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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Eels' Mr. E on Becoming Jimmy Page's Hero, Playing in China, and Making Difficult Albums

Posted By on Wed, Aug 10, 2011 at 11:25 AM

  • Eels

Before Girls' Christopher Owens, there was another rock star whose curiously tragic backstory prefaced any mention of his name. Mark E Everett, or Mr. E, of Eels is undoubtedly one of the most interesting rock stars around. Despite his reclusive demeanor, often hiding like the Unabomber behind a thicket of a beard and dark aviators, he has a plethora of funny and tragically touching stories to tell, mostly about his own life. His memoir, Things the Grandchildren Should Know bears the tremendous subtitle, "ROCK MUSIC! DEATH! CRAZY PEOPLE! LOVE!" It tells of his genius physicist father, who founded the parallel worlds theory of quantum mechanics, his schizophrenic sister and her subsequent suicide, and his unusual upbringing through his unique half-tearful, half-joyous outlook.

Mr. E's wit and simple lyrics are carried with an ironic vulnerability that distances some, but endears many. After releasing the commercially successful debut LP Beautiful Freak in 1996, nearly everyone around him died, including his sister, his mother, his cousin (in the 9/11 attacks), and his roadie, Spider. After making Electroshock Blues -- a brave album about death that many called career suicide, but has since been hailed by critics -- he has maintained a career with a loyal cult following. Eels' latest LP, Tomorrow Morning, completes a trilogy about desire, loss and redemption. Ahead of The Eels' show this Thursday, Aug. 11, at Great American Music Hall, we spoke with Mr. E about becoming Jimmy Page's hero in London and competing with the military at a show in Beijing. 

How's the tour going?

It's going great. We started in China, went through Europe and been in the States for a couple weeks now. We'll have done 100 shows in a year, which is pretty unusual for us. No wonder I'm so tired.

So were the last three records always intended to be a trilogy?

No, it started out as a two part thing, End Times into Tomorrow Morning. Then I realized it would be more effective with a prequel to explain how things got into so much trouble in the first place.

It sounds like Hombre Lobo is about wanting something, End Times is about not getting it, and Tomorrow Morning is about moving on. Is it all about a girl?

Yeah, most of the songs are related to real life experiences.

When your first album, Beautiful Freak, came out, it was a pretty big hit. After that you went off and did your own thing (with the aforementioned Electroshock Blues). Are you now proud of that decision?

Absolutely, the success that came out of Beautiful Freak I realized was something I didn't want. Neil Young once said, after Harvest, "I was driving my Cadillac down the middle of the road; after that, I decided to drive closer to the ditch. It's a rockier road, but there are a lot more interesting people there." When I decided to get closer to the ditch, it made a lot of things in my life a lot more difficult for me, but it was completely worth it.

It probably led to more longevity, too.

Yeah, it was the smartest thing I ever did, but Electroshock Blues was an extremely difficult thing for me, because it went against what everyone wanted. Nobody thought it was a good idea for me to put out an album about death. I stuck to my guns and went with it because I really believed in it and I think it's the reason why I am still around.

It was your Tonight's The Night.

Right, and at the time no one cared about it, but know it's the one that everyone goes back to.

Blinking Lights and Other Revelations was a huge critical success. How do you reflect on that album?

I definitely have a soft spot for that album, although it sounds like an album that should be released at the end of your life, so I was kind of paralyzed afterward, I didn't know where to go. Then I made things even worse by writing my life story (Things the Grandchildren Should Know) (laughs) Something else you would only really do at the end of your life. So now I'm in part two of my life.

Are you planning on writing [books] anymore?

No. I'm glad I did it, it was a really rewarding experience, but I don't aspire to do it again. It took a lot of drama to add up to that book, and I'm so tired of drama, I can't take it anymore. If I did another one, I hope it would be a really boring book (laughs).

What's the plan after the tour, some time off?

I may dive right back into the studio.

Where do you record?

We usually make the records in my basement, and occasionally go somewhere else. It's hard to get a live string section in my basement in L.A. I can maybe get 20 people playing at once in my basement, but they have to be stacked on top of each other. It's hard to play the violin like that.

In the BBC documentary you made about your father (Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives), you hinted at feeling underappreciated as an artist. Is that something that bothers you?

My father's story actually made me appreciate the level of appreciation I do have. [Mr. E's father, Hugh Everett III, was an American physicist who first proposed the parallel worlds theory, but his genius was not recognized until after his sudden death.] He was totally swept under the carpet by all the physics greats of the time, and it wrecked his life.

You hit China on this tour. How was it playing in Beijing and Shanghai?

It was a strange experience. When we played Beijing it was very surreal, because whenever the music got a little too exciting the Chinese army would start marching between us and the audience, to remind them who's in charge. It was a weird experience, but the army didn't shoot anybody, so that was nice.

How did you enjoy playing London recently? I know you have a lot of fans there.

It was great; Jimmy Page came to the show. It's very unnerving playing guitar in front of Jimmy Page.

Did you bump into him for a chat?

Yeah, I'm good friends with Pete Townshend, and Pete had told me that Jimmy uses the same guitar picks as me, and he couldn't find them any more in London. So I met him and gave him 50 picks, so for a moment I was Jimmy Page's hero.

So a few more dates and then you finish your tour in L.A. next week, after visiting San Francisco. Are you going to be able to drive down the Pacific Coast Highway?

No, we'll be in too much of a rush, plus the bus may fall into the ocean at Big Sur.

If you survived the crash you'd have some good material for the next memoir.

We'll be taking the interstate.


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Andrew Chamings


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