Incidental Music: An Interview with Mark Oliver Everett of EELS

Photo: Autumn de Wilde

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.


Tomorrow Morning

Label: E Works
US Release Date: 2010-08-24
UK Release Date: 2010-08-23
Artist Website


End Times

Label: Vagrant
UK Release Date: 2010-01-18
US Release Date: 2010-01-19
Label Website
Artist Website

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.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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