Not Another Winter: An Interview With Mark Eitzel

Drew Fortune
Photo (partial) by Piper Ferguson

American Music Club's Mark Eitzel discusses entropy, violence, and why touring sucks. Just don't call him a miserablist!

"An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way." This is a quote from Charles Bukowski, whose boozy wisdom and portraits of sun-drenched sin and redemption in California pair well with the music of San Francisco's American Music Club and its charismatic leader Mark Eitzel. Throughout the '80s and early '90s, AMC garnered critical and underground praise, even landing the top spot on Rolling Stone's Best Songwriter Critics Poll in 1991. Despite the plaudits, the band toiled in relative obscurity, and when their seventh full-length, San Francisco, failed to spark outside of their loyal following in 1994, the band split amicably a year later.

Had that been the end of the story, Eitzel would still remain a seminal figure of shoegazer folk, his influence felt in the darker moments of Ryan Adams and the poetry of the party captured by Conor Oberst and the Hold Steady's Craig Finn. Thankfully, the American Music Club is open for business. Reuniting in 2004, the band released the stark yet vital Love Songs for Patriots and in 2008 The Golden Age, an album filled with the lost souls, hopeless romantics, and aging drinkers Eitzel knows so well. I caught up with Eitzel from his San Francisco home and began by asking about his musical influences and growing up as an army brat.

"I think what you learn as an army brat is how to be alone, and how to deal with having no friends, which is a handy skill if you're an artist, or if you're going to be one. I grew up in England during the punk explosion so it was all the Sex Pistols and the Damned, which was really important to me as a kid. Before that, it was Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and all kinds of folk artists. When I got older I was into Nick Drake and of course Joy Division and early Cure and all that good stuff. In the last ten years I've discovered Dylan, who I never really listened to before. I'm kind of influenced by everything I hear."

AMC's music is indeed a reflection of Eitzel influences, a unique concoction of punk vitriol coupled with the mournful acoustic balladry of Drake and a sweeping roots rock/lounge groove that is simultaneously beautiful and inviting, savage yet disconcerting. The songs on The Golden Age do not stray far from this formula, yet the lyrics reflect the mindset of an aging man not entirely comfortable in present day America. Hell, the album could be titled No Country for Mark Eitzel.

"The songs are written in an era that I'm realizing we're in, which is a pre-apocalyptic time where things are really fucked up. If the record is optimistic it's because I'm realizing that the alternative is so bleak and kind of boring. That's how I wrote it. If I'm thinking politics or where we're at right now, it's really fucking scary. The other night there was a hold-up in front of my house. It's sort of like trying to make a good thing out of a bad." Regarding Obama and the possible sea change in government with the upcoming elections, Eitzel remains skeptical:

"There's something wrong with it. He's too perfect. I think that it's finally real that the corporations do run this country, and I'm suspicious. I've been voting for a long time, and I hope that there's a big change, and it'd be great if there was. But I also feel that the economy is so screwed and the government has been so fucked with that there's going to be a huge depression, and the violence that's starting to increase in my neighborhood and my city is going to spread across the nation and we're going to end up with a different country. I don't think corporations mind when the people suffer, or when society breaks apart. So I'm not really certain that things are going that well, and sea changes are usually sold to us when there really isn't one. I love Obama, and I hope he wins. I'll vote for him, but I'm a little jaundiced."

Throughout AMC's career, Eitzel built a reputation as a hard-drinking, volatile front man, with a penchant for excess reflected in his songs (1991's Everclear is a dedication to the 180 proof liquor.) It's impossible to deny his marriage to despair and an enigmatic bereavement, crooned with honesty and palpable heartache in songs that are largely autobiographical. Like Bob Mould, Eitzel has been labeled a career miserablist:

"It's kind of remarkable because people who know me always wonder why the media would label me a 'miserablist'. I made a mistake when I was younger because I should have sung everything with a smile. I find that a lot of music I surround myself with is much darker yet no one calls the members of Slayer miserablists. It's a fucked up thing and I really don't like it and I don't understand it. I take it as a putdown. I've been reading this for years about me being miserable and I'm like 'Fuck You!' You're just trying to kill me and kill my music by saying shit like that. I mean, who wants to buy music by a miserablist? Not me."

During the AMC hiatus, Eitzel released a string of solo albums, recording with members of Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth, and a collaboration with R.E.M's Peter Buck for 1997's West. In 2003, Eitzel made the decision, along with guitarist Vudi, to reform AMC. When asked what sparked the reunion, Eitzel simply answered, "I was living in Chicago and couldn't face another winter, so I decided to move back to San Francisco." The addition of Sean Hoffman (bass, vocals) and Steve Didelot (drums) has invigorated Eitzel as a performer and songwriter. "These are smart people so it ups my game a bit and makes me play a little better because they listen and they're good filters. As a songwriter, you can tell instantly when people are digging it and when they're not. When you try a folk, rock, and punk version of a tune, then you always know that the song doesn't have a backbone."

While the band's currently on a road warrior tour of North America, I caught them on their April 12 stop at Schuba's Chicago. Stepping on stage just a shade before midnight, Eitzel, looking like a cross between the Eels' Mark Everett and Tom Waits with his thick beard and sporty fedora, played a short yet inspired set, with choice tracks from The Golden Age amidst a smattering of old favorites, including "Johnny Mathis' Feet" and "Hello Amsterdam". Throughout the show, Eitzel was funny and self-deprecating, with onstage banter regarding the alleged sexual dalliances between bandmates and Celine Dion. "I've been doing this for so long and I've got band members who are 28 and 32, and they have a really hard time on the road. They're so tired all the time. And I'm not surprisingly. I kind of know what this is, and it doesn't tire me at all. It's a drag, though. I'd rather be home having a life."

In the end, it's all about honesty and simple storytelling. Eitzel's themes are as old as fiction, dealing with love, betrayal, mourning and beauty before last call. His gruff sincerity, humor and candid realism make the journey worthwhile. "I love it when people write things that transcend, that are really spiritual and gorgeous. I also like songs that are about me. A good songwriter has to write something that somehow is about me. It's like when I go to a club and I'm watching music, I'm like 'Hey, this is not about my fucking life, fuck you!'" It's like the guy in the Hold Steady.

The guy is kind of a genius songwriter. I can relate to those songs. I've been to those parties and I know those people. He's just sort of generously telling a story. So you compare something like that with Sufjan Stevens, who's a terminal genius, who wrote about three songs on Come On Feel the Illinoise that I think are really great, but the rest of them aren't about my life. I don't get it. He lives in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife and that's how I feel when I listen to his music. It's not about what I've experienced."

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

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

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

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