Cautionary Tales: Eels Interviewed

“I mean, you can always go back to the classics for inspiration..."

Eels are a band rooted in honesty, a group whose catalogue owes its existence to the cathartic nature of songcraft. After all, in Mark Everett fans have a singer whose life, loves and losses they know intimately. Hell, they can even hum along.

But even by his own standards, E’s latest document is nudity set to music. ‘The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett’ finds the singer looking back, ruminating over mistakes and regrets from his personal life. Seated in a West London hotel, E muses on the very real connection between the personal and the musical.

“In the case of this record, it’s a very vulnerable feeling to put something out that’s so naked and honest and personal. If people don’t like it, it will be hard to not take it personally. I mean, I don’t throw anybody under the bus, there’s nothing on here that should upset anybody – other than me. I’m throwing myself under the bus, I’m taking one for the team here.”

Sessions for the new album actually began before 2012’s fantastically rock-heavy album ‘Wonderful, Glorious’. Ever the perfectionist, E simply felt that the material wasn’t flowing as he wished, and a full album’s worth of songs were put on hold.

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'Mistakes Of My Youth', from the album 'The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett'

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“I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, and – this is something we often do – I put it on the shelf. Six months later we got together again and made ‘Wonderful, Glorious’, and decided to put that out and go on a long tour. We came back with a fresh perspective and listened to what we had done before, and I thought it was missing something.”

Continuing, E insists that the material required fixing himself as the figure of blame. “I realised what it was missing was that it felt a little too much like it was coming from the voice of a victim,” he says. “There was a lot of placing blame, but there wasn’t enough taking responsibility, so I got rid of about half the songs and completed new ones and put those into it. Which made it become something I thought was a worthwhile endeavour.”

Largely acoustic, the music on ‘The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett’ is pastoral, sedate. Standing in sharp contrast to the pointed, pained lyrics, the arrangements Eels conjure are beautifully ornate. “It’s juxtaposition,” he explains. “I call it an ‘uneasy listening’ album because it sounds like easy listening on the surface, but then when you start to pay attention it gets very uneasy at times. I thought it would be a very interesting juxtaposition to have these really pretty backdrops to sometimes quite brutal lyrics. That’s kind of, that was, the Motown recipe for hits – to have a sad story set to fun-sounding music. This is sort of just a different version of that recipe.”

Oddly, instead of citing a baroque pop album – The Zombies, say, or even Jeff Lynne’s ELO – Everett chooses John Lennon’s ‘The Plastic Ono Band’ as a point of inspiration. Informed by primal scream therapy, it’s an album of sheer emotion – often uncomfortably so.

“That’s what f*cked me up, for the rest of my life, is that when I was 10 years old that was my favourite record – which I now realise is an extremely strange choice for a 10-year-old. It was too bad it wasn’t ‘Imagine’, because then I’d be writing huge anthems that the world embraces and my life would be much easier. It’s a very stark, musical record, and it was very, very naked and very honest.”

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I’m not really in the mood for lonely work right now

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However, E is quick to discount any music-as-therapy allegories. “I mean, it can be helpful that way, but I don’t do it for that purpose. Whereas I think with this record it’s all stuff where I personally didn’t learn the lesson from the songs that I wrote, I learned the lesson in my life and then I wrote a musical version of it hoping that other people could learn from it.”

Laid down over protracted recording sessions, Eels worked as band, as a unit to complete the new album. Ironically, each member of the band contributed to the lush arrangements – except for E himself.

“I’m involved with it but mostly what I’m doing is saying, here’s a basic, what I’d like it to feel like. Eventually we start to understand one another. Basically, I let them try different ideas and I let them say yes or no to different things, or make it a bit more this or that until we finally get what we want. They’re so versatile, they can do so much.”

Conceived very much as an ‘album’ project, Everett insists that all details, right down to the running order, have genuine importance. “I mean, you can always go back to the classics for inspiration,” he says. “It’s kind of old fashioned at this point, but it’s always very important to me, the sequence of the songs and the order. For example, the last song on this album doesn’t really mean anything without getting there through all the songs which come before it. That’s how it means something.”

A concept album where the story arc is an element of E’s own life, ‘The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett’ is one of the most daring, frank and honest records in the band’s career. The product of enormous labour, each detail locks together to create an over-arching whole. “I worked incredibly hard on the sequencing of this record to get it to be the best thing I could get it to be, as far as telling the story and having an arc which got it from one place to another. It’s very intricate and it takes a lot of concentration. I don’t recommend it – it’s hard!”

It’s almost, Clash offers, like writing a novel. “I think that would be easier for me than writing my life story was because y’know your life story has to be factual and entertaining. With fiction I can make anything up! I feel like that would be easier. Maybe someday. Writing a book is so lonely and I’m not really in the mood for lonely work right now.”

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Words: Robin Murray

‘The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett’ will be released on April 21st. Find Eels online here.

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