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.
The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett
E Works / PIAS America

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. 

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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]