Six years after disbanding the perpetual underdog (yet influential) American Music Club, Mark Eitzel has released one of the best albums of his career. The Invisible Man — self-produced and recorded at the singer-songwriter’s home in San Francisco — features sampled beats, loops and synth lines underneath Eitzel’s trademark open-tuned guitar, poetic lyrics and rough-hewn vocals. It’s a subdued yet powerful record, confirming Eitzel as a talented musician and one of the best songwriters of his generation.
At the same time, with the rise of indie and major-label folk-esque songwriters and with his crucial role in defining the genre during the ’80s and ’90s, it’s hard for Mark Eitzel not to feel a trace of bitterness.
Mark Eitzel: I went to this thing called the Mission Creek Festival (in San Francisco) and there was this acoustic guy, and everyone was sitting there quietly, reverently. I thought, "Gee, how times have changed where people will sit there quietly listening to a song." It’s very different from how things were when I started writing songs, where you had to make yourself heard, because people were just so blasé about everything. So it’s funny — I made the wrong album. Everyone else wants to folk but I just want to rock.
Metro Times: Maybe you helped pave that path.
Eitzel: I did, totally, AMC did. So now I’m totally sick of it.
But the reasons for the electronic approach have more to do with trying to remain honest than hopping on trends. The songs on Invisible Man express a wide and powerful range of emotions: from claustrophobia on "The Boy With the Hammer in the Paper Bag"; to loss on "Sleep," "Anything" and "Without You"; to happiness and acceptance on the infectious album closer, "Proclaim Your Joy."
The new direction — which first appeared on a 1997 tour-only CD titled Lover’s Leap USA — has allowed Eitzel to retain artistic control, a move which displays confidence from someone known for being painfully self-deprecating. It’s a hard-won achievement, coming from years of "spending huge amounts of money" only to find the recording process not wholly satisfying.
As Eitzel explains, "The difference is that now I don’t have to tell anybody what I want; I can just get to work and do it. Usually when you work with a producer or an engineer you give away four points for every one you gain. So this time I gave away all the points (laughs)."
The other transition Mark has faced lately is a music industry far more interested in gloss than substance. There was a time in the early ’90s when American Music Club — with a major-label deal and a bevy of critical acclaim — seemed poised for success. If anything, however, that pressure just led to the band’s demise when the sales never materialized.
Today, Eitzel states, "I have much lower expectations than I ever had before. I don’t make my records anymore with any expectations that they’ll ever be played on any radio or television station. I don’t even worry about it."
The benefits of that freedom are obvious. No longer burdened by worrying about band mates, record labels or the public, Eitzel can instead focus on writing and recording. The Invisible Man is the first of a three-record deal with Matador Records, meaning that all his years of toil have reaped rewards. Some, unfortunately, don’t see things that way.
"I went overseas recently and did all these interviews, and almost every single interview I had to answer, ‘So you’ve been doing this a long time and you’ve had no success, why do you continue?’ There’s a different kind of value system than just making money. But now everybody is a player. And I’m like, ‘most players are pawns, from what I can see,’" says Eitzel.
As any fan of his work already knows, it’s the subtle moments of profound beauty and truth which distinguish Eitzel’s work from his peers. Apparently those moments aren’t confined to large stages:
Eitzel: "I was at this hippie party a couple nights ago. It was really, really sweet. They were all singing ‘Kumbaya’ and all those old hippie songs. And I was, like, ‘Boy, this still happens, geez.’ I was amazed, and I did ‘Last Harbor’ (off American Music Club’s quintessential California)."
MT: How did it go over?
Eitzel: Well, I’m not sure. No one played songs after that. (laughs) But I think I did a pretty good version; it just kinda shut down the whole thing.
MT: There probably wasn’t much more to say.
WHERE & WHEN
Tuesday, July 17, 8 p.m.
The Magic Bag
22920 Woodward, Ferndale