The 405 meets Eels
I am ten and one half minutes into an interview with Mark Oliver Everett and I am done, I think. Floundering under the gazes of E and a permapresent PR sat a few feet away, I make a mumbled attempt to be endearing, a fan out of his depth, and I ask if Bobby Jr. (the German Shepherd/Bassett Hound cross who came to the attention of Eels fans with his 'singing' on 'Last Time We Spoke') makes any appearances on Eels' forthcoming tenth record Wonderful, Glorious.
"Bobby Jr. doesn't make an appearance, but he was present throughout the recording," E says, lobbing me a bone, I guess. "He's always been a part of our recording sessions since I got him in 2002 or 3. He's a constant presence."
There's a pause. I squirt rank desperation from every greasy pore. E goes on.
"But y'know he, it's not that he didn't try to get on the record. He's a hounddog, so he's always singing along to certain sounds. There were times when we had to kick him out because he gets too distracting."
And I've gotten distracted too.
Before all this it is the Monday after last Friday and I am still reeling when I skip work at lunchtime, pull my coat tight around me and head into grey November for Kensington. I shiver on the Overground and I splutter my way through a rollie on the High Street and I walk up to the hotel and decide no, don't stop, so I keep walking and the man I am about to meet sings at me from my headphones and I don't think I'm ready yet.
I'm not feeling up to it now.
So I shake on a peeling bench under naked trees in frosty Kensington Gardens, hoping for Neverland, pulling together what I've done with what I've got, trying to figure a way to make this worthwhile for the both of us. I push things to the wire and have to go in, and I'm met in the glistening marble lobby and taken up in the lift and into a starched, muted suite where two lackeys glance my way and nod and turn back to the plasma screen, engage in stilted debate as to whether we'll get snow. I take a toilet break and yell silently at the mirror, then E arrives and we decamp into the adjoining room.
"How long will these go on for?"
I have just turned on the recorder on my phone, and E is asking about it.
"I don't… I've done a 45 minute thing with it before, so quite a while."
E continues to look at the phone.
"That's promising," he says. I mutter something about all the editing, the lot of the music 'journalist'. That's what you signed up for, he says. I didn't think I signed up for anything, I say.
Three summers back, Eels released twelve howls of desire called Hombre Lobo, followed seven months later by the desolate End Times, a record that had me worrying about the mental state of a man I'd never met. I'd not seen a photo of E in a while, but I guessed he'd now look something like the crumpled, white-bearded gent on the record's sleeve. Seven more months and Tomorrow Morning rose glowing from the horizon, sweet relief for anyone mapping the ping-pong pattern of highs and lows from Beautiful Freak onward.
"I definitely pinned myself into a corner with each of those, where it had to be specifically dealing with whatever the idea was," E says, "and I guess it was liberating that for Wonderful, Glorious I didn't really have any rules at all. That I could just see what happens. After years of having so many rules, it was inevitable, I had to break out of that prison."
"So it's pretty good, to be out of that kind of thr…"
"Great. I don't think I'll ever give myself any rules again.
I ask if the new record marks a continued upward trajectory in Eels' musical mood. I waggle my finger in the air, tracing that jagged line from record to record on the happy-sad scale.
"Yeah, they kind of go up and down, but this time they didn't. I'm more on the positive tip of two in a row. So that was a curveball in itself. Maybe Tomorrow Morning was the beginning that set me up for a more long-lasting positivity," E says, "let's hope. We'll see. Who knows, maybe I'll do another death record after this."
To those of you looking for concrete proof that E's settling a little after emerging from pitch-black musical night, I present his band. Eels have operated something of a rotating door policy since inception, but for Wonderful, Glorious, E is using the same personnel that's populated Eels' live incarnation for their last two tours.
"They're just such good musicians," he says, "they're so talented. So many bands that are married for life, or whatever, tend to make the same record over and over again, because they're limited by their imaginations, you know? I always use the Beatles as an example – four people who were married to each other for a lengthy period, yet they had such boundless imaginations that they made these wildly different records from year to year. But you don't see that happen very often. That's why they were the Beatles. I just feel like with these guys I finally got into a group of people who really have pretty huge imaginations, so I'm just very comfortable with them rather than feeling like 'OK, this has run its course, time to mix it up'. I don't feel any need to mix it up because we're all so busy mixing it up ourselves."
"You've said that Knuckles is involved in songwriting too, now," I say.
"Yeah," E says, "not only that, he wrote the bulk of the music for the whole title track. It's not like he just wrote a drum part or something (maybe it's wishful thinking, but I think I can hear a drummer's hand in writing the taught, clicking funk of the song's verses). Everybody plays a lot of different instruments, even Knuckles."
I ask how collaborative Eels is on the lyrical front, bearing in mind E's past tendencies toward what people like to call, I don't know, 'intensely personal themes', 'melancholic imagery', and so on.
"Not at all. That's the one thing. Those guys don't have anything to say," E says. We both laugh. I sound a bit like this lady I used to work with, whose teeth-gritted, nervous-tic howls could scrub your insides with ground glass from the next room. "I do all the words and melodies."
"Do you see Eels staying that way forever?"
"Nah, I'm totally open to it. Like, if Chet gave me a lyric that I really thought was great I'd totally sing it, but I… doubt that's gonna happen. Then again, if you'd told me a year ago 'Knuckles is gonna write the bulk of the title track for your next album' then I would have laughed. You never know."
The first track on Wonderful, Glorious is called 'Bombs Away'. Its central character, according to the PR, is a 'quiet man pushed too far by modern life's increasing incivility'. I've since found out how it sounds, short-circuit distortion sculpted into a slinking, edge-of-mania groove by Koool G Murder's distant thunder. 'Nobody listens to a whispering fool,' E sings on 'Bombs Away', and I know now that he's right. Three months ago in a room in a hotel with E, though, I haven't heard Wonderful, Glorious. A quiet man myself, I didn't mention this to anyone beforehand, assuming it par for the course in the unending battle against leaks, all that. I have however heard the gravelly stomp of lead single 'Peach Blossom', so I seize on that.
"The only song I've heard off the new record is 'Peach Blossom'," I say.
"Oh, you haven't heard the record?" E says.
"No, I haven't heard it."
E turns to the other half of the room. "Am I gonna be getting a lot of this today?" he asks. He is reassured that despite problems with streams, other people will have heard it. So I say
and then I ask about the song some more.
On 'Peach Blossom', E growls his gospel of positivity over some maxed-out rock riffs and Knuckles' relentless pounding. Together, the two things sound at odds – great, don't get me wrong, but E's entreaties to open the window and smell a variety of floral fragrances come off to me sarcastic, delivered as the song in the man's phlegmy husk, atop heapings of stabbing, in-the-red overdrive.
"There's nothing sarcastic about it to me," E says, "and that's something I get saddled with mistakenly sometimes, people think I'm being smarmy or sarcastic when I'm not. And then other times when I am trying to do that, they don't get it, so I don't know why I bother trying." He sounds like he means this, like he wants to give up the whole sordid business and go and live under a bush. Then again, maybe he's just being sarcastic. "No," he says, still talking about the song, "it's all genuine."
So I sweat on my little teal-upholstered vanity bench and worry that I am fucking up. I keep glancing behind me to where I've kept my notes on the dressing table, blotty scrawls from frozen hands on the park bench defacing what I'd come up with in the warmth of my living room. I think I choose topics at random. I ask about E's new studio ("It's amazing, like my teenage wet dream come true, a whole house to be creative in. What would be the living room is the performance area, and then the attic is the control room") and the difficulties thereof ("We have to go up and down the stairs a lot. But y'know, I figure if the Beatles had to do that in Abbey Road all those years, we can handle it.") I ask if E has any plans for his forthcoming four month tour, bearing in mind the theatricality displayed in Eels outings to date – the beards, the fighter pilot outfits, the bandana. "That's what I'm gonna go figure out when I get home," he says, "I don't have any idea how that's gonna go down yet."
I want, really, to talk about music. Not how much E loves his band (which you can read here), or how much he loves his new studio (which you can read here), but his new record (which, incidentally, you can now hear here). Not having heard it, and not wanting to ask 'so…what's it like?', I still have one question that's not a PR-regurgitating non-entity. I just don't much want to use it. On October 19th 2011, there was a post on the Eels website newsfeed about E's contribution to Dear Me: A Letter to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self. We heard nothing more until a year, to the day, later, when a solitary 'Hi' popped up. Tailing off from some straw-clutcher about the Wonderful, Glorious bonus disc, I ask what E was doing for that year.
"It only took us a month to make the record, and the rest of the year I was just bored," E chuckles, easily. "Sometimes after you put three albums out in a year, you have to go away."
A moment hangs between us. I feel infinite and icy time slowing its crystalline creep to glacier speed. I know that I'm supposed to ferret and search, to ask where E was and what he was doing for that year, because that's what people want to know, right? Dull red shards bat at my temples.
"I just went away." E says.
A gnarled celestial hand turns the speed dial from molasses to regular, my synapses fire and I know that I won't press him. So I fumble some stuff about a dog and then I am ten and three quarter minutes into an interview with Mark Oliver Everett.
"I'm actually done, I think, if that's OK with you," I say.
Wonderful, Glorious is out now, and you can read our review by heading here.
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