all of the same companies — it’s still being distributed by Universal in America and V2 abroad — which is the way it’s been for the last few. The only difference is that the home office now is just me. I don’t have to answer to anyone saying, “Hey, why don’t you get rid of this song and write another one,” or something like that. I just have to say “no” to myself now and I’m pretty good at saying “no” to myself.

Is there any particular reason why you decided to go this route now, after having been signed to traditional record labels for almost 20 years?

Well, no, the reason was that my contract was up and I finally could do this. It just makes sense at this point, you know. I would have done it sooner if I had been allowed to.

Something that’s always amazed me about your career is that even though we’re living in this climate where a lot of talented, hard-working artists are struggling to make a full-time career out of music, you have somehow managed to carry on all these years making music very much on your own terms. What’s your secret?

I don’t know, I feel so fortunate — I’m one of the lucky few people in the world who gets to do what they love to do as their job. And I’ve been able to keep doing it. You know, it’s amazing to me because growing up, I was just so directionless and I didn’t really have any idea or hope for the future. And for it to turn out like this is an immensely gratifying feeling.

I think also, it’s a combination of hard luck and — I mean, of luck and hard work. [Laughs] Also probably hard luck, in my case.

And, you know, I really worked my ass off all of these years and I really just immersed myself in whatever I was working on from year to year. And I never paid much attention to the previous project, how it was received or anything, because I was already so busy on the next thing. I think that’s a really smart way to go about it, you keep your nose to the grindstone and you just keep going and if you’re lucky, all your hard work eventually adds up and pays off in some way.

But I would have done it either way, though it’s really nice that people have come along for the ride. And I’m very appreciative of that.

It must be awfully nice not having to work a day job while you’re trying to write and record music.

That is the reason why I really feel like a success! I mean, during my last day job I was probably 25 or 26 or something — that was 20 years ago.

Do you feel like your fans have been particularly supportive? Has that played a role in you being able to continue on the way you’ve been doing?

Well, I think there are two kinds of fans. One of the problems for the Eels has always been that we tend to do different things from year to year and there’s a kind of fan that wants or expects, like, “the sound” of a band, based on whatever album that is that they liked. And then they come the next year and see us play and they’re like, “What the hell is this — this isn’t what I signed up for”. And then there’s the kind of fan where you’re dedicated to what an artist is going to do and following the story from year to year and enjoying the surprises and changes. And that’s the kind of fan that I always was. I’m really just trying to impress myself as a fan.

When I would go to concerts when I was younger, the thing that I would love the most was being surprised. And the thing that I liked the least was when someone would just come out and it would sound like they were just playing their record in front of everybody.

Do any particular artists stand out as having surprised you in that way when you were growing up?

Yeah, I think one of the concerts that made a big impact on me was when I was 16, my older sister took me to a Neil Young concert — this is when we lived in Virginia — and it turned out to be the Rust Never Sleeps concert but the album Rust Never Sleeps hadn’t been released yet…I was just expecting Neil Young and Crazy Horse to get up and jam in front of us but it was like this mind-blowing, theatrical presentation that not only had Neil Young never done before but that nobody had ever done before. And it’s still maybe the best concert I ever attended.

Speaking of concerts, you’re about to head out on tour for the first time in a little while, right?

Yeah, the first time since the release of these three records.

The last time I saw you play, you screened the film “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives” beforehand, which is, of course, about your relationship with your late father.

Or lack thereof.

Right. And then, during the show, you had Chet come out and read some excerpts from your autobiography, Things the Grandchildren Should Know. That was really striking to me because it seems like a lot of musicians are really weary of listeners bringing those kinds of biographical details into the music and having that color the way that they hear it. It seems like you’ve had almost the opposite reaction, though — you’ve really embraced the idea of your music and your autobiography being intertwined.

Well, if I’m going to embrace it, I’m going to embrace it…if I’m going to do it, why pretend like I’m not doing it? But also, I do often write songs in character and then it gets confusing for people. Because I always think the most convincing way to tell a story is from the first person, so if you’re saying “I did this” and “I felt this and that” people assume it’s you’re autobiography. But that’s not always so.

Well, when you put out a record that’s written from the perspective of a werewolf, you would hope that people would realize that you’re not always writing as yourself.

Well, one would think, but you’d be surprised.

Conversely, the last two albums feel like they’re coming from a place that’s, if not quite autobiographical, somehow more sincere. The characters feel a lot less constructed than those on Hombre Lobo.

Well, yeah, certainly End Times, in particular, is somewhat blatantly autobiographical.

Is your intention for listeners to parse out which of your songs or records are character studies and which are more autobiographical? Or is it more like, whatever you get out of it is what you get out of it?

Yeah, I’m a big believer in that, whatever you get out of it is what you get out of it. There’s no way you can control how people are going to perceive what you do. And I like that as a listener too, how I get my own video in my head when I hear a song that is probably completely different than the other listeners’ videos in their heads…that’s the great thing about music — it’s the art form that people can take with them everywhere. You can’t drive around and watch a movie, or, at least you shouldn’t…But music can become such a personal part of peoples’ lives because it can go everywhere with them.

Going back to the book, Things the Grandchildren Should Know, for a second, it seems like it was very well received by fans and critics alike. Do you have plans to write another book? Or to branch out into forms of art other than music?

Well, I hope I don’t write another book because it’s really hard. I’m glad I did it but I’m not in a hurry to do it again. And if I’m going to do it again, I’ll do a sequel in another 40 years and I would hope that it would be the most boring book in the world because I can’t take any more goddamn drama. And, you know, I’d like to experiment with other things and I have been, in the last few years. Things like the book and the documentary and other little things here and there. And I always naively think it’s going to be some kind of relief to get away from music and take a little break from it but then I always come back with my tail between my legs and realize that this is what I really love to do.

I was recently reading in the news about you being mistaken for a terrorist and nearly arrested in London and I was wondering, did that make you reconsider wearing a beard at all?

It did. I’m starting to think it’s more trouble than it’s worth. You know, besides the extra 20 minutes it takes in the bathroom every morning. But yeah, that was one of the weirdest things that ever happened to me, and that’s saying something. I mean, the only weapon I own is my guitar.

Did you tell them that?

No, I did tell them at one point, I’m a rock singer, I’m staying at this hotel — I was just trying not to get arrested. They took a police report on me…it was actually really scary, I was shaking by the end of it. Because I started to realize that my freedom was at stake and I don’t know if I’ve ever felt that before. It was a horrible feeling…I’m going to organize some rallies with my bearded brethren for beard rights. Not every guy with short hair and a beard is a terrorist, come on. Some of us are rock singers.