Music News

The Eeling Power of Music

Mark Oliver Everett, known to discriminating music fans everywhere as "E," headmaster of the Eels, is the guy everyone wanted to be friends with in high school. Blisteringly smart and deadly funny, he's cool enough for the boys to want to be near him and cuddly enough to make the girls swoon. He's a natural-born smartass, the kind of guy you can craft an inside joke with just minutes after meeting him.

Everett's wry humor is not directed outward, targeting victims at random merely to satisfy the urge to taunt; instead, it's focused inward -- uncomfortably, self-effacingly, and at times bordering on morbidly. It's a textbook case of deferral, in which the smiles hide the pain. He's built his career on it, turning nearly every one of his songs into a therapy session: The Eels catalogue charts a trajectory of pain, tragedy, healing and growth, all with an existentialist embrace of life.

Yes, there's a paradox there, but Everett is comfortable operating within that contradiction. One minute he's joking about British porn, affecting a Cockney accent in a strained falsetto and croaking, "Fancy puttin' it in me bum, guvnah?"; the next he's making a crack about blowing himself away. In both music and conversation, levity in morosity is E's modus operandi; it also appears to be what sustains him.

Born in McLean, Virginia, to Nancy and Hugh Everett III (the latter was widely considered a genius and was responsible for Everett's Many Worlds Theory of Parallel Universes), young E grew up with shitty self-esteem and no real sense of purpose. He left Virginia while in his twenties and moved to Los Angeles, where he began his musical career. He released two albums as a solo act, A Man Called E (1992) and Broken Toy Shop (1993), toured with Tori Amos and scored a hit on alternative radio ("Hello Cruel World") before forming an actual band in 1995.

The following year was a breakthrough one for the now-seasoned musician and the other members of his fledgling three-piece, drummer Butch Norton and bassist Tommy Walter (later replaced by current bassist/synthesizer player Koool G Murder). The Eels' first single, "Novocaine for the Soul," shot up the charts and was in constant rotation on MTV and the alt-rock radio stations; the trio also toured with Luscious Jackson at the height of that band's popularity and snagged a spot on the 1997 Lollapalooza tour. Then everything went to hell.

Everett's father had passed away over a decade earlier. In 1996, his only sibling, Elizabeth, committed suicide, and the next year, his mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Just like that, his family disappeared. In the midst of what he calls "a very intense and horrific time," he turned to music.

"When that stuff was never occurred to me to write songs about any of it. One night this lightbulb went on for me, that there was a way for me to deal with all this -- in a way that isn't the normal way to deal with it -- and actually turn it into something positive," he explains. "It gave me something to really be excited and passionate about at a really terrible time of my life. It was such a lifeline for me."

The resulting collection of songs became Electro-Shock Blues, a poignant journey through grief and loss starting with "Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor," traveling to "Going to Your Funeral" parts one and two, and ending with "P.S. You Rock My World." The record met with some resistance from label brass, who worried that it was too depressing, too personal, too focused on death. Everett stuck to his guns.

"I decided that the story needed to be told, because I felt like it could contribute something in a small way, and something positive could come out of all this tragedy," he says. "It was giving dignity to voices that would never be heard otherwise."

And despite the concerns of both the label and the Eels' management (whose opposition caused the band to change managers), the record's appeal was almost universal. The suits had failed to recognize that anyone who's lost a friend or loved one to disease or suicide seeks shelter in common stories. Finding a kindred spirit brings solace -- despite the fact that what knits you together is heartache.

"I've had so many people tell me that album really helped them," Everett says, his voice humble yet proud. "It wasn't my intention to save the world or anything; my intention was to save myself as much as I could. But it's a great by-product of the whole experience that still, almost daily, when I'm on tour, people are telling me how much that record means to them, because they've been through some sort of similar situation. Because, you know, death happens. It's not that unusual a situation, but people don't want to face it."

But after you've flipped death the bird, picked up the pieces and moseyed on down the road, what comes next? For Everett, all of the answers lie in music.

After Electro-Shock Blues, the Eels recorded and released Daisies of the Galaxy, yet another foray into quirky, attitude-heavy alt-pop, this time with guests Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Grant Lee Phillips. Next came Souljacker, which featured a heavily bearded Everett on the cover and was originally slated for release on September 11, 2001. The release date was pushed back six months, but an album sporting a photo of a man who looked like the Unabomber and bearing a title with "jacker" in it was never going to do terribly well in the post-9/11 climate. After quietly touring to support Souljacker, the band -- now a five-piece, having added violinist Lisa Germano and guitarist Joe Gore -- went into the studio and recorded the Eels' latest, Shootenanny!, in a ten-day sprint last November.

Shootenanny! is the happiest and most fun Eels record to date. The sound is not much different from what listeners might expect, but the spirit is more playful. "Saturday Morning," for example, is told from the perspective of an eight-year-old who has woken up far too early on Saturday morning to be up to any good. In it, Everett captures the essence of youth, the joy and agony of pent-up childish energy begging to be spent at a time when a day lasts an eternity. "Restraining Order Blues" is a sardonically funny tale of a non-violent man who bemoans his inability to touch the only woman he's ever loved.

This is Everett's forte: laughing at the absurdity of life, no matter how uncomfortable the circumstances are. But his talent for making light of life's potholes is often misinterpreted, thanks to widespread cultural attention deficit disorder.

"I shouldn't be the Depressed Guy; I should really be the Uplifting Guy, if people are really paying attention," he grouses. "That's the problem now: There are so many records coming out, so many books and movies; everyone has a TV show and a Web site and a magazine. There are so many things being reviewed, and people only get a chance to capsulate everything. People can only get into so many things on the surface; nobody has any time to get into one thing in-depth enough to really know what's going on."

A closer examination of Shootenanny! reveals a common theme on a few tracks. Both "Love of the Loveless" and "Somebody Loves You" serve as reminders to loners and the lonely that somewhere out there, someone cares whether they live or die -- or at least wouldn't mind having a beer and shooting the breeze with them. When read in context with "Lone Wolf," in which Everett declares that "nobody needs to get close to me," the two songs seem like love letters to himself, affirmations that he's never as alone as he might think he is.

But when asked what inspired these little memos, Everett is glib: "Just my whole life."

Oh, just that.

He chuckles. "Obviously, something went wrong somewhere -- somewhere in the earlier years, most likely, which is probably where your whole emotional landscape is formed for your life," he explains. "I dunno. It doesn't concern me too much anymore what happened back then. What does concern me is how to make things better now."

For Everett, that means almost complete immersion in music all the time. "I haven't taken a real vacation in I don't know how many decades," he says, laughing. "Every time I think I'm going to take a vacation at the end of a tour, I find myself making a record the very next day. Even when I'm not planning it, I just can't seem to stop myself. I guess I'm a workaholic -- that might be the unromantic term for it. I have nothing but the rock. Rock has never let me down; I really do love it. Vacation sounds like work to me. I've gotta take a vacation from having a great time at a rock concert every night?"

Music is the escape, the shelter and the mirror reflecting Everett's emotional moments. It might not be the healthiest thing in the world to use music -- or any job, for that matter - as the couch on which you shake out your psychic loose change, but if it works, why fix what's beautifully broken?

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Melanie Haupt