In late June, singer-songwriter Mark Oliver Everett -- he usually goes by just E -- was sitting on a bench in London's Hyde Park, enjoying a cigar. Those are the relevant details. The irrelevant ones, however, caused the fuss, which came next.
"It's the weirdest thing that ever happened to me, which is saying something," Everett said during a midsummer interview before starting a 50-city tour with his band, the Eels. "I was doing a week of international press in London at a hotel. It was the first day. I did interviews, I needed a break. I went to Hyde Park to walk around. I smoked a cigar, sat on a bench. As I was leaving the park, a bunch of police came up -- and they had guns, which is unusual for London. Someone had called the police and given my description as a suspicious character. The description definitely had to be me."
A description of Everett: normal-size, wiry guy, frequently in shades -- and these days he has very short hair and a very long, bushy beard. And let's make it more interesting: There was an embassy nearby.
"I was only described as standing in front of an embassy looking suspicious," he said. "I didn't know there was an embassy around. Why would I? At first, I laughed. Then I saw how serious they were. ... It was a very snooty part of London. Some old English biddy didn't know what to make of the way I looked. I have a long beard like some Muslim men have. That's the extent of it. It was weird to feel victimized, to be judged by my book's cover."
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This wasn't the first time, either. When the Eels' "Souljacker" album was released in September 2001, Everett was eyed and questioned in airports more than once.
"I'm going to start a campaign for my bearded brethren, for bearded rights." He can laugh about it now. He's in Los Angeles. "We'll chant, 'We just want to rock!'"
Now Everett wants to do just that. He's just released the Eels' ninth studio record, "Tomorrow Morning." It's the completion of a trilogy that began with last year's "Hombre Lobo" (subtitled "12 Songs of Desire") and continued when "End Times" (as dark and lonely as its title implies) slipped out in January.
The Eels you might remember from their brief moment in the MTV sun in 1996. The debut album, "Beautiful Freak" (one of the first to be released on the then-ballyhooed new DreamWorks label), scored a No. 1 hit with the sleepy but plucky "Novocaine for the Soul." If you know of any of the band's other eight records, you're part of the cult that stayed with him, remaining loyal to some of the most rewarding songwriting and one of the most consistent bodies of work in modern rock.
"My experience with 'Beautiful Freak' was very valuable, in that it taught me all the things I didn't want," Everett said. "It set me on this direction and is why I'm still here, because I threw all that away, all that designed success. I try to be the best artist I can be. I was turned off by the whole record business and MTV world then. I went down to my basement and made my next record about my family dying, much to the chagrin of everyone around me." The Eels' 1998 album, "Electro-Shock Blues," is a stark affair addressing the suicide of Everett's sister and the cancer diagnosis of his mother.
"I don't think I'd still be around if I hadn't done that." Everett said. "If I'd listened to the music-business people, they'd have me keep making 'Beautiful Freak, Vol. 2,' 'Vol. 3' and so on. It wouldn't have worked, and that would have been the end of it."
When we talk about the Eels, we're really talking about Everett. Other members -- Jonathan "Butch" Norton, Tommy Walter, Adam Siegel, John Parish, various guests -- rotate through the studios and stages, justifying the plural moniker. Everett is the one constant, the chief songwriter, the lyricist with simple words but a brainy perspective. ("Brainy" is inherent. His father was Hugh Everett III, a physicist who crafted the Many Worlds Theory of parallel universes. Scientific American called him "one of the most important scientists of the 20th century.") But for this album, and this tour, we're talking about the Eels as a band: Everett plus guitarist P-Boo, bassist Koool G Murder and drummer Knuckles.
It's all part of emerging from the tunnel of this trilogy. Everett hasn't toured in four years. He's restless, he said. Like his bearded brethren, he wants to rock.
"The trilogy was based on human emotions, each one. The first, on desire. 'Hombre' was a band record. 'End Times' is about loss. It was very solitary, a sing-song thing I made alone in my basement. ... My goal with the new record was to make a really warm record, a celebration of life in the world and all the things I appreciate about it. You can't make that one alone in your basement. You have to share it with people. So 'Tomorrow Morning' was very collaborative. It was also very studio-centric. Technology is a big part of this one. We tried to create an environment of experimentation."
The unusual optimism (for Everett) is apparent from the start. "In Gratitude for This Magnificent Day" is a small suite of synthesizers, followed by the fluttering, swaying "I'm a Hummingbird," built on a whorled, wind-blown arrangement of sampled strings. The electronic sounds whimper and purr through "This Is Where It Gets Good" and the woozy crescendos of "Oh So Lovely." The cheery titles just keep coming, too: "Baby Loves Me," "Looking Up," "I Like the Way This Is Going."
"'Tomorrow Morning,' is about redemption," Everett said. "It's about getting another chance. The beginning is the end, the 'End Times' are in the middle. It wouldn't be fun to end with 'End Times.' If I follow it with 'Tomorrow Morning,' it changes the meaning of the title 'End Times.' We all go through hard times. It's good to know there's always another chance, if you want it."