In the early 1990s, American Music Club was considered by many music critics to be the finest band in the country, their 1991 album Everclear topping many year-end polls and their singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel being named Songwriter of the Year by Rolling Stone's Critics' Poll. The San Franciscan quintet's idiosyncratic mix of country pathos, folk-song confessionals, abrupt post-punk guitar squawks and lulling waltz rhythms made their future seem as limitless as the genre permutations available to them. But guaranteeing them a seat at the top of this fickle tower of song was Mark Eitzel, whose voice was either the logical heir to Paul Westerberg or the caterwauling of a wounded walrus, and whose songwriting was either Elvis Costello's wizardly wordplay taken to a personal extreme or overambitious thesaurus-flipping. From their 1985 debut, The Restless Stranger, through their seventh and final album, 1994's San Francisco, American Music Club transformed itself from a melodramatic bar band into one of the most sophisticated, musically and emotionally challenging bands of any era.
Critical kudos and financial rewards often don't correspond, though, and by the end of 1995, the band could no longer sustain themselves. Their pedal steel guitarist and keyboardist Bruce Kaphan departed after the recording of San Francisco, and the remaining four worked through the final tour as a band valiantly soldiering on. The songs were still stunning, but there was a sense that something very special was over. Eitzel went on to record a series of solo albums that captured moments but could not sustain a consistent theme. At first, he located his inner Chet Baker with 1996's 60 Watt Silver Lining, and then went slightly more indie-rock for 1998's Caught in a Trap. Eventually he ended up rerecording old AMC songs with musicians in Greece for 2003's The Ugly American. It was only a matter of time.
Thus, after a nine-year hiatus, AMC are back with a new album, Love Songs for Patriots. Bruce Kaphan is still missing. "We didn't even think about calling him," says Eitzel with no trace of bitterness but with no further explanation. Eitzel's longtime keyboardist Marc Capelle takes over Kaphan's duties. The Patriots songs were initially intended for the next Eitzel solo project but when drummer Tim Mooney called everyone over to his San Francisco recording facility, Closer Studios, to see what would happen, the decision was unanimous. "I didn't know if the guys remembered how to play with me," says Eitzel. "But when we tried the very first song it was better than I could've imagined. This is the best band I've had in 10 years."
There's no doubt that this band is capable of great things, and if they can keep these pieces together long enough will again develop the songs that best bring out their strengths. However, Eitzel has spent the past nine years working with a revolving cast of musicians who have had to adapt to his curious way of writing. It's led to songs long on metaphor and verbal gymnastics and short on hooks and centered emotion. He's far too close to the process itself to analyze it.
"It's like the only way we know we are getting older is when we see it in the faces of our friends," he says. "I just keep writing my music. When I play with these guys I'm not really allowed to tell them what to play. It's very democratic. I try to do that with every musician I play with. Except that most musicians don't understand why I do what I do. They don't understand why all the songs are in open tunings, why the chords are so weird. So the learning curve is really hard for a lot of people. With these guys, there's no learning curve. 'Oh, that one again.' They just know. On this record, we didn't trip out a lot about stuff. The first arrangement we stuck with."
Songwriting remains Eitzel's true passion. "Everything other than songwriting feels like a colossal waste of time to me," he admits. "I like all kinds of songs. I like them when they're direct. I like them when they're not. I even like dumb-ass songs. There's a current trend in music where the singer has to pretend he's a complete dumb-ass. It's like when they say, 'I met a girl and her name was BRENDA.' I even like that kind of stuff. For me, I like to make obscure things that make people feel a sense of 'other' a little bit. That's what I like to hear when I hear a song. It either has to be about my life or it has to change my life or it has to make me laugh."
Ever the perfectionist in his own way, Eitzel admits he's often caught in a Catch-22: damned if he leaves it alone, damned if he tries to correct it. "When I listen back to the new album I hear all the mistakes," he says. "I should've cut that little bridge in half. I should've jumped in right there. This record was no thinking allowed. The worst thing about dumb men is when they think too much. That's kinda been our trouble for years."
Eitzel's not kidding either. He's being self-effacing about the band being "dumb men"; you're unlikely to find another group as well-spoken. But they have tortured themselves at the hands of producers and engineers who've known what's "best" for the band, from producer Mitchell Froom's gorgeous tinkerings with 1993's Mercury to Bob Clearmountain's indifferent mixes of some San Francisco material. In its new life, the band has had to learn to believe in itself.
"I think what we realize now is there are limitless horizons but it's sort of an illusion that there's only one kind of horizon," explains Eitzel. "There's self-doubt as a horizon. Vudi says if he's going to do this and make no money then everytime he performs it has to be focused and we have to agree. We've changed in that sense. We're united in that the music has to be a certain way. I think that's reflected in the new record that we're talking about."