The former American Music Club frontman talks new album and returning to his Ohio State stomping grounds
Back in the late '70s, before his decade-spanning tenure fronting the cult-favorite mope-rock act American Music Club, Mark Eitzel came to Columbus to attend Ohio State University. His introduction to the local music scene came via an early performance by Ron House, the frontman of Great Plains and Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments.
“He was playing the student union, and it was just screaming and out-of-tune guitar and a drum machine,” Eitzel said recently by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I was like, ‘Yeah, that's good. That's just enough for me.' I love Ron House. He was always friendly to me — even when he mocked me when he worked at the record store and I would come in and desperately look for anything by Joy Division.”
That Joy Division influence is apparent on a 1981 7-inch that House helped put out by the Naked Skinnies, the pre-American Music Club band Eitzel formed with Greg Bonnell (Moviola), Nancy Kangas and John Hricko. At the time, Eitzel also contributed to Tim Anstaett's influential fanzine The Offense, writing under the pen name Billie Lee Buckeye. He dabbled in the punk-rock scene, too, taking in the 1979 incarnation of Nowhere fest, organized annually by local punk Michael Ravage of Screaming Urge. (Eitzel also briefly fronted his own punk-rock band, the Cowboys, before the Naked Skinnies.)
Eitzel moved to San Francisco before graduating from Ohio State and soon after dissolved the Naked Skinnies, eventually forming his best-known band, American Music Club. Ever since the dissolution of AMC (which briefly reunited and released The Golden Age in 2008), Eitzel, 58, has pursued a solo career, and in January he released his latest album, Hey Mr Ferryman, on Merge Records. Fresh off a full-band European tour, Eitzel will return to Columbus alongside his keyboard player, Patrick Main, to co-headline a show with Howe Gelb at Rumba Cafe on Saturday, April 1.
Hey Mr Ferryman reveals a songwriter who has only become more trenchant over time. A recent trip to Columbus to visit family inspired Ferryman track “In My Role as Professional Singer and Ham,” in which Eitzel speaks to a carpenter with “mouth full of gravy and turkey and truth” who “only hears you when you say amen.”
“There was somebody at the table that I sat next to, and of course I always sit next to the arch Republican,” said Eitzel, whose social media presence is a steady stream of President Trump critiques. “They're like, ‘Oh, a gay, liberal San Franciscan. Let me just tell you how the world really is.' … So that's how it started. But I'm really not political, personally. I can rant endlessly like any middle-aged man can. But when push comes to shove, I'm really into writing love songs.”
Even Eitzel's love songs have an undercurrent of melancholy, but on Hey Mr Ferryman, he tried to stay more positive. “There's enough darkness out there,” he said. “It's great to be dark when the world is light and airy and one is young and beautiful. That's the best time to write the most suicidal songs.”
Part of the album's lighter tone came from producer and former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, who made the album with Eitzel in 10 days and played all the electric guitar, bass and keyboard on the record. “It was a leap of faith. I had no idea if it would work out or not,” Eitzel said of working with Butler. “I haven't listened to Suede in about 20 years, but I thought, he's into pop music. That's good. I'd rather do pop music than do what I normally do. ... Let's Steely Dan it up.”
The year before Eitzel released his 2012 album, Don't Be a Stranger, he survived a heart attack, and while the health scare made him feel newly mortal, he also said the incident didn't completely transform him.
“I woke up the same asshole I was before,” he said. “I'm still squandering everything good about this world. But at the same time, I'm grateful. That was pretty much all I learned: You have to be thankful.”
While Eitzel is in no hurry to revisit the music he made in Columbus (good luck finding those Naked Skinnies or Cowboys singles) or his words in The Offense (“Oh, God. I hope you never find that,” he said), he looks back fondly on his time here.
“Columbus is a great place because it's not snotty,” he said. “People were so cool — and by cool I mean, they were interested, interesting and friendly. As opposed to interested, interesting and assholes.”
Photo by Mark Holthusen