Incidental Music: An Interview with Mark Oliver Everett of EELS
Parallel universes, profound family tragedies, yelling at cats and releasing three albums in just over a year. EELS take their act out on the road one more time, but not without talking to PopMatters first.
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.
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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.