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by: missmisery 15 june 05
E from Eels talks about using dustbins as drums, home-made videos and getting his favourite guitar smashed up in this exclusive interview in the middle of the band’s World tour.
Eels' frontman E is in good spirits. He's looking relaxed and upbeat, despite being in the middle of a gruelling tour to promote his new album ‘Blinking Lights and Other Revelations’.
"It's been going great,” says E. “It's a pretty ambitious venture, the most difficult tour I've ever had to put together in terms of preparation.
“You know, I've been thinking of these gigs as a concert for the adult in all of us, a concert to comfort your inner adult.”
But despite attempts to keep the tour tasteful and restrained in tone, things have still got a little out of control, as E explains.
"Last night some asshole jumped on stage and broke my guitar. It was my favourite guitar. Things get crazy even when it's a sit-down gig.
“We put suits on and dress up, and we come out there and we play some nice music with nice orchestrations. And we still whip them up into a frenzy, to the point where they jump on stage and break my guitar. I can't turn it down much more than this."
It’s clear that some Eels’ fans aren’t going to let a small thing like an ‘adult’ gig stop E from rocking their world.
But then this is a band whose ‘Souljacker’ tour featured strident blues-laden rock with E looking scarily like the Unabomber.
The current tour couldn’t be more different with its laid back style and E dressed like a turn of the century gentleman, resplendent in a suit with a silver-tipped walking cane and cigar in hand.
Eels with strings
For the uninitiated, Eels is essentially E (aka Mark Oliver Everett) plus a changing bunch of a dozen or so musicians.
As the opening slide show for the band’s tour proclaims, “29 transient members. One deeply troubled permanent member”.
In the flesh E is charming, funny, likeable and remarkably bullshit-free, a refreshing change from your average ego-fuelled rock star.
He comes across as unconventional, slightly eccentric and fiercely intelligent, with a real passion for his music.
The latest Eels tour is pretty unorthodox too, but then E has a reputation for doing things a little bit differently.
"You know, I didn't think I was going to tour this year. I just wasn't feeling in the touring mood. It wasn't until I was sitting in the backyard one night when I came up with this idea, and I couldn't stop myself from trying to do it.
“I thought what would be the one thing harder than putting out a double album? Putting together a seven piece band, the nucleus of it being a string quartet with no drums. That sounds like a challenge!”
"Seven people on stage is a world record for Eels - the previous record was six,” says E proudly.
“It was pretty scary putting it together - we needed every minute we had. It doesn't have drums other than a trash can and a suitcase … and there's a guy playing a saw."
So Eels with Strings was born, an ambitious concept, which the modest E is at pains to play down.
"I'm not trying to dazzle anyone with versatility or anything. I just do what's in my heart basically,” he says.
“Fresh is an important concept to me. I want things to feel vibrant and exciting … I just treat every concert like a creative endeavour of its own. It’s never about just trying to re-create the records."
Eels’ new album, 'Blinking Lights and Other Revelations', is being hailed as E’s masterpiece and his most mature work to date. Seven years in the making, it takes E’s family tragedies as a source for many of its 34 songs.
E's traumatic family history has been well-documented. His father died of a heart attack, his sister committed suicide after battling years of depression, and his mother died of cancer. Just to add to the list of pain and anguish, E’s cousin and her husband were killed in the 9/11 plane that hit the Pentagon.
Losing most of your family in such harrowing circumstances would send most of us off the rails, but despite the tragedy, E has somehow felt the strength to channel his feelings into his music in an almost therapeutic way.
"For me I've had to treat my family like an art project. It's really my only means of relating to it all," he says poignantly.
"It's just one of those things where I don't have any other choice, for many reasons. It's been a real godsend to me to be able to deal with it and to have somewhere to put my energy regarding it all. It's a great thing.”
E's family appear like flickering ghosts throughout the album, which despite its dreamlike quality, has a strangely uplifting tone which makes you think that E has finally broken through the pain barrier.
'Blinking Lights…' is a wildly ambitious double CD, featuring 34 songs strung out over two records.
"When I started it, it was just in the form of a single disc of simply orchestrated songs," says E.
“It wasn't until I took a break from it and made the 'Shootenannny' album and played a lot of rock concerts that I started to think of the ideas that really made the 'Blinking Lights' album work for me.
‘Blinking Lights’, says E, is a record more “to feel than to think about”.
"And that's when I realised it needed a certain kind of pacing and some instrumental vignettes,” he recalls.
"It needed to be more a connection to the heart than the head. I realised that the pacing had to be spread out over two discs.
"I did want it to feel like a friend to the listener," explains E.
"I wanted it to be something that mightn't necessarily show itself the first few times. But if you spent enough time with it, it would slowly sneak under your skin and creep in and take you be surprise, and all of a sudden it's your best friend."
The trouble with dreams
E has never been comfortable with celebrity and the whole rock'n'roll circus, but you sense that he's now found his musical niche.
When Eels released their debut album 'Beautiful Freak', the band were touted as the next big thing, but E "started noticing how empty the whole experience felt".
"It seemed to be very important to a lot of people around me, but not to me. So I made a big decision that I wasn't going to concern myself with how many records I sold, but just how good I could make a record," he recalls.
"When I was a teenager, I remember reading Ray Charles' autobiography which made a big impact on me, especially the part where he said that the most important thing is to find out what is unique about yourself.
"You have to find what you have to offer that no one else is offering. So I spent a long time trying to figure that out."
These days E works independently and bankrolls everything himself, as he explains.
"I never get a call from a record company saying, ‘Hey, it’s time to make a new record’ ‘cos usually I finish it and give it to them before I get that call.
“It got a little scary in this case ‘cos I was paying for everything myself, and it was a lot of music, a lot more than is actually on the record. And when you’re paying for big orchestras and everything … you begin to think, I hope this works out.”
Having blown the budget on recording 'Blinking Lights', E found that there was no money left in the bank for his 'Hey Man (Now You're Really Living)' video. His solution was simple - make it at home using a touch of DIY.
“It’s the world’s cheapest video. I’m the director, the star, the caterer, the soundman. I did everything," E says gleefully.
“It was pretty hard to make. It took me most of one Saturday afternoon ‘cos I did it in one take pointing the camera at myself whilst I sang along to the stereo.
“The problem is that you’re working at home with all the hazards of home. There’s no one to walk the dog when he starts howling because I hit a bad note."
E says that he was "really embarrassed" when he watched the video back, but liked its "honesty" and the fact that it is "a slice of real life", which convinced him to put it out.
“That’s the one thing I can’t stand about watching videos," says E.
"Almost every video you see is just so full of hokum and Hollywood bullshit. Now I’ve watched that video, I can’t watch any videos - even the good ones seem phoney to me.”
Check out blues
Talking to E you sense that he rarely suffers from writer’s block. If anything, he has trouble holding back his creativity.
“It’s hard for me but I’m really thankful for it, says E of his immense talent.
"But a lot of the time it’s like torture. I’m just not able to stop making things. It’s what I do and what I have to do, and I can’t stop.
“Some nights I’ll be sitting at home watching a movie and 10 minutes into it, I just realise I’ve got to write a song. Here it comes … And I get kind of mad about it sometimes when I just wanted to have a nice, quiet evening.
“But if I ignore it, it’ll drive me crazy, thinking what I might have passed up.”
Unsurprisingly E has already got lots of ideas for his next project, although he's keeping them close to his chest.
"The one thing that’s good about going on tour is that I start to cook up ideas because there’s so much boredom involved," he says.
“There’s something about getting away from your day to day life at home that makes you start reflecting on things. Maybe that’s why people take vacations. I don’t know because I’ve never taken one. Every time I try to take one, I end up writing a new album!.”
So will the next album be very different from 'Blinking Lights' with another switch of gear and musical style?
"I'm not going to make a polka album just because I can. And I could! But I won't because it's not what I really want to do right now. Maybe someday I will - it may be more befitting of a man in his 60s."
And the future? There have been rumours that this could be Eels' farewell tour, but E is keen to squash any suggestions of a swansong.
"There's no truth in it. We're not saying it's our farewell tour. It might be the last one for awhile but who knows?"
With that E exits stage right to make some more of his beautiful blues - another city, another tour date - he's beginning to lose count.
E is on a winning streak - not only is he a man at the top of his musical game, he's finally getting his own life back in shape.
One thing is certain, E will continue to work obsessively in his basement, making things, and surprising and delighting Eels fans, wherever his creative genius takes him.
Written by Sue Wilkinson
'Beautiful Freak' (1996)
Key track - 'Novocaine for the Soul'
'Electro-Shock Blues' (1998)
Key track - 'Cancer for the Cure'
'Daisies of the Galaxy' (2000)
Key tracks - 'Flyswatter' and 'Mr E's Beautiful Blues'
Key tracks - 'Souljacker Part 1' and 'Part 2'
Key track - 'Rock Hard Times'
'Blinking Lights and Other Revelations' (2005)
Key Tracks - 'Check Out Blues' and 'Railroad Man'
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