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.
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.
"I was reduced to being the bad older folkie opening up for the new sleek modern techno sensation, which is complete bullshit," Eitzel says now, bringing up the topic but hoping it will go away. "I'd walk out on the stage and go, 'Fuck you all. I hope you all die.' And I still can't shake it either. I don't want to say [why it still bothers me] because Everything but the Girl are friends of mine. You know, you just get convinced you'll never, ever be heard, so why bother?"
He shrugs, buries his heads in his hands, looks out the window at the charcoal skies. "People are...well, I don't know."
By the end of 1996, Eitzel was through with touring; he was content to write alone, record alone, be alone. He had nearly finished one album for Matador when he and Peter Buck hooked up at a club in Seattle, where Buck and his family now live after many years spent creating a cottage industry in Athens, Georgia. They were mutual fans and distant friends who struck up conversation over drinks one night after Eitzel's show at the Crocodile Cafe; one thing led to another, and when Buck happened upon San Francisco during a vacation late last year, he showed up at Eitzel's front door.
They both talk now of how a friendly jam session turned into three songs turned into an album; they both talk of how easy it was to work with each other, how Buck would write some music and Eitzel would fill in the blanks with quickly penned words.
"I probably wouldn't have done these things with Peter," Eitzel says, "if I just thought he was this asshole rock star--and I've met asshole rock stars--but he was just this really friendly, warm, down-to-earth guy, so I knew whatever I did with him was going to inspire me."
At the end of three days, they had 11 songs completed, at which point Buck turned to Eitzel and said--so the legend goes, Andy Hardy-style--"Let's make a record!" He subsequently booked studio time in Seattle and rounded up Tuatara--with whom he had been performing and recording--in addition to McCaughey, who had spent 1995 touring as R.E.M.'s auxiliary guitarist. (McCaughey, Buck, and Tuatara were also in the process of recording McCaughey's album, The Lonesome Death of Buck McCoy, released under McCaughey's solo nom de rock, the Minus 5.)
"When we did this record [West]," Buck says from his vacation hideaway in Hawaii, "I think everyone realized it's easier than how much people give us credit for. Steve Berlin said, 'You did this in seven days?' I mean, why spend $100,000 to do a record when you can spend $15,000? It just confirms the fact that you can work quickly, that your first ideas are the best and reworking things doesn't make them better. People forget we have so many options that deciding on one is 90 percent of the work.
"I mean, with Mark there was so little ego involved, and in the past he has been in other situations where he worked with people who felt they weren't getting their due and tried to mess with his head. Every one of us has something else we do, so it wasn't like, 'This is the only record I'm ever gonna make; I need a hot solo.' I would teach the songs to Tuatara, and we'd do a couple of passes and do a couple of takes with Mark singing full-out, and for him it was liberating. Before, he'd do two weeks on a guitar solo. This time, it was like musical chairs."
Indeed, West is a remarkable piece of work that doesn't bury one man's work in another's; Buck has infused Eitzel's brooding with his trademark jangly upraise, and Eitzel has tempered Buck's rock sensibility with a little grim luster. Such songs as "Free of Harm," "Stunned & Frozen," and "In Your Life" (which Buck says began as an R.E.M. demo) display an Eitzel eager to broaden his range, willing to play left and right field at the same time. "Three Inches of Wall" wears a gentle jazz-pop groove with ease, while "Move Myself Ahead" wouldn't have sounded out of place on R.E.M.'s Document.
And Eitzel, writing with such a contracted deadline, didn't have the chance to write and rewrite his lyrics, as is his wont. The album's lyrics seem more conversational--less confessional, less about the I and more about the we; the haunting "Lower Eastside Tourist" is even, more or less, about the October '96 suicide of Lush drummer Chris Acland: "People come and people go/Drop in the ocean, drop in the flow," Eitzel sings as a sad farewell.
By contrast, Tuatara's Breaking the Ethers rings with the pretensions of a jazzbo collective, a handful of marksman musicians come together to exercise--and exorcise. It's the sound of the Middle East and the Southwest reconfigured for velvet rooms and quiet nights. In the end, it sounds like soundtrack music--which is actually why the band was formed, to score films; indeed, the band is recording some demos for Hollywood producers enamored of Breaking the Ethers. "The band started with the idea of being a soundtrack band," says Scott McCaughey, "one that didn't need a movie necessarily."
McCaughey's own album, The Lonesome Death of Buck McCoy, is perhaps the most familiar-sounding of the three Buck-plus projects; McCaughey and Buck, whose on-and-off partnership dates back several years, have arrived at "a big folk-rock-pop record type of a thing," as McCaughey says, his grin obvious even as he speaks over the phone from his Seattle home. Buck McCoy, which also features the Posies and Guided by Voices' Bob Pollard, possesses an extraordinary Younger Than Yesterday/Rubber Soul vibe; it's what R.E.M. might have sounded like had Green never happened and had they remained indie heroes instead of becoming arena superstars. And it's the first McCaughey-Young Fresh Fellows album from which you get the feeling this guy's in it for keeps; the Fellows' deadpan laughter is replaced this time around by feedback melodies and folk rhythms and songs about dead mommies and moonshine girls and being abandoned by them all.
"I realized so many songs were about being alone, and that's when I changed the name from The Ballad of Buck McCoy to The Lonesome Death of Buck McCoy. A lot of the time, I unconsciously realize a lot of the songs are tied together and make an effort to tie them together. Old Liquidator [released in 1995] was a concept album, but I didn't say it was about booze and death."
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Taken as a whole, West, Breaking the Ethers, and The Lonesome Death of Buck McCoy are an impressive array of sounds and structures--a little bit of everything, yet not so much of anything as to become the product of dilettantes with too much money and too much time to kill. And at the very least, Buck didn't take his Warner Bros. millions and disappear till the next album. Indeed, between finishing these three records and preparing for this Tuatara tour, R.E.M. has already begun work on the follow-up to last year's New Adventures in Hi-Fi--and what he has written so far might well end up bearing the marks of his three on-the-side projects.
"For the next R.E.M. record, I'm trying to teach myself keyboard and writing string-quartet things--if you can imagine that," Buck says, emitting a rare laugh. "I've come up with four-voice choruses, so we'll see what happens. But one of the joys in playing music in a structured environment is the community. People who write about music don't realize I can sit with a jazz player and a folk player and we can talk all night even if we don't like each other's records. I'm older than most of these guys [in Tuatara], and I've been doing it forever at a level most people will never get to, and when people ask me advice, I love it. I feel like I've been around a long time.
"And when I talk to people about music, it's amazing how many people tend to overthink things. You go, 'We're not thinking about: Is this going to make it on the radio?' Your best idea is the first one. And sure, the kick drum could sound better, but if you really want a great kick-drum sound, buy a drum machine. Focusing on little things doesn't make any sense. You're trying to capture lightning in a bottle, and you can't obsess about details....I've done demos with bands, and sometimes I go, Why am I doing this? When I'm in those situations, it sucks because amateurs don't have any understanding about how to be in a band. They go, 'It's about my guitar sound or my bass.' It's not about that. It's about three minutes of noise.
"Every experience I have I try to internalize. Music is a place where you can be thrown into a new world at every step. A baseball player doesn't take a year off and play basketball. Tuatara and R.E.M. are a whole different language. I really have learned a lot from everything I've done. When I did Document in 1987, I had done Warren Zevon's record [Sentimental Hygiene], and it was an L.A. record. It was $2,000 a day, and they bring in lunch, and they listen to takes with a beat counter and say stuff like, 'The third chorus is one beat faster per minute,' and it's important to them. I had never thought about that--generally, we just play. But then I tended to think about it, and I was a lot more conscious of going back in and making it right. Document is a product of that. And when Out of Time and Automatic for the People came out, I had played folk music for a year with musicians in Athens. You'd sit and learn these songs and play mandolin, and then the next thing you know, you're writing these songs and going, 'Where the hell did that come from?'