This week, Merge releases Mark Eitzel's haunted and haunting Don't Be A Stranger, his first solo album since 2009's Klamath (Decor Records). Producer Sheldon Gomberg assembled a collection of crack studio players, including a full string section and Attractions drummer Pete Thomas, to record the album, whose more straightforward songs sprang from Eitzel's recent experience co-writing a musical, 2010's Marine Parade, with friend Simon Stephens. Longtime fans of the former lead singer of American Music Club, who cherish the grim, soaring beauty of his lyrics, where people are lonely, bad liquor is a refuge, "Lazarus wasn't grateful for his second wind," and "the applause grows louder the lower you sink," may be clutching their pearls at the notion of "Mark Eitzel + inspiration: musical." (They are encouraged to listen for the BooHoo Institutional Choir, which "appears with the kind permission of Pfizer Corp and the National Association of Firefighters," the liner notes on the new album say.) But anyone fortunate enough to catch his mordantly hilarious between-song patter live can attest that this guy's the one to go whistling past the graveyard with. Eitzel hits the road next month in North America, with European dates to follow in early 2013. While skirting incoming calls about his touring band, which goes by the name Mark Eitzel's Warm Gentle Rain, he chatted with me about the new album, touring, the genius of Nadya Ginsburg, and being the "Gerald Ford of singer-songwriters."
Amy Monaghan: Is it possible for me to profile you without using the word "miserable?"
Mark Eitzel: I think so. I mean, is it possible to profile the world without using the word "miserable"? You know, it's a hard question to answer. Maybe I do tend to focus on the darker side of things, but I don't see myself as an absolutely miserable person all the time.
Can we talk about the album's cover art?
It's an air conditioner in a motel room. It's my boyfriend's picture. I couldn't find a picture because all my pictures are too lo-res, and he's a professional photographer and filmmaker, so he said, "You can use one of mine if you want." So that was the one we both said was the one, and it fit with the music.
I wanted to use the picture that's on the back. And everyone said, "That's too depressing. That's too corny. Of course, you would want to use the road in the rain." So I was like, "You're right. It's just obvious."
You know, you work on something for so long, you just sort of think, "I don't even know what this record is any more. So… oh, great! That's a great cover. Good, good. Done. We're done." And everyone's screaming at me about the time: "We needed this last week. We needed this two weeks ago. Where is it? We need this. Now." So you just go, 'Oh, fuck. Okay.' And I think this is the best thing I could come up with.
So what about these advice videos you've done to help promote the album, which show everyone from Lady Gaga's makeup artist to Grace Zabriskie of "Twin Peaks" offering you touring advice? Who came up with the idea?
Jeremy [Simmons, the boyfriend] came up with it, with a little help from me. I guess the idea was, we talked about videos, and what they are. And a lot of people—I used to go out with somebody who was like, "No, they are art. It's an art form." And I was like, "No, they're an advertisement for the band. That's all it is." So there's always this argument….
No matter what, unless you've got Beyoncé money, the video is just going to be like some clever thing that's cheap. It's inevitably going be that way. So I thought, instead of making a video, trying to imbue some stupid video with the emotion of the song and the significance of all the… Instead of doing all that, just make people laugh. Fuck it. You know what I mean? At least then, people walk in smiling or they'll leave smiling…
I really love humorous things, and I have no problem mocking my own shit and its portentousness. You know, because I am a very narcissistic and very—deep in my heart I am very portentous and a very self-important person. But I grew up always laughing at things, and I still do, so let's just make people laugh and, just, fuck it. People don't even listen to the song all the way through any more.
You mean like DJ Foodcourt [who appears in one of the videos]?
Well, he does. In life he does. He's a big lover of music. I got all these friends to help out.
Did you let your pals choose the tracks? Or did you just go to Nadya Ginsburg and say something, like, "Hey, Nadya. I wanna do 'I Love You But You're Dead' with you. Will you give it a listen and come up with a bit with me?"
Some of that. But, you know, Nadya is such a genius that it didn't even take that. She listened to the song… I mean, my God. That woman—holy fuck. We got to her house. She had listened to the song. She had made some notes. She didn't need the notes, but she had made some. She'd worked really hard at it already. She was in hair and makeup, already. You know, she fucking was on.
She's kind of a sensation on YouTube. If you have a spare couple hours, go in and watch Nadya Ginsburg. She is abso-fuckin-lutely amazing. What she does as a standup comic, and what she does on the Web, she's second to none. It's insane. It's so good. There's a couple of Madonnalogues that she does—oh dear God, it's so funny. You will immediately waste seven hours watching them. You have to watch them. You absolutely have to watch them. In order to finish this [interview] properly and professionally as a journalist, I insist you watch these, yes.
Billy B. never even heard his song [from Eitzel's album], and it doesn't even really matter. Why the fuck would Lady Gaga's makeup artist listen to any of my music? He was really fucking hilarious. All that stuff about "his wife" being very liberal…. At one point he says, "My wife wouldn't mind. She's really open-minded, my wife."
OK, these are outtakes from a Chris Guest movie that I really want to watch. Very Corky St. Clair.
Which this is sort of an homage to.
Tell me about the recording process and working with producer Sheldon Gomberg (Rickie Lee Jones, Ron Sexsmith, Ben Harper). Had you been writing all along?
It was an opportunity to work with Sheldon, who is a genius. I had everything on drives already. I had written and recorded guitars, and a lot of the vocals. We redid the vocals with him and replaced drums with real drummers and replaced strings with real strings. A lot of it we just had to kickstart because I pretty much had all of the tracks already done.
We threw away about five songs that just weren't that great. One of the songs we threw away, I rewrote the lyrics and redid it for this album I'm doing to sell as merch [Eitzel has released mail-order albums for some time now]. It's called, I Am Not a Serious Person." It's 12 tracks so far. I try to make a really good record for people, so they'll buy it—'cause fans will know; they'll talk with one another, perhaps. I think this one is as good as any album I've ever made in my life. I'm very proud of it.
The past few years leading up to the new album saw a string of bad luck. You had a heart attack in 2011?
It hasn't been a great three years, I mean, you know, it's okay. I can't complain; I've been lucky. I really can't. Everything's lucky.
This album has been about two years in the making?
Yeah, it was interrupted by—I was doing a musical in England during most of 2010. Annnnd, the heart attack [which sidelined Eitzel from May to October]. So, it was interrupted by a couple things.
It's called Marine Parade, and it played 12 times at the Brighton Festival in the U.K. I'm very proud of it. I don't know, it'll probably never be mounted again because it has too many actors, so it's kind of expensive to make. It has nine actors and five band members. It was a little overly ambitious. But, no, I'm really proud of it; I really loved it.
Speaking of overly ambitious undertakings, I hadn't realized that you helped score a silent film for the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2005 (Frank Borzage's 140-minute-long 1928 silent film Street Angels).
It was like three months of work for one performance, and it was entirely collaborative. [I worked with] Marc Capelle of American Music Club. But, boy, it was a lot of work for two hours. It was worth it. It was really worth it. It was really fun.
I don't know if we did a great job overall. I would change a few things. Boy, I just really fell in love with the actors. I really fell in love with the movie. It was such a trip to sit there, and every single time—we'd watch this movie like a thousand times—every single time I cry because it's so great, you know?
How much did your feelings change about the characters by watching them that many times and in that detail?
It's funny, you know. Silent films—I've seen a few now—they were really modern. They were ahead of a lot of talkies in terms of acting, and in terms of kind of the way they were made. They were really kind of on a roll when talkies came around.
If you had a chance to score another film, silent or talkie—
I would do it in a fucking heartbeat. Yeah, I loved it. I loved it. I really enjoyed doing it. And it's so easy with computers and the like, you know, you can pretty much mock it up, and then you can bring people in.
No. I've looked around, but—no, I really haven't had any time for that. I've thought about it. I've thought about just getting a silent film from the store and just scoring it, just 'cause. One [store] right near my house has a whole collection of them.
It's funny how America is just so burdened by its glorious past. We don't buy it; we don't accept it; we just throw it away. It's so strange.
Your mention of being burdened by our glorious past reminded me, you did a cover of "'S Wonderful" for the Vidal Sassoon doc a couple years ago? How'd that happen?
They asked me. They wanted that song. There were five other candidates, and I did a version of it that they liked, and they used mine. And I'm really happy they did. Again, I sound like a broken record, but I really loved doing that, too.
Can the audience expect any covers on the tour this time around?
I haven't even thought about it. That's my job today, is to deal with all the music and the musicians. I don't know if there's going to be any covers because there's not a lot of time, and I'm only doing a pianist on the East Coast. I'm not doing a full band because the money just isn't really that good. I know there's easy, and I know there's hard, and I don't know if there's time for hard.
My bass player (Pete Straus, formerly of the Dwarves)—he's a clinical psychologist, can you believe it?—so he can't tour with me now. I'm not even playing guitar on this tour. I figured out that the chaos is too much chaos.
I've never really been good—I'm like the Gerald Ford of singer-songwriters. I've never really been able to chew gum and walk at the same time. It's really hard to play guitar and sing, and I get so freaked out by it. I've found that even though the sound is smaller, if I do a show where it's just me and acoustic guitar, I've found that people go, like, "Well, that was great." And if I add [electric] guitar, they go, like, "What was wrong in the middle? What happened in there?" And I go, "Oh, yeah. I fucked up."
You begin your tour on the West Coast with a classic lounge configuration: guitar, bass, piano, drums. Will the East Coast iteration, which is just you and a pianist, still be called Mark Eitzel's Warm Gentle Rain? And why do you call the band "Warm Gentle Rain" anyway?
Yeah. My keyboard player on the West Coast, Marc Capelle, he named it that. It's also a good metaphor for golden showers…
We all laughed uncontrollably, and then it stuck.
Your tour hits all sorts of places. Where is your audience these days, would you say?
I don't think I have one. I don't have any idea where my audience is. I couldn't tell you where they are. They hide. They just hide. They're shy. They're very shy.
Perhaps seasonal affective disorder will bring them out in droves to Buffalo and Cincinnati in late November?
S.A.D. S.A.D. will bring them out. I rely on S.A.D. [laughs]
One last question, about a deep cut: Why you gotta hate on the Diva soundtrack? [name-checked in "All Your Jeans Are Too Tight" on the 1993 Red Hot AIDS benefit compilation No Alternative. Kids, ask your parents.]
I lived with somebody who played that damn thing over and over again. It was like beats with [makes an operatic "Ahhhhh" sound] bad operatic shit. It drove me crazy. I'm sorry. Also, the Merry Christmas, Mister Lawrence soundtrack. That one also tortured me to death because I heard it far too many times. Merry Christmas, Mister Lawrence? Really? But I do love the movie [Diva]. Sometimes, [affects an arch voice] "as an important songwriter-slash-lyricist, I feel it's very important to throw in the incidental details of one's life occasionally."
Wow, it's a complicated business you're in, sir.
Yes, complicated. And thankless.
Under her own name and as the Cinetrix, Amy Monaghan has been writing on the Internets since 2003. A lecturer in film studies and literature, she probably should be grading papers right now. Top photo by Cynthia Wood.