EELS frontman Mark 'E' Everett on their hopeful new record
Burnout and heartbreak forced EELS into hiatus and threatened the band’s future. Four years on, they’re back and buoyant, with inimitable frontman E reinvigorated
“At first, I thought I might actually be done. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever work again.”
Mark Oliver Everett has never been anything if not sincere, so you know he wouldn’t throw around such profound doubts about the future of EELS unless he felt they were wholly rooted in truth. The artist better known as E seems to have packed so much into the past couple of decades that the idea he might grind to a creative halt seems, on the face of it, patently absurd. When he released his last record in 2014, it was his 11th in 19 years.
He didn’t spent a great deal of time off the road during that entire period, but still found time to assemble a colourful tableau of extracurricular activities, including collaborating with personal heroes like Tom Waits and Peter Buck, producing a BBC documentary on his influential physicist father, and writing a deeply moving autobiography – Things the Grandchildren Should Know – that deservedly found a wider audience than just EELS’ fanbase. His artistic reserves apparently never threatened to run dry.
By the time he wrapped touring for The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett almost four summers ago, though, something had changed. For one thing, he’d just spent two years swinging wildly between musical extremes. Wonderful, Glorious, released 2013, was a balls-to-the-wall rock record and EELS promoted it accordingly on the subsequent tour, playing noisy and raucous shows in no-nonsense, sweat-from-the-ceiling clubs, the band all decked out in head-to-toe Adidas. The Cautionary Tales was a diametrically opposite proposition: piercingly personal, instrumentally sparse and achingly pretty. The corresponding concerts involved handsome music halls, twinkly lights, stripped-back takes on songs new and old and unimpeachably sharp three-piece suits.
It wasn’t just that E felt as if he’d left himself with nowhere to go next, having visited both stylistic poles. There’s bracing openness and then there’s unsettling soul-baring, and The Cautionary Tales fell into the latter category. For the first time ever, there was nothing between E and the listener; he was leaving himself entirely vulnerable and that involved a degree of emotional intensity that he remains audibly uneasy with.
“That record in particular still makes me really uncomfortable,” he says over the phone from his London hotel room. “Just seeing my face and my name on the cover gets a visceral reaction out of me. I feel like I maybe went a little too far with the personal side of it; I almost regret it. Maybe that’s a good thing, because it means there was something resonant about it, but I still don’t know how to feel. I try not to think about it.”
The psychological toll that The Cautionary Tales took on E conspired with the draining effect of an unrelenting live schedule to conjure up a perfect storm of exhaustion that left him with little choice but to retreat from music, without setting a return date. “I’d paid attention to nothing but work for so long,” he explains, “and it was too much, in the end. I just thought I should try to tune in to the other side of life, which, as far as I was concerned, was literally everything else except work.”
Music was consigned to the back-burner indefinitely. In typically obtuse style, the closest he got to playing anything in anger for a long time came when he made his acting debut in the Netflix series Love, playing a friend of Gillian Jacobs’ central character and jamming out on a version of Wings’ Jet with her on-screen romantic interest Paul Rust in the first of five appearances on the show.
'We all need to be reminded that things aren’t totally hopeless, and that there’s still beauty to be found' – Mark Oliver Everett
“The timing of that whole thing was really beautiful,” says E, as he recalls a characteristically lively story that began with him meeting Mad Men’s Jon Hamm and John Slattery at an EELS gig, befriending the former, receiving a mysterious job offer via text from the latter years later, and ending up making his onscreen bow on a set that looked distinctly like something from the advertising drama's late-60s period, with Slattery behind the camera and the show’s Rich Sommer alongside him in front of it.
“I’m kind of a Mad Men nut, so you can imagine how cool all of that was. I’m a huge comedy fan, too, and to be able to work on something like that, surrounded by all of these hugely talented comedic actors, right at a point in my life where I’d been ready to try something different – I really got a kick out of it.”
Eventually, though, he once again began to feel the pull that, for so long, he was unsure would ever return. He started to notice a glacial drip-feed of musical ideas re-establishing itself, and the languid pace of their arrival was of no great concern; “I had the luxury of, 'only when I get inspired,' you know? I’d get a song down, and then it’d be six months before another one happened. It was song-by-song, and I never had an overarching concept in mind; the chips fell very gradually.”
But fall they did, and eventually, the meticulous rebuilding of EELS bore fruit in the form of The Deconstruction, their 12th LP. For a man who thought he might be finished as recently as four years ago, he sounds mighty light on his feet on this new record; it sounds much more taut than its fifteen tracks might suggest, and steadfastly refuses to plough one particular furrow, veering with gleeful abandon from one sonic aesthetic to the next.
The title track is all Bond-theme swagger. Bone Dry is an exercise in bluesy menace. You Are the Shining Light is irresistibly groovy. There’s still room for handsomely presented reflection, though; for the affection of The Epiphany, for the lightly-worn empathy of There I Said It and, on closer In Our Cathedral, for possibly the most gorgeous love song E has yet penned.
The central strand connecting all of these threads is that, put plainly, The Deconstruction is absolutely warm as toast; if The Cautionary Tales projected negativity inwardly, its successor radiates optimism. “I should state for the record that I don’t consider it an escapist record,” E is at pains to point out, “but I do think that we all need hope and happiness right now, more than we have for a while. I’m hoping that people can feel comforted by these songs, and a little less alone.”
The political turbulence that’s made the world a considerably less certain place in the years that E spent away from the musical spotlight hung over his thought process as he began writing towards The Deconstruction, but the peace of mind that he’d personally been able to find as a result of the break pushed him towards turning out something defiantly upbeat. “If I could’ve looked into a crystal ball even as recently as three years ago, and seen that right now, I’d be doing interviews for a new record and talking about President Trump – shit! Who could’ve predicted that? You could argue that at any time in history, there’s always been something crazy going on, but it seems particularly heavy right now. We all need to be reminded that things aren’t totally hopeless, and that there’s still beauty to be found, you know? Let’s all look for it together.”
E should know; his lengthy sabbatical has led him out of years of work-induced fog, and he’s come out the other side of it relaxed, revitalised and – crucially – as sunny in his outlook on the future of EELS as he’s ever been. “I feel like I’ve gotten back in touch with the rest of the world, and it’s been a reminder to me that there are a lot of good things and good people out there.
"It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of the internet and the media and just feel like everything’s gone to shit, so it’s heartening to be around real people that are trying to do something positive. Looking back, I can’t remember the last time I made an album or went on a long tour and didn’t think, 'this has the potential to be the last one,' but I think now I know that’s just something your mind does to try to rationalise the difficult experience of making something. Only after that do you know if inspiration is going to strike again. This time, it did.”
The Deconstruction is released on 6 Apr via E Works
EELS play O2 Academy, Glasgow, 4 Jul – tickets here