Mark Eitzel: Getting Down to the Heart of the Matter

photo by Cynthia Wood

“If Romney gets in, I’m screwed,” says a candid Mark Eitzel, the 53-year-old singer-songwriter, on the phone from L.A. With his country going to the polls in early November, and a new tour kicking off that same week, Eitzel voices an opinion shared by many Americans. “We have this incredibly large group of people who are in despair and hell-bent to bring us down with them. If Romney wins, and I lose my ability to get health care, then I’m fucked,” he says.

This issue of health care is a critical one to working musicians. And for Eitzel there is a lot riding on the Obama vs. Romney matchup. In the past year, Eitzel not only lost an old comrade in Tim Mooney (drummer for the Eitzel-led American Music Club) to a heart attack but suffered his own as well. Asked if he is physically up for a tour, (his first since ’09), given the heart issue, Eitzel is upbeat: “I am okay. That’s the thing, you know, with modern technology, I am okay.” For long-time fans, hearing Eitzel say anything as affirming as “I am okay” is no doubt reassuring. This is the guy known for writing songs like Why I’m Bullshit and “I’ve Been a Mess” after all.

With tour rehearsals underway, Eitzel is eager to get back on the road with a new batch of songs for the people to hear. “If the people care,” he deadpans, only to backtrack with a sheepish laugh. “No, I am excited,” he says.

Politics and heart attacks aside, the usual fodder for Eitzel are other matters of the heart: loneliness, depression, madness, liquor-fueled anarchy, and self-deprecation are the hallmarks of Eitzel’s thirty-year recording output. To dismiss Eitzel as a bummer is to miss out on a vast catalogue of dark poetry, rich lyricism and haunting, occasionally unhinged vocal performances. His latest album, Don’t Be a Stranger (out now on Merge Records), follows that tradition of plaintive songwriting, dusted with a sardonic humor that surely is the textbook definition of commercial suicide. And yet, Stranger is Eitzel’s lightest album to date. “It’s not intentional as it is necessary,” he says of Stranger’s warmish tone. “I did want to make something a little more accessible,” he concedes. And while Stranger will not get the airplay, attention or sales of Taylor Swift, this is a pop album. Well as “pop” as you can get with a dirge called “Lament for Bobo the Clown”.

Stranger is Eitzel’s eighth solo release (not counting live albums or self-released demos), and his most consistent effort since 2001’s The Invisible Man. Produced by Sheldon Gomberg (Ron Sexsmith, She & Him and Lucinda Williams), Stranger is a beautiful thing. Of the role Gomberg played in the creation of Stranger, Eitzel is quick to dole out praise with a side order of self-abuse. “I wouldn’t have finished it without him. The role of the producer is to be there at the right time at the right place. I am not an engineer, I am just a songwriter so I was very lucky to have him there.” Joining Eitzel on the record are long-time collaborators Marc Capelle, Kristin Sobditch, as well as Pete Straus, and Jon Langmead, who will tour with Eitzel under the banner of Mark Eitzel’s Warm Gentle Rain. The album mixes the caustic with the humorous in standout tracks like “I Love You but You’re Dead”, “Break the Champagne”, “Oh Mercy”, and “Costume Characters Face Dangers in the Workplace”.

Eitzel will appear in Vancouver on November 8th, for one of his rare Northern jaunts. So why doesn’t he swing by more often? “That stupid fucking border, they give you a hassle both ways,” Eitzel says. “I’m like the most minor musician you’ve ever seen but I’m usually held (by border guards) for four hours. And going back to America is just as scary.”

Which brings us back to the upcoming election. “I just want some controls, some rules. I don’t want anything for free, I just want some rules,” Eitzel says. Though his songs are, in the main, apolitical in nature or clouded by metaphor, in conversation Eitzel swings a hammer. “The ruling class is there to screw you, ” he says. Whatever deal goes down on Super Tuesday, the results will no doubt influence Eitzel’s performance here two days later in some spectacular way.

Mark Eitzel will appear at the Electric Owl on November 8. Early show – 8 p.m.