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Members include E (born Mark Oliver Everett on April 9, 1963, in Virginia; married to a dentist, c. 2001), songwriter, producer, guitar, vocals; Butch Norton (born Jonathan Norton), drums; Tommy Walter (left band in 1997), bass. Addresses: Record company--Vagrant Records, 2118 Wilshire Blvd., #361, Santa Monica, CA 90403, website: http://www.vagrant.com. Website--eels Official Website: http://www.eelstheband.com.
A singer, songwriter, guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, and producer known simply as "E" is the man responsible for eels. A native of Virginia who later moved to Los Angeles, E was born Mark Oliver Everett on April 9, 1963. His first instrument was a drum kit. Music soon became an unquenchable passion. "Whatever everyone was listening to didn't interest me," he told the Boston Globe's Ty Burr. "I was listening to stuff that was long gone. ... Luckily, instead of making Phil Collins my role model, I went with Levon Helm [of The Band]. I used to go to his shows all the time and follow him around and ask him questions. I was kind of obsessed with Leon Russell for a while, too. I was really obsessed with Ray Charles; I read his autobiography when I was a teenager and got a lot of good advice from it."
Before forming eels, he released two solo albums for Polydor Records. In 1995 in Los Angeles, after Polydor agreed to release the veteran songwriter and producer from his contract, E teamed with his touring drummer, Butch Norton, and bassist/multi-instrumentalist Tommy Walter to record as eels. Everett hoped an expanded lineup would enable him to produce a fuller sound more akin to his greatest influence, that of singer, songwriter, and pianist Randy Newman, and to add trip-hop technology to the idiosyncratic pop sensibility of his prior work. Taking his new project to DreamWorks Records, the label established by film director/producer Steven Spielberg, E, along with his group, became one of the first acts to sign a contract with the newly formed record company.
A Diverse Debut
E's new band debuted in mid-1996 with the eclectic Beautiful Freak, an album noted for its intelligent pop sound and intriguing lyrics. Each of E's songs revealed a heartfelt, personal edge and underpinning humor, a mix that appealed to a young, literate audience dissatisfied with the slacker culture. Because of these elements, eels' first album often drew comparisons to another fresh-sounding songwriter, Beck. However, E resisted such comparisons: "The only similarity is that we're white guys using samples. We're coming from a completely different angle," he argued, as quoted by Rock: The Rough Guide contributor Alex Ogg. Beautiful Freak earned rave reviews for its fresh mix of classic pop, country, rock, and hip-hop beats, with Q magazine calling the work a "complete musical vision, a genre-spanning soundscape that reels you in with its myriad of hooks." And after the album's 1997 release in Great Britain, Melody Maker ranked Beautiful Freak number 43 on that year's list of best albums, while a New Musical Express critics' poll listed it at number 33.
Record buyers in America and Europe embraced eels' debut. The ironic single "Novocaine for the Soul" became a modern rock hit, and the band in 1996 started touring the United States and Europe, opening for the likes of the Screaming Trees and playing music festivals such as the Inrock Festival in France and the Rockpalast in Germany. By 1997, eels were a headlining act, gaining a reputation for their impressive live shows, especially in Europe, where the band's popularity soared. That same year, eels also toured in the United States with Lollapalooza, then returned to Europe for another round of sell-out concerts. Despite eels' breakthrough, Walter left the band soon after touring in order to form his own band, Metromax, later known as Tely.
Revealed Personal Hardships
Electro-Shock Blues, released in 1998, was primarily a solo effort by E with a noticeably darker feel than the group's debut. The album was inspired largely by the suicide of E's sister Elizabeth, who died just before the release of Beautiful Freak, and by the long illness and imminent death of his mother, who suffered from cancer. While sales of the record were slow, due to its anguished subject matter, Electro-Shock Blues nonetheless was given stellar reviews. CMJ (College Music Journal) called the work "one of 1998's most oddly powerful pop albums, demonstrating that weighty, tearful emotions, pretty melodies and groovy tempos can harmoniously complement one another." To support the album, E enlisted My Head frontman Adam Siegal (a former member of the Suicidal Tendencies) to play live with him on bass, but the American leg of the tour was cut short when E's mother died of cancer in November of 1998. In spite of E's personal difficulties, eels did return to Europe later as Pulp's supporting act, and then returned home to conclude the Electro-Shock Blues tour.
E spent most of 1999 writing and producing Daisies of the Galaxy in his Los Angeles basement with eels drummer Norton, Grant Lee Buffalo's Grant Lee Phillips on bass, and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck on piano, guitar, and bass. The sessions were interrupted, however, when E had to return to Virginia to settle his parents' estate, later documented in the song "Estate Sale," written with Buck, which was included in the album. While at his parents' house, E also came across a 1950s-era Greek children's book, which he used for the album's artwork.
Daisies of the Galaxy was regarded as an upbeat coda to 1998's Electro-Shock Blues, a project that took a more optimistic view of the world. As E himself concluded, according to DreamWorks Records: "If Electro-Shock Blues was the phone call in the middle of the night that the world doesn't want to answer, then Daisies of the Galaxy is the hotel wake-up call that says your lovely breakfast is ready."
Like previous eels' records, a list of poignant characters appear throughout Daisies of the Galaxy. When asked if he has always felt so empathetic toward others, E explained that he does appreciate the good in others and tries to understand their hardships and problems. "I can be very cynical, but deep down I don't believe there's such a thing as bad people," he told Mark Healy in an interview for Rolling Stone. "People do bad things and get led astray, but if you take any person and follow the line backward from the bad thing they did, you can usually start to understand them." And just how did he arrive at such a hopeful view? "If you've been through some of the experiences I've been through these last few years, you cling to any shred of optimism you can muster," he continued. "Once I felt like the dust was settling and I hadn't been to any funerals for awhile, I realized you have a choice: You can stay down in the muck, or you can tighten your belt and move on. It's like, `OK, time for some carefree years. Time to have some fun.'"
Returned to Happier Music
After his recent tragedies, E, now the only living member of his immediate family, felt the need to focus on the positive. "I needed to make something in love with life for my own sanity," he related, as quoted by DreamWorks. "It became important that I make simple, pure, sweet music." And although Daisies of the Galaxy opened with the sounds of funeral music, E opted to use a New Orleans-style groove. "I wanted to make a fun, pretty record that was full of life," he added.
Released in March of 2000, Daisies of the Galaxy brought E further acclaim. "Like its predecessor," wrote Jim Wirth in New Musical Express, Daisies of the Galaxy "mixes humor and humility, hope and fear, and stands as quiet testimony to one of modern music's most gifted writers. ... In almost every respect a masterpiece." Soon thereafter, eels started touring again, this time with Norton and a couple of string and horn players. They traveled first to Europe, then opened for singer/songwriter/pianist Fiona Apple in the United States. He had plans for a fourth record, and soon after completing Daisies, started working on producing new and louder songs with Siegal.
Souljacker, "a bluesy wallop of an album ... filled with songs about grotesques," as described by Time's Josh Tyrangiel, was released in 2002. In 2003 E produced two projects, one of which was the often-overlooked Shootenanny!. Everett told Hollywood Reporter, "It's really the only Eels record, I think, where we really set up like a band and played it all live. On some of the other albums, there's much more studio trickery at work This one was really just like a rock band."
Critic Jason Fine of Rolling Stone observed that E is "at his best ... when he takes a deep breath and lets himself have some fun. As he did on 2000's enchanting Daisies of the Galaxy, E lifts the depressive curtain on Shootenanny!, balancing existential woe with spiky humor, some hope and even glimmers of Zen-like self-realization."
That same year, E released I Am the Messiah as MC Honky, a guise for his "self-help rock" alter ego, who was purportedly a bit more cheery than E himself.
He also embarked on writing for film. His work was featured in soundtracks for animated films including Shrek and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, as well as American Beauty. His first complete score was created for the film Levity.
E was also on his own after DreamWorks was sold to Universal. The shakeup resolved with eels being signed to Vagrant, another Universal-owned label, in 2004.
For years, E was quiet about one particular project. He wrote and saved songs for several years for an ambitious concept album, planned as a double album. "I did a little research in my defense and found that some of the best-selling albums of all time were double albums," he said in an interview with Tom Lanham, writing in Magnet.
Vagrant was prepared. The label had already released a Paul Westerburg double package. Rich Egan, the label president and co-owner, told Lanham he "thought it was really important to present the eels record as a whole, because it's such a journey."
The critical response to Blinking Lights and Other Revelations was decidedly polarized. Ty Burr of The Boston Globe found it to be "a staggeringly ambitious project, the kind people don't make anymore, but it's as intimate as a whispered confidence. And it only took E seven years to complete."
Burr, reviewing the project in Entertainment Weekly, raved that "Mark Oliver Everett finally delivers the absolutely stone masterpiece fans have always known lurked inside his dour heart. Blinking Lights is ambitious as hell---a two-CD, cradle-to-grave journey."
Mark Jenkins, writing in the Washington Post, said Everett deserved "credit for defying the zeitgeist" for making "an album that rejects the iPod-ification of contemporary music." Jenkins found Blinking Lights to have only "a half-dozen fully realized numbers, but also several inessential interludes and a surfeit of unadorned laments that are just too dire for repeated exposure."
As Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Cromelin said of the songwriter: "E refuses to codify emotional reality into a convenient package. His determination to capture life's complex, ambiguous, paradoxical contours is what makes his songs so true and touching."
by Laura Hightower and Linda Dailey Paulson
Group formed in Los Angeles, CA, 1995; signed with DreamWorks Records, released Beautiful Freak, 1996; released Electro-Shock Blues, 1998; released Daisies of the Galaxy, 2000; Souljacker released, 2002; Shootenanny! released, 2003; signed with Vagrant after DreamWorks sold to Universal, 2004; double album Blinking Lights and Other Revelations released by Vagrant, 2005.
- Selected discography
- Beautiful Freak DreamWorks, 1996.
- (Contributor) Scream 2 (soundtrack), Capitol, 1997.
- Electro-Shock Blues DreamWorks, 1998.
- Daisies of the Galaxy DreamWorks, 2000.
- Souljacker DreamWorks, 2002.
- Shootenanny! DreamWorks, 2003.
- Blinking Lights and Other Revelations Vagrant, 2005.
- With Strings: Live at Town Hall (live), Vagrant, 2006.
- Buckley, Jonathan, and Mark Ellington, editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
- Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 18, 1997.
- Boston Globe, June 26, 2005.
- Boston Herald, June 27, 2005.
- CMJ, January 11, 1999, p. 5.
- Entertainment Weekly, April 29, 2005.
- Hollywood Reporter, December 4, 2001; April 10, 2003; June 19, 2003.
- Los Angeles Times, February 5, 2000; March 16, 2000; April 30, 2000; May 14, 2005.
- Magnet, July-August 2005.
- Melody Maker, February 16-22, 2000, p. 46.
- New Musical Express, February 19, 2000.
- Q, December 1996, p. 147.
- Rolling Stone, April 27, 2000; May 25, 2000; June 12, 2003.
- Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland), May 15, 2005.
- Time, March 25, 2002.
- Washington Post, June 24, 2005.
- Additional material for this profile was obtained from an interview on National Public Radio's (NPR) Weekend Edition, August 31, 2003.
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