Mark Eitzel isn't having it. "'Supergroup'?" he sniffs. "That's sort of a horrible expression. Don't they have a tendency to be really boring, just sitting around on stools doing high-fives between every song?" He pauses, with expert comic timing. "Actually, this is just like that."
Eitzel, veteran solo artist and on-again-off-again leader of legendary California brood-rockers American Music Club, is one of four superb, iconoclastic singer-songwriters drawn together into touring as a reluctant supergroup dubbed the Undertow Orchestra, which will be stopping at Walter's this Saturday night. The other three Undertowers are Will Johnson of Centro-matic, David Bazan (the Artist Formerly Known as Pedro the Lion) and the man in the wheelchair, larger-than-life freak-folk progenitor Vic Chesnutt.
"We got rock stars galore up here," drawls Chesnutt with good-natured sarcasm during a break from a marathon UO practice session at his Athens, Georgia, home. "Of course, I'm the only one that counts, really. Because I am a god. A rock god."
The Undertow name certainly fits the dark, even morbid, sensibility shared by its four members ("My reputation is for being a depressive songwriter, and I'm the happiest one!" marvels Chesnutt), but the mundane fact is that all four artists are under contract to a management company called Undertow Music and it was a business decision to assemble this "package" tour. Still, the form that the actual music would take was up in the air until...well, pretty much until today.
"We didn't actually predict anything," explains the often dour Eitzel with an uncharacteristic edge of wonder in his voice. "Vic just sort of started playing bass and he's really, really good! And I'm on acoustic guitar, although I didn't know I'd be playing acoustic guitar. And David is on drums mostly." The combo is rounded out with Johnson on electric guitar and his Centro-matic bandmate Scott Danborn pulling keyboard duty. Eitzel, Chesnutt, Bazan and Johnson are all switching off doing lead vocals.
"It's a band and we're rockin'," affirms Chesnutt. "It's not like a song-swap or anything."
"David and Will and Vic are all consummate musicians," explains Eitzel. "I'm kinda the weak link in terms of musicianship in the band, 'cause these guys can just listen to something and know what it is, just play it, y'know? Whereas I have to take it to a quiet corner and...look at it.
"The combination of great songwriters with really great musicianship is sort of incredible," Eitzel elaborates. "I think that songwriters know how to make a song sound good. They know when things need to get loud and they know when things are quiet and they know, very subtly, how to make the moment happen in the songs. Like usually if you hire a drummer and you're a songwriter, the drummer'll just play his ass off 'cause he's just there to express his art: the drums. And then you're left with this fuckin' loud-ass asshole who has his sound and doesn't really give a shit. It's all about he's got the tempo covered." His voice is gradually rising in nasal mimicry of what one imagines is the voice of a typical L.A. session musician. " 'You want it a little groovy? Okay, I can do groovy! Here's groovy!' "; Immediately dropping back to his normal, weary tone, he sighs: "Fuck you, just play the drums."
Along with a tendency to dwell almost exclusively in the "glass half empty" camp, all four of these artists share a similar sense of deadpan humor, if only as a survival mechanism. In concert, Eitzel is particularly adept at blurring the line between tragedy and comedy, cracking self-effacing jokes one minute and tearing your heart out with his jailhouse shiv of a voice the next. Even within the songs themselves, Eitzel can turn the mood on a dime: On the early-'90s American Music Club track "Apology for an Accident," he follows up the poignant admission "I've been praying a lot lately" by explaining, "it's because I no longer have a TV."
Chesnutt is also more than capable of this sort of disconcerting change-up. In the middle of an almost unbearably desolate dirge called "Square Room" from his 1998 Salesman and Bernadette disc, he blurts, "It's funny how I've alienated / those who I was trying just so, so hard to impress / now half o' those fuckers hate me / and I'm just a fool to all the rest."
"That's a very important tool in my songwriting arsenal," Chesnutt says of this use of humor in the most unexpected places. "I love that tension: I call it the 'emotional torque.'"
In a commercial landscape that tends toward the youthful, the obvious and the upbeat, the aging, ambiguous and somewhat anguished men of Undertow don't seem to have many illusions about their career paths. Speaking on the reception that greeted his excellent 2005 CD Ghetto Bells (on which he was thrilled to collaborate with two of his heroes, arranger-lyricist Van Dyke Parks and guitarist Bill Frisell), Chesnutt is blunt.
"It was completely ignored by everybody," he states, accurately. "I didn't expect anything different because people hate me now. It started a few years ago. I used to be a critic's darlin' back in the early '90s, but then it seemed like around 2000 people started goin', yeah, now we hate him.' So now they hate me, and they won't write about me anymore." He doesn't sound particularly upset by this realization.
Having gained his initial fan base playing semi-rootsy post-punk with American Music Club, Eitzel has taken a lot of heat from fans for turning increasingly toward electronic music. His latest solo CD, Candy Ass, alternates almost evenly between the two approaches and has garnered some extreme reactions.
"I once did a Google search of 'Eitzel is shit,' " he says with characteristic candor. "And of the 350,000 hits, the first 30 were all fans of mine talking about Candy Ass. The thing is, electronic music speaks to me just as well as lyrics. I don't really feel there's anything divine about any one way of doing things. I mean, if you like hip-hop, does that mean you hate folk? But it's all good, to use the expression. I don't really care anymore."
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As morose as the overall Undertow worldview might be, they all seem delighted, if somewhat bewildered, to find themselves playing together. Both Eitzel and Chesnutt can't help gushing over each other's work (Chesnutt going as far as admitting to having "groupied around" following Eitzel on tour before), and both call Bazan's drumming skills "amazing" and say their only concern is that the band won't match up to the live excellence of Centro-matic.
Eitzel sums the tour up thusly: "We're playing 32 songs, so it's a long show. I don't think the Pedro fans'll be too unhappy. I don't think the Vic fans'll be too unhappy, either. And I'm certain, positive,that my fans will be very happy."
When it's suggested that this sounds like a no-lose situation, he hesitates only slightly before agreeing.
"I think it is, actually," Eitzel says, smiling audibly. "And I don't brag easy." The Undertow Orchestra appears Saturday, February 25, at Walter's on Washington, 4215 Washington Avenue, 713-862-2513. For information, visit www.superunison.com.