Music

Daddy's a Rock 'n' Roller: An Interview with Eels' Mastermind E

Jedd Beaudoin
Photo: Gus Black / Sacks & Co.

At the beginning of his American tour, Eels' founder E discusses life as a father and bandmate as well as an important lesson he learned from Leon Russell: "Just fucking bring it."

Mark Oliver Everett, better known as E, founder and leader of Eels, is preparing for a long string of dates throughout the U.S. by doing pre-tour press. There was a relative lack of live dates after the release of 2018's revealing and consistent LP The Deconstruction, something he and his band correcting with more extensive travels this year.

E fields questions about everything from how he feels when people offer interpretations of his lyrics ("I'm OK with it. Maybe John Lennon wasn't thinking the same thing I was when he wrote 'Strawberry Fields Forever' but I still have my own ideas about that song.") to whether he'll write a sequel to his autobiography Things the Grandchildren Should Know ("I've thought about it. But most of the people I wrote about in that book are dead. The ones in the sequel are still alive. That makes it harder."). E is an affable and thoughtful interview subject, tempering moments of deep reflection with self-effacing humor.

He spoke with PopMatters the day after his 55th birthday about all things Eels.

You released The Deconstruction last year and did some dates behind it but you're spending more time on the road in 2019.

We did a short tour after that record, mostly because I'm a father now. It's harder to go out for as long as we used to. It turned out to be our favorite tour. We had such a good time that we said, "That can't be it. We gotta continue this." So we are. For all the right reasons. The sheer pleasure of performing.

Have you had periods where touring was a chore? How do you come back from that and say, "OK, I'm going to keep an open mind"?

Over the years it's been mostly great. There are times when it's less than great. Mostly that's a combination of the people you're traveling with. One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. And other clichés. Your bus can break down in Wyoming. We had a pretty bad bus crash one time. Our first big tour was over a year. We were out nonstop. That really changes you. You get pretty crispy.

With a body of work that reaches back more than 20 years, just with Eels, how do you think about putting together a set list?

It's really easy. It just occurs to you. I'll hear one of our songs on the radio or a TV show or a movie, and I'll think, "I want to play that one again, man." It comes down to whatever you're in the mood for that year. It's fun to take an old song and change it up sometimes.

When you revisit some of your older songs do you ever have moments where you say, "Oh, man. This is so much better than I remember?"

Yeah, and probably vice-versa too. [Laughs.] But it's nice when you're pleasantly surprised, which happens a lot around now when I'm learning to play an old song. I'll say, "Yeah, this is pretty good." Other times, it's, "Yeah, I don't know about this one." The nice thing is that you can fix it.

Was there a particularly memorable show you witnessed in your formative years?

I was lucky to grow up in the late '60s and early '70s. I had a sister who was six years older than me. She was into a lot of the best music of the time, so she took me to Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps concert when I was 16. I saw Led Zeppelin twice on their last tour. My very first concert was George Harrison with Billy Preston. I was very fortunate. I saw the Who with Keith Moon. I'm showing my old-as-fuck age, but I was a little kid at the time.

Did you become a student of performance along the way?

I was heavily influenced by all the people I saw. I remember learning some really great lessons. One day my friend, Anthony, I was probably about 18 at the time, called me and said, "Hey, Leon Russell is playing this horserace track in Maryland." It as the middle of the day at like an arts and crafts fair. We drove out there, and there wasn't really anyone there. Sparsely-attended.

I felt sorry for Leon. Then he came out and put on this show that, to this day, is one of the greatest shows I ever saw. It was as if he was blind and didn't know how sparsely-attended it was. That taught me a really valuable lesson. We all have shows like that. It'll probably happen to us on this tour. When that happens, I always remember what Leon taught me that day: Just fucking bring it.

Right on.

The funny thing is, the few times that's happened to us, there was usually someone in the crowd who's now a famous artist or filmmaker or actor or musician. They always tell me that they were one of those few people in attendance and that it made a huge impact on them. That makes the lesson even more valuable. You never know who's out there. You're doing God's work.

[Laughs.] I've been to a show where maybe 20 people turned up in a large room, and the singer has come down and serenaded a dog. That would never happen in a packed room.

Right. So for the few people who were there, it becomes a special experience. If I go to a show and the singer has a tantrum and walks off stage after six songs, I still think I got my money's worth and saw something unusual.

What about the mental and emotional preparation for a tour? You mentioned being a father and I would have to think being away from a child for long stretches of time would be nerve-racking.

It's the hardest part. More people than not that I'm traveling with have kids. In the past, I'd hear about how much everyone missed their kids and think, "Whatever." [Laughs.] Now that I'm in that situation I realize that that can be awful. But that's what happens when Daddy's a rock 'n' roller.

Has your son been able to see you perform or has he had any part in the touring?

It's funny; I was just discussing that last night with his mother. I had this idea that he might come to our L.A. show. But it's way past his bedtime. I'm trying to decide if it's too disruptive. He's been to rehearsals, so it's pretty much the same thing. We can turn the volume down.

Has he shown any musical inclination or is it too soon to tell?

I'm assuming many kids are interested in toy musical instruments and being around music. It's hard to say if there's anything special going on, but he likes music so far. The really fun thing is that on The Deconstruction I included a little lullaby that I had written for him ["Archie Goodnight"] when he was little. Now he's old enough to sing along to it. That's pretty awesome.

That's a powerful gift you gave him with that song.

It's a self-indulgent thing to put on your album, but I felt like it was something in the long saga of Eels that deserved its place.

TOUR DATES

Apr 29—Buffalo, NY—Town Ballroom

Apr 30—Boston, MA—The Wilbur

May 1—New York, NY—Irving Plaza

May 3—Nashville, TN—Cannery Ballroom

May 5—Dallas, TX—Canton Hall

May 6—Austin, TX—Emo's

May 8—Phoenix, AZ—The Van Buren

May 9—Santa Ana, CA—The Observatory

May 11—San Diego, CA—The Observatory North Park

May 12—Los Angeles, CA—The Theater at Ace Hotel

May 13—San Francisco, CA—The Regency Ballroom

May 14—Sacramento, CA—Crest Theatre

EUROPEAN TOUR DATES

August 14—Zurich, Switzerland—X-TRA

August 15—Le Locle, Switzerland—Rock Altitude Festival

August 19—Nottingham, UK—Rock City

August 20—Southampton, UK—O2 Guildhall

August 21—London, UK—Hammersmith Apollo

August 24— Amsterdam, Netherlands—Once In A Blue Moon Festival

August 27—Copenhagen, Denmark—Grey Hall

August 28—Oslo, Norway—Rockefeller

August 29—Stockholm, Sweden—Debaser Medis

September 2—Milan, Italy—Circolo Magnolia

September 4—Linz, Austria—Posthof

September 6—Barcelona, Spain—Razzmatazz

September 8—Santiago de Compostela, Spain—Auditorio De Galicia

September 10—Lyon, France—Radiant

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