For years, you couldn't open the page to a story about Eels
founder/singer/guitarist/multi-instrumentalist E without having to wade
through the several layers of tragedy that apparently pervaded the young
alterno-rock brainiac's life, the knowledge of which was seemingly required
to give context to his hugely varied (and often happiness-filled!)
storehouse of pop-rock art.
Not to slight the very real tough stuff that
Virginia-born E went through as he trudged alone in the adult world — his
sister's suicide in 1996 was followed shortly thereafter by the death of
his mother from cancer, a bleak period that nevertheless (perhaps
typically) yielded great cathartic art in the form of Eels' dark and
melancholic Electro-Shock Blues album in 1998. (And here's a grim twist: E's cousin and her
husband were on the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon in 2001.)
Marking Eels' 10-year anniversary,
Geffen/Universal recently released two separate loads of the band's
material, one of them being Meet the Eels, a greatest-hits collection
plus a DVD of several videos; and Useless Trinkets, a compilation of
soundtracks, B-sides, rare and unreleased items, plus a DVD featuring
several videos of Eels' 2006 performance at Lollapalooza. Taken together,
these imaginatively selected (by E himself) collections are an invaluable
source of some of the smartest, deepest and most heart-rendingly
beautiful pop music the "indie rock" (and beyond) era has yielded
to date — remarkable for the vast array of musical approaches with which E
paints his music, and perhaps most of all for the variety of personas that
reveal themselves in the telling of his songs.
"I decided the way I could do it was just
keep throwing myself into different situations," he explains.
"Sort of like Leonard Zelig, walking around a section of Hollywood
that's crowded with recording studios."
Even so, there's an undeniable wisping
loneliness that has pervaded E's music throughout the course of his band's
10-year career, sneaking its way even into the sardonic, experimental
raspings of the Beautiful Freak (1996) and Souljacker
(2001) albums, on up to Blinking Lights and
Other Revelations (2005). Yet these bits of gloom in E tend to overshadow the
other, just as prevalent, tone colors of his life and music, and are at any
rate belied in the man's humorous and affable persona during our
conversation at a Silver Lake cafe.
E — real name Mark Everett — doesn't mind
talking about how death and general downer-isms have infused and informed
his songs. I find myself acting the amateur psychiatrist as I probe how his
childhood has affected his creative world. (I fail miserably in getting
this good-humored, down-to-earth dude to break down and cry.)
Recently, E filmed a BBC program about his
relationship with his deceased father, a physicist who, it turns out, came
up with the theory of "parallel universes." That alone is a
startling revelation about E — that he's the son of the man who developed
an initially ridiculed theory that has now gained credence in the heady
world of quantum physics, and which has become a staple scenario of so many
sci-fi movies and television shows. It was a revelation for E too.
"I didn't know till after he died,
really," he says with a shrug. "He knew, but nobody else believed
him. He was so far ahead of his time — he came up with this theory when he
was 24, so there weren't even mathematical ways to check it out. And there
is now, and it checks out really well, mathematically. Which is kind of the
definition of being ahead of your time."
The parallel-universe theory's getting brushed
under the carpet kind of ruined his father's life, says E, but as his
relationship with his dad was rather remote and businesslike, it colored but
didn't exactly ruin E's outlook on life. Given the subtly intellectual
appeal of Eels' music, it's interesting to ponder whether or not E has
inherited some of his father's predilection for pointy-headedness.
"Well, I didn't get any of his math thing,"
he says, laughing, "but his mother was a poet, and maybe poetry plus
math equals what I do, 'cause they say math and music are related. I'm
kinda glad I'm not a physicist, though. If I was a physicist, I'd be like
the Julian Lennon of physicists, and that wouldn't be any fun … I hope my
kids aren't physicists …"
In the course of making the film with the BBC, E
spent a week at Princeton scribbling on blackboards with some of the
greatest physicists in the world, who tried to explain to him his father's complex
conjectures about these parallel universes. And E realized with a
satisfying finality that "I didn't inherit my father's mathematical
thing at all. Seriously, like adding up the tip after dinner, I just didn't
get that gene." As for grasping the essential workings of the theory,
"I came about as far as a layman can get, and it's heavy shit, that's
for sure. And there are these terms now, there are physicists that are
'Everettians' and physicists that aren't 'Everettians,' it's still being
debated and everything.
"I like to think I'm an Everettian. By
So how would Mark Everett, a.k.a. E, sum up his
father’s theories for all us average boneheads?
"There're easy ways to wrap it up," he
says, "just in the ways that it's in Star Trek episodes, and some of the
science-fiction movies, where any action — like, right now I'm putting the
fork down, but I could've done a million other things, and those choices
are all happening elsewhere. It's hard to fathom because there's no way for
us to observe the other planes that this is happening on."
Okay, so first we look to die Mutter und der
Vater. It seems
logical to suggest that E's father was therefore a late influence on E? As
a creative person, as a thinker, as an iconoclast.
"Well, yeah, you know, you grow up and you
kind of rebel against your father, and you don't want to be like him,"
he says. "I didn't understand much about my father. I lived in the
same house with him for 18 years, and he was a complete mystery.
"Then you look in the mirror one day and
there's your father looking back at you, and you can't help it. You start
to understand them, because you are them in a lot of ways, and you start to forgive
them for their shortcomings. I get why he was what he was, 'cause I did
inherit a lot of stuff from him, I understand why he was kinda
Ja, but E must have gone through a period of tremendous anger
at his dad.
"I wouldn't say tremendous, but definitely
anger," he says. But that's a good thing, he adds, because he has
confronted it and, having done so, now feels as if the big coal sack has
been lifted off his back. The already-prolific tunesmith has in the past
couple of years entered into a period of free-flowing, hugely enjoyable
creativity that sees him pumping out songs in his basement studio (he's got
another album in the can, plus another about half-done), and he's going on
a tour of Europe and America in February and April. He's got songs in two
Shrek movies (though he could give
a toss about a career in film scoring), and he's got his first book, Things
the Grandchildren Should Know, coming out in England (hits U.S. stores in the fall,
though you can buy it online). In it, he endeavors to tell the story of his
troubled and ultimately rewarding life.
"All this stuff — the compilation CDs, the
film about my father, the book — I'm someone who's never looked back, and
now I've just had a couple years of intensely looking back in every way I
can imagine. It's something I dreaded doing, but now that I've done it,
it's a fantastic feeling. I feel light as air, ready to [laughs] head straight into the