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Bombs away: Eels build new music from a blank slate

©Vagrant Records
Mark Oliver Everett (©Vagrant Records)

Alt-rock auteur Mark Oliver Everett discusses his band's new freewheeling studio approach and 'the healing powers of rock'

By Glenn Kenny
Special to MSN Music

How do you say something new after seeming to say it all? Mark Oliver Everett, who's recorded under his musical alter ego, E, since he began making records in the early '90s, first as a solo artist and then as the frontman for the band Eels, faced that question when he decided to convene the band to make a new album as the decade turned.

Although he's never been one to shy away from the personal with his melodic, introspective but never wet noodle-y brand of alt-rock (1998's "Electro-Shock Blues" was a harrowing musical account of several deaths in his immediate family, including a sibling's suicide), his most recent output was a veritable eruption of self-exposure: a trilogy of albums titled "Hombre Lobo," "End Times" and "Tomorrow Morning"; participation in a documentary film about his physicist-theoretician father, Hugh Everett, called "Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives"; and an autobiography in conventional book form, called "Things the Grandchildren Should Know." Having gotten all of this off his chest, Everett felt less a sense of catharsis than, as he sings on "Bombs Away," the opening cut of the new Eels album, "Wonderful, Glorious," like a "mouse" who's been backed into a corner. MSN Music talked to Everett about how he got out of the corner, the healing powers of music, and more.

MSN Music: This album is coming after a trilogy. Was it a conscious decision, when coming up with this record, to approach it from the perspective of having done a much larger-scale project and now just wanting to do a record of songs, plain and simple?

Mark Oliver Everett: Well, it was an interesting new uncharted territory for me, because I wrote my life story, and then did a documentary about my father and we compiled a best of Eels and then did this album trilogy, all in a pretty short amount of time. And then once the dust settled on all that, I was really left with the feeling of where do I go now? And I decided that I would take a leap of faith and for the first time go into making a record where the only plan was to have no plan, and just to see what would happen organically.

Normally I have some very specific idea in mind what I want it to be about and what I want it to sound like. But I went into this one with a completely blank slate, nothing written ahead of time. And it was a good, really good lesson for me, because it taught me to trust just seeing what happens. And it could have been a disaster. And that's part of the excitement, I guess. But I guess it's not so exciting after the disaster and you've wasted all your time and money. But the first day it was going a little slow and then, you know, it was just five guys sitting there, plugged in instruments, and we just said, let's just see what happens. And then something started to click. And then it really clicked and it just never stopped clicking for a month. And a lot of that is just luck, I suppose. It was just like lucky timing. It was five guys that were all firing on all cylinders together.

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To what extent did this change the band dynamic? You are identified as the primary songwriter for Eels, the vision behind the band. Were you surprised at what the other band members brought?

Well, this is the band that I've been touring with for the last few world tours. So we've played every night together for so many shows, and I started to notice that I could throw them any curve ball and they would exceed my expectations, even when I thought it was something that they just couldn't do, they -- not only could they do it, they turned it into something better than I thought it could be. So it started to occur to me at that point it would be stupid not to pool the creative talents of these guys in the name of making new music. [Besides E, the band features Jeffrey Lyster, known as "The Chet" on various string instruments and musical saw; Koool G Murder on bass; P-Boo on guitar; and Knuckles on drums.] So that was the other part of the experiment: Let's see what happens if these guys all write music with me.

Where do you turn for inspiration if you feel like the batteries are down? On the songs on the new record, there's the metaphor of being backed into a corner, but then you sing about "not being down for the count." So is it a matter of your batteries still being fully charged but sometimes not feeling you have something to say, or of wanting to say something?

Oh, no, I've got an endless well of all that. But it can be hard to keep yourself interested. First of all, it's hard for any of us that were born too late because Bob Dylan and John Lennon and Tom Waits and Neil Young already said everything so well. You've already got that against you. And then you figure out what your own thing is that you can add to the mix. And then if you've been doing it for this long -- I've been doing it for, like, 20 years now -- you're competing with yourself as well. And so you're always looking for ways to keep yourself interested. I'm always thinking of myself as the audience member. How can I impress that guy? It becomes more and more of a challenge every year.

What were your impressions of the reception of your book relative to the way people received your music?

Yeah, you know, for a little while there I became part of the literary circle, which was unusual for me. It was a really rewarding experience for me because no one had asked for the book. I didn't have a book deal. I just did it as an experiment. I spent the year just writing it and seeing what it would add up to. And then when I was done I thought, 'Well, I think maybe the world could get something from this.' So I put it out and it was enormously rewarding that it was well received. Because it's so personal. It's your life story. So you have to feel good when people are reading all these incredibly embarrassing details about your entire life but they embrace you. That's a good feeling. It could have been a disaster.

You seem to have this penchant for going into projects where the outcome could be a disaster.

I think that's important. I mean, I think that means you're on to something. It means it could be something notable if you're taking a risk.

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What's touring like for a band in this kind of peculiar point in the history of the music business and live music and recorded music?

I had a hard time getting used to touring in the early days. And then at some point it just beats you into submission and you accept it as a way of life. And I guess what helps is when you get to a point where you have like the perfect combination of people that you're traveling with, where it becomes like this happy family on wheels. The other cliché that you always hear is really true, that the two hours onstage each night is what really makes it worthwhile.

And you know, inevitably, over the course of a two- or three-month-long tour, at some point everybody's sick, at least a couple nights of the tour. And you could be really sick one day and think, man, there's just no way I can put on a show tonight. Then you just make yourself do it, and then you get offstage and someone says, how are you feeling? And you go, 'Oh, wow, I feel fine. Actually I feel great. I forgot I was sick.' We call it the healing powers of rock. Kind of a magical thing that happens.

There's a certain irony in the titling of the album, "Wonderful, Glorious," and the artwork of a bomber plane opening its hatch on the cover.

The point is that there are big bombs dropping on us daily and you've got to navigate your way through them. But know that if a bomb hits you, it might be the best thing that happens to you in the long run, because I know that I'm a much better person today because of a lot of the hardships that I've endured.

Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at He lives in Brooklyn.

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