Rocker of Ages: Playback Talks To Eels’ E

Shootenanny! does have a more organic sound to it, and the recording process was said to differ from the tinkering/mad scientist session that yielded the previous albums.


I had theorized that E would be the sort of person that I would (a) bond with or (b) have a horrible interaction with. We are both 40, and we are both at that age where crankiness might come at any moment like a lightning bolt. We have both maintained our official cheerfulness and somehow survived. Mark Oliver Everett, or E as he is known, has been a rock entity for ten years now. Appearing as a solo artist in the early ’90s with two albums of quirky pop, he fell upon the idea of creating a band that would fluctuate with his creative needs. Thus, Eels were born, and the band’s debut on Dreamworks, Beautiful Freak, was an immediate sensation, yielding the hit “Novocaine for the Soul.” The success was tempered by the near-simultaneous deaths of his sister Elizabeth by suicide and his mom through cancer. E transferred his pain into songs, and the next album, Electro Shock Blues, was a critical success but hard on an MTV-fed public, who are taught that public displays of emotion are never based on anything quite so real. The songs, filled with death and depression, were not exactly the hit of the college party circuit. The album was followed by Daisies of the Galaxy, which revealed a happier E and a more cheerful outlook. It was received well by both critics and the audience and paved the way for growing successes with both Souljacker in ’91 and this year’s Shootenanny!

Shootenanny! at its core seems to be the thoughts of a man coming to terms with life’s middle years and the acceptance of his inability to control all things. On it, E expounds on the importance of loving the loveless, the travails of being Mrs. E, and the crap state of Hollywood. The album mines his inner turmoil, and it appears to chronicle a coming of age that, he readily admits, “probably should have happened sooner than 40.” The songs do work as therapy. Writing music, according to E, “serves me on so many levels; obviously, it is the thing to do at this point. Everything about it I like…it is what I love to do.”

Shootenanny! does have a more organic sound to it, and the recording process was said to differ from the tinkering/mad scientist session that yielded the previous albums. “Most of the songs were written in a week,” E explains. “I usually don’t demo songs because often the recording process is sort of part of the writing. You don’t really know what the song is until you finish recording it. It all sort of happens at the same time. In this case, it was more traditional—songs that were skeletal and succinct. I just wanted to get to the point—get in and get out—and make songs that were pretty much explained in the song titles. So I just made little cassette demos down in the basement—just me and a guitar. Then I played them for the other musicians and then recorded them as a band. That is more traditional and not normal for me.” Included in the sessions were Koool G Murder, Butch, Lisa Germano, and Joe Gore, all of whom helped shape the sound and added some new twists to the Eels sound.
The album has been getting attention nationally on the alternative circuit; Eels shows are monumentally popular around the world, as they have always been. Eels have become, more or less, a regular on the alternative music scene and that rare exception to the big-label rule of “record platinum or die.” Dreamworks seems quite content to keep the band on. So much so that in an NME article earlier this year, E was quoted as saying he felt a bit like this decade’s version of Randy Newman. Newman spent more than two decades on Warner Bros.’ Reprise label without ever having an overwhelming hit (let’s leave any conversation about “Short People” out of this conversation). Newman survived many artist cuts and was seen as the label’s trophy artist. Is it a position that E relishes? “Yeah, I like it. I am just happy to be able to keep making records. Doing what I like to do.” However, even the trophy artist is not immune to the downside of the record biz. His response to a question about the music industry in general is blunt: “‘Rock Hard Times,’” E says, referring to one of the songs on the album, “was inspired by the state of music these days. Being around the Hollywood industry people and seeing first-hand where it all goes wrong. It is just hard to get anything done these days.”

This doesn’t seem to stop him and the band as they wing their way around the world on a tour that took him across North America and Australia this summer and now back to the States. Notorious for disliking the road, E seems very content during this tour. Of course, this could all fall through at any minute with the sometimes-dangerous antics that take place between E and his archnemesis/good friend (these descriptions rotate from day to day) MC Honky.The oldish Silverlake DJ was discovered (or rediscovered) by E, who spent the better part of two years helping him to release I Am the Messiah (Spin Art). Now he opens for Eels on their tour, but apparently all is not heaven in this arrangement. E described the antics of a recent Washington, D.C., show by saying that “[Honky] really pulled some crazy shit. He got onstage in between our encores and started playing my Wurlitzer electric piano. Everybody knows that you are not supposed to touch my equipment—especially him. He’s a good musician, but that is just inappropriate.” When asked if it was the competition, perhaps that Honky’s Messiah sometimes gets better reviews than Shootenanny!, E demurred. “That might be part of it, but it is mostly just personalities. I am trying not to lose my temper.”
As for the direction the band is going, they will tour some more, and then E will work on another CD. Recently, a story cropped up that had E saying it was going to be his masterpiece. “I really regretted saying that,” he tells me now. “Some journalist took that one comment and made it into a headline. I’ve sort of painted myself into a corner now, and everyone will say, ‘OK, now show us the masterpiece.’ I really regret it.”

No matter. Eels’ output has always been strong. Besides, even Randy Newman sometimes leaped even higher than his vaunted position would seem to have allowed. Maybe there is a masterpiece in E’s future.

Eels make their St. Louis appearance on Thursday, October 23 at Mississippi Nights. Opening the show will be MC Honky.

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