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It was supposed to be an interview about the eels and the LA combo’s twisted main man E — honest.
After all E, aka Mark Everett, has been charming the pants off pop acolytes since the band’s alterna-hit ’96 debut, Beautiful Freak. With a fifth studio album Shootenanny, E’s still on a creative roll, tucking his trademark lyrical dark humor and cynical (if ultimately romantic) worldview into a thick sonic briefcase liberally stuffed with glammy power-pop, endearing folk waltzes, bluesy ’70s crunch and orchestrally inclined bliss-pop.
E also recently constructed a separate musical persona — MC Honky, the brilliant, if eccentric, fiftysomething studio rat specializing in hip-hop-flavored “self-help rock” and who looks uncannily like Brian Wilson’s myopic dad Murray — and issued an MC Honky album, I Am The Messiah. While no XTC-in-disguise Dukes Of Stratosphear (and mercifully, no Paul McCartney-does-techno the Fireman), it’s a groovin’ affair, further evidence of E’s gifted muse.
So I wanted to know more about the man behind the letter. But midway into the interview, when I innocently inquire about MC Honky, I step into the Twilight Zone.
Referring to MC Honky in the third person like a schizo dealing with the voices in his head, E patiently explains to me how he “discovered” the curmudgeonly DJ after being handed a tape, and then subsequently offered to help get I Am The Messiah released. E shovels the shtick even higher as he painstakingly elaborates on Honky’s back story. (Which, according to his “official bio,” has him working for Capitol Records and engineering Sinatra’s ’68 album Gunga Din. Whoops, looks like All Music Guide missed that Ol’ Blue Eyes title.)
“The thing that’s really interesting about him as an artist is that he does something different from any DJ,” enthuses E, and I can’t tell if the note of awe in his voice is part of the gag or amazement that I’m taking this in so passively. “Most DJs, they sample a record like anyone can, that three seconds or whatever of a whole song. But MC Honky was a recording engineer in the ’60s and ’70s and still has access to a lot of old tapes that, um, he probably shouldn’t have, master tapes to unbelievable albums. I’m sure it’s all completely illegal. I shouldn’t say any more. But he can actually go in and isolate and sample individual tracks from songs off these records, which nobody else can do. So it’s a whole new ballgame.
“But he didn’t even want to put I Am The Messiah out! He didn’t want to be part of all the bullshit of the show business game. So I said, ‘Fine, but still, let’s put out your stuff. I’ll be your cheerleader, you know? I’ll give you a page on our Web site and tell the world about you!’”
A man of his word, E persuaded indie SpinArt to release Messiah and added an entire MC Honky section to the eels Web site (www.eelstheband.com). Then reviews began appearing.
“The NME in England does this article that says, ‘E puts out solo album under the name MC Honky.’ Which, of course, isn’t true. I mean, why do I need to make solo albums? I make eels albums, which are solo albums, really. I’d have to break up with myself to do that! Anyway, MC Honky heard about this article — and the press pretty much copied it, calling his album my album — and he got angry about it.”
Going with the flow, I sagely observe that anyone would be right in feeling slighted if their hard work got credited to someone else. E gets annoyed.
“Apparently he cares more than he’d let on! But it’s not like he’s ever gonna do anything on his own! Contrary to his musical personality, he’s really kind of a difficult person to deal with. [Sighing] I’m really at my wit’s end. I’m on the verge of just saying, ‘Forget about the whole thing. I’m done with it.’”
By the time our interview is over, E has not only rebuked me for suggesting he and Honky mend fences and pool their talents, he darkly vows that “this opening up of his competitive streak [has me] determined to show him how it’s really done, with my new eels record.”
A few weeks later, news reports posted on the eels Web site indicate that E went even further, telling a reporter, in an unfortunate echo of the old Oasis-Blur rivalry, “I hope MC Honky dies of SARS!” But, fans, take heart: Just like Christina and Justin realized this summer that two is better than one because, well, because it’s two, so did E and Honky find common professional ground and are currently on the road together as the “eels 2003 Tour Of Duty.”
So enjoy. Just pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, OK?
The eels and MC Honky will appear at St. Andrew’s Hall (431 E. Congress, Detroit) on Saturday, July 26. For information, call 313-961-MELT.
Fred Mills writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.