Ten albums in, E has a real band: "The buck still stops here," he tells us, "but it was so much more fun making it this way"
Eels is a deceptive plural. For nearly two decades, founder Mark Oliver Everett- alias E- has been the group's only actual member, employing an ever-rotating cast of musicians. Now, ten albums in, E's got a real band.
"It just struck me suddenly, at some point after doing so many shows with these guys where they just kept constantly surprising me with their incredible level of musicianship and imagination," E tells Billboard. For back-to-back world tours in 2011 and 2012, supporting a trilogy of Eels albums released within 14 months, the nickname-prone bandleader brought along lead guitarist The Chet, drummer Knuckles, bassist Koool G Murder, and rhythm guitarist P-Boo. Many of them had notched earlier cameos as session musicians and performers.
"I just thought, ‘Why don't we pull these horses in the name of making new music? Because they sure are good at playing stuff that's already been written,'" E says. "There's been collaborations, a lot, over the years, but this is the first time that a whole band had a hand in actually writing the album."
The result, "Wonderful, Glorious," released Feb. 5 on Vagrant, is piled with energy. The band churns out adventurous, layered and often spontaneous-seeming rock, easing away from the deliberate, intimate leanings of Everett's basement-cooked solo material. Eels standards like the war between positive and negative outlooks, threads of deadpan humor, and aching tenderness continue to shine. The record nods at both the sound-collage sampling of 1996's "Beautiful Freak" and '98's "Electro-Shock Blues" and the raucous distortion-buffets of 2001's "Souljacker" and '03's "Shootenanny!"
E is thrilled with the result. "The buck still stops here -- I'm still the guy who says yes or no at the end of the day -- but it was so much more fun making it this way, because you're getting all these musical ideas that wouldn't come from you."
The album more than metaphorically departed Everett's isolated songwriting haven. "Lots of the previous records were made in a very small basement, and over the years it got piled up with more and more musical instruments, to the point where it was getting hard to fit people in there with all the instruments. And it turns out you need people to play instruments, to make sound, so we were forced to look for a bigger space," he says. The group transformed a complete house into a studio, dubbing it The Compound. Live takes became an option for the first time. "It's our playground, it's fantastic," E says.
Everett is now found deploying both the intensely personal perspective showcased on "Electro-Shock Blues" and the 2005 double-album "Blinking Lights and Other Revelations" and the fictionalized, character-based work of "Souljacker" and 2009's "Hombre Lobo." E pinpoints "True Original" and "Accident Prone" as life-inspired, whereas "The Turnaround," a cinematic tale of a down-and-out fellow with "six bucks in my pocket and the shoes on my feet" is a story "about someone I made up, but I can certainly relate to him in some respects."
The band is preparing for a two-month American and European tour set to launch Feb. 14 in Santa Ana, California. Concerts are no rote aspect of the Eels' career -- outings are often themed (Eels with Strings, No Strings Attached, An Evening With Eels), and songs tend to differ drastically from the original versions. "That's one of the funnest things about playing shows, revisiting old songs and seeing how you would treat it as if you wrote it this year instead of 15 years ago," E says. "The hard part is, ten albums in, you have to drown a lot of kittens, as they say. You just can't fit it in, you'd be playing all night."
"Wonderful, Glorious" sounds built to be performed for an audience, but Everett feels some trepidation. "It seems a little ambitious to try to tackle some of these live. I find myself envious of the Beatles in 1967, when they just said, ‘Fuck it, we're not gonna do this.'"
Still, the man who once sang of himself "I don't leave the house much, I don't like being around people," (on 2005's "Things the Grandchildren Should Know") admits he enjoys hitting the road more than one would guess. "When you have a great combination of people, where everyone is having a good time and enjoys what they're doing, it's an experience that can't be beat," he says. "I don't feel any pressure because I don't think of myself as trying to impress any certain demographic or kind of concertgoer. I just think of myself in the audience and ask, ‘Would I like this?' But at the same time I'm conscious there's an audience there, and I respect the audience. It's always coming from a genuine place in my heart where I think that this is something that everyone's gonna enjoy."
Preoccupied with the long tour ahead, E can't say what comes next, only that he's got "all sorts of things dreamed up that I would like to accomplish, but you never know what's gonna end up happening and what won't." He's reluctant to discuss concepts that may never come to fruition. "It's not jinxing them so much as that you paint yourself into a corner it's hard to get out of if you ever talk about something before you know it's coming out. Everybody for years is asking you, ‘Hey, what happened to that album?'"
Wherever the next step leads, the Eels narrative has been absolutely singular the entire way: A misfit indie act crash lands on MTV, follows up its mainstream success with an unflinching album about death and depression (surprisingly uplifting!), slips out of the mainstream while maintaining a fierce cult following, and arrives here, in 2013, with two consecutive albums brimming with positivity. "All I've been trying to do is make a good arc from the beginning, and it all makes sense to me. It all comes quite naturally to me," E says. "It's hard for me to have too much perspective on it, because I'm so involved in it, but I'm happy with the arc thus far or I wouldn't have done it."