If there were any justice in the world, Mark Eitzel would be a gazillionaire. As the frontman for the beloved, perpetual-underdog band American Music Club, and as a solo artist, Eitzel has written some of the most deeply sad and wryly hilarious songs ever to induce teardrops into a beer glass. And if it’s hard not to get melodramatic when talking about Eitzel’s work, that’s simply because his work seems to gleefully encourage it. Few songwriters can open a record with a song called “I Love You But You’re Dead” and have it read as poignancy rather than a cheap joke. Given Eitzel’s experience over the past couple of years — including the dissolution of American Music Club (again), label woes, and suffering a heart attack — it would make sense if his new record was just a little more vitriolic than usual. But surprisingly, it isn’t. Instead, Don’t Be A Stranger has the finely honed, beautifully weathered quality that comes with having spent many years singing sad songs in a million shitty bars. Still, for someone always portrayed as one of rock music’s most ardent misanthropes, Mark Eitzel is a total pleasure to talk to.
STEREOGUM: What was the genesis of Don’t Be A Stranger?
EITZEL: Well, I was going to do an American Music Club record, but I had no cash and I stupidly thought I could go on Bandcamp and work something out to make money. I was going to do a little short tour of Europe last year, and I thought I could have a little EP to sell, you know five pounds each or something, and make a little money. So I started working on it and working on it, and then I worked on it more, and then I rewrote everything, and then I rewrote them again. So it became this stupid sort of thing that just wouldn’t end. And then I did SXSW, and then in March I decided not to do an American Music Club record at all and just continue on this one, but no one would release a Mark Eitzel record. Well, they would, but the demos I was sending out were so so bad ….
STEREOGUM: In what way?
EITZEL: They were just terrible. I’m not an engineer, and songs were just half-cocked, and … yeah. So that continued, and then I was ill for a while, and then I recovered, and then got in the studio, and Merge said yes after I was in the studio and recorded some really good demos for them. Basically it was just a friend of my manager in Portland who won the lottery — literally — and gave us all money to go into a real studio and work.
STEREOGUM: And you worked with Sheldon Gomberg?
EITZEL: Sheldon Gomberg, yeah, he’s an alumnus of Rickie Lee Jones and Ben Harper.
STEREOGUM: How was that?
EITZEL: It was great. He’s the real deal. Basically what he got was a hard drive full of songs, and we took from the hard drive that existed. I did some drums here with a friend, we added a friend of his, a guy from the Main Attractions, Pete Thomas, incredible drummer. We added real strings … basically we just made it into a real record.
STEREOGUM: How long did the process take for the recording?
EITZEL: Quite a long time because Rickie Lee was doing a record then, and I didn’t pay as much as her, so I was on the back burner, and I would come in when she wasn’t working.
STEREOGUM: Wow. Did you have any interaction with her?
EITZEL: I walked in the studio once and she was there. She was very nice, but no I didn’t really interact with her.
STEREOGUM: She’s one of those people … I mean, it’s not like I ever sit and ponder what Rickie Lee Jones might be doing at any given time, but I have no sense of what she would even be like as a person.
EITZEL: I really don’t know her. I never met her. I met Ben Harper once because he was in the studio working with her. That was about it.
STEREOGUM: I assume you’ve worked with other producers in the past, and I’m always curious about the relationship between the artist and the producer, and how much the producer has sway over how the record ends up sounding. Is that a fraught relationship with you, dealing with the producer?
EITZEL: It’s tough, especially since I’ve made about five records on my own. At this point it’s basically like I’m a recovering alcoholic — I’ve decided that I can’t be in control. Honestly I can’t because it doesn’t serve me well. So I just let it go. There are certain things that he did that I’m just like, “Oh God,” but overall I hope the world likes it. I think the world will like this record more than one that I sort of mantis-like hovered over.
STEREOGUM: Well it’s a beautiful-sounding record, and it’s also a remarkably restrained-sounding record. Not that it’s a new thing, but technology makes it so much easier to give in to the temptation to gussy it up too much. Just because you can do all these things doesn’t mean you should do them.
EITZEL: Oh, I think you should! To be honest with you, you should do them all until your head explodes. I listen to electronic music quite a bit when I can — in that world it’s like, come on, there are no limits. I think it’s great, actually, but in terms of a songwriter who’s making a songwriter’s record, you are constricted by the song. I’ve got so many fuckin’ lyrics in there, and then the more you put a brocade around the lyrics, you just point out that there’s too many of them.
STEREOGUM: The songs that eventually made it onto the record, were some of these songs that had been with you for a really long time?
EITZEL: Some of ‘em. And some of ‘em I wrote like a week before. “Nowhere to Run” — I wrote that about three days before the album was done. Because I took like five songs from the record, because I didn’t think they were suitable, and then the manager in England kept saying, “Hey fucker, we need 11 songs. You cannot give me 10 songs.” And I said, “All right, fine.”
STEREOGUM: I like the version of “All My Love” that’s on this record too. That song originally appeared on the last American Music Club record, so I was surprised to see it again. Why?
EITZEL: Why redo it? It’s a trans-commercial move. That song sold in its original form to a TV series, and I thought I could redo it and make it better, because I was working with this great pianist in England and he played the first verse a certain way. And we toured with it, and it was so nice that it was just this reinterpretation of this song. And a lot of American Music Club songs I just kind of forget about, because I just don’t play them — not because I can’t but because they are American Music Club songs and there’s sort of a weight to that. How ever you want to define that weight, you can. A weight of misspent youth, a weight of alcohol, a weight of sadness. Whatever that weight is, it just makes me a little like uhhh.
STEREOGUM: That’s interesting. One of the things I was thinking about asking you was what you felt like your relationship was to your back catalog.
EITZEL: Well, I wrote them. Popular to contrary belief, I wrote them. And a lot of them are good. A lot of them are really good. I was actually just listening to some old songs yesterday and writing down new songs that I want to cover for the tours that I’m doing next year and this year, ’cause really a song is only for the three minutes that it lasts. You can redo a song and it’s just a new three minutes, so I kind of enjoy doing that. What is the relationship? I don’t know. I don’t know.
STEREOGUM: I always find that interesting. Everyone has songs in their catalog that they don’t like to revisit, usually because they are just sick of them, or sometimes because they are too painful and they don’t ever want to sing them.
EITZEL: Oh I’ve got a lot of those. I’ve got 15, 20 records to choose from. But I don’t have a problem with that, mostly because I’m a big old ham — if somebody wants to hear something, I’ll do it. But the fact that none of the American Music Club records are in print, you can’t find it unless you go to PirateBay, it makes me kind of mad. It keeps me up at night a little bit.
STEREOGUM: I’m kind of shocked by that. Not kind of shocked — I am shocked. Why have those records been allowed to go out of print?
EITZEL: Oh, because they’re owned by people who love them.
STEREOGUM: And don’t want to share them with anyone?
EITZEL: Please just say that it hurts me that these are not in print.
STEREOGUM: Well you mentioned you’d be touring this year; what will the touring permutation be? Will it just be you or will you put together a different band?
EITZEL: I’m trying to put together a different band. We’re called Mark Eitzel’s Warm Gentle Rain, and it’s just a drum, bass, piano, and me. I may or may not play acoustic guitar or electric guitar. That’s what we’ve planned. If we can afford it, we’ll see.
STEREOGUM: That sounds good. I mean obviously all the songs on this record will be really well-suited for that kind of treatment.
EITZEL: I hope I can do it, you know. Just better make sure I’m getting a guarantee so I can actually pay the band.
STEREOGUM: Well as someone who has followed your music for many, many years and bought most of your records, has your approach to making songs or the way you think about making songs changed much over the years?
EITZEL: No, not really. While I was waiting to make this album I did a musical in England. For four or five months I was there working on it, and there were like three workshops before we actually brought it to the stage. As a songwriter, you’re really humbled by these people who actually have to sing these songs. It made me a little more subjective in the way that I approached how to write a song. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it definitely changed me.
STEREOGUM: It must be, at the very least, an interesting experience to see your work re-contextualized in that way, even if you’re the one doing it.
EITZEL: It’s great and it’s horrible. These people that I worked with in the UK were these amazing amazing actors. I know it sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. Some of them could sing, some could not, but they really tried their ass off to make the moment happen. Which was more than I could say for 99 percent of musicians I see on stage these days. You just want to see the moment happen.
STEREOGUM: What is the status of the musical?
EITZEL: The musical is done, but there’s a new one that I might do in Amsterdam with the same collaborator in March of next year. I’m going to Amsterdam for a few dates and we’re going to talk to them and figure out if we can make another musical — a weird sort of piece with music, I think we’re going to call it, instead of musical.
STEREOGUM: That’s an interesting distinction, but I understand what you mean.
EITZEL: The thing is, who likes musical nowadays anyway? Even the poor tourists who have nothing to do with themselves than say, “Oh! Tonight we’re going to go to a musical!” Even they hate the musicals. I actually love them. I love the form a lot, but I hate the pandering that you have to do. Especially as a writer, you have to really pander to what people expect from their night out. I think it’s insulting. I won’t write another musical in that way. Or maybe I will. Who knows. I’ve been writing another piece that is kind of a musical, so you know.
STEREOGUM: I could see your talents being well-suited to the pursuit of writing musicals.
EITZEL: Oh because I’m gay?
STEREOGUM: I didn’t even think about that, actually. I was gonna say because your work often has such a flair for the dramatic.
EITZEL: It’s a joke! I know what you meant.
STEREOGUM: I always hated musicals when I was younger, but there’s a whole world of that stuff that I love.
EITZEL: Come on, I thought I hated musicals, and then I was in New York at Chicago, and because we knew somebody in the cast, they put us in the first four rows — right in the front, right in the middle, Chicago! — and I wept like a baby with pure joy for the first 20 minutes. I was like, “This is fucking great!” Boy, that just hit me like a ton of bricks. Then I was like, “I love musicals!”
STEREOGUM: I grew up in small farm town and we didn’t have drama or theater in my school. I had zero exposure to that world. Then when I went to college and was living among drama students who would suddenly break out into some famous show tune, I was always like, “Oh my god, no!”
EITZEL: Yeah, because all the songs are, “I saw you walk in the room and you didn’t see me,” as they walk in the room and not see him. It’s always like, ugh, come on!
STEREOGUM: I have seen you perform several times — both on your own and with American Music Club. Do you enjoy performing? Do you enjoy being on tour?
EITZEL: Gosh, I do and I don’t. I played a show in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, and I played electric guitar. Sometimes I can play guitar when I’m singing and sometimes I can’t. That night I couldn’t, and it was so frustrating. So I hated the show, it really threw me. For me it’s funny because we played in Nashville and I think there were about 50 people who came to see us — actually they were there to see the opening band — and a lot of them left, and so we ended up playing for 20 people. And you know, we did our set, and were like, “Thank you so much, have a great night,” and then we did an encore. But the three fans wanted like endless encores, like 20 encores! So I was like, really? And so we went out and did another encore, and I was just like, “we’re fucking done, what the fuck,” you know? But they went on and on and on, and I think afterwards they really hated us for being snobs. But we had been touring for a month and we were tired, and it was like, really? So I hate that part of it — that weird sort of, “Come on, you can’t admit when you’re a failure?” And I hate it when I’m doing a show and the sound is no good and I know that the guitar is louder than the voice and nobody can hear the song. Like when I go see shows, I like to hear the song. If it’s an acoustic show and the acoustic guitar is really strident and loud and the vocals are buried, I hate that. That’s one of my middle-aged-man rants.
STEREOGUM: I just get tired of standing. I’m also a part-time bartender, so I feel like I’m always on my feet. It pains me to admit that I’m becoming one of those people who is always looking for a place to sit down.
EITZEL: I don’t mind it. If it’s a good show, I’ll stand forever. I love music.
STEREOGUM: I know it’s hard for so many people to get records made now and even very established artists find it harder and harder to make a living. Is that a struggle for you? Do you feel good about things at this stage in your career?
EITZEL: No! No, I’m completely fucking broke, and ever since my illness, it really killed all the extra money I had. So I’m just like, “What the fuck do I do?” I don’t know what I’m going to do next year.
STEREOGUM: You’ll have to play shows.
EITZEL: I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m still going to make music, you know?
STEREOGUM: That’s good. You should always make music.
EITZEL: I’m writing a lot. I’m doing an album right now just to sell for merch and make a little money. I’m going to follow the formula I read on Reddit — I love Reddit, I’m so addicted. Maybe I’ll Kickstart, try to do an LP, but I’m basically going to make an album to sell on tour. And I’m really loving writing it. It’s not going to be fancy like Don’t Be a Stranger, but it’s going to be pretty good. I’m really OK with writing songs. When things stop being mysteries, that’s when they’re dead. Like our presidential race. It’s over, honey, it’s over. But songwriting, I still don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, so I still like doing it.
STEREOGUM: Is songwriting something you try to do every day, habitually?
EITZEL: Yeah, I do. I really love it. I always have.
Mark Eitzel’s Don’t Be A Stranger is out now on Merge.
Mark Eitzel prepared for the release of his new album, Don’t Be A Stranger, by asking for advice from a few friends, including acting coach Drew Droege.