HELLENIC RHYTHMOLOGY & WESTERN SONGWRITING - AN INTERVIEW WITH MARK EITZEL
"Each time we would have to work our way through, as there was no model for this production, no similar example from the past. It may sound strange but this is a firstborn musical style -- even for Greek standards!"
Peter Wild interviews Mark Eitzel, multi-instrumentalist Manolis Famellos and Theodore Vlassopulos
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Peter Wild interviewed Mark Eitzel, multi-instrumentalist Manolis Famellos and Tongue Master Records main man Theodore Vlassopulos about The Ugly American -- already dubbed by critics Eitzel's "Greek album."
In the first instance, you listen the way you'd lift the lid on a box you suspect contained explosive. You don't really know what to expect but, in the abstract, you assume it will be horrible without really knowing why. Theo Vlassopulos, the man behind Tongue Master records, the company responsible for releasing The Ugly American, has a theory. "If Mark announced he was off to Iceland to record an electronica album in which classic American Music Club songs were reinterpreted by, say, Sigur Ros -- it would be acceptable. The problem people have, before they even hear the record, arises from the popular conception of Greek music." Whether it's Demis Roussos warbling "Forever and Ever", Renee and Renata belting out "Save Your Love" or simply the background titter of traditional Greek folk (traditionally heard traditionally emerging from traditional speakers in a traditional Greek taverna as you munch souvlakia and chug retsina) -- the general perception is that Greek musicians have little of interest to contribute and, more importantly, they are not cool. Mark Eitzel is recording in Iceland -- cool; Mark Eitzel is recording in Greece -- not cool.
So, like I say, in the first instance you listen the way you'd lift the lid on a box you suspect contained explosives.
First track "Western Sky" is almost over before you realise you are listening to "Western Sky". This is one of American Music Club's finest hours and yet, here, it's unrecognisable: the lyrical intonations have all changed, the effect is susurrus, vaguely intoxicating -- you catch stray lyrics and your head attempts to make sense of the nagging familiarity but, already, you're wrong-footed, playing catch-up. "Here They Roll Down" is next, from AMC's United Kingdom: the Bucium erupts from the speaker, a wailing, caterwauling horn -- an incredible sound -- as Mark sings "Here they roll down, like a miracle that's over . . .". It's a defiant, raging howl of a song, the real soundtrack to a skirmish -- and quite unlike anything Eitzel has recorded in his entire career. "Jenny" appears next, a calmer palimpsest of the original cut from California. As with "Jenny" so with "Nightwatchman" (taken from AMC's Engine) and "Take Courage" (lifted from the classic 97 solo album Songs of Love) -- here are songs we know, songs that we have loved, given a dawn glimmer (the music newly imbues the fragile melancholy of Eitzel's voice and lyrics with a real glass-is-half-full hopefulness -- the effect is at times overwhelming). You have to start over and listen again. You relax. This is okay. Hey, this is better than okay. This is good. This is very good. "This was the best chance to put out a greatest hits record," Mark tells me. What he's saying is: this is the closest Mark Eitzel would ever want to be to a greatest hits record. The Ugly American is a nod to the past for Eitzel, and a potential introduction for those unfamiliar with the genius that is American Music Club. Theo agrees: "A lot of the American Music Club records are incredibly hard to find these days which is a terrific shame. I hope through this record people come to Eitzel for the first time and then go back, get the solo albums, get the American Music Club albums. There are treasures out there to be found."
I asked Mark how the project got off the ground: "Theodore from the label suggested the project many years ago -- and found the Greek label who found a Greek pop star Manolis Famellos to produce it." Theo continued: "Originally, The Ugly American was to be an EP. Four, maybe five songs. It wasn't until Mark arrived in Greece that the project developed as it did." Mark explained: "It was actually a nice surprise that all the musicians assembled were able to play (the older American Music Club songs) so easily." There is a style of music, Theo informed me, called rembetico -- "the style known to people all over the world -- very heavy, drug-fuelled music about love and separation: I thought Mark's songs would be rearranged in this way but Famellos was clever -- he drew up on a broad range of musical arrangements, which worried me until I heard the results. The results were far better than I could have imagined."
Though Eitzel regards the record as being more akin to West (his album with REM's Peter Buck) -- saying "I really see it as a collaboration between myself and the musicians. I know virtually nothing about traditional Greek music -- let alone playing these songs in odd time signatures. Honestly unless I can have a hand in the production and the mixing it really is not 'my' record" -- he still had a hand in the selection of the songs chosen: "Manolis had a bunch of songs that I mixed because 1) I couldn't remember how to play them and 2) I wanted to do the more 'popular' AMC songs."
"Working as a producer," Famellos told me, "is another way of sharing ideas and experiences. I looked for songs that contained a bit of me and tried to put that into my own words." The greatest challenge was presented by what Famellos calls "the mixing (of) Hellenic Rhythmology with Western songwriting." He explained: "In Greece, the rhythm shapes the song. A song has to flow, somehow. You just know when it does. Luckily, we came up with four songs in the beginning quite easily, but there is no recipe or arrangement good enough for all. Each time we would have to work our way through, as there was no model for this production, no similar example from the past. It may sound strange but this is a firstborn musical style -- even for Greek standards!"
I asked Mark if it was strange revisiting AMC songs in a strange locale. "I've been revisiting AMC songs in strange locales for years." Having recently returned from a Latin American tour 'curated' by John McIntire of Tortoise only serves to confirm this. I mentioned that both Theo and Manolis raised the idea of shows and Mark isn't sure. "I really don't know how it is going to work out," he said. "It takes a bunch of money to move bands in different places -- and whether I go to Greece to rehearse, or whether they come to London to play and tour -- well I just don't know. I'm waiting for them to tell me." If there are to be shows, they will be taking place later in the year; Mark is focusing on the next record right now, which he wants done before May. "I have a band here in Chicago -- bass, drums, vibes -- it'll be an odd record with a bunch of songs and a few instrumentals that I've been doing on my computer."
In the meantime, we've got The Ugly American to content ourselves with -- the most obscure greatest hits album in the world ever . . .
Mark Eitzel's The Ugly American is out now on Tongue Master Records.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Peter Wild lives and works in Manchester, England. He's the co-founder of the Bookmunch website, which takes up a whole lot of time, but when he gets a moment free he's writing short stories and a(nother) novel. Either that, or he's catching up on the sleep his 20-month-old daughter deprives him of.