Blinking Lights Through Tomorrow Morning: Eels Look Back

The prolific singer/songwriter Mark Oliver Everett discusses new reissues of one of the band’s most fruitful periods

Music Features Eels
Blinking Lights Through Tomorrow Morning: Eels Look Back

Mark Oliver Everett isn’t one to look back. Given how he has chronicled devastating hardships through his long-running and constantly evolving musical project Eels, you can understand why he tends to focus on pushing forward. In the wake of his revelatory and deeply confessional 1998 album Electro-Shock Blues, Everett (commonly known as E.) began to write about the unspeakable losses he experienced within his immediate family, ushering in a new depth with his writing—a transformation that turned his inner thoughts into bare-bones prose to his listeners, no matter how dark or unflattering they seemed to the author.

This year, Vagrant Records has reissued four of the band’s albums that came from this fruitful period in Everett’s writing on vinyl—2005’s sprawling double album Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, 2009’s garage-rock-influenced Hombre Lobo, the gorgeously sombre 2010 album End Times and the electronic-leaning project from that same year Tomorrow Morning. I caught up with Everett Eels were wrapping up their latest North American tour behind, an extensive run of dates in support of last year’s Extreme Witchcraft, to see if he was able to find any new revelations in those records now that he has put some distance between them and the present.

Paste: You just reissued four pretty important records from the Eels discography: Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, Hombre Lobo, End Times, and Tomorrow Morning. How do you feel about revisiting all of this old material?

Everett: Yeah, it’s been a weird thing. Because I have to approve the masters for vinyl, I have to actually listen to the whole albums—and it’s always a case of [being] the first time I’ve heard them since back in the day. The Blinking Lights one in particular, it really surprised me at what an emotional experience it was for me. I really choked up a lot during it, and I was also kind of overwhelmed by thinking about how much hard work we put into it and thinking back about when we were making it. It was a good experience to hear all of it. I felt really good about it.

You recorded the Live at Town Hall album from the tour behind Blinking Lights. That tour included strings and some otherwise pretty stripped-down and unconventional instrumentation. Did you feel like those songs deserved special treatment that they wouldn’t have received at a regular Eels show?

Yeah, we really set out to do something unique for that tour by having four string players and having a bunch of acoustic keyboards. It was a very acoustic affair. The drums were a set of suitcases. It was quite an ordeal putting it together. If you watch the Live At Town Hall concert film, it seems like we’re really on top of everything—but the tour was complete mayhem. We had a tour manager who had never been a tour manager before, and we were just flying by the seat of our pants. It was just so much work and so difficult but all the shows were fantastic. So, knock on wood that it worked.

Was there a sense of uncertainty for each show and getting ready for that special Town Hall gig?

Constantly, getting every gig. The inexperienced tour manager guy was so inexperienced that, I remember at one point, it was like the drive we’re on right now—where we’re going from Seattle to somewhere really far away. He miscalculated the drive by two days, so we had to find ways to get to the next show really fast. I think we ended up having to fly or something from Boise, or whatever it was.

Adding so many moving parts in the reconfiguration of the Eels band, that must have been a logistical nightmare.

Yeah, it really was. I’m really proud of the record, too. Another aspect of it, that I believe to my knowledge, is that it’s the only album made in the history of music that features Tom Waits, Peter Buck, John Sebastian from the Lovin Spoonful and my dog, Bobby Jr., all on the same record.

It might be an impossible task to rank those features, but could you give it a try?

I mean, I gotta go with Bobby Jr. first, of course. And then Tom Waits is a close second. But none of them are slouches. One great thing on that tour was Tom. On the album, we did that through the mail. I talked to him on the phone, but I hadn’t ever met him in person. He’s a person who’s such a hero of mine. I remember a time when I was at a concert sitting there in the audience and looking at him on stage, just trying to imagine him as a real person that you see walking down the street—and I could not imagine it. So, the first time we actually met him was when he came to our show in San Francisco on that tour. It was just surreal. We walked off stage in-between encores and he was just standing there on the side of the stage and I couldn’t believe that I was standing in front of Tom Waits. I was so nervous, and I did that really awkward thing where I just continuously hugged him. His body stiffened up and he made this kind of Frankenstein [snarls like a monster]. It made it all real, because it was a very Tom Waitsian sound. [Laughs]

Could you tell me a bit about the four-year period in between releasing Blinking Lights and Hombre Lobo? You worked on the soundtrack to the Jim Carrey film Yes Man and took time away to work on other non-musical projects. I imagine you must have been pretty depleted after releasing Blinking Lights.

It was actually extremely busy. I wasn’t really taking a rest. It just appeared that way as far as new music goes, but we did a lot of touring. We toured in 2006, where we did the opposite of the 2005 strings tour. And then, in 2008, we put out the Useless Trinkets rarities collection and toured with just me and The Chet [Eels member Jeff Lyster] as a two piece. We put my book [Things The Grandchildren Should Know] out, then we did the documentary about my father, [Parrallel Worlds, Parallel Lives]. And, [during] all of that time, I was also making the next three records. That’s why they [came] out in such a succession. Hombre Lobo and End Times and Tomorrow Morning—they all came out within a year. It would have been impossible to make them and put them up within that year. I made all of them before Hombre Lobo. It was actually the last one I made. I figured the two were always gonna feel old to me, so, if I put out Hombre Lobo first, at least I could enjoy feeling like I was putting out the latest thing that we made.

Coming off of a double-album, was there ever any thought to combine all three of those albums into one sprawling statement?

No, I was conscious while making them. End Times was the first one and then I wanted to follow it up with an optimistic phase that comes after, you know, a breakup phase, or whatever. Then, I realized I should make a part-one to all of that, about the spark and the drive to get into a relationship in the first place. That was Hombre Lobo. So, I made it last but put it out first.

Did you have any revelations re-listening to those albums?

Yeah, for sure. I had a similar feeling to Hombre Lobo that I have to Blinking Lights, where I was like, “Wow, this is a pretty solid record.” End Times wasn’t that much fun for me to listen to, just because of the subject matter, but I enjoyed Tomorrow Morning. Tomorrow Morning, I think, is a pretty unique one in our catalog. It’s very electronic, but not in the way you normally think of electronic. It has really warm, human electronics.

Speaking of the difference between humans and machines, what do you think about the recent announcement from Paul McCartney that the Beatles will be releasing AI-assisted, unearthed material with all four members?

The speculation is largely that it’s John Lennon’s demo “Now and Then.” It’s one of the only things left where they didn’t already have all of their instruments on recordings, like with the Anthology stuff. I’m totally terrified of AI doing some crazy stuff! The other day, I heard Kurt Cobain and Billie Eilish doing an Eels song. It’s gonna be crazy. We’re all gonna have these crazy discographies and no one’s gonna know what we really [did or didn’t do]. You can say, like, “You’re the guy from Eels singing [‘I’m Too Sexy’],” or whatever, and there’s gonna be people who think I really did that! But, I do think the way that Peter Jackson used AI was different. It made it easier to use it to separate tracks that couldn’t be separated from the old days and then clean them up and make them sound amazing and focus on certain parts of tracks. That was what he used for the Get Back documentary, and that’s what Paul McCartney is talking about. I’m okay with that. It’s just going to clean up the John Lennon demo, but I still don’t see how it could be a Beatles record. Paul and Ringo can add to it, but George can’t. So, is that really the Beatles? I mean, I know there’s plenty of Beatles songs that were only three of them, so I guess, maybe, that’s okay.

Are you thinking about the next Eels record right now, or are you primarily staying focused on this tour?

I’ve been working with them on the next record, but I don’t ever like to talk about the food until it’s done cooking.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Pat King is a Philadelphia-based journalist. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.

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