SINCE their formation in 1995, the members of genre-spanning Eels have been an ever-changing musical entity that has produced eleven albums of songs filled with themes of loss, love and introspection. The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett is the band’s latest release, and as their enigmatic leader – more often known simply as E – puts it, it’s their most revealing to date. I spoke to E to discover what inspired this period of intense reflection.
Congratulations on the new album. How does it feel knowing it’s in the public’s hands?
Well, I guess it’s a relief. Putting out any kind of album is a hard, vulnerable process, and this one is kind of doubly so as it’s so personal. I don’t recommend doing it.
Yet you’ve been doing it quite a bit in the last few years.
Well, not necessarily; we don’t always work in the typical way. We didn’t make five records in the last five years like it appears or how they’ve come out. There was a four-year gap between the Blinking Lights album and the Hombre Lobo album, and during that period we made the next three records, which all came out in a year. So it’s more like we’ve made five albums in nine years.
How long did you have the songs before recording?
About half of them were done before the last album we put out, Wonderful, Glorious. The other half were done after, so it’s all pretty recent, or about half is pretty recent.
Who did you work with on the album?
It’s the exact same group of guys that made Wonderful, Glorious, but you’d never guess it because it’s so different sounding. It’s just the band, you know? Me and the four guys who’ve been touring the world for several years now. Plus, an orchestra and some outside musicians, but even the orchestral arrangements were done by the guys in the band.
How do you stop your song-writing veering across the line between personal and self-indulgent?
I’m aware of the line. I think someone could take a cursory look or listen to it and go ‘this guy is so self-indulgent’ or whatever, but it’s the opposite to me. Why it’s such a hard record to put out is because I’m kind of throwing my dignity under the bus to make a point and so people can hopefully learn from my mistakes. I think that’s a worthwhile thing to do, but it’s not a comfortable thing to do. I believe it’s a lot more selfless than selfish.
What mistakes would you like people to learn from?
I think it’s plainly spelt out in the record on songs like ‘Agatha Chang’. I was in a situation that was a good situation for me, but I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t appreciate it and I blew it.
So, it’s purely about relationships.
In this case it’s about a relationship, yeah.
Do you take control of every aspect of the creative process, or are you happy to let other band members step in?
This might appear to be a solo type of record, because of the title and the photo on the front, but it’s very much a band record. About half the songs were co-written with guys in the band, they did the orchestral arrangements and they play on everything, so there’s a lot of collaborating going on.
So, Eels is a democracy, not a dictatorship.
No, it’s a dictatorship for sure! The buck has to stop somewhere and the buck stops here, but I’m smart enough to be open to everyone’s ideas and suggestions.
Are you happy for someone in the band to tell you if an idea you have isn’t any good?
Yeah, because that’s what I like about collaborating. You can get a lot of stuff out of someone else that you can’t get out of yourself, and that’s probably the most fun part; coming up with something that you never would have come up with by yourself.
Why was 2007 the right time to release your autobiography, Things The Grandchildren Should Know?
I don’t know if it was the right time. It’s an odd time to write your life story when you’re 40. I used to experiment; no one asked me to do it. I wanted to see what it all added up to, and when I finished it I thought there might be something to offer the world here, and decided to put it out. It was such a nice feeling to do something as an experiment and have it be praised. I probably have more people come up to me in the street and say something about the book than the music at this point, you know?
Is it something you would do again?
Writing a book is very hard and lonely work and isn’t nearly as fun as making music. But if anyone who has read the book is interested in a sequel, the closest thing to it would this new album; the major update on what has happened since then.
The album has received almost universally good reviews so far. Do you read or care about reviews?
Well, it’s always nice if people get something out of it and appreciate your hard work, but I think the best thing to do is to brush it all off; it’s not something that really matters, I don’t think.
What are your touring plans?
Right now we’re about to go across America, then across Europe. We always intend to get [to Australia], but the last couple of times we haven’t because of scheduling conflicts. We’re trying to get there this year, and hopefully we will.
Do you see the release of a new album as solely a vehicle for touring?
I think of them as two different things. When you make a new album, the record company often wants you to go on tour. Touring has become the funnest part of my life; I look forward to it, and whether there was a record or not, I’d want to be doing it.
What will you be doing for the rest of the year after the tour?
That’s it; it’s a blank slate after the tour ends, but I don’t know when that’s going to end yet. I’m just pouring everything I’ve got into that, and there’s nothing in the works. I don’t know what will happen; maybe it’s time for a long nap.
THE CAUTIONARY TALES OF MARK OLIVER EVERETT BY EELS IS OUT NOW.