E IS FOR INSPIRATION
EELS are not your average cuddly American grunge band. Their dark, clinically disturbed sound is a million miles removed from the convenience store angst of their immediate contemporaries, and their musical approach is a pole apart from the muso posturing which constitutes much of America's alternative rock consensus. Not surprising, then, that the Los Angeles trio have gathered a big following on this side of the Atlantic, and have broken through Britpop's happy facade with a murky realism and a suffocating sense of despair. Novocaine For The Soul, the band's first Top Ten hit, sums it all up in a four-minute spoonful of acid, while the debut album, Beautiful Freak, is a veritable laboratory of failed experiments with life, love and normality.
The band's singer, songwriter and warped visionary, E, looks more like a petrol pump attendant than a rock star, and his small, shuffling frame seems more suited to a Net nerd than the leader of a band on the brink of superstardom. Eels are the first band to be signed to Dreamworks SKG, the new label owned by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen; the titanic trio has also signed George Michael, so E is in good commercial company.
Novocaine has been a Number One alternative hit in the States, and while it hasn't exactly overpowered Smells Like Teen Spirit, it has filled a gaping hole in the soul of the US alternative scene. It has also earned Eels the unwelcome accolade of "new Nirvana", even though they don't sound remotely similar to the legendary Seattle trio.
We're at the POD's Red Box, where Eels are getting ready to play their first-ever Irish concert. They've just finished touring Britain where, says E, just a few months after their UK debut, the backlash has already begun. "We've been in Europe for two months now," he says, "and everywhere was great until we got to England. England just kinda sucked the life out of us, and we've all just been depressed.
"We got hyped up to be the big thing, the new Nirvana or whatever, which we're not, of course. Nobody is the new anything. Did a new Dylan ever show up? Noooo. So now, as we predicted, the backlash begins. We just got a couple of reviews in the really crappy papers, like Melody Maker and NME, you know, they just really trashed us after worshipping us for week after week."
So is everybody running around looking for the new Nirvana? "No, I think everyone was looking for an easy way to get through their day at the desk, and it seems to me that music journalists are always looking for - well, not music journalists, but the media in general are always looking for a nice easy catchphrase which has nothing to do with real life."
Perhaps, I suggest, it's the kids who buy the records who are in search of the new Nirvana. "They're not searching for the new Nirvana - they're happy with the old Nirvana," answers E.
Although Eels are signed to a major label, they've been afforded the luxury of cult status in their native country, and there's no sign of them challenging that pubescent trio, Hanson, to a battle of the Billboard Top Ten. Not yet, anyway. E admits, however, to a slight feeling of unease about the band's rapid rise in the UK.
"Well, it's kinda happened for us in England, and it all came out of nowhere. It was very surprising. I mean, we just got so heavily hyped by the press, and now it does make me feel a little uncomfortable. I feel like, you know, people are just going to be disappointed that we're not what we've been hyped up to be. We're not anybody. We're not the new Beatles, we're not the new Nirvana, we're just the Eels, and I'm just the guy who sits in my basement and writes songs, and I'm always looking for different vehicles and different ways to present them, and that's all there is."
The band uses banjos, French horns and samples - whatever is neccessary to get their ideas across, and it makes for some multi-layered, off-centre listening. The music-box intro for Novocaine, for example, or the sampled keyboard motif from Susan's House, or even the mangled-amp guitar sound which crackles through songs like Guest List, Mental and Rags To Rags. Live, the songs never seem to stick to the program, but chop and change with the Eels' mercurial moods, and this caused them a bit of bother recently when they were booked to play T.F.I Friday, the Channel 4 show hosted by Chris Evans. The band did a run-through of their current single, Susan's House, in the studio, and were told, "that was fine, but could you do the song the way it sounds on the record?" Eels said no, and were promptly dropped from the programme.
"We cancelled two European concerts and lost another TV show that we wanted to do, just to be on T.F.I Friday," complains E. "It was a real pisser but I felt good about the fact that we held our ground. At least we can do things a little differently - one of the ways we keep ourselves from getting bored playing the same songs for two years, is to reinterpret them all the time and come up with different versions of them. Like one song, My Beloved Monster, we do three different versions depending on what mood we're in."
Susan's House, like all E's other songs, was written in his home in L.A.'s Echo Park, a run-down area of Old Hollywood which is peopled by bohos, beatniks and drug addicts. The lyrics to Susan's House evoke a dangerous, unpredictable place where murder, drug dealing and teenage pregnancy lurk behind each corner.
"Well, that song was a kind of an experiment for me," explains E, "because most of my songs up till that point I had been dealing internally - I was usually going inside myself, and I decided it was time to grow up and get outside my house and see what was going on in the neighbourhood, so that was the inspiration behind that."
E's other inspiration was a lonely, dysfunctional childhood in Virginia, where he was born Mark Oliver Everett 31 years ago.
As a teenager, he found himself alienated from his peers, and it's this sense of not belonging which has formed the creative core of Beautiful Freak. "On the surface there was a lot of things about my childhood that I enjoyed," says the artist formerly known as Everett, "and it wasn't all bad. My childhood is not that unusual compared to a lot of other people's childhoods. It's just that I chose to look at it and try to make my life better in spite of my childhood.
"I was the last kid that got picked for the sports team, so I always secretly wanted to be accepted by the regular kids; you know, the more popular kids. And as the years went on I kept trying, and it never really worked, 50 after many years going by, and especially when I moved away, I really had a chance to get more comfortable with just being who I was. And then I just decided I was going to accept that I was different and that I was going to be comfortable being different. And then finally, I said that I'm not only going to accept it, but I'm going to celebrate it, and that's kind of what Beautiful Freak is all about."
Were you a typical Generation X-er, then? "Yes, and I'm here to tell you that the slacker generation is really something to be worried about. I'm not a slacker, I turned into something else in answer to all the slackerdom around me; and all the pain that turned people into slackers and drug addicts, slowly drowning and eventually dying, I took that same pain that I had in myself and got obsessive about songwriting as a way to have something to hang on to in the world."
HAVE you ever felt self-destructive? "Yes," answers E firmly. "I've had an ongoing problem with self-destructive feelings in real life." Which could well be exacerbated by the pop star lifestyle, viz Kurt Cobain? "Well, one thing that we have on our side is that we're children of the Nineties now, and we're so cliche-phobic. We're so afraid of doing anything that's cliched, so we couldn't really sit on our tour bus doing drugs, you know, shagging groupies, because we would feel too . . . silly.
"I always thought that was the weakest point about Kurt Cobain, that he was a drug addict. But I understand. I feel a lot of the same stuff that makes someone like Kurt Cobain become a heroin addict. And I could easily be a heroin addict, and maybe some day I will be, but I've really worked hard to avoid that, because I've seen it happen to a lot of people close to me. You know, there's two sides to the same coin. You can either give up and say, OK, I can't control anything in this life, so I'm just gonna give up and slowly kill myself; or you can do the other thing, which is also bad, but it's also a little less destructive, and say, well, I'm gonna try and control everything.
"I mean, it's the same thing, you can try to control everything through drugs or you can try to control everything by being obsessive - about songwriting, in my case, or whatever. You know, there's a million things."