MARK EITZEL, OF American Music Club, a self proclaimed ‘fuckin mess’, a man who’s spoken before of being ‘doomed to sing’ and living in terror of the cruel, clear blue skies of San Francisco, is writing some of the most bereft and orphaned songs in America today.
AMC’s recent and highly hailed album California shows their forte to be a kind of delicate devastation, slow songs with an oppressive sense of luminous expanse, the perfect backdrop for tales of homelessness, of having nothing to tie you to the world, of being trapped in space.
Maybe Eitzel’s sense of shiftless drift, his search in vain for a ‘last harbour’, stems from a childhood of enforced nomadism, being dragged across the globe in the wake of his fathers military career, of perpetual estrangement from places. Maybe it’s just what the American experience is all about.
Eitzel and guitarist Dan Pearson are over here to do interviews and do sessions in the fortnight before some UK dates. The singer is jetlagged and suffering from a nasty fungal infection in his mouth, and so even more ill-at-ease than normal. But he talks compulsively, despite the pain, only stopping now and again to seize up with embarrassment and self loathing, or apologise for talking too much.
“It’s to follow on from having the worst band name in rock history. We’ve got the A-word, the M-word and the C-word. It’s like this really stupid, bombastic name, like we’re the Voice of America.”
Oh. My idea was that “California” has long been the best hope of a new beginning for disillusioned Americans, the last frontier, a final chance at the dream.
Dan: “People still move to California to get away from somewhere else. I’m a native Californian and I remember my school teacher asking the class how many kids were born in the state. There were only two.”
The songs all seem to have reached a bitter end, an aftermath of terrifying stillness, where there’s nothing but the intolerable lucidity of the depths of despair. Are they all about points you’ve reached, or are they shipwrecked characters you’ve imagined?
“It’s always me but I’m a whole world of characters, y’know. But stillness and clarity, that’s a big part of it, how low can you go… and I like those bones clean… every song’s a true story more or less. I once read an interview with Elvis Costello – who I really like, or rather who I used to really like, until I decides he was nothing but a good jeweller, building these lovely clockwork precision pieces that are beautiful and make so much sense, but his own soul is somewhere next to it, not right there. It’s in there but it’s hidden pretty deep. And he laminates his soul…”
“Anyway I read this interview with him at a time when I was trying to be just like him, a rhyme in every line, and he said ‘I never write from my journal, that would be totally pitiful’. And I was horrorstruck, because that’s all I ever did. But I think I owe it to the truth. I started writing songs when I was 14 and I decided then that I would always write in the first person. It’s so people can say ‘So, you’re the asshole, you’re the jerk’. And it’s like in a movie, when the camera is your viewpoint, it’s so much more frightening, like those scenes in Evil Dead when you’re seeing through the monsters eyes.
“When the evil woman looks up through the floorboards, you have her perspective, and that’s horrifying. I mean, I hate that movie. Because of that, I made them turn it off. This is making you evil! This is killing your soul! Why don’t you go do something wholesome, like cocaine, you asshole! ‘
“But the songs are all pretty personal. A lot of them are about my ex-girlfriend. She still goes through a lot of shit with people coming up to her saying ‘How do you like all these songs being about you?’
“Some songs aren’t autobiographical. The new one ‘Chanel No 5’ is a real crass attempt to… it’s about this hooker.
“Everyday I see some woman on my street who’s been beat up real bad, and this lady across the hall who keeps passing out before she can get her key in the lock. And you come back late and she’s screaming down the phone, and you can hear it cos she keeps her door propped open with her fire alarm and she’s screaming down the phone. ‘Do something! Damn you, do something! I hate you, I wanna die…’ That kind of thing. And very crassly, I think ‘Oh, I’ll write a song about this’.
“Usually I write in the first person, but now, because of Elvis Costello, I’m certain I should write about other people and their lives. That little edge of phoney voyeurism helps. Maybe.”
The name American Music Club almost suggets a stance…
“I picked the name at a point when the only music on the radio was from Australia and England. The new pop thing started in England and was so well packaged that by the time America caught on it was , like, mega-packaged, and the Americans love nothing more than a good advertising campaign. I wanted to distance myself from all that. I just thought it was a bad name and the band would last six months and split. But they didn’t. We have a new name now, The Oppressors, cos that’s what we do to the audience.
“I don’t see what I do as packageable, and looking at America, I see that’s what you have to have to get anywhere. I saw the Hoodoo Gurus, and they’re great, they’re the best rock band I’ve seen in my whole life, in all my lives. But we don’t want to do that. Even crowds expect the show to sound as good as the record. Bullshit! I think the band has to sound 3000 times worse than the goddamn record, and the audience has to give the band the chance to sound human.
“In America, you soon notice that there seem to be two kinds of people. There are the confident, assertive, walk-tall kind for whom the American Dream is working. And then there are the people who sit on the bus looking beat, they can’t work out what went wrong, how the Dream passed them by, and they put the blame on themselves, and they’re crushed by the shame of being poor.
“But the confident ones who order waiters around, they get on the bus and look beat as well. I lived in the East Side of Columbus, Ohio, which is all shopping malls and suburbia, and those people have everything, but they’re the most miserable people on earth. They live, work and shop there. None of them could even tell you they’re discontented, they don’t know what else there is to want, they have all the things they’re supposed to want.
“I’m definately not political, but that’s the thing about capitalism. The whole thing is you have desires and needs and you’re supposed to be able to fill them, but you never can. You can’t fulfil needs. Not with anything you can buy. I do see America like that sometimes, an enourmous black hole, a desert. That’s why I live in a safe haven like San Francisco.
“Maybe America is so restless because there is so much of it that people can always kid themselves that the reason they’re unhappy is that they’re not in the right place. The USA has never had a tradition of class-based politics because when things are bad, people just move on somewhere else, they don’t stay put long enough to develop any solidarity in struggle.
“But if you travel around, everywhere else looks like everywhere else. I can’t tell the difference between Kansas and Missouri. It’s all the same K-Marts, all the same Kentucky Fried. The only real cultural excuse to move on is to move on to a higher paid job.”
It seems that disaffection in America, lacking an outlet in organised rage, just cause wanderlust, or festers inward, perhaps to erupt later in solitary extremism (like the neo-Nazi who gunned down the Vietnamese kids).
“Well if you’re political in America, all you wanna do is stick your head down the toilet and play with the turds, y’know. That sounds like I’m putting America down. There’s still no other place in the world I wanna live. I’m critical of it but there’s no other place I wanna be. I couldn’t imagine writing about anything else.”
Can you imagine how you’d like it to change?
“Oh I can but I wouldn’t want to, wouldn’t presume to. It’s so polarised, why would I want to change it? It’s not my role.”
Don’t you ever feel voyeuristic, watching all this insanity, without ever diving into it?
“That woman on the bus wanted to get out her six pack out and stop the bus and get bombed. She said ‘Let’s stop the bus and do it’. But I was too embarrassed, this woman was already bombed and she would have gone up and stopped the bus. And I’m an asshole for being embarrassed, cos it would have been beautiful. So I wrote a song about it. What a jerk! I should have lived this poem instead of writing it.”
Do you have a strong sense of destiny for AMC?
“Oh no, it’s like, if we last this tour…”
Dan: “It’s like that every month. There’s always a really big ‘if’. It’s always ready to break down every moment. What keeps it together is everybodys frailness rather than any dream.”
One song has the line: “I’m tired of being a spokesman for every tired thing/There’s nothing in the world outside/Just some things I see from the side.” Have you ever wanted to write a song of simple joy-in-things?
“I do songs like that but they have the shelf life of exactly one minute. They don’t matter to me. Why would I ever want to write a song about something that wasn’t beautifully sad? I’m not even necessarily sad when I write them, they’re just things I dwell on. I’m morbid, I admit. And I have had recent experiences that are bad. Things are better now, so I’m writing things that are to help people from slipping down into it. And I guess I always have been a loser.
“I’ve just always liked sad songs. The Replacements. Nick Drake. Joy Division. Country music. You could play ‘Stand By Your Man’ next to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, they’re speaking the same language and they’re speaking to me”.
American Music Club are strung out on that line between George Jones and Joy Division. Teeter with them.
© Simon Reynolds, Melody Maker, 25 March 1989