Four years ago, Eels founder Mark Oliver Everett decided to take a break. After 25 years of making music, he says, "I got to the point where if you do any one thing too much in your life, it catches up to you and makes it clear that you need to do something else."
Everett went on what he calls a project of self-improvement, during which he got married, got divorced and, at the age of 54, had a son. He also spent time reckoning with the losses he'd experienced earlier in life, including his sister's suicide, his mother's death from cancer and his father's fatal heart attack.
Now he's back, with a new album, The Deconstruction: a reflection on both the pain and joy of life. He says the point of the record is that "life is constant motion."
"We spend most of our lives after we're born slowly building up these defenses and walls around ourselves," Everett explains. "I just thought, 'What's underneath all that? What would happen if you tore down those defenses?'"
Click on the audio link to hear the full Fresh Air interview with Mark Oliver Everett.
On experiencing life without processing it through music
I'm the classic example of an artist-type personality who pours everything into that, and that's how I know how to relate to things. It's a very natural process for me to write a song where there's absolutely no filter and really get down and peel all the different layers of the onion until I get to the heart of the matter. It's very easy to deal with things in this very intimate way — as long as it's in a song. That's another reason why I had to take a four-year break: I was like, 'What happens if it's not in a song?' ...
It started out in exhaustion and confusion and not really knowing what to do, but I even thought at first I might even just be done working. For a while, it just felt like that. I just had no desire for it, which was very unusual for me to finally get to that point. But normal people would've taken some little vacations along the way, and then there's people like me — we do it all or nothing. And the mistake I think I made was I took that same obsessive energy that I put into all the years of work and said, "OK, now I'm going to put all that focus on the other sides of life," and treated it a little too much like a to-do list. So I'm still in the process of it all, and I guess the process never ends.
On a record that inspired him at an early age to write songs that are very personal
The one that probably set me on that path very early on was, for some reason when I was 10 years old, I think, my favorite record was Plastic Ono Band, the first John Lennon solo album. And I didn't have any perspective for it at the time, but it's unusual looking back on it — for a 10-year-old kid to be so into that record — because it's an extremely raw, personal record. It's the one that's got him howling for his mother that abandoned him. But it was around the house or something and I would just play it all the time, and for whatever reason as a kid I just completely responded to it. So that just was ingrained in me, [to think] that's normal for songwriting. I think that really did change everything. I don't know if it ever would've occurred to me otherwise.
On finding his father dead from a heart attack
It was particularly surreal, since I had this weird relationship with him where he was always there but we didn't interact that much. Then just literally the night before he died, we had a lot more conversation, kind of a fun time together, ... And then the next morning I found him dead. It was very strange, because I was learning CPR on the phone [from 9-1-1] ... To be touching his body was very strange to me because I don't think we had ever touched before and the fact that he was dead while it was happening; it was just incredibly sad.
On writing a song about his sister's first suicide attempt, "Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor"
I didn't know about most of [her suicide] attempts. I was there for the first attempt, and luckily her boyfriend called and we discovered her asleep on the bathroom floor and got her to the hospital just as her heart stopped, and they revived her. And then there was a bunch of attempts in between that time and the time that she actually died that I didn't know about until after she died, and her friends were telling me about these other attempts.
She died right as the first Eels album was coming out. I finally got to a point where something was happening with my life and it was this really exciting time, and I think it was right as the album was coming out, or right before, she died, and so it was just this really intense time for me. I don't know how I got through that time.
On the optimism behind his 'sad' songs
For a long time, I didn't ever consider writing songs about what was going on with these tragedies in my family because it just felt too personal and I was just so immersed in it. And then one day when I was back there visiting my mom while she was sick, I was laying on my childhood bed, laying there just sad and depressed over the whole situation and in my imagination. I was laying there looking up at the ceiling, I saw a blue sky, and that was this big moment where I suddenly realized, 'Oh, I can write about this stuff and make it something that can help me and help people, I think.' And that's why I did it. ...
Often we get saddled with, "Oh this is the sad band," and all that, but it's really missing the point, because if you look at pretty much all of the albums ... the point is always an optimistic point. It's always saying, "This is part of life." If I can say, "You can go through these kinds of experiences like I've been through and still find the beauty and the positivity in life, then you can, too."
Amy Salit and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Sidney Madden adapted it for the web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Even if you don't think you know the band Eels, you might know their music from the soundtracks of "Shrek," "American Beauty," "Six Feet Under," "Grey's Anatomy" and other TV shows and movies. The Eels song "Fresh Blood" was the theme for the HBO series "The Jinx" about suspected serial killer Robert Durst. My guest Mark Oliver Everett is the founder and creative force behind Eels. He's written many songs about depression - his and other people's.
One of the first songs he became known for was titled "Novocaine For The Soul." The song "Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor" is about one of the times his sister tried to kill herself. Everett was close with his sister but hardly knew his father, Hugh Everett, who was a physicist specializing in quantum mechanics. Sixty years ago, he originated the theory of parallel universes. He was dismissed as a kook during his lifetime, but now he's considered a genius. There's a lot to talk about, but let's start with the title track of the new Eels album, "The Deconstruction." It's Everett's first album after a four-year hiatus.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DECONSTRUCTION")
MARK OLIVER EVERETT: (Singing) The deconstruction has begun. Time for me to fall apart. And if you think that it was rough, I tell you nothing changes till you start to break it down and break apart. I'll break apart. I'll break apart. Right now, it's going to start. I'll break apart. The reconstruction will begin.
GROSS: Mark Oliver Everett, or E (laughter), welcome to FRESH AIR. So let's start with the song we just heard. It's a song about falling apart and then putting yourself back together. Is this a description at all of your four-year hiatus that you recently returned from - four-year hiatus from performing and recording?
EVERETT: Yes, it's - I've been on a pretty long project of self-improvement in general for a while. And, you know, I'll actually take notes on how to - how could I have done that differently? How could this be better? You know, that kind of thing over the years. And four years ago, I got to the point where - you know, if you do any one thing too much in your life, it catches up to you and makes it clear that you need to do something else. And for me, that was working. And I had gotten to the point where I suddenly - it somehow had been 25 years of just constant, intense work. And, you know, it was particularly complicated in my case because music really did save me in so many ways. And so I, you know, tried to thank it by giving it all my attention. But, of course, if your life is too unbalanced, it becomes a problem in other areas of your life. And I didn't have any other areas of my life really.
EVERETT: So that was a problem. So, you know, I just kind of set out to really take a break from working and try to pay attention to all the other sides. And the idea of the deconstruction to me is - you know, we spend most of our lives after we're born slowly building up these defenses and walls around ourselves. And I just thought, well, what's underneath all that? What would happen if you tore down those defenses? What do we start with?
GROSS: Well, how comfortable were you looking at that? Because, in part - like, your music seemed to be a way of processing the deaths of people in your family, your sister's suicide - way of processing it and also maybe standing back a bit and looking at it with some distance, which you have to do when you're making art out of something. So when you take the music away, that also takes away your way of processing really problematic things in life. So...
GROSS: ...What was it like to take that...
GROSS: ...Away and then just deal with, like, life without music as the intermediary?
EVERETT: That's a really good question because I'm the classic example of, like, an artist-type personality who pours everything into that. And that's how I know how to relate to things. And, like, it's very - it's a very natural process for me to write a song with just absolutely no filter on and really just get down and peel all the different layers of the onion till I get to the heart of the matter. And it's very easy to deal with things in this very intimate way - as long as it's in a song.
EVERETT: So yeah. And that's another reason why I had to take a four-year break - where I was like, oh, what happens if it's not in a song?
GROSS: So what happened? Did you have more time for friends, for relationships?
EVERETT: Yeah. Yeah, I mean...
GROSS: Or was it this big, depression-filled void (laughter)?
EVERETT: No. I mean, it's - I mean, it started out in just kind of exhaustion and confusion and not really knowing what to do. But I even thought at first, like, I might just be done working for a while. It just felt like that. I just had no desire for it, which was very unusual for me to, you know, finally get to that point. But normal people would've taken some little vacations along the way. And then the people like me who - you know, it's like we do it all or nothing. And then the mistake, I think, I made was I took that same obsessive energy that I put into all the years of work and said, OK, now I'm going to put all that focus on the other sides of life and treated it a little too much like a to-do list, you know? So it's still - you know, I'm still in the process of it all. And of course, I guess, the process never ends.
GROSS: So what was on the list - to-do list?
EVERETT: The list of things to do was, you know, get into a relationship and focus on anything but work and just, you know - you know, quiet, easygoing life. Whatever - you know, I mean, it was a bit of a mystery to me. It was like, what does everybody - what is everybody else doing? You know, 'cause I just hadn't come up for air for 25 years.
GROSS: So did putting get into a relationship on your to-do list help you get into a relationship?
EVERETT: Well, I mean, I don't think it was - it wasn't, like, literally a to-do list at the time. But when I look back on it now, I can see that, like, I was definitely - I made myself open to that was a priority without really consciously knowing it. And so yeah, I got married. And...
GROSS: You're married now?
EVERETT: Well, I was.
EVERETT: As I said, it's an ongoing process.
GROSS: So you got married and divorced within the four years?
EVERETT: Yeah. You know, divorced very recently and with a big surprise that came out of it all - was I now have a son. So I'm a first-time father, which is...
GROSS: Are you surprised to be a father?
EVERETT: Well, I'm very surprised at this point. You know, I'm 54. And it was something, at this point, I - I was always open to the idea. But I didn't think, at this point, it was something that was probably in the cards. And it was a surprise and a wonderful surprise. And it's, you know, particularly an amazing update because I have been operating under the belief that I was the end of my family line - you know, that everyone else had died long ago. And there was always this uncomfortable pressure on my shoulders. You know, it was like - you know, felt like kind of a failure that I let the family name die when I died - you know, that that was the end of it, and that my father, Hugh Everett the physicist, would, you know, never have a grandchild to carry on the family. And the - so that part is really poignant and amazing to me. And my son, Archie, is also amazing.
GROSS: Do you spend time with him? Do you have time to spend with him?
EVERETT: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: But you're not - do you live together at all?
EVERETT: Yeah, well, we're splitting. It's a co-parenting situation. You know, it's not how I pictured things. And it's not how I wanted it to go, but I, you know, wasn't given a choice in the matter. So - and that's - if there is any one point to this record that fits right into that, it's that, you know, life is constant motion. And you have to just go with it. You know, I think I made the mistake of - you know, I had - during that break, I had this one great year that was everything I wanted, that was just calmness and nice times and no drama. And it was naive of me, I think, to expect that to last. And what's happened since then is, I think, more what life really is, you know? I just got lucky with that one year, I think, you know? (Laughter) But it's not something you can count on.
GROSS: Well, since you mentioned your son Archie, I want to play a lullaby that you wrote and perform on your new album, "The Deconstruction." I like this a lot. So it's called "Archie Goodnight." Do you want to say anything about it before we hear it?
EVERETT: This was commissioned by his mother, who said, you are writing a lullaby for your son.
EVERETT: And it was while he was still in utero that I wrote it.
GROSS: Oh, so did you just sing it to him in utero?
GROSS: And do you sing it to him still?
EVERETT: Nah, he doesn't care currently.
EVERETT: But hopefully he will.
GROSS: If he shares on the royalties, eventually he'll appreciate it (laughter).
EVERETT: Right, yeah.
GROSS: OK. So this is from the new Eels album, and this is the lullaby "Archie Goodnight."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARCHIE GOODNIGHT")
EELS: (Singing) Archie, the day is so long. But you are way too small to keep on carrying on as you do. So it's time to go to sleep. Don't make a peep. Little Archie, good night to you.
GROSS: That's "Archie Goodnight," written and performed by my guest, Mark Oliver Everett, also known as E. And he is the founder of Eels. And Eels has a new album called "The Deconstruction." Going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mark Oliver Everett, founder of the band Eels. The band's new album is called "The Deconstruction."
So the album, to me, sounds like an album in which you as the songwriter are trying to convince yourself and somebody else that life is, in fact, worth living and that it's - that you actually have to make the case for it in the songs.
EVERETT: Yeah, well, I think - you know, I mean, compassion is a big theme I see re-emerging a lot in it. And, you know, I'm not an expert on any of the subjects in any of these songs. And so, often, I am speaking to someone in particular in a song, but I'm always simultaneously also speaking to myself. They're all - it's always a note to self, too. I'm always trying to remind myself...
EVERETT: ...The same message.
GROSS: Let's apply that to a specific song. You have a song "Be Hurt" on the new album in which you're convincing yourself or somebody else that they can handle the pain and survive.
EVERETT: Yes, that's...
GROSS: Can you talk about the - yeah.
EVERETT: Yeah. That's definitely a note to self, yeah (laughter).
GROSS: At what point were you emotionally when you wrote this? Like, where were you in the four-year hiatus that we were discussing?
EVERETT: You know, I don't remember, exactly. And I don't know that it was any one particular incident or anything that set that song off. But it was sort of eye-opening to me when I had an epiphany at some point. Like, oh, you know, it's not the end of the world to be hurt. And it's, like, very comforting for me to be reminded that it's part of life. And, you know, I should know that by now. It's, like, you know, I look at some of the things that I have lived through and survived, and - but, you know, you can lose perspective on that sometimes, and you need to be reminded.
GROSS: Well, let's hear the song. This is "Be Hurt," which is written by my guest, Mark Oliver Everett, performed by his band Eels and from the new album "The Deconstruction."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE HURT")
EELS: (Singing) Be hurt. The world can take it, and so can you. Come on, be hurt. You know that you can take it. And I'm not going to let it destroy you. I know you think you've lost your way. You need a lot of courage to face another day. As you stumble through the night, know you're going to win the fight. Come on, be hurt.
GROSS: This "Be Hurt" from the new Eels album "The Deconstruction." My guest is the founder of Eels, Mark Oliver Everett, also known as E. So I think that's really a great song, and...
EVERETT: Thank you.
GROSS: Yeah. You know, listeners who know your music and know something about your life know that your father, mother and sister all died - your father of a heart attack in, I think, 1982. You found his body.
GROSS: Your sister, suicide, 1996; your mother, cancer, two years later. Your cousin was a flight attendant on the plane that was hijacked on 9/11 and crashed into the Pentagon. So, like, your family's gone. You've been writing really personal songs about death and depression for a long time. Were there songwriters who you'd heard who wrote that personally that were an inspiration to you and that kind of opened the door for you writing that personally?
EVERETT: Well, I mean, the one that probably set me on that path very early on was - for some reason, when I was 10 years old, I think, my favorite record was "Plastic Ono Band," the first John Lennon solo album. And I didn't have any perspective for it at the time, but it's unusual, looking back on it, for a 10-year-old kid to be so into that record because it's a extremely raw, personal record. It's the one that's got, you know, him howling for his mother that abandoned him and - but that just - you know, I - you know, it was around the house or something, and I would just play it all the time. And I just, you know, for whatever reason, as a kid, I completely responded to it. So that just was ingrained in me as, like, that's normal for songwriting.
EVERETT: I think that really did, like, change everything. Like, I don't know if it ever would have occurred to me otherwise.
GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about your late family. You did a documentary about your father a few years ago. He was a physicist and expert in quantum mechanics, and he came up with the theory of parallel universes. I once did an interview with Brian Greene about parallel universes. And in spite of the interview, and in spite of trying to read the book, it's a concept that is so just, like, beyond my comprehension. I can't wrap my brain around it. So what did you learn about your father's theory? And I should mention that when he was alive in the '70s and '80s, I think he was kind of dismissed as a kook. But now he's considered, you know, to have been the inventor of this theory that's taken very seriously now in the world of quantum mechanics.
EVERETT: Yeah. It's very poignant that his theory is now the prevalent theory. And I just saw something in the news a couple weeks ago that Stephen Hawking, like, just submitted a paper that has something to do with attempting to prove the theory, that he thought that that's it, you know.
GROSS: This is the theory of parallel universes. Is there any way you can explain that, you know, briefly in a way that we would understand?
EVERETT: You know, I'm like you. I mean, I did not inherit my father's physics genius. Maybe hopefully Archie will, but I didn't, you know. And what was great about getting to make that documentary that was on NOVA was you get to learn about this through my dumb eyes. I'm the dumb guy who doesn't understand it. And you learn it as I learn it. And, I mean, the easiest way - where they made me start to understand what it's all about is they show the thing about photons. You know, they showed me photons that aren't supposed to split, and they actually split. And I watched this with my own eyes.
And the physicist who's showing this to me, you know, he's give me some background on Schrodinger's cat and all that and then explains like there's just no explanation for this. And that my father's theory was an explanation for it, that there is like something that just seems like magic to us at this point, you know, because it's just so otherworldly. And it's what all the "Star Trek" episodes are based on and "Twilight Zone" and everything. The only explanation for the photon splitting off is the parallel universe theory.
GROSS: That there's another universe.
EVERETT: That there's, like, countless universes.
GROSS: My guest is Mark Oliver Everett, founder of the band Eels. We'll talk more and hear more music after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF EELS' "YOU ARE THE SHINING LIGHT")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with songwriter, singer and musician Mark Oliver Everett, founder of the band Eels. His new album, "The Deconstruction," is his first after taking four years off from music. When we left off, we were talking about his father, Hugh Everett, a physicist who came up with the theory of parallel universes. It was dismissed during his lifetime, and he was considered a kook. But now, he's considered a genius.
You write about how you hardly knew your father. He died when you were - what? - 19 and that he'd hardly talk to you. You say, my father was so uncommunicative that I thought of him the same way I thought of furniture. It was just there.
EVERETT: Yeah. You know, it never seemed like some negative thing to me. It was just how it was. I was just used to it. You know, he was always a physical presence, but I had very little interaction with him.
GROSS: Did you know he was like brilliant? Did you know he was...
EVERETT: There would be moments as I was growing up where occasionally, like, I remember the next-door neighbor was sitting in his hammock one Saturday afternoon reading a science fiction book. And he came running over. He knocked on the door. He said, Hugh, you're in this science fiction book, you know. There'd be moments like that where I'd be like, huh (ph)? But he didn't live the life of a famous person in any way. You know, I didn't have any idea of it.
Then very close to the end of his life, he started to get a little more recognition where people were starting to say, wait a minute, maybe this guy was right. And then after he died, the phone would start ringing. And we'd get these calls from what I called physics groupies that were - you know, he was really starting to catch on right after he died. And people would find my mom's phone number in the phone book and start calling. And it just kept picking up steam ever since.
GROSS: Do you think that the theory of parallel universes affected how your father lived his life?
EVERETT: I think - I mean, he was, like, 24 when he came up with that, you know. He was at Princeton. And then I think he probably - if he had gotten a little bit of encouragement, he would have gone on to who knows what next in physics. But I think the fact that he was swept under the rug, you know, he took it to Niels Bohr, who was like the main face on the Mount Rushmore of physics at the time. And, you know, it was kind of naive of my father because Niels Bohr was like, if I say OK, you're right, then that's going to knock my face off of Mount Rushmore and put yours on it. So he just dismissed him. And that was it. And I think, in a lot of ways, that kind of ruined my dad's life. And he just gave up on physics. But he never stopped believing it, you know, but I'm sure he was really hurt and embittered by it.
GROSS: So he died of a heart attack when you were 19. You found his body on his bed and in the bedroom. Was that the first body that you'd seen, the first dead body?
EVERETT: Yes. And it was particularly surreal since I had this weird relationship with him where he was always there but, you know, we didn't interact that much. And then just literally the night before he died, we had a lot more conversation and kind of a fun time together than is normal. And then the next morning, I found him dead. And it was very strange because, you know I'm learning CPR on the phone and....
GROSS: But you called 911?
EVERETT: Yeah. And then to be touching his body was very strange to me because I don't think we'd ever touched before. And the fact that he was dead while it was happening was just incredibly sad.
GROSS: So you mentioned this in your memoir, but you were not only surprised at what a brilliant physicist your father was, you were surprised to find out that your parents had a '70s swinging marriage (laughter) as you put it. How did you find that out?
EVERETT: I didn't - I mean, I got to give them points for keeping it from us. Like I didn't know it at the time that I remember at all. It was only - I learned a lot when - after my dad died and then my sister died. And then my mom was diagnosed with cancer, but she still had like a year or two. So at that point, I realized like, if there's any answers or anything I want to know, I got to like talk to my mom. So we spent a lot of time talking in her final days. And I think it was only then that I really heard that. I was like, what? But it was the '70s. You know, it was like, you know, it was like "The Ice Storm" and "Mad Men" and all that. It was very much like what it was like in our neighborhood, you know.
GROSS: So let's talk about your sister, Elizabeth. She suffered from depression or bipolar disorder?
EVERETT: You know, it depends which doctor you asked. I don't really know what the final verdict was but possibly all that and more.
GROSS: So it sounds like you had been really close to her when you were growing up. And she was six years older than you and had the records before you did. So her taste influenced you a lot when you were young.
EVERETT: Yeah. I think I was very fortunate to have a sister with pretty good taste in music, who was playing a lot of good records around the house that I eventually would steal, of course.
GROSS: So she tried to kill herself several times. Was that something you were able to talk with her about?
EVERETT: Well, I didn't know about most of the attempts. I was there for the first attempt. And luckily, you know, her boyfriend called. And we discovered her asleep on the bathroom floor and got to the hospital just as her heart stopped. And they revived her. And then there was a bunch of attempts in between that time and the time that she actually died that I didn't know about until after she died and her friends were telling me about these other attempts. So I didn't know them all. And I was, you know, I had moved away during that period, too.
GROSS: You mention that suicide attempt where she was unconscious on the bathroom floor. You wrote a song about that. You were home that day with your mother. So you saw her there on the bathroom floor. So this is the song "Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor." That's from the Eels album "Electro-Shock Blues." At what point did you think, I'm going to turn that into a song? And was your sister still alive when you wrote it?
EVERETT: No, she was not alive anymore when I wrote it. And for, you know, she died right as the first Eels album was coming out. And it was just, you know, I finally got to a point where something was happening with my life, and it was this really exciting time. And it was - I think it was just like right as the album was coming out right before she died. And so it was just this really intense time for me. It was like - I don't know how I got through that time. It was just crazy, you know.
GROSS: Let's hear the song. OK?
GROSS: Let's hear the song. This is "Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELIZABETH ON THE BATHROOM FLOOR")
EELS: (Singing) Laying on the bathroom floor, kitty licks my cheek once more. And I could try, but waking up is harder when you want to die. Walter's on the telephone. Tell him I am not at home 'cause I think that I am going to a place where I am always high. My name is Elizabeth.
GROSS: That's "Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor" by the band Eels from the album "Electro-Shock Blues." He also has a new album called "The Deconstruction." My guest is the founder of the band, Mark Oliver Everett.
EVERETT: You know, I - that - what I want to say about that was for a long time - so the first Eels record came out, and it was, you know, fairly successful, which was a big surprise. And then, you know, the record company and my manager and everybody expected me to write - "Beautiful Freak" was the album's title, and they wanted "Beautiful Freak Part Two" basically. And for a long time, I didn't ever consider writing songs about what was going on with these tragedies in my family because it just felt too personal, and I was just so immersed in it. And then one day, when I was back there visiting my mom while she was sick, I was, you know, laying on my childhood bed, laying there and I was just sad and depressed over the whole situation. And I just - in my imagination, as I was laying there and looking up at the ceiling, I saw a blue sky. And that was, like, this big moment where I suddenly realized, like, oh, I can write about this stuff and make it something that can help me and help people, I think. And that's why I did it.
And I think - you know, probably a lot of people listening to this interview are like, Jesus, this poor - you know, like, this is so sad. But I think like - and I think often, you know, we get saddled with, like, oh, this is the sad band and all that. But it's really missing the point because, like, if you look at pretty much all the albums or almost all of them, the point is always - it's always an optimistic point. It's always saying this is part of life. And, you know, if I can say you can go through these kind of experiences like I've been through and still find the beauty and the positivity in life, then you can too, you know?
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Oliver Everett, who is the founder of the band Eels, and Eels has a new CD that's called "The Deconstruction." Going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF EELS SONG, "I'M GOING TO STOP PRETENDING THAT I DIDN'T BREAK YOUR HEART")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Oliver Everett, and he is the founder of the band Eels and writes the songs, does the singing, plays a bunch of instruments. Eels has a new album called "The Deconstruction."
Now, you've said life is so full of unpredictable beauty and strange surprises and that sometimes the beauty is too much for you to handle. What do you mean by too much for you to handle? And what kind of beauty has brought on that kind of reaction?
EVERETT: I'm just like - I think I'm, like, overly sensitive and maybe this is a normal artist personality thing. I'm not sure, but I - you know, I feel a lot of things I think fairly extremely. And sometimes, you know, some things I see that, you know, I just can't handle, you know? It's just overwhelming, and I have to, like, not let myself think about it for too long, you know?
GROSS: What - can you think of some kind - some form of beauty that brought on that feeling? Is it...
EVERETT: I mean - well, one thing that is always overwhelming for me is, like, innocence - innocence of, like, children and animals. And it's just the sweetest, most overwhelming thing I can see, you know, and it can be overwhelming for me sometimes. Sometimes I can't just dwell on it, you know. You just have to remember it's just part of life. It's this beautiful part of life that it's - (laughter) it's like - it's an everyday thing, you know, and you got to get used to it.
GROSS: Is having a son like that?
EVERETT: Yes. It's a constant reminder. I mean, it's very - you know, the timing of it, having this song about deconstructing your defenses and everything and saying, well, what is there when you tear down the walls you've built around yourself and all your defenses? And I think that's what it is. It's this sweet innocence that we all start with. And so I see that every day with my son. And it's just this most amazing thing. And, you know, anyone who has a kid knows what I'm talking about.
GROSS: So now that you have - now that you're a father - and how old is your son?
EVERETT: Ten months.
GROSS: OK. You were never really fathered in the sense that your father was very kind of tuned out...
GROSS: ...To his children and kind of lived in his world of quantum mechanics. So you don't really have a father who you could model yourself on as a father.
GROSS: So how are you learning (laughter) how to be a father?
EVERETT: I mean, for the most part, I feel like it's coming natural to me because I'm not my father and I'm - you know, there are things that you can't help and you do have in common with your parents. Some of it's probably genetic and some of it's learned or whatever. But I'm also my own person to a large extent, and I'm a very warm, physical, touchy-feely person, way more than my father ever was with me, that's for sure. But, I mean, that's not much of a measuring stick 'cause, you know, there was nothing. But, you know, I love it. I love spending time with him. And it is - you know, there's kind of a healing kind of thing that comes from being able to give somebody something that you weren't given.
GROSS: Mmm hmm. So let's talk about your musical influences some more. We know that the Beatles, John Lennon were very influential. You've said about John Lennon and Elvis Presley, the thing I love about John Lennon and Elvis Presley is that they were really insecure guys, and to me, that's what makes them such thoroughly human artists. No matter how cool they played it, you were still left with the feeling of a real human experience. You don't get that from most of the cool artists today. They're too busy playing it cool.
Did you want to be cool before having this realization?
EVERETT: Yeah. Everybody wants to be cool, I think, you know? Yeah. And I think that's - yeah. I love that about Elvis and John Lennon. Like, I - you know, John Lennon is probably the No. 1 one for me because of that, because he was so open about how insecure he was. And he had a lot of good reasons to be insecure, you know, from his childhood all of that. And Elvis, you know - there's a - I just saw a trailer the other day for - there's a new Elvis documentary coming out soon. And there's a line in it that - or Bruce Springsteen says - they show a clip of Elvis at home with, you know, his wife and daughter, and Bruce Springsteen says something like, you know, when Elvis was at home, he was trying to act normal, but Elvis normal was the guy onstage. And that was like - totally clicked to me. Like, I get that. It's, like, the rest of the time, you just feel insecure and like, you don't know who you are.
GROSS: That describes you?
GROSS: That must have been those hard four years when you were on hiatus (laughter).
EVERETT: Yeah. No, I mean, you know, I experience it every day, you know? It's, you know - I'm just - I don't feel like, you know, Elvis onstage until I am onstage, you know? And then, you know, you're just - of course, you don't approach Elvis onstage, but you're doing your best to get there, you know? But that's when you feel like, ah, in your element, you know?
GROSS: So what's the difference between you onstage and you offstage? Like, who are you onstage?
EVERETT: Someone who's at least slightly less insecure and feels like that's where maybe I should've been born and raised and lived until I died.
My guest is Mark Oliver Everett, founder of the band Eels. The new Eels album is called "The Deconstruction." We'll talk more and hear more music after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mark Oliver Everett, founder of the band Eels. The new Eels album is called "The Deconstruction."
I think a lot of our listeners, even if they're not familiar with your albums, will know your song "Fresh Blood" because it was used as the theme for the HBO series "The Jinx," the documentary about Robert Durst who's suspected of, like, three murders. So you wrote this song and recorded the song before HBO picked it up for the documentary. What inspired the song? And then tell us how it ended up being used as the theme for "The Jinx."
EVERETT: The song was on our album called "Hombre Lobo," which, occasionally, I - you know, really, maybe about 50 percent of all the songs are autobiographical or based on some personal experience, and then the other half of the time, it's some sort of fiction or a character that I - or somebody I know, and I'm assuming their personality. But I almost always tell the story in the first person, so it's easy to assume it's my personal story, but - and that's the case of the song "Fresh Blood." That was sort of an album from the point of view of, like, a werewolf kind of guy who's hunting after somebody. And the "Fresh Blood" is just a very blatant song about hunting someone down, and so I think that's why it felt good for "The Jinx." And then there's actually a song on this new album called "Bone Dry" that I wrote is sort of an answer to "Fresh Blood." I thought, OK, what if the guy who's the hunter in that song becomes the hunted? You know, if we flip-flop it, what's that like? So - and he's the victim now in the song "Bone Dry."
GROSS: Yeah. It was like, bone dry, you've sucked all the blood. What is it? What's the verb?
EVERETT: You drank all the blood.
GROSS: You drank all the blood, yeah (laughter). All right. So let's hear "Fresh Blood," and this is the song that was used as the theme for the HBO series "The Jinx."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRESH BLOOD")
EELS: (Singing) The moon shines on the autumn sky. Growing cold, the leaves all die. I'm more alone than I've ever been. Help me out of the shape I'm in. After the fires, before the flood. My sweet baby, I need fresh blood. Whatever trepidation you may feel in your heart, you know it's not real. In a moment of clarity, some little act of charity. You got to pull me out of this mud. Sweet baby, I need fresh blood.
GROSS: Singing and howling by my guest Mark Oliver Everett, founder of the band Eels. And that song is from the Eels album "Hombre Lobo." And it was used as the theme for the HBO series "The Jinx" about Robert Durst.
EVERETT: See, if you found out that you could howl like that, wouldn't you just want to spend your life doing that instead of anything else?
GROSS: Did you learn that from your dog?
EVERETT: (Laughter) My dog, my former dog, Bobby Jr. (ph), did - he did do some soloing on one of our songs and in some of our videos, yeah.
GROSS: OK. Well, as I think you implied earlier, your albums often have at least one song that's kind of like the redemption song, the, like - life is good or at least life can be good. And one of the songs like that on your new album, "The Deconstruction," the album starts with you kind of falling apart and starting to put yourself back together. But there's a song on it, "Today Is The Day." And it's really a kind of song about life, about living, about change, about the possibility of change. Would you say a few words about writing it?
EVERETT: Yeah. I think that really the only way I can really contribute something that can help the world in a maybe tangible way as far as, you know, changing anything is a song like "Today Is The Day." Say you're at a point in your life where you're starting to catch on that there's a change you need to make, whatever it might be. But you haven't gotten around to making it quite yet. And you just happen to hear that song at the right time, it could push someone along, you know, a little bit further along to making the actual change.
And I don't get specific about a change in the lyrics because whatever change I might have been thinking of for myself or whoever I was addressing in the song, you know, if I'd said today's the day I'm going to stop eating cheese, then that's only going to help people that are lactose intolerant.
GROSS: But for those people, it could be very important.
EVERETT: Yeah. I try to keep it something that can help us all.
GROSS: OK. So let's close with that, "Today Is The Day" from the new Eels album "The Deconstruction." And, Mark, it's just been great to talk with you.
EVERETT: It's been a real pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF EELS SONG, "TODAY IS THE DAY")
GROSS: Mark Oliver Everett is the founder of the band Eels. The new Eels album is called "The Deconstruction."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TODAY IS THE DAY")
EELS: (Singing) Today is the day that I chuck everything I thought out the door. Today is the day I ask myself - what the hell was I living for? That's right. Today is the day. It starts right here. Don't got a thing to worry about now. Today is the day. It starts right here. I thought about it, and it's kind of strange.
GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Dan Stevens, who played Matthew Crawley on "Downton Abbey." In the FX show "Legion," his character begins the series as a troubled young man in a mental hospital.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LEGION")
DAN STEVENS: (As David Haller) Thursday, like the 260th Thursday as a passenger on the cruise ship Mental Health.
GROSS: Turns out he has superpowers, including mental telepathy. "Legion" just began its second season. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.