Mark Eitzel has made a career out of being miserable. As the singer/songwriter for American Music Club, he established himself as a songwriter of prodigious talent, but one for whom sadness was inescapable, inextricably woven into every chord of the band’s music and every line of his lyrics. After seven albums with American Music Club, Eitzel announced the dissolution of the band in 1994. His first post-AMC solo effort was last year’s “60 Watt Silver Lining,” an album that was darker, slower and jazzier than his work with AMC. He’s currently on tour promoting his new album, “West,” which was produced and co-written by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. The two worked at a stunning pace, writing 11 songs in three days. But it’s unmistakably an Eitzel record — perhaps his bleakest yet — with Buck’s influence subdued at best. There’s very little respite from the downward spiral of the songs, which bring to mind the songwriting skill and emotional weightiness of Leonard Cohen and the ever-dour, occasionally tongue-in-cheek outlook of Morrissey. Salon spoke with Eitzel during a sound check at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, where he was kicking off his national tour with Tuatara, another Buck side project that includes members of Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees, the Young Fresh Fellows and Los Lobos.
If I remember correctly, it wasn’t too long ago that you said that you’d never want to work with a band again. Now you’re part of some sort of alt-rock supergroup. What happened?
I guess when I said that, I meant that I didn’t want to be in a band that was a complete democracy all the time. I was married to those guys (in American Music Club) for 15 years, so I guess I didn’t want to be in that marriage anymore. But I have no problem being in bands. I love collaborating. It’s just a matter of getting the right person to collaborate with. Anyway, this whole tour is not about me; it’s about Tuatara and the Minus 5, and I’m just the asshole that gets onstage and brings everybody down.
Your live shows are extraordinary for how much emotion you put into each song — as if the emotions or people or whatever inspired them are still there. Do you ever find that some songs are difficult to play, that there’s too much “there” there?
It’s only when I can’t bring myself to feel them that they’re difficult. I guess I don’t have a problem with playing things live. I guess sometimes, if the crowd is no good, or the moment is kind of stupid, you feel like a fool, like you’re pissing in the wind. Otherwise no, I’m shameless. I try to perform the way I write songs, without irony, without reflecting my own cynicism too much, you know? You just do what the song asks for you to do. The song makes a demand on you, and you try to fulfill it.
You have sort of a “no request” policy, right?
Right, I mean, I like it when they do, it’s flattering … but especially tonight (in San Francisco) is going to be weird, because I’m not playing any American Music Club songs at all. I feel kind of weird about another band playing those songs.
The album you’ve made is pretty bleak.
The world is bleak.
Sure, but do you ever find yourself emboldened by progress in the world? I mean, for instance, being a gay man in San Francisco, with the progress in AIDS treatment …
Yeah, well, let’s look at that. Sure, there are some new drugs, and some of them work, for a little while. But they’re so expensive that it you have any money at all you’ll be bankrupt. Where people really have AIDS, in Africa, they’re so far away from being able to afford the drugs that they’ll never get their hands on them. I don’t know if that’s good news. I mean, it’s still there, it’s still a nasty disease. There’s still discrimination against gays and lesbians, all over the place. It’s not changed.
So external events never have an effect on your songwriting?
When I write songs, I write songs about love. That’s it. I mean, politics is like something you have to wipe after, then you flush.
After three years working solo, is it everything you’d hoped it would be?
I’m loving it. I’ll make music any way I can.