HOLLYWOOD — While Eels singer E was traveling back to Los Angeles from London recently, he spent the entire 10-hour flight feverishly writing a shot-by-shot video treatment for the first single from his new record.
It wasn't until he landed that he learned he had no budget.
"So I had to figure out how to rise to that occasion," E said last week during a break from rehearsing for his upcoming tour. "That's kind of been the whole Eels career: How do you rise to these occasions that you don't necessarily want to rise to, which is partly what the song is about."
In the end, E (whose real name is Mark Oliver Everett, but he introduces himself as E) shot what he boasts is the cheapest video ever made for "Hey Man (Now You're Really Living)."
"I'm the cameraman, the star, the soundman, I did the catering, I did everything," he said. "I had to film myself with the song on the stereo. You got all the trappings of working at home when you're making a video like that. I wasn't really warmed up properly. I did a couple of soul screams that I do on the record, but I did them kind of off-key and the dog started howling. It was a mess."
E shot one take and then played it back.
I was really embarrassed for myself, and that's what convinced me that I should put it out," he said. "It's so real. It's not a flattering portrait of the artist whatsoever. There are no special effects. No flying around. No people turning into vegetables. Those days are over."
So "Hey Man" doesn't come with the same stunning visuals as past Eels singles like "Novocaine for the Soul" and "Last Stop: This Town," but the tune is just as catchy as the simplistic sing-alongs that put the husky-voiced singer/songwriter on the map.
"People think it's supposed to be a funny song, and I don't see it that way at all," E said of the new single, which opens, "Do you know what it's like to fall on the floor/ Cry your guts out till you got no more?" "That's not supposed to be ironic in my mind. I'm just saying there's things in life people say yes to and there's things in life people say no to, and I was just trying to say, you say yes to all of it if you really want to live."
That mindset is exactly how E approached his sixth Eels studio recording, the 33-song Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. Although he's always said he would never make a double album, the songs just kept coming, and he said yes. Well, to an extent.
"It could have been four discs, so consider yourselves lucky," E joked. "I don't think everything I do is great and should come out. I worked really hard for several years editing it into the most succinct, direct version it could be."
E actually started work on the album in 2002 but quickly got frustrated with all of the orchestrations. So he picked up an electric guitar and wrote 2003's Shootenanny! After playing more than 80 shows in support of that record, he was ready to go back to the more subdued Blinking Lights, which has garnered comparisons to 1998's morose Electro-Shock Blues.
"Lyrically, I think it's getting a bad rap about having more to do with death than it really does," E said. "People love that for some reason. People love death. I don't know why. But it's really about life."
The album was inspired by the song "Blinking Lights (For Me)," hence the title Blinking Lights and Other Revelations.
"I wrote that several years ago and I was writing that to comfort someone who was close to me," E said. "I was looking out the window one night and I saw this plane flying over the night sky and I was thinking about people who are scared to fly, what would be comforting about that plane? And I thought, what about the light blinking on that plane. What if it were a Morse code signal that said, 'Don't worry, everything's all right.' Then I got the idea I wanted to make a record that could be a friend to the listener, offer some sort of comfort, maybe."
Along the way, E got some comfort from a few of his heroes, singer Tom Waits, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and the Lovin' Spoonful singer John Sebastian.
"I didn't set out to make my Santana duets album," E said. "But if you find yourself talking to Tom Waits on the phone, you better not let him get off without asking him if he wants to come work on a dance number you're in the middle of recording."