American Music Club: ‘Club for Zeroes’

AMC MAKE MUSIC for losers, loners, early-hour fuck-ups and late-night wasters. Perfect for us, really.

“Johnny looked at my songs and said, ‘Well, at first guess, never have I in my life seen such a mess. Why do you say everything as if you were a thief, like what you stole has no value, like what you preach is far from belief?'”
– AMC, ‘Johnny Mathis’ Feet’

This is Mark Eitzel, singing a storm against a backdrop of crashing Vegas strings. Typically, he’s swept away in a gorgeous melody of his own devising and, typically, his words are shot through with sorrow, self-loathing, wit, in thrall to the power of language.

Typically, Eitzel is unable to discuss it without copious amounts of hand-wringing, temple-massaging, his trademark waltz of self-deprecation.

A bit later, of the extraordinary Songs of Love album recorded at the Borderline and one of the most brutally passionate records ever made, he’ll tell me, “I can’t listen to it. It got reviewed in The Guardian as ‘tuneless bellowing’ and that’s what it was. Bellowing. Like a cow in a field.”

‘Johnny Mathis’ Feet’ is but one of 14 great reasons to own Mercury, the critically adored and commercially non-existent band’s sixth and best album. You read Paul Mathur laying on the accolades with a will and a large pewter trowel last week and quite right too. Right now, I’m with Mark and AMC guitarist Vudi in an interview suite in Virgin’s Ladbroke Grove offices.

Mark, though extremely agreeable company, is a difficult interview, often launching into illuminative anecdotes before cutting himself off out of some strange notion of politeness, or burying the whole thing in modesty, telling me I really don’t want to hear it.

Vudi, by way of contrast, spends half our hour stretched out on a couch, the other half wandering around the room. He has an odd miniature beard resembling a hirsute leech attached to his bottom lip, is otherwise pretty much bald and should probably have starred in Lost in Space.

As you join us, Mark is insisting, in his own quiet apologetic way, that his modesty is neither forced nor false.

“Well, it’s true” he starts. “In this country…I mean, I come here so infrequently, that when people do turn up and they know all the songs, it’s a little embarrassing. Because I’m used to crowds hating and I’m used to having to break through that. And then I play to people who love me and it’s like…hell, what do I do?”

Does this attitude extend to all praise?

“Only when it’s destructive…only when it doesn’t make me evolve, or when I feel like the person who’s saying it is not… sometimes it’s sort of anti-growth. I’m not talking about a fan who is, like, I-really-love-you-I-think-you’re-great because that’s what I do it for, and that’s really good. It’s the critical reviews where I’m, like, the angst-ridden genius and stuff, and the people who really like me like me because…well, you know [assumes hilarious awestruck expression], ‘As the feedback-drenched guitars shudder slowly to a stop, the mind begins to wonder how long can he continue…’.”

Don’t stop, you were doing wonderfully.

“Well, I know that in a year I’ll be getting the exact opposite. [Strikes pose of bored hack] ‘As the feedback-drenched guitars shudder slowly to a halt, we think, thank God. I was so bored’.”

So what you’re saying is you object to being – as you frequently have been – mythologized.

“Yeah, absolutely. It…no, wait. I don’t object, no. Whatever good press you get is fine, so I can’t complain. I can’t complain.”

The good press Eitzel gets invariably emphasizes the extremities of his songs, the way he lays himself bare every time. Live, especially solo, he can be almost impossible to watch, completely absorbed in his songs. The passing observer can end up feeling like he’s standing, pint in hand, at a Requiem mass for someone he didn’t know.

It’s sad that such intensity is regarded as a novelty – this surely says something about the rest of the static we pass off as art than it does about AMC – and sadder still that the inevitable reaction disquiets Mark so. Yet, for whatever reasons, the songs on Mercury find him more detached, observant, watching others fight and fall, rather than fielding dispatches from the front line. Whether starring in the hysterical airline horror short of ‘Challenger’ or inhabiting the skin of the lost souls that populate the rest of the record, Mark seems, more than ever, to be writing fiction.

“Yeah, I stopped drinking for about eight months – of course, I started again – but that made me a lot less self-absorbed. When you drink as much as I used to drink, you always think the world revolves around you. And I decided I had to write different kinds of songs, because what I wrote basically related to one person and the consumption of alcohol, and what can be said about that? Not much. So I changed. And thanks for noticing I changed, not many people have.”

You’re attracted to the same kinds of characters though, losers, wanderers, orphans.

“I’m gonna look like a complete fool in this interview” he announces, apropos of nothing. “What? Same kind of characters? I guess so. Because, I guess, vulnerability is what I like in people. You love people for their flaws more than their strengths. I guess there’s only one or two things I write about. I don’t know, like trying to speak to a higher strength…”

Given that Mark comforts himself perpetually with the bewildered air of a man quite unable to believe that anyone takes an interest, the stampede of major labels last year must have come as something of a shock.

“Yeah, I didn’t believe it until the contracts were signed, and I still don’t believe it. I think being bumped up to business class on Virgin was the first thing that made me think something was happening.”

And yet you’ve gone and made what is probably the least immediate AMC album of the lot. You didn’t feel burdened by the responsibility of having so many people’s time and money riding on it?

“Uh. For a while there I was thinking, ‘I’m gonna write pop songs, dammit’. And that was a big mistake. So I stopped, and went in the other direction. If I try to write anything in particular I think I fail miserably. So I just write what I have to write. And it seems as if the record company are happy enough with that. Though I did say the only changes I’d agree to make were elective facial hair surgery and a hair transplant. But nothing else.”

Just before I go, really none the wiser, I ask Mark if he ever gets any weird mail.

“Naw. Most of the ones I get – and I don’t get many – are, like, ‘I’ve never written a fan letter before and I’m really embarrassed about this, so ignore it. Bye.'”

I don’t believe him. Nor should you. But I believe in him and it’s high time there were more of us.

© Andrew MuellerMelody Maker, 27 March 1993

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