Mark Eitzel fronted the American Music Club for ten years. Based out of San Francisco, the band carved a niche for themselves in the critical landscape of rock & roll; each record receiving more praise than the last. AMC could move smoothly from one musical genre to the next, and, in the course of any given record, touch upon country, folk, jazz, and rock & roll. This wide range of styles could have come across as musical dilettantism if each song had not been so firmly anchored by Eitzel’s singular voice.
But after a decade of working in a group setting, the songwriter decided to disband AMC in order to focus on his first solo record. The result, 60 Watt Silver Lining, is musically more cohesive than any of his recordings with his former band and has allowed Eitzel the freedom to explore different, less standard, songwriting forms. Songs like “Sacred Heart,” “Wild Sea,” and the devastating “Everything is Beautiful,” plumb lyrical territory familiar to fans of Eitzel, but the stories unfold in new and surprising ways.
I spoke to Mark as he prepared to leave for a brief tour of Europe.
Michael Kroll I’ve been listening to the new record, 60 Watt Silver Lining, and it seems like you’ve found a very particular place from which to write. There’s a consistent aural perspective, as if there was a particular physical space that you were trying to evoke.
Mark Eitzel Yeah, that place gives me a sense of reality, a sense of truth. It makes it easier for me. Because places have their own diseases floating around them, their own infections. Different bars have different scenes, you know.
MK Right. “Cleopatra Jones,” “Mission Rock Resort,” and “Some Bartenders Have The Gift of Pardon,” are all very clearly set in bars. It’s as if we’re listening in on somebody else’s conversation. You use that setup a lot. What makes that appealing to you, as a writer?
ME Well, I never thought of it. (laughter) It takes me out of it—maybe that would be the way to describe it.
MK There’s a feeling of artlessness to it. You’re not standing on a soapbox; it’s like we’re eavesdropping.
ME I don’t like things that are outwardly arty, I work really hard to avoid that. I was struggling with the line, “Wipe the smile off the face of oblivion,” and finally I was like, “Ooh. Forget it.” (laughter) Other people could sing that and be fine, it’s cool. But personally, things like that appall me.
MK You have to find your particular voice. When you’re writing, do you start with the actual physical sound of your voice?
ME Or somebody else’s. I write whatever comes out, and then try to give the weak lines a little depth. That’s when the voice comes in, when you try to find a colloquial way of saying something, but sometimes the words feel weird in your mouth, or weird on the page, like weak links in a chain. I always write pretty colloquially.
MK But you’re still dealing with the formal constraints of music and rhythm and fitting X number of words into a space. So that’s where the struggle comes, to try to make that seem colloquial within all those formal boundaries.
ME Others did it better. Look at the Beatles, they always went for the dumbest lyrics possible, and they always came off sounding like the voice of God.
MK (laughter) Was there a particular reason that you started writing?
ME I remember distinct episodes, like the first time I decided to write music for a very particular audience; my teacher, the guys in my class. That was exciting when it all came out.
MK As a writer, originally, I was so horrible at communicating my feelings in any other way that I thought the songs were the only outlet. Was it something along those lines, or just to entertain people?
ME It was because I wanted to be a rock star.
MK Of course. Who wouldn’t?
ME Who wouldn’t. Right. Other kids want to work with fire engines or fly airplanes. It’s very pedestrian, my life’s goal.
MK No one knows the glamour of driving in a van and moving your own gear.
ME Waiting around for hours and hours and hours.
MK In bars, where it’s too dark to do anything but drink.
ME Yeah, I’m getting fatter everyday.
MK Um…it’s always really annoying to be asked what you’re musical influences are, as if music is the only thing that could influence what you’re doing—
ME But what are they?
MK No, what I’m more interested in are the other influences, from other media.
ME Well, every other media…books, films—everything Scorcese has done up to The Age of Innocence — I watch a lot of TV. I like Paul Valéry, the writer, Georges Bataille, Rilke is a big influence. (pause) It’s hard to say, we’re so shaped by film and TV these days, to say that my songs are visual, it’s like the pot calling the kettle black. Everybody is visual these days. It’s our medium, our time. I’m not doing it consciously. I loved the movie Fearless. I have a fear of flying which is good for that one…Natasja Kinski could also be an influence. And actually, the Time Life Book of War, on World War II. That one totally changed my life.
MK That image in Time Life, that first shot of an American soldier, dead on the beach in the sand. That’s stunning. A life-changer right there. Absolutely.
Now, in the song “Sacred Heart,” there’s an uneasy balance between supreme self-confidence, in your ability to write, and at the same time, you write about self-doubt and self-loathing. How do you measure those things out as you’re writing? Have you struggled with trying to figure out that balance?
ME Nope. I don’t bother. I don’t care. I just write whatever I want to write. I don’t analyze anything too much. I’m really sick of this whole thing about how everything you do is subject to analysis. You’re not allowed to have any secrets. I mean, fuck that, you know? I’ve got a lot of secrets, especially to myself. That’s why I’ll never go to therapy, because I don’t want to know. So, I just write whatever I write. But if I’m writing about other people, I try to measure what I say, because I don’t want to be living vicariously through them, which is a tendency I have with everybody. That’s the only time I really have to balance what I do. Otherwise, whatever gets me excited—regardless of how good or bad it is. Recently, I wrote a song called, “If I Had a Gun,” and I was like, “Oh geez, that’s so corny to write about guns.” What am I channeling here? And am I watching too much daytime TV? Then I just thought, fuck it, so what? Just keep writing.
MK That first level of self-editor is so hard to turn off.
ME Exactly. It’s what you put in your own way. When someone has a political agenda, that always gets in the way of the songwriting for me—unless they’re writing really good love songs, and the politics come afterwards. Dylan wrote great political songs, but it’s only because he also wrote great love songs, and also because he was so adept at making people feel dignified in his songs.
MK When you have a political axe to grind, ambiguity goes out the window.
ME It really does, there’s nothing interesting in art unless it’s mysterious.
MK Unless there’s room for your audience to make the call themselves. You wrote “Saved” after seeing Barbara Streisand in concert. The first time I heard Frank Sinatra, heard him as a musician, I suddenly understood why he was Frank Sinatra. You touched on this before, the “fame thing.” People start expecting you to do things in a certain way. I imagine that leaving the American Music Club was a way for you to avoid that pitfall. Is that accurate?
ME Yeah it is. Yes! And on the Barbara Streisand thing, I was in love with somebody who liked Barbara Streisand as well, and then I got this letter from Polygram that said Barbara needed a song for her Christmas album. I thought, “Yeah, I don’t have a future, I may as well do this. What the fuck?” If I got one song on one of her b-sides, I’d make a million dollars. It’s kind of crass, really. But I went through the whole process. If I’m gonna write a song for somebody else, it’s gonna be fun for me to sing.
MK You play a lot with the form of the songs. Is that conscious, or just dictated by the story?
ME When I wrote “Sacred Heart” I thought, “I don’t want to do a chorus,” and yet I knew that if I had, it would have been a big pop song. Maybe I was just lazy. I do play with form a lot. On this album in particular, I decided not to push myself to make the song fit any format. With American Music Club, I was really conscious of making commercial records, because we had lots of salaries to pay. I was like, “We’re going to make a commercial record, we’re going to have hits, we going to give the radio a little intro time, we’re going to have a moment between the first chorus and the second verse.” Usually, I hate that. I like to start singing on the first note. I like things to happen quick. There was a lot of pressure from our producer to make it radio-friendly, and I’ll never do that again, as long as I live. With radio and MTV, you’re a fly caught in the spider’s web, and you’re doing striptease for the spider in order to allow you to live just a little bit longer.
MK And in the end, you just feel a little goofy. I used to have this pathological fear of the V Chord. It seems so obvious and gratuitous, in the same way you described the big chorus. Yeah, this new record of yours seems really interior. The feelings are not subdued, but there’s a sophistication.
ME Although in reality, it was like me inviting you into my home, which hasn’t been cleaned since 1974 and still has the cobwebs on the plants, and there’re 18 dogs barking in the next room. It’s like, “Welcome to my home.” And then I hand you a gun, and I have a gun…
MK And we just sit there staring at each other. We’ll see who moves first…. I also hear an early ’80s British vibe, as well.
MK And for every Burt Bacharach moment, there’s also a little Kurt Weill.
ME And Elvis Costello.
MK Have these things been lingering for a while, and now that you’re doing your own thing they’re finding a voice?
ME Maybe, or I’m just learning to write better songs. That’s my goal. I was interviewed on the radio in L.A., and they asked, “So, what are your future plans?” And I said, “Make a better record.” And there was this long pause, dead air. I felt bad, like I should have goals.
MK And I hope to run the 50 yard dash…
ME Yeah, I’m going to Tiananmen Square to clean up that mess, and then I’m going to Bosnia to sort them out. Then I’ll kill the Christian Coalition, make the defining statement on them. (laughter) Then, I’ll paint.
MK And then direct.
ME Of course.
MK Have you felt that people have tried to hang political agendas on you?
ME Not really. They wouldn’t get very far. (laughter)
MK A lot of people have pegged you with the down-in-the-mouth hopeless thing, which this new record didn’t strike me as at all. In some ways, it’s neither hopeful nor hopeless. It just represents moments. Are there particular moments that you’re drawn to?
ME Sure. Anything Rod McKuen is interested in, I’m interested in. I just wrote a song about him, he’s my new celebrity focus.
MK It’s important to have a celebrity focus. I was in a big Burt Lancaster thing for a while.
ME Yeah, Burt’s great. I guess he’s better than my celebrity focus.
MK I mean, Burt could walk in on some guy slapping Shirley Jones around, grab him and say, “Don’t you know that hurts?” Then throw him down a flight of stairs. You just can’t do those things anymore. (pause) So what keeps coming up in your songs are the moments after revelation, when you’re trying to explain it to somebody else.
ME Well, I could write about the moment of revelation, but it’s after the dust has settled…
MK Then you deal with the consequences.
ME It’s all post-money-shot.
MK The entire record is denouement. That’s probably where the hopeless thing comes from.
ME Yeah, it’s real corny when you get to this level, when you get religious about it.
MK It seems that you try to avoid the moments of grandiose drama. There are ways to make your life in rock & roll easier in the short term—writing that big chorus and making those big grandiose rock gestures. But you’ve eschewed them a fair amount.
ME It sucks after a while. I try to do them, but they have to be for real. Like when you watch The Who, that’s for real. Who does it now? Whenever I see Pearl Jam live it looks for real.
MK I’m always prone to believe most people when I see them.
ME I’m always prone to believe everybody I know.
MK Do you see yourself—
MK Giving up finally? No…do you see yourself eventually becoming inertial?
ME I already am.
MK That is the danger of the unstructured day. But in what direction do you want to push yourself now?
ME I’m going to take every opportunity that comes to me. I just did a film soundtrack with Bruce Kaphan, and I’m making another album in July.
MK Musically, are you going to keep pushing in this direction?
ME I don’t think there is a direction. My next album is going to be solo acoustic. I just want to write a good album before I die. Something great. I want to turn into Harry Parteh. That’s a goal. Harry Parteh, or Joni Mitchell, or Captain Beefheart—those are good people to turn into.
MK Absolutely. There are a lot of people who are fantastic naturals at one thing, natural singers, players…. Was that the case with you?
ME A natural? No. I still can’t play guitar to save my life, I can’t sing at all.
MK Well, I would disagree with that. But when things have not come entirely easily, there’s sometimes a different level of intensity. In listening to your music, the struggle is well represented. Not that it’s transparent, that it sounds like you’re struggling to sing or play, but that there’s a struggle to get by, to make it through some hard time. Sometimes when you’re confronted with an absolutely technically perfect voice, or a jaw-dropping solo…
ME I’ve met people who sing like that, and it’s sort of a burden. People who are too beautiful never understand what beauty is. I’ll never learn music. Everybody I know who knows everything about music, they can’t write their way out of a paper bag. Except for Bruce (Kaphan). He’s just a little word-befouled, but he can compose like a sonovabitch. That’s the hardest thing to learn in life, to be able to do everything, to expand beyond your own boundaries. That’s the idea. To realize how to go beyond your limitations, and to realize what it is to expand your own boundaries, and how to live.