Eels
Rock

Eels Frontman on How Fatherhood & Trump Affected His Music and Outlook

By the time Mark Oliver Everett -- “E” to fans of his band Eels -- had finished touring behind his last album, 2014’s The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, the distinctly bearded rocker was, by his own reckoning, “worn out physically and mentally." Since 1992, he had released two solo records, 11 Eels albums, toured the globe repeatedly and written an unflinching-but-life-affirming 2008 memoir, Things The Grandchildren Should Know, about coping with the deaths of all three members of his immediate family by the time he was 35 and discovering that his father Hugh Everett III was a genius physicist who’d authored the Many Worlds Theory of Quantum Mechanics in his twenties. (Well-regarded now, the theory was dismissed at the time, leaving E’s father an embittered man.) “For almost 25 years, all I did was work with an extreme focus,” says the 54-year-old artist. “And then I got to the point where it became clear that, okay, you need to stop and pay attention to the other sides of life.”

E took a four-year break -- “I wasn’t even sure I’d work again," he says -- but his time off wasn't spent binge-watching Netflix. In that time span, he got married, divorced  and, unexpectedly, became a father. The artist who’d intended the title of his memoir to be darkly ironic was now the parent of a 10-month-old boy named Archie. And though E did his best not to work, Eels' 12th album, The Deconstruction (which drops April 6), emerged in fits and starts, informed by the joy, the anger and the heartbreak of the last few years -- and the desire to bring hope to fans and his fledgling family in the age of Trump.

So, you've had some significant life changes during your hiatus.
Yes, just a few. In the four years that I’ve been gone I got married, I got divorced and I had a baby. Is that enough upset for you?

You got married and divorced?
Not by choice. I got married by choice. The divorce wasn’t my idea.

Your son inspired “Archie Goodnight” on the album?
Yes. I guess until you know that he’s my son you might just think that’s someone I was babysitting or something.

What’s Archie like?
He’s amazing. He is already really good with music and rhythm. He loves playing the toy piano dad has passed down to him, and he’s great on the maracas and repeating rhythm patterns back to me. He’s either inherited something musical from me, or perhaps it’s a mathematical thing from his grandfather the quantum physicist.

You becoming a parent completely turns the idea of your book Things The Grandchildren Should Know on its head.
Yes, at some point I guess I realized oh my god, my book title might finally make sense! Archie was a surprise, and fatherhood was something that, at this point in my life, I didn’t think was in the cards. But I’m open to whatever comes along, and I embraced it.

Has it changed your outlook as an artist?
Yes, particularly when something like that happens at the same time that Donald Trump is becoming president. It’s quite a juxtaposition where you’re just, “Okay, welcome to the world little guy. Here’s your president.” But I believe these things are cyclical. Most likely all the good work from the last eight years that’s being torn down so quickly will eventually be rebuilt -- hopefully before Archie is too old.

How did you meet Archie's mom? 
We met in a very normal way, at the local bar down the street. It’s one of the most normal ways I ever met anybody.

It sounds like you had a whirlwind romance. 
It wasn’t a whirlwind per se -- it went on for a couple of years at least -- but, you know, normal people take vacations along the way. In my case, for 20 or 25 years all I did was work with such an extreme focus. And then I got to the point where it became clear that oh, okay, you need to stop and pay attention to the other sides of life. I finally got to that point four years ago. But the mistake I made is I put that same extreme focus into that. You can’t really treat that like a to-do list, you know. But it’s all okay. Something great has come out of it and so it’s a happy ending either way.

So, are you saying that you were so focused on your marriage that maybe you had something to do with it ending? 
No. I have to really walk a tightrope here and be careful about what I say because I don’t want to say anything that would be upsetting to Archie when he’s older given the internet and all that. But it was a situation where I didn’t have any choice in the matter and it’s exactly what this album is about really. I’ve just got to be happy with it.

"Bone Dry” and “Rusty Pipes” could be protest songs. 
“Bone Dry” is a personal song as far as I know. I wasn’t thinking about any protests or administration on that one. And “Rusty Pipes” was a very stream-of-conscious situation where it’s definitely open to multiple interpretations. I’ve always actively tried to avoid mixing politics and music but there is one song where it sort of crept in a little bit. It’s the song called “Sweet Scorched Earth." 

It’s a pre-apocalyptic love song.
It masquerades as a love song but it’s really about somebody fucking up your love song.

I interpreted it as a song about how love can act as a shield against all the crap going on around us.
Yeah, but what that song is about is that it’s gotten so bad that’s not even enough. Love isn’t all you need in this case. Things are so bad you need more, [although] I don’t know what you need now.

Is there anything that has happened over the last two years – on a national level -- that has driven you bonkers? 
It happened this morning. I turned on the radio, and it’s still the weirdest thing to hear them say, “President Trump.” I’m just like, are you fucking kidding me? Am I awake?  

Let’s go back to the album. At least as far back as 1998’s Electro-Shock Blues, you were writing songs that found hope in hopeless situations. Did you feel a responsibility to put out an album like The Deconstruction because of the state of the world?
Totally. I feel like the only small way someone like me can contribute as an artist is in that way. Take the song, “Today Is the Day.” Maybe there’s somebody who’s become aware that there’s some change they need to make in their life, but they haven’t quite made it yet. And maybe they just happen to hear this song at the right time and it helps push them along a little bit faster towards making the change.

The Deconstruction feels like you expanded upon the from the Electroshock Blues track, “P.S. You Rock My World - about “How a careful man tries/To dodge the bullets / While a happy man takes a walk.”
Well I don’t know. Maybe it’s like I’m saying, “Hey, you with the gun there. When you see the man walking through the neighborhood, don’t point the gun at him." I’m just trying to remind us all, including myself, let’s try to be a little nicer.

I’m curious about the instrumental song on the album, “The Unanswerable.” Anything you want the listeners to think about when they’re hearing it?
I would say, don’t think about anything is maybe the point. What I like about instrumental music is it’s completely about feeling. There is nothing cerebral about a song that has no lyrics, and, one of the themes to this record that we all spend so much of our lives looking for big answers to the big questions when it’s probably smarter to just stop asking and go with it.

Be in the moment.
As much as you can. I mean again I’m not an expert on any of these topics. Whatever I’m trying to convey in a song to somebody I’m simultaneously always trying to remind myself, too. 

The last song on the album, “In Our Cathedral,” has a spiritual quality to it. 
For that song, I was thinking that we all have one place within ourselves that we can go to to make things better, and it’s just the ability to accept whatever your reality is and decide to be happy with it. But that’s not easy, and, again, I’m trying to remind myself as often as possible that I can be happy with my situation -- or not happy. I do have some choice in the matter.

I noticed that your ace guitarist “The Chet”’s name is not on the credits. How come?
That’s merely because of the way the album was made. For most of these four years I didn’t know I was making an album. I would only work very sporadically. If I got really inspired to write and record a song I’d go down to my studio and record that day. And it might be like six months before the next one. It wasn’t like let’s get the band together. Chet lives in Portland, so I couldn’t say, hey, I just wrote a song. Fly down today. It was just logistical. Otherwise Chet would be all over [the album], and I always want him to be on whatever I’m doing whenever possible. 

The album has a cinematic quality – like a rock n' roll score written for a ‘60s spy movie.
On our older albums, like Daisies of the Galaxy, for example, there’s a score written for the song, and the strings come in and play through the whole song. Most of the time on this album, if you hear strings, they were originally playing on a completely different song. This time, we cut it up and spit it out onto another song. So you get this ghostly otherworldly effect from that. It’s an exciting way to work. It was like throwing pasta against the wall and seeing, oh, that one stuck in a really cool place that would never have come up with if I had written a score for it.

How long did the album come together once you figured out what the songs were going to be?
It wasn’t until years into this break that I started to think, let me start paying attention to this pile of songs and see how they fit together. And then I started to see what themes were emerging. I started to get an idea of how it could be an album.

After this time off, do you feel rejuvenated?
Definitely. The only thing that’s a little bit challenging in the rejuvenated, refreshed department is that I have so much going on all of a sudden. I have to get used to the extreme contrast of what the last four years have been like and what things are like now. It’s a little bit daunting.

Are you going to bring Archie on tour?
No, he’s too young for that. He’s going to come out and meet me for some of it hopefully. The people who can bring a kid on tour are usually big superstar acts who have a tour bus all to themselves. The whole family can be on it. In our case, the whole band, the crew – we’re all on one bus.

Now that you’re a father are there any songs that you used to think were corny or sappy that now make you weepy when you hear them? I’m thinking of, for instance, Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle.”
That’s a perfect example. That’s a song I always used to mock, and now I’m like oooh.

What do you think of the term dad rock?
I guess that should be the name of our tour. Or, in my case, the Granddad Rock Tour.

How’s the beard?
The beard is tight right now.

The Deconstruction is dedicated to your dog -- and Eels' mascot -- Bobby Jr.
He’s gone to the great dog pound in the sky. It happened about a year ago. From the moment I took him home from the pound, I was mentally preparing for that day. Pets are such a terrible idea. They last just long enough to rip your heart out. I was like, great idea: let’s get something that you’ll be completely in love with that only lasts about 12 or 13 years. But what a great life he had. Now I’ve got two new shitty little dogs to take his place.

What are their names?
Manson and Bundy -- they’re the ultimate tribute to Bobby. They remind me constantly that he was perfect -- with the caveat that I’m totally in love with them, and I don’t know how I’d live without them.

The last time we spoke, you said that you would probably never write a book again because it was such a difficult enterprise. But now that you have experienced all these new milestones in your life, have you thought, perhaps, that, at the very least, there are some new chapters to be added to a new edition of Things the Grandchildren Should Know?
When I wrote that book 10 years ago, and they sent me the first copy, it was this great feeling of relief like oh, all that tragedy and drama, and now it’s all in this nice little package, and I can get on with the calm years. I used to joke that if I ever wrote a sequel it would be the most boring book on earth. That was completely naïve of me, and I could easily write a sequel that’s action packed.

Courtesy Photo
Eels, 'The Deconstruction'