Mark Eitzel wants to know if I can hold on for a second. Through a muffled receiver, I hear him speaking to a friend on the other end. "I'm gonna step outside and do this interview," he says. "The pizza's in the oven, and it's almost done."
In more than twenty years as a musician and performer, Eitzel has developed a well-known reputation as a volatile, alcoholic, clinically depressed artiste, both on his own and with American Music Club. On this Sunday evening, though, the mercurial songwriter isn't soiled and soused in some grimy Bay Area bar; he's heating up a pizza. The mundane moment of domestic tranquility aptly underscores a point Eitzel has always wanted to make. "A songwriter," he insists, "is just a normal human being."
Trying his best to avoid the self-deprecating cliches that have peppered past interviews -- he's repeatedly referred to himself as a balding guy with no chin who writes sad songs and is no better than trash -- Eitzel seems desperate to drive this point home. Though critics and fans have called him "the greatest songwriter of his generation," the singer, guitarist and poet who has stood in front of the recently re-formed American Music Club off and on since 1983 just wants to connect as a person with others people who enjoy his music.
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"I get audiences other musicians dream of," says the 46-year-old songwriter. "They're usually smart and interesting, and they're a good hang." Though an unpredictable performer who can often seem unapproachable, Eitzel is almost cuddly when speaking of his fans. "When I was in Denver last year, somebody gave me this little figurine. It was one of those things you get on the home shopping channel." He pauses to find the right words. "It was really, really nice."
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Building such a dedicated and personally connected fan base didn't come easily. In the early '80s, Eitzel was playing with the Naked Skinnies -- a punk band with whom he relocated from Columbus, Ohio, to San Francisco -- when guitarist Vudi was struck by the performer's compelling stage presence and the two formed a new group. American Music Club -- which also included bassist Dan Pearson, keyboardist Brad Johnson, drummers Matt Norelli and Tim Mooney, and multi-instrumentalists Tom Mallon and Bruce Kaphan -- released a string of albums on an assortment of independent labels from 1985 through 1994, never quite finding a suitable home.
The ensemble's music combined Joy Division-esque rumblings, country-Western twang, folk-rock lilt, '70s pop and myriad other styles into a disorienting, unpredictable pastiche that was more accessible than it might seem on paper. The act, which disbanded in 1995 only to reunite in 2003, garnered a following that was as passionate as it was limited. Eitzel's moody tales of lost love and liquor-drowned depression held the unwieldy musical collage together. Throughout the band's artistically successful run -- which ended with the major-label release of two of its best albums -- American Music Club continually flirted with arena-scale success but remained ever the bridesmaid.
"We were trying to be artists when we should have been trying to be stars," declares Eitzel with tongue firmly in cheek. "I think we're good, but not necessarily marketable. The songs are literate, but too dark and existential, and the music's too worked over, too eclectic."
Despite the fact that the band will always have little more than a cult following, its latest effort, 2004's Love Songs for Patriots, lauded as a career highlight, reflects a collective comfortably playing to its strengths. While not much has changed during the Club's hiatus, Eitzel's songwriting on Love Songs is noticeably different. In the past, his introspective, melancholic lyrics spilled over with far more questions than answers ("Will You Find Me?" "Can You Help Me?" "Why Won't You Stay?"). The indeterminate nature of those titles portrayed a songwriter unsure of his place and time in the world. On Love Songs, however, Eitzel seems to have found some answers and is now prepared to make bold, affirmative declarations: "Everyone Has a Job to Do," "The Devil Needs You" and "Only Love Can Set You Free."
"I'm writing differently now," Eitzel concedes. "I'm trying to get out of my own way and say things clearly. I'm not trying to be more than I am."
The album intertwines the themes of love and politics, with one often acting as a metaphor for the other. With the addition of newcomer keyboardist Jason Borger, the band is as incandescent as ever, gracefully transitioning from the fuzzy opening rocker "Ladies and Gentlemen" to the almost poppy "Another Morning." Later, Eitzel and company paint a vivid picture of loneliness, aging and desperation through the male-stripper vignette in "Patriot's Heart." Grim humor and an eye for human details are also on full display in songs such as "Myopic Books" and "The Horseshoe Wreath in Bloom."
Musically and personally, the group seems to have picked up right where it left off. There are no catty stories about how certain members just couldn't stand others, nor were there any great fights that led to the group's extended break. Consequently, Eitzel is extremely upbeat and optimistic about his ability to play with the Club again.
"I've changed a lot," he insists. "I've been going to the gym a lot lately. I've been trying to rewrite and change what I do. I don't know what's inspired it."
These changes are readily apparent in Eitzel's relaxed demeanor and his willingness to joke and answer impertinent questions. But with the release of another American Music Club record and two of his own solo albums, he's back to busking, forced to whore his wares to make a living. Eitzel is often distressed by the necessity of selling merchandise at his shows. At a 2002 show at the Lion's Lair, he angrily threw a stack of his CDs into a trashcan after Tim Easton -- the Columbus, Ohio, singer-songwriter with whom he was sharing the stage -- tried to sell them.
"I wanted to ignore the fact that I ever had to sell CDs," Eitzel grouses now, recalling the episode. "I just wanted to hang and talk with people. I really dislike the whole game of it. I don't like to see bands try to sell T-shirts from the stage. I'm like ŒFuck you. You're not here to sell T-shirts; you're here to play music.' But you are there to sell T-shirts -- that's the thing. I'm just in denial of it. In fact, I think it's a little fascistic. It's part of the game, and I usually do it. But for me, the real game has always been writing music and having something to say."
A 1996 tour with Everything but the Girl pushed Eitzel's disdain for the commercial side of his chosen profession over the edge. "Before I toured with Everything but the Girl, I used to really believe in performance," he explains before letting his bile flow. "But after that experience, I kinda lost that belief. Their audiences were very Urban Outfitters, and I really despised them. I fucking hated them, and I'd never hated the crowd before. It was my 'Nam, man!"
Eitzel's disgust is most likely rooted in the fact that American Music Club approaches its concerts and fans with a very different attitude and philosophy.
"We've honestly always wanted to make it harder for the audience," Eitzel admits. "We want to challenge people because we respect them. When I go out of an evening, I want somebody to make me laugh, or I want to feel like, 'Fuck, he's singing about my fucking life.'"
For more than two decades, American Music Club has consistently accomplished both of those goals, with a balance of musical daring, humor and relentless self-examination. Eitzel would have it no other way.
"Anything else," he deadpans, "is a mediocre bore."
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