[This is pretty much just the pre-edited, raw interview / conversation; most of which ended up in the published article, as it appears here.]
In 1984, many of us were standing around waiting to see if George Orwell’s semi-prophetic novel would ring true or not – precisely the reason it would. Any real alternative to mind control had been surrendered or defaulted due to apparent lack of interest, so most of us had no more idea what we wanted for ourselves than those who were willing to provide it for us.
In 1984, American Music Club was born. A new kind of band – a perfect chemistry. Paring down the elements, it would seem to have been the most unlikely combination of personalities one could imagine, but the heart knows what the mind sometimes is afraid to see, and thus they have survived.
With few personnel changes, the band members have remained: Mark Eitzel (guitar & vocals); Vudi (guitar, violin & accordion); Danny Pearson (bass, guitar & mandolin), and as of 1987 were joined by their longtime friend and producer Tom Mallon (originally drums, currently bass and still producer).
Musical history itself serves as a platform for Mark Eitzel’s visions of desolate beauty and narcissistic anguish. A.M.C. is not a rock band, nor is it a folk band, nor any of the other vast influences that weave themselves seamlessly together to create the aural landscape that Eitzel travels endlessly and tirelessly. Nor is the name of the band intended to give any insight to the soul of the band – Eitzel has in fact referred to it as “the most stupid fucking name for a band we could think of”, insisting that the generic quality of the name is what made it stick.
Since 1985, A.M.C. has released four albums [three on California’s Frontier label] and toured the United States and much of Europe, and have been been the focus of much critical attention, but have yet to discover a mass audience. Those who have been converted by Eitzel’s gut-wrenching sensitivity have become the truest of fans, while the inevitable detractors will single out Mark as an antagonist while attempting to invalidate his revelations and pick apart his passion.
Nietzsche once said that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger, and Mark Eitzel seems to recognize the thin line that separates the two – in fact he spends most of his time pacing back and forth across that line, having learned perhaps that one is neither better or worse than the other.
Q Not to imply that your obscurity is deserved, but critics and audiences alike have been thoroughly confused as to what could drive you to do this.
Mark: Despair. We’re connoisseurs of despair.
Vudi: What drives my songwriting is just the desire to write a song.
Q What are some of the ways in which your approaches to songwriting differ?
Vudi: Mine are generally much longer.
Q Do any of your songs particularly stand out as examples of your style?
Vudi: You’ve never heard them. My songs are fifteen minutes long and have a shelf life of about three hours.
Q Does any of this material ever find it’s way into A.M.C.’s repertoire?
Mark: Not yet.
Vudi: Occasionally, out of one of my fifteen-minute songs, one of the riffs will show up.
Mark: [to Vudi] Why do your songs last fifteen minutes? [to himself] Why do mine last three?
Vudi [to Mark]: Because you work on yours. I don’t.
Mark: I don’t work that hard at mine.
Q If you really didn’t work on your songs, wouldn’t they be about fifteen minutes long as well?
Mark: Oh yeah. I usually cross out about three pages for every four I write.
Q Does that have anything to do with the fact that you constantly change the lyrics to some of your songs?
Mark: That’s why the words to most of are usually pretty dismissible, because by the time I’m done editing all the different lyrics I’ve written for them, then they’re boring.
Q Why do you think so many of your critics insist on comparing you to Joy Division vocalist Ian Curtis?
Mark: I used to be a big Joy Division fan, because in 1982 that’s the only person that was saying what I wanted to say. The Ian Curtis thing never really entered into it until we got to England last time.
Q The disturbing thing about a comparison like that is so many of the same people believe Joy Division’s songs were designed to expose people as pathetic.
Vudi: Was it the point of Joy Division to point out to people their pathetic state? I don’t think people would buy it in such great quantities if it was.
Mark: I think that Joy Division was a hopeful pathetic attempt to garner love that didn’t exist. It was opportunist attempt at rock success. I don’t put it down for that because I think that’s a fine thing to do, and I was a big Joy Division fan. Seriously I don’t think that they were trying to do anything good or bad, just trying to be successful as a rock band. Ian Curtis was probably the best lyric writer I’ve ever heard in my life. His was an attempt to say the best thing he possibly could, and garner as much praise and love as he could possibly get, but nobody got it.
Q You strip yourself pretty bare on vinyl as well as on stage. Do you think that your raw emotional approach might unnerve some people?
Mark: I set myself up to fall, and I think most rock musicians should ’cause that’s the only honest thing to do.
Q How do you view the dichotomy between the personal – and often painful – nature of your work vs. the role of entertainer?
Mark: I don’t think there’s anything pathetic about being an entertainer. It’s the only thing I can do in my life. I’m a nobody who tries to fill in a little gap in somebody’s drunk night. It’s just a little thing I do, and I hope I can make money off it. I’m just an opportunist trying to get rich off somebody’s diversion.
Vudi: [ to Mark ] You’re not doin’ too good.
Mark: Not too good at all. I’m doin’ really poorly at it.
[both Mark and Vudi laugh]
Mark: In San Francisco we have a cauldron of about a hundred fans who go tho the club and talk amongst themselves while we play.
[ Mark and Vudi similate a typical audience dialogue… ]
Vudi: “They’re not doin’ too good tonight…”
Mark: “Yeah… what time is it? Let’s have some more beers before it gets too late.”
Vudi: “Were you at their last show – where was that – was it Joe’s Bar or Bob’s Bar? Oh, they were really hot! You missed it, huh?”
Mark: “They were hot for songs A, B, C and F, but songs D and G – oh, man were they bad! Wasn’t it bad? Hey – who’s that over there?”
Vudi: “Why don’t they learn some new songs? I guess that guy Mark must have really big writer’s block.”
Mark: “Yeah, he’s got heavy writer’s block. He’s really depressed.”
Vudi: “The bass player looks a little bummed out tonight.”
Mark: “He’s got a big drinking problem…”
Mark: They talk about us and they ignore us. That’s what we get.
Q These are your fans?
Mark: They’re not our fans, they’re our friends. I love them, you know.
Q Doesn’t it ever get to you that so many people can be oblivious to your efforts at sharing such personal experiences with them?
Mark: Who cares about my personal experiences? They don’t matter. When I’m singing I pretty much think about how long the song is gonna last and how I can get through to the next song.
Q To condense your perspectives into three-minute pop songs seems like you would be carrying some tightly packed luggage that could fly open at any time.
Mark: It always does. I remember exactly the reason I wrote the song and I think about the specific reasons, but that’s just a chemical reaction in my brain – it doesn’t matter at all. I’m not recreating it, I’m just remembering it to help me sing the song. When I sing, it’s just this man with some saliva in his mouth – his mouth going open and closed – pushing out some air, and that’s all it is. Whatever happens after that isn’t really my problem, and what happens in my brain isn’t my problem either ’cause it’s just some stupid chemical reaction going “bam! bam! bam!”” – what does it matter? Who can tell what it is?
Vudi: [to Mark] If you write a song about a person…
Mark: I think about the person.
Vudi: Two years later you’re singing the song and you still know that person and your circumstances have changed – you’re still thinking about that person?
Vudi: As they are now or when you wrote it?
Mark: I don’t think people essentially change. Everybody I meet becomes a reflection of my own inability to live, so when I sing it’s just a matter of remembering the nobody I was when I first met this person, and just reliving that.
Vudi: I have trouble with that!
Mark: [laughing] Oh man, you’re just blowin’ my trip! I’m makin’ such a smart talk and you’re blowin’ it!
Mark: Actually, it seems like I write really personal songs, but I don’t. I write about two or three things at once and try to make it about all these things to give it some kind of depth. If I just wrote about my own experience it would be some stupid pop song. Who cares? Who wants to hear about my experience? I certainly am bored with it.
Vudi: So your songwriting is just sort of the scum floating on your inability to live? I never knew that before – that’s disgusting!
Mark: It’s absolutely the truth!
Vudi: I don’t think that your capacity for living is any less than anybody else I know in the world. They have no more ability to live than you, and you have no less predilection for high living.
Mark: Who am I to put myself on such a pedestal that I can sing about their lives? When you try to talk about people’s lives all you can do is barely scratch the surface – you can barely touch what they are. You gotta be humble when you talk about people, you can’t be some jerk that pretends to know more. I’m a jerk because I’m a songwriter. I try to say something more than what exists, but I can’t say I know anything about their lives.
Q Don’t you think you can apply some of what you learn about yourself to other people as well?
Mark: Who cares about other people when you’re so self-centered? When you live, you live – you make things happen. I’m just a songwriter, and the fact that I’m an artist means that I’m less a person than most people because they live and I just look at the way they live. I think about it and I try to subvert it.
Q Talking about something isn’t necessarily the same thing as passing judgement.
Mark: I’m passing judgement like crazy! What else can I do? If you say yes, no, or maybe – you’re passing judgement. I am humbled to other people’s lives, especially the people that I write about. I am nobody compared to them. That’s the position I take, because if I’m somebody compared to them I might not tell the story right. There’s nobody I can pass judgement on but myself. When you write about something you have to be in a position that’s lower than the thing you write about in order to make that thing real. I’m not going to be bigger than the thing I write about – how could I be that? I’m at the lowest end of the spectrum and I hope to remain there, looking up at the world seeing all the colors instead of just one or two.
Q Does this have any relation to the theory that some people who are gifted or born into wealth must pay penance for the sin of being wealthy?
Mark: It’s the same thing.
Vudi: [ to Mark ] It is? What kind of wealth were you born into?
Mark: The wealth of being able to see people.
Q I understand that there was a video made for the song “Electric Light” that you felt missed the point of the song. In the song you refer to the idea of recognizing the symptoms of rape – not a topic many male songwriters seem to be very aware of, much less comfortable talking about.
Mark: The good thing about reality sometimes is when you reveal it, it becomes completely obscure, because you’re out of the reference point. Time goes by so quickly, and when time goes by your moorings are gone. Some people look like they’ve been raped every day – not literally, but metaphorically. You can get raped all kinds of ways, and it’s not because you want it, it’s not because you need it, it’s not because you think about it – it’s because somehow it happens.
Q “Ballad Of A Good Sport” – which you sometimes perform but have not yet recorded – you once said was about something you couldn’t write about. Why was it so important to you to try?
Mark: I can’t write about AIDS because I don’t have it, and I can’t condescend to write about somebody else’s death, but I can certainly talk about what kind of light-hearted impressionistic thing I felt. When somebody’s dying it always comes down to “having a good day” or a “bad day”, as the clock ticks down until they die. I couldn’t imagine what could go through your mind on a bad day, and all I could think of was, “on good days / you pretend / that the chill hasn’t reached your bones / on good days / you pretend / you can lead a normal life.”” The literal truth is – when you’re dying – a “good day” is when you pretend that you can live normally, and a “bad day” is when you realize that there’s no out.
I think about how I can make that song about AIDS, which is a completely inoperable disease. You can’t cure it, you can’t survive it gracefully, you can’t work with it, you can’t deal with it – I can’t help it. The only thing you can do with somebody who’s dying is to die with them… but don’t do it!
Q Even though many of your songs deal with victims of circumstances which are not particularly pleasant, do you feel that you offer any hope beneath it all?
Mark: There’s hope inasmuch as I’m singing about something that I think is real. When you state the truth, that’s at least a step in the right direction. I am hopeful, the trouble with me is i’m a pop musician. If people want to sit there and be happily depressed that’s fine with me. I’m not gonna let ‘em down. I think there’s plenty of hope in the stuff I do, because I’m telling the truth as much as I can tell it.
Q I get the feeling sometimes you want people to believe that all of your passion is nothing but a by-product of the practiced art of songwriting.
Vudi: Songwriting is shtick, right?
Mark: I’ll tell you it’s shtick, but it ain’t really. My quality of despair is ugly – it’s pathetic.
Q If that’s true then why should people listen to you in the first place?
Mark: Me? I’m not telling you they should. I get on stage thinking they should all leave.
Q You have mentioned being able to drive out audiences – do you pride yourself on that ability?
Mark: No, I don’t, because we don’t anymore. I just pride myself on when I don’t feel like I want to die after a show. I pretty much learned how to protect myself from losing control over my emotions.
Q There have been some pretty wild stories about your on-stage antics, which would seem to draw the line between shtick and reality.
Mark: Yeah, it’s a genuine reaction but a bad situation. I’m not responsible for an audience, and I can’t blame an audience if they don’t react. The truth is that I don’t feel like I gave enough of myself. I am really sensitive to the audience… unfortunately. I used to think that the audience was gonna give me heaven or hell, but now I know that some audiences aren’t even worth dealing with – which is a horrible thought.
It takes five or six really cool people in a crowd to make it seem like an okay crowd, but if the crowd is empty or devoid of those there’s really no way we can succeed. We do a kind of music that is so involved with people’s fate and death and people’s buoyancy that if those people aren’t there, who can recognize it? There’s really no point for us to play because we’re just singing to a vacuum.
The whole goal of this band is to write pop music, and that’s what we’re gonna do. I don’t think America has caught up to what pop music is nowadays. I don’t think college radio is pop music. I find a lot of college radio unfortunate because it’s trying to recreate what Neil Young did, or Gary Numan or Kraftwerk, and nobody can do that. You have to keep moving.
Q Is it possible that there isn’t much incentive within the music industry to try any real progressive ideas?
Mark: I don’t see it being played on the radio. Unfortunately I have a horrible view and I’ll be accused of being stupid. I’m a revivalist – I play folk-based rock music with a kind of psychedelic tinge to it.
Q Before you were a psychedelic-folk-rock revivalist, you were a singer in a punk band, which was a pioneer movement at the time.
Mark: Right, and I still have that attitude about it – do something new or shut up. I still try – the whole band still tries.
Vudi: As lead guitar player for the band, I’m only in it for those few moments of sonic orgasm that happen every now and then. I live for that.
Mark: I don’t know what I’m trying to do. I can’t do anything else though.
While so many people seem content with the hand-me-down mentality which enables them to dispose of truth and feeling with convenient cliches, Mark Eitzel is writing songs that allow you to recognize the healing properties of sadness. His penchant for self-deprecation only serves to show how far a man must go to truly love. This is a strong medicine, capable of opening old wounds or closing them forever, depending on your tolerance for reality. If you have ever been able to recognize the beautiful truth within a contradiction, or believe that a lie is a necessary evil to force out true feelings, then you know this music already. American Music Club just might make you feel a little stronger – but it won’t kill you.
© J.Free / The New Puritan ReView; 1990; 2022