American Music Club, circa 2008
American Music Club’s new album, The Golden Age (Merge), begins with what seems to me two perfect Southern California couplets that capture a particular feeling and a particular breeze: "I wish that we were always high/I wish that we could swim in the sky/If we believe, we won’t fall/We’ll leave our lives and rise above it all.” It’s a hopeful introduction, a leap off a springboard and the consequent float, one that Eitzel and his band, guitarist Vudi, bassist Sean Hoffman and drummer Steve Didelot, manage to maintain throughout The Golden Age’s thirteen songs. Eitzel founded American Music Club in San Francisco nearly 25 years ago, returned in 2004 after a decade long hiatus to record their eighth album, Love Songs for Patriots. Last summer the band convened in Echo Park to record the follow-up, The Golden Age with producer Dave Trumfio. Eitzel recently spoke over the phone during the Arlington, Virginia stop on their four month European and American tour. The band will close the journey at the Echo this Friday, May 16.
LA Weekly:You were living in LA for a while this summer while you were working on The Golden Age, and I’m wondering whether any of that LA stuff made it onto the record.
Mark Eitzel: I think so. I mean, I was writing a lot in August in LA. Getting home late and having the door open all night long. My view was this parking lot [and] of this recording studio called The Ship.
"All the Lost Souls Welcome You to San Francisco," directed by Jon Ramos for The Masses. (And, yes, that's the inimitable Grace Zabriskie, she of Big Love and Twin Peaks, sipping the whiskey; she and Eitzel are longtime friends.)
What’s your relationship been like with LA over the years? Have you felt like LA has been receptive to your music?
LA is so glib and so facile, that I never understood how tough it was. Everyone is so fresh and nice, and over the years I’ve come to realize that, shit, this is tough. Because San Francisco is this dark, dirty little town, and you go to LA and it’s all suburbs. At least it looks like suburbs. And as a visitor it takes a while to realize that, holy shit, this is one of the world’s biggest cities, and it’s not easy. Especially because people in LA know how to smile and tell you how much they hate you, more than anywhere else on earth. It’s very California, actually. In San Francisco we do the same thing, but only because there are so many insane people.
Yeah, you know, it’s funny. I was talking to people before Coachella who were going too, and we’d make these excited plans to hook up. Then you text them from the polo field and get no response.
Nothing. They all found a better party. And they’re not even going to tell you they found a better party. They just found a better party. That’s exactly how it felt. That’s how it is. And it took me a while. Now I love LA. I know a lot of people there, and I feel like it’s home.
But you’re still living in San Francisco? Or are you dividing your time?
Well, last year I was, thanks to the generosity of my friend, the photographer Chris Buck. But otherwise, no, I’m mostly in San Francisco. I bought a house a long time ago, so it’s cheap. I’m kind of stuck.
I’ve got a confession to make about lyrics. It’s hard for me to track them when I’m just listening. I can’t absorb the music and the feel and the melodies and everything going on while simultaneously listening to lyrics. I do the two things separately. And I haven’t had the chance yet to sit down and immerse myself in the words to The Golden Age. I know the choruses and the melodies really well, but not the verses.
That’s all right. Basically, I love lyrics, and when I listen to songs, I try and focus in on the lyrics. But it’s not the biggest thing. Basically, lyric writing is the bastard child of poetry. It’s a good forum for people who have very little to say. I’m not putting songwriting down. But for me, whenever people call songwriters “artists,” my feathers are slightly ruffled because, eh, it can be art, but it’s usually not. It’s usually just for commercial value. It’s like, ‘words are only things that sound pretty with music.' That’s what lyrics are. They have to sound good with music, otherwise they’re kind of worthless.
Oh, I don’t know. It depends on who’s doing the writing.
Many years ago, I was reading an interview with Ratt, and the guy was talking about lyrics, and he said, ‘You know, I frame them. I put them on my wall.' I was like, wow. But then he said, 'Lyrics are only words that sound good with music.' And I was like, yeah, you know what? That’s kind of it. To raise it higher than that, well, that’s certainly not my job. And I’m not saying I hate songwriting. I’m a songwriter. I love songwriting. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s all I want to do, really. But at the same time, you can hear the dumbest thing, and if it’s honest sounding, it’s still great songwriting. It doesn’t really matter how good or bad the lyrics are. There’s a whole different standard for judging. Like “Peggy Sue.” 'Peggy Sue, pretty pretty pretty pretty Peggy Sue/I love you/Oh I love you.' That’s great songwriting. But it’s not genius.
“Surfin’ Bird” is one of the greatest songs ever written.
And Dylan, god bless, he was also a great songwriter. I had this argument with somebody on the phone about the Hold Steady versus Sufjan Stevens. And I love them both. But the Hold Steady speaks more to my heart than Sufjan. Hold Steady talks about partying and doing drugs and living like things are fucked up. And Sufjan kind of lives on a campus in a nice house, and he is very beautiful and his friends are very beautiful and they do nice things together.
And you? Where do you live on that street?
I don’t live on that street. I live on the edge of that street. Where I live in that relationship is where the talentless always stay. In a tent. Far, far at the outskirts of town. For the songwriters. But I like the Hold Steady better, because I can relate. It’s more about my life. It’s more generous. Fundamentally, it’s more generous.
Are your songs snapshots of moments. Are you trying to capture one particular thing, and when you look back on older songs, can you recapture that feeling?
Oh yeah, absolutely. And sometimes I sacrifice the cleverness of the lyric just because the cleverness is not what really happened. For example, my fans always want to hear certain songs, and they always want to hear “Why Won’t You Stay,” so I play that song frequently, and sometimes I play it and I listen to the lyric, and sometimes I don’t listen to the lyrics. But the night before last I was listening to the lyrics – it goes, “Will this night fulfill all the promises, and bury us in peace.” And I’m like, “What fucking promises?” It’s like, this romantic ideal of what night is supposed to be doesn’t really exist, and I wrote that talking to Kathleen very specifically, in a way only she could really understand, and I think it hurts the song a little bit. I don’t do that so much now, but at the time I thought, ‘Yeah yeah yeah, this is how I really talk, and this is how the song should be.’ You know what I mean?
It’s interesting that you said that sometimes you listen to your lyrics while you’re singing and sometimes you don’t, because I always wondered, god, how can you be on the road for five months and still feel those songs, or whether they’re so ingrained in your head that the words just come out and you have to impart a sort of quasi-emotion that was once there.
Both. And it’s also that just singing the melody is enough. I mean, sometimes it really hits me, singing those songs. Sometimes, if I really think about what those songs are about, if I get into the moment with those songs, it really fucks with me and it kind of freaks me out. I really believe in the song, and sometimes that really flips me out. For instance, I look into the audience and in slow motion I see a whole Bosch-ian sort of vision of Hell. Grinning fuckers all with malice in their eyes and disbelief in their hearts, so I try and have the lights turned into my eyes so I won’t see people. Because when I’m singing these songs it really brings up some hard and negative stuff. Which is kind of a fault, and I’m really trying not to do that with my newer songs. I try not to do that at all, because it’s so hard to sing every night. Everything from Love Songs for Patriots to now is really me trying not to sing those songs that kind of kill me.
Oh fuck yeah. Absolutely.
What songs of yours can’t you play?
I’ll play any of them that I remember because I figure the audience pays the money and I have to give them what they paid for.
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Are there any that you won’t play because of the circumstances surrounding the songs.
Yes. There are songs that I can’t play because they make me too crazy. And of course those are the ones that everyone wants to hear. After playing shows for 20 years and drinking myself into oblivion and just going nuts, you come back and you try and maintain an even keel, maintain a life without antidepressants or without treatment, and you maintain it – we did a show in LA at Spaceland once. It was a free show, and at that point I would just go nuts after every show. And this guy came up to me and he said, ‘You know, I think I’d really like you if you just went completely insane and just started throwing shit.’ And I thought, ‘Where were you fucking fifteen years ago?’ And I don’t do that anymore because, what the fuck, is an audience really worth going crazy for? Maybe, but not every single night.
It depends on if you’re starving or not, I guess.
Yeah, it’s true. And I feel like I’m starving – not even if you’re starving, though. If you’re a middle-aged man, you really don’t want to be rolling around on the floor. It doesn’t look good. It’s an unpleasant experience for all.