For years, you couldn't open the page to a story about Eels founder/singer/guitarist/multi-instrumentalist E without having to wade through the several layers of tragedy that apparently pervaded the young alterno-rock brainiac's life, the knowledge of which was seemingly required to give context to his hugely varied (and often happiness-filled!) storehouse of pop-rock art.
Mark Everett, a.k.a. E: the Julian Lennon of the physics world?
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Not to slight the very real tough stuff that Virginia-born E went through as he trudged alone in the adult world — his sister's suicide in 1996 was followed shortly thereafter by the death of his mother from cancer, a bleak period that nevertheless (perhaps typically) yielded great cathartic art in the form of Eels' dark and melancholic Electro-Shock Blues album in 1998. (And here's a grim twist: E's cousin and her husband were on the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon in 2001.)
Marking Eels' 10-year anniversary, Geffen/Universal has just released two separate loads of the band's material, one of them being Meet the Eels, a greatest-hits collection plus a DVD of several videos; and Useless Trinkets, a compilation of soundtracks, B-sides, rare and unreleased items, plus a DVD featuring several videos of Eels' 2006 performance at Lollapalooza. Taken together, these imaginatively selected (by E himself) collections are an invaluable source of some of the smartest, deepest and most heart-rendingly beautiful pop music the “indie rock” (and beyond) era has yielded to date — remarkable for the vast array of musical approaches with which E paints his music, and perhaps most of all for the variety of personas that reveal themselves in the telling of his songs.
“I decided the way I could do it was just keep throwing myself into different situations,” he explains. “Sort of like Leonard Zelig, walking around a section of Hollywood that's crowded with recording studios.”
Even so, there's an undeniable wisping loneliness that has pervaded E's music throughout the course of his band's 10-year career, sneaking its way even into the sardonic, experimental raspings of the Beautiful Freak (1996) and Souljacker (2001) albums, on up to Blinking Lights and Other Revelations (2005). Yet these bits of gloom in E tend to overshadow the other, just as prevalent, tone colors of his life and music, and are at any rate belied in the man's humorous and affable persona during our recent conversation at a Silver Lake cafe.
E — real name Mark Everett — doesn't mind talking about how death and general downer-isms have infused and informed his songs. I find myself acting the amateur psychiatrist as I probe how his childhood has affected his creative world. (I fail miserably in getting this good-humored, down-to-earth dude to break down and cry.)
Recently, E filmed a BBC program about his relationship with his deceased father, a physicist who, it turns out, came up with the theory of “parallel universes.” That alone is a startling revelation about E — that he's the son of the man who developed an initially ridiculed theory that has now gained credence in the heady world of quantum physics, and which has become a staple scenario of so many sci-fi movies and television shows. It was a revelation for E too.
“I didn't know till after he died, really,” he says with a shrug. “He knew, but nobody else believed him. He was so far ahead of his time — he came up with this theory when he was 24, so there weren't even mathematical ways to check it out. And there is now, and it checks out really well, mathematically. Which is kind of the definition of being ahead of your time.”
The parallel-universe theory's getting brushed under the carpet kind of ruined his father's life, says E, but as his relationship with his dad was rather remote and businesslike, it colored but didn't exactly ruin E's outlook on life. Given the subtly intellectual appeal of Eels' music, it's interesting to ponder whether or not E has inherited some of his father's predilection for pointy-headedness.
“Well, I didn't get any of his math thing,” he says, laughing, “but his mother was a poet, and maybe poetry plus math equals what I do, 'cause they say math and music are related. I'm kinda glad I'm not a physicist, though. If I was a physicist, I'd be like the Julian Lennon of physicists, and that wouldn't be any fun… I hope my kids aren't physicists…”
In the course of making the film with the BBC, E spent a week at Princeton scribbling on blackboards with some of the greatest physicists in the world, who tried to explain to him his father's complex conjectures about these parallel universes. And E realized with a satisfying finality that “I didn't inherit my father's mathematical thing at all. Seriously, like adding up the tip after dinner, I just didn't get that gene.” As for grasping the essential workings of the theory, “I came about as far as a layman can get, and it's heavy shit, that's for sure. And there are these terms now, there are physicists that are 'Everettians' and physicists that aren't 'Everettians,' it's still being debated and everything.
“I like to think I'm an Everettian. By default.”
“There're easy ways to wrap it up,” he says, “just in the ways that it's in Star Trek episodes, and some of the science-fiction movies, where any action — like, right now I'm putting the fork down, but I could've done a million other things, and those choices are all happening elsewhere. It's hard to fathom because there's no way for us to observe the other planes that this is happening on.”
Okay, so first we look to die Mutter und der Vater. It seems logical to suggest that E's father was therefore a late influence on E? As a creative person, as a thinker, as an iconoclast.
“Well, yeah, you know, you grow up and you kind of rebel against your father, and you don't want to be like him,” he says. “I didn't understand much about my father. I lived in the same house with him for 18 years, and he was a complete mystery.
“Then you look in the mirror one day and there's your father looking back at you, and you can't help it. You start to understand them, because you are them in a lot of ways, and you start to forgive them for their shortcomings. I get why he was what he was, 'cause I did inherit a lot of stuff from him, I understand why he was kinda isolated.”
Ja, but E must have gone through a period of tremendous anger at his dad.
“I wouldn't say tremendous, but definitely anger,” he says. But that's a good thing, he adds, because he has confronted it and, having done so, now feels as if the big coal sack has been lifted off his back. The already-prolific tunesmith has in the past couple of years entered into a period of free-flowing, hugely enjoyable creativity that sees him pumping out songs in his basement studio (he's got another album in the can, plus another about half-done), and he's going on a tour of Europe and America in February and April (with a warm-up show at the Galaxy Theater in Santa Ana on Valentine's Day). He's got songs in two Shrek movies (though he could give a toss about a career in film scoring), and he's got his first book, Things the Grandchildren Should Know, coming out in England (hits U.S. stores in the fall, though you can buy it online). In it, he endeavors to tell the story of his troubled and ultimately rewarding life.
“All this stuff — the compilation CDs, the film about my father, the book — I'm someone who's never looked back, and now I've just had a couple years of intensely looking back in every way I can imagine. It's something I dreaded doing, but now that I've done it, it's a fantastic feeling. I feel light as air, ready to [laughs] head straight into the future, now!”
EELS | Useless Trinkets | Geffen/Universal
EELS | Meet the Eels | Geffen/Universal