After a four-year hiatus from the record business, Eels frontman Mark Oliver Everett – known simply as “E” to fans – is ready to road test the tunes from his richly textured new album, The Deconstruction.
But while the eclectic indie pop singer-songwriter feels good about the fresh songs, he wasn’t exactly brimming with bravado in an interview with On Tap in advance of his band’s June 12 date at Lincoln Theatre.
“Make no mistake, I never feel fully confident about anything,” Everett admitted.
After releasing 12 albums and touring consistently over the past two decades, the introspective multi-instrumentalist suddenly pushed pause on his career in 2014. The undefined break turned into a four-year respite punctuated with occasional flourishes of songwriting and recording.
“I didn’t even know I was making an album for most of those four years,” Everett said. “My goal was just not to work at all. Once in awhile, if I was really inspired to write and record a song, I would. Then it might be six months before the next one.”
The result of that long, drawn-out creative process is the most well-curated, cohesive – and yes, confident – collection of songs that Oliver has ever assembled. “Bone Dry,” a hip-shaking but haunting rock tune about a difficult ex-lover serves as the record’s first single, while the title track finds Eels in swirling orchestral territory.
A loose collection of L.A. musicians known as The Deconstruction Orchestra and Choir weave gorgeous strings and harmonies throughout the electrified rock album. The overall effort is dedicated to Everett’s late dog, Bobby Jr., referred to as “our fallen brother” on the band’s website.
“From people I’ve been talking to, the response has been very positive,” Everett allowed of the new album. “I feel good so far.”
A Fairfax County native, Everett proclaimed DC among his favorite cities to play live shows – but not for the reasons you might think.
“I don’t have a lot of fond memories of [DC] because of all the tragedies and stuff that happened,” the longtime Los Angeles resident said. “But I love playing DC. It’s the only time I ever go back there. It’s always a good experience. I judge every city by the audience, and you always have nice audiences in DC.”
The tragedies Everett referred to include the deaths of his emotionally remote father, a famous quantum physicist who worked at the Pentagon and died of heart failure when Everett was just 19; his beloved sister, who was troubled with mental illness and committed suicide in 1996; and his mother, who contracted lung cancer and died in the house he grew up in in 1998. Everett’s close cousin, a flight attendant, was on the plane that slammed into the Pentagon on 9/11, adding yet another layer of grief to his hometown memories.
Everett recounts these sad chapters in his life – as well as happier episodes – in his highly personal and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny memoir, Things the Grandchildren Should Know, released in 2009. Often sporting a dark beard and sunglasses, the musician has a reputation for sometimes being inscrutable in interviews. But he leaned into a question about how he keeps his music buoyant and life-affirming despite the emotional wreckage he’s had to deal with in his life.
“There was this big moment when all of these tragedies were happening, and I was back in my mom’s house in Virginia and was getting overwhelmed by it all,” Everett recalled. “I was just lying on my bed, and I saw a blue sky in my imagination. That crystallized it for me. I was like, ‘Wait, there has to be a bright side to all of this, too. There has to be something healthy.’ And that was the birth of making the Electro-Shock Blues album 20 years ago.”
He added that he was lucky to have had that epiphany and has a very positive memory of making the 1998 album.
“It was the one great thing that was happening to me at the time because I was being super creative and making this new music that felt hopeful in the face of all these tragedies. It was like this warm blanket I wrapped myself in.”
That’s not to say life is all rainbows and unicorns for Everett now. He announced the release of The Deconstruction on the Eels’ website in April by proclaiming, “The world is a mess. This is just music.”
While the world is indeed a mess – and U.S. affairs seem to be in a state of permanent upheaval under President Donald Trump – don’t expect Eels to go getting all political, not even for the politically savvy Washington audience he enjoys so much. As Everett sees it, politics is a minefield for musicians.
“I’ve always actively avoided [politics] as much as possible,” he explained. “John Lennon was a lot better at singing about his mother than empowering the people. There are exceptions and it can be very subtle and great like with Ray Davies (of the Kinks) doing ‘Shangri La’. It’s beautiful when it happens, but it is so rare.”
Eels’ live shows have earned a reputation as freewheeling, even exuberant affairs that can involve audience interaction and onstage antics. But Everett has also been known to strip the live show down, allowing the music to take sole possession of the spotlight as he did on The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, the band’s last release and tour in 2014. He declined to give clues as to what fans can expect on the new tour.
“I wouldn’t want to say because that would take a lot of fun out of it,” Everett said, while acknowledging that “anything approaching a fervor” would be a welcome reaction.
“I’ve never had this long of a break between tours, so it’s simultaneously daunting and exciting,” he added. “I do feel very fortunate that I’ve been doing it as long as I have and that I have an audience. That’s just a very lucky thing.”
Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; 202-888-0050; www.thelincolndc.com