ANYONE FAMILIAR WITH THE EELS WILL UNDERstand the following: One recent night, after listening to the band's newest record, Souljacker (DreamWorks), this writer had two dreams — the first was a still color image of Eels front man and main brain E (real name Mark Everett) wrapping his arms around a veritable litter of chubby, pink-faced, pacifier-sucking babies with window reflections on their cheeks drawn in the Curious George style; in the second, the Eels were giving a concert on a second-story dance floor, and young fans were jumping over the railing.
Well, no. It was E, after all, who gave the wor ld Electro-Shock Blues (1998), the gut-wrenching musical commemoration of his sister's suicide and his mom's terminal-cancer diagnosis (“cancer rock,” he called it) — a rather unexpected “follow-up” to the Eels' wildly popular, MTV-saturating hit song of two years earlier, “Novocaine for the Soul” from the band's first album, Beautiful Freak (also DreamWorks).
But that was then. The world's taken many a turn since '98, and E — now the proud possessor of a gigantic beard and an ecstatically happy marriage — has released the alternately goofy and romantic Souljacker, a collection of songs colored by the unmistakable mixture of sincerity, gloom and cartoon-character heroes that has permeated his lyricography from the beginning (at 39, he's known to his friends as Grandpa). Through a sideshow gallery of songs about freaks and misfits (“Bus Stop Boxer,” “Dog Faced Boy,” “Teenage Witch”), heartfelt paeans to his new bride (“Fresh Feeling” and “What Is This Note?”) and the universal human yearning to get rid of religious solicitors at the door (“Jehovah's Witness”), the soft rasp of the E-voice sails and buzzes through fuzzed-out guitars, lush strings, Bo Diddley rhythms and the ferocious jungle pounding of Eels drummer Butch, not to mention some frantic banjo playing by guest musician/co-producer/PJ Harvey associate John Parish.
Randy Newman, meet Frank Zappa and Neil Young and give birth to Souljacker, a probably too-smart record that's sincere enough to embarrass you and jerk your tears, and funny enough to tickle your inner cartoonist — the child of a reflective, sarcastic man at peace. Still, it seemed appropriate to ask:
How are you?
I'm good! I'd really have to say that . . . I'm good.
That's a pretty formidable beard you've got there.
The beard has actually come and gone a couple of times. After September 11, I got so much extra attention at the airport, and I got so tired of the cavity searches. But now it's back to its full glory. I like life with the beard — it does change your life in some interesting, subtle ways, like when you go to the bank and the security guard flips the safety off of his gun.
But the main reason I grew it is because my wife loves it. She's the opposite of everybody else you know. The beard really gets her hot.
Well, she's Russian, isn't she?
Yeah. I think it's like a Rasputin thing.
Please praise married life for me.
I gotta tell ya, it's the best thing I ever did. Two things have saved my life: One was Lenny Waronker at DreamWorks, and the other was my wife. The two things that kept me from blowing my brains out.
Yeah. I met her in Germany. We met when we were both patients in a clinic. It was run by this kooky doctor just outside of Hamburg who helps you recharge your batteries. This might give you some insight into my . . . kookiness. I think I'm some sort of strange mix between cynical and really naive, so I'm always willing to check out all possibilities. Anyway, we were at the end of a European tour, and I had no real reason to come home, so I said, all right, I'd heard about this doctor out in the country, so I just went there. And I lived in this boarding house for two weeks. It was just me, my future wife and the doctor's mother-in-law, who ran it. The doctor didn't make me feel any better, but I got a wife out of it. So it was a pretty good deal. [Laughs.] It was really a great, romantic thing — if you go in for that sort of thing.
There's a definite cartoony feel to some of the Souljacker songs.
Yeah, well, I'm into cartoons. I like doing songs like “Dog Faced Boy,” because I like to tell the story of someone who's, uh, not the average Joe, maybe, and it's tragic and funny all at the same time. Which I guess is not all that easy to mix together, but it comes naturally to me, I suppose.
Are any of these “grotesques” inspired by real people?
There're a couple of songs on the record that were inspired by real-life people, and “Dog Faced Boy” is one of them. I mean, most of these songs are made up out of thin air, but “Dog Faced Boy” was inspired, oddly enough, by a woman — a very attractive woman I know who when she was younger I guess was kinda hairy. Her classmates would tease her and call her Gorilla Girl. She had this Christian fundamentalist mother, and she'd go home crying and beg her mom to shave her arms and stuff . . . Anyway, I heard all this and I was immediately forming a song, but I thought I could make this more convincing if I switched the sex and made her a boy. The nice, real-life ending to the story of Gorilla Girl is that she got the last laugh, because she's this really smart, beautiful woman. That's the way it always works out, you know: The geeks shall inherit the Earth.
Yeah, 'cause they're more interesting.
They're more interesting, and they've got a story to tell — and they've got some character “built up.” But “Bus Stop Boxer” was based on this recording engineer who made the mistake of telling me about his childhood while we were working on something. He had this really fucked-up childhood. His father was this monster who'd drive him and his brother up to random school-bus stops and say, “Okay, go out there and beat up that kid!” Like, Show me you're a man, little man!
You know, it struck me, listening to the record, that this is not the greatest time for songwriters, period — people writing anything serious, much less funny. Am I right?
Yeah, definitely. The thing that's kept us afloat all this time is Europe and the rest of the world, because in America, it's a very small part of their day, if anyone even cares about music. Whereas in Europe, it's something that they reserve their day for; they've gotta eat, sleep, drink and enjoy art, or pop music or whatever. But in America it's all just about entertainment, obviously, and there are so many other ways to be entertained at this point. I'm playing a video game right now.
Yeah, this great new game called Pong! You're gonna love it! It's like super Ping-Pong!
What would you like to say in praise of John Parish?
Well, we have a similar love for those sounds that make people get up and see if their stereo's broken. But he does something really unique that's hard to put into words; it's almost like you have to say about a song, “It's been John Parished.”
Whose voice is that on “Hidden Track” on the bonus EP? It sounds like he's reciting a pastiche of newspaper ads.
That's Butch. And I'm glad you brought this up, 'cause this is one song that really needs explaining. We had a contest on our Web site [eelstheband.com] to name a B-side. And because our fans are these twisted, crazy people, they all sent in so many great, bizarre titles that we couldn't decide on one, so I, uh, kinda changed the rules to the contest and just used a hundred of the titles as the lyrics to a song.
So that's what those are.
That's what those are. I guess we should've put this in the liner notes. People must be thinking, “What the fuck was that?” I'm here to explain.