Mark Eitzel - return of the restless stranger
By Kernan Andrews
MARK EITZEL, founder of alt.rock icons American Music Club and a critically acclaimed solo artist, had a rough start to the current decade, but over the last few months he has become “more believing in people’s kindness”, and released one of his finest albums to date.
Mark and his band are coming to the Róisín Dubh on Monday February 25 at 9pm, as part of his current European tour, to perform a set of solo and American Music Club material.
Mark was born in Northern California, but being from a military family meant relocation to Okinawa, Taiwan, and Britain, during his childhood and teens. How did this constant moving from one territory to another, in those formative years, affect his sense of who he was and where he belonged?
“It made me a strange kid,” Mark tells during our Tuesday morning interview. “When I lived in England people thought I was on drugs! No I wasn’t, I was just thoughtful. I spent a lot of time thinking and you become that kind of person when you are confronted with being in a foreign country and being alone a lot of the time.”
Would this tendency for introspection and reflection account for the often thoughtful, indeed melancholy, nature of much of Eitzel’s music? “I don’t know,” he replies. “I’m sure there is deeply entrenched psychological reasons for that. It could be from growing up in Southampton which is a sort of a depressing city. It’s just the way I started writing music and it stuck.”
Mark’s current tour is to promote his latest album, Don’t Be A Stranger, which was released late last year. It enjoyed positive reviews, with Pitchfork and allmusic.com, declaring it his best work since 2001’s The Invisible Man.
After the turbulence he has endured in the last few years, the praise must come as a vindication? “It does,” Mark replies, “but only because I worked really hard. It’s nice that people like it. You just have to work hard to make something people like.”
That turbulence was the severe heart attack Mark suffered in May 2011. He was required to step back from touring and recording and spent the next six months recuperating. How much has his outlook on life changed since that scare?
“I did receive a lot of help,” he says, “and I am more grateful now to people for having received that kindness. It has made me more aware of and believing in people’s kindness and wanting to reflect the goodness I have received. It has made me a better person.”
An example of this generosity is the story of how Don’t Be A Stranger came into existence.
“I was af0raid of meeting my manager,” says Mark, “I had met him a few times. He was saying we would struggle to get the album out as no record company really cared, as it was not going to be an American Music Club album. I did all these awful demos so we needed to do something correct that would sound good. We needed to get some money together before we could go into the studio.”
That money came, through a stroke of good luck, when a friend of Mark’s manager won €13 million in the US lottery. “He loaned us the money we needed from his win, which we have since paid pack,” says Mark. “It was really nice of him to do it.”
With financial worries erased, Mark, with producer Sheldon Gomberg, The Attraction’s drummer Pete Thomas, and American Music Club guitarist Vudi (Mark Pankler) could get down to the recording. Mark was determined to create something in the vein of Neil Young’s Harvest and Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left.
“They are just classic, great records,” he says. “They are beautiful and have that acoustic, organic sound. That’s what I was going for.”
Words and music
Mark’s original inspiration for becoming a songwriter lay not in the folk, or even folk-rock, tradition, but in a genre many would see as its musical and ideological opposite - punk. It happened when he was 18 and saw The Damned and The Adverts play a gig in Southampton in 1977.
“They just rocked!” he says. “It was inspiring. I’d never seen anything so simple before. A lot of the clubs I had been going to were all free jazz and Hawkwind and Yes, but I’d never seen anything being done by people my own age, and that was simple to do. Punk rock is music brought right back to the bare bones, it’s simple.”
Another punk band, America’s Destroy All Monsters, inspired Don’t Be A Stranger’s opening track, the majestic ‘I Love You But You’re Dead’
“When the lead singer [Niagara] signed my poster, she really did sign it ‘I love you but you’re dead’,” recalls Mark. “I was wondering ‘What does that mean?’ I think for her, she was older and was trying to be punk rock, but on a deeper level, she was saying that to be dead means there is no possibility of any real love between us, there could never be a deeper connection between us on a personal level, than just a fan meeting a band member.”
Another arresting song is ‘Costume Characters Face Dangers In The Workplace’. It can be read on many levels, as it seems to reference discrimination against homosexuals (“I wave and smile but look no one in the eye”) to despairing over the economic and political state of the USA (“I don’t believe in the future...it’s all going to s**t”).
“It is about all those things, it’s something I’d love to hear Goofy shout at the sky in a Disney cartoon,” Mark says. “‘Costume characters’ are those who are at risk of getting beaten up because they are seen to be a freak or different.
“The rest of the song came from travelling around Germany. All the roads are perfect and the infrastructure and facilities are intact. Downtowns aren’t choked with the homeless and the desperate. Across America, apart from San Francisco, which still has a lively downtown, you will see many homeless, and places riddled with crime, the freeways are full of potholes, and it’s all going to s**t. That’s the state of America.”
Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, from the Ticket Desk at OMG, Shop Street (formerly Zhivago), and The Róisín Dubh.