Mr. E’s Lucky Day in Hell

Sunday, 10 February 2008

While much ado has been made about his background since appearing in 1996, it’s difficult to believe that Eels frontman Mark Oliver Everett, a.k.a. Mr. E, wasn’t born in the wrong place; there is simply no word or expression present in the English language that neatly and clearly defines or qualifies the music he writes. Everett has been known to pen songs like “Going Fetal” that revel in schadenfreude – German for the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. Elsewhere, songs like “Novocaine For The Soul” indulge in a form of jolie-laid that is positively gut wrenching. “Jolie-laid” is a French phrase that translates to “pretty-ugly;” not “pretty ugly” in the conversational sense like ‘Wow, that girl is pretty ugly’, but “pretty-ugly” as in both pretty and ugly at the same time. Rather than offering a flawless, air-brushed pin-up girl, Eels songs have always been beautiful with an intrinsic flaw that is worn squarely on each one’s sleeve and that aspect of songs like “Flyswatter” and “Souljacker part 1” is what makes them so perfect. The flaws are what make the songs beautiful because they are the moments for people to inhabit and relate to. All of that seems contradictory and maybe it is, but contradiction is essential to the human experience; as Mr. E says himself, “the trouble with dreams is they don’t come true;” not every ending is a neat, tidy, happy one, sometimes you get what you need rather than what you want and sometimes a problem isn’t a blessing in disguise. These truths are the ones that tend to get left out of pop music, but are the ones laid bare in and are essential to Eels’ music because listeners get the feeling that those experiences are shared. That’s what makes their albums so dear to the band’s fans.

At the same time, it becomes apparent in conversation with Mr. E that those elements are reflections of the singer’s personality as well. E has always been evasive when it comes to the spotlight and tends to recoil when it finds him. Apparently when Riverhead Books approached Everett for a quote to be included on the inside sleeve of Kurt Cobain’s Journals, for example, the singer simply submitted a note saying, “Please don’t do this to me after I kill myself.” The quote wasn’t used, but that may have been because the publishers didn’t see the gallows humour in it – the same sort of wry and ironic humour that could be applied to E’s own life now. For a man that has always recoiled from the spotlight, 2008 will likely be Everett’s lucky day in Hell. With a two-disc greatest hits compilation (Essential Eels), a three-disc B-sides and rarities comp (Useless Trinkets), a BBC-produced documentary film on Everett already released and a world tour looming as well as an autobiographical book entitled Things The Grandchildren Should Know scheduled to come out worldwide this fall, Mark Oliver Everett will likely get more exposure than he’s comfortable with and that fact isn’t lost on him. “It’s really weird for me because I was trying to disappear for a while,” chuckles the singer from his California home. “It’s been a few years since our last album came out, and I thought this would be a nice way of tiding things over, but now it’s like I never went away because there’s so much stuff all of a sudden.

“All of the attention feels weird because there isn’t actually a new album [chuckling].”

Culling some of the best tracks from the band’s six studio albums, Essential Eels pulls together the portrait of the band as they are now with a selection of the songs responsible for winning the band the acclaim of their fans and while it’s true that none of the content on Useless Trinkets is really new for the singer, much of the material has gone unheard by fans until now. Clocking in at two CDs (fifty tracks total) with an additional DVD chronicling the band’s performance at Lollapalooza 2006, Useless Trinkets goes in every imaginable direction at once, but none of them play exactly true to the band’s image—so it ends up being remarkably engaging if you’re willing to follow the songs down the rabbit hole. If you do that, you’ll realize that while the set is unwieldy, it’s also poetic. “We figured ten years was a good time to make a document to sort of show where we’ve been and how short a distance we’ve come [chuckling],” explains E of the impetus behind releasing a greatest hits package. “Although it did take us two years to put together so we’re actually two years into the next ten years now. It just took a lot longer than we thought and I guess we should have started working on it a little earlier. Universal wanted to put together a best-of but we said, ‘Well, hold on—let’s really make these right and make them the nicest packages we can’ and we discovered that it took a while to get it just right.”

Hearing E explain the rationale behind releasing an odds and sods collection such as Useless Trinkets, it seems like the height of obviousness as well. Although the singer makes it quite clear that he didn’t exactly get what he wanted from his record label when it came to compiling the set, fans will get what they need as far as quenching their collective appetite for more music from the band. “Useless Trinkets was an exercise in raiding the vaults, but it’s by no means all-inclusive,” says the singer right off the top when conversation turns toward the set. “There’s a lot of unreleased stuff and we sort of cherry-picked some of it for this one. I wanted it to be three CDs and a DVD, but in the end we could only get away with two CDs and a DVD so I couldn’t put as much stuff on it as I wanted to.

“Who knows. Maybe in another ten years we’ll put together a volume two.”

Each set contains different versions of some Eels staples and, listening to the contrast between the different versions of recurring songs including “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues," “Souljacker pt. 1” and “Novocaine For The Soul," it becomes apparent that nothing is set in stone in the world of the Eels. Those tracks that appear on Essential Eels won the band their fan base but may have won them a completely different one had Everett arbitrarily decided to release different versions of them. Taken together, the sets express an infinite number of possibilities that could have led to a very different outcome for the band; would the Moog Cookbook remix of “Novocaine For The Soul” (now available on Useless Trinkets) released in place of the version on Beautiful Freak have dramatically changed the place in pop culture that the Eels currently occupy? Would the alternate version of “Souljacker pt. 1” released on Useless Trinkets have dramatically changed the face of the Souljacker album and, in so doing, the fans’ perception of it? No one could possibly know the answers to these questions, but they are the sorts of thoughts that have surrounded Mark Oliver Everett all his life. E is the son of Hugh Everett III—the physicist that first proposed the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics. According to Wikipedia, “The theory denies the objective reality of wavefunction collapse. Many-worlds then explains the subjective appearance of wavefunction collapse with the mechanism of quantum decoherence. Consequently, many-worlds claims to resolve all the "paradoxes" of quantum theory since every possible outcome to every event defines or exists in its own "history" or "world".” Simply put, many-worlds proposes that there are an infinite number of universes and that everything that could possibly happen in our universe (but doesn't) does happen in another.

Frustrated by the lack of response to his theories, Hugh Everett quit physics after completing his Ph. D. and ultimately made millions as a defense analyst and consultant for the U.S. military. This is the backdrop before which Mark Oliver Everett grew up, and, while not remarkably forthcoming about it in conversation, it is the subject of the documentary film recently produced by the BBC, Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives. In spite of the fact that they resided under the same roof until Hugh Everett’s death in 1982, E has gone on public record repeatedly outlining the rift that always existed between the singer and his father. Mark Oliver Everett is the first to admit that there has always been a deep and long vein of animosity and alienation in his family, and the film follows E as he meets his father’s old college pals, family friends and colleagues and takes a crash course in the weird world of quantum mechanics in order to understand his father’s theory—all ultimately in an attempt to understand the father he never knew. Whenever conversation turns toward his paternal relationship, E conspicuously speaks in lowered tones indicating that he has yet to reconcile his feelings about his father and only going so far as to say, “The documentary is about my father. It just aired on the BBC.” However on the subject of his upcoming novel, Things The Grandchildren Should Know, E is much more forthcoming. The book tells the story of what it's like to grow up the insecure son of a genius in a wacky Virginia Ice Storm-like family. Left to run wild with his sister with his father off in some parallel universe of his own invention, Everett's upbringing was 'ridiculous, sometimes tragic and always unsteady.' But somehow he manages to not only survive his crazy upbringing and ensuing tragedies, he makes something of his life—striking out on a journey to find himself by channelling his experiences into his critically acclaimed music with the Eels. But it's not an easy path. Told with plain-spoken candour, Things The Grandchildren Should Know is an inspiring and remarkable story, full of hope, humour and wry wisdom. “I had a friend of mine pestering me for years who thought that my life would make an interesting book,” explains E of how the seeds for Things The Grandchildren Should Know were planted. “I never really thought it would, but it came about in a very pragmatic fashion and I got to doing it while we were on a very long tour. That tour went around the world twice with a seven-piece band and, by the end of it, I just felt like I wanted to do something where I didn’t have to worry about seven people every day and I’d only have to depend on myself to do so I thought it would be really easy to write a book.

“It turned out to be the hardest thing I ever did.

“It’s so exacting writing a book,” ruminates the singer. “It’s just paper, ink and your thoughts and your sentences have to be exactly right. There’s nothing to hide behind; there’s no mix to cushion things.”

Of course, writing the book is an arduous process certainly, but promoting it is something else entirely. After writing a novel, many musicians including Richard Hell, John “Rotten” Lydon and Dave Bidini have claimed that while writing their tomes can be as easy or as hard as one makes it, promoting it may entail doing speaking engagements, public appearances and, worst, doing readings of excerpts from the text. While the book is not yet available in North America [the book’s release date in Europe was on January 17, 2008 but won’t be out in North America until Fall 2008 – “There was a little bit of a delay—it happens,” says E reassuringly. –ed], excitement has already started to build around the prospect of a novel by the singer and according to E, the part of prospective promotion that he’s least looking forward to is doing readings of his book to groups of people. “Everybody wants me to do a reading, but I really don’t want to,” says E candidly and with an edge of unexpected apprehension in his voice. “I guess it’s too embarrassing for me. The book is so personal and so nakedly honest and I did go out of my way to make it sound more spoken than written—like I’m just sitting there at the kitchen table talking to you—however, it is written and the idea of me actually saying all that stuff out loud is terrifying. I really hope I can get out of doing it if they’ll let me.”

When Ground Control spoke with Everett, the singer was preparing to jet over to the UK for a promotional show at St. James Church in London before embarking upon still another world tour that will begin in Europe and hit North America in the spring. Finally, after all of that, there is the outside possibility, according to the singer, that we may see another studio album before the end of the year. At that point, one has to wonder – how much more work could Mark Oliver Everett possibly do? “Well, I’m getting exhausted just thinking about it,” begins E in mock indignation. “Sometimes what happens is I’ll finish an album, and that propels me to do a different one right away and so I just wait and afford myself the luxury of time to see, in the end, which one should come out when.

“I’ve got about a record and a half recently made that I’m sitting on and continuing to work on, but I like making them more than I like putting them out so I think I’m going to keep making them for a while and decide what I want to put out when. I don’t know when yet.”

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