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October 21, 2008

Alina Simone Interviews Mark Everett (EELS)

This post originally was published on the PBS Remotely Connected blog.

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

I have listened to Mark Everett's music for many years, but only when I recently read his memoir, Things the Grandchildren Should Know and watched the NOVA episode, NOVA "Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives" (airing nationally October 21st) did I learn of his often troubled past and famous father, Hugh Everett III, the quantum physicist.

When I first heard about the NOVA episode, NOVA "Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives", where EELS frontman Mark Everett attempts to understand the Many Worlds theory of his father, I immediately thought of my friend, singer-songwriter Alina Simone. Like Everett, Simone's father is an eminent physicist, the cosmologist Alex Vilenkin, and Simone also chose music over a career in science.

Musician Alina Simone interviews author/musician Mark Everett of EELS:

Alina Simone: Well Mark, you have certainly raised the bar for rock and roll sons and daughters of theoretical physicists. (Or at least I’m feeling guilty now!) There was a moment in your book when you meet an A&R guy from Atlantic, he likes your record, your hopes are high, but in the end, you don’t get signed and spend another long stretch working dead-end jobs and writing music only to persevere and eventually succeed. Your book is a story of relentless effort in the face of despair and not much support from anyone. It’s hard not to contrast this story with your father’s who left academia behind after that one painful meeting with Bohr. Did the story of your father’s life serve as a cautionary tale and strengthen your resolve in any way to just keep going?

Mark Everett: No, because I wasn't aware of my father's story until making the Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives documentary. Poor guy really got the shaft. I thought I had it bad...


Alina Simone: Seeing your father’s friends, colleagues and acolytes walk you through your father’s elegant and complicated theories in the NOVA special was especially touching after reading your book, where you write about being left to navigate school, life and pretty much everything else, all on your own. Your experience in school wasn’t a good one. But what was it like being taught about physics in this context? Did you feel like you actually did have some aptitude for it when it was presented the right way? Did you enjoy it?

Mark Everett: I'm still as stupid as I ever was in math, but, with the luxury of having the top physics experts in the world teaching me, I came to understand my father's theory a lot more than I ever thought I could. It's hard to wrap our linear-thinking minds around it for more than a few seconds at a time. It's just too big and too mind-blowing.


Alina Simone: Even though your father’s withdrawal was tragic in a lot of ways, it was striking to hear him give an interview on that cassette tape you found in the NOVA show with your boyhood self pounding on the drums in the background. Your father seemed totally not bothered by it! The opposite of being totally ignored by a brilliant physicist father, is being forced to live up to unreasonable expectations that have nothing to do with your actual talents and passions. Looking at the life you made for yourself, do you see the ‘lack of discipline’ you grew up with as more of a hindrance or a blessing?

Mark Everett: A very good question. I have to take the fact that he let me bang on the drums in the house every day for ten years as some sort of encouragement, and the opposite - if he had steered me into a particular field - I'm sure would have been worse. I think he thought of us kids as experiments and wanted to let the experiment play itself out.


Alina Simone: Your father doesn’t sound like much of a people person. It seems like to understand who your father really was, what he valued and how his mind worked, you had to understand his work. Would you say the same is true of yourself and your music?

Mark Everett: I suppose so. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't help but turn out a lot like him in many ways. And I'm nothing without music. It's everything to me.


Alina Simone: What are your plans for the archives in the basement? Do you feel like you’ve laid all your questions about who your father was and your family’s past to rest, or that the journey hasn’t ended yet?

Mark Everett: I get the feeling it's just beginning. There is a lot of stuff down there. More books by other writers are being written about the family. Pilgrimages continue to be made to my basement.

Mark Everett links:

Mark Everett's Wikipedia entry
EELS website
NOVA "Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives" episode
Things the Grandchildren Should Know (Mark Everett's memoir)

Alina Simone links:

Alina Simone's website
Alina Simone's MySpace page
Largehearted Boy Interview (Eugene Mirman interviews Alina Simone)
Largehearted Boy Note Books Essay by Alina Simone
Largehearted Boy Why Obama Essay by Alina Simone

also at Largehearted Boy:

previous musician/author interviews

Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)

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