"I Want It to Be More Purple!": An Interview with EELS' Mark Oliver Everett

Photo: Rocky Schenck

Following an exhaustive trilogy of albums, Mark Oliver Everett opens up to his band on his new record, and details the highs and lows of his songwriting process in this in-depth interview ...

Wonderful, Glorious

Band: Eels
Label: Vagrant
US Release Date: 2013-02-05
UK Release Date: 2013-02-04

Sometimes its hard being a guy named E.

Although the face of the band known as EELS have largely maintained a cult following over the years, their previous release, 2010's Tomorrow Morning was panned by Pitchfork's Stephen M. Deusner, who called EELS frontman E "too cerebral and too coldly distant to connect with an audience." It seems an odd criticism to levy at E (aka Mark Oliver Everett), who has simultaneously shunned the spotlight and bared his soul on topics like his mother's cancer and his sister's suicide, both in his songs and in his highly-regarded 2009 memoir, Things The Grandchildren Should Know.

However, if one agrees that E is too calculating and planned in his music, then the plan behind the new record, Wonderful, Glorious, should hush that thought. That's simply because there was no plan going into making the record, something which initially frightened E, who says that, for him, making records has gotten more difficult the more he's done it:

"If anything, it's harder [to make records as you go on]. We're all competing with every artist who has done everything great before us, and then the longer you do it yourself, the more you're also competing with yourself. So it gets harder and harder. The only thing that was hard for me [about Wonderful, Glorious] was going into it, I had some anxiety about the idea. The plan was to have no plan, which I'm not used to. Usually there's stuff written ahead of time or there's a very distinct idea about what I want it to be about and what I want it to sound like, but I went into this one with a completely blank slate. The first day was difficult, in that nothing was clicking the first half of the first day. And then all of a sudden, it started to click, and then it never stopped clicking for a month. Luck is a big part of it. Just good timing. We'd all stayed away from it for a while, and we got together and plugged instruments in, and everybody was in a good place to give their best."

He is, of course, likely being too modest about the role the skill played in the album's making. Skill, and trust in one another -- though EELS' lineup has shifted over the years, E made the record this time with the same lineup that's been present for the past two world tours. And, for the first time, he shared songwriting duties with all band members:

"This was the first time we did a whole album like that. It taught me an important lesson. Sometimes it's okay to just see what's going to happen. I've always been open to anyone in the band or even anyone in the room throwing out ideas while they're working. If it sounds like a bad idea, I'm more apt to say 'No, we're not going to even try that.' But that time, even if it sounded like a bad idea, I said, 'Okay, let's try it.' And a lot of times I was proven wrong. What I thought were terrible ideas turned out to be great ideas."

Despite his assertion that making records becomes harder with time, E says he always knows instinctively how to do it. "It's like riding a bike or having sex. Once you know how to do it, you know how to do it. Like riding a bike or having sex, you gotta do things to keep it interesting over the years. Especially riding a bike," he quips drily. And the things EELS did to keep the music-making interesting were also interesting for E himself: "It's not a restful month. You're pretty damn busy because you're working on the music and the lyrics all at the same time, but it's also an exciting way to do it because the lyrics feel very fresh to the music that's just been made as you're sitting there with your pen and paper."

E is usually the sort of songwriter who alternates between planned writing time and indulging the whimsical nature of inspiration. "Sometimes you say, 'Tomorrow at ten o'clock, I'm gonna go down to the basement and try to write a song,' and that turns out okay. Other times you're in the middle of trying to do something else and some idea feels so strong in your mind that it ruins your evening and you have to go deal with it," he laughs.

E's lack of musical training makes him the butt of many of his bandmates' jokes. "I'm not a trained musician like most of these guys I work with. They have an easy musical language they can speak to each other with and they make a lot of jokes at my expense. Constantly trying to articulate things can be frustrating sometimes. It becomes trial and error until I get them in the ballpark I'm trying to get them into. I'm the typical cliché musical artist guy who's like, 'I want it to be more purple!'"

"I don't know how to read or write music. I'm self-taught on everything. Apparently, I'm unteachable. I hold the guitar pick wrong, I hold the drumsticks wrong, my technique on the keyboards is wrong, I've recently been told. It all works for me. Maybe that's part of what makes it my own thing," he muses.

Asked how this creative process will transfer to the arrangements of the songs for the band's upcoming world tour, E is frank that he's somewhat apprehensive: "We're just going to get in the laboratory now and try to figure it out. I'm a little worried about it, to be honest with you, because we've bitten off quite a lot to chew in these new songs, and it's hard to imagine how to do some of them live. Luckily, we don't ever try to make something sound just like the record. The live experience is what it is, and if you want to hear the record, then you stay home on the comfort of your couch, you stay home and listen to the record."

Wonderful, Glorious is also a departure in that the past three EELS records (2009's El Hombre Loco and 2010's End Times & Tomorrow Morning) comprised a trilogy spanning themes of desire, destruction, and renewal:

"The first part is about desire, which gets you into all the trouble in the first place. The second is about the end after the desire's gotten out and everything all blew up, and the third part, which I think is the most interesting part, is the chance for renewal, a chance to start over. Originally, it was just going to be a two-part thing. The first one that we made was called End Times, and I knew I wanted to follow it up with the new beginning that comes after it. Then, once those two were done, I thought, 'wouldn't it be interesting to make a prequel about desire, what got me into this mess?' So the first one that came out, El Hombre Loco was actually the last one made."

The fact that the albums were a trilogy for E was something he kept close to the vest until Tomorrow Morning's release, fearing he might lose the juice needed to sustain the project. "You have to be careful about what you announce you're going to do as far as big plans go. I never said ahead of time that I was doing this album trilogy and I might change my mind along the way. That's why I never announced it until the third one was coming out and then I said, 'This has all been part of a trilogy.' You don't want to change your mind after one and get hounded the rest of your life. So I usually don't like to talk about anything until the week before when I can't back out of it."

Being prolific should be the least of E's worries, considering that Wonderful, Glorious comes with a 13-track bonus disc comprised mostly of new material, with some live takes as well: "Nowadays, you gotta put out a bonus disc with a deluxe edition. This time, we thought 'It's a 13-track album. Let's put out a bonus disc with 13 tracks on it 'cause it's 2013.' All about 13. Thirteen's a lucky number this year," he says with matter-of-fact humor.

Asked if it was hard to separate album songs from bonus disc songs, E says that it was. "That is always a tricky tightrope to walk. You don't want to say, 'This song isn't good enough to be on the album, so it's a bonus track.' That's almost never the case. It usually just didn't fit in thematically, either musically or lyrically, and that's why it ends up not on the album. I think a lot of our best songs end up not on the albums because they don't fit in. I think a lot of people put what they think are their ten or 12 best songs on the album, but I'm just too interested in the thematic layout."

Those themes include a desire to be heard ("I'm tired of being complacent," E intones on album opener "Bombs Away"), pleasant surprises ("Accident Prone"), and the ultimate restoration that culminates in the song's title -- and final -- track, which proclaims that "every night you spent shrouded in darkness has led you to this light."

Wonderful and glorious indeed.

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