Q&A with American Music Club

“EIGHT MONTHS AGO nobody would pee on us,” says Mark Eitzel, singer, songwriter and acoustic guitarist for San Francisco’s American Music Club. “And now people are walking up to me and saying, ‘Hey rock star.'”

He sits in a downstairs dressing room at, appropriately enough, the Great American Music Hall sipping a glass of red wine. With a black porkpie hat set atop his balding head, a mustache and goatee giving his face a slightly demonic look, a not-particularly fashionable, ill-fitting black suit hung on his skinny frame, Eitzel looks like a down-on-his-luck character out of a Damon Runyon short story.

“I feel it. We’re successful,” says Eitzel, who in years past called San Francisco’s seedy Tenderloin district home. “Even though we haven’t toured, we haven’t got any more new fans or sold any more records, but still it feels different.”

Success? For the American Music Club? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?

For over ten years this San Francisco band has inhabited the rock underground, recording stubbornly uncommercial albums, performing to hip insiders and bar stool regulars at local nightspots like the Hotel Utah. From a far South of Market vantage point they’ve watched as a litany of hip San Francisco rockers – Chris Isaak, Faith No More, the Sextants, Jellyfish, Sister Double Happiness, and on and on – got a grab at stardom’s brass ring.

Now, finally, it’s the American Music Club’s turn.

What Eitzel “feels” is the glow of, finally, being picked for a winner. Last year the group was signed to not one but two major record companies. In the US they did a deal with Time Warner’s Reprise label, once home to Frank Sinatra. For the rest of the world, they now record for Virgin, whose higher profile stars include Janet Jackson and the Rolling Stones.

From the striking black and white photo of ancient, decaying ruins they used on the cover of Mercury, to the mind-blowing music inside it’s clear that the American Music Club is making the most of their opportunity. Almost in disbelief, the group’s lead guitarist, who goes by the name Vudi, says, “You have one of the largest media conglomerates in the world [Time Warner] recognizing that maybe they can make a buck off you.”

On a weekday afternoon, Eitzel, Vudi and their band mates – bassist Dan Pearson, drummer Tim Mooney, and pedal steel guitarist Bruce Kaplan – have taken over this San Francisco club to film a $20,000 video for ‘Over and Done’, a song off Mercury that they hope will be aired on MTV.

If there is any justice, MTV will rise to the occasion. For the American Music Club are a stunning band, the best thing to rise out of the San Francisco underground in years. They are quirky, eccentric and resolutely bohemian. At the group’s center is Eitzel, 36, a true oddball who has embarrassed himself in years past both on stage doing alcohol-fuelled Iggy Pop imitations, and in print. “I don’t like having a reputation for being an asshole…”, he told one reporter, but then added, “I am an asshole.”

Asked what Eitzel, who at one point during this interview absently reached into his coat pocket, removed a pair of scissors and began opening and closing them, is really like, Vudi simply says, “The dude’s way sensitive.”

“Mark sees something horrible and he can’t just turn his face away from it,” adds Pearson. “That’s kind of what this band is about. Looking for a long time at something really bad that’s happening on the street.”

The American Music Club make a dark, atmospheric music that sounds a million miles away from its rock, folk and country roots. Electric guitars wheeze and moan through their songs, along with the occasional dreamy piano and gentle strum of an old mandolin. Odd rhythms drive some of their newer material. The songs often have the unpredictable dynamics of a jazz combo jamming, a jazz combo with, say, Tom Waits at it’s helm.

It’s decidedly downbeat music, and it’s just the right setting for the hard-luck stories and sad confessions of Eitzel songs with titles like ‘I’ve Been a Mess Since You’ve Been Gone’.

Eitzel comes across, both in song and in person, as a kind of beautiful loser. His voice, idiosyncratic, intense and effectual, is an acquired taste. But one well worth acquiring. He writes with dead-on accuracy about the desperation and loneliness of American life. In other words, he writes sensitively, knowingly of the human condition. “I don’t know if I’ve reached the bottom yet,” he confides in ‘If I Had a Hammer’. “Somewhere along the line I passed the point of no return.”

So far, the group’s fans may be few, but they are fiercely committed. “The music that Mark writes helps them through crisis and trauma,” explains Vudi.

“I think everybody is desperate always,” says Eitzel. “And I think everybody is reaching. Everybody wants something transcendent. But a lot of what normal behaviour is, is people not feeling and not experiencing and not living. And a lot of real joy is stifled because it’s too extreme and a lot of real passion is stifled because it’s frightening.”

Almost from their start, rock critics have loved the American Music Club. For eight years – from the release of American Music Club’s first album, 1985’s The Restless Stranger through their fifth, 1991’s Everclear – reviewers have raved about the group, while singling out Eitzel for extra praise. England’s Melody Maker called Eitzel “one of the greatest living songwriters…” The Village Voice compared him to Steinbeck. The San Francisco Chronicle rock critic Joel Selvin has described Eitzel as a “combination of Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison and Bono.”

Over the year’s the group, whose previous albums have been released on obscure independent labels like Grifter and Frontier, has accumulated a stack of glowing reviews and profiles several inches thick. Rolling Stone magazine’s critics voted Eitzel 1991’s songwriter of the year, and picked Everclear, as one of that year’s five best albums, alongside the work of such major stars as R.E.M., U2 and Nirvana.

Yet for all the praise, Everclear sold a meager 22,000 copies worldwide. Until recently, all the band members held down day jobs. You could find Eitzel working as a page in the main branch of the public library more often than you could see his group perform.

“We’ve run up against a lot of adversity,” says Dan Pearson. “When we’ve gone on tour before we’ll play a place with five people and two of those people have no idea why we’re there.”

“Or why they’re there,” grins Vudi.

“I remember we were somewhere in Germany and we found out about the Rolling Stone poll,” says Eitzel. “It made me feel really good. But for the next show there were about 20 people in the audience. And they were army guys and they thought American Music Club were some righteous American freedom-fighting, cool ass Springsteen-influenced Guns N’ Roses kind of guys. And we did not rock.”

“They didn’t know we’d made ‘one of the best records of the year’ and he was the ‘best songwriter,'” adds bassist Tim Mooney.

“They couldn’t give a fuck about that shit,” says Eitzel. “And they certainly didn’t agree.”

Group members say Eitzel has quit the band on a number of occasions. Still, a year and a half ago, Eitzel sounded ready to pack it in. He told this writer that his band had just hired new management, but if the guys couldn’t get them signed to a major label, the group would break up.

“We decided we wouldn’t make another record with an indie,” Eitzel now says. “We were sick of not being able to pay rent when we come back from touring. To be broke all the time and know that your albums will never be distributed properly because the majors have a monopoly on distribution.”

So what happened? Eitzel looks over at Mooney and Pearson. “We got lucky.”

At first, the group’s managers, Wally Brill and Ross Schwartz, couldn’t get a single American major label interested. “They basically all said, ‘This is maybe the most brilliant act we’ve seen in years, but we don’t know what to do with them,'” recalled Schwartz. “We got passes everywhere.”

In Europe, where the group has toured repeatedly, Virgin Records began discussing a deal. And then, back in the USA, the group finally got a break. “The crack in the dam came when a guy at Giant Records convinced [company president] Irving Azoff to have a real listen,” said Schwartz. “Then all those other companies, knowing somebody else was willing to take gamble, started coming to the party like dominoes.”

In the fall of 1991, in an extremely untypical move, the managers signed the group to both Reprise and Virgin, and for the members of the American Music Club, for the first time in many years life began to take on a rosy patina. “It’s a whole different ball game when so much money is involved,” admits Eitzel.

Still, as many rockers who have come before him have discovered, the possibility of success can be even more daunting than failure. About a year and a half ago, Eitzel, infamous for heavy drinking, both on and off the stage, went cold turkey. In interviews to promote Everclear he declared that sans alcohol, “life is so much better.”

So seeing him with a glass of wine came as a bit of a shock. “I stayed on that for eight months and then I started drinking again,” he says, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. “It changed my life. It was the best thing I ever did. It was a really good thing. I’ll do it again one day. But not right now.”

Why’d he start drinking again? “I don’t know,” he says defensively. “What do you think? I’m an alcoholic. You stop drinking ’cause it stops working for you. It’s a drug that stops working for you. Well, I needed some drug. Some legal drug. That’s why.” The subject, clearly, is closed.

Advances from the record deals have allowed all of the band members to quit their day jobs, but no one is living in high style. “People in the band are earning about as much as a clerk makes,” says Eitzel.

The band members say they’re all ambitious, and will not be unhappy if their music brings them financial rewards. But they insist that’s beside the point, and make sarcastic remarks about the unlikelihood of getting their music on the radio, or finding a mass audience.

“I started doing music to change my life, to grow,” says Eitzel, who played in a Columbus, Ohio punk band called Naked Skinnies before putting together an early version of American Music Club at the dawn of the ’80s.

“You put yourself on the line and it changes you and you move forward, or at least something happens,” Eitzel continues. “That’s why I like it. You’re always putting it on the line.”

As focal point for the group, Eitzel is the one the media always want to interview. “It’s becoming really intrusive,” Eitzel says. “Finding free time to write and be a normal person. I need three or four months to do nothing and get some good TV going and write songs. It’s really hard to get that time now cause you’re always promoting yourself or talking about what you do to people. Or you’re on the phone to the lawyer or one of the two managers or the business manager. And then your friends, who never see you because you’re always away, want to hang out and you never have time and it becomes…”

He stares down at the floor, sounding temporarily defeated. “I don’t know, everything’s different. In England we did two weeks solid of nothing but interviews…”

He catches himself, perhaps realizing that to many people the idea of an expense paid trip to England where all you have to do is talk about yourself sounds pretty nice. “Yeah, it sounds really great and I do like it,” he concedes. “But it’s making me really blaze and there’s nothing more disgusting than somebody who’s blaze. It’s like somebody who’s overfed.”

© Michael GoldbergAddicted To Noise, November 1993

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