Mark Eitzel’s new album, Don’t Be A Stranger, which is being released by Merge this week, punctuates his 30 years in a continuum of negotiations, most plainly between American Music Club, the band he fronted from 1982 to 1994 and again from 2004 to 2011, and releasing under his namesake. Always the thoughtful lyricist, Eitzel’s songs narrow the divide between life event and the resulting expression. Throughout three decades years of radically undulating trends, Eitzel has deflected reshaping his influence, holding steadfast within a genre as the neo-classical crooner, a style he once adopted and now holds in a class of his own. A wealth of talents have lent their credence and craft to the focus of Eitzel’s discerning lens, as collaborators, band members, and most topically, actors and comedians. With the release of Don’t Be A Stranger, he has treated his public to some “consultations” with the most hilarious of his LA-famous friends. In these clips, Eitzel is humbled, and any viewer worth a damn is charmed. This is where we began our conversation when I spoke with him last week, and we eventually made it to the topic of Columbus, Ohio, where he began his career in bands like The Cowboys and the Naked Skinnies, some 45 minutes later.
This is the first interview I have conducted, but I think I am at least more prepared than DJ Foodcourt was when you showed up for his advice. Those videos are really funny. Obviously they were character-based and meant to be humorous, but did the idea originate because you felt like you needed some fresh advice? Have you felt at times that your sense of humor was something that needed to be more overtly expressed to counteract the solemn tones?
Mark Eitzel: I wish I thought so objectively about what I do, but I don’t think about it. I had to promote the album, so I could have made a video with one of my songs, but I hate music videos. They always seem so awful to me. We started by just doing door-to-door interviews, where I would knock on the door and say, “Hi, I live near you. I am selling my CDs.” We filmed a few of those, and it was kind of a disaster, so we thought to do these instead. It was not me thinking about my perception, as it was, but more about doing something funny for people to watch, like Curb Your Enthusiasm.
I share your view on music videos. For me, when the mediums of film and music meet, it seems to just be an expository exercise and there is never really a good connection between the song and what you are seeing onscreen.
ME: That’s because the way people really interact with music isn’t with a stupid story. The best things I have seen have been TV commercials with cars. There is this song called “Breathe” by Telepopmusik that I really love, and I sought it out because it was on a Volkswagon commercial.
Approaching people that have no prior experience with your music is amazing, but like you found out, it doesn’t always work. What were the particular disasters?
ME: That is why we ended up picking people we knew, and the only disasters were when people weren’t funny. Honestly, people are really generous with their time.
It seems that now, more than ever, humor is more respected, more important in America. For example, if you are successful on Twitter, humor seems to be the defining factor. It is an amazing coming-out party for humor. I have always considered it one of the highest art forms.
ME: Me too, I love humor. I love to laugh.
What is your relationship with pop culture?
ME: I don’t want to be mean-spirited, but most of it seems like it is machines. I don’t mind machines—I love electronic music quite a bit—but the whole notion of moving to the machine kind of worries me a bit. Like “Call Me Maybe,” I don’t hate Katy Perry, but I guess I do.
There is definitely something to be said for mass art dulling the upper faculties, and Katy Perry is a great example of that, although I always find myself rooting to hear a really great pop song on the radio. When that happens it is fantastic.
ME: I do too. The thing is, I am old. So when I hear something like Lil Wayne’s “Baby Bump” or... What’s that called? “Lovely Lumps?”
ME: “Lady Lumps,” that’s right. I listen to that and think that music is really beautiful, really well made. But then I listen to what he is saying, he is just spitting out noise because to actually say something would be not cool. I am from such a different generation. Just say something! C’mon, try it. They don’t and there is nothing to say, because they can only handle the noise. So it is not my thing. It just seems like cruelty. Our whole American culture is a celebration of liars and how well they lie. Our politicians are not at war with gangsters. In a way, that is our whole culture now. Everyone’s a “bitch” or not. I hate it. It is so dumb. So that is my relationship with pop culture. I have never particularly liked it. I don’t think something is good just because it is successful. I mean, Hitler was successful.
“Everyone is a bitch” is a good way to put it. But entertainers are also expected to be nice now; everyone thinks they are your friend if they follow you on Twitter or are friends with you on Facebook. How do you feel about letting your listeners in on more personal or daily aspects of your life?
ME: I don’t think it is more personal. My fans—the four or five that I have—are really nice and polite. It is just human interactions. If you stay on the stage for any length of time and you have any kind of success, you know how to deflect if people are too much. When people start showing me their suicide scars, I’ll be like, “Yeah, glad you are still here,” and then I move on because I can’t be there for them. It is just not what I can do.
Your fans are probably, for the most part, pretty intelligent.
ME: They are. I’m sorry, they really are. They all seem pretty fucking amazing to me. It is funny though, with social media for instance, I have got 5,000 friends on Facebook and I think that maybe 1% of them list me as their favorite music.
The questions that you put online for the trivia contest...
ME: I didn’t do that.
Did Merge make that up?
ME: No, the guy that runs the American Music Club website did that, and I don’t know the answers to any of them.
There was one question that asked how many songs you have that mention hair. I now realize that you didn’t craft that question, but are there any underlying themes in your lyrics that wouldn’t be immediately apparent?
ME: I don’t know. It’s not up to me, it’s up to other people to hear that. I know that I’ve wrestled with the same three questions my whole life, although I couldn’t tell you what they are.
Art is a process of remembering and forgetting. If we had a perfect memory, it wouldn’t work the way it does.
ME: No, I don’t think so. I wish I had a perfect memory, though. I can’t remember anything.
Scientists are working on developing a pill that could erase specific memories, traumatic ones. Would you mess with something like that?
ME:I don’t know, that is an interesting philosophical question. I will say, the older you get, the more history drags you down, especially when you are in a business like mine where you are like an athlete. There is a limited amount of time, unless you really stretch it out, and the longer you stay at the party, the fewer people you know and it just sort of drags. At the same time, that is in fact your history, so if you can’t face it, then what is the point of living?
Speaking of history, a lot of the Agit writers and readers, myself included, are from Columbus, Ohio. I read somewhere that you don’t remember this era in your life with much fondness.
ME: I don’t hate Columbus. I love Columbus.
Have you been back to Columbus recently?
ME: I go to Columbus as much as I can. I was there last New Year’s. I spent a week there, and it was freezing.
It’s good to hear you like Columbus. Everyone there, in the music community at least, supports each other.
ME: Yeah, I know. That is how it used to be when I lived there too. The best thing about it is that you meet a lot of different kinds of artists, not just musicians. When I moved to San Francisco, suddenly the whole punk rock scene was hardcore and everyone was mean. Columbus was cool because people were nice, and nice is actually cool. It really is. Everything else besides nice is a bore.
So what has kept you in San Francisco then?
ME: The weather. In Columbus, the winters are so harsh. I had a day job across from what was the new undergraduate campus, over on Lane Avenue. Just going to work across the cornfield every day—I think of that now as the coldest thing I remember in my life. But I am moving to LA in December.
So American Music Club has again dissolved?
ME: People change. And the thing about music, or anything, is that it needs money. People need to live, so people move on when there is no money.
You had a good run, to say the least.
ME: I think so. We were great. I am really proud of it.
A lot of bands seem to “break up,” and then reunite shortly thereafter to play huge festivals.
ME: And good for them. I know the Pixies got millions of dollars for those festivals, and God bless them, why not? They are all good people and people seem to love them. I don’t have a problem with any of the business of it. Everyone is an artist and everyone is just trying to survive. Even a band like Counting Crows or Train or Third Eye Blind—any of these bands I don’t like very much—at least they are musicians. They are not the devil. I don’t have a problem with any sort of moneymaking scheme people have.
It is a good attitude to have: nice is cool, positivity is cool.
ME: Yeah. God, I am looking at Columbus on Google maps right now. I used to live on 16th near Summit, and there was this frat in the house right behind us. They were such disgusting people. I am looking at the house I used to live in and the back door. My bedroom would be against the parking lot of this mansion these assholes lived in, and I just hated them so much. You never knew whether women were getting raped in the parking lot or not. When I look at Romney, I just think of these fucking rat assholes, these rich boys at play. I will never love them.