San Francisco Giant: Singer-guitarist Mark Eitzel reflects on his storied career
A “military brat” who moved around a lot and ended up playing punk rock in England in the late ’70s, singer-guitarist Mark Eitzel moved from city to city before settling in San Francisco shortly after graduating from Ohio State University. There, he formed American Music Club, an alt-rock outfit with a shoe-gazer streak of sorts. The band had a great run until imploding in the early ’90s. (The group reunited in 2003, but is currently inactive.) Eiztel’s solo career has been critically acclaimed and his new album, Don’t Be a Stranger, features evocative vocals and wry lyrics. He’s accompanied by a pianist on this particular tour. We spoke to Eitzel for a weekly paper, but the rest of our conversation appears below.
You have put together a pretty good band you’ve called the Warm Gentle Rain. Did you decide on that name or was that something they picked?
It suggests tropical climes and golden showers and wonderful, wonderful things, but it’s turned into the Drip. I couldn’t get the drummer because his wife refused to let him go that long and the guitar player didn’t want to do it because he had to work. I only have a pianist. This piano player is great and I need to find a bowtie somewhere so I can look like I have some class and be charming.
Talk a bit about the videos you posted featuring some of your “friends” giving you advice on the songs on the new album?
It was my boyfriend’s idea. He shoots reality TV. Right now, he’s doing Life with LaToya. He says it’s kind of great. I thought I could shoot a video and I could be in a dramatic environment. For me, that would be a mountaintop or swimming pool or a bar where bad choices are always made. I could do that and sing the song intently to the camera and try to give head through the camera. But that doesn’t work. [My boyfriend] had this idea and I liked it. Fuck the music video.
Acting coach Drew Droege had some really unique ideas. Did you take his concept for the “secret track” seriously for a single minute?
I had already done it and he doesn’t know. He’s never heard my music. I’ve done that before. It’s a really bad idea.
Have you caught any flack for dissing Katy Perry in that interview?
Oh no. How would I? I am so below her radar. My God!
How offended were you when DJ Foodcourt only listened to the first couple of seconds of your song before passing judgment?
He’s an old friend of mine. I’ll be honest with you. He’s a wonderful man. No, I wasn’t offended. That was the idea. He’s the most powerful DJ in San Francisco and here I am bringing him my song. We had to cut it out but he said this great thing. He said, “When you sing soft, doesn’t it sound like a child molester trying to pick up a little boy?” We rolled around the floor laughing. We couldn’t use it because he was breathing too heavy into the microphone and it was too much. He’s more of a rock star in San Francisco than I will ever be in my life.
How’d you end up in England in 1977?
I was in high school and I’m a military brat. When I was a kid there I didn’t have a band. I was just playing acoustic guitar and once I opened up for a band but that was about it. When I went to Ohio State, we put together [the indie rock act] the Cowboys and toured around.
How’d you end up in San Francisco?
The Cowboys broke up and I was in a band where one singer wanted to be in the Raincoats and I wanted to be in Joy Division. We did this awful post punk band with lots of reverb on the guitar. It was good. I know the Naked Skinnys was a terrible name. When the band split, I could have gone to San Francisco or New York. I thought I would go to San Francisco because it would be fresh and West Coast. I should have gone to New York.
I hated fuckin’ hardcore. I found it to be racist and homophobic and just kind of evil.
Did you put together American Music Club right after that?
Yeah. This was like 1981 and even though punk was long dead in America, hardcore was huge here. I hated fuckin’ hardcore. I found it to be racist and homophobic and just kind of evil. English punk was so embracing of everything and this seemed like stupid fashion. I decided to do folk shit and did the new wave folk thing at the [San Francisco coffeeshop] Tattoo Rose Café and put together American Music Club with a stand up bass player and a keyboard player. We were great.
What brought it to an end?
Money. We just made all the mistakes we thought we weren’t going to make and at the end, we just imploded when we lost our pedal steel player. That guy had his head screwed on and the rest of us didn’t. You had to have somebody like that. When we lost him, it was kind of done. And then there was all this money owed. It was sad.
Are you happy doing solo stuff or would you want a permanent band?
Oh dude, if I could afford it. When you’re old, your friends have jobs and kids. The money is less. In Europe, I got a band and on the West Coast I had a tuba player and drummer. We’re going to try to turn things up loud. I would love to have a band and somehow through hook or crook, I should have had a plan B in an investment in corporations or something.
And yet you’re still putting out records.
I still like writing songs. Everyone told me to quit while I was ahead but I didn’t.
Nov 23 Chicago, IL
Nov 24 Columbus, OH
Nov 25 Cincinnati, OH
Nov 26 Cleveland, OH
Nov 28 Toronto, ON
Nov 29 Buffalo, NY
Nov 30 Northampton, MA
Dec 1 Somerville, MA
Dec 3 New York, NY
Dec 4 Washington, DC
Dec 5 Baltimore, MD
Dec 6 Philadelphia, PA
Dec 8 Raleigh, NC King’s
Ace of Cups
Ninth Ward Arts
Iron Horse Music Hall
Black Cat Backstage
Golden West Cafe
North Star Bar