Mark Eitzel on America and its greatest Music Club
The biggest thrill of SXSW 2004 was, amid all the ho-hum reunion and comeback shows, seeing one in which the band sounded as vital as it had been the first time around: The reunited American Music Club was potent and affecting.
Now there's a new album, Love Songs for Patriots, which finds famously mopey songwriter Mark Eitzel trying out a happier worldview (the sad or angry songs are still far and away the best), and a chance for Central Texans to see the group as they swing through Austin. The bandleader spoke with us recently about the reunion and the State of the Union:
JD: You've gotten much more political lately. Was there a critical mass at some point for you?
ME: It was the invasion of Iraq, really. It was like: This is going to destroy Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security forever, and it's unnecessary, it's not about terror. I don't even know what it's about, to be honest with you. It's good on so many levels for them: it fulfills sort of a white-trash, `adopts Dubya-ish accent` "You tried to kill my father, I'm gonna kill your father" kind of thing; they can convert the American treasury and give it all to Halliburton.
JD: Lots of artists who are vocal about their political beliefs insist on keeping them out of the songs themselves. You don't have any qualms about working that stuff in?
ME: No, I don't think I have time for any qualms. I used to have qualms. It used to be hard for me to write anything that was remotely gay. As a gay person, when you write any kind of love song, it's a political song. You have to deal with people being grossed out in the crowd. For me that was really difficult, but now I have no problem with it.
JD: So you feel that over the years you reveal yourself more in your songs?
ME: No, I feel I reveal less of myself. Actually, I feel I write better songs. More positive.
JD: Does more positive mean better?
ME: Well, this whole election year is all about despair for the future. That's where fascism comes from - I hate to use that word, but that's where it comes from, despair. I don't want to buy into it. You have to believe in the future, you have to believe there's going to be a good future. Even though they're robbing us blind at this point.
JD: But optimism doesn't equal good art. Some your most impressive music is pretty bleak stuff.
ME: Right. I'm not really that optimistic. `Laughs` Or maybe I am - I don't know, maybe I'm making bad art, I have no idea. All I know is that what I'm doing, for me in my little world, is sort of something I can look back on and say, "Yeah, I was clearly saying what I was trying to say."
JD: Is it helpful for you personally to write a song that has a more optimistic vibe?
ME: Absolutely. I used to write songs like some people put cigarette butts out on their arms, you know? Now I try to write songs like big blue skies - even if they're dark and cloudy skies. `Laughs`
JD: So what was the impetus to get back together?
ME: I had already been recording an album in Chicago with a band I had there. But when I played with Tim and Danny, the bass player and drummer of American Music Club, I realized that it was going to be better making a record with them than my solo record.
JD: So these are the same songs that would have been on that solo record?
ME: I think I took about five of the songs from the solo album I was doing and brought them to American Music Club.
JD: How have things been different this time around?
ME: We're older and fatter. And we don't practice as much, because we don't live in the same city. Vudi drives a city bus in L.A., and Danny and Tim live about two hours north of San Francisco. I live in San Francisco.
ME: I think Vudi and his supervisor are bonding over a love of Motorhead and Slayer. So I want to personally thank Lemmy for this tour. `laughs` I hope it works out for Vudi; I don't want him to quit his job.
JD: The idea that a band of your stature would have to quit a day job and be in economic peril in order to tour...
ME: It's economic peril. America is a really lonely place for anybody who does any kind of art. We're fools for doing it this long. We're just idiots.
JD: You don't have to have a day job, right?
ME: Not yet. Next year - this year I'm okay, but next year... I mean, I closed out my retirement account to do American Music Club. So I'm like, shit, I'm fucked. But I love the band, I loved making this record.
JD: Is this the end for now of Mark Eitzel solo shows?
ME: It is sorta. I kind of hate them. I make more money doing solo shows, but I don't like doing it. I'd rather do it as a band.
JD: Is there less psychological pressure with a band?
ME: No. It's still scary being on stage, but I'd rather make a big rock 'n' roll noise. It's more fun. •
By John DeFore