Big stars toast themselves with fine, leathery pinot noir and take care to report its soft notes of self-effacement. Big talents slam ripple, belch self-loathing and keep toiling. Mark Eitzel, founder and songwriter of American Music Club, isn't a big star, and he'd rather smash a bottle of the cheap stuff over your head than talk about what constitutes big talent. In American song's gray fiefdom of beautiful losers, Eitzel could have been king. Instead, he's a pied piper singing to rats. Here's to him.
A personal example of the man's nature: In 1997, Eitzel pressed 500 copies of Lover's Leap U.S.A., a set of desolate works in progress centered on glacial loops and muted longing. He sold it on tour (but didn't come to Kansas City), then got rid of the rest — "The first two songs are really awful," the cardboard sleeve warned — by mail order for $12 each. Not wanting to miss out, I concealed a $10 bill and a five in an appreciative note and sent the envelope to an American post office box. A couple of weeks later, the disc arrived with a scribbled reply — only the word headphones and the signature were legible — and $3. Eitzel thought I had overpaid.
Eleven years later, with his band two albums into a return launched in 2004, Eitzel might be less likely to offer a rebate. A foundering music industry and the high cost of touring make overhead a pressing concern for 49-year-old cult heroes. Genius alone doesn't pay the rent or cover daytime minutes for an interview about American Music Club's long spring tour and haunting new album, The Golden Age.
The Pitch: You've rerecorded songs and issued demos and different versions. When are you satisfied?
I'm never satisfied. The current band [with original guitarist Mark "Vudi" Pankler and new rhythm section Sean Hoffman and Steve Didelot], we just did a European tour, and I wish we were going into the studio now. We play these songs better now than we do on the record. You work out lyrical things. Why didn't I fucking think of that when I was writing it? Fuck. The way the band is right now, we're a really great band. We kill. We're kind of unstoppable live.
You have a reputation for being unpredictable and irritable onstage.
When I'm onstage, I get distracted by people. I have the light man shine the light in my eyes so I can't see the audience. The crowd sometimes wants you to cut your wrist open with a blade, and you don't want to do that: Oh, my God, do I really have to go this far tonight? I never really resent the crowd, but it really is a painful experience to sing these songs sometimes. I'm trying not to write "down" songs so much. It would be disingenuous for me to write bleak, dark songs now.
For someone whose song publishing company is called "I Failed in Life Music," writing upbeat songs is what almost sounds disingenuous.
I'm really sick of self-loathing and self-pity. When you sing those songs and you're young and handsome and vital, you've got an out. You're just presenting a pop song. When you're old and sickly and you take things seriously, as you have to, it gets, like, do you really want to shut yourself in a dark room without a way out? Every time I write something bleak, it is kind of disingenuous. I do it because that's what American Music Club does. A lot of people love the masochistic sort of darkness in the music. My clients aren't necessarily unhappy. The woman in "The Grand Duchess of San Francisco" [from The Golden Age] could give a shit about us.
You call your subjects clients? The duchess — that's a real person?
Oh, fuck yeah.
Speaking of characters, Vudi drives a bus in Los Angeles. Have you ever ridden it?
He's always trying to get me to ride the bus. He's one of the few white drivers who wants to go down to Compton five times a day. His passengers are good people, people going to work.
Why head for daylight now? Age? Maturity?
There's a few reasons. It's a series of things. We opened for Spoon. I love them — they're good people, and I love their music — but the fans were entitled little pricks. Maybe I'm being a cranky old man. I like dirty people who are cranky and a little shy. My problem with success is that I despise the general population. I went to this emo show in San Francisco, and it was ... these beautiful teenage kids. Bland pricks. It's a little fascist. I was in Los Angeles once, and there was this collection of three young people with the latest gear and the latest haircuts, and they looked me up and down and looked away immediately, and I was like, "Right on." That's my trouble — I look in people's faces. Maybe it's the gloom I'm putting out. I don't see a lot of joy in people. There's a lot of joy in people's hearts, though. I used to think country singers were idiots because they sang these down songs with smiles on their faces. You ameliorate yourself in a vision of the miserabilist. It's a PR disaster.
You were a punk.
I was a punk at 18. It makes you happy to challenge yourself and see yourself as a freak. Any kind of creative person, there's always a problem with you and the other, you and the world outside. As a musician, you have to decide all the time to say, "Get out of my way. You're in my fucking way." But if you're sensitive and you're open, it's kind of fucked up. I've got no one to blame but myself. I should have never played dark music. I used to really love Jonathan Richman. He changed after doing two of the most perfect albums ever — The Modern Lovers and The Original Modern Lovers — and then he said, "Those were too dark. I'm going to write about snowmen." He's a fucking genius for that. I didn't like those songs, though.
Do you like those songs better now?
What about all the years you've spent being publicly down on yourself?
Never be self-effacing. No one understands it. It was always a complete joke. I did an interview with an online magazine and played a song for the camera. I did the whole thing. Nice man did the interview. He did a really great job. I think at one point I said, off the cuff, "I know basically I suck, but this song is blah, blah, blah." And, of course, the headline was that I think I suck.
What's your best quality?
It's my legs and my eyes. Really. I've got gams. Please.