“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.”