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"I was reduced to being the bad older folkie opening up for the new sleek modern techno sensation, which is complete bullshit," Eitzel says now, bringing up the topic but hoping it will go away. "I'd walk out on the stage and go, 'Fuck you all. I hope you all die.' And I still can't shake it, either. I don't want to say [why it still bothers him] because Everything but the Girl are friends of mine. You know, you just get convinced you'll never ever be heard, so why bother?"
He shrugs, buries his head in his hands, looks out the window at the charcoal skies. "People are . . . well, I don't know."
By the end of 1996, Eitzel was through with touring; he was content to write alone, record alone, be alone. He had nearly finished one album for Matador when he and Peter Buck hooked up at a club in Seattle, where Buck and his family now live after many years spent creating a cottage industry in Athens, Georgia. They were mutual fans and distant friends who struck up a conversation over drinks one night after Eitzel's show at the Crocodile Cafe; one thing led to another, and when Buck happened upon San Francisco during a vacation late last year, he showed up at Eitzel's front door.
They both talk now of how a friendly jam session turned into three songs turned into an album; they both talk of how easy it was to work with each other, how Buck would write some music and Eitzel would fill in the blanks with quickly penned words.
"I probably wouldn't have done these things with Peter," Eitzel says, "if I just thought he was this asshole rock star--and I've met asshole rock stars--but he was just this really friendly, warm, down-to-earth guy, so I knew whatever I did with him was going to inspire me."
At the end of three days, they had 11 songs completed, at which point Buck turned to Eitzel and said--so the legend goes, Andy Hardy-style--"Let's make a record!" He subsequently booked studio time in Seattle and rounded up Tuatara--with whom he had been performing and recording--in addition to McCaughey, who had spent 1995 touring as R.E.M.'s auxiliary guitarist. (McCaughey, Buck and Tuatara were also in the process of recording McCaughey's album The Lonesome Death of Buck McCoy, released under McCaughey's solo nom de rock the Minus 5.)
"When we did this record [West]," Buck says from his vacation hideaway in Hawaii, "I think everyone realized it's easier than how much people give us credit for. Steve Berlin said, 'You did this in seven days?' I mean, why spend $100,000 to do a record when you can spend $15,000? It just confirms the fact that you can work quickly, that your first ideas are the best and reworking things doesn't make them better. People forget we have so many options that deciding on one is 90 percent of the work.
"I mean, with Mark there was so little ego involved, and in the past he has been in other situations where he worked with people who felt they weren't getting their due and tried to mess with his head. Every one of us has something else we do, so it wasn't like, This is the only record I'm ever gonna make, I need a hot solo. I would teach the songs to Tuatara, and we'd do a couple of passes and do a couple of takes with Mark singing full-out, and for him it was liberating. Before, he'd do two weeks on a guitar solo. This time, it was like musical chairs."
Indeed, West is a remarkable piece of work that doesn't bury one man's work in another's; Buck has infused Eitzel's brooding with his trademark jangly upraise, and Eitzel has tempered Buck's rock sensibility with a little grim luster. Such songs as "Free of Harm," "Stunned & Frozen" and "In Your Life" (which Buck says began as an R.E.M. demo) display an Eitzel eager to broaden his range, willing to play left and right field at the same time. "Three Inches of Wall" wears a gentle jazz-pop groove with ease, while "Move Myself Ahead" wouldn't have sounded out of place on R.E.M.'s Document.
And Eitzel, writing with such a contracted deadline, didn't have the chance to write and rewrite his lyrics, as is his wont. The album's lyrics seem more conversational--less confessional, less about the I and more about the we; the haunting "Lower Eastside Tourist" is even, more or less, about the October '96 suicide of Lush drummer Chris Acland: "People come and people go/Drop in the ocean, drop in the flow," Eitzel sings as a sad farewell.
"The most surprising thing for me making this record was, I just couldn't edit," Eitzel says. "I mean, it was all there. I wasn't interested in changing these songs. And I was collaborating, and with Peter I didn't want to be the neurotic freak I can be with Peter. I really didn't want to change his music; I didn't even want to know what he was playing."