A Familiar Stranger

Bay Area singer/songwriter Mark Eitzel’s new album was made with his fans in mind

Nov 20, 2012 at 11:50 am
Mark Eitzel (Photo: Cynthia Wood)
Mark Eitzel (Photo: Cynthia Wood)

Mark Eitzel has had a rough couple of years. 

American Music Club (AMC), the critically adored, commercially undernourished San Francisco-based band Eitzel founded and had fronted since the mid 1980s, broke up (again, and probably for good this time). In May 2011, Eitzel suffered a heart attack; it took him five months to recover and the medical bills nearly left him bankrupt. Then, this July, his friend and former AMC drummer Tim Mooney died. 

Tough stuff for anyone to deal with, but keep in mind that Eitzel is a guy who was already known as something of a self-lacerating misanthrope, a perpetual sad-sack whose confessional, desolation-laced songs brought to mind an alcohol-soused Indie Rock version of Woody Allen. (Eitzel once titled an AMC song “What Godzilla Said to God When His Name Wasn’t Found in the Book of Life.”)

Yet, for the uninitiated, Eitzel has used his gloomy worldview to his musical advantage, dropping a string of compelling albums over his 30-year creative existence, whether with AMC or on his own (he’s released a number of solo albums since 1991). A sentimentalist for the cynical set, Eitzel’s wit-infused tales of woe, misery and love gone awry have been complemented by a variety of richly atmospheric sonic backdrops over the years — a sound that incorporates everything from Country, Folk and straight-up Rock to Electro, Post Punk and even Neo Jazz. 

Then there’s his voice, a deep, expressive baritone that only heightens the melodrama that has long been Eitzel’s stock in trade. Assured and inviting, that voice has never sounded better than it does on his latest solo album, Don’t Be a Stranger, a penetrating, often gorgeous effort not only informed by the various unfortunate events in Eitzel’s recent life but also — surprise, surprise — a few positive developments. 

“I’m so beyond caring about being a Pop star at this point in my life,” he says by phone from his home in San Francisco. “At this point I really don’t give a flying fuck, but I did want to make a beautiful record for people. I was really consciously trying to please fans who’ve liked my music for a long time. I thought, ‘Well, fuck, if that works at least they’ll be happy.’ ” 

And happy they should be. Don’t Be a Stranger is vintage Eitzel: lyrically rewarding, musically nuanced and emotionally satisfying. Album opener “I Love You But You’re Dead” is a slow-burning rocker about the transportive power of a great live show, while the acoustically driven “The Bill Is Due” is as restrained as Eitzel’s ever been, his voice seemingly succumbing to resignation as he half-whispers, “Your life stumbles on/Without you even there,” the “on” and “there” beautifully elongated in his phrasing. “Oh Mercy,” a song about searching for hope in the face of despair, is even better, its lush, subtly propulsive musical arrangement the perfect complement to its evocative, typically distinctive lyrics. 

Eitzel admits that the idea of trying to please an audience had never been particularly high on his “to do” list until he collaborated with playwright Simon Stephens on Marine Parade, a musical that premiered at the 2010 Brighton Festival in England.

“I would write these wordy-ass songs and these poor actors were like, ‘Well, how do I do it?’ and I was like, ‘Oh my god, exactly.’ It took about three years to stage and we had three workshops,” Eitzel recalls. “The workshopping process is a really intense thing where you have to tell these poor people how to sing your songs. If you don’t learn anything from that, then you’re made of stone. 

“It really changed me,” he says. “It’s not like it made me want to write simple stuff; it made me want to actually look back at the song and see what effect it had, which is what I should always do, but often I don’t. Often I just sort of shit them out and wipe.”

Eitzel is far less dour in conversation than his songs might suggest. He’s also as unguardedly opinionated as you might suspect. During our 30-minute conversation he rails against right-wing “motherfuckers” and “fascists” while at the same time making fun of himself (“I’m kind of the Mitt Romney of singer-songwriters: Everyone looks at me and goes, ‘Eww.’ ”). 

But Eitzel saves his most caustic venom for Spotify, the online streaming music service that has received criticism from many artists.

“I’m living in a house that was paid for by the actual music industry machine, because I remember what it’s like to get paid,” he says of his stints on a variety of labels, from majors to indies. “I worked really hard to get Spotify not to put out the record (Don’t Be a Stranger was released by Merge in early October) and of course they did in Europe and we had to do a takedown notice thing. Everyone thought I was insane about it, and maybe I am, but it’s like, ‘Fuck you. They’re all millionaires and they’re all using music like gold nuggets that they pick up off the ground for free,’ and it’s like, ‘No, musicians have rights, man!’ ” 

Ironically, it was the good fortune of his European manager’s friend — “this big bear in Portland” who won $11 million in the lottery — that helped get Don’t Be a Stranger off the ground, investing enough in the album to lure noted “Hollywood producer guy” Sheldon Gomberg, who’s worked with everyone from Rickie Lee Jones and Ben Harper to Lucinda Williams and She & Him.

“He knows how to mix records,” Eitzel says of Gomberg’s contribution to the album. “He wasn’t as much about the arrangements; he was more about getting it done and hiring great musicians like the drummer from the Attractions, Bruce Thomas.”

While the likes of Thomas won’t be on hand to deliver Don’t Be a Stranger in a live setting — in fact, at the time of our chat, it’s just going to be Eitzel and a pianist — the longtime road warrior is confident this latest tour won’t suck.

“I don’t think it will be terrible,” Eitzel says without a hint of irony. “You have to imagine a balding, potbellied, bearded sort of Tony Bennett who curses constantly throughout the set. That’s kind of what the show is — fake Tony Bennett.” 

MARK EITZEL plays a free show at MOTR Pub Sunday, followed by an appearance on “live talk show” Ted Clark After Dark at MOTR.