"You can’t almost die from a heart attack and not be optimistic," admits Mark Eitzel about his near- death experience two years ago.
The American Music Club frontman was pottering around his San Francisco home when suddenly he felt like “an elephant was sitting on my chest”. The only one of his friends that ever answers the phone swiftly drove him to hospital, saving Eitzel’s life.
The self-deprecating 53-year-old has emerged from the incident with possibly his finest solo album, Don’t Be a Stranger, a record that is typically introspective, but also a teensy bit hopeful. A remarkable thing for a lyricist habitually labelled as “morose”, “wounded” and “bleak”.
In a patchy interview he gave in 1988, which can be viewed on YouTube, an awkward Eitzel maintains he’s an “inconsistent fool”, that his band American Music Club are “destined to fall through the cracks” and that he is “on the side of the wimp not the rock star”. He winces at all these comments now, claiming that whoever put that conversation on the internet did it “with hate”, adding “who wants to see your asshole, twenty-something self for hours on the web.”
“I turned up to the interview drunk and I went on and on and on with this ego-driven claptrap,” he claims. “I tried to paint my own mythology, which was a stupid mythology instead of just shutting up and being a serious artist.”
Twenty-five years on a wiser, hairier Eitzel, he looks like a blend of My Name Is Earl’s Jason Lee and Karl Pilkington, is friendly, droll if a little anxious company when we meet in a coffee shop on the Holloway Road, around the corner from his rehearsal rooms. The next day he embarks on a European tour with his band Mark Eitzel’s Warm Gentle Rain in a hired mini-van, and I’m treated to two hours of intense (Eitzel is a harder task master than you imagine) rehearsal.
The quartet play highlights from Stranger, including the soulful torch song “Oh Mercy”, the acidic “Costume Character Face Dangers in the Workplace” (about costumed characters at Disneyland getting “beat up”) and the standout track “I Love You But You’re Dead”, with the typically arch lyric “Now tonight, I wanna disappear/ So wish me godspeed/ For a membership of the human race I’d give up.” He specialises in bittersweet vignettes about damaged characters and his plaintive voice is reminiscent of Richard Harley, Ben Folds Five and Rufus Wainwright.
The new material stands up well against his work for American Music Club, pioneers of today’s alt country scene, authors of the sensational “Johnny Mathis’s Feet” (in a sane, just world this would have been a huge hit) and an act right up there when it comes to the litany of underappreciated American “rock” bands. AMC’s California (1988) and Everclear (1991) are regularly described as five-star masterpieces, but grunge arrived and Eitzel’s band tried, in vain, to incorporate that sound on 1993’s Mercury.
“We never really settled on what kind of music we were going to play,” he confesses. “I just thought let’s try and pay back our record company because they’ve treated us really well. Let’s try and make a hit record, but of course that failed.”
The critics have always heaped praise on Eitzel: Rolling Stone voted him “songwriter of the year” in 1991, he’s been hailed as “The American Morrissey” and The Guardian called him “America’s greatest living lyricist”. However, commercial success never followed and a mellower, post-heart attack Eitzel blames himself entirely and doesn’t begrudge similar artists such as Rufus Wainwright for [sort of] pilfering his success.
“No, I pilfered my success,” he insists. “I was too weird. When I criticise someone say like the Rolling Stones for being true to their own brand, actually a lot of that goes a long way.”
“No one pilfered my success, no one does that,” he emphasises. “The competition is only with yourself.”
Eitzel was an army brat brought up in the States, Taiwan and, for his teenage years, Southampton when he was “very sweet and shy, but so terrified of the world”. His father was a Marine surveyor (“He helped cocoon ships so that we could sell them to our friends in Iraq”) and his mother an English teacher. Eitzel moved back to America aged 19, settling in San Francisco and forming American Music Club in 1983. In 1985, he came out as gay in a magazine interview.
“I didn’t get a good reaction,” he says. “The record company wasn’t happy and they wanted to put out that I was bi, not gay. It was the Eighties and a completely different world. In the rock’n’roll world, even, in San Francisco, it was not really acceptable to come out. Twenty years on, it’s completely changed, thank goodness.”
Jodie Foster came out at the Golden Globes a couple of days before we meet, what did Eitzel think of her acceptance speech?
“It was universally hated by people I know,” he says. “But I thought it was moving when she was talking to her [dead] mother because coming out is really about you and your family. You’re married to your family and it’s where love comes from. My parents had died before I came out because it would have killed them. My mum died with a rosary in her hand...”
Eitzel is happy with long-term boyfriend whom he met on a TV show (“It’s a typical how I met my boyfriend story by an old queer,” he jokes). He has also benefited from a pal winning the lottery and offering to fund his recording sessions, which were produced by the celebrated Sheldon Gomberg, and he’s working on a second musical (his first, Marine Parade, starred Doctor Who’s Arthur Darvill) with the award-winning playwright Simon Stephens. Things appear to be on the up but he’s still determinedly discontented, most notably about his lack of success.
“Of course I secretly hanker for Bruce Springsteen’s level of success, are you kidding?” he admits. “Gosh, if I could actually play a show and have people not talk through the show and not have to deal with smelling the toilet from the stage. But I don’t know how I’ll achieve it, now that I’m old and over.”
That’s a typically harsh self-assessment from Eitzel, but he’s very defensive of his stage performances, which are sometimes shambolic (his sound man at one festival threw a table at him and walked out because Eitzel was so sozzled) but always riveting.
“There’s a lot of songwriters who play quietly and look at the floor and they become huge stars,” he says. “I always try to put on a show at my own expense, instead of commanding any kind of seriousness. People call me class clown so much and it’s kind of true. At the same time, though, you want to put everything you have into every moment on stage and not everyone does.”
“But I always wanted to and that’s what I always needed to do,” he adds. “You rely on magic and luck to get you through and I’ve been so lucky, but I’ve also been a complete fool. It’s the way I had to do it.”
Mark Eitzel begins a UK tour on 19 February at Bush Hall, London W12 (www.bushhallmusic.co.uk). 'Don't Be a Stranger' is out now