Life rarely rained for Mark Everett, but it frequently poured. The man known as E has spent the past four years searching for answers from his heartbreaking past. Now he tells Finbarr Bermingham that he just might have found them
Mark Oliver Everett’s 46 years on earth have rarely been described as ‘lucky’. Which is why I fear the worst when he calls me from his Los Angeles home. A state of emergency has just been declared in California, as the deadly swine flu continues to bleed over the Mexican border. Given his tragic history, one surely would have had the Eels frontman down as a prime candidate for infection.
“Well, my beard does make me very susceptible,” he muses, unreassuringly. “Floating germs just attach themselves to it. It’s a real health hazard.”
Everett - E for short - has spent the five years since his last album writing a successful autobiography and making an inspiring documentary about his father. “I guess I’ve exorcised a lot of old demons,” he says. “Swine flu isn’t worrying me so much right now.”
The demons E speaks so matter-of-factly about are, in reality, anything but. As a 19-year-old, he was the one to discover the father he barely spoke to lying dead in his favourite suit. His sister, Liz, killed herself in 1996 after battling with schizophrenia. Two years later, his mother died from lung cancer. His cousin and her husband were both working aboard doomed American Airlines Flight 77 that plunged into the Pentagon on 9/11.
It’s little wonder he spent ten years in therapy. Speaking to him now, though, there’s a sense of renewal in his voice. He tells me he feels “more comfortable” in his own body than he has done in a while. Could he possibly be happy? “Yes, definitely. That’s hopefully how things turn out! I guess I’m growing and changing all the time, but I’m certainly not my old self.”
The documentary, Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, saw E make a “fantastic journey into his father’s brain”. He speaks with immense pride about the film, which gave him an insight into the mind of a father he’d never known.
“It really made me understand him,” he says, “and it led to me being able to forgive him for his shortcomings as a father. It wasn’t necessarily an easy thing to do, but I’m really glad I did it.”
His father, Hugh Everett III, was a quantum theorist, whose many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics - in which quantum effects spawn countless branches of the universe with different events occurring in each - was only truly appreciated after he had died an alcoholic recluse. “He was too smart too soon,” E says thoughtfully, “and came up with this amazing theory. But nobody paid him any attention or gave him credit for it. He knew he was a genius, but the rest of the world didn’t.”
When I tell E I have heard and enjoyed his new album, he seems genuinely pleased. Many rockstars are preoccupied with playing it cool. E just sighs and says he “feels lucky to get some sort of positive reaction.” Again, it goes back to his father, who spent his life craving approval that was seldom forthcoming. “I think that was a massive factor in the tragedy of his life.”
E’s frankness and enthusiasm in conversation is surprising. Whilst his music is unflinchingly honest, he is frequently portrayed in the media as a dour and often obstinate character. “Maybe you caught me on a good day,” he suggests with a wry chuckle when asked if it’s an accurate depiction. “I guess I can be that guy, but with the new album and all, it’s nice to be in the here and now. It feels good after four years of living in the past.”
“I was working on some other music, and when brushing my teeth one morning I looked in the mirror. I saw my beard and thought: ‘Hey, this beard doesn’t really suit the music I’m working on. Maybe I should get rid of it.’ I was just about to get cut it off and then it occurred to me: ‘Well, why don’t I make an album that suits the beard?’”
The central character first appeared on the Souljacker album in 2001 as the Dogfaced Boy – the last time E sported what he describes as a “very full beard”. Indeed, facial hair is a topic never far from the conversation. “It’s sort of like talent,” he beams when probed further about his weakness for beards. “Either you’re born with it or you’re not. I was actually born with a beard, I had so much testosterone. It scared my mother.”
Hombre Lobo draws parallels between traditional werewolf life in literature and “what it’s like to be an isolated weirdo in society today”. While E says he feels affiliated with both factions, the album is his least personal for a long time. Electro Shock Blues, with songs such as Cancer For The Cure, is a stunningly intimate account of his mindset at the time. On the last Eels album, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, and strikingly earnest lyrics like “Daddy was a drunk/a most unpleasant man”, the ghosts of the past were still looming large on his psyche. Now though, he seems to have put them to bed.“The one thing you don’t feel like doing after years of writing your autobiography, making a film about your father and putting together a retrospective collection of your band’s last ten years,” he says, “is something autobiographical. You really wanna go somewhere else, you know? But that said, I often think I’m doing something in the voice of a character and years later I look back on it and it’s exactly something I was going through in my life. But for some reason, you are unaware of it at the time. So check back with me in a few years on this one!”
The aforementioned Electro Shock Blues, bleak as it may be, offered E an outlet for his misery. “I know it sounds melodramatic,” he states, straight as you like, “but I think I’d be dead by now if I hadn’t had music.” It takes little intuition to deduce that Mark Everett rarely goes for sensational scoops. “I think that if my sister was able to make music in the way I am, then she wouldn’t have committed suicide. It’s as simple as that.”
His sister, Liz, took her life after a long, torturous struggle with schizophrenia and drug addiction, evidently unable to cope with the loss of both of her parents. Her suicide note said that she was “going to meet Dad in a parallel universe”. Some have speculated that Liz may have had more of an idea as to where her father’s train of thought was leading than most. Others shrug and say: “Nobody really understands quantum mechanics."
These days, E tries not to trouble himself with such conundrums. “I’m not a scientist, that much I know,” he laughs, unwilling to so much as guess at where his own parallel lives might be headed. “Man, I’ve got enough trouble trying to keep the one I’m living under control.”
Originally written for The Skinny