E’s had quite enough
Mark Oliver Everett has dealt with his harrowing past by writing a memoir. Now it’s back to the Eels, he tells Iain Shedden
MARK Oliver Everett’s career has been marked by tragedy, madness, unrequited love and depression. And that’s just in some of his best known songs. The 44- year- old singer known as E, frontman and creative engineer of American alt- rock band Eels, wears his heart on his record sleeves and with albums such as Electro- Shock Blues , Daisies of the Galaxy and Souljacker he has reshaped the rock mould by employing a variety of instruments, players and genres, depending on his mood.
What the public may not know is that some of Everett’s most engaging titles, such as Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor, Dead of Winter and Baby Genius , are based on fragments from his fractured past.
The baby genius, for example, was Everett’s father, Hugh Everett III, a quantum physicist whose many- worlds theory is considered in some scientific quarters to be up there with Einstein’s theory of relativity.
While Everett has channelled some of his life story into his music, only now has he taken the much bolder step of chronicling his extraordinary past in book form. His autobiography, Things the Grandchildren Should Know, is a remarkable tale of a childhood that was ‘‘ ridiculous, sometimes tragic and always unsteady’’. It was a period from which Everett somehow escaped into a music career, albeit one that has also been plagued with setbacks and emotional upheaval. The book is darkly funny, with Everett using a conversational approach to great effect. His dry humour, even in the bleakest of circumstances, adds a confrontingly human touch.
And there’s bleak aplenty. In 1982, for example, Everett found his 51- year- old father, a chain- smoker and heavy drinker, dead on the bedroom floor of the family home in Virginia. They had hardly spoken during the 19 years both had been living in the same house. The musician’s mother, Nancy, died of lung cancer in 1998, two years after his schizophrenic sister, Elizabeth, committed suicide.
‘‘ There were certain chapters where I just dreaded going to work,’’ Everett says on confronting his past. ‘‘ I’m not a procrastinator, but I’d look for any excuse not to work on them. Also, it was just an odd period of retrospection. I’m someone who never looks back.
‘‘ Now that it’s all done I’m really glad that I did it, and it has great value in terms of moving forward. It was really cathartic. When I hold it in my hand it’s like a nice little package . . . all that drama, ‘ here it is and it’s all done’. It was a weight off my shoulders, like my life was clear and I was ready to live.’’
Before the traumatic deaths in the family, Everett grew up a social misfit. His father was too busy; his mother had emotional problems. He and his sister ran wild. Although he didn’t know it then, music would be his saviour.
Everett played in several local bands in Virginia, initially as a drummer, while experimenting with songwriting in private and recording some of his earliest songs on primitive equipment. It was only after he moved to Los Angeles in 1987 that his music began to attract attention. He released two albums under the name E, A Man Called E and Broken Toy Shop , which were critically acclaimed but sold poorly.
The turning point was Electro- Shock Blues , the second album under the Eels banner, a collection that was strongly influenced by the deaths in his family. It is considered by many critics and fans to be the Eels’ best album.
Everett’s ability to laugh at some of the terrible events in his life stems, somewhat ironically, from his unconventional childhood.
‘‘ That’s how my family was,’’ he says. ‘‘ We were a jokey, sarcastic kind of family. That’s how we communicated with each other.’’
Humorous though it is, Everett says the book was extremely difficult to write. Other than in his lyrics, he had chosen not to look into his past until he sat down at the end of a long tour two years ago and began jotting down the salient points of his life.
‘‘ I naively thought it was going to be an easy endeavour,’’ he says. ‘‘ Nobody was asking me to write it. I just did it as an experiment. It’s the hardest project I’ve ever worked on.’’
The difficulty, he says, came in trying to make the story seem like a monologue.
‘‘ That’s how I wanted it to read. I wanted it to be as unpretentious as possible, to sound spoken rather than written, like a friend of yours sitting talking to you at the kitchen table. But I didn’t realise how exacting writing can be. There’s nothing to hide behind.
‘‘ It made me realise why so many great writers are alcoholics.’’
Perhaps the saddest part of Everett’s recollections is acknowledging that he had a father who was so wrapped up in his work that he had no time for his children. At one point he tells how he and his sister were pleasantly surprised when, in a rare moment, their father spoke to them.
While there is an undercurrent of bitterness in this recollection, the son has come to understand Everett Sr a little better recently.
Last year the singer was asked by the BBC in Scotland to present a documentary film, Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, which involved travelling across the US to talk to leading physicists about the importance of his father’s work. ‘‘ I was immediately drawn to the idea, although I felt uncomfortable about it,’’ he says. ‘‘ But usually when something makes me feel uncomfortable, that tells me it’s probably worth pursuing.’’
As part of the process, Everett — who has little interest in physics — spent a week with Princeton’s top physics professors, who explained to him the complexities of his father’s work. ‘‘ I came out of it pretty well for someone who didn’t inherit his father’s mathematical genius,’’ he says.
Nevertheless, he’s glad that he didn’t follow in his dad’s footsteps, ‘‘ otherwise I would be the Julian Lennon of physics’’.
As much as Things the Grandchildren Should Know is an examination of his past, Everett has learned a few things about himself in the process. He is an artist who becomes focused on his work to the exclusion of everything else, for example. And he likes to constantly forge new ground in what he does, whether by touring the world, including Australia, with a string ensemble, as he did a few years ago, or by stripping his music down to the bare bones.
He’s always looking outside the square, he says, and that can be a burden.
‘‘ I think if I have any talent it might be looking at the big picture, be it in life or working on a song. I think that’s my best asset. Whereas some people might get lost in the minute details, I like keeping an eye on what it’s adding up to.’’
Just as Everett is a fairly unconventional rock star, his book is not riddled with tell- all revelations on the rock ’ n’ roll lifestyles of the famous. There are, however, a few star appearances. One of them is by celebrated songwriter and performer Tom Waits, a long- time hero of Everett, who amazed the singer by calling him one day to congratulate him on his work. Everett seized the opportunity and asked Waits if he would sing on his new album, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations . He sent Waits the tapes to add his voice. Waits accidentally erased Everett’s vocals.
‘‘ It’s hard to get upset when one of your icons erases your vocal,’’ Everett says, laughing. ‘‘ I honestly was thrilled.
‘‘ At first it was, ‘ Tom Waits erased my vocal’, but then it was: ‘ Wow, how come Tom Waits had my vocal in the first place?’ ’’
Everett is working on a new Eels album and is likely to tour Australia again before the end of the year.
He once forced himself to go for a year without writing a song, ‘‘ just to see if I could do it’’, but he has been remarkably prolific in the past 20 years. However, now that he has got his past out of his system, he’s not about to embark on another book, at least not for a while.
‘‘ I don’t ever want to do it again, but when I’m 80 I’d like to be able to write volume two of this one, and I’d like it to be the most boring book anyone has ever read,’’ he says. ‘‘ I don’t want there to be any more dramas. I’ve had enough of that shit.’’
It was really cathartic’: Mark Oliver Everett doesn’t want to write another book for a few decades