It’s hard to uncouple the story and music of Mark Eitzel from the city of San Francisco. The city’s most remembered musical legacy hinges on the showy bliss of the Haight-Ashbury in the late ‘60s, but the work of Eitzel and his best-known band, American Music Club, represented the rest of the town: overcast, sometimes fogged in, shadowed by skyscrapers, cut with drama and an overbearing uncertainty. AMC albums like Engine, Everclear and Mercury—and Eitzel’s solo 60 Watt Silver Lining—were emotional classics, less appropriate for the tourist buses grazing Golden Gate Park, but perfect for a trip on the N Judah line headed to the lonely outer Sunset at about 12:45am.
But Eitzel, who turns 58 next week, isn’t in San Francisco anymore. He relocated to Los Angeles near the beginning of the decade, living in Silver Lake with his partner. His work of the past two decades—ten solo albums and two new AMC records—still teems with suspense, humor, cogent analysis of himself and his circle, tough will and sympathetic fragility. A heart attack in 2010 left him with questions about his practical existence, but didn’t change his outlook: He’s always been mindful of society’s precariousness, he’s just come up with alternate ways to deal with it.
Hey Mr Ferryman, out this week via Merge, is Eitzel’s first album in three years, produced and largely played by Bernard Butler, the influential former guitarist for Suede and general British music factotum. Eitzel’s solo career expanded his range apart from AMC: 60 Watt Silver Lining’s jazz-combo set-up, a collaboration with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck on West, the electronic shadings of The Invisible Man, the expanded acoustics of his last album Don’t Be a Stranger. Butler circumvented Eitzel’s original idea to make an all-acoustic affair and gave Hey Mr Ferryman a rich pop music treatment, leaving Eitzel’s lyrics and chordings alone but putting them in the most accessible settings of his career.
I spoke with Eitzel over the phone from Silver Lake, eleven days before the presidential inauguration, which neither of us were having any part of.
Treble: You recorded Hey Mr Ferryman with Bernard Butler producing. How did that collaboration come about?
Mark Eitzel: It was my manager in England. He goes to the same daycare as Bernard. So I guess they met outside, waiting for their kids to come out. He said, “Why don’t you send your demos to Bernard?” and I did. He really loved them, so it worked out great.
Treble: I heard you sent your music to him with the original idea that it would be an acoustic album, and that he suggested a different direction.
Eitzel: Right. Yeah, we didn’t really pay him enough money for a whole band recording. We didn’t have enough. So we thought we’d just do acoustic guitar and vocals. But he said, “No, no, let’s make a real album.” So mostly, what I did was just sit back and shut the fuck up.
Treble: Do you find it easy to communicate with different collaborators? What’s the process for explaining what a song is about?
Eitzel: Yeah. The thing is, sometimes if you have to explain to people, they’ll never know, you know? So if it takes explanation, then there’s no point (laughs). For me, with Bernard I didn’t explain anything. I never had to show him how to play the songs. He basically sat down with the guitar or at the piano and said, “This is what you’re doing, right?” It was very, very easy. He’s such a great musician, he can play anything.
I wrote a song on there called “Mr Humphries” about the character from the (BBC) TV show Are You Being Served? And he didn’t know what it was about, the character or the TV show. He read about it in a magazine…and he wrote me, “Really? That’s what’s it’s about?” (laughs) He’s just busy working. “Lyrics? Who cares? I just want to make great music.” And I really like that, actually
Treble: Is that level of trust easy for you, or have there been times when it’s not quite so easy?
Eitzel: Oh yeah, absolutely. There are times when I’ve played with people, and I’ve looked at them and said, “Okay, well… thank you! We’re done!” (laughs) Within, like, half a song. Because I realized immediately there was no way I could explain what I’m doing or why, you know? I write these odd tunings, I use odd chords. There’s 11 verses followed by a bridge, followed by what I call a chorus. You know what I mean? I do these weird things… well, they’re not really weird, but a lot of people find them weird.
Treble: I’m glad you brought up the chords. One thing I think has been consistent with your compositions is that there’s always an additional note in your chords—it’s never like a I-IV-V thing, there’s always an additional seventh or ninth going on. It reminds me of how Burt Bacharach introduced some totally new chords to pop music in the ‘60s. The chords you come up with aren’t really easy to nail down, but they’re very evocative.
Eitzel: Yeah. I mean—I’m self-taught, I don’t read music. When I was a kid I was a fan of Joan Armatrading. I remember she did an interview and said, “Well, you know, you just get those chords you like, and you just use them. You just find the chords you like that are yours.” And I thought, “Exactly! That’s what I do!” I just find music that I like, on the guitar. I think Burt Bacharach did it with a little more knowledge than me. But yeah, I do. I always find when I hear a song, I think, “Okay… D to C, F to C, to E minor, to B minor, to E minor, to B minor to C…” You know what? Fuck off! When Willie Nelson does it, or when Hank Williams does it, it’s great. (laughs) You see so many people play music, and you’re like, “oooooh!”
Treble: Well, things are more complicated now.
Eitzel: Yeah. I mean, it’s the way you play it, the way you approach it. Is this really you, or is this what you think people want to hear? A lot of people, when they start making music, they only make what they think people want to hear. It just hurts my heart.
Treble: Getting back to the new album—“The Last Ten Years” is a great way to open it. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a statement of purpose, but if feels kind of like a state of the union.
Eitzel: That’s right. I worked with Bernard because I thought he was into pop music, and that’s what I like. That’s what I want to make, I don’t want something that’s grim. In these times you don’t want to make something that’s dark and weird. Who gives a shit? Let’s bring it up. At least that’s what I feel about me, it’s just what I feel. There’s no right or wrong.
Treble: A lot of people use the image of the ferryman—well, I don’t know if Chris DeBurgh did this.
Eitzel: (Laughs) Yeah, he did!
Treble: …but they use the ferryman as sort of a nautical Grim Reaper. And that’s the first thing I thought with the first line, “The ferryman who takes me to my rest.” But it’s not a downcast song.
Eitzel: Nope. It’s not at all. It’s… no. (laughs) It was about four in the morning in New York, and I was so stoned and so drunk. I sat in the snow and I wrote down my address just to make sure that I knew. You know? (laughs) So I handed it to the cab driver and said, “I’m going here.” ‘Cause I knew if I tried to speak it then it wouldn’t come out properly. That’s how the song started.
Treble: Not to go back into the darkness, but there’s a couple songs that seem to echo how I feel about the inauguration. “Nothing and Everything” talks about “the heavy chain that’s coming down.” And “In My Role as Professional Singer and Ham” has this Jesus figure that sounds like he’s changed his philosophies a little.
Eitzel: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. For a while there I was always going back to Ohio for Thanksgiving. My family is there. And it seemed like every time I went to a Thanksgiving dinner I always had to sit next to some conservative asshole who would explain to the faggot from California exactly what was what. (laughs) It just kept happening! It was like, “oh, fuck!” And of course they’re morally superior, and they know everything, and fuck you. And I have to be polite. (laughs) I can’t be me. It’s not my house, you know. So that’s kind of it, being stuck at dinner with some morally superior prick.
Treble: Are you frightened about what’s about to happen? I’ve been asking that of literally everybody these days.
Eitzel: Well, you know, without Obamacare I’m completely broke. And especially with a pre-existing condition. If they get rid of that, which they seem to be doing, I won’t have health care. So there’s that. And then the little law that they’re passing right now, that any member of Congress can call a private citizen up to Washington for a meeting? For questioning? The law says you can basically go up there to Washington and sit in jail for, I don’t know, four months? And wait for the Congressman to question you. That’s beginning. And then they try to ban the ethics committee? Really? Don’t get me started. It’s terrifying. It’s like they want to dismantle America. And it’s not just the liberal America. They want to dismantle American exceptionalism, if that ever existed. They’re trying to get rid of it. They get this fucking white nationalist [Steve Bannon] to… I don’t even remember what his title is going to be. It was a great country for a minute, you know?
Treble: Well, they’re doing it so brazenly it’s almost like a Mel Brooks comedy.
Eitzel: Because they think we’re all completely stupid and…I mean, come on. If he wants to build his wall—‘cause California’s gonna pay for that wall. All those fuckers in the south and all those fuckers who voted for Trump, they’re not gonna pay for it. We will. If he goes to war, we’re gonna pay for it. It’s maddening. I think…I don’t know. I wanna throw bricks.
Treble: Well, let’s pivot off politics. (Laughter) “The Road” was an interesting song to me. It sounds like a reflection on how the audience has changed—or maybe the settings that you’ve written about for the last 30 years might have changed.
Eitzel: Well, I don’t think anything’s changed. Many times I’ve been in that band that’s playing in an empty room. It hasn’t really changed, and people have always been assholes. What’s changed has…ah, don’t get me started, I’ll go back into politics again. What changes is that people are in despair, and it makes them angry and it makes them more hateful. You know? I think any touring band is a beautiful thing to honor.
Treble: When you’re writing about something you’re observing, as opposed to something that you personally went through, do you ever extend the story to something else beyond what everyone else can see in the situation?
Eitzel: Nah, it’s really just trying to describe… (pauses) Songwriting is like this great art, because it’s the kind of thing that anyone can do at any time. All they have to do is be sincere and make it rhyme. And make the words disappear into the music. For me…there’s a great adage I heard once that said, “Better to be great wallpaper than bad art.” I kind of ascribe to that. I’m always going for the great wallpaper first, you know?
So you see a guy writhe on the floor, and you think, “I’m going to make a nice tapestry or wall-hanging!” (laughs) So I made a wall-hanging, that’s how I feel. I made this wall-hanging of what I saw.
Treble: Do songs come easily for you? Or is it something you hack away at for weeks or months at a time?
Eitzel: Both. Some songs are like bowel movements: Some are easy, some are hard. I just finished this song—I’m gonna post it on Bandcamp—I wrote it with three completely different lyrics but the same music, because I couldn’t figure out what it was about. It took me about four months to do it. It’s really been torture. So yeah, sometimes it’s easy…for me, I could really write a crappy song every day.
Treble: “La Llorona” refers to a ghost from Mexican folklore.
Eitzel: Right. Well, that’s sort of it. But then it’s really about a woman in Cleveland that I met. It’s really about the weeping woman, as if it that was not a folklore thing, but a real person.
Treble: Ah. I heard it as another sort of refutation, of the kind of misogyny that made men come up with tales like that just to scare kids into coming home on time.
Eitzel: It was a hard song to write. ‘Cause Lord knows I’m not a misogynist, or I try not to be in any way. But she was a misogynist, a bit. She had no self-esteem, she was kind of a broken person. So to tell that story, it’s hard not to…not to be that. A lot of the song’s in her words.
Treble: For a lot of people who wrote what sounded like confessional or personal music, like you might have done in the early days of American Music Club, I think a lot of folks try that when they first try songwriting. There’s an argument that confessional music is only good for a little bit of time, and it’s only really good for the people who wrote it, or the objects they wrote about. But, for example, you’ve got Joni Mitchell, who wrote about personal stories but transcended that and made it a shared feeling. The other person I’d say did that consistently is you.
Eitzel: Well, that’s a compliment and a half. I think for a songwriter, in order to create a performance with a song, it’s gotta come from inside you, right? It’s got to come from your own experience. But at the same time, you’ve got to sculpt it like it’s everyone’s story as well. You have to balance both. You have to make it personal. It is about you, but in order to translate to other people…The great songs are the ones you think are about you, you know what I mean? I know that’s what Joni did. She probably did get pissed about a parking lot, you know? (laughs)
You work hard enough and try to be generous enough to not just make it about yourself. I learned that the hard way, ‘cause boy I was the ultimate confessional idiot.
Treble: Do you see yourself as writing more from observation these days, than necessarily personal feelings?
Eitzel: Yeah. All I really do nowadays are try to make things that make me feel something, you know? Also that are kind of—this is gonna sound so Californian—but also kind of karmically raise my future a little bit. When I go into the retirement home, like Mr. Humphries, will these songs torture me? Or will they boost me?
I saw Leonard Cohen play about seven years ago. I saw him and thought, “Man… he just rides these songs like they’re luxury liners.” I want to do that.
Paul Pearson is a writer, journalist, and interviewer who has written for Treble since 2013. His music writing has also appeared in The Seattle Times, The Stranger, The Olympian, and MSN Music.