Apocalyptic Heartache: The State of the Broken Union
The eighth EELS studio album, END TIMES, is the sound of an artist growing older in uncertain times. An artist who has lost his great love while struggling with his faith in an increasingly hostile world teetering on self-destruction. Largely self-recorded on an old four track tape machine by EELS leader Mark Oliver Everett aka E in his Los Angeles basement, it's a "divorce album" with a modern twist: the artist equates his personal loss with the world he lives in losing its integrity. When Everett finds comfort "in a dying world," the END TIMES he speaks of isn't about "Mayan calendar conspiracy theory bullshit," he says, but, "the state of the desperate times we live in. The bottom line-ness of it all. The end of common decency. The loss of caring about doing a good job. These are tough times. Who can you trust? Walter Cronkite is just a ghost."
Nowadays you go for a walk Better not stop and wave or say hello Just as soon people will spit Give you shit just for looking at them And walking too slow - "Nowadays"
While the last EELS album, HOMBRE LOBO tackled the subject of desire, "the before, the spark that ignites everything," Everett says, END TIMES is about the other side: the after. And while HOMBRE LOBO was written from the point of view of a fictional character, END TIMES is pure real life.
Alone in his basement bunker, clinging to his antiquated tape recorder for comfort, Everett occasionally steps out into the world to take stock. After encountering a mentally disturbed homeless man ranting about the oncoming end of the world, he continues a walk through the Los Angeles night in the album's title track:
I walk around a puddle in the street And head on home Outside my window there's a cat in heat Shut up, cat And leave me alone There ain't no heat on 'round here I don't feel nothing now Not even fear
Brutally unblinking, END TIMES may be the ELECRO-SHOCK BLUES of break-up albums. While the 1998 EELS album ELECTRO-SHOCK BLUES dealt with the untimely deaths of Everett's mother, father and sister, END TIMES takes a hard look at losing love. Rarely has the phrase "in the beginning" sounded more ominous and full of implication as it does in the album's opening track, "The Beginning":
Pulled her close up to me To keep her warm And everything was beautiful and free In the beginning
This isn't Everett's first break-up album. The 1993 E BROKEN TOY SHOP album chronicled the broken heart of a young man in his twenties. END TIMES is the loss of a middle-aged man, growing as an artist, and as a man. The loss has more weight:
In my younger days I would've just chalked it up As part of my ongoing education But I've had enough Been through some stuff And I don't need any more misery To teach me what I should be I just need you back - "In My Younger Days"
Most people Everett's age might not feel time knocking on their door quite so loudly, but Everett's family tree keeps time always in check. "There's a sense of a race against time around here," he says, "middle age is often old age in my family." When it comes to the topic of what relationship these songs are specifically about, Everett won't say. The subject matter is so personal that he won't be interviewed on the subject. He'll only offer that it's all based on a true story. This is a raw and real state of the broken union address. Eschewing the universal haziness often applied in popular music, he is direct -- very direct:
You need help, baby You've come unhinged It's clear to everybody You're on the fringe Thought I'd stay until I die But the twinkle in your eye is gone And now all that's left is a mean old girl Behind her crazy eyes - "Unhinged"
And nakedly honest:
I need a mother I'm sorry but it's true I need a lover Not someone like you I've been your daddy For too long of a time Need a little mothering Just once in a while - "I Need a Mother"
The album's penultimate track, "Little Bird," is its lynch-pin. Tapping into the rarely addressed issue of missing someone -- no matter how angry you are at them and no matter how much you know it's all for the best to be done with them -- it takes the simplest of images (a man looking at a bird) and suddenly makes all the songs that came before it that much more complex and poignant. This isn't finger-pointing at a cardboard villain.
In the album's closing song, "On My Feet," Everett doesn't attempt to neatly tie-up the story. But he does find a kind of solemn resolve: to keep going. Maybe things aren't as bad as they seem. It's not a resolution, but a decision to try to get to one:
I am a man in great pain over great beauty It's not easy standing on my feet these days But you know I'm pretty sure That I've been through worse And I'm sure I can take the hit
Everett manages to look at the failed relationship and the world around him in an all-encompassing way. He looks at the hopes and needs, as well as the disappointments and failings. As often as he is accusatory, he is also contrite. Ultimately he finds that there is only one thing he can do: make an effort to improve the world by improving himself:
Your contempt and your sarcasm It's all so transparent Why don't you give up the act now, kid And let some love in? - "Paradise Blues"
"I felt guilty about the long gap between the last two albums so I'm making up for lost time," Everett says. Indeed, the longest gap between EELS albums (four years between 2005's BLINKING LIGHTS AND OTHER REVELATIONS and 2009's HOMBRE LOBO) is being followed by the shortest gap ever (six months between 2009's HOMBRE LOBO and 2010's END TIMES). After spending the four year gap writing a book (the best-selling THINGS THE GRANDCHILDREN SHOULD KNOW), making a documentary about his father (the award-winning BBC and PBS NOVA'S PARALLEL WORLDS, PARALLEL LIVES), and touring the world three times, Everett says he's "back to my real job: making music full time."
All seven of the previous EELS albums have differed greatly in sound and content. "This will be some people's favorite EELS album and some people's least favorite EELS album," Everett says of END TIMES. "I'm prepared for that."
Interview by Rev. Charles M. Young
Charles M. Young: I heard you were into meditation.
E: Okay, that stuff about meditation is so "last album." And anything about psychotherapy is so "several albums ago." And any other statements at any time with the barest whiff of New Age stink on them are now totally inoperative. Iâ€™ve learned that whatever is in this biography is what I will have to talk about for the next year.
This album, itâ€™s promiscuity and drugs. This will make the interviews interesting for me. If I have to talk about something 10 times a day for the next year, it might as well be that, right" Iâ€™m sorry, but I donâ€™t have a good "press angle" for this album. Itâ€™s not a concept album. Thereâ€™s no big story about the recording.
Itâ€™s just one of three different albums I have been working on and I decided to put this one out first. But thatâ€™s not much of a story. I hate the story about "prolific songwriters." So what?
C.M.Y.: Well, there are a lot of really good songs on this album.
E: I donâ€™t have high enough self-esteem to think Iâ€™m doing anything special. My father was a genius [Hugh Everett III, responsible for Everettâ€™s Many Worlds Theory of Parallel Universes]. I didnâ€™t inherit any of that. I flunked out of the easiest algebra class in high school. But Iâ€™m a hard worker. What Iâ€™m trying to say is, "Thanks."
C.M.Y.: So youâ€™d rather discuss promiscuity and drugs"
E: Yeah, I could talk about the song where we set the mics up right in the middle of an orgy. It was inspired by the Charles Manson/Beach Boys sessions. Or something.
C.M.Y.: Speaking of, do you still look like The Unabomber?
E: Not at the moment. I donâ€™t have a beard anymore, or not much of one, anyway. It got to be too much trouble at the airport. I was traveling all through that 9/11 stuff and after the 12th strip search, I just felt like, "I gotta get rid of this beard."
Before September 11, all the metal detector guys were friendly and would confide in me, "I wish I could grow a beard like that." After September 11, it was a different story. I wasnâ€™t trying to look like a terrorist. I just didnâ€™t feel like shaving, and it grew and grew, and the ladies all loved it. Some of them said they hated it, but that was a lie. The beard actually fueled the promiscuity aspect of this album. I now have to deal with losing that aspect of my sex appeal.
Iâ€™m not into the bombing part, ya know. It was an awkward time to have an album [SOULJACKER] out that had a picture of yourself with an ominous beard and the word "jacker" in the title.
C.M.Y.: Did you learn any lessons?
E: I guess not. This album is called SHOOTENANNY!, which is a word I made up when I realized itâ€™s only a matter of time before we need some MTV-style street catch phrase for "shooting spree." I thought I should be the one to coin the term. Itâ€™s a hip, "edgy" catch phrase for something so serious and so ugly and so likely to happen at any moment. To me, it kind of sums up the times that we live in.
C.M.Y.: Why "E"?
E: Itâ€™s just a nickname. Now Iâ€™m a grown man and itâ€™s a little embarrassing. It really is what everyone calls me. It just sounds like my name to me. But when I see it in print I realize it probably sounds like some super-pretentious art school performance artist or something. Now that Iâ€™m a grown-up, maybe I should legally change it to Mr. E.
C.M.Y.: Letâ€™s talk about the songs. "Restraining Order Blues"?
E: That one is a character study, I should point out, not autobiographical. I donâ€™t know where it came from. I just heard someone say "restraining order" on the news or something and I thought, "Somebody needs to write a song about that situation."
C.M.Y.: "Fashion Awards"?
E: I turned on the TV one night and the VH-1 Fashion Awards were on. I watched for three minutes and wrote the song. Unfortunately, the show was on for three more hours. You know, any excuse for an awards show at this point. Itâ€™s the Tuesday Morning Awards! Theyâ€™re all so meaningless, of course. But people seem to care so much about them. When they get up there at the Oscar podium and start blubbering like a baby because it means so much for them to win, itâ€™s funny. What are they in it for" If winning means so much to them, are they going to blow their heads off when they lose"
C.M.Y.: Youâ€™ve won awards ?
E: Yes. But I always try to put them to some use.
C.M.Y.: Like the Brit Award you turned into a cymbal stand for the drum set"
E: A good example. Now itâ€™s worth something.
C.M.Y.: Seems like you were feeling kinda down in "All In A Dayâ€™s Work."
E: I just had this sense of being the guy that goes around and thereâ€™s always something wrong happening. Seems like Iâ€™m always bumming someone out for some reason. I wanted to air that out and make it more attractive by turning it into a Muddy Waters-type thing.
C.M.Y.: Did you resent your parents making you go to Sunday school like in the song"
E: No, they didnâ€™t care about that stuff. But if I did have to go to Sunday school, I would have told them they were fools. The only thing more irritating than awards shows are born-again religious fanatics. Oh, brother.
C.M.Y.: "Saturday Morning," about being bored when youâ€™re a kid and your parents arenâ€™t awake yet, must be unique in its subject matter.
E: Iâ€™ve been thinking about that lately. That feeling of being eight years old and a day seems like a year. You wake up early on Saturday and itâ€™ll be three hours before you can even go to your friendâ€™s house to play. It seems like a small moment now, but it was such a big deal then. Do you remember a show called "Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp""
E: It was like "Get Smart," but with chimps. I remember watching that show at 6:00 a.m. and when it was over, thinking, "What am I going to do now"" I recently bought a tape of the show as research. I do a lot of research for my songs.
C.M.Y.: "Love Of The Loveless" almost seems like your Sermon On The Mount.
E: Anybody can love the already loved. Thatâ€™s easy. But loving the loveless â€“ thatâ€™s an accomplishment.
C.M.Y.: Jesus didnâ€™t actually say too much beyond loving your neighbor.
E: Isnâ€™t that enough" If people just went with that, Christianity would be a really great thing. I think ultimately what the song is saying, and this pops up a couple of times on the album, is: Give yourself a break. Some people arenâ€™t fortunate enough to have been given the kind of love that people need to flourish and survive in this world, so youâ€™ve got to find a way to give it to yourself. No easy feat.
C.M.Y.: Then youâ€™re back to promiscuity and drugs with "Dirty Girl." The song starts, "I like a girl with a dirty mouth/ Someone that I can believe."
E: I donâ€™t trust people who donâ€™t use profanity. If people make an effort not to say "fuck" or "shit," etc., I feel theyâ€™re not being real. Come on, this is how we talk. Itâ€™s not hurting anyone. Who cares" Iâ€™ve felt
that way since I was a kid, being around other kidsâ€™ families where people would have to put a dime in the cookie jar if they used profanity. What was that about"
C.M.Y.: Were you in agony when you wrote "Agony""
E: Yeah, I was in a bad frame of mind. But thatâ€™s the great thing about songwriting. You get to transform the emotion by making a song out of it. When somebody complains about depression or suicide being romanticized, I think: "Thank God there is a romantic side to this stuff." Because if you are really depressed, romanticizing it might be the only thing that gets you through it.
C.M.Y.: You appear to be wrestling with agony again in "Rock Hard Times."
E: It was inspired by the experiences Iâ€™ve had around the music and movie businesses, here in the murder capital of the USA. Hearing all these Hollywood assholes say they want something hip and irreverent and "edgy" and all that stuff, and then looking at the state of everything. Itâ€™s really bad times. Good luck trying to do anything halfway decent. Of course itâ€™s easy for me to criticize everyone else. But donâ€™t worry. I hate myself even more.
C.M.Y.: At least you havenâ€™t sold your songs for commercials.
E: I can afford to throw stones. I donâ€™t have any kids in college. And everyone seems to be doing it now. But that doesnâ€™t make it right. I will let a song be in a movie sometimes, because at least thatâ€™s SOMEBODYâ€™S idea of art. And I donâ€™t mind advertising myself. A video is basically a commercial for a song. But I donâ€™t want to be singing for some product. It doesnâ€™t seem right. Every big company you can name wants to use my songs. Itâ€™s funny. In the music business I canâ€™t get arrested. But in advertising Iâ€™m a hot, but unwilling, commodity.
My least favorite word is "edgy." Thatâ€™s what these advertising people want. "Edgy." And it means " nothing. It means, "We want the form of rebellion stripped of all content." Thatâ€™s what the world has come to. "Edginess." But nobody is rebelling against anything. Itâ€™s all for sale.
C.M.Y.: You appear to be mining your autobiography again in "Lone Wolf."
E: Being married has brought to light just what a lonely loser I am. Itâ€™s become quite apparent that Iâ€™m not much of a "people person." Mrs. E is patient, but I may be pushing the envelope a little thin. In the song, Iâ€™m owning up and accepting that this is who I am. A real loner at heart. But thereâ€™s joy in the music. Thereâ€™s this great relief in accepting what you are. Now, if the people Iâ€™m around can accept it is another story.
C.M.Y.: Philosophically, youâ€™re more existentialist than postmodern. Youâ€™ve got that Jean-Paul Sartre vibe happening.
E: Yeah, but he doesnâ€™t rock like me.
C.M.Y.: Paul Tillich, the Protestant existentialist, had a pretty wild sex life.
E: Which brings us back to promiscuity and drugs. The lone wolves donâ€™t get a lot of action, hence the aloneness. Or maybe they do. They ARE wolves, after all.
C.M.Y.: Was "Wrong About Bobby" inspired by a specific person"
E: Yes, but I prefer not to divulge the identity so I can keep everyone I know on ice, wondering if itâ€™s about them. Puts them on their best behavior.
C.M.Y.: The concept of counting your days in "Numbered Days" seems to be almost a Buddhist meditation on impermanence.
E: It could be taken that way. Thereâ€™s a certain number of days you have left in your life. But you donâ€™t know how many. Dammit, I wanna know. The Buddhist idea of impermanence is true, and they recommend that you donâ€™t attach to things, which causes suffering. The problem is, weâ€™re fucking human
and we attach to other humans. I think itâ€™s good to attach to other people, and if we lose them, itâ€™s going to be a horrible situation. Thatâ€™s just the way itâ€™s going to be. Thatâ€™s human. I also like graveyards as a simple reminder to enjoy my time above ground while I can.
C.M.Y.: There are some great lines in "Somebody Loves You," like "This nagging malaise is more than a phase."
E: I wrote that song after being alone in the basement for a week. I donâ€™t even know what I meant by it. I was just singing it to comfort myself. I think itâ€™s like "Love Of The Loveless." Youâ€™ve got to learn how to take care of yourself. The somebody who loves you might have to be yourself.
C.M.Y.: It is really unfair that "no boss ever pays you to lay there and think how youâ€™ll die," as you say in "Somebody Loves You."
E: Itâ€™s like Albert Brooks said: "Why canâ€™t neediness be sexy"" Likewise, why canâ€™t lying in bed while thinking about how youâ€™re going to die be a job that you get paid for" The world is so unfair.
C.M.Y.: Are you going to tour"
E: I canâ€™t wait. Something strange has happened to me. I used to hate touring. Now I just want to get back to it. I was really sad when the last tour ended. Thereâ€™s something great about always moving. My favorite time of day is Rock Oâ€™clock.
C.M.Y.: Taking the sermon to the streets ...
E: Iâ€™m tellinâ€™ ya. I rock harder than any of those philosophers you mentioned.
C.M.Y.: You do. You rock harder than all the existentialists.
E: Jean-Paul Sartre with a Marshall stack. Thatâ€™s a concert Iâ€™d pay to see.