Music

More Beautiful Blues: An Interview with Eels' Mark Oliver Everett

The Eels prime-mover answers questions about the band's new album The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, which follows the tradition of other tragedy-driven greats in his storied and beautifully sorrowful discography.


Eels

The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett

Label: E Works / PIAS America
US Release Date: 2014-04-22
UK Release Date: 2014-04-21
Amazon
iTunes

For anyone that fancies themselves as a PopMatters interviewer, there are some things to expect after passing the -- quite frankly unreasonably rigorous -- journalism tests, and finally being accepted into the fold.

Every weekend for instance -- or every other weekend, depending on whether he's on holiday -- our lovely and talented Interviews Editor will send out a list of 'opportunities', ranging from the lowliest of indie chancers to those which John Lennon once referred to as 'the toppermost of the poppermost'.

Just before you come to writing meanwhile, comes a correspondence outlining the site's best practice when it comes to Talking To The Stars. Needless to say, this is a valuable -- and highly sensitive -- document, the bulk of which, if I were to tell you, I would surely have to kill you. One thing I can pass on however is to avoid questions that have been asked before -- something which, in a field where it's tempting to just stick to the same old tedious thing, is a pretty sage piece of wisdom.

About a fortnight ago, cleaving to this advice as I always do, I found myself preparing to talk to Mark Everett (aka Mr E), head honcho of American alternative stalwarts Eels. As I rifled through previous interviews, some successful, some not so much, it became apparent that one thing that he rarely gets asked about is his personal life. This struck me as odd -- not just because he's already written an autobiography, but also because anyone listening to his music could be forgiven for thinking that it's rarely about anything else.

As it turns out, there's a good reason why so little detail about E's real life, inner or outer, makes it into press interviews, and that's because he seems to be kind of uncomfortable talking about it. (At least with strangers. Who knew?) Start the session off by trying to crowbar open his soul, and you'll get maybe a sentence back, and that's if you're lucky. Keep working that stupid seam, and you're in danger of having him wander off never to return.  

Eels' new record The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett is one of the most intensely personal of the band's career, documenting as it does the break-up of what you can only assume was a fairly important relationship. 

It fits squarely into the tradition of the best of their work, albums through which E seemed to gain some measure of catharsis in relation to other, equally massive, life events (i.e. the suicide of his sister Elizabeth in the extraordinary Electro-Shock Blues; 40-something existential angst in the arguably even more extraordinary Blinking Lights and Other Revelations). It will also please seasoned Eels-watchers, in that it reverts back to the measured, song-cycle structure of these records, after the more spontaneous -- and not altogether great -- Wonderful, Glorious

Sure enough, when it comes to it, the last thing on Earth E wants to discuss in detail is the real-life inspiration behind the album's writing. The abyss is avoided however a time-honoured fashion: make 'em laugh, and if things get really bad, bring up Randy Newman. 

+ + +

In the press release, you mention that there were complicated personal circumstances around the making of the album. Do you mind speaking about them?

I think it's all in the record, to be honest. I don't really have much more detail than what ended up in the songs.

There seems to be quite a lot of suppressed rage in some of the lyrics. The use of the word 'motherfucker' in "Series of Misunderstandings" is quite incongruous given the way the music sounds.

Well sometimes it's the only word strong enough to get your message across. I tried not to, but it was unavoidable in that song.

The title of the record is striking, if for no other reason than you use your full name rather than just E. Is there's a sense that you're trying to give personal advice through the music?

Yes. I thought it was a worthwhile endeavor -- to have people learn from my mistakes.

Which were?

I had a good situation at the time, which I then spoiled and regretted later on.

There's a song on the album called "Agatha Chang". I'm guessing that isn't her real name.

The person in question isn't named Agatha Chang, no. It's the name of someone who was a friend of a friend. I thought it was a cool name at the time, and wrote it down thinking that I was going to use it in a rock song one day. When I was writing this album, I found that scrap of paper.

Does Agatha know about the song?

She does. The Eels website webmaster forwarded me an email from her about it the other day. 

What did it say?

She said -- I'm embarrassed to tell you I was Googling myself [laughs]. She thought it was a beautiful song, which I was glad about.

It's quite an introspective album. Is the final line -- "But I've got a good feeling about where I'm going" -- meant to represent some kind of resolution or line in the sand?

Yeah. The album is sequenced in that way deliberately. You could start out thinking with the first few songs "Wow, this sure is a bummer," but ultimately it's all about getting to a better place. I'm examining the situation -- what went right, what went wrong, what did I mess up. 

By the second to last song, I start to really some figure some stuff out -- there's nothing I can do about changing anything or anyone else in the world, but I can change myself. That leads to a more hopeful place by the end.

Is that a conclusion you've come to across the whole of your life?

I'm at the point of that last song. I'm not where I want to be, but I feel like I'm on my way there, hopefully.

Is there a personal narrative arc going across all of your records?

Probably not -- I do write autobiographically sometimes, but not always. A lot of the time I'm making up a story, or using the story of someone I know. But, I do tell those stories in a way that you could mistake it for my actual story, certainly. In the case of this album, it's me.

Parallels is an interesting song, both from the point of view of the themes of the record and your family history [E's father was genius physicist Hugh Everett III, who developed the "many worlds interpretation" of quantum physics]. 

The song is about how we all want to find our long-lost twin out there, or perfect mate. It's on this album because that can be a mistake -- to think that there's a perfect mate for you out there.

It's difficult not to think of your dad's work when listening to it ...

It's a nod to him in the title, yeah. I might have to find my perfect mate in a second world -- I might have to go looking elsewhere.

Is the thought of there being another you somewhere a comfort?

I hope there's another me in another universe that doesn't do things so stupidly. There's infinite numbers of all of us according to the theory. In one universe, there's a version of the album that's thrash metal with a strong rap influence. It sounds basically like Limp Bizkit.

Don't say that. Do you believe in your dad's ideas?

There's a term for physicists that believe in them -- they're called Everettians. By default, I have to be an Everettian. I made a documentary about it for the BBC where I started to understand more than I ever thought I could about his theories. I forgot everything as soon as I was done, though.

Changing the subject slightly, were you more prepared musically going into the making of this album? You've said that a lot of Wonderful, Glorious was composed with the band pretty much on the fly.  

We took the opposite approach this time, which is interesting because it's the exact same group of people that made Wonderful, Glorious. This one was all very thought out and written ahead of time. After that, all the orchestrations had to be written, which was a group effort -- you wouldn't think it was the same group of people. A lot of the songs were co-written with different members of the band.

The album begins with a kind of overture ...

It does. I like to start things with an instrumental sometimes -- it sets the mood for what's coming.

"Gentleman's Choice" stood out -- it's one of the few songs of yours that I've heard that reminded me of somebody else.

Let me guess -- Tom Waits.

No ... OK, maybe a little. Randy Newman mainly, though.

I can see the similarities in that song, yeah. It's rare for me to have a particular influence that pops out and is noticeable more than a hundred others, but this was one case where I started to think like "Oh this is me trying to be a little Tom Waits." Which I think is an OK thing for anyone to do. 

We're all trying to get there ...   

Right. Why did you think it was like Randy Newman?

You know the little two-minute first-person character studies he does? They generally tend to be really sad ...

Yeah -- that's something I do too sometimes. That's probably where I got the idea. I don't think he ever did an autobiographical song, at least until very late in his career.

"Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father" isn't that autobiographical, I wouldn't have thought ...

Probably not. [laughs]

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image