If you go on a tour of Los Angeles with Mark Everett of Eels - known to friends as E since childhood - don't expect to follow the usual tourist trail of celebrity driveways and glossy film studios. "You see over there?" he says, gesturing out of the window of his car toward a faux-medieval hotel. "That's the Château Marmont, that's where John Belushi died. Speedballs, I think it was." Among his other favourite monuments, I discover, is the Highland Gardens hotel, formerly known as The Landmark, where Janis Joplin expired after a heroin overdose, and the terracotta-tiled house where Orson Welles took his last breath.
Given the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist's history, a death tour would seem an appropriate way to spend the afternoon. By his own admission, E is on nodding terms with the Grim Reaper after a series of tragedies that, one by one, have claimed the lives of his family. With his mother, father and sister already dead, the most recent twist of fate came with the demise of his cousin and her husband in 2001. They were on the hijacked aeroplane that crashed into the Pentagon.
We meet in a Mexican restaurant in the Los Feliz neighbourhood, where E lives. Blithely describing himself as "a reclusive kook who dislikes other people and never leaves the house", he notes that this is a rare day out for him. When I remark that being in a rock band is an odd occupation for one so intolerant of fellow human beings, he replies: "Believe me, if I didn't need other people to play instruments and shift equipment, I wouldn't have them around."
His band Eels is essentially a one-man operation with "whoever else is along for the ride. I wanted a situation where I could evolve and change and follow my whims. I really like it that way, as it's kept my life really interesting." E has made five albums under the Eels moniker (he also puts out occasional records under the name MC Honky). The first, 1996's Beautiful Freak, which contained the hit "Novocaine for the Soul", was an eccentric portrait of everyday dysfunction, afforded kooky textures with plinky-plonk keyboards, bass, horns and E's throaty vocals.
While his second record, Electro-Shock Blues, had a similarly eclectic sound, the lyrics took a decidedly dark turn. They were songs born out of unimaginable sorrow, from "Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor", the opening epitaph to his sister who committed suicide in 1996, to "Dead of Winter," a song chronicling his mother's losing battle with cancer ("So I know you're going pretty soon/ Radiation sore throat got your tongue"). Allusions to his father, who died of a heart attack in 1982, were also present.
Similarly sombre themes permeated 2000's Daisies of the Galaxy. In "Packing Blankets" he described the experience of packing up his dead family's house, while in "Selective Memories" he mourned the fading of mental snapshots of his mother.
Despite the melancholy undercurrent in his music, E has always taken a disarmingly flippant attitude to his misfortune. Perhaps surprisingly, he's cheery company and his conversation is peppered with jokes at his own expense. "Well, to have humour in the face of all that stuff is very important," he shrugs. "You could easily be beaten down by it and be a depressing mess. In fact, it's a constant battle not to succumb to that depression. That's why you develop a sense of humour in the first place. And besides, I grew up in a family where sarcasm was the only way people talked to each other. I find it oddly comforting."
His forthcoming album, Shootenanny, (a made-up word that loosely alludes to American gun culture) is a characteristic mix of the upbeat with the unassailably bleak. Much of it explores notions of the outsider. "Restraining Order Blues" is told from the perspective of a stalker ("Everybody knows that I'm not a violent man/ Just someone who knows he's in love"), while "Love of the Loveless" is about struggling to find kinship with the rest of the human race.
As always, death is never far away. "Numbered Days" finds E mindful of his own mortality. "I guess when people die the feelings that come with it never leave you," he explains. "You don't just move on. And in my case it just keeps knocking on my door, what with my cousins hitting the Pentagon. Really, there aren't many people left that I know that could die at this point." Yet he maintains that he doesn't need trauma to sustain his creative output. "I don't think that's all that my music's about. I'm not interested in painting one side of the picture, I'm interested in presenting the whole of life as I see it. People are always going to tag me as the guy who writes depressing songs, but they forget about songs such as "Daisy Through Concrete", which, even if I say so myself, is pure joy. I think that part is really important. Even in the sadder songs there's a lust for life; at least there is to me."
Growing up in Virginia, E began his career as a drummer at the age of six after receiving a standing ovation for his "Keith Moon version" of "The Star-Spangled Banner", although he put off embarking on a full-time career until his twenties. After a couple of false starts as a solo act, he formed Eels and eventually signed a deal with David Geffen and Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks label.
"Music's been the only choice for me, as I've been obsessed with writing songs since I was very young," he recalls. "It's still all I ever do. I never take a vacation. The one thing that keeps me going is the desire make a masterpiece. Whether that'll ever happen, who knows?"
Several years ago, while reading The Washington Post, E discovered that his 2000 album Daisies of the Galaxy was at the centre of a battle between George W Bush and Al Gore over censorship of Hollywood. Gore was trying to schmooze Hollywood at a $4.2m fundraising dinner, sponsored by DreamWorks, a week after he made a speech suggesting he would bring in new laws to regulate the film and music industries. Naturally, Republicans wasted no time in pointing out Gore's hypocrisy.
"Bush was claiming that he wasn't scared of reining in Hollywood and singled out Daisies of the Galaxy as an example of all that was wrong with the music industry. It had a song on it called 'It's a Motherfucker', and came with this story-book cover. He decided it was clearly marketed at small children. At the time our manager tried to brush the whole thing under the carpet, saying it was negative publicity, but I thought it was the greatest thing that ever happened to us."
While E basked in the brief notoriety afforded by the would-be president, he says that politics is something he won't be tackling in his songs. "If there's one thing I'm not interested in, it's writing about politics. I'm more interested in the politics of the backyard, of your own life, and the little picture. When people write great songs about everyday things, that's when you can really affect people. Singing about the President and the war - whatever your intentions are, it's not going to change anything."
Asked if he really believes he can change things with his music, he replies: "Yes, I really do. In my own small way I think I have something to contribute to the world. I've got enough letters, especially after the Electro-Shock Blues album, to believe that I have helped people. That's not why I do it, but it's a great bonus of the job."
'Shootenanny' is released on 3 June on DreamWorks records. Eels begin their UK tour at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (020-7960 4242) on 2 July (details available at www.eelstheband.com/tourdates)Reuse content