When your life has been tainted by the same level of tragedy as Mark Oliver Everett’s has, you are probably entitled to be a little despondent.
In his early 20s, the man known as E found the body of his father, celebrated quantum physicist Hugh Everett III, who had suffered a major heart attack at the age of 51. His only sister took her own life in the mid-1990s; he later nursed his dying mother through cancer; and his cousin died on a plane used in the 9/11 attacks. Extensively documented in both his music, his excellent autobiographical memoir Things the Grandchildren Should Know and in practically every piece that has ever been written about him, the Eels frontman should, by rights, be a rather solemn character.
Yet the E that is on the other end of a line from Los Angeles is a chipper, friendly character, although certainly not one for frivolous chit-chat or niceties. There is a sense that, at 51, Mark Oliver Everett has come to realise a few things, and is now in the position of imparting some of that wisdom – as the title of his 14th album, The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett , suggests. Informed by the break-up of a relationship, it is a deeply personal, lyrical journey told through a series of mistakes, realisations and revelations.
Much of the album was written before last year's largely rocky, up-tempo Wonderful, Glorious was released, he says, but was temporarily shelved in favour of a less painfully raw batch of songs.
“I ended up scrapping over half of it and writing another half to it, which made it – in my mind, anyway – a lot better,” he says. “The thing I felt was lacking on the first version was that there was enough of me pointing the finger at somebody else, but there wasn’t enough of me pointing the finger at myself. Then I realised that it should become a record about taking responsibility. Because I realised that in the end, the only thing that any of us can change is ourselves; there’s nothing you can do about anything outside of yourself. So that became the key to the record.”
Emotions set to music
As Everett's career has progressed, his troubled past has become less of a defining characteristic of his music. Instead, over the course of a 20-year recording career – from the trippy alt-rock of 1996's Beautiful Freak through his trilogy of concept albums released in 2009 and 2010 – he has proven himself an exceptional translator of emotions through songwriting. The new album is no different, compiling uninhibitedly personal songs that nod to his departed family ( Parallels references his father's "many worlds" theory), and his own misgivings ( Answers ), but most are concerned with love gone bad, with lines such as Kindred Spirit 's "Every day I live in regret and pain / You just don't let that get away".
He describes it as a sequel to his 2007 memoir – “every notable thing that’s happened since then” – but denies that songwriting is particularly therapeutic for him.
“I’ve definitely written songs that I don’t put out for that reason – sometimes it’s just something that I have to get out of my system,” he says. “I feel like for it to come out on a record, it has to have something to offer. But it wasn’t really therapeutic for me to make this record; what was therapeutic was going through the experience, and then I decided that there could be an interesting musical version of it. I was looking at a specific situation that happened not that long ago, and trying to examine it from as many angles as I could think of, and come to some conclusions, hopefully, on how to improve things in the future so that it wouldn’t happen again.”
A man of many styles
The album's musically introspective tone was intentional. Everett's eclectic musical style has been a major feature of his career, be it the orchestral arrangements of 2006's live album Eels with Strings , the straight-up indie rock of 2001's Souljacker or the sombre reflection of much of 2010's End Times .
“When I was younger, that’s what I was hoping to be able to do – try different things,” he says of his versatility. “Not for the sake it, but because I have a lot of different things in me that I want to get out. And part of it is also a natural reaction to life. We went on tour once with a string section, and when you do 80 shows around the world like that, by the end of it you’re having nightmares about smashing violins and [you are] itching to plug in an electric guitar.”
His flexibility also ties in with his on-stage persona, which has ranged from indie geek to an impressive beard, shades and bandana combo, while on last year’s Wonderful, Glorious tour he and his band wore matching Adidas tracksuits.
“That’s kind of the best part; you feel like you’re in a different band every year,” he says, laughing. “Ironically, those tracksuits weren’t that cool. We thought, ‘Hey, they’ll be very comfortable’, because they’re so light, but in fact, they were very . . . insulating. And part of it is that I’m the kind of music fan that, if I’m gonna go to a show, I want it to be a real experience. I want it to be an occasion and I want it to be worth my time. I try to offer that to my audiences, so we do put some thought into our appearances. We want to put on a good show.”
A brighter future?
As for the future? He hasn't thought past the forthcoming world tour, but there are no other projects or dormant albums waiting to be rejigged for now. He has had no time to listen to other music or do anything much over the last year or so, he says, except hang out with his faithful hound Bobby Jr, the dog that is emblazoned on many Eels T-shirts. He jokes that he "needs some hobbies", but to say that music is his life is no understatement.
Is he cautiously content right now, in terms of ambition, success and his personal life? Pain and regret run rife throughout the album, but closing track Where I'm Going suggests a tentative optimism.
“I made a conscious decision early in our career to try to be the best artist I could be, and not concentrate on commercial success.
“That said, there’s a price you pay, and that’s the reason that we’re always a little bit under the radar – or a lot under the radar, in some cases. It would be nice if it functioned a little bit easier; it’s always a struggle, and it’s always been a struggle the whole time because of that decision. But hopefully in the end, it’ll all have been worth it.
“I’m actually at the point where the album ends; I’m not where I wanna be yet, but I’m poised to get there, hopefully. I’ve got a good feeling about it.”
The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett is out now. Eels play the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, July 1 and 2