American Music Club: ‘I’m An Ant’

Yup, Sultan of Sorrow and Mr Low Self-Opinion Mark Eitzel of American Music Club — arguably the most exquisitely miserable band on the planet — is now comparing himself to a creepy-crawly. Caitlin Moran hears the new album, San Francisco — their most commercial recording yet — and wonders whether a successful AMC might make Eitzel hate himself a bit less.

THE WEATHER FORECAST — RAIN

AND SO IN this season of suicide, this bleak half year filled with obituaries and souvenir supplements and endings, rather than vindications and proclamations and beginnings; where everything seems to be in sepia and black or white for fear of offending those in mourning; where we seem to exist in such accelerated times that fame barely gets up to the 15 minutes we were all allotted in the Sixties — when giving out and giving up stands for more than carrying on — in the midst of all this, American Music Club, the biggest losers on the block, self-styled kings of all that is lachrymose and luscious, release a relatively upbeat album, with pop tunes and rock tunes and all that kind of shit on it. And so to discuss the simple joys of life, to swap jokes and hang loose and generally drift easy on this most marvellous trip called Life, I invite Mark Eitzel and Vudi for tea and cakes at my house.

BING BONG

MARK HUSTLES himself through the front door like someone’s been following him here — he clutches his coat closed across his chest with one hand — the other hand is full with his battered guitar flight-case. Vudi floats in on a Martian air of “otherness” — still looking like someone who’s spent half their life underwater; or looking through overly-large telescopes at small moulds, spores and fungi. We sit down and dish out tea and chocolate things, and listen to the new Mary Chain album. Vudi sees my tickets to their album launch gig, and they both moan about how they’ll be out of the country when it’s on, and now much they love the Mary Chain. Things are cheery and bright. I’ve even remembered to ask politely if it’s OK to smoke.

So, Mark, the new album, San Francisco, is very different from all your others — it seems more upbeat. Has your life improved recently?

“Well, yeah,” Mark says, unwrapping the cake from its paper cup. He spills some on the floor; it has comedy value. We laugh. Things are going so well. “I moved house — I have a proper house now, with a garden and a tree. It’s very peaceful.” Yes. YES. Good news. “My old house was kinda depressing — I was living with these prostitutes and junkies. The whole atmosphere wasn’t exactly conducive for mirth-making.”

“Aw, you don’t want to talk about things like that,” Vudi says.

“Why not?” Mark retorts. “There’s so many things we do say that don’t get used. The press have a weird idea about what’s obscene. Like, I was talking to this guy from The Times today, and I just commented about how in that Carpenters song, ‘Goodbye To Love’, the closing bars seem ideal for a porn film. Y’know, the cum shot? Where she’s licking her lips, and it’s dripping down her chin. I’ve always thought The Carpenters should be used like that. But the guy from The Times seemed a little dubious; they might not let him use that. Is that the kind of thing they let you write in The Times?”

Uh, no. They don’t really like that kind of thing. But, at Melody Maker, we positively cry out for things like that. You’ll be in “Quotes of the Year” now, you know.

HAVING GONE through all my back-issues of The Maker, and all your clippings, the main thing I noticed is that Mark Eitzel seems to have been unofficially canonised sometime in 1990-1991. Ever after that point, he seems to be a beacon for super-human suffering and remorse; American Music Club albums seem to be a great Wailing Wall at which music journalists can beat their breasts, and write the kind of reviews they wanted to write about Tim Buckley but were unable to because he unfortunately died too soon. And he seems to take all that “Mark Eitzel is a Saint — a Saint of Sorrow” business to heart, and tries and prove people wrong by writing the meanest lyrics about himself that he can.

I ask Eitzel if this is a conscious thing.

“Well,” Mark sips his tea, “first of all, we’re all just ants, tiny ants trying to make nice patterns and organise things in some way. I’m an ant. Songwriters are two a penny — they’re the most overrated and over-produced commodity on this earth. All the stuff people write about me: I’m not a saint, I’m not a pop-star — I’m a pretty conservative guy. I have no chin, my hair’s disappearing and I’ve got kind of a belly thing going, I’m just an ant.”

You’re doing it again. Putting yourself down. You always seem over-keen to point out your faults.

“I don’t think I put myself down that much.”

Mark reaches for another cake.

You do. In the last minute, you’ve pointed out all your physical defects, run-down your songs and said you’re an ant.

“Yeah, but that’s in conversation.”

You do it in your songs. They seem to be full of self-loathing.

“They’re not.”

They are.

“Tell me one, then.”

“I’m an expert in all things that nature abhors/Your look of disgust when I touched your skin.”

“Well, uh… well…” Mark pauses for a minute.

“You’ve got to admit, you were feeling pretty shitty that day,” Vudi says, tucking into another cake.

“Well, first of all, that lyric isn’t entirely about me,” Mark says, slowly. “My songs can be about four or five different people. And I did wonder whether that line was a bit over the top or not. But if I’m harsh about myself, I’m harsh about other people as well. But I copped out to the lyrics about someone else on this album. I’ve never done that before. I copped out on a lot of things with this album.”

Mark looks anguished for a minute.

Which lyrics are these?

“It’s for ‘How Many Six Packs Does It Take To Change a Light Bulb?’ — the original lyric was ‘l never had a lot to bring to the party/But a self-importance far beyond vanity/And a manic depression that just wouldn’t go away/If I was empty inside no bullet would ever reach me.’ But we had an argument in the studio, and I changed the last line to ‘Like Sam Peckinpah with a bunch of poisoned ivy. I really wish I hadn’t. That line sucks.”

Who is the song about?

“A heroin addict. I feel that those people are empty inside — that nothing can reach them. And that’s a beautiful state to be in. But it’s also very selfish. It’s gotten to the point now where I can recognise addicts on the phone. They have over-weening confidence that all their demands should be met, and they get very pissy when they’re not.” Mark sighs. “But, to answer your question before, no, not all my songs are about me.”

What’s ‘It’s Your Birthday’ about? Birthdays?

“No, it’s about a couple I know — ‘she’ used to be a ‘he’.

Did the guy she was going out with know?

“Oh yeah. They were friends before they ever started going out.”

Do people ever get pissed off when you write about them?

“Yeah; Kathleen was pretty pissed off about ‘Kathleen’, but Jenny loved ‘Jenny’. But, after ‘Kathleen’, I learnt not to make it so obvious; like, uh, not naming the song after them or anything. That was a bit of a pointer.”

AMERICAN CORPORATE ROCK

AMERICAN MUSIC Club went on tour with Pearl Jam last year, at Eddie Vedder’s personal invitation. What was that like?

“Horrible. I mean, Eddie’s a nice guy and the whole band are a group of wonderful, wonderful people — it’s just their audience didn’t really take to us.” Mark sighs again. “They’d throw beer cans, money, bottles full of piss at us. The whole thing was immensely depressing. It wasn’t as bad as when we supported Smashing Pumpkins, though. We didn’t get a sound check because the band were ‘flying in’ from somewhere — the whole gig was terrible. We thought because it was the Smashing f***ing Pumpkins —” Mark utters their name with such venom it makes your teeth ache — “that we should play some of our rockier songs to win over their audience. None of our fans were there, they wouldn’t pay 30 dollars to see us for half an hour, they can see us for free every time we invade a bar someplace. But, yes, the audience hated us. I quit the band that night.”

“You’re always quitting the band,” Vudi says, eating more cake, calmly. “You quit the band every two weeks.”

“Well, I don’t think it’s necessary for me to go through those kind of conditions just to write songs.”

If you became very rich, would you quit the band for good?

“F***ing A-right I would,” Mark says, looking amazingly determined. “I’d be gone like a shot. I want this album to sell millions, so I can finally get out of all this crap l have to wade through.”

My pet theory, which I’ve bored everyone to death with, is that AMC’s career will work like R.E.M.’s — half-a-dozen critically wanked-over albums that sold two copies, and then people finally cotton onto the reviews, and the next album turns out to be the biggy —at which point MTV will have your children.

“Could be like that. I wish,” Mark says. “Virgin are right behind us — the video to ‘Wish The World Away’ cost a LOT of money. It’s set on a Baywatch kinda beach, with all the beautiful people running around looking gorgeous. And we’re standing under black umbrellas and looking gloomy. We like it a lot. Our vision was realised.” Mark grins, slightly embarrassed. American Music Club still aren’t used to talking about their expensive videos.

They haven’t had much practice in the past.

OOOOH, NASTY

VUDI, WHAT are Mark’s bad points?

Vudi looks momentarily startled, and then goes back to sipping tea and looking amused.

Vudi, what are Mark’s bad points?

“Oh, you wanted me to answer that? I just thought you were joking. We never talk about Mark’s bad points — they’re too obvious.”

 What are they, then?

“He’s egocentric —”

“Yeah,” says Mark. “Egocentric.”

“Sickeningly vain, and self-obsessed.”

“Self-obsessed. Yeah.”

“He suffers from cupidity.”

“Yeah. No, I don’t. Cupidity means greed.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Vudi says, rather indignantly.

“It means —”

“It means greed.”

“It doesn’t!”

“Bet me a dollar?”

“I’ll bet you a drink,” Vudi says. “I’m sure of this. Do you have a dictionary?”

Who, me? No, I’m a music journalist. I only need to know how to spell “dolphin”.

“Let me take over listing my faults,” Mark says. “I’m petty —”

“Yeah, like over the meaning of words,” Vudi interjects.

“I’m jealous…”

Jealous of who?

“Oh, everyone,” says Mark. “Anyone who’s better-looking, smarter, having a better time. All lead singers have definite traits. Singers are like tropical fish, very territorial, constantly moving, they think they’re pretty. They need to eat eight times their weight in compliments every day. I’m like that — a tropical fish or bird. Whereas, Vudi’s faults are weird. He’s very pernickety over details.”

“Like?” Vudi demands.

“Like telling me some of the new lyrics on the album suck. Vudi’s the only one who can tell me stuff like that.”

THE NEW ALBUM

IT’S CALLED San Francisco. It’s brilliant, as all American Music Club albums are — but in a different way from all the rest. This, as has been said before, has more pop and rock tunes. The lyrics are still as caustic and as introspective as before.

So was it a conscious decision to make their music more upbeat? Basically, are AMC purposely becoming more commercial in order to become fabulously wealthy?

“Well, this album has been a bit of a departure for us, as it’s the first that isn’t based on the major seventh chord, and it’s the first time we haven’t done everything in waltz time,” Vudi says, slowly.

Half the time, you get the impression Vudi just says things to wind Mark up. Mark then gets wound up, and declaims wildly on a variety of subjects for a couple of minutes, and then Vudi soothes him back down again. It’s a brilliant double-act.

Vudi, in the wind-up half of his routine, continues: “Mark is obsessed with waltz time. I keep telling him that, if you want to write pop songs, they come in 4/4 time now. If you want those big shiny platinum discs on the wall, you’re going to finish this obsession with 3/3 time. But he doesn’t listen. Well, he did on this album.”

What do you think the critics are going to make of the LP? It is radically different from your others — the fact you’ve been on tour with Pearl Jam kinda shows…

“I think if it sells loads, those good old platinum discs on the wall will do a lot to salve our ruffled egos,” Vudi says.

“lf it doesn’t sell, then we’ll have alienated all our music press supporters, and will rapidly die in poverty. Either way, it’s going to be fun.”

So, what are your plans for the future?

“Well,” Mark says — and it’s here that the overwhelming, subsuming gloom that one expects to encounter when interviewing American Music Club finally enters the room; here that hope jumps overboard and optimism starts swimming.

“Well, we’ve been working with…”

Where’s my Prozac?

“…Everything But The Girl.”

No!

“They’re really nice people. We might release a single together.”

Jesus.

LAST WORDS

AFTER ALL the talk of quitting the band, financial worries, lyric worries, hatred of the Smashing f***ing Pumpkins, and mother- f***ing EVERYTHING BUT THE F***ING GIRL, there is one crumb of solace for Mark Eitzel disciples. As he leaves, Eitzel mumbles in reply to something my flatmate says:

“I’m never gonna quit writing songs. How could I? It’s a question of whether the songs quit me. I’m not going to leave them. It’s what I do.”

© Caitlin MoranMelody Maker, 3 September 1994

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