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Mark Eitzel sits at a long table in a conference room, his trademark short-brimmed hat in front of him. He's taking part in a panel on new technology issues at the CMJ Change Music Festival with a number of other artists, including Creeper Lagoon's Sharky Laguana, the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, and Nothing Painted Blue's Franklin Bruno. As part of their opening statements, Darnielle and Bruno read a list of 10 demands they want to make of the recording industry. When they get to No. 3 -- "a 10-year bilateral moratorium on all attempts to rejuvenate the sagging careers of declining singer/songwriters via the innovative use of trip-hop beats" -- Eitzel thinks to himself, "Oh shit."
Eitzel's first album in three years, the newly released The Invisible Man, does in fact feature electronic percussion and loops. His career, once so promising, seems to be in relative free fall. And he certainly is a singer/songwriter, among the most critically acclaimed and undersold around. So it makes sense that he should be sweating. Why would one of the country's most renowned gutter-trawling, angst-bawling artists resort to glossy production tools to make a record? Why would the poet inebriate of underground rock slick up his once-bitten, twice-bit-back rock songs with the kind of gauzy electronica you hear in clothing stores?
"All these fucking ideas about music are a bore," Eitzel says during an interview at his Bay Area home. "I'm not personally interested in white guys with guitars who are gloomy anymore."
Eitzel has spent his entire career being a gloomy white guy with a guitar. The Naked Skinnies, his first San Francisco band after he moved to the Bay Area from Columbus, Ohio, were heavily influenced by the eviscerating punk of Joy Division. Likewise, American Music Club -- the group that Eitzel would lead to near fame and no fortune in the '80s and '90s -- began as a caterwauling, thoroughly morose combo. Over time it dropped the harsher elements of its sound, adding touches of folk and country, but Eitzel made sure that the lyrics and vocals continued to rage against the dying and the light.
After AMC broke up in 1995, Eitzel went searching for a new sound to illuminate his not-so-beautiful losers, thirsty drunks and spurned lovers. On 1996's 60 Watt Silver Lining, he used a jazzy, almost "adult contemporary" feel, while on 1997's West, co-written and produced by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, he shoehorned his moody temperament into jangly pop arrangements. Neither worked particularly well compared to AMC's roughhewn charm. His next album, the stripped-to-the-marrow effort Caught in a Trap and I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby, was something of a response to the more commercial efforts.
"I was in a really bad place and I wanted to put it all on the line and say, 'I'm really fucked up,'" Eitzel says.
Eitzel's unhappiness was readily apparent on Caught in a Trap (released in 1998 on Matador). While he once suggested that the tunes were about "sex and food," they seem more about hatred and self-loathing. (One wouldn't like to speculate what this discrepancy says about Eitzel's erotic or culinary habits.) Eitzel fans -- the kind who flock to his Web discussion group, www.fragment.com/firefly -- loved the visceral punch of the lyrics and vocals on Caught in a Trap and the brittle, angry music. Unfortunately, when Eitzel went on tour with folk-turned-trip-hop duo Everything But the Girl, he got a very different reaction.
"I did two tours with Everything But the Girl," Eitzel says. "It was horrible." EBTG's record label hadn't bothered to put Eitzel's name on any of the promotional materials, so no one knew he was playing. And even if some folks at the shows knew who he was, they didn't care. "The audience [was] all these kind of people that shop at Urban Outfitters. And they'd say, 'Oh, it's Ben [Watt, who would DJ the opening set], and he looks great, considering his horrible tragedy. And oh, oh, this is the newest sound from London. Isn't it great?' All the secretaries and corporate middlemen, all those people with their proud-to-have-platinum smiles. And the folk singer from nowhere going nowhere comes out, and they'd go, 'Who is that?'" Most shows Eitzel did his 17 minutes in a simmering rage.
Part of the problem was the type of songs he was playing. "I had to sing those songs every night, and sometimes it became this gratuitous exploration of a place I didn't want to be," Eitzel says. "I thought, 'You'd better write songs you can believe in and play out every night.'"
Eitzel was indeed caught in a trap. His cult, however small, loved him for his pessimistic outlook and honest depiction of personal agony. But playing these heart-wrenching autobiographies every night was eating him alive.
Eitzel's friend Kevin Ink had a recording studio in the South Bay, the Studio That Time Forgot. Eitzel camped out there throughout 1998, tinkering with new songs and watching Ink fiddle with the new ProTools editing technology. "He was giving me a discount and fitting me in between his real clients," Eitzel says. "But we didn't finish anything and I spent a lot of my money."