The Slippery Slope Of Happiness: An Interview With E From Eels

Eels frontman Mark Oliver Everett (or “E” for short) knows a thing or two about work ethic. He’s the son of famed physicist Hugh Everett III, whose theories on alternate universes (and estrangement from his budding rock star son) are the subject of the documentary Parallel Universes, Parallel Lives. Like his late father, Everett has poured himself into his work, which has resulted in a trilogy of interrelated albums; Hombre Lobo (2009), End Times (2010), and finally, the happy ending, Tomorrow Morning.

In his spare time, he’s also written an autobiography, Things The Grandchildren Should Know. We talked to Mark about his songwriting habits, the relative worth of the ’90s, and nearly landing in the pokey.

You were just arrested in London on suspicion of being a terrorist, right?

I didn’t actually get arrested, but I almost did. It was one of the strangest things that has ever happened to me, which I guess says a lot. I was doing what I’ve been doing for fifteen years, walking around Hyde Park. You know, you go over and do these press junkets, talk about your album. I got my first break on the first day and I went out and left the hotel, I was just walking around. I sat on a bench, smoked a cigar, and as I was leaving the park I was approached by three police men. It was unusual that they were London police, and they had guns, and they said someone had called them and said that there was this suspicious character matching my exact description, and it was my description, is the strange thing, down to the clothes I was wearing and everything, but the strange part about it was that I wasn’t doing any of the things that were described—standing menacingly in front of an embassy, and peering over the wall at my hotel, and that’s eventually how I got them to let me go. They questioned me for about twenty minutes, filed a report, and took all the information, and I showed them my hotel key, and I said, “why would I be staring back at the hotel that I finally got out of?” And they said, “yeah, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.” It’s a very paranoid city, and rightly so, I think some old English biddy didn’t like the way I looked and decided I was a terrorist. [laughs]

That’s crazy, I’m glad it worked out.

I was worried about it all week, I was afraid they weren’t going to let me out of the country. What happens when you try to go back in, though?

I guess that thing is more and more common, maybe they’ll get over it quicker, but that happened to Bob Dylan recently too.

At that time, there were probably fifty really suspicious derelicts in the park, and they picked me.

With Tommorow Morning, you’ve said that the songwriting is more experimental than on the previous album.

In a sense. I mean, Hombre Lobo was kind of a garage rock thing, End Times was more of a traditional acoustic singer/songwriter approach. In those terms, this one was more of an anything goes environment of experimentation.

This is an uplifting record. Are there any particular challenges to writing a record like that?

Yeah, I do think it’s more challenging. For some reason it’s harder to write a convincingly, blatantly uplifting song without it becoming corny or trite.

And to sustain that for most of a record is probably a whole other thing.

Yeah. I like the challenge. I noticed recently that if I’m listening to music in my own life, more often than not, it’s something that’s very uplifting.

What are some examples of that?

What sprang to mind, I was listening to a mix tape I made for someone years ago. And they said “you really are the eternal optimist,” and I listened to it was like, “yeah, he’s right. Every song on here is from some kind of uplifting, positive thing. I think that thread goes through a lot of the Eels albums, but I think journalists overlooks that, they just label it as “melancholic” all the time, when very often it is much more multi-layered than that.

Was there anything going on in your personal life that allowed you to make Tomorrow Morning?

Hopefully as you get older, you start to slowly learn what things to be upset about and what things to be thankful for. I finally felt like I was at the point where I’m starting to look around me and see all the good things about my life, and I couldn’t help but express gratitude for it.

Was writing the book and taking stock of your life a factor as well?

I think that definitely helped me get to that point. As hard as it was to do something like write a book about life, it was a great feeling when it was over. They sent me a finished copy of the book, and I could hold my past in this nice little package in my hand. It was like this weight lifted off my shoulders.

What’s a song on Tomorrow Morning you’re particularly proud of?

My favorite is one called “Looking Up” because it was the most fun I’ve ever had in a recording studio. It was just a fun song to make, and it was a fun song to sing, and I felt really uninhibited and free.

Did you have the trilogy idea in your head when you made the first record?

Yeah, I did. Originally I was thinking it was going to be a two-part story, but at the time we were making the first one I realized I wanted it to be three.

Do you find yourself writing all the time?

No. And these all three were made individually, as albums unto themselves, and there would be long periods in between where there was no writing or recording going on. It comes in spurts. I used to write all the time, when I was younger, but as time goes on, doing things like going on tours, it gets broken up.

Do you prefer to write on guitar or piano?

I don’t have a preference as far as that goes. I keep my studio stocked full of all sorts of different instruments and I keep them always plugged in and ready to go. And sometimes what I’ll do is if I feel the urge to write a song on guitar, I’ll force myself to go over to the organ, or the autoharp, or a different kind of tuned guitar, or something, because that will force me into a different world. If you keep writing songs on the same instrument, you tend to put your hands where they feel comfortable all the time, and that’s not good.

Do the lyrics come to you first? Do they come spur of the moment as you’re writing the song?

Both of those things can happen. I like it when the lyrics come first because I think that it makes it a stronger song, because it means it has a very strong, cohesive lyrical idea because that’s where you start.

Do you have any rituals when you write?

No, there’s kind of two different approaches. Sometimes you set aside time, you say tomorrow morning at ten o’clock, and you go down in the studio and just see what happens and try to write something. And the other one is that you’re in the middle of doing something else, trying to live your life, and you’re suddenly struck by inspiration and you have to stop everything, and it ruins whatever you were doing and you can’t avoid it because you’re so inspired. Both of those work out pretty good for me.

Your first hit was in ’96. What does it feel like at this point to be able to sustain a career and thrive? You’re albums sell more now than they ever have.

I feel successful just because I’m still doing it. All I ever wanted to do was do this. I feel so fortunate that I got to do it and I got to do it for this long. It’s a great feeling.

Tom Waits has said he looks forward to every new release from you. Is that in your head much?

That’s an even greater feeling [laughs]. When one of your ultimate heroes says he’s interested in what you do, I can’t even tell you how great that makes me feel. Tom Waits is someone that, I’m such a fan. I remember sitting in the audience at one of his concerts, and I couldn’t imagine him being a real person off stage. I couldn’t imagine that you could actually bump into him on a street or something, that he was a real person. I was so in awe of him. You can imagine what a great feeling it is to hear something like that.

I mentioned the ‘90s a minute ago; is there anything you miss about the ‘90s music scene?

I don’t miss anything about the ‘90s. [laughs] I was never that into the ‘90s.

So you would say things are better now, across the board?

Yeah, I think so. The ‘90s were just a step above the ‘80s, and the ‘80s were pretty terrible, c’mon.

How important to your career has having songs in big movies like American Beauty and Shrek been?

I don’t really know how important it is. For me it’s just kind of a side project, to have songs in films. You try to choose, but you can’t really tell. The trick thing about films is sometimes they can look great in the early stages and turn out terrible, and then vice versa, so it’s a little tricky. I enjoy the process, it’s so different from what I do normally, that I enjoy the process of being part of someone else’s art.

I watched the Nova special last night. Now that you understand parallel universes better, do you find yourself thinking about that a lot?

Yeah, every once in a while, something happens that makes you think about that, but it’s so complicated, it involves everything, literally everything, it’s difficult to wrap your brain around for more than a few seconds at a time.

Do you ever experience moments of synchronicity with music? Like a song will be commenting on what you’re doing or thinking?

I know this one interesting thing, that very often I’ll write a song in character, I’m writing a song that’s not blatantly autobiographical, and years later I’ll play the song at a concert or something, and I’ll be paying attention to what I’m singing, and realize that was completely what I was going through, and I fooled myself into thinking that had nothing to do with me. Interesting how that works.

You’ve put out a lot of material over the past couple years. Did you ever have any reservations that it might be too much?

No, I don’t, because we went four years without any new albums, so I thought it was a good time to make up for lost time, and three out in a year and a half. I had this thing for my family history, where I do feel like quite possibly it’s a race against the clock, better do it while I can, but that said, I’m not going to keep putting an album out every six months, that’s just for these three. I’m going to take a year-long nap.

Anything else you want to say about the new record?

I think it’s a record for the whole family and that means that every member of the family can buy a copy. You don’t want to fight over it.

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