Eels main man E has a well-documented family saga -- a lonely childhood, the death of both parents and his sisters suicide -- that makes black-comedy blockbuster American Beauty look like an after-school special. His latest efforts to musically address such weighty subject matter, Electro-Shock Blues (1998) and the just-released Daisies of the Galaxy, might seem equally bleak. But against the current backdrop of vapid vamps and gold-drippin gun-toters peddling their wares on the airwaves, E comes off the hopeful hero. An orphaned workaholic molding his ambitions and anguish into a collection of candid, inspiring songs -- thats as close to a Disney ending as you can get this side of reality.
To me, these are happy records, he says, the most positive records I could have made. And I think Electro-Shock Blues [largely about his sisters suicide and his mothers impending demise] is even more positive than Daisies. Its a hard-won victory, but its a victory, you know? You have to think about how much trouble it is to get up every day and make a record like that. If youre passionate about something, youre doing pretty good.
Its that passion that many of Es followers tap into, though many are not the bikini-clad groupies that moved the dudes at the Rainbow Room to pick up a guitar. I have a friend who had a mental breakdown, and the first thing he noticed at the hospital was a girl who looked like shed slashed her wrists, and sticking out of her purse was an Eels CD, E says. Its really very touching. Thats when you need something to mean something to you.
The Virginia native had several artists fill those boots during his youth, from Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, to The Who and Prince. It wasnt like today, where kids arent really interested in the artists, just the songs. I was always interested in how people evolved. I would get really obsessed and want to learn everything. He began incessantly recording his own 4-tracks and nourished his interests with a few key pals who are still his family, but ultimately he felt stifled by the depressing, wheel-spinning experience of living in the suburbs of Virginia, where everybody was a drug addict, an alcoholic, a redneck -- or all three, in most cases.
In Virginia, I didnt know what it was like to be around artistic people, he says, and eventually I felt, This is going nowhere. So he loaded up his four-door and headed for Los Angeles, because it was farther away than New York. He spent three years making 4-tracks (several versions of which turned up on his debut, A Man Called E), and working odd jobs he hated before getting a record deal.
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It wasnt long before E went from opening for local acts to selling out clubs. After two solo albums and two as Eels, E recorded his latest, Daisies of the Galaxy, with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. Each album has been more optimistic than the last, and with Daisies, E is finally pointing in the direction of happiness. He often wraps himself in the cloak of a character -- a starfucker, a wayward boy, his mother -- but the records central threads of new beginnings and the safe haven of friendship, or the pain of its absence, shine through.
When you wear the mask of anothers point of view, you get more daring and end up revealing more, he says. You think, This isnt really me, so I can say whatever I want. Often people thought it was me whining about my life for 12 songs, but its really different people whining about their lives. He laughs.
Despite all the guys been through (or maybe because of it), Es got a lighter, even wild, side. Just recently he stayed up till midnight. Hes remarkably deft at coining new hip lingo: Man, that is cactus. That bitch is fuckin cactus. If you say it like that, anything works. And Wal-Mart shoppers will get a special treat, courtesy of the Christians, when they cue to the new discs track No. 7: Seems that Its a Motherfucker didnt go over well with the Righteous Right, so E turned it into Its a Monstertrucker: I bleeped out the fucker parts and did the whole track on a CB radio. In a way, its genius, probably better than what I intended. So I thank Wal-Mart.
His label was even less thrilled with Es first single, Mr. Es Beautiful Blues. They think, Hey, this could be a hit song, but it says goddamn about 36 times, and you put it on as a hidden track, he says. E doesnt seem to worry much about the professional impact of such artistic choices, as he calls them, after having chatted amiably about slit wrists, rednecks and Christians. Now, I think Ive pretty much sunk my career at this point. What else can I say that sounds bad in print?