The original kings of sadcore, American Music Club started bringing their blend of beauty and tears to enraptured indie-rockers in the mid-'80s. The band disintegrated in 1994, reuniting a decade later to release Love Songs for Patriots (Devil in the Woods). And now American Music Club singer Mark Eitzel and guitarist Vudi have assembled a revamped lineup for another new one, The Golden Age, released in February on Merge. Here, Eitzel talks about the band's current tour, the departure of longtime rhythm section Dan Pearson and Tim Mooney, and his spiritual debts to '70s soft rock and Jerry Lewis.
You and Vudi have been recording and touring with a new bassist and drummer. What happened to Dan Pearson and Tim Mooney?
It's a long story. We did that [previous] American Music Club record, and it was basically me, Tim, and Danny working in San Francisco and flying Vudi and the keyboard player up on the weekends. We'd fly Vudi up and he'd do fifty takes and I'd edit them into a part, and I really didn't want to do that again on this record. Vudi is a slow burn: He comes up with ideas after a while, and you really want those ideas, because he's a genius. On the next record, I basically said, "Well, I don't want to make a record like we did last time. I want to make a record with Vudi in L.A.”
Why couldn't Vudi come to San Francisco?
Because Vudi drives a city bus, and he couldn't move. And those guys [Mooney and Pearson] were like, "Yeah, sure, great," and then I couldn't get them on the phone for about eight months for various reasons. I finally called Vudi and said, "Look dude, I'm coming to L.A. I've got these songs and I want you to hear them." The thing with Vudi is that he just gives me so much hope when I play him my songs, he's like, "Oh! Oh, we can do this . . . ." Even my shittiest songs -- like a song I had called "You're So Eva," "So very Eva Braun....” It was a horrible song, but even that one, he was like, "Oh, this works!" As long as Vudi is in the room it kinda works. It had to be Vudi. He got these two guys [bassist Sean Hoffman and drummer Steve Didelot]. As soon as I played with them it felt more like a band than American Music Club had felt in years.”
So did you give up on Danny and Tim at that point?
Another six months passed, and these guys won't answer my phone calls. Finally I just thought, "I've gotta do this record. I've gotta make it the best record I can. I'm gonna go with these other people. Sorry." We were gonna call it MacArthur Park Music Club, because Vudi lives in MacArthur Park, and because I love that song [Jimmy Webb's “MacArthur Park”]. And my manager in England said, "You know, Mark, you can get paid this level if you call yourself Mark Eitzel. You can get paid a much lower level if you call yourself MacArthur Park Music Club. And if you call yourself American Music Club, you can get paid this level!" I was like, "Oh shit, right. It's a brand thing, isn't it?" And because I had various American Music Clubs before I ever worked with Tim and Danny, I thought, "Fuck it, I'll just call it American Music Club."
Is it a different feeling having two new musicians onstage instead of the guys you've played with for years?
It's very different. It's funny, you always live sort of obedient to the fans. They seem to record every single show and download it and talk about it. I think most people like the new band. Everyone sings, and they remember how to play the songs, more than me and Vudi even, and it's a more positive thing.”
Do Sean and Steve replicate any of Tim and Danny's old parts?
They won't let me change them. "Blue and Grey Shirt," [Sean and Steve] listened to the record and said, "No, Mark. You have to play it like this, you have to play it just like the record." The bass player is really a guitar player, he does commercial music, he does all the shredding guitars on the Fox Sports Channel, and he won't ever admit it to himself but he's a real genius on bass. And the drummer, he's a great songwriter himself, so he knows how to play drums with songs. He's another one of those people who doesn't know how good he is, but don't tell him.
How is the music you're making now different from what you did with the old version of the band? There's less of that heavy, intense feeling on the new album.
What you say is heavy and intense some people say is self-pitying and annoying. I had an epiphany. I was in Basel and I went to the art gallery there. There was this one painting and [when I saw it] I thought, "Those are all the mistakes I ever made, where I'm too much in the middle of the music, where my pain is all amplified and all present." And I don't want to do that anymore. If I make that kind of super-dark music, I need to be really healthy and there has to be some other goodness happening in my life. But at this point if I make that kind of dark music it's like I'm locking myself in a dark room with a lion, and I don't want to do that.
So this is the kinder, gentler American Music Club.
Kind of a Bread album, yeah. I don't want to make hard music, I want to make easy music. The next album I'm writing, people are gonna hate it -- [it's] even more corny and simple. When I go see music now, if I have to see some indie rock fucker stare at his fucking shoes and whisper into the microphone something that is not about my life -- I hate that shit now. I like pop music. As much as I love indie music, there's very few. Bon Iver, that stuff's beautiful, I love it. It's about my life. But I can't really point to a lot of other people that play the same kind of music. Am I being a bitch now? Yes. I'm just sick of it, so I don't want to do that music. I want to do balls-out embarrassing, corny stuff.
In the old AMC days, the audiences sometimes seemed like they were waiting to see you self-destruct in an explosion of angst onstage.
One of my pleasures in life is Cat Power. I think she's a fucking genius. I went to one of her shows in San Francisco, and it was just this strangely quiet room of people who were waiting to see her die, and I thought, "No, that's not her at all. She's a very cheerful, nice person. That's bullshit. And I kind of felt like I don't like that kind of audience.
So what effect do you want to have now on an audience?
You know what I want? I want applause, that's all I want! [laughs] I want applause, I want people to buy the merch. To be honest, I don't care. You can't cherry-pick what kind of reaction you get; all you can do is do your best and hope that you entertain people. I sound like Jerry Lewis when I say this, but I actually am very much like Jerry Lewis.
Will you continue to work under the American Music Club name in the future?
I don't know. I hope so, if the band stays together. Everyone has to have a life and earn a living, so I don't if Vudi can afford to do this, or Sean or Steve can afford to do this. It's not like we're making tons of money. It's really economics.
Well, say if you had your druthers.
If I had my druthers, I would have a beautiful swimming pool, and I'd be in it right now.
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