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Interview: Mark Oliver Everett (E of EELS)

on July 12, 2011, 2:45pm

Mark Oliver Everett, sometimes known as E, is the singer-songwriter and frontman of Eels. Known for a diverse catalog of melancholic, often reflective rock albums, Everett recently marked his 15-year career in music with an Eels concept-album trilogy and an autobiography titled Things The Grandkids Should Know.

The first album of the trilogy was 2009’s Hombre Lobo (Spanish for ”wolf man”) and came with the subtitle “12 Songs of Desire”. End Time followed in early 2010 and focused on divorce, aging, and similar life conclusions. The final installment, Tomorrow Morning, released several months later in 2010, reaches the real final phase of redemption and resolution.

Coinciding with the making of the trilogy, Everett made his authorial debut with 2007’s Things The Grandkids Should Know. The book details his life of “rock music, death, crazy people, and love.” In addition to a recent divorce, Everett has dealt with a series of tragic losses that include his mother to cancer and his schizophrenic sister to suicide. The book also discusses his father, Hugh Everett III, the quantum physicist who introduced the “parallel worlds” theory, and whose impact on science has been compared to that of Albert Einstein’s. The two never had a close relationship, but it was Everett who discovered his father’s body after he died in his sleep in 1982. Though he doesn’t have any kids as of yet, the 48-year-old musician wanted to write the book to ensure that, if he does, no questions are left unanswered.

Everette may be in the midst of a trilogy-supporting world tour, which he admitted “started out rocky, but got better in Glastonbury,” but the singer took some time while in Amsterdam to chat about his recent reflections on life and an awkward encounter with Ringo Starr.

Instead of writing a single album,  you turned a difficult period of your life into three separate concept albums. What made you decide to turn tragedy into trilogy?

Well, originally, in my mind it was a two-part thing. It was going to be End Times, and then I wanted to follow that with something that felt like a renewal, like it wasn’t really the end, like there was another chance. After I did Tomorrow Morning, I thought, “Well, why don’t I make kind of a prequel to the whole thing, and start it with the seed that gets you into the trouble in the first place: desire.” So, Hombre Lobo was actually the last one we made, but came out first.

How far apart did you record the albums?

Fairly far apart. The last album we put out before this was Blinking Lights [and Other Revelations] in 2005, four years before Hombre Lobo came out, so there was a lot of time to work on these. But they weren’t done all at once. They were done unto themselves on their own time periods. And actually, End Times and Tomorrow Morning were written before Hombre Lobo.

thingsthegrandchildrenshouldknow 677x1024 Interview: Mark Oliver Everett (E of EELS)You embarked upon a similar journey with your book, Things The Grandchildren Should Know.  Were you trying to find a similar sense of resolution with the book that you found in making the albums?

It actually just occurred to me when we finished the Eels With Strings tour, which was with seven-piece band, that I just had the desire to do something by myself after dealing with the logistics of having a seven-piece band go around the world. So, I naïvely thought it would be something easy for me to do. But it was an experiment, too, to write the book. I didn’t have a book deal or anything; I just wanted to write it on my own. It turned out to be the hardest thing I’d ever done, but when I finished, I read it back, thought there was something there, and just wanted to put it out.

Was it the reliving of the events, or was it the actual writing process that made it the hardest thing you’ve ever done?

Both, really. Writing a book I found to be much harder than writing music. It’s very exacting. It’s just you and the pen and the paper. It’s very lonely, and particularly in my case, having to go back and visit some of the difficult periods in my life. Trying to tell a true story and make it all make sense and make it all entertaining is a tall order.

What do you think you got more resolution from, the book or the albums?

I would say it’s different kinds of resolution. The book is pretty big for me, because it encompassed my whole life up until that point. I actually got the most resolution from the [2007] BBC documentary that was on PBS in America, called Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, which was about my father. I got to be a part of that, and I got a lot out of that.

The documentary is equal parts biography and your quest to know him as a father. How did you get involved in the BBC documentary?

It was all BBC’s idea. They had it all mapped out; then came to me, and asked, “Do you want to do this with us?” My initial reaction was trepidation, because I thought, “How are they going to mix family drama, quantum physics, and rockumentary all into one thing?” I just decided to take a chance, and it turned out to be one of the more rewarding experiences in my life.

You’ve talked before about how Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives allowed you to understand your dad. What was it like coming to realizations about your father posthumously, through a BBC documentary?

That’s a huge thing for me, because, although I lived in the same house with him for 18 years, he was a complete stranger to me. He hardly ever spoke. He was another piece of furniture. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to have these people arrange for me to meet the people who knew him, who are still alive, knew him well. It was just a really fascinating experience. I was only involved for a couple of weeks, and it was really easy for me. It was the opposite of the book, because I just had to fly around and meet people, and they did the rest of the work.

Writing an autobiography and giving it the title that you did, you often have to consider your legacy. Were you comfortable with that idea, or were there different reasons for publishing the book?

With that title, I was thinking about how–and this is before the documentary was made–how sometimes I have questions about my family, or my father, and how there’s no one left to give me any answers. I just thought, “What if somebody ends up feeling that way about me? I’ll try to give some answers here.”

You recently performed at Norwegian Wood in Oslo, Norway, a festival that got its name from the song on The Beatles’ Rubber Soul. After your set, you got to perform with Little Steven and Ringo Starr, himself. How did that come about?

That was super exciting and emotional for me. It was not only the first time I had met a Beatle but the first time I shared a mic with a Beatle, all in one day. Here’s the guy who probably inspired me to play drums at six years old and to get into music in the first place.

I had met [Starr] earlier in the day, and we chatted a little bit. Actually, it was funny, because I was so nervous talking to him, and I said something stupid. He was talking to me about where he lives, and I just said, “Oh, I didn’t know you were from England” (laughs). It was so sweet that any Beatle wouldn’t think we knew anything about him. He just walked away, and I thought I blew it.

Later, we were on the side of the stage watching his show, and he just walks off the stage at one point and said, “Hey, do you want to come sing on the last song? It’s called ‘With a Little Help From My Friends,’ and it goes…” He starts singing the song to me, and I just interrupted him and said, “I know it” (laughs). Later, I realized I had Ringo singing to me, and I should’ve just let him finish the whole song. The whole thing was just surreal.

Having experienced resolution through your book, most recent albums, and Parallel Lives, what themes are left to channel in your music?

I’m working on stuff now, but I’m kind of superstitious about talking about stuff I’m working on before I know it’s going to come out. I often change my mind at the last minute and do something else. For now, on this tour, we’re playing at least one song from every album, giving a good mix of the trilogy, and just trying to bring it. Always trying to bring it.

Photography by Autumn de Wilde.

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