Devastation sensation: talking essentials with Eels
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Life is funny,
But not ‘ha ha’ funny.
Peculiar, I guess.
You think I got it going my way,
Then why am I such a fuckin’ mess?
Mark Oliver Everett, better known to millions of music fans the world over as simply ‘E’, hasn’t had things all his own way since discovering the body of his father, who’d died of a heart attack, at just 19 years old. Hugh Everett III, responsible for the many-world interpretation theory relating to the field of quantum physics, was only 51 at the time of his passing – the much-admired physicist’s life would later be investigated by his son for a BBC-funded film, Parallel Worlds.
Although his father was a millionaire at the time of his death, Everett’s life following Hugh’s death has been turbulent, to say the least: schizophrenic sister Elizabeth committed suicide in 1996 and his mother Nancy died of cancer two years later; a cousin, Jennifer, died when the plane she was working as an attendant on crashed into The Pentagon on September 11, 2001. These incidents have influenced and informed the work of the band Everett fronts, Eels, particularly their second album proper, Electro-Shock Blues.
The opening quote is taken from said album, a long-player tackling especially bleak subject matters – suicide and death weigh heavy in lyrics that can crack a man to a teary heap given attention enough. While debut Eels LP Beautiful Freak, which spawned the hits ‘Novocaine For The Soul’ and ‘Susan’s House’, was more commercially successful, the resonance left by Electro-Shock Blues – its nakedness, the affecting emotion in Everett’s tone of voice, so matter of fact yet so laden with melancholy – is such that it is, perhaps, their greatest record. It’s certainly this writer’s favourite, its change-of-heart closer ‘P.S. You Rock My World’ the only pop song I can think of that will always trigger a lump in my throat.
I was thinkin’ ‘bout how everyone was dying,
And maybe it’s time… to live
‘P.S. You Rock My World’
Now, more than a decade on from Eels’ debut in 1996, the band are releasing their ‘best-of’ collection, a compilation of tracks taking in efforts from post-Electro-Shock Blues LPs Daisies Of The Galaxy (2000), Souljacker (2001), Shootenanny! (2003) and Blinking Lights And Other Revelations (2005). Meet The Eels: Essential Eels Vol. 1 is released via DreamWorks/Universal on January 21.
Ahead of the collection’s release and the publication of Things The Grandchildren Should Know, the singer’s memoirs, DiS caught up with Everett – ‘E’ – at his Los Angeles home. Via telephone, of course. We’re not into climate change.
Video: ‘Novocaine For The Soul’, from Beautiful Freak
January’s a pretty busy month for you this year – you’ve the Essential record coming out, a b-sides compilation too, and then there’s the book you’ve written, Things The Grandchildren Should Know.
It is a little overwhelming. There was a day recently where I had a meeting with my manager and I came home and just curled up on the couch in a foetal position because it’d suddenly hit me that… Well, I was trying to disappear for a while, so I don’t know what’s happened here. I just thought, “Well, this stuff will be to tide things over while I’m gone”, but I’ve never been so busy.
Is the titling of the Essential collection intentional? I always think titles including ‘best of’ suggest the end of a career…
Well, you can call it a best-of; you just can’t call it a ‘greatest hits’ when you’ve never had any hits! I considered calling it The Eels’ Greatest Hit, but that’s not technically true – we’ve had a few hits, but not enough to call this release a ‘greatest hits’. You’ve got to be, like, The Beatles to call such a collection a ‘greatest hits’.
I suppose ‘Novocaine For The Soul’, your first breakthrough hit, must be pretty old now… it’s older, even, than a decade.
Well, it took us two years to put these collections together, as we were quite painstaking about making it the best we could, so now we’re actually two years into the next decade, so we should have thought of that a little sooner.
Well, if you’re going to release a ‘best of’, whatever, you may as well do it right. So many are put together by labels with very little input from the actual bands.
That’s exactly what the case was. We didn’t know that Universal was going to be putting together a best-of until a few years back, so once we got wind of it we wanted it to be put together by all of us, together. It turned into a great thing, and all the labels worked together and we all had a really friendly time. But that’s why it took so long – we kept coming up with new ideas. Like, at the last minute I thought, “Hey, we’ve got this DVD with the videos, I’ll do a commentary track”. You know, talking about my thoughts. We just kept making it nicer and nicer and the next thing you know two years have gone past.
You’ve got to thank the fans in some way, right?
Yeah. And also, I’ve gotta say, the songs have been remastered. I think a lot of music buyers don’t know what remastered means, and in the early days I didn’t know either, which is why our early records are not mastered the way I would do them now. So it was nice to go back, and these songs sound better than ever now, because I know what I’m doing.
I wouldn’t have thought all that many musicians get heavily involved in the mastering process…
Well, I’m a master of mastering now. I’ve really been paying attention over the past few years. I don’t have the time or energy to work with other acts right now – I can barely get through it for my own records. Take our last record, Blinking Lights: most bands when they master an album, they take maybe a day on it; Blinking Lights took three months to master. And that’s not including the mixing, just the mastering, which is the very last step, when you’re turning your mixes into a finished CD to be manufactured. If you’re making dynamic music, with a lot of highs and lows in the volume, the mastering process can become very complicated.
Video: ‘Cancer For The Cure’, from Electro-Shock Blues
The b-sides collection that’s released the same time as Meet The Eels, Useless Trinkets: this is aimed at the long-term fan, I’d guess?
Well, it just seemed like a nice thing to do – they just wanted to do a straightforward best-of originally, but I was like, “Let’s do something like that for the casual fans – people sort of familiar with the band who want an easy invitation to its world – but let’s also do something for the people already into it”. And we’re putting them out simultaneously.
And then you’re touring here (dates follow interview) – will there be much new material aired even though you’re putting out the ‘best of’?
I don’t know yet – there will probably be some of both I expect, new and old.
So you’re writing new material right now?
Oh yes. I’ve already got one and a half new albums finished. I’m still moving ahead. I think I have some sort of an unusual working method – I tend to make more than one record and then sort of sit in them for a while; sometimes I’ll finish one and it’ll inspire me to change something on another, and then I afford myself the luxury of enough time to see what I feel like putting out, and when. I like making records more than putting them out. I finish an album sometimes and think, “I don’t feel like getting on that treadmill, I’m gonna make another one”.
Sounds like you’ve something of an addiction there, or that you’re a workaholic.
It is like that! It’s so much fun to go to bed at night and think about this thing that you made that didn’t exist yesterday. I’m always at my happiest when I’m making records – it fills me with a sense of excitement and optimism, even if it’s naïve. It’s a nice way to spend your days.
Are the best times the naïve times, though? When you’re not sure where you’re going with a song…?
Absolutely. All the best times. When I say ‘naïve’ I still have that optimism, and I mean ‘naïve’ because I’m not letting myself be aware of how un-fun it’ll be for me to put that record out, probably! I feel excited about making the records, but once I get one done I wonder, “Why stop that feeling?” So I make another one.
Video: ‘Mr E’s Beautiful Blues’, from Daisies of the Galaxy
Do you particularly enjoy, at all, the cycle of an album release? I.e., doing press like this?
I mean, unfortunately I always wanted to be the guy that didn’t talk to anybody, and that’s who I would really like to be. Unfortunately one of the only ways people are going to find out about the music is for me to talk about it. I’ve also found out that the record label pretty much puts a gun to your head, and if you don’t do stuff like this then they won’t put your record out. It’s all part of this ‘un-fun’ element.
I suppose it’s not too bad if you can sit at home, though.
Right… alongside the records, there’s a book of your memoirs coming out, Things The Grandchildren Should Know. It’s already attracting quite a bit of acclaim. Was it finished quite a while back, or is it still fresh in your mind?
It was completed fairly recently, and it took a long time. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, and quite the opposite of everything I’ve said regarding how fun it is to make a record. Ironically I went into it thinking that I wanted to do something where I only had to depend on myself, rather than all these others. I thought it’d be easy – I’d go out to the guesthouse every day, sit there and write a book. But it was the hardest thing I have ever done; it was really painstaking.
But a good experience, ultimately? Do you feel it was… I dunno what word I’m really looking for here… Cathartic, I suppose?
That’s actually the right word. When it was done and they sent me the finished copy that I could hold in my hands it really was cathartic. All those years and all that drama, in this one nice little package. It really… You get the feeling of the decks clearing, like a weight lifting off your shoulders. It’s a great way to move into the future.
Your lyrics have always been very personal, though – what was different about conveying your past, and its accompanying emotions, in a book rather than in song?
There’s nothing to hide behind – that’s what was so hard about it. It’s so exacting, and I really understood why all the great writers became alcoholics. It’s like your mind is the office, and at the end of the day you’ve got to leave it. It’s weird.
Can you imagine, now, what it’d have been like to have a mundane, or ‘normal’, upbringing? I guess everything that’s happened has shaped who you are today, and affected what you do as that person?
It’s an interesting question. At this point in my life I have no regrets about anything, now I’ve had time to make sense of it all, and that’s one of the most invaluable things about writing the book. And, also, in the course of making the BBC film (Parallel Worlds; more information) about my father. I uncovered a lot of stuff about my family in the process, and I certainly don’t harbour any resentment, and I don’t… I guess what I’m saying is that I like the man I’ve turned out to be, and so I guess it was all worth it and all okay the way it went. It could have been… My life could have turned down the intensity meter at times, a few notches – that would have been okay. But I made it through…!
And you’d be a totally different person now without those experiences.
Yeah! If I’d had an idyllic childhood… Well, there’s a lot of good things about my life – I’m a rock star for goodness sake!
Well, when you put it like that…
I refuse to be bitter – I can’t ignore things like that. There are a lot of nice aspects to my life. I’m one of the lucky people in the world who gets to sit down in his basement and do what he loves for a living. So, I’m okay with whatever it took to get here. It would have been nice to have had some sense of destiny – the feeling that things would turn out this way – but I never did. That would have made things a little easier on the way. But, it’s okay. It’s all okay.
And I get the impression that you’re not an artist who works to label-set deadlines?
I am, yeah! Not only am I one of these lucky people who gets to do what he wants to do, but I am now at a point where I can do what I want to do, how I want to do it, and when I want to do it. So, it’s extremely fortunate, and I feel very lucky.
And now there’s Meet The Eels, which maps out this progress in one neat and tidy package.
Yes, there it is! There’s the road map.
Brilliant. Thanks for your time Mark, have a nice rest of your day.
Been a pleasure.
Video: ‘Trouble With Dreams’, from Blinking Lights…
Meet The Eels and Useless Trinkets are released on January 21. The book Things The Grandparents Should Know is published the same day by Little, Brown and is priced at £14.99 RRP. Eels’ MySpace can be found here, and tour dates are as follows:
17 London St James’ Church (TONIGHT… book reading/special performance)
25 London Royal Festival Hall
26 Birmingham Town Hall
27 Manchester Bridgewater Hall
28 Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
1 Gateshead The Sage
2 Brighton Dome
18 Dublin Vicar Street
19 Belfast Mandela Hall
21 York Grand Opera House
22 Sheffield City Hall
23 Oxford New Theatre
24 Cambridge Corn Exchange
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