IT’S a little-known fact that Mark Oliver Everett and Colin Firth have been bestowed with the same honour.
The Eels singer, who goes by the stage name “E”, and the esteemed actor are among a select few to be given the Freedom of the City of London.
A chance for the unlikely pair to form a brotherly bond — another Anglo-American special relationship? Not a bit of it.
In the rom-com Love Actually, Firth’s writer character Jamie exclaims: “I can’t stand eels!”
You might recall him up to his neck in water, retrieving the sodden pages of his manuscript.
His disdain for eels almost certainly refers to the slimy creatures slithering around his legs. But that’s not stopping E putting a different spin on the situation in his song Good Night On Earth.
Speaking via Zoom from his home in the Los Angeles neighbourhood of Los Feliz, he says: “Somebody happened to send me a clip of that scene.
“I found it ironic because the movie is called Love Actually but saying, ‘I can’t stand eels’ didn’t sound at all like love to me.”
So E found a way to incorporate Firth’s line into Good Night On Earth, “which is about celebrating nice moments among all the sh***ier ones”.
He says: “I thought of it as a funny moment. Everyone’s a critic these days. Everyone’s got something negative to say, even Colin Firth!”
First released as a single last year, the song appears on the effervescent new Eels album Extreme Witchcraft.
E adds: “Since it came out, I realised Colin might get wind of it. So I reached out to his people to see if he wanted to bury the hatchet. I got no response, so I think he really does hate eels.
“It particularly hurts because we are both Freemen of London. He’s practically my brother!”
As we speak, the silence from Mr Firth remains deafening . . . so let’s hope he reads SFTW and gets in touch with his emotionally bruised fellow honouree.
“Let the record show that he threw down the gauntlet,” says E (with tongue firmly in cheek, of course).
This is all typical of the quirky humour Eels aficionados are used to — and there is plenty more across the 12 tracks of Extreme Witchcraft.
If his other lockdown album, 2020’s Earth To Dora, captured E’s softer and more introspective songwriting, this one is riff-laden, funky and most definitely to be played loud.
“Sometimes you just gotta rock,” affirms E.
“I remember that after the Blinking Lights And Other Revelations album came out, we went on the massive Eels With Strings world tour.
“It was all very acoustic and by the end, I’d be asleep on the bus having nightmares of smashing violins and cellos with an electric guitar.”
For E, his latest album is all part of a loud-quiet cycle which began in 1996 with breakthrough debut Beautiful Freak.
“It’s natural for me,” he says. “After you do so much of one thing, you want to go the other way.”
For Extreme Witchcraft, he enlisted the help of a Brit he really does get on with, Bristol-based John Parish, best known for his work with PJ Harvey.
After meeting on Top Of The Pops when Harvey sang A Perfect Day Elise and Eels performed Last Stop: This Town, they struck up a friendship that led to them collaborating on 2001’s Souljacker, another hard-rocking album, and they’ve kept in touch ever since.
I remember meeting Parish, complete with trademark fedora, and thinking he was one of the nicest, most mild-mannered people in music.
Yet somehow E unleashes the beast within his collaborator as they construct their rock freakouts.
“Yeah, you’re left thinking, ‘That can’t be the same guy’,” agrees E. “Thank God John Parish has this musical outlet because I can only imagine he’d be a serial killer otherwise!”
So how come Parish got involved in Extreme Witchcraft? And how did it all work out during lockdown?
E says: “It came out of the blue. I wasn’t even thinking about making an album because it hadn’t been long since the last one.
“Then, one night, I got a text from Mark Romanek, who directed the first Eels video, Novocaine For The Soul.
“He said he’d been listening to Souljacker a lot, which was nice of him, and that got me thinking about John Parish.”
Aware that Parish was “a very busy man”, E decided to check in with him anyway and, to his delight, struck lucky.
“John had a little time in between projects and immediately started sending me ideas,” he says.
“It soon became this rapid-fire back-and-forth thing between Bristol and Los Angeles. A few weeks later, we had an album.”
According to E, the process wasn’t as much fun as it sounds.
“Not only were we working through the internet but there is also a massive time difference between Bristol and Los Angeles,” he says.
“I’d get up at 4am to check on what John sent back so I could get my part back to him before he went to bed.”
However, anyone hearing the resulting album will agree with E when he says: “What is fun is the music itself.
“It sounds very much like a band record with us all together in the same room. It’s nice to know you can still achieve that during a pandemic.”
Not only has E crafted two Eels albums during the various lockdowns, he has been looking after his only child, Archie.
Burning the midnight oil also allowed him to work before his son woke up and demanded breakfast. “It became a real balancing act,” he says.
New song Strawberries & Popcorn is clad in psychedelic tones and takes its name from Archie’s leftover food, although its creator turned it into a “different scenario”.
E says: “I can report that his grandfather recently asked him what he thought of his dad’s music.
“He’s only four and this is what he said — I quote, ‘Not a fan’. For a four-year-old to even use that phrase really hurts!”
But the little Everett is showing tentative signs of following in Dad’s footsteps, as E reports.
“One of the few times he seemed interested in my work was when he was singing the phrase ‘kitty butthole’ over and over again. Then he said, ‘Maybe your band can do this song?’ ”
Paying more attention to E’s music are his small dogs Manson and Bundy, named, as you do, after two of America’s most notorious serial killers.
You can hear them joining in “right on the break between the first chorus and the second verse” of the song What It Isn’t.
E says: “I was in the kitchen doing my vocal when the mailman happened to come by and they went berserk.”
It’s not his first canine contribution because beloved old rescue mutt Bobby Jr, now sadly dead, can be heard howling away on Blinking Lights.
“I’ve tried to resist making Manson and Bundy stars as a way of honouring Bobby Jr,” he continues.
“But I thought, ‘Why should I be the only one who has to suffer their yappy, shrieking barking? Let the whole world enjoy this’.”
‘Lennon’s a big fan’
E describes Bobby Jr as a “proper singer” but “these guys not so much”.
“When I first got them five years ago, I was not their biggest fan because I wasn’t into small dogs,” he says.
“But now that we’re starting year three of a pandemic and they have been my constant companions, I’ve turned into the dog equivalent of a weird old cat-lady. I’m so glad they’re here with me.”
Are they Jack Russells or something similar, I enquire.
“No, we did a DNA test and it turns out they’re a mix of every barkiest breed,” answers E. “I’ve got them locked away so you don’t have to hear them.”
Bearing in mind their names, however, I ask if they’re the sort of dogs who would eat him if they found him dead on the floor.
“I’ve thought about that a lot,” he says. “If no one was here to discover my body, they probably WOULD eat me. I wouldn’t blame them. It’s nice to give back, you know.”
Next we discuss the album title, for which E provides a fascinating explanation.
“A few years ago, I happened to see a news story about Beyonce being sued by her former drummer. Among his charges was that she practised ‘extreme witchcraft’, which I thought was hilarious.
“Beyonce? Led Zeppelin, maybe! I filed that away because I love those two words together. As if witchcraft wasn’t already extreme enough.”
Talking of the supernatural, anyone familiar with Eels’ website will know that E likes to commune with his hero, the late John Lennon.
He says: “John’s a big fan of this album. He told me that it’s our best in years because he’s a rocker.
“He blames Brian Epstein for putting The Beatles in suits. This is more his cup of tea.”
The “hardcore” Fab Four fan spent many happy lockdown hours immersing himself in Peter Jackson’s epic Get Back documentary focusing on the Let It Be sessions.
“I was very sceptical about it before seeing it,” he says. “I thought it was going to be a whitewash, edited to make Paul look better. I was completely wrong. It changes history. It’s fantastic!”
But why does he prefer Lennon over McCartney? “His songs always really spoke to me. There’s no topping Strawberry Fields Forever or A Day In The Life.
“That’s just otherworldly greatness. But Paul is no slouch and Get Back succeeded in giving me tons of new respect for him.
“How was he able to write songs with all these people fluttering about him — and Yoko sitting there? What a great craftsman.”
Aside from the pleasures of Get Back, E sighs when he says: “Probably most of my TV viewing is intended for a four-year-old.
“But some of it’s great. My favourite has been Peppa Pig, which my son seems to think he has outgrown.
“That’s a bummer because I love it. I could watch it all night.”
E says little Archie has recently discovered YouTube. “It’s weird how kids like to watch videos of other kids playing with toys rather than just playing with toys,” he says.
“We’re too old to understand, man. Let them get on with it.”
This comment proves the cue for the 58-year-old to muse about ageing and mortality, themes that have long loomed large in his songs.
Stumbling Bee counts among them. “I was inspired by a bee drunkenly buzzing around me in November,” he says.
“I thought, ‘Yeah buddy, I get it, I feel like that too. We’re trying and it’s hard’.”
E considers all the interviews I’ve done with him over the past 20 years and says: “Well Simon, I mean, it’s amazing we’ve done this many. How many more can we have left?”
I reply: “Probably fewer than we’ve already done.”
Yet his final words strike an optimistic note in keeping with the upbeat sound of Extreme Witchcraft.
“Let’s hope not. I like to think there’s plenty more.”