Prince may once have been identified by a squiggle, but there aren’t many musicians known by a single letter of the alphabet. The songwriter, singer and perceived misanthrope, known to all and sundry as E, doesn’t mind what he’s called. Mark Everett regards his very existence, never mind his signature letter, as nothing other than miraculous.
“I’m somebody who, when I was a teenager, didn’t think I was going to live to the age of 20. I don’t know why, I just did,” he says. Sitting in a London hotel room, 54-year-old Everett claims tiredness following a long-haul flight from Los Angeles, but he brightens up considerably when a bowl of salted chips is placed in front of him. “Ah, English chips!” As you might expect, he is considerate in conversation, sardonic, confessional.
“I always felt like I had no hopes for the future,” he continues, “so I can’t believe I’m still here, yet alone that I get to continue. Like, if I died right now in the middle of this interview?” He points a harmless-looking chip in my direction. “You don’t have to revive me. Really, it’s okay, because what a triumph my life has been if right now is the end of the story. If you don’t think you’re going to see out your teenage years, yet you reach my age? That’s a bonus.”
How did such a fatalistic outlook come about? A defence mechanism in how to deal with his childhood, apparently. “And other stuff,” he adds ambiguously, “so my thinking was at least there’ll be an end to it all quite soon. When I reached my 20s, however, my attitude was more like, oh, what will I do now?”
What Everett did next is something that continues to make him think. Even in his wildest dreams, music was something he had never considered as a career option.
“It was always the one thing I had a passion for, but I never thought I could make a living out of it. I had a girlfriend who could see that I was floundering, not really knowing what to do, and she suggested I give music a try. I gave it some thought and travelled from my home in Virginia to Los Angeles just to see what might happen. In retrospect, that was an insane thing to do, because I didn’t know anyone in California, and I didn’t really know what to do. I had three miserable years doing that, but then, gradually, things began to happen.”
Everett's solo debut, Bad Dude in Love, was released in 1985, but it wasn't until 1996, with Eels' debut album, Beautiful Freak, that his music began to slowly filter through the mainstream. While that album deftly negotiated a path between insistent indie-pop melodies and a lyrical self-absorption that broached topics such as death and outsider status, it was 1998's Electro-Shock Blues that opened up not only wider commercial success but also a keen interest in Everett's life.
Written as a reaction to his mother’s death by lung cancer and (following her institutionalisation) his sister’s suicide, the album is one of rock music’s most anguished. With no other member of his family alive (his father, physicist Hugh Everett III, died of heart failure in 1982), Everett was soon classified as the guy whom awful things happened to. And yet, as is often the case, some people couldn’t get beyond the tragedy to see the optimism.
“That’s the point – the brighter, better areas. To me, that’s what makes the songs meaningful. The new album is all about the positivity, but coming from situations of tragedy and what-not makes the songs believable, and something you can sink your teeth into.”
Out early April, The Deconstruction doesn't rip up Eels' rulebook but resets it. There are familiar levels of introspection, but they are tempered with glimmers of hope. "You just have to make a choice about how you see things. The opinion of my work as miserable songs written by a miserable person completely misses the point. I get why some people say they'd rather not sit through an album about death, but for those who are willing to dive into it they might find out that it's actually always a positive thing."
There's a bit of head shaking here at the inevitability of being misunderstood and misinterpreted, but it's taken in good grace. What Everett is more serious about – and which The Deconstruction also specifically refers to – is addressing his work/lifestyle imbalance. He says the four-year gap between the new album and 2014's The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett was brought about expressly because his life was exceptionally one-sided towards work.
“I guess I don’t come from even-keel stock,” he wryly refers to family matters. “I literally avoided everything else except work. We’re very all or nothing, so that might be in my genetic make-up. When I’m going to do something, I do it, but always to the detriment of everything else.”
Has that righted itself? Judging by the cautionary optimism on The Deconstruction it seems so. Everett explains why. "What happened in the past four years is that I realised it was too one-sided. It became obvious I had to pitch into the other side, but I made the mistake of pitching it too much."
He goes on to admit that he had a life/work balance “to-do” list. Getting married was on the list, he says. What wasn’t on it was the birth of a son, Archie. Now separated from his son’s mother (“it wasn’t a good match”), he accepts that while the recalibration of his work/life balance has resulted in “something amazing”, he recognises he went about it in a ridiculous manner.
"Most guys my age are going through the empty nester phase of their lives, so it's surreal to me that I'm now several years older than my father lived. I'm just starting out. To see the pure innocence and sweetness of how humans begin their lives, and how much you want to protect it – that is essentially what The Deconstruction is about. We have all these defences that we build, walls we create . . ."
Everett pauses for thought. He isn’t one for cliches, yet he seems aware he’s stepping close to trotting them out. With the weight of his own history nagging at him, he concedes that life “is just a collection of experiences, and you just have to get comfortable with navigating through the day-to-day turmoil of them. It’s uncomfortable for any of us to accept that that’s all there is, but there it is – if you can do that with some amount of grace and dignity then that’s a fairly successful life. For what it’s worth, this is what I have learned over the past four years.”
Part of the price you pay, he implies, is that with almost three decades of work and nothing else, personal growth in other areas is restricted.
“That’s the point I reached. Something wasn’t adding up because it was all the one thing. You definitely pay a price for doing anything too much.”
Mark E Everett on Trump, politics, and John Lennon
"Being an American, there's an elephant in the room that can't be ignored. Things are particularly messy, and unless you're Ted Nugent how many rock singers do we know who would actually admit to being pro-Trump? It's awful to see the good work of the previous US president torn down so quickly and burned to the ground. It's depressing, frankly. I believe that real change can start with anybody who deals with situations close to home. I tend to be interested in personal politics, in that I have always thought John Lennon was much better when he sang about personal pain – songs like Mother – than when he was singing about politics, a la Power to the People. I try not to get overtly political in my music, however irrespective of how I feel about it."
The Deconstruction is released April 6th via E Works/PIAS. Eels play Iveagh Gardens, Dublin, July 6th. ticketmaster.ie