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Thursday, 22 May 2014 09:25

'I decided to use myself as an experiment for the whole world because I didn't have any other purpose' An interview with Mark Oliver Everett of Eels

'I decided to use myself as an experiment for the whole world because I didn't have any other purpose' An interview with Mark Oliver Everett of Eels
Written by Robin Wheeler

A Facebook conversation about Eels' mastermind Mark Oliver Everett nailed the conundrum of the musician's career, spanning nearly 30 years with some of the most innovative and interesting music that formed the core of '90s alternative and indie rock in relative quiet:

Michael A.: How is he not the biggest indie rock star in the world? Seriously.
Bob M.: Pop audiences go nuts for albums about mothers with cancer.
Michael A.: Not to mention suicidal sisters.

Their assessment's not wrong. The band's new album, "The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett," focuses on the regret and hard lessons learned from a failed relationship. A quiet turn from their fuzzed-out distortion rock of recent years, the album has garnered praise and comparisons to Beck's "Sea Change" and Tom Waits' heart-laid-bare 1970s introspections. Like Beck and Waits, it's easy to take the album's surface sound and assume this is sad-sack music. That's not the case, as Everett -- who answers to the nickname E. -- crafts bits of smart humor and hints of joy and hopefulness into his work. He talked about what's good in his world during a break from his new tour, which comes to the Sheldon Concert Hall on May 23.

Robin Wheeler: We're so excited that you're finally coming back to St. Louis. It's been too long.

Mark Oliver Everett: I don't know why we haven't been there in so long. We just go where we're invited. You guys finally invited us back. I blame you.

Of course. We really are crappy hosts sometimes, but really, the door's always open for you.

Well now that I know that ...

The venue you're playing is great, and I know some fans have been wondering what kind of band set-up you're going to have in that space.

The last three or four tours have all been very rock oriented. It's been the same group of the five of us, but different flavors of rock from year to year. Now we're really mixing it up. It's the same group of guys, but we're really out of our element on this one. I think it'll be a very musical evening. Perhaps you can call it a gentleman's Eels concert to some degree. It won't be too formal. It'll still be a lot of fun.

The gentleman's Eels goes into what I want to talk about with you next. You've been so enigmatic throughout your career with different persona with each album. With this one, it's so much stripped bare and straightforward. What prompted that straightforwardness?

It came about very naturally from some of the experiences I went through. It occurred to me at some point that there could be an interesting musical version of it, but the only way to do it, in my mind, was to sacrifice my dignity to some extent, because the only way to present it was to be completely honest and transparent about it all. That's why I have my name and picture on the cover. The whole thing is very uncomfortable for me and I knew it would be, but I knew it was the only way to do it right.

I find it interesting that you've been so open in other parts of your life with publishing your autobiography ["Things the Grandchildren Should Know"] and with the documentary "Parallel Worlds Parallel Lives" [about E. and his father Hugh Everett III, a physicist who developed the theory of parallel universes]. Has that openness influenced this progression in your music?

I often try to figure out why I put myself through that. When I was younger I was just a completely lost cause. I really didn't have any hope or plans for the future. Music came along and just saved me. I guess I decided to use myself as an experiment for the whole world because I didn't have any other purpose. In the case of this record I think it's so far the ultimate example of using myself as an experiment. It's very strange for me because in my day-to-day life I'm not that open of a person, but I open it all up for this until it becomes this weird dichotomy in my life.

I've been listening to the new album and I'll admit I like the rock side more. I like loud. "Prizefighter" is my go-to Eels song ...

I feel like more often than not the opposite might be true, so it's nice to hear that. More often than not people seem to favor the softer stuff, but you never know.

I'm not surprised. I've noticed that. I was surprised by how the new album has grabbed me and forced me to sit down and listen instead of just going with that gut musical instinct.

It's a little bit of a tall order to expect people to give an album the kind of time this album takes to be understood and appreciated in this day and age, but I did it anyway.


I believed it was a worthwhile endeavor. I wouldn't have put it out except I believed that it offered something.

It definitely does. I made the mistake of trying to listen to it in my car the first few times ...

Well, that all depends on where you're driving to.

Yeah, driving around in traffic, no. I need to sit in my house in the dark so I can focus on this.

It might work with the lights on, too.

Sunlight's good. Sunlight was okay. I've been reading some of the press about the album and keep seeing you say that you want people to learn from your mistakes, flat-out saying it in the lyrics. Are these things people can learn through art instead of by making their own mistakes?

It certainly can't hurt. I didn't write these songs as a therapeutic thing for myself. I went through the experience and that was therapeutic for me. I decided to make a musical version of it because I thought people could get something out of it. It's also a good reminder of that stuff. At the least it can be a reminder to people.

I like that you say it wasn't for therapeutic purposes, because it definitely doesn't have that teeth-gnashing, gut-wrenching, "Here's my diary and my life is horrible" feel about it. It shows that you can have that level of honesty and still make something beautiful and presentable.

That's what I was hoping for.

So much of the press has focused on the misery and the breakup. I don't think a person who is truly one hundred percent miserable could orchestrate the rise in the last one-third of "Where I'm At" or the humming at the end of "Parallels". I hear these pockets of brightness and joy throughout the album.

If you look at everything we've done over the years it's always in the name of getting to a brighter place, but the only way to do that is to sift through all the dirt. This record is another example of that.

That's what's frustrated me with what I've read. I don't see the Eels as being a depressing band.

I don't either, but I'm so used to that, and that feeling of being misunderstood that it doesn't really phase me. It's a product of the times, really. People don't have the time to commit to fully understand some stuff.

It takes time, brain power and heart to get beyond, "This feels bad. This feels good," and finding that line that runs between.

There's a lot of shades of gray between black and white.

It takes a skilled artist to work in those shades of gray.

There's at least fifty shades of gray.

Oh yes. And some of them are really more dirt-shaded than others.


Okay, in talking about those shades of gray, what's good in your life right now?

What's good is playing with the guys in the band, being on tour and doing shows. That's really the best thing in my life right now.

How long have you been on the road?

We just started about a week ago. We've got a long way to go. It's a two and a half month tour, so we're just getting started. You're getting in early.

Is there anything you'd like to add about the album or the tour?

I think it's important to know that the new Eels album is an album for the whole family. Everyone should have their own copy so there's no fighting over it.

KDHX welcomes Eels to Sheldon Sessions at the Sheldon Concert Hall on May 23, 2014.

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