Mark Eitzel on Hey Mr Ferryman

Longtime solo artist and former American Music Club frontman Mark Eitzel on new album, the Bernard Butler-produced Hey Mr Ferryman

Feature by Pete Wild | 09 Jan 2017
  • Mark Eitzel

It’s become a cliché. We’ve all seen the clickbait, the articles in the broadsheet newspapers. The best singer you’ve never heard of. And it’s always the same old story: some exceptionally talented human being who didn’t get the breaks, who warrants more attention, who deserves a bigger audience. Who should be fêted, bathing in pearls and throwing bundles of money on the fire. As Denis Leary says, "Life sucks, get a helmet."

Despite being the former frontman of the inestimable American Music Club (who existed off and on between 1983 and 2008, and recorded ten albums, one of which Eitzel has himself disowned) and a long-time solo artist in his own right (with another dozen-plus records to his name), Mark Eitzel could easily check that 'best singer you’ve never heard of' box. But when we talk – on the eve of the American election, with a modicum of doubt still remaining as to whether the world is shuttling like a handcart in hell towards something new and terrible – Eitzel has his mind on other things. “America’s about to become a dictatorship,” he says, offering a sarcastic “hurray!” But he’s a glass-half-full kind of guy: “There’s only a few percentage points in it. It could go either way…”

20:20 vision and all that; we’ll gingerly push the optimism to one side and talk instead about his new album, Hey Mr Ferryman, recorded with ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler in the producer's chair. As with his many career highlights to date, it's yet another goddamn beautiful artefact, another tremendous collection of songs that crest its highs and circumnavigate its lows in a way that will move the hardest heart. His voice sounds as good as ever; lyrics thrum like struck metal – if he's listening, the similarly gifted Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon may have sufficient cause to ponder whether he could put more effort into a song than just reading out diary pages and fan letters. 

And the music… well, let’s just say that despite his Stoke Newington origins, Butler brings a beautiful, California-sunshine vibe to proceedings, best seen in album opener The Last Ten Years. “We came to him [Butler] and said, 'We haven’t got enough money to do a complicated album, we need something really simple,' and that was the plan," Eitzel explains. "I got to London. I showed up and played him all the songs. And he said, 'I know you wanna do an acoustic album but no – we’re not!' And I was like, 'Alright, you know, whatever.'”

When it came to how the two of them worked in the studio, Butler's determined outlook seemed to suit the outcome: “I didn’t like every single note that he played on the record but that doesn’t matter. Overall everything he did was as if he was reading my mind. This was what I really wanted. 'Cause I’ll do these demos and he’ll say, 'Urgh! Shut the fuck up! Cut my wrists! Don’t do that – let’s do this instead.' He really got into the spirit of what I wanted to do.”

Eitzel reckons Hey Mr Ferryman is one for the fans. “Now that the career is over,” he chuckles, “I try to make songs, like this album particularly, for people who like me and American Music Club. Let’s just make a record with acoustic guitars and singing, because that’s what I do the best. I know my strengths and weaknesses, so let’s make a stupid pop album – like kids with guitars – and rock. Bernard did it and it’s great!”

Of course, Eitzel does himself a disservice in reducing his diverse oeuvre to these "strengths and weaknesses" – as with West, the 1997 album he made with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Hey Mr Ferryman is an album that could extend to a wider audience, with new listeners checking him out for the first time. It has what people inclined to comment on these things call 'crossover appeal', in part because of its evident and deliberate lightness. 

“I’m so sick of listening to dark music,” Eitzel says. “I mean, I love dark music, I really do. Maybe I’m just sick of aspects of my own past. It’s sort of like I can’t listen to music right now that’s dark, unless it’s completely electronic, and then I can’t really hear it. Songwriters – don’t fuck with my head! Say something about my life! That’s all I want. I don’t want you to make me cry. I don’t want to feel what you’re feeling. I just want something that’s beautiful.”

We mention a line from the song Rise – 'Tell me how to make something beautiful flash before your eyes' – which appeared on American Music Club’s album Everclear back in 1991. There's always something beautiful to be found on Eitzel's records, something capable of stopping the listener dead in their tracks – he's put a lot of beauty out into the world. He’s quiet, as you might expect, but humbly says, “Thank you, that’s the intention.”

So we agreed to avoid the clickbait. We're not going to say Mark Eitzel is the best singer you’ve never heard of, but what we will say is this: Mark Eitzel is to The National, what Paul Weller is to Oasis. He should be revered, rewarded and celebrated. Until that day comes, however, we have Hey Mr Ferryman, the latest great Mark Eitzel record and the first possible album of 2017 out of the starting gate.

For All the Lost Souls: A beginner's guide to Mark Eitzel

American Music Club – California (1988)
The first great American Music Club album reads like a setlist of classic AMC songs: Firefly, Somewhere, Last Harbor, Jenny, Blue and Grey Shirt and the superlative Western Sky. This is the album most AMC fans will tell you is the best.

American Music Club – Everclear (1991)
As much of a paean to lost friends as R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People, Everclear remains the finest expression of AMC: shivering with frail beauty (Why Won't You Stay / Miracle on 8th Street), roaring from the heavens (Rise / Sick of Food), aching with bruised tenderness (Ex-Girlfriend / The Confidential Agent). If you only buy one AMC record...

Mark Eitzel – 60 Watt Silver Lining (1996)
A slightly jazzier affair than usual but the voice and the lyrical prowess shine through. Like Morrissey, Eitzel has a mordant wit, best discovered on When My Plane Finally Goes Down. But it's when he looks up from the gutter to the stars, battered and broken but always hopeful that the record shines. Listen to Aspirin, Wild Sea and Saved. It's all beautiful stuff.

Mark Eitzel – Don't Be a Stranger (2012)
Eitzel's 11th solo outing was funded by a fan's lottery win, and from the plaintively urgent Oh Mercy and the almost Vegas-period Elvis of All My Love to the sweetly self-deprecating Why Are You With Me, it contains some of the best songs of his career.

Hey Mr Ferryman is released via Decor Records on 27 Jan