Interview: E of Eels
Fri, 11 Jan 2008 07:33:33
Eels remain an enigma. Crafting poppy tunes with dark lyrics, they've concocted some of the creepiest and catchiest alternative rock ever. Frontman E is ever-prolific, with a vast cache of songs stacking up. In order to get all of this material out to the public, he compiled Useless Trinkets, a collection of b-sides and unreleased tracks, that's a must for any Eels fan. In addition, Eels are also releasing their official "best-of" collection, Meet The Eels, which also has some surprises for long time fans. During a talk with ARTISTdirect, he delved into these releases, as well as his unique songwriting process.
You've always towed the line between intense lyrical imagery and pop delivery. What's your songwriting process like?
Well, things like the Motown recipe may have influenced me. That recipe was sad lyrics, happy music. "Tears of a Clown" is a good example. If you listen to that song by itself—an instrumental mix without the words—you think it's going to be a song about how great life is. Then if you look at the lyrics by themselves, you'd say, "This is a sad guy." You put them together, and something magical happens where the music suddenly changes the meaning of the lyrics. It's not so much "this is a sad guy," as it is someone whose just going through a sad time, and that's part of life. Hopefully, that kind of thing makes it last a little longer.
How do you actually begin your writing process: with a riff or lyrics? Where does it start?
I don't really have any set working methods. All sorts of different things happen. Sometimes the words come first. Sometimes the music comes first. Sometimes it all comes at once. It's case-by-case. I will say that I think the strongest songs for me do start with lyrics. I've noticed that, because if you're only working with lyrics, there must be some strong, really cohesive idea there. Whereas when you do it the other way around, you're trying to fit in the syllables with the music. When the lyrics come first, I think it's better, because you're really serving the words, as opposed to when you're serving the music. That's probably sometimes why people end up with really lame lyrics [laughs], because they're trying to find something that fits in with the music.
The way you create songs is visual. You're a storyteller.
Wow, I hope so. It's kind of a difficult way to tell a story. I've worked hard over the years to trim away as much of the fat as possible to get to the point. I'm really trying to tell a very succinct story: sometimes in 10 or 15 lines. Writing's successful in a short story or song, because someone gets to the heart of the matter more quickly.
It takes a real mastery of the craft to convey a story in a short space.
I think it does. When I was younger, I used to write songs that were too many minutes long, and they had all sorts of stuff in them that they didn't need. I just tried to pay attention to that as I went on. I think that's why a lot of my songs are really short. I've noticed my songs rarely break the three-minute mark.
Your music has a real literary sensibility. Are there any authors that inspire you?
Over the years, here and there, not in a huge way—I'm more a fan of plain speaking and trying to avoid the flowery stuff wherever possible. I just admire books that are written in everyday-speak. I just want to feel like there's something real going on.
The music you've contributed to soundtracks really fits the respective films. Do you have cinematic leanings?
I have scored a film. I've been involved in a lot of films. It's kind of a fun side job, at times. Every time I branch out and do something other than make a record, I find out that all I really want to do is make my records. I just wrote a book and worked on a film with the BBC. Anytime, I do any of this stuff, it just makes it more pleasurable for me to go back. I just appreciate it with more of a renewed interest.
Was it hard choosing tracks for Meet the Eels?
Kind of. That one's really for the casual user: someone who may have heard a song here or there. It's meant as an invitation to our party. It's a way to catch up with this band. It's celebrating the first ten years, but it took us two years to put it all together. So it's now 12 years [laughs]. We're already two years into the next ten years.
How did the cover of "Get Ur Freak On" come about?
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