It's a natural assumption: Mark Eitzel, frontman for perennial underdogs American Music Club, sings a lot about San Francisco. Therefore, he must love San Francisco. The dour, slow-churning indie-rock band named an entire album after the city, and two song titles namedrop the town on the group's new disc, The Golden Age, which is released February 19. But ask Eitzel, and he'll set the record straight: He can't afford being here (he has lived in Bernal Heights for 15 years, but now spends most of his time in Los Angeles and Europe), he resents the center-of-the-world attitude that permeates the music scene, and he'd rather be playing gigs in London than in the Bay Area. "People think San Francisco's this big cosmopolitan town, but it's really small," he says. "I perform in London because I get paid better there."
So why does the bay keep showing up in his music? On new song "All the Lost Souls Welcome You to San Francisco," Eitzel sings, "It's a city that was built by fire trucks/And skeletons who grin and grin/Pimps and thieves who can't believe their luck/Saints that are only holy when they sin." Not exactly fodder for tourist brochures. Album closer "The Grand Duchess of San Francisco" mentions the town in passing and is reminiscent of earlier AMC songs set in the bay; Eitzel's reference to a "vacation" at the Cable Car Hotel on his old tune "How Many Six Packs Does It Take to Screw in a Light?" comes to mind.
"I like being associated with geography," Eitzel says casually. Soft-spoken, articulate, and sounding his age (49), he is chatting via phone from an apartment in Los Angeles, where he is preparing for an upcoming European tour. He's in fine spirits, talkative, and, while not exactly cheery, a step or two removed from the desperate pillow-crier persona his music is known for.
Eitzel makes big, sarcastic pronouncements such as, "I'm not trying to sell people anything [with my music]. I just want to give them a gift ... but I hope they buy my shit." His attitude wavers among resentment, optimism, and insecurity. Especially when it comes to his hometown.
"I tell stories about the place where I am," he says, pausing for the right words. San Francisco "is a beautiful place. It's where I speak the language. I kind of love it, but I've kind of grown out of it." He adds, "I know I'm coming off all pompous saying that."
Eitzel is one of the few artists whose conversations sound much like his lyrics. The melancholy attitude that blanketed such dark gems as Everclear, San Francisco, and Mercury is the same guy on the other end of the line; the man doesn't go far to find subject matter for his songs (metaphorically or geographically). On The Golden Age, however, Eitzel strikes a conciliatory tone. Such midtempo standouts as "Who You Are" and album opener "All My Love" provide themes of hope without irony. American Music Club's trademark elements remain intact: the obedient drums, the omnipresent slow-strummed acoustic guitar, the weird feedback noises tastefully backdropped so as not to interfere with the band's main attraction, and Eitzel's grainy lounge-singer baritone. On the latest effort, the band moves coolly between Marvin Gaye vamps and country-and-Western accents reminiscent of Gram Parsons, complete with the latter's fatalistic themes of death and drugs. American Music Club is an impressively consistent group, despite numerous personnel changes and a decade-long hiatus that resulted from intra-band tensions and Eitzel's desire to do something that wasn't typical AMC fare (notably, he rerecorded old AMC songs with traditional Greek instrumentation for his 2003 solo album The Ugly American). Eitzel refers to "the AMC sound" in conversation, as though it's a mixed blessing.
When the band reunited in 2004, Eitzel says, it was a short-lived engagement with longtime members Danny Pearson and Tim Mooney. Both were hard to reach, and neither were into the idea of traveling to Los Angeles to record. Guitarist Vudi (né Mark Pankler), working as an L.A. bus driver, knew bassist Sean Hoffman and drummer Steve Didelot from country and Western band the Larks and suggested them for the new project. "We wanted to call this the MacArthur Park Music Club," Eitzel says, noting how it wasn't really AMC without Mooney, Pearson and slide guitarist Bruce Kaphan. "I went to the record label [Merge], and I said I had a band with Vudi. And they were like, 'no.' I found out: I can get paid this much if I called it American Music Club, this much if MacArthur Park Music Club, and this much if we call it the Mark Eitzel band." Fine, he conceded: American Music Club it is.
The music is what's ultimately important, Eitzel says. It's about creating something uplifting, a concept not typically associated with earlier work. (Do you think a song titled "The Hopes and Dreams of Heaven's 10,000 Whores," from 1993's Mercury, will end sweetly?) Indeed, The Golden Age sounds like a glimmer of light in comparison. Despite Eitzel's mixed feelings toward the San Francisco he sings about, it's obvious that he's found a muse in it.
A couple of days later Eitzel e-mails the following: "There is no place more progressive or cooler on the earth and I love San Francisco — it's just that it's a small town and everyone is trying very hard to be the coolest or the hippest or whatever and I really can't keep up.
"God bless — but I find it a bore when people think they are the focus of creation — when we actually are only here to WITNESS creation. (Now I sound like an old man!)"
Not exactly old, but Eitzel is indisputably wise. And honest. If he doesn't express complicated mixed feelings toward his hometown — skeletons, firetrucks, shady hotels, and all — who will?