MARK EITZEL SITS AT a long table in a conference room, his trademark short-brimmed hat in front of him. He's sharing a panel on new technology issues at the CMJ Change Music Festival with a number of other artists, including Creeper Lagoon's Sharky Laguana, the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, and Nothing Painted Blue's Franklin Bruno. As part of their opening statements, Darnielle and Bruno read a list of 10 demands they want to make of the recording industry.
When they get to No. 3--"a 10-year bilateral moratorium on all attempts to rejuvenate the sagging careers of declining singer/songwriters via the innovative use of trip hop beats"--Eitzel thinks to himself, "Oh shit."
Eitzel's first album in three years, the just-released The Invisible Man, does in fact feature electronic percussion and loops. His career, once so promising, seems to be in relative free fall. And he certainly is a singer/songwriter, among the most critically acclaimed and undersold around. So it makes sense that he should be sweating. Why would one of the country's most renowned gutter-trawling, angst-bawling artists resort to glossy production tools to make a record? Why would the poet inebriate of San Francisco slick up his once-bitten, twice-bit-back rock songs with the kind of gauzy electronica you hear in clothing stores?
"All these fucking ideas about music are a bore," Eitzel says during an interview at his home. "I'm not personally interested in white guys with guitars who are gloomy anymore."
Eitzel has spent his entire career being a gloomy white guy with a guitar. The Naked Skinnies, his first San Francisco band after moving from Columbus, Ohio, was heavily influenced by the eviscerating punk of Joy Division. Likewise, American Music Club--the group that Eitzel would lead to near fame and no fortune in the '80s and '90s--began as a caterwauling, thoroughly morose combo. Over time it dropped the harsher elements of its sound, adding touches of folk and country, but Eitzel made sure that the lyrics and vocals continued to rage against the dying and the light.
After AMC broke up in 1995, Eitzel went searching for a new sound to illuminate his not-so-beautiful losers, thirsty drunks and spurned lovers. On 1996's 60 Watt Silver Lining he used a jazzy, almost "adult contemporary" feel, while on 1997's West, co-written and produced by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, he shoehorned his moody temperament into jangly pop arrangements. Neither worked particularly well compared to AMC's rough-hewn charm. His next album, the stripped-to-the-marrow effort Caught in a Trap and I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby, was something of a response to the more commercial efforts.
"I was in a really bad place and I wanted to put it all on the line and say, "I'm really fucked up,'" Eitzel says.
Eitzel's unhappiness was readily apparent on Caught in a Trap (released in 1998 on Matador). While he once suggested that the tunes were about "sex and food," they seem more about hatred and self-loathing. (One wouldn't like to speculate what this discrepancy says about Eitzel's erotic or culinary habits.) Eitzel fans--the kind who flock to his Web discussion group, www.fragment.com/ firefly--loved the visceral punch of the lyrics and vocals on Caught in a Trap and the brittle, angry music. Unfortunately, when Eitzel went on tour with folk-turned-trip-hop duo Everything But the Girl, he got a very different reaction.
"I did two tours with Everything But the Girl," Eitzel says. "It was horrible." EBTG's record label hadn't bothered to put Eitzel's name on any of the promotional materials, so no one knew he was playing. And even if some folks at the shows knew who he was, they didn't care. "The audience [was] all these kind of people that shop at Urban Outfitters. And they'd say, 'Oh it's Ben [Watt, who would DJ the opening set], and he looks great, considering his horrible tragedy. And oh, oh, this is the newest sound from London. Isn't it great?' All the secretaries and corporate middlemen, all those people with their proud-to-have-platinum smiles. And the folk singer from nowhere going nowhere comes out, and they'd go, 'Who is that?'" Most shows Eitzel did his 17 minutes in a simmering rage.
Part of the problem was the type of songs he was playing. "I had to sing those songs every night, and sometimes it became this gratuitous exploration of a place I didn't want to be," Eitzel says. "I thought, 'You'd better write songs you can believe in and play out every night.'"
Eitzel was indeed caught in a trap. His cult, however small, loved him for his pessimistic outlook and honest depiction of personal agony. But playing these heart-wrenching autobiographies every night was eating him alive.
Eitzel's friend Kevin Ink had a recording studio in the South Bay, the Studio That Time Forgot. Eitzel camped out there throughout 1998, tinkering with new songs and watching Ink fiddle with the new ProTools editing technology. "He was giving me a discount and fitting me in between his real clients," Eitzel says. "But we didn't finish anything and I spent a lot of my money."
Soon after, former Matador executive Johan Kugelberg offered to produce an all-covers album in Los Angeles, using Beck's rhythm section. Eitzel jumped at the chance, recording tunes like Liberace's "I'll Be Seeing You" ("The Billie Holiday version," he swears), Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up" and a couple of songs Elvis covered, "Snowbird" and "Help Me Make It Through the Night." Eitzel sent the semicomplete demos for both albums to various labels, but no one showed much interest. Matador co-owner Chris Lombardi remembers: "Mark wanted a big-budget covers record, and we didn't want to put that out. It wasn't Mark being Mark--that's what we liked."
Eitzel understands why no one bit. "I don't blame them, because [the demos] weren't completed," he says. "They were these half-assed, unfinished things. I wasn't happy with them either."
So he put together a band featuring ex-AMC guitarist Vudi, ex-Kinetics keyboardist Marc Capelle and bassist Kristin Sobditch, recorded more demos, and sent them out. The only person who showed interest in funding completed versions was Jason Carmer, who had just made a mint producing Third Eye Blind. "Jason said, 'I'll do it and I'll pay for it because I have all this extra money and I need a tax write-off,'" Eitzel recalls. When Carmer had to excuse himself to work on other projects in December 1999, Eitzel decided to buy a computer, teach himself ProTools and finish the album himself.
"I was never the boss in the studio, and now I am," Eitzel says. "In American Music Club, it was Vudi. In Silver Lining, I was the boss but I was a bad boss. For Caught in a Trap, the boss was money--I didn't have any."
On The Invisible Man Eitzel is thoroughly in charge. He plays most of the instruments and did all of the editing. He remixed a few of the previous demos and rerecorded several older songs, such as his first overtly gay number, "Steve I Always Knew." Stepping out on his own, he's come up with his strongest solo album to date--a record that walks the line between the stubborn clamor of AMC and the attempted commerciality of his later work.
"I thought it was terrific and refreshing," Lombardi says, describing his early impressions of the new record. "It's a departure but it's also a return to the Warner Brothers period [of AMC's Mercury and San Francisco]."
At first listen, the looped samples, syncopated drumbeats and synthesizer washes may seem wholly unsuited to Eitzel's gnarled voice and lyrics. Upon repeated listens, the disco thumps and synth swirls of "The Boy with the Hammer in the Paper Bag" fit snugly against Eitzel's tale of an illegal Mission District nightclub with drunks tap-dancing to Midnight Cowboy. "Steve" features a groovy sitar loop and "Bitterness" floats on a bossa nova beat and a slithering synth part. Instead of sounding gratuitous, the electronic colorings add to the distinctiveness of the songs.
It helps that Eitzel's at his most restrained, like a teacher who realizes he can get the attention of his students better by whispering. "I wanted to do away with the histrionic bullshit, away with the melancholy everything," he says. "I stopped writing melancholy songs about my life. I had to. I don't know if that's because I'm just getting older or I need to find joy in my life."
On The Invisible Man Eitzel sounds like he has something to live for. While the album includes a fair share of numbers about loss--"Anything" is the latest in a long line of songs about his now-deceased ex-girlfriend Kathleen Burns--there are also hopeful tunes like "Seeing Eye Dog" and "Can You See?" The breezy "Christian Science Reading Room" is Eitzel at his most surreal and charming, as he relates how he once got so high that he thought he'd become a Christian Scientist. "Proclaim Your Joy" is a fluffy bit of pop riffage that recalls early Bruce Springsteen, both in its buoyant word-salad-ness and in the fact that it took five minutes to write. (When Springsteen wrote the songs for Born in the U.S.A., his manager didn't hear a hit; he went back into his room and spat out the title tune in a couple of minutes.)
The biggest irony of the album is that its electronic sound may appeal more to Everything But the Girl's audience than to Eitzel's own fans. "Fine, good, I'm glad! Because they buy shit," Eitzel says. Then he pauses. "Urban Outfitters or not, I'm pretty proud of this record. I'm proud of having learned how to do this."
Eitzel will get to see how the record fares during a summer tour of Europe and the U.S. In order to re-create the album's electronic sound when playing live, he's put together a group with Sobditch on bass, Brian Gregory on pedal steel and Tipsy's Andrew Plourde on samples.
"With solo touring you can make a lot of money," he says. "But there's a real graveyard for songwriters that play solo acoustic; it's very much like the elephant graveyard, and I don't want to go there."