Just a few short years ago, the idea of a new album from Californian outfit the Eels might have seemed like something of a fantastical notion. In fact, between 2014 and 2018, band leader E (that is, Mark Oliver Everett) was even considering a retirement from music, though the arrival of The Deconstruction just two years ago helped assuage fans’ fears of an impending future without the group.
Now, two years later, Eels have returned with another album, with Earth to Dora serving as the 13th record under the name. A sweet record which is draped in the classic sound so synonymous with the band’s sound, Earth to Dora feels like the story of a broken relationship, though E assures us it’s simply arranged to sound that way.
Recorded in the early months of the year, the production of an album such as this was less than ideal for a group like the Eels. With the vast majority of the tracks written before the global pandemic truly took hold, E told fans that he hopes the music can feel soothing for fans, while the only track written during the pandemic (“Are We Alright Again”) sees the prolific musician delivering what he describes as a “quarantine daydream I desperately needed to have”.
Unable to tour at the current time, and unable to deliver the record in the way they would have otherwise liked, the softly-spoken E spoke to Rolling Stone from his home in Los Feliz, California to discuss how creating music in a year such as this has been difficult, and how even the darkest times and darkest music might hide a glimmer of hope.
Before we really begin though, I believe I should ask the standard question these days: How have you been dealing with everything in the world this year?
Y’know, it’s weird for me, like it is for everyone [laughs]. It just keeps.
What have your experiences been with people and the virus? Has everyone around you been responding to it well, or have they been rather combative?
On one hand, it’s probably a little easier for people like me to live in the quarantine era. I work at home, anyway, and I tend to live a reclusive lifestyle anyway. The hard part for me is that we can’t go on tour, which we were planning on doing, and we had a plan to come to Australia after missing the last couple of tours. So that’s the really hard part, because we’re just dying–we had such a great time on the last couple of tours and we’re just dying to get back out there.
Obviously the virus is a relevant topic, but I guess I should be focusing on the new album here really. It comes about two and a half years after the release of The Deconstruction, and you’d even hinted at a retirement from music for a while. So, what was it that told you it was time for a new album, or that you were ready to make another album?
I think I just needed that four year break really desperately at the time, and that rejuvenated me, it’s all I needed. I’ve felt rejuvenated ever since.
Did the fact you felt more rejuvenated make the idea of a new album seem a bit more enticing?
All the songs except for one on this album were made before the pandemic, but that said, I can’t wait to make some more new music and get back to it, especially since we can’t go on tour any time soon. But things are a little more difficult now in the quarantine era. But some of the songs on the album were written between me and guys in the band via internet, so there’s always that option, but it’s a lot more fun when we’re all in the same room.
I assume that would have felt like a strange environment to not only record music into, but later release an album into as well?
Yeah, and we discussed the idea of maybe not releasing the album until we could go on tour, and I just thought, “Well, people need music maybe now more than ever, and we’ve got music, so let’s just give it to them.” And then we’ll catch up with the touring as soon as we can.
I’ve heard that from a lot of musicians this year, but with folks at home, they can listen to music a lot closer. Personally, I’ve always felt that Eels’ music really lends itself to the idea of listening to it closely, and I assume that would be something that’s more enjoyable to an artists such as yourself.
I think you’re right about that. There’s something about the pandemic era that makes music particularly special. I know that I’ve really enjoyed, like when the Bob Dylan album came out, I really enjoyed being able to hold onto that and listen to it. And it felt somehow more intimate and meaningful than it may have before the pandemic.
Obviously that would help a lot of people during this difficult time as well.
I hope so, the song, the second song on the album, called “Are We Alright Again”, was really me writing a song trying to cheer myself up and give myself some hope that things will get better and I can only hope that it could do that for other people too.
Did that song manage to give you that hope you were seeking?
Yeah, that was the only one that was done during the pandemic – it was done during the early days of the pandemic when it was just first getting bad and it was like a daydream I just needed to think about. Y’know, the whole quarantine thing ending, and part of me was secretly hoping that maybe by the time the album came out, it wouldn’t be such a fantasy but more of a reality.
But of course, that wasn’t [how it] turned out, so it remains as much of a fantasy today as the day I wrote it. But I hope that it can still give us all some hope and something to look forward to, and that some day there will be a day when it feels like more of a reality.
While the majority of songs were written before everything went down, was there a specific sort of spark that inspired you along this writing path? I listen to the album and to me it feels like the songs focus on themes of failed relationships, but they also seek to provide some sort of comfort along the way.
The songs were all written at different times and they weren’t all particularly about one relationship, or even a relationship I was a part of in some cases. Some of them are based on my own experiences, and some of them are based on an experience a friend of mine had, and some of them are just fiction that I made up.
But I sequenced the album in a way that if some listeners want to think about it as it’s about one relationship, then there is an arc to it that could be taken as a story.
Songs like “Are You Fucking Your Ex” seem to further that notion of being about a failed relationship too. But that said, there’s something so intriguing about that song as well. With the pointed question almost at odds with your somewhat reserved performance style, it almost has this jarring quality to it, almost as if Mister Rogers is letting loose.
[Laughs] It’s a pretty jarring title, y’know, it’s a little bit uncomfortable among the other titles. But you know, it’s an uncomfortable subject, and I realised that I don’t think there’s been a song specifically about this in this kind of language. So I just thought it was an interesting subject for a song.
That’s something that’s quite enjoyable about your writing as well, in the sense that it’s so direct, yet somehow so universally relatable. Is that something you actively seek out to achieve with your writing?
I think, early on, I decided–I sort of had a lightbulb moment when I was young, “Wait, why don’t I just drop all the filters and be as real as I can and get to the heart of the matter?” or whatever it is I’m talking about in the song. And it does come very natural to me now.
The hard part for me… It’s always easy to write the songs, but the hard part for me is the first time I have to sing them in the studio in front of the other guys in the band. That’s always difficult.
Y’know, if you’re writing the words along, you just do it, it feels natural. Then suddenly you feel really vulnerable when you’re saying this stuff in front of someone for the first time. But that’s where I feel like I’m onto something. To make me feel a little embarrassed, there must be something real going on.
I think that’s something a lot of artists –especially new artists – have a difficulty achieving, though it does feel as though the idea of being vulnerable is something you’ve almost mastered.
I think a lot of songwriters would say that every time they write a song it feels like the first time, you never really know where you’re going, and you’re just trying to serve the song, the story, and the melody, the best way you can. You just sort of let it take you where it wants to go.
Despite the title, one of the darkest tracks on the record comes by way of “OK”. But you look at the final lyrics and there’s this real feeling of hope at play, and the feeling that you can get through dark times and survive. What was the story behind that track?
To me, that song is maybe ultimately the brightest message, because it’s so dark getting to the message at the end. That one is based on my own experience when I went through a period that was very dark for me, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep going on, and a friend of mine was saying, “No man, look, this is just a dark night, this isn’t the end.” And I argued, and said, “No man, you just don’t understand.”
Later, I saw he was right, and I think that’s an important message for everyone to try and keep in mind – if you find yourself in a dark place like that and you are just strong enough to stick through it, and if you have a friend who says “This isn’t the end, just wait”, then you’ll find that they were right.
And who is the Dora that features in the album’s title?
Dora is a friend of mine who used to work the Eels’ tour crew; she did the lights on some of our tours. We’ve remained friends, and she was going through her own tough situation of some sort a few months back, and we were texting on our phones and I was trying to cheer her up. Most of the lyrics to the songs are directly taken from things I was texting to her. At some point, I just thought, “I could turn this into a song and maybe cheer up some other people in the process.”
Has she heard the album yet?
No, she hasn’t heard it yet [laughs]. I’ve been keeping it from her, but I guess, she’ll hear it soon, and I hope she likes it.
One thing I feel I have to mention is the really intriguing Q&A you have on your website right now. It’s between you and John Lennon, so I won’t mention the obvious factor at play here, but where did this come from? It feels like this weird mix of insightful, hilarious, politically relevant, and shows this other side which most people don’t seem to see in your music.
Well it’s a pretty big scoop, but I was the one to reveal that he’s been alive all this time. You know, that’s taken a lot of the attention off me, so I kind of regret it. It’s a strange way to promote your new album, to shine a spotlight on such a big story. Yeah, everything there is to know about the album ended up in that conversation, really. So at least I got that in there. It’s too bad he didn’t have a new album to promote too, he could’ve talked about it there.
Following on from that as well, it feels as though people have often missed the humour you occasionally inject into things. You often hear of Eels being referred to as something of a sad band, and how everything you do is marred by tragedy, but do you feel that wry humour is something you feel people miss a lot of the time?
I don’t care about the sense of humour so much, I think that if they call it the “sad band” and all that, then they’re really missing the point about just that that’s just not always the point, the point is the “happy band”. But it’s like that song “OK” as a good example, you’ve got to deal with the darkness for the brightness to be meaningful.
This year also marks 25 years since Eels first formed, and 35 years since your first album as well. Did you have any celebratory plans in place before the year really went down, or are you not one for making a fuss about things such as that?
Yeah, I’m not big on anniversaries and stuff like that, because I’m always just so busy with whatever is going on currently that I don’t have the time or energy for looking back that much. It makes the time go by really fast when you’re just immersed in whatever you’re doing.
I still pinch myself when I realise I’ve been able to do it, because when I was younger, I didn’t have any hopes of any kind of future for myself; let alone getting to do what I want to do and keep doing it for so many years. I mean, I’m amazed I got to make one album, let alone all these albums. It’s just such a stroke of luck.
Eels’ Earth to Dora is officially out today via E Works/[PIAS].