The Golden Age of American Music Club

MARK EITZEL sounds very chipper – not at all the lugubrious character that comes across in his songs. With the release of American Music Club’s ninth album, the flawless The Golden Age, he’s grateful for the good fortune of still being able to make music in his forties. “In dog years you add seven, right? In lead vocalist years I’m, like … five thousand years old!”

He laughs a lot, does Eitzel, mostly at himself. He does a neat line in self-deprecation. But don’t be fooled – the shadow’s never far away. “I’m a miserable prick,” he assures me. It’s just that misery, an underrated and unavoidable feature in a world gone wrong, has, in his case, been equalised by a capacity to embrace the light.

“I don’t really go see bands that make me miserable anymore. I used to – I used to be that band! Nowadays I just don’t know if there’s time for that. I remember once I was driving to Zagreb with a friend and he played me an old song of mine, off 60 Watt Silver Liningcalled ‘Wild Sea’. I listened to about ten seconds of it and I said, ‘No, I will never, ever do that, and I will never listen to that kind of music’. It just really hit me. I was like … ‘I hate this’. I used to think that if I just enter into the moment and kind of become the song, it will have a certain electricity that will translate through the listener and that would be magic. But now the kinds of things I like are not like that. I’m a little embarrassed by things like that.

“I don’t want to be in an audience and the band on stage kind of hates me, or they’re singing super-aggressive music that isn’t beautiful. I’ve gotten a little choosey, I think. I don’t think there’s any time for art without some humour or some love in it.”

Which is why, ladies and gentlemen, the young Master Eitzel became disenchanted with progressive rock. Yes, progressive rock – the most pompous, self-absorbed, ridiculous member of the rock family. A teenage Eitzel, then living in Southampton, recalls the night his infatuation with the bloated genre reached its denouement.

“I had an apotheosis at a Supertramp concert. That really began my whole songwriting idea. I had a date. I bought this girl a ticket and she never showed up. So I sat there with an empty seat next to me, knowing that I would have to hitchhike home after the show – a long hitchhike at 11.30 at night across the New Forest. Joan Armatrading was the opening act and she was warm and friendly and beautiful, and all her songs were like, yeah. And then Supertramp came on and every single song was about how fucked up I was. I just left the theatre hating them with every inch of my life. And then punk rock happened a couple of months later. Supertramp basically made me hate all progressive rock. You don’t want to hear music that hates you.”

Hang on, backtrack a little – Southampton? “Yeah, my dad was in the army and we moved there in 1972 when I was a kid, and stayed until 1979. I have pretty great memories. Southampton’s beautiful in its own fucked-up, ugly way.”

Fast-forward to the present and Eitzel now calls San Francisco home – corny line, admittedly, but it’s where his heart is. “San Francisco’s like an old cat – it’s beautiful, it could die at any moment and it’s randomly crotchety. There’s still this fucked-up magic to it.” A metropolitan sanctuary from the Christian fundamentalist, right wing extremist, warmongering, empire-building lunacy of George W Bush’s America. Don’t get Eitzel started on what the cowboy messiah’s done to the land of the free.

“Is it possible to be happy in America? It is if you’re the one per cent that’s super rich and that own ninety per cent of the country. Then everything is fine. You can have healthcare and all kinds of amazing things that the rest of us can’t have. It’s great if you’re one of Bush’s friends profiting from the war in Iraq.

“Bush has replaced every single part of government with his own people. For instance, that whole [Alberto] Gonzalez travesty, the man in charge of justice [he was Bush’s Attorney General until his 2007 resignation]. One of the big things he did was that he replaced all these black lawyers, who worked in the civil rights branch of the Justice Department, with neo-con white lawyers that hate the idea of racial equality, any equality, period; equality is something you leave up to the market. And the market is fuelled by people who believe that human beings are selfish and irrational. That’s horrifying.”

Well, the American people have an opportunity to replace the Bush cartel in November’s presidential election. Which of the contenders does Eitzel regard as the one most likely to undo the damage caused by Dubya and his power hungry cronies?

“Fuck ’em. Fuck ’em all. I don’t have any faith. When Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House [of Congress], I was full of pride because she’s from San Francisco. But then she got elected and she never tried to put these fuckers in jail where they belong. And she has given Bush every bit of funding he wanted for this stupid war. This is the richest Congress we’ve ever had. All these people are in the super-rich category. None of them have ever ridden a bus. None of them have ever ridden a train. None of them have ever walked down my fucking street. None of them have ever come in contact with the American people they’re supposed to be representing. They live in a bubble of the rich.”

The rot set in on September 11, according to Eitzel. That was the beginning of the end of the world, a sentiment expressed on ‘Windows On The World’, a track on The Golden Age that is like an elegy for the World Trade Centre.

“I’m alone in this but I thought that building was beautiful. I’m American, and when that thing went down it was like … I was raised in the fuckng army – my dad was in the army. I’ve still got that weird sort of knee-jerk …”

Eitzel is struggling to compose himself, to find the right words.

“My next door neighbours, on the night of 9/11 and for the next three days … they’re Arab and they had a huge party that lasted three-and-a-half days. They were burning things, they were partying, the music was really loud, and they were so happy – celebrating. I was really pissed off. I was like, fuck, man. They have a right. But still …

“Two days after 9/11 you have this fucker Bush, instead of saying, ‘We have to be at our best’, he said, ‘We have to buy more, we have to get this economy going’. He didn’t care. Or else he knew. That was the beginning of World War III. The fall of Reichstag, the sinking of the Titanic … all these events signalled the beginning of a new era. And I personally think this is the beginning of the end for America. It propelled Bush into prominence. He proved himself with Hurricane Katrina just how absolutely presidential he was. When America has to pay for this war in Iraq, it’s going to bring an economic depression that might actually make fascism a reality. That’s what happened in Germany.

“And I have a feeling that that was the idea. I’m not defending the fucking Arabs. I mean, these fuckers, the Arabs who we owe all this money to and who are like … our drug dealers, they fucking hit all these working people. And, of course, they’re all Jews in New York, so fuck them too. Fuck them too. Fuck the rich.”

Do you think I might have touched a nerve there? Maybe Eitzel’s tirade has something to do with the muzzle being taken off left-leaning Americans when they’re out of the country, away from Bush’s oppressive regime and its suppression of free speech. An opportune moment to discuss The Golden Age and the personnel changes in American Music Club, perhaps …

The rhythm section of Danny Pearson and Tim Mooney are absent this time out. Indeed they’re unlikely to return to the fold at any stage in the future, so the core of Eitzel and guitarist Vudi has been shored up by replacements Sean Hoffman (bass) and Steve Didelot (drums). Why no Pearson or Mooney, then?

“Well, it was about eight months before I even talked to them. We lost contact with each other and didn’t even talk. I never see them publicly. For about eight months they didn’t answer my emails or my phone calls, so I just called Vudi and said, ‘Why don’t we get together in Los Angeles, go through the songs and see what we have?’ And he said, ‘Well, I know this drummer and this bass player – we could just work up some arrangements’. So we went down there and this drummer and bass player were really good. It felt more like a band. It was over money issues and stuff like that. Sean and Steve are fucking amazing. It’s funny that we just happened on the first people. It’s just incredible how well we all play together.

“It’s probably the end of Danny and Tim’s involvement in AMC, although I never say never. Everyone ages differently. I don’t have any kids and they do. And they have those kinds of responsibilities and that makes people different. It’s not like I’m faulting them or anything.

“The second reason was that I wanted to have Vudi in the centre of the mixes. On Love Songs For Patriots he was flying up every other weekend, playing on ten songs and I’m editing all of his stuff, so I have to sit there and edit for hours and hours. I just thought, let’s do this as a band. So we rehearsed for a month and then recorded it in a month. There are lots of mistakes everywhere!”

Mistakes of another kind were what brought American Music Club to its knees at the end of the ’90s, culminating in Eitzel’s decision to dissolve the band.

“It’s that thing where we were successful and there was a salary. And you go round the band and say, ‘Look, there’s no more money left. Are you willing to go back to sleeping on people’s floors?’ Two of them were like, no; one had already quit and two were yes. We couldn’t decide. So I said, ‘I’m going to decide then’. The pedal steel player left the band. He was so key to the sound and he was so great, but he hated us and he hated the management. We’d been together for a long time and suddenly there was money, and suddenly there wasn’t. We made every single mistake you could possibly make, like idiots. It was our own fault.

“I remember touring with [REM’s] Peter Buck. I learned a big lesson from him. He’s an incredible person, supremely ambitious. He never says things are bad, even if they are. He doesn’t waffle on like me about nothing. He goes to the point, he does the job and on stage he’s already right there, completely engaged. We never had anybody like that in our band. We were all such odd people. If we’d had anybody in the band who could look at me, and say, ‘You know, Mark, shut the fuck up. You’re a good person, you like your music, you should really enjoy this’. If we’d had anybody like that, I would have said, ‘Yeah’.”

It’s this Buck dynamic that Hoffman and Didelot bring to the second incarnation of American Music Club – a dynamic which could help them make the transition from the ditch to the road.

“They’re not going to let me be my own worst enemy. They’re not going to let that happen. There’s so much at stake. We leave the stage now and nobody sits around going, ‘Oh, that was shit’. Well, I might – but they won’t. They mock me on a regular basis, which keeps me in line.”

All of which means that Eitzel’s solo career – nine albums since 1991 – is on the backburner for now, and only for now.

“Fuck, yeah. I just wrote a song today actually. I’m so creative! Somebody loaned me this beautiful guitar and it just sounds so great that I had to play a song. It’s for a friend of mine; it’s about not blaming yourself for every single thing.”

A lesson Eitzel himself appears to be learning.

© David BurkeR2/Rock’n’Reel, March 2008

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