Power trio

Peter Buck goes West with Eitzel, Middle Eastern with Tuatara, and everywhere else with Minus 5

In the middle of answering a question, Mark Eitzel notices a jacket worn by one of the Warner Bros. Records publicists who are hanging around his hotel room. He forgets what he's saying--something about why he doesn't really hate people, he just likes when they ain't around--when he sees the red patch on black vinyl bearing the name of the band Failure.

"Can I get one of those?" he asks the woman, his voice rising above his usual mumble.

"Yeah, we can probably get you one," she says, sounding not so sure. "I think we have some boxes of them around the office. Do you like Failure?" Her question is loaded with disbelief.

"No," he says, smiling. "I just like a jacket that says 'Failure.' I'm having all these hats made up that say, 'I failed in life.'"

"Really?" she asks, her voice filled with either amusement or some kind of weird fear.

"Really."
Such an inquiry is the stuff of which Eitzel's legend and back catalog are made. As both frontman for American Music Club and solo act, he has created and fostered a reputation as rock and roll's saddest man, the lonely loser so self-deprecating that every song slouches toward parody. His voice is as beautifully bleak as his words; he comes off like a lounge singer performing in front of corpses at closing time, Frank Sinatra's bastard son on a NyQuil kick. Every syllable is shot through with despair and regret--and the hint of a man pondering, and embracing the thought of, his own end; he once sang, "When my plane goes down, I hope it falls into the sea"--and that was during a moment of good cheer. Few men have managed to make such a career of suffering as Mark Eitzel, a man who seems to have a gun always aimed at his head--and the only thing stopping him from pulling the trigger is the fact that he doesn't want to mess up the hat.

So it is on this appropriately bleak morning that Eitzel sits for an interview in a hotel room that overlooks the unexpected gray skies and choppy Town Lake waters of Austin. His arrival in town coincided with the cold front that blew through the South by Southwest music conference the night before, and it would be easy to lay the blame at the feet of this San Francisco musician's feet; he brings with him a certain chilly sadness wherever he goes, even when he's laughing--at, of course, his own expense.

He is in Austin to begin promoting his second post-AMC album, titled West, which was written and recorded over just a few December days with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and Buck's side band Tuatara--which includes no less than Luna bassist Justin Harwood, Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin, Critters Buggin saxophonist Skerik, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, Young Fresh Fellows bassist-frontman Scott McCaughey, and Los Lobos' Steve Berlin. (Tuatara--which has just released its own album, Breaking the Ethers--is the rare alternarock supergroup that doesn't sound like an oxymoron.) Eitzel was omnipresent throughout the South by Southwest weekend, popping up on the Austin Convention Center stage with an acoustic guitar and on the University of Texas campus aided by Giant Sand. The show at the convention center was particularly amazing--one man alone with his thoughts and his instrument, shedding his skin in broad daylight for a crowd too busy talking business to pay much attention to the blood and muscle. And yet he trudged on, whispering his sad, reflective stories to himself.

A few months ago, the thought of stepping on a stage was unthinkable to him. He bristled at the thought, became irate when his business folks encouraged him to leave the house and stop writing.

"My management says, 'Don't write any more songs, just tour,'" he says. "And I'm like, 'Fuck tour. People are fucked. Why do I wanna go be a monkey? Fuck them all.' I don't dislike people. I like people a lot. I do, I really do. I just don't like playing in front of them, because I don't like the compromise of having to play in a live setting for people I have to win over. I don't care about winning them over. I don't give a shit."

Eitzel's bad attitude stems from a few months spent last year opening for Everything but the Girl--a pairing that even now seems illogical. On the one hand was Eitzel, who had spent a career forming songs out of fog. On such albums as California, Everclear, and Mercury with American Music Club, and then on last year's solo debut, 60 Watt Silver Lining, he had carved for himself a niche as a troubadour painting black-and-white portraits from a chilly Bay Area perch; but there was also a nifty joke contained within such songs as "Johnny Mathis' Feet," "What Godzilla Said to God When His Name Wasn't Found in the Book of Life," "How Many Six Packs Does It Take to Screw in a Light," and "The President's Test for Physical Fitness." And then there was Everything but the Girl, light pop-folkies reborn as dance-floor sensations. It was dark opening for light, an adult performing for audiences of radio's children.

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