As anyone who has ever paid even a minute amount of attention to the man’s music can attest, it’s never been easy being Mark Eitzel. As the sad-voiced songsmith at the center of American Music Club from the mid-‘80s to the mid-‘90s, Eitzel was the pathologically self-deprecating court jester who couldn’t resist hanging himself with his own tassels to get a laugh. His performances were notorious for their brink-of-a-breakdown emotional intensity, while his gorgeous, melancholy songs earned him such sobriquets as “The American Morrissey,” not to mention Songwriter of the Year honors from Rolling Stone.
American Music Club imploded after 1994’s Mercury and Eitzel struck out on his own for a string of frequently fascinating solo albums, but AMC rose again in 2004, releasing Love Songs for Partriots. By the time of ’08 follow-up The Golden Age, Eitzel and founding guitarist Vudi were the only original members, and this version of AMC eventually petered out as well. In May of last year, Eitzel suffered a heart attack, from which he thankfully seems to have bounced back nicely, but his former bandmate, longtime AMC drummer Tim Mooney, died suddenly this past June. Still, alt-rock Energizer bunny Eitzel keeps on going. His new album, Don’t Be a Stranger, is his most affecting effort since the ‘90s, overflowing with Eitzel’s trademark blend of poetic passion and black humor, much like the songwriter himself.
“Right now I’m so fractured, and I hate music because it destroyed my life.”
A lot has happened in your world over the last couple of years. For one thing, the revamped American Music Club’s time came to an end.
I never thought I’d be the kind of person that carries on a band when there’s only one other [original] band member left, but I was. We did our tour and that particular version of the band broke up. It just never managed to resurrect itself. American Music Club, when you have all those people in the band and everyone needs to be paid, it just becomes an expensive proposition. It’s also a democracy, which is difficult.
Will you and Vudi collaborate again in some other context?
Even now, when we talk about playing together, he doesn’t want to call it American Music Club, because it’s stupid. We were talking about doing something together — I don’t know when that will be. The trouble is, he works — he’s a bus driver. He goes to work around one, so if you want to rehearse with him you’ve got to get there at 10 or 11… and then he’s available again some evenings, not many.
AMC drummer Tim Mooney passed away in June — how did that hit you?
I hadn’t really talked to him for six, seven years, but boy, it really hit me like a ton of bricks, I have to say. It was really a loss. You never think…with people that you don’t talk to any more you think there’s still a future, but no. We’re trying to sell a painting … we have these paintings left over from American Music Club album covers, and we’re gonna put ‘em on eBay and try to sell ‘em for his widow.
You’ve been keeping busy with your own projects since the last AMC album.
Since The Golden Age I did an album called Klamath. I did a musical in the U.K. [2010’s Marine Parade] It was about a small hotel in Brighton. I collaborated with this man Simon Stephens. It’s really more of a play with music than it is a musical. I really don’t like the way that musicals are so spot-on — they’re so nail-on-the-head all the time. I find musicals to be really insulting. You walk in the door, he doesn’t look at you — in a musical the song would be [sings dramatically] “He walks in the door, he doesn’t look at me.” Oh please. I think it works pretty good, I’m proud of the piece, I love the actors. We didn’t hire musical theater people, a lot of my actors couldn’t sing but they sure brought the moment, so it didn’t really matter. You go through workshops and these people have to get their mouths around the lyrics, so it taught me to write simply. It taught me to write with more objectivity. It’s tough for a narcissist to have objectivity.
You also happened to have a heart attack last year. How did the fallout from that affect you?
It didn’t at all, my bank account just went to zero [laughs], my numbers flatlined. That’s kind of what I’ve been dealing with since, actually. It was pretty serious — I still have post-traumatic stress from it, so it just makes me crazy.
When did you start working on the songs for Don’t Be a Stranger?
Like two years ago, right after Klamath, and then I did the musical. Then I had the health thing. I went to poor long-suffering [Merge Records founders] Laura [Balance] and Mac [McCaughan] with my horrible demos. I think Laura’s reply was [pityingly],“Oh Mark. Really?” Finally we got some money from a friend of my manager’s who won the lottery, he loaned us some money. And Merge liked it, God bless them, and they put it out.
A lot of your music is strongly identified with your former home of San Francisco, but now you’re living in L.A. What’s that like for you?
I don’t know yet, it’s hard to find friends, I don’t really have any in L.A. It’s hard because I get most of my inspiration by walking, and you can’t really walk in L.A. You can, but there’s no one there. In Silver Lake, when I go for a walk and go through the hills, I feel like there’s a fucking security camera following my head, because of all these rich people up there in nice houses. My boyfriend, he lives there, and you’ve gotta go where the love is, right?
Besides walking, where else do you find songwriting inspiration?
It’s kind of catch as catch can for me — sometimes there’s a line and I’ll follow it because there’s something in it. It depends, it’s like as soon as you know something, as soon as it’s not a mystery, then there’s no point. So for me, you can follow it and follow it until you find out what you’re trying to say. Usually it is just a line, or something you hear. Like, I was watching a documentary about the making of The Boys in the Band…there’s this one thing where Richard Harris turned to the [BitB] filmmaker and said, “You are not a serious man.” Damn, that’s great. I wrote it down in my notebook, “I am not a serious man.” Because I’m not! That’s one line, I definitely might go there – watch out, you’ll hear a song [called] “Serious Man.”
Who else’s music have you been listening to lately?
Right now I’m so fractured, and I hate music because it destroyed my life. There’s a few things. A friend of mine makes sound recordings — he travels all over the world and records shortwave radio music. He turned me on to this Russian guy, [Valentin] Silvestrov, and I listen to him nonstop. That’s mostly what I listen to. What else? Let me pull up my iTunes and I’ll tell you. Fionn Regan from Dublin, I think he’s pretty fucking amazing. Samuel Barber songs, Olivier Messiaen, Leonard Cohen of course, Toru Takemitsu of course — you know, that kind of shit. Anything that’s on UbuWeb. Judee Sill, she’s amazing. I tried to like Explosions in the Sky, that was a failure. Anything I read on Reddit I check it out, I usually hate it. The xx, I tried to like them so bad, but they suck.
At this point in my life I don’t know if I’m gonna make it past this year, I don’t see how I can live like this anymore. The heart attack basically destroyed what I had left [financially], so I’m kind of at my wit’s end.
I remember seeing you in the mid ‘90s outside of Brownies in New York, where Elliott Smith was opening up for you, and before the show you were standing outside telling everyone how much better he was than you.
He was — it’s undeniable. Also I was jealous as fuck, that’s the other thing. I love Elliott Smith. He was a sweet man. I didn’t know him that well, but he loved karaoke, I know that. I went to karaoke with him. I’m terrified of karaoke. He’s completely fearless; he’d cover anything… [He sang] some disco hit.
What’s your agenda after Don’t Be a Stranger comes out?
At this point in my life I don’t know if I’m gonna make it past this year, I don’t see how I can live like this anymore. The heart attack basically destroyed what I had left [financially], so I’m kind of at my wit’s end. I had to leave San Francisco — I’m living with my boyfriend. Until he kicks me out, that’s kind of my life now. I have to scramble to find a new way to live. I will be touring the end of November into December.
Well, people will always want to come out to hear you play.
Will they? I have my doubts. [Laughs.] Maybe they will.
Don’t Be A Stranger is out this week via Merge.