Saturday, April 05, 2008
Like his name, E (aka Mr. E, or, on the cover of his book Mark Oliver Everett) doesn’t waste words and clearly isn’t enraptured by the interview process. E effortlessly gives the impression he’s more at home when he’s actually at home or writing his vaguely therapeutic and frequently autobiographical songs rather than analysing his inner psychological workings, which in itself is probably paradise compared to trying to explain his new book Things the Grandchildren Should Know. "Yeah it turns out writing songs is a lot easier for me than writing a book," he sighs with mild exasperation. "It’s very different. For one reason, it’s just so exacting, it’s not like a song where there are all sorts of things to cushion the lyrics, and it’s just words and nothing else. I like to be as succinct as possible and that can be difficult. Another reason is that a lot of the subject matter was difficult to deal with." This is hardly news to any listener with even a passing knowledge of Eels’ material or E’s past.
Son of a renowned quantum physicist who he, at 19, found dead in his bed, with a sister whose suicide, and along with his mother’s death from cancer 18 months later, inspired his best known album Electro-Shock Blues. E clearly has a very listenable way of blending psychotherapy and songwriting. "I was in therapy for ten years." he expounds. "Songwriting is good, it definitely is very helpful, I ultimately don’t know how much it can solve for you, but it has been very therapeutic for me, and really...it saved my life."
Things the Grandchildren Should Know has already garnered overwhelmingly glowing reviews which E admits to finding very nice, words that definitely do not describe its two year gestation. "I’d go out to my guest house in the back yard at a certain time everyday, just sit there and try to write. And for the first time in my life I became a procrastinator because it was hard and I hated doing it so much. The only book that was an influence on my book was Ray Charles’ autobiography which I read when I was a teenager, Brother Ray. What really struck me when I was reading it was how it felt like he was just sitting there talking to you, person to person, just shooting it straight. I really appreciated that and I wanted to try to do my version. I wanted it to feel more spoken than written, as if I’m sitting at the kitchen table with you. ’As unpretentious as possible’, that was my goal."
Bleak self-referential subject matter is a common thread with E’s writing; could he ever run out of material exploring his experiences? "No. I’m not only interested in writing autobiographically, maybe about half of my music is autobiography-based, an awful lot of it isn’t and people often mistake stuff. It’s hard though, in terms of my life story; you don’t have a choice what’s there or what’s not there. I don’t have a limit as to what I reveal, though maybe that’s something I should think about." he says lightening up a little. Though E was raised to use humour as a way to communicate, it’s always been an essential part of his songwriting; the levity working wonders with the subject matter and making his live shows something particularly memorable. E doesn’t, however, feel obliged to live up to fans’ expectations in this department, "There is a time and place for everything, and as an artist I’m just trying to reflect life. Sometimes life is bitter sometimes it’s sweet sometimes it’s sad sometimes it’s funny and I’m trying to balance it all a little bit. Live, there is usually a combination of improvisation and...we do have little think tank meetings where we throw out ideas at each other. For every 100 ideas 99 of them are terrible, but then there’s that one great suggestion."
One suggestion that inadvertently comes up during our conversation is the passing comment that there is an Eels karaoke contest held on an Australian website. "Really!" He says, suddenly electrified. "Where? I didn’t know about this. I should go." When I tell him I came across this on Wikipedia he becomes blasé, "You can’t believe Wikipedia, anybody can write anything." Has he? "No. Can I? I should go and clean that shit up." The absence of an online Eels forum run by the band is, says E, down to their attitude toward band websites in general. "I think a lot of our website is designed to make fun of a typical rock star website. To me it just seems so outlandish that anyone cares what said rock star had for breakfast that morning, the blogs and everything, I think they’re hilarious - unintentionally hilarious - so we thought of just think ’we’re not taking ourselves that seriously’".
E’s work-rate is often commented upon as being pitched somewhere between rigorous and obsessive, and his list of collaborators is impressively vast. From his very first tour, in 1992, with Tori Amos via Peter Buck, Tom Waits, The Dust Brothers and John Parish to current padre Chet Atkins III. "There are always collaborations going on in the studio. I’m smart enough to know that it’s a good idea to surround myself with creative people, so when I’m recording a song I just try not to fix anything that’s not broken: ’Yep that’s working, let’s move on’. Sometimes the collaborations have a part in that decision, but usually the buck stops here." So who can we expect in his Australian tour? "You’ll never really know till you get there. I don’t even know. I’m just flying by the seat of my pants. I like to keep it that way, it keeps things creative. I do like to rehearse though; I like to be well oiled and practiced, but at the same time always keep space for improvisation."
With recent tour dates seeing a BBC-commissioned documentary about E researching his father’s work as a physicist standing in for a support band, its clear anything is possible. It’s this sense of openness E professes that makes me feel comfortable asking him some slightly random questions: How does someone become cool and witty? "Just read my book, it’ll help ya’." he shoots back. What is it that makes you laugh? "That last question was pretty funny." he says cracking up. What advice would you give to singer-songwriters trying to make it big? "That will be chapter seven of my book," deadpans E. Man you really do want to sell this book hey? "Yup." Honest to the last.