2014's The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett was the fifth Eels album in five years, and the 11th since the 1996 indie rock landmark Beautiful Freak. It was also the first record to put Mr. E—he of the "Beautiful Blues"—front and center, his name and visage there for all to see. The resulting tour was an intimate, career-spanning affair that built to a monumental performance at London's Royal Albert Hall, captured in high-def detail on a new DVD and two-CD release available this week. To celebrate, E spoke with me about his fear of bumming out the audience, heavily reworking his songs over and over, and how he managed to tour an album about cancer and suicide. Our conversation spanned the seven—seven!—live releases the Eels have put out in the last 15 years.
Tell me about the hugs. The DVD ends the same way every show on the tour did—with you walking through the audience and hugging basically every single person you could.
I came up with the list of songs I wanted to play that year, last year, and when we started rehearsing it became apparent to me—"Oh my god, this is just, like, a bummer-fest. This is a lot of sad songs." So I started to slowly try to figure out a way to structure a show that would gradually lift the spirits of the audience, so that by the end of it you would leave happy, like you'd been through something really positive. And the thing that really made it work, I think, was the hugs. At the end of the proper set, I would say—and I really meant this, it was really heartfelt—"Thank you so much for your years of interest, I don't know what I would've done without it; gimme a hug!"
Touching idea, but maybe scary to pull off?
It was fascinating because every night was a different experience. And it was an extremely dangerous, stupid thing to do, and that's why it appealed to me. I don't advise any singers to actually do this, and I'll never do it again [laughs]. Most nights I wouldn't get very far before there would just be a pile of people on me. Some nights people would take advantage of me being in such a vulnerable position and grab my hair or something. I got into a couple fistfights, which was ironic, when I'm trying to thank the audience and hug them. There was actually one fistfight at Royal Albert Hall, it luckily didn't show up on camera [laughs].
I…I don't know. I mean, yeah, I do feel like I'm bumming people out, to some degree. [Cautionary Tales] in particular was just a hard album for me, and, to be honest, I kind of regret the whole thing. It just made me feel too vulnerable. It's over, but I wish I hadn't done it, to be honest with you. It was a traumatic experience. It was too…it was too naked. I feel like that's a good thing to do, it was just too hard for me, personally. But we're always trying to try something different, so we got to a point where I made this record of songs that was very personal and I wanted to be very open and upfront about it all. The whole thing made me incredibly uncomfortable, and then the tour was the same thing, where I was just like, "Oof, now I gotta sing these songs in front of people." The whole thing just felt so exposed. I was always conscious that it was a worthy endeavor; you're kinda making yourself a sacrificial lamb to some degree.
The style of every tour is so different. Does your comfort level vary depending on what type of show you've cooked up?
This tour was definitely a less comfortable, more on-edge tour. The previous tour, where we were in the tracksuits and rocking, that was one of the funnest tours, definitely one of the top two or three. And this one was kind of the opposite, it was just concentrate, concentrate, concentrate, because we were all stretching ourselves musically, doing things we don't normally do. We're trying to orchestrate and fill in for an orchestra that's not there. And it worked, and it was really satisfying, because it wasn't easy. It's a lot more fun for me to go out, grow a giant beard and hide my face and rock loud electric instruments. I'd much rather do that.
And now we take a spin through the Eels' complete live discography preceding Royal Albert Hall, with commentary by E.
2000: Oh What a Beautiful Morning
The record opens with this seven-minute instrumental overture that encompasses half of your first album.
That was one of the funnest things we ever did.
This was your first live release, too.
I think Oh What a Beautiful Morning and Electro-Shock Blues Show were just board mixes from the mixing board; we just got lucky, they just came out sounding really good and we just made 'em albums. That never seems to happen anymore. Now you have to go in and mix everything; it's a big, big, big, long process. And it's a hard thing to put yourself through when you've just done a show 70 times or whatever, and you've gotta go back and relive every song over and over again. It's kind of a unique form of torture. Every time I do it I say, "I can never do this again."
2002: Electro-Shock Blues Show
I'm down to hear anything you've got here. I gauge every live album against this one.
That was an unusual one in that we were a three-piece, and besides electric guitar, my main instrument was the organ. My mother died during the tour, and we missed a few shows. I was in Seattle and I had to fly back to Virginia. She died on my father's birthday, November 11 of '98.
While you're touring on a record that's all about her cancer and your sister's suicide. So how did the performance wind up sounding so electric?
Making the Electro-Shock Blues album, I have great memories of it. Because it was such an awful time in my life, that was the good part, that was my sanctuary, making these songs. I'm sure the tour was like that, too. It was such a stressful time in my life. Not just my mom dying—I had all sorts of other dramatic stuff going on. I was in a real pressure cooker, so it probably felt so nice to just spend a couple hours rockin', you know?
You've got the holy ghost on that album. It's kind of freakily uninhibited.
That's an astute observation—I probably was really just all there, all in for that. You know, I wasn't phoning it in like usual [laughs]. I'm kidding, of course, because I'm not a phoner-in-er. I have that obsessive kind of energy where it's like, if I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it. I really respect the audience. Maybe this is old-fashioned at this point, but I just believe in hard work and puttin' on a good show. I'm not interested in doing anything short of kicking complete ass.
2005: Sixteen Tons
That was actually a KCRW session. There was no audience, and it was done at a professional recording studio that KCRW uses occasionally, Village Recorders. Which is a really great, legendary studio. It was nice because we got to work on it all day instead of just fly in and fly out. We have some great shows recorded from that tour that would be fun to put out. There's a lot more to it—that album was only 10 songs.
2006: Eels with Strings: Live at Town Hall
Strings feels like the big one, probably along with Royal Albert Hall. It's from the first of two world tours for Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, this sweeping double album, and it seems like the whole experience was incredible.
To me they're all equal. There's just something about the Strings one and the Royal Albert Hall one—they're more of a sit-down event and a concert film–y experience for some reason. Although I'd be so happy if there was a concert film for each tour, 'cause they're so different from each other. I would love to have every tour out there as a live album. I think if there's seven now, that's probably not even half. I don't know how many tours there's been, but there's gotta be at least that many more that haven't come out. If there just wasn't so much goddamn work involved...
Now's a good time to ask about all the band nicknames. The Chet. Koool G Murder. Krazy Al. I don't have a clue what those guys' real names are. How do you guys settle on these handles?
It happens very spontaneously. And honestly I wish we did put more thought into it. There's a lot of times later when another nickname will come up for somebody and we're like, "Aw, it's so much better." That one comes back to bite you, though, because it can be hard to be taken seriously when, like, the New York Times has to list P-Boo and Knuckles [laughs]. The idea is: That's what we all call each other, it's this little world, and you get to be part of it if you want to. It can look silly in print, though. I love—have you been watching The Jinx? It's fantastic, and at the end—we have the theme song, it's "Fresh Blood"—and at the end you see "Written by E and Koool G Murder."
2008: Live and In Person
This one's insane. You're in a flight suit. Al's doing martial arts onstage the whole time.
That's the only rock tour that we have as a concert film. If you watch that, it's probably hard to believe that's the same band that the year earlier was in the With Strings film. There's nothing in common, except for band members. Everybody looks different, the sound couldn't be more different.
It's raw enough to be a bootleg, almost. There's a serious culture for that out there, collecting all these obscure Eels shows. Any feelings there?
I've been okay with that. I think it's nice that anyone cares enough to wanna hear a bootleg. When I was a kid I was super into bootlegs and stuff, if there was some artist I was into that I couldn't get enough of, like the Beatles or Dylan. The more the merrier.
2013: Tremendous Dynamite: Live in 2010 + 2011
Tremendous Dynamite's pretty unique—40 songs, and "My Beloved Monster" is the only one that appears on both discs.
I don't know if we've ever done a concert where we haven't played it. It's just so flexible. Someone suggested, and this is a pretty interesting idea, making an album that's all just "My Beloved Monster," because every year we do it and we've just done so many vastly different versions of it. Aside from the fact that the lyrics are the same, you might not notice that you're listening to the same song over and over again.
You could do "I Like Birds," too. You don't even have to sing that refrain anymore—you know every person in the place is going to shout it.
There's a good lesson there. I remember when we were making Daisies of the Galaxy, somebody said, "Hey, we need a B-side for some song they think is gonna be the first single." So I went out on the back porch while they were mixing something and wrote "I Like Birds" in like 10 minutes thinking, "This'll be a fun B-side." And of course it ended up on the album. Sometimes the stuff that lasts is the easiest stuff.
You can't beat it. Who doesn't like birds? You're an asshole if you don't like birds.
Yeah, I suppose it's kinda low-hanging fruit in that sense. "I Hate Birds" probably wouldn't have been as embraced.
Great covers on Tremendous Dynamite, too. You usually have a few new ones every tour. Any favorites?
Often the covers are my favorite part of the night every year. The last song we do in the encore is a Harry Nilsson song, "Turn on Your Radio." You know it's a good song when you do it every night for 53 nights and you still love it. And then after the tour you still love it. Often it burns you out on a song and you don't ever need to hear it again. On the 2011 tour, when we had horns, we did a couple Sly Stone songs, "Hot Fun in the Summertime" and "Somebody's Watching You," and to this day I can't get enough of those songs. And the 2010 tour, we did this really short, really early Rolling Stones song called "She Said Yeah," and something about that song I just also can't get enough of. I think we'll bring that one back. It's not very often we have a cover song return later, but that's one I just can't wait to play again.
Are these songs you're initially just jamming at home for fun?
Yeah, it's an organic thing. One night you happen to hear a song on the radio or something and think, "Oh man, we gotta do our version of this."
Last thing: Lot of concert films, and you did that BBC documentary about your genius physicist dad. So what about an Eels documentary?
There's been something like that in the works for many years; it comes and goes and morphs into different things. It's still on the list of things to do. Because I think there is an interesting story there about the band and the music and how it is always something different. But who knows when that'll ever come to fruition and be finished.