On their 13th album, Los Angeles’s EELS conjure up more of their trademark introspection and outwardly quirky rock.
Indie rock band EELS are released their thirteenth studio album, Earth to Dora last month – but despite going through this process many times before, frontman E admits that putting his work into the world hasn’t really gotten any easier. “It’s always mostly an unpleasant experience for me, because the fun part is making it and then after that, everything is like an office job,” he says, calling from his L.A. home. “And then there’s a feeling of vulnerability putting it out there for everyone to judge.”
E adds that the current COVID-19 pandemic isn’t helping matters, making this album release “particularly odd. We had plans to do a lot of touring once it was out, and of course we can’t do that. But then we thought, ‘Well, people still need music, maybe now more than ever, so let’s give it to them.’”
Fortunately, the pandemic didn’t much get in the way of the recording process for Earth to Dora, with all songs finished pre-COVID except for one, “Are We Alright Again,” which E says “was directly inspired by the pandemic. It’s a fantasy that I needed during this quarantine to feel like what it could be like when things are better. I wrote that for myself. I just needed a daydream about getting out of all this. I hope it could serve that purpose for somebody else. That was the last thing I’ve written.”
E had gathered the rest of the tracks for the album over a period of a few years. “It’s really a collection of songs over a long period of time that came about piecemeal,” he says. “I didn’t have a theme. And then, as it was going along, I started to see that they are mostly relationship-oriented, although they aren’t about the same situation, and some of them aren’t even autobiographical. [But] I sequenced the album so a listener, if they wanted to, could think of it as like the arc of a particular relationship.”
Once E decided on the songs that he wanted for Earth to Dora, he says it was a relatively quick and painless process to record them – which he did in his home studio along with musicians Kool G Murder, The Chet, and P-Boo. E produced the album himself, but he says he never worries he’ll end up lingering too long on any track. “It’s not a big issue for me,” he says. “I’m always eager to get on to the next one. I’m not one of those artists that will tinker and polish something to death. Most of our songs are done in a day or two.”
Since releasing his first two albums as a solo artist (1992’s A Man Called E and 1993’s Broken Toy Shop), then debuting with EELs for 1996’s Beautiful Freak, E has become known for his intensely insightful and personal lyrics, a trend that continues with Earth to Dora. He says he began writing in this ultra-personal way because “It’s something I couldn’t do in my real life very well. I’m much better at being completely open in a song than I am around people in everyday life.”
This doesn’t mean that this confessional style always comes easily for E. “That’s always the hardest part, the first time I sing a new song in front of the other guys in the band in the studio,” he says. “It’s a really vulnerable feeling to stand there at the vocal mic for the first time with the other guys in the band – who most of the time you’re spending your time joking around and being dudes with – and then you’re singing some song about your feelings.”
E became a musician at an early age, playing in bands in high school in his native Virginia. But, he says, “I never considered it being anything bigger than that.” He finally got serious about making music his actual career when he was in his late teens, when his girlfriend made some crucial comments to him: “She is the one who really encouraged me. She said, ‘You’re really good at music – you should pursue it.’ Without that pep talk, I might never have done it.”
Since then, E has been prolific. Besides the two albums under his stage name “E” (real name: Mark Oliver Everett), Earth to Dora will make it thirteen more albums he’s released as the leader of EELS (“Lucky thirteen,” he quips). Seven of these albums have made the charts, and all been critically acclaimed – and noted for their ever-shifting musical styles, ranging from hard-edged to introspective indie rock (often within the same album), with his confessional lyrics as the through-line. E admits that his band’s eclectic and unpredictable style has probably cost him some listeners over the years, though.
“You pay a certain price when you decide to do it the way we’ve done it a lot of the time, which was change things up,” E says. “You alienate some of the audience every time you do that. But we’ve been so lucky that there’s been enough people that have stuck with the story as it changes over the years, who see the common thread to it all. And I’m eternally grateful for that.”
E’s core group of loyal fans have remained loyal to him for more than 25 years now, giving him the kind of enduring music career that surprises even him. “I couldn’t really imagine that I could turn it into anything, let alone make it my life,” he says, “and I’m still amazed that it turned out that way. I pinch myself a lot, still. I can’t believe I got to make one album, let alone this many. It’s a miracle.”