Q&A: E Explains Steve Perry’s Surprise Return To The Stage And The Stirring New Eels Album
An Eels concert in St. Paul took a surprising turn earlier this week when former Journey frontman Steve Perry emerged to perform Eels’ “It’s A Motherfucker” and Journey’s “Open Arms” and “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’.” That video of Perry’s first public performance in 19 years has now gone viral — over 1 million views in a couple of days — so I called up Eels leader E (AKA Mark Oliver Everett) to find out how it happened. What followed was a window into Eels’ unique relationship with Perry as well as their stirring new album The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett and the future of the band.
STEREOGUM: How long have you known Steve?
E: There’s this kind of whole secret inner life to the Eels, and one of the weirder parts of it is that we’ve been friends with Steve Perry for years. It started because he’s been coming to our shows for a long time — like 10 years. And occasionally he would send word backstage that he wanted to meet me, but I always felt awkward about it because when I grew up I didn’t have an appreciation for Journey, and I felt like, “Well, I don’t know what I’ll say to him.” So I avoided him for years, and then one day I had lunch with the film director Patti Jenkins, who made the Charlize Theron movie Monster, and she happened to be good friends with Steve, and she said, “You should really meet Steve. He’s the greatest guy.” So I did, based on that recommendation, and found that she was absolutely right. Steve’s the greatest guy. So then I invited him to one of our weekly Sunday croquet matches, which is another part of our secret inner life that I guess is no longer a secret, and he came one Sunday and never left. He became a regular for years, and he just became one of our good friends. There’s no one in our circle that doesn’t just love the shit out of Steve. He really is just a great guy. Then he started showing up unannounced to our tour rehearsals every year. He would just sit there and watch us. And then slowly over the years, guys in the band would try to bait him by playing a Journey song hoping he would grab the microphone and start singing, but he never would. He would just laugh. He was always a good sport about it. And then one tour rehearsal probably three or four years ago, it happened, where he surprised us all and grabbed the microphone. And for the first time in 18 years or something, he started singing a Journey song. And it sent shivers down my spine, and I instantly gained an appreciation for his voice and Journey, something that I never got before. And now when I hear Journey on the radio, I turn it up. And the other thing about Steve is that he’s the real deal as an artist. He’s pure heart. There’s no head with Steve. It’s all from the heart. And that’s what I want out of an artist. So I just have incredible respect for him now.
STEREOGUM: How did he end up singing with you in St. Paul?
E: We started talking to him about it, like, “Hey maybe you’d want to do this on stage with us sometime.” And he’d say, “Nah, too much pressure.” Because it is, you know? When you’re that well-known for something you do that well, and you haven’t done it for so long, it’s kind of a big deal. I get it. But this year it was different. He showed up to our tour rehearsals like he always does, but on the second day he came in carrying his own microphone that he brought with him. And I thought, “Huh, this is different. I wonder what’s going on here.” And he started talking about doing it on stage. And we all decided that we’re not going to get too excited about it because it’s more likely to not happen than to happen with him. And then he actually came out to St. Paul — and I don’t know why he chose St. Paul. Only he could tell you that. And even that day when we were there, I still thought, “It’s probably not going to happen. I’ll believe it when I see it.” It wasn’t until he actually got on the stage and he started singing that I realized, “Oh wow, it’s really happening!” And it was such a beautiful moment. Again, it sent chills down my spine just to be there with him in his element doing what he was made to do. And as my friend, it felt good to see him feeling so good about that.
STEREOGUM: How did you guys choose which songs you were going to do?
E: That’s all up to him, you know? You can’t really tell Steve Perry what to do. You just go along for the ride, you know? And that’s what he wanted to do.
STEREOGUM: You were saying that you only recently gained your appreciation of Journey, but do you have favorite Journey songs?
E: Well, I love “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’,” one of the ones we played. I really have a genuine appreciation for those songs now. Like “Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin’,” that is such a great lyric. The “squeezin'” part is so graphic, and it really makes you feel the hurt and jealousy of the situation. I love that! I like the one called “Lights” — “When the lights go down in the city.” I like them all because, you know — a part of it’s because of my friendship with Steve, and part of it’s because I really have a respect for the man as an artist and how it’s all coming from his heart and how pure he is. And also, I’d like to say that I actually like his voice better now than it was back in the day. Like, my favorite Sinatra period was the later period where his voice got deeper. And Steve’s got a version of that going on where he basically sounds the same, he’s just got a little more experience and grit, and he sounds more like Sam Cooke than ever. I just think his voice is dynamite now.
STEREOGUM: Do you think he’ll do this again? Have you communicated about that at all?
E: I have no idea. Steve does what Steve does, and you either go along for the ride or you don’t. I would love to do it again because it was such a fun experience, and I hope he will, but I totally understand if he doesn’t. It’s all up to him. I’m at least glad it happened this one time. In the meantime, I’ll just try to not stop believing. I mean, for now, he’s on the midnight train going anywhere. I don’t know where it’s going to stop.
STEREOGUM: Since Steve’s obviously a big fan of Eels, has he told you what about your music drew him in?
E: We have a song called “I’m Going To Stop Pretending That I Didn’t Break Your Heart,” and he told me this really touching story about how he heard that song and it totally woke him up and led to him rekindling a very important relationship in his life. And that was really touching to hear.
STEREOGUM: What do you think the chances are of him appearing on an Eels album?
E: Actually, that is something he’s brought up before, now that I think about it. He always says he wants to do background vocals. I’m like, “You’re not a background vocalist. You’re a monstrous lead vocalist. You don’t belong in the background.”
STEREOGUM: This new Eels record is more low-key — it’s not as bombastic as you’d expect from a Journey song — but it would be interesting to hear what Steve does with it.
E: I see where you’re going with this — like the Steve Perry remix of our entire new album. I’d love to hear that. I think he could kill it.
STEREOGUM: What was the impetus to make this stripped-down, bare collection of songs?
E: This was an incredibly uncomfortable album to me. To make it was uncomfortable. To put it out was uncomfortable. To write the songs was uncomfortable. But I knew this was going to be uncomfortable, and I decided that it was going to be worth it. Because I kind of had to sacrifice some of my dignity to do this and throw myself under the bus by making myself the subject of some really harsh songs. And putting my face and name on the cover of the album was really uncomfortable for me. And I think it’s easy to misinterpret, and I think some people might not — especially in this day and age when you can only give things a cursory glance or listen; this is something you really need to give it some time and some repeated listenings to get it. But the purpose of it all is to set an example and to say, “Maybe you can avoid some of the mistakes that this idiot, me, made.” And that’s the same thing we’re doing with our concerts right now. It’s a really kind of rich musical evening, where it can be kind of harsh at times, but by the end of the night there’s always this great feeling in the house. There’s this healing kind of feeling. That sounds like a Journey title: “Healing Kind Of Feeling.” It’s just a great experience. I’ve always felt like I’m playing the long game, and the concerts we’re doing right now are the mini example of a long game. The way it starts out is nothing like how you feel when it’s over.
STEREOGUM: Are you following the typical format of doing the new stuff first and breaking out the old hits at the end, or is it more complicated than that?
E: There’s some of that, but it’s a little more complicated than that, yeah. But there is some of that. We like to take old songs and do them like we would do them now — you know, get them right this time.
STEREOGUM: You’ve taken it almost as small-scale as you can go with the stripped-down approach. Do you have a vision for what direction you might take the next one?
E: I really don’t. There’s nothing on the horizon. We’ve been pretty busy the last several years. Maybe I’m inspired by Steve Perry. When I heard that applause he got for stepping on stage for the first time in 20 years, it made me think, “Oh, maybe I should go away for 20 years, and then I could come back and have that kind of applause.” So maybe that’s my next move. Steve Perry is such an inspiration.
STEREOGUM: Well, as someone who only recently got into your work, I hope you don’t go away, but I can’t dispute the reasoning.
E: You know, I’ve been working hard for over 20 years, and that is why this album was written. It’s about the other side of that. You keep your nose to the grindstone so intensely, your life becomes too unbalanced and one-sided. You pay a price for that, and that’s exactly what this album is about is the price that I have paid for working so hard on music and nothing else for over 20 years. So me going away is probably a really smart idea for me personally, but we’ll see.
Eels Tour Dates:
05/29 Boston, MA @ Berklee Performance Center
05/30 Philadelphia, PA @ Keswick Theater
05/31 Washington, DC @ Lincoln Theater
06/01 New York, NY @ The Apollo Theater
06/03 Detroit, MI @ Royal Oak Music Theater
06/04 Madison, WI @ Barrymore Theater
06/07 Seattle, WA @ The Moore Theater
06/08 Portland, OR @ Aladdin Theater
06/10 San Francisco, CA @ Palace of Fine Arts Theater
06/11 Los Angeles, CA @ The Orpheum Theater
06/15 Oxford, UK @ New Theater
06/16 Manchester, UK @ Bridgewater Hall
06/17 Glasgow, UK @ Royal Concert Hall
06/18 Cambridge, UK @ Corn Exchange
06/19 Bexhill, UK @ De La Warr Pavilion
06/21 Linz, Austria @ Posthof
06/22 Vienna, Austria @ Konzerthaus
06/24 Berlin, Germany @ Tempodrome
06/25 Amsterdam, Holland @ Het Koninklijk Concertgebouw
06/26 Amsterdam, Holland @ Het Koninklijk Concertgebouw
06/27 Rotterdam, Holland @ Concertgebouw De Doelen
06/28 Eindhoven, Holland @ Muziekgebouw Frits Philips Eindhoven (Naked Song Festival)
06/30 London, UK @ Royal Albert Hall
07/01 Dublin, Ireland @ Olympia
07/02 Dublin, Ireland @ Olympia
07/04 Werchter, Belgium @ Werchter Festival
07/05 Groningen, Holland @ Koninklijke Stadsschouwburg Groningen
07/06 Montreux, Switzerland @ Montreux Jazz Festival
07/07 Zurich, Switzerland @ Kongress Haus
07/08 Luxembourg @ Grand Theatre
07/10 Paris, France @ Days Off Festival
07/11 Toulouse, France @ Bikini
07/12 Barcelona, Spain @ Teatre Grec
07/14 Madrid, Spain @ Circo Price
07/17 Florence, Italy @ Teatro Romano di Fiesole
07/18 Milan, Italy @ Auditorium di Milano
07/20 Antwerp, Belgium @ Rivierenhof
07/21 Antwerp, Belgium @ Rivierenhof
07/22 Hamburg, Germany @ Laeiszhalle
07/24 London, England @ Barbican
07/25 Bristol, England @ Colston Hall
07/26 Gateshead, England @ Sage
07/27 Salisbury, England @ City Hall