Music The Opposite of Sad: A conversation with Eels

The Opposite of Sad: A conversation with Eels


To me it’s the opposite of sad. To me the sad part would be if that message wasn’t there and you’re just going to be hurt and alone. But to have someone say, ‘be hurt, it’s going to be OK’, that’s not sad at all.”

Mark Oliver Everett, the central force behind Eels’ unique career, is on the end of the line in London discussing the optimism and accepting tone of new song ‘Be Hurt’ taken from forthcoming album The Deconstruction.

His description of the ‘opposite of sad’, is fitting for a frequently misunderstand and wrongly maligned artist, often dismissed as “depressing”. But for those in the know, those that get it, Eels is optimistic, life-affirming and comforting.

It’s not often that real nerves set in before speaking to a musician, but Everett has been an important part of my music tastes, world-view and personality since ‘Novocaine For The Soul’ played one morning on BBC Radio One in the 90s. With a reputation of being a difficult interviewee, if you fall short of his expectations, ‘E’, as he is commonly known, is a reluctant interviewee, only partaking because it is a necessary part of the promotional process. I expected a hard time, or indifference at best.

But the ‘E’ on the end of the crackling phone line is one buoyed with new purpose and optimism, and one who is, I dare say, “happy” to discuss the wonderful new album. Even in this moment Eels is shattering my expectations.

Following an intense period of five albums in six years this is the first new Eels music since 2014, a relatively long fallow period in the band’s release history.  After the hyper-personal, and soul-baring, last record The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, this break felt inevitable and somewhat right. A “disappearance” felt like the right move.

But always full of surprises, even during this time “away”, E shocked fans by unexpectedly turning up in Netflix’s brilliant alt rom-com Love. He has also just popped up for another excellent turn in season three, giving fans a double-whammy of Eels action this Spring.

But other than that, it does seem like it was a full break from Eels activity. Does the reality match the narrative of a ‘return’?

“It was pretty much a break, I only worked really sporadically when I was inspired. I could wake up one day and be inspired to write a song and it might be six months before the next one. For the most part I wasn’t working.

 “I had got to the point where I just had to take a break, I was just so worn out from so much work for so many years. If you do too much of any one thing it is going to catch up to you and in my case my life had just become so one sided with work, so I had to take a break and pay attention to other parts of life for a change.”

The change has resulted in The Deconstruction being a very different work, looking outwards as much as inwards. Traditionally the music of Eels is the unpacking of E’s life, thoughts and feelings but, on the surface at least, this sounds like Eels writing about the lives of others. ‘In Our Cathedral’ even refers to ‘our cathedral’ as in the royal ‘our’ – it’s all of us.

Everett’s answer makes the lyrical content more intriguing and enigmatic – nothing is ever as simple as it seems in the world of Eels.

“In a way its oddly a paradox, it’s kinda the same thing. I am out into the wider world but it’s something that is in all of us, it’s something that is in me, in everybody, you know? So it’s both!” he explains wryly.

Also, where Cautionary Tales felt like closure on the past, The Deconstruction appears to be about the now, and about the possibilities of the future. I put this idea to Everett.

“I think that’s accurate. Maybe some of it is about right now and that’s what we have, but you can’t do anything about the past, but you can do things right now that can affect the future.”

He adds, “A lot of these songs are me talking to someone specific but then they are also messages to myself, I realise. I’m not an expert on anything I am talking about, whatever the message is that I am trying to relay in a song it also applies to me trying to convince myself of something to.”

A perfect example of this is the new song ‘Be Hurt’, a direct and almost self-help style mantra for dealing with inner turmoil.

“That’s a perfect example of if I am talking to someone specific I am also talking about myself. Saying to myself ‘it’s OK to be hurt’. It’s part of life, you know, you’re going to feel hurt it’s not the end of the world.”

And for fans it has always been this expression that ‘the world is shit, it’s hard, but it will be OK. You’ll be OK,’ that has been so powerful. That is the overriding message I have always taken from the music of Eels.

Of course, the messages are always open to interpretation, but what does Everett want the listener to take away from The Deconstruction?

It’s part of life, you know, you’re going to feel hurt it’s not the end of the world.

“A few things. I like how people can interpret songs and take whatever they can get out of them. But I hope that it can, maybe, give some people a little comfort, just to know they are not alone and we are all doing the best we can with what we were given and it’s not easy for anyone.”

If you know the story of E’s life, you’ll know he has more than enough authority to deal with the kind of material and messages mentioned above.

Fiercely believing that his past is explained within his songs, his incredible autobiography ‘Things The Grandchildren Should Know’ (buy it and read it immediately) and the BBC documentary about his father who as a maverick physicist created the Parallel Worlds theory, have explained everything, E is famous for wanting to avoid such subjects in interviews. Not following this direction can lead to cold-shoulder disaster.

His is a tale of loss, love, creativity and adversity that few artists can compare their life to.

Out of respect we avoid this, but I have to ask, now that all this is out in public does he feel comfortable that this won’t come up in interviews? His response is short and direct.

“Anything I can do to provide anyone with a bio, so I don’t have to keep explaining it is helpful.”

After a bit of discussion, we conclude that his autobiography can be used by interviewers like an old-school role play game book. “Just go to page 74,” he quips. There you can defeat the ogre and move on the next part of the story.

The past album that is most intertwined with the personal story of Everett is 1997’s Electro Shock Blues, a singular artistic statement that still, to this day, sounds quite unlike anything else. Lyrically and sonically it has a melancholy flowing through out, but also a sense of hope and optimism. It finds hope in its inherent sadness. It is overwhelmingly a reassuring listen for those in despair.

And new album The Deconstruction is the closest subsequent release to that classic record, it having the same dynamic in many ways. Hope in sadness, the assurance it will all be OK. The music all in all is not as leftfield as the 1997 aural curve-ball, but is still a highly layered piece.

The liner notes list an entity known as the Deconstruction Orchestra & Choir, performing on the album alongside regular collaborators Koool G Murder and P-Boo. The discussion turns to this orchestra and their place on the record.

“It’s a collection of different contributors coming and going. It’s not like in the case of an album like Daisies of the Galaxy where it’s a very traditional live orchestra playing the score for a song all the way through, it’s more like we get people to come in and do stuff, record different things and then we cut it up, chew it up and spit it out in different ways on a different song. It’s a very exciting, fun way to work, it’s a lot about editing and manipulating.”

Ironically, in its production, an album titled The Deconstruction is a ‘construction’ of disparate elements manipulated into a meaningful whole. As with everything in E’s catalogue the result is something that is immediately recognisable as Eels’ music. Collaborators never change that, their additions simply become part of the overall vision.

Well there’s millions of me and they are all doing everything! One of them is having an awful lot of fun, one is having a terrible time, I mean there’s every possibility being lived out. It’s amazing!

Always different but always Eels, is a description that, as well as the albums, can be used to describe the band’s trips out on to the road. Live the band have taken on many distinct guises from three-piece rock band to orchestral pop wonder, and the live performances are rarely similar to the album they correspond to. E explains the live ethos.

“Very often the live show is completely independent of an album, I like to treat them like their own thing, like a whole other album on to itself. But I don’t really know what’s going to happen yet.

“I do know that Knuckles, our drummer, is not available this year so that part will be different. It’s already going to be something interesting.”

“Either there’s going to be a drum machine, or a different drummer, or no drums or somebody just playing spoons, I dunno.”

The spoons suggestion leads me to raise the recent controversy around Noel Gallagher’s scissors player. We are both baffled by how that would work in a rock music context, but it does lead E to admit it is something worth exploring.

In exploring where Eels career could go, the question of film scores comes up. His music has always had a cinematic feel to it but to date he has only scored one film, 2003’s Levity. I put this question to him, does he think he will do more movie work?

“It’s not my favourite thing to do, it’s hard work. I am used to being the boss and that’s a situation where I am not the boss so you have to acquiesce and do things again. But it is fun to make music that is set to pictures and I would like to do at least one more time, maybe more.”

Moving away from his music, one of the most fascinating elements of E’s life and one that, the more I look into it, plays with my mind, is the relationship with his father and his father’s ground-breaking work in Parallel Worlds theory. There is even a strand of physics known as Everettian physics! On what scale does his father’s theories play on E’s mind? The idea of infinite versions of me, making every decision possible gives me a headache and I don’t even have a family connection to the theory!

“Well there’s millions of me and they are all doing everything! One of them is having an awful lot of fun, one is having a terrible time, I mean there’s every possibility being lived out. It’s amazing!”

I raise the fact that one is having to be interviewed by me. “Yes”, he answers, “It’s crazy.”

Our short conversation window is coming to a close, so it’s time to focus back on the music journalism clichés we both hate so much. The question that ends the discussion, given his flurry of activity last time he was actively releasing records, is ‘what are your future plans?’

“It’s just this for now, I have put everything I have into this. I think every record I make with Eels it feels like it could be the last one because the only way to get through it is to put everything you have into it and I can’t really see beyond this now.”

The Deconstruction is released on 6th April

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James Thornhill
Editor of Bloop magazine


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