As their name suggests, eels can be a slippery entity. Their own freakish beauty derives in part from an ability to change gears at a moment’s notice, careening from glockenspiel to twisted guitar rock to jazzy samples within the space of one song. And though E’s lyrics often explore feelings of isolation and sadness, they invariably find some hope of redemption. "I’m trying to salute individuality in the face of depression," he says. "Sometimes songs can make people feel less alone. That’s my mission."
The brainchild of E and drummer Butch—the band likes to be on a first-name basis with everyone—eels defined their sound in contrast to the retro-leaning L.A. pop scene. "Rather than try to sound like the Beatles," E asserts, "I wanted to do as the Beatles did. They soaked up everything around them at the time, and then put their own stink on it. I’m much more interested in what’s going on now than what was going on then. I think we have enough of our own stink to make something unique."
Beautiful Freak was recorded by E, Butch and bassist Tommy in various Los Angeles basements and garages. E produced the album with the assistance of Michael Simpson, whose work as half of the Dust Brothers recording team (Beastie Boys, Beck)—known for their inventive and irreverent use of samples and lo-fi atmospherics—had captured E’s imagination long before they collaborated. "I’d started to get interested in sampling," he recalls, "but it never clicked for me until one day I realized, ’Hey, this can be done in a more musical way than I’ve been hearing it.’ And that was a great re-birthing feeling, like I could get into something limitless here."
eels formed after E—who’d grown tired of the pop pigeonhole he’d been forced into as a singer-songwriter—decided to put together a more forward-looking project. A Virginia native, he absorbed music of every imaginable style growing up. "I was into everything," he remembers. "I would go through long phases: a long country phase, a long soul phase, everything." His ambitions as a singer and songwriter led him to submit his material to every record company he knew of, but he found little encouragement from the music industry.
Undaunted, E settled in Los Angeles at age 20 and struggled on the scene for a few years. He met his current bandmates during a jam session at an L.A. club called the Mint. Despite its humble origins, their musical chemistry was exactly what he’d been seeking. "I always thought I’d be a solo kind of guy until I found these two and it really clicked," he says. "It’s definitely the best band I’ve ever been in."
After gigging around town in late 1995, the band met Simpson—by then an A&R rep for DreamWorks—with whom they felt an immediate rapport. "You constantly forget he’s working for the company," marvels E, "because he’s a great guy and an innovative producer. You forget he’s a record weasel." In early 1996 the band signed with DreamWorks and began selecting songs for Beautiful Freak.
"It’s been fun making the record, because we balance each other out so well," E enthuses. "Butch is this crazy animal who just lives to drum. One of the first things we did together was construct his drum kit, which is like no other kit ever." Along with the standard kick and snare drums, Butch’s arsenal includes a drum made from a heating duct, a fire alarm bell and other percussion exotica. "We call Tommy ’The Professor,’" E explains. "He’s the trained musical guy who deals with all the technical aspects of things the rest of us can’t handle. Like whether the French Horn—which he plays—is in pitch."
eels knew better than to try to recreate their recorded soundscapes in performance. "We treat the live situation and the studio situation as two totally different things," declares E. "To us, whatever works for a record doesn’t necessarily make the best live situation, and vice versa. We had a lot of samples on the record, but everything we do live is just the three of us—no samples."
This band is the first in which E is the sole electric guitarist. Untroubled by his relative lack of virtuosity, he maintains, "People write better songs on instruments they don’t play that well." All the same, he admits, "The pressure’s on me because we’re a three-piece and I’m up there playing guitar and that’s all there is. It’s kinda scary, but I’m rockin’. It’s really a great feeling to try something you haven’t done before and have it work."
Just as they’ve found inspiration in one another, eels have also been influenced by their environment. The funky Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park is their home base, and its milieu of urban tension and bohemia has had a marked impact on their sound. E confides that on arriving in L.A., "all the cliches came true before my eyes, all the plastic people. And I thought the West Side was all there was. I didn’t know about Echo Park and Silverlake and the great underground art scene. I don’t think of Los Angeles the same way I used to. I really like it now."
Echo Park also surfaces in E’s lyrics. In "Susan’s House" an alternately grim and surreal inner-city travelogue is delivered over a loping hip-hop groove. "I think the work is starting to reflect the community and how it applies to the individual, rather than the individual wrapped up in his own world," E muses. While at first he felt unqualified to write about his adoptive neighborhood—the setting of the girl-gang film "Mi Vida Loca"—he ultimately decided, "I’ve lived here for three or four years. It’s a part of me now, and I’m gonna write about it. I’m gonna immerse myself in it. I just had to open my eyes."
Eyes wide open is a recurring theme of Beautiful Freak. Unlike the protagonist of his song "Novocaine for the Soul," who begs for numbness, E prefers to confront pain directly in his work. "I’m trying to put something in the music that says it’s OK to be sad today," he notes. "I don’t think there’s such a thing as happiness in the sense that most people seek it—nonstop bliss. To be happy is to be happy and sad, to be able to feel. That’s my goal: not to be on Novocain."
"There’s a lot of hostility towards therapy now, and impatience with talk about depression," E continues. "If I didn’t know what it was like to be depressed, I might feel the same way. For me, writing songs has been a way of working through problems—doing all this work and taking it around and letting other people hear it. And I get letters all the time from people who feel the things I express in the songs, and it feels great. Sometimes all people need is to know they’re not alone." The compassionate spirit of eels’ music will no doubt reach listeners who know what it’s like to feel freakish, but who are, as the song "Beautiful Freak" puts it, "flying inside."