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theartsdesk Q&A: Eels' frontman Mr E | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Eels' frontman Mr E

theartsdesk Q&A: Eels' frontman Mr E

Enigmatic alt-rocker discusses fun, fitness, parallel worlds, beards, and much else

Mr E: 'no lesson is learnt without pain'

Mark Oliver Everett, AKA Mr E, is the voice and brain behind US alt-rock heroes, Eels - a band that has been described as "frank, thunderous, and unusually uplifting”. That's some achievement given their overriding themes of loss and angst. But this band's unique approach to life's set-backs gives them a very wide appeal - their fans range from arthouse hipsters to the audience of Shrek (whose soundtrack interprets “My Beloved Monster” rather literally).

On April 21st the band release The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, their 11th, and quietest, album.

Mr E was born in 1963 in Virginia to Hugh Everett III and his wife Nancy. His father was a quantum physicist who became famous for his “multiple worlds” theory. Away from his work, however, Everett snr could be distant and peculiar. Then tragically, at the age of 18, before E had even begun to really know him, he came home one day to find his father dead from a heart attack.

It was the first of several tragedies in E's earlyish life. Fourteen years later, his schizophrenic sister Liz committed suicide. This event and the subsequent death of Everett’s mother from cancer became the principal subjects of 1998’s release - “Electro-shock Blues”.

Between then and now E has released eight similarly personal and raw albums with his ever-changing band. There has also been a highly-acclaimed autobiography “Things the Grandchildren Should Know”.

I arrange to meet Mr E in a hotel-cum-spa in West London. As I arrive I spot him out front taking part in a photo op. He looks mean and moody with his sunglasses and hint of a “Hoxton Finn” haircut. Back in his hotel room, though, E couldn’t seem less affected. He is that rarity amongst rock interviewees - a thoroughly nice guy. His manner is, by turns, friendly, jocular, sincere and extremely eloquent.

There is also a real presence about him. His beard is cut short and he is wearing intense-looking plastic-frame glasses. Yet his jeans and check shirt give a casual, relaxed impression. And, above all, he looks extremely healthy. In fact, for someone who professes to be a thinker rather than a doer he looks suspiciously like someone who might be on some health programme. Before quizzing him about his life and art, this is the first thing I ask him about:

RUSS COFFEY: The last time I saw you last year in Shepherd’s Bush you were in matching tracksuits, looking lean and spry (pictured below © Imelda Michalczyk). Do you and the band follow any fitness regime?

© Imelda Michalczyk

MR E: Just rocking - that’s the only exercise. We just zip up our tracksuits and start rocking; and the next thing you know it’s two hours later and you’ve lost 10 pounds.

 …and are you any keener on sport than as a child?

[laughs] Look at me! I was no football hero, and I think if anything my interest in sports has decreased. I feel that a true artist doesn’t have a right to be into sports. It’s like high school: either you are a jock or an artist. You can’t be both.

What are the origins of the "cautionary tales'" in the new album's title. Might they have been inspired by your autobiography?

The "cautionary tales" are about sacrificing my own dignity by allowing myself to be an example to learn from. They are saying “here is a situation; here is what went wrong, try not to be as stupid as I was, try to learn from this…”

As regards the autobiography, it was written quite some time ago now. It's an odd thing to write your life story when you're 40. You’re supposed to wait until you’re 80 probably  But there was enough action-packed drama in those 40 years and it seemed to add up to a book.

But then it puts you in this strange predicament where the rest of your life after that seems to be, like, part two. And so I guess this album is like an update on what happened in part two. 

The musical tone of this new album is soft and pensive and rather beautiful. Was it recorded by the same hard-rocking men that I’ve seen on stage of the last few years?

it became a record about taking responsibility. As the songs go on, I get harder and harder on myself

Thanks, and, surprisingly, yes – we’ve used all of the exact same people from the last Eels album, Wonderful Glorious. You wouldn't guess it from the sound, but it’s the same people with some outside musicians involved in the orchestra. But even the orchestral arrangements were arranged by the guys in the band.

So how did you go from the rock’n’roll of Wonderful Glorious back to deep introspection?

We actually made a version of this album before Wonderful Glorious. I thought it was okay but couldn't be sure it couldn't be better So I just left it alone for a while - something we do fairly often.

After touring Wonderful Glorious we came back and listened to it again, with fresh perspective. I thought “there's plenty of me blaming other people, in these songs but not enough of me blaming myself.” That's when it got more interesting, and that's when it became a record about taking responsibility. As the songs go on, I get harder and harder on myself, and there starts to get to a point where I figure out there's nothing I can change but myself. It's too late to fix the situation I already screwed up but I can have a better chance of not doing it the same way in the future.

In the end I probably wrote about half the songs by myself and the rest of them were written in varying combinations between me and the guys in the band. Different members of the band came up with the orchestral parts - they are much better musicians than me. My part was just saying yes or no to this or that.

Watch 'Kinda Fuzzy' from Wonderful Glorious

So if you didn't have art to process your life, do you think things would have turned out different?

Well it's interesting that all this is stuff I have already done in my life, and then decided to make a musical version of it - I didn't figure it out by doing the musical version.

The second song on the album, “Parallels” seems to consider other courses your life may have taken. Is that so, and is it a reference to your fathers “multiple worlds” theory

Yeah, the title’s a nod to my father. There's a few different ways I interpret that song. One way is how, at the beginning, we all hope there's someone out there for us. That’s also a cautionary tale… maybe it's a mistake to imagine some ideal match for you instead of just seeing what happens and letting people be who they are.

Listen to 'Agatha Chang' from the new album on Soundcloud

Is it true you learned most of what you know about your father from a BBC documentary?

Yes, most of what I've learnt and now know about my father is what I learned from the process of making that documentary. I feel very lucky to have been given that opportunity. Not many people in such a situation would be given such an opportunity.

The trailer for the 'Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives' doc on Mr E and his father

When you sing “every day I live in regret and pain” in "Kindred Spirits" is it you and not a character?

Yes, that’s autobiographical unfortunately.

What, for you, are the most and least fun parts of making an album?

The funnest kind of album to make is something like Wonderful Glorious where nothing is written ahead of time and is all a big experiment: you're just having fun playing instruments and seeing what happens.

And the least fun kind of record to make is one like this one, which all has to be very thought out. You have to write the songs and then you have to write orchestra parts which can be really involving and quite tedious.

I do love fun… it turns out I am a fun-lover, but you know there is a time and place for everything

And quiet music is the hardest kind of music to record – acoustic, quiet music with microphones. The easiest music to record would be with a synthesizer – you just plug in the jack, make noise have fun and it’s all easy. But with an acoustic guitar you have to get the microphone just right, and it takes just for ever just to get it to sound good. Throw an orchestra in, and you really have to suffer through to get the results you want. It's better to make a fun record.

So, is Mr E a more fun-loving guy than people think?

I do love fun…it turns out I am a fun lover, but you know there is a time and place for everything. Sometimes it's about having fun and sometimes it's about something else. Neither is any less meaningful.

Some fans thought Wonderful Glorious was insubstantial. What do you think to that?

I think Wonderful Glorious is a kick-ass album. Some people just like a certain kind of thing – whether it be acoustic music or rock. We do both so there are going to be people who like one thing and don't like the other. And vice versa. I don't think any one type of music is more valid than the other. It’s like movies - movies that get nominated for Oscars have to be very dramatic and very serious although it's very hard to make good comedy. There are masters who make masterful comedy movies which will never be nominated for an Oscar just because they are funny. Which is dumb.

Do you think some fans get fixated with the character of Mr E, whom they feel is living out something very deep and meaningful in them.

the only way I could get a hopeful place by the end of the record was to go through a lot of dark stuff

It is very hard to me to have perspective on all of that, as whatever I am doing on stage from year to year is some aspect of my personality, which I'm just kind of magnifying at that moment. I don't see anything as a persona exactly- it's more really just a part of me.

But you must attract some very intense fans. Have you ever found yourself in any weird situations with them?

For the most part it's all been very pleasant and everyone is very nice. But yeah everybody in my position deals with crazy stuff and situations from time to time. It's not really part of my life but yeah sometimes there can be stuff like that.

What do you think are the aspects of your music that resonate so deeply with so many people? Personally I’m always struck how you put a spin on negative experience and make it very empowering and positive.

Oh good! Well hopefully that's also true of this record, because I'm taking responsibility. It's not written from the voice of the victim, it comes from the voice of someone who’s taking responsibility for their part in the situation. That hopefully gives it some balls.

I call it uneasy listening. It sounds like easy listening on the surface but if you pay attention it starts to get uneasy because there is some real stuff going on. And the only way I could get a hopeful place by the end of the record was to go through a lot of dark stuff.

Watch a video for 'Mistakes of My Youth' from the new album

Do you think that justifies or redeems those bad experiences?

Yeah, I think it does. No real lesson in life is learned without pain. You can either go through a bad experience and get nothing from it, or you can go through it and, at least, learn something.

Is this reflected in the fact you’re wearing your beard a little shorter now?

It seems that when I have a long beard (pictured below) shit is getting a little crazy. I think at this point when I'm doing songs like this the beard shrinks because the songs are so naked. The vinyl edition of this record is going to be on clear-vinyl, because we want it to look as transparent as the songs.

Your output over the last few years has been very prolific. What drives you?

It really is like a compulsion - like something I don't really have a lot of choice in. There's good aspects to that and bad aspects. The good is that it’s productive, but it's not the best feeling in the world to feel you don't have a choice.

So what's the average day in Mr E's life?

What's been really nice about my life is that there hasn't really been an average day. There are periods of average days - there is a period, for instance, when the average day is writing songs and then there's a period when every day is recording, and another period when you're doing this, and then another period when you're out playing the song for audiences. It keeps it all interesting and makes it go by really fast

OK, so what’s the process when you are writing songs?

Well there's two different ways that can happen. One way is you say, for instance, “at 10 o'clock tomorrow I'm going to go downstairs and try and write something”. Sometimes that actually works and sometimes it doesn't. And the other thing that can happen is you're in the middle of doing something and you're suddenly so struck by inspiration you have to drop everything and go and pursue it. 

Do you keep guitars and keyboards all round the house, then?

Yeah, I have guitars everywhere and I try to keep everything plugged in ready to go. And there are recorders and pads of paper everywhere.

How does this differ from the process of writing the book?

That involved much harder discipline, for me. I spent about a year sitting out of my guest house in my back yard, just trying to write, just as an experiment. I didn't know if I was going to be able to do it but I was at the point where I had the time to try something like that.

It is such lonely work writing a book. Sitting there alone, it’s just words on the paper. You have to be so exacting, and things have to be just right. You can't tweak things in the mix

Did it give you a new perspective on other people's writing?

I don't know how anyone can stand to write books. It's so hard, it is so lonely. It's no wonder all the great writers are alcoholics. Because you've got to escape your mind; your mind is the office. If you're an author, there’s nowhere to escape- you can't just leave the office.

One work that really inspired me was Ray Charles’ autobiography “Brother Ray”, which felt like Ray was sitting there talking to you. He had a guy there interviewing him and recording it and then the guy just set it all into print. I wanted to do my version of that, I wanted it to feel conversational.

So why did you get The Chet (the Eels’s guitarist) to read the audiobook?

Because it was bad enough to write the book but to actually read it out loud was way too embarrassing for me. It’s like the same way I feel about this new album. I’m embarrassed and insecure about it because it's so naked and personal. 

You suggested back then that sometimes you might prefer animals to people. Sometimes I still feel that in your lyrics. What animals does Mr E have in his life now?

Well I have a dog that Ive had for a long time Bobby Jr (pictured left). He is half Basset Hound and half German Shepherd, so he's a low rider - he's long and low. That's it for animals currently. I think I have warmed up to people more since I said that. I think I've come to realise that I need people a lot more than I thought I did and that's part of what I think this new album is about too.

So, with the new album being such a change of pace, how do you intend to tour it? 

That I don't know yet and it is a good question… which needs to be figured out next. We tend to try to paint ourselves into a corner that we can't get out of by announcing a big tour, and then go "oh shit how do we do this?"  I think we're going to soon be forced to figure this out – it could be quite a challenge this time!


Overleaf: watch a video on the making of 'The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett'


The vinyl edition of this record is going to be on clear-vinyl, because we want it to look as transparent as the songs.

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Brilliant and highly satisfying interview

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