Ilya S. Savenok, Getty Images The sad news came across late Wednesday afternoon…
- Posted on Oct 20th 2008 5:00PM by Benjy Eisen
Unfortunately, Hugh Everett died when E was 19-years-old. E was always tight-lipped about his private life and so even the few science enthusiasts who figured out that their favorite songwriter was also the son of their favorite physicist had no idea that E not only discovered his dead father's body, but his mom also died in his arms (having lost a battle with cancer) shortly after his sister committed suicide. His cousin died on 9/11. His sister's boyfriend tried to stab him to death. He's had the kind of life few would want to survive, let alone write about for the world to read.
This week, Mark Everett's memoir, entitled 'Things the Grandchildren Should Know,' recently hit American shelves. PBS will air a NOVA film entitled 'Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives' about E's quest to find out more about his father and his theory. With last year's Eels compilation, 'Meet the Eels,' playing softly in the background, Spinner recently sat down for an unusually revealing conversation with the last surviving Everett.
How deep have you gotten into your dad's theory?
Well, it's one of those things that's so huge -- it has to do with how everything works. And it's such a heavy mind-blowing idea that it's hard for us to wrap our linear thinking minds around. Every time I start to really get a grasp on it, a few minutes later I lose it. Which, I think, is a common thing. The most I ever came to understanding it was during the filming of the documentary. I had the luxury of being taught by the leading quantum physics experts in the world. And the viewer gets to learn through my stupid eyes, along with me.
When did you first become aware of your dad's theory? Did you know about it when he was still alive?
Only vaguely. I didn't know he was a famous physicist because [back then] he wasn't that famous because he wasn't taken that seriously. He was a 27-year-old kid who came up with this theory that, at the time, wasn't taken seriously and that was the tragedy of his life. He gave up after that. But occasionally something would happen -- I was aware that there were some 'Star Trek' episodes and 'Twilight Zones' and what-not that were based on something he had written. And sometimes it'd be something like a neighbor would be playing in a hammock or something next door, and he'd come running over with a science-fiction book he had been reading that afternoon and say 'Hey, Hugh is in this!' But I wasn't really aware of what a big deal it was until the rest of the world started catching up to him. He was so far ahead of the time there wasn't even a mathematical way to back up his theory at the time. But now, 50 years later, there is. And it checks out really well, mathematically. Everyone takes him seriously, finally.
Do you agree with your dad's theory?
There's the term Everettian in the physics world. There are physicists who are Everettians and there are physicists who are not Everettians, and I think by default I have to be an Everettian.
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Guillaume Baptiste / Dalle,Retna Ltd
Kelly A. Swift,Retna
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In reading the book, you're very matter of fact in relaying a lot of these stories. You repeatedly make it clear that your dad was somewhat cold to his kids and definitely didn't say much. I'm not sure that you made it clear how you actually felt about that.
The reason for that might be that when you're a kid, whatever is going on inside your house seems normal to you. It didn't seem odd to me. I didn't find myself longing for my father's attention because it was never there. If it had been there and then taken away from me, that would be different. But it was just never an issue. It was just the way it was. He was like a piece of furniture.
You never stated if you harbored any negative feelings towards him for that or compared him with your friends' fathers.
As I got older, I started to notice that things weren't so normal, in that other fathers were a lot different than mine.
You've recently realized that you have some things in common with him. Do you feel closer to your father now than you did when he was alive?
I barely had any conversations with him while he was alive, even though he was always there. He was always a mystery to me. And I'm so lucky that I got to make this documentary about him because I got to meet all these people. I hung out with his college roommates who are all still alive from Princeton, and even got to hang out with them in the room that they shared with him. I met people from all the different periods of his life and I got a real sense of who he was and why he was the way he was. It all made sense to me by the end of it -- the tragedy of his life. It ruined his life that he wasn't taken seriously. And it led me to being able to forgive him for his shortcomings as a father. We should all be so lucky to make a documentary about our fathers. It couldn't have worked out better for me.
In the NOVA film, you say at one point that you can't imagine what it would've been like to have this groundbreaking idea and have nobody give it a chance. Yet, on several different occasions you've finished an album that you believed in very strongly only to find that nobody wanted to release them. Did you ever feel a certain parallel to your father in those times?
Yeah, definitely. That's one of the things that really helped me understand my father. It's just the loneliest feeling to believe in something you made and that you worked so hard for and to feel like you're the only one who believes in it.
Do you have any memory of your dad discussing your music with you?
No. But I do have to give him credit -- he let me play drums in the house every day. And I wasn't like most kids who buy a toy drum set from the garage sale next door and play it for a week and then lose interest in it. I played them every day for 10 years. And I have to take that as some sort of endorsement that he let me do that in the house. Because I know now, as an adult, that if there was some kid playing the drums every day for 10 years, I'd go insane.
You're in your mid-40s. You just wrote this tell-all book and then you make this NOVA film about your search for your father. I'm tempted to call this your mid-life crisis, in some way.
That's legitimate, I think. But it's really just a coincidence that all this stuff happened. Writing the book was just something to challenge myself to see what I could do with that. The documentary wasn't my idea. They came to me and they just said do you want to be a part of this or not. And initially I didn't think I wanted to be, but then I decided I'm probably going to get something out of it; it's going to be good for me. So I decided to do it. And if it is a mid-life crisis, it's a really healthy one to have. It's better than growing a pony tail and getting a red convertible.
You go by the name Eels instead of flying under a solo moniker. Yet the Eels are very much just you with various hired hands. You know, a natural reaction to losing your birth family might be to seek that feeling of family elsewhere -- and a band is very often referred to as a family.
I think I do tend to think of my band or my friends as family. Most people have family also, but I don't. It probably makes me expect more out of friendships because of that. And it might make it harder to be my friend, because that's all I've got.
Let's talk about your mom. You were an established musician by the time your mom was diagnosed with cancer. How much time elapsed between the time she was first diagnosed and when she passed away?
I don't remember exactly but it was within two years. Maybe a year-and-a-half.
You were already an established musician with a career at that point, living in Los Angeles. In the book you talk about flying back to Virginia to spend time with her. How much time did you actually spend with her in that period?
I would usually stay there for a couple weeks at a time, and it was a lot.
I remember one scene in the book where you were playing piano for her when she was sick in bed. Did you write any music during those nights in Virginia?
I don't remember if I was writing actual songs that much, but I was definitely there when I had the epiphany about making the 'Electro-Shock Blues' album. I don't remember if I wrote much of it there or not. I probably did some.
You got to have those "last talks" with your mom that you never got to have with your dad. Did you talk to her truthfully and openly?
Yeah, that's maybe the only good thing about someone who has a terminal illness. You have a chance to talk about anything that you think is important to talk about before it's too late. Whereas if someone dies like my father, you know, suddenly, you don't ever get a chance to do that. My mom and I spent a lot of time talking about stuff that we never got a chance to talk about.
Do you think that she believed your father's theory?
I think she did, yeah. She typed it up for him and everything. In fact, when he originally wrote it, it was around the time that they met. And I think that she was one of the only people that believed in him from the start.
You mention in the book that you brought her to an Eels concert and that, while she enjoyed it and was proud of you, she still had some criticisms for her son. What were they?
There would be the typical stuff you might expect a mom to say like, "Why does it have to be so loud?" or "Why do you have to bounce around like that? Bob Dylan just stands there, why can't you?"
In the book you say at one point that you decided you don't want to tour with the Eels any more. Right after you have that thought, you end up planning an extended tour that went twice around the world, with a full ensemble. What are your current thoughts about touring with the Eels?
Well, we just finished another long world tour a few months ago. Since that time that I thought I wasn't going to tour anymore, I've been on three world tours. Maybe four. So I keep talking myself back into it. Now I'm back at the point where I feel like I'm never going to do it again. With that said, just a few nights ago that same sort of thing happened to me again where all the sudden I had an idea for a tour that got me all excited and I thought, "Oh, s---. I might have to do that."
It's only natural that you'd want to find out about your father's life. But you're admittedly a very private person, so it seems almost incongruous that you'd want to go on that journey in front of the camera. Are you comfortable with the way the NOVA film turned out?
I'm a strange case because I am very private, but the only way I really deal with my family is by treating them like an ongoing art project. It's been my method with some of my songs and some of my albums. So it was just a natural extension of my method to deal with them further by doing it in a film. It felt exactly like the same sort of thing I do with songwriting, just that it was on film instead. And yeah, it was a little unnerving to throw myself into it and have no idea how it was going to turn out. After we shot it, I sat around for awhile and I just thought, "I wonder what that's going to turn into." Then they sent it to me and I was really happy with how it turned out.
Again, you're supposedly this very guarded hermit type. But just this week I read your book, I saw the NOVA film and I listened to your CDs, and it seems like a total stranger like myself actually knows you fairly well in some sense.
It's weird, I know. I'm much more comfortable doing this kind of stuff for total strangers than I am for people I actually know. The idea of anyone actually ever reading my book is absolutely horrifying.
The book is titled 'Things the Grandchildren Should Know,' but you don't even have children. Do you want kids at this point?
I do, sometimes, and then other times I'm terrified of the idea because of my upbringing and my family. I can't help but feel a certain sense of gloom and doom about it all. And also because I really identify with my father now, and I understand why he was the way he was. We're both "idea" men, and we both are constantly dealing with all these ideas that are floating around in our head and trying to sort them out. Anything outside of that can seem like a distraction. So, it's a little bit of a tall order.
Eels albums tend to fluctuate from one to the next, going from gloomy to joyful, quiet to rocking and back again. Now that you've got all this heavy stuff off your chest, I'm curious to know what your next project is going to sound like.
I'm in a really great place artistically because I can do what I want to do and when I want to do it. And what I enjoy the most is writing and recording music and that's all I want to do for awhile. I enjoy making it a lot more than I do actually putting it out.
At this point in your life, do you feel like there's nothing you're not prepared to handle?
I've faced a lot of my greatest fears in my life and it really does, like the cliché says, make you stronger. I wouldn't say I'm completely fearless because that would be unnatural, but I do feel a lot better than I used to.