Eels: I do see a correlation between Kanye West and John Lennon

Eels: I do see a correlation between Kanye West and John Lennon
Photo by Parker Fitzgerald

In Gimme Songs, musician Mark Mallman talks songwriting with his peers and heroes. This week, a conversation with Eels frontman E before Sunday's show at the Fitzgerald Theater.

Deep into the catalog of his exquisitely weird band, the man called 'E' has delivered one of the best albums of his career. Smart without getting heady, wise without getting preachy, The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett is about as gourmet as rock music gets. I talked with E, of Eels, about being bold in songwriting by employing the use of raw honesty.

Mark Mallman: I have a friend who is a writer of novels. Once she told me, "Write what makes you most uncomfortable, because it will be your most honest writing."

E: If it's not making you uncomfortable then maybe you haven't gone far enough. That's the most uncomfortable kind of writing of all because you're really exposing yourself. Maybe about half of the time when I write, I'm really writing in a character voice and it's not really autobiographical. Then the other half, in this occasion, is quite autobiographical.

Does it still make you uncomfortable to sing these songs once they are created? Does that fade as you perform them over time?

It's a really difficult thing, when you write one of these songs, to even go into the studio with the guys in the band and have to sing it in front of them the first time. That's embarrassing enough. Then you turn it up several hundred or a thousand notches by getting on a stage and doing it. It seems kind of insane on paper, but when it works, it can be this really great feeling.

Writing a confessional of truth while alone in a room is one thing, but singing a song of ultimate exposure in front of an audience is a whole new kind scary.

There's a certain amount of bravery that has to be involved to stand up in front of a room full of strangers and really expose yourself like that. There's a lot of dark songs on this record, but it's all in the name of getting to a brighter place. You gotta dig through the dirt to make a nice garden. I'm trying to build a foundation to stand on. Hitting rock bottom is the beginning of the climb up the ladder to the top. There's no catharsis in me just venting.

There's a Cure song that I absolutely love, but I've always wondered if Robert Smith if he's just venting like that. It's called "The Kiss," and he sings, "Get your fucking voice out of my head. I wish you were dead. Dead. Dead. Dead." Is he taking his catharsis too far?

You know, I don't really know that song, so I can't comment on it out of context. But I would say that the line that you just quoted is pretty brave writing.

Good point, thanks. I feel like the most brave writing that has come out in the last few years is Kanye West's Yeezus album. It's like John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album for the 21st century.

I actually do see a correlation between Kanye and John Lennon. One thing that I think bugs some people about Kanye West is that he says a lot of outrageous crazy stuff. But that's what I love about him. He doesn't care if it sounds crazy or not, and John Lennon was the same way. Read the interviews Lennon did in 1970. He was saying all this outrageous, crazy stuff too. That's also what I like about Kanye's music. He's just telling it like he sees it. Sometimes it's hard for everyone to relate to it, when he's like, "Where's my damn croissant!?"

I love that part.

I love that line too. That's something that a lot of people can't relate to, but he can. So you know it's honest.


Like that cliché, "The shocking truth." It's interesting that the truth should be shocking. Singing about a croissant defies preconceived notions of what rap music should be, but it's his personal authenticity. That's what we are all seeking in art, authenticity. As Lennon sang, "Just gimme some truth."

With that level of creative genius, "It comes with the dinner," they say. Kanye has no filter and he says what he thinks. I admire people that are willing to risk that kind of failure.

You sing lyrics like, "Every day I live in regret and pain," or "The world has no use for my kind," on Cautionary Tales. That's risky in the very same way.

No matter who you are, Kanye included, we all are human and we all have the same human problems. When I sing, "Every day I live in regret and pain," it's true -- in regard to that experience. "Kindred Spirit," it's still a painful situation for me. It's some dark shit. I've also felt uncomfortable about a song like "Gentleman's Choice," but it needed to be said.

Honesty, though it can be very bold and raw, can also be ill fitting when put to music. What is an exercise that a songwriter might use to speak on truth in a poetic way?

I don't know. The only thing I'm conscious of is trying to get to the truth beneath the truth. It's a really unconscious thing. I keep peeling the layers of the onion till I feel I can't go any further.

Do you think story songs have an element of truth? When something goes so far into fiction, like Ziggy Stardust, it allows the writer to bypass the ego. Maybe by telling stories we can speak deeper truths that were hard to say straight out.

It doesn't matter what genre anything is. Any song, or story, or movie, or book. What matters is how it's told.

Is there a parallel album to Cautionary Tales out there? If there were, what would that be?

I hope not. I don't ever want to put anything out like this again. This has been to hard on me. I don't know why I put myself through this.

Well, I think it relieves us when we know that someone else is feeling these dark things too. It's stuff that we all go through but never talk about. It's human stuff. That said, if you were to caution a songwriter of what not to do when writing an Eels song, what would it be?

The only rule I have is, if I don't think a finished song has something to offer the world, then I don't bother to put it out. There isn't really any specific way to not write an Eels song. That's part of the fun of it. It's a wide open book. Anything goes.

The Eels' The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett is out now. It can also be streamed in it's entirety on Soundcloud . I recommend you go do this right now. The Eels play the Fitzgerald Theater on Sunday, May 25. Tickets.

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