How Eels Helped Steve Perry Find ‘Emotional Honesty’ in His Music
In May of 2014, when Steve Perry stepped on stage with alternative rock group Eels in Minneapolis, it was hardly your average rock star cameo. The former Journey frontman was making his first concert appearance since 1995 -- and it was one which we later learned had been a long time in the works.
The collaboration made a deep impact with Perry, something which would stick with him as he continued to work on songs for his album that became 2018’s Traces.
Perry had formed a friendship with Mark Oliver Everett, better known as simply E, the creative mastermind behind the group, known for radio singles like ‘Novocaine for the Soul” and “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues."
“I met him through Patty Jenkins, who is one of the most talented people I’ve ever met, from writing and directing Monster and Wonder Woman, I mean, she’s unstoppable, creatively. She introduced me to the Eels,” Perry tells UCR. “She said, 'I think there’s some music, I’m curious if you’ve ever heard it.' I said, 'No, I actually haven’t.' This was a long time ago while she was finishing the movie Monster.”
He dug into the group’s catalog, naming off 2000’s Daisies of the Galaxy, as well as Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, released in 2005, as two of the specific albums that he really enjoyed in his initial exploration.
(When asked about the pre-Eels solo material from E, 1992’s A Man Called E and 1993’s Broken Toy Shop, he acknowledges that he’s heard the music, pointing out the “Beach Boys ilk” of the songs. “[E] and I have talked about it. Of course, he has opinions about that. But I thought it was a sweet record.”)
Perry says he was “overwhelmed” with how great the albums were and similarly impressed by Everett as a fellow artist.
Listen to 'It's a Motherfucker' by Eels
“I heard the song ‘It’s a Motherfucker’ and I was taken aback by the songwriting simplicity of that. He inspired me for songwriting, he really did,” Perry says. “He helped me get bold about taking some chances with songwriting. Because he takes chances, he really does. He doesn’t care, which is even more bold. And it’s always great.”
Eventually, through Jenkins, Perry met E at one of the band’s shows in Los Angeles. “We became friends and stayed friends,” he says, adding that they "played croquet together in a secretive sort of group of people.”
The former Journey frontman began hanging out at Eels tour rehearsals, staying “there for days while they rehearsed.” Each time, Everett would plant the seed and ask if he’d ever come out and sing with the group. Perry said he would. Tour after tour, the vocalist continued to stay in the group’s orbit, but he hadn't made his way to the stage.
Finally, they asked again and he put the question back to them, “Well, what would you want to do?”
“E was singing 'I’m Going to Stop Pretending That I Didn’t Break Your Heart,' Perry recalls. “I looked at him and I said, ‘That is such a beautiful song.’ So I jumped up [at rehearsal] and started singing that. Because it meant so much to me, the lyric. Then we worked on ‘It’s a Motherfucker.’ So we were kind of off and running. We had three or four songs sketched up and I said, 'Okay, we’ll do it someday.'”
Watch Steve Perry Perform With Eels for the First Time
Soon afterward, Perry decided to go to Minneapolis. “Their bus was parked outside the venue that afternoon. I knocked on the bus door and said, ‘What’s up?’,” he remembers, with a laugh. “I said, ‘Do you want to do it tonight?’ and they said, ‘Sure, that would be great!’”
“You know, the one thing about the Eels, they’re a great band. I mean, for a singer like me to have the simplicity of a band like the Eels, you might as well be playing with the Swampers, that Rick Hall put together and cut all of those amazing tracks,” Perry enthuses.
“They have that kind of soul in what they bring, musically, in their simplicity of pocket and feel. They made me feel like some whipped cream on top of a chocolate sundae or something. It was amazing. They really, really made me feel good and I really enjoyed walking out that night, after [so many years]. Then I did it two more times, once in D.C. and once in Los Angeles at the Orpheum.”
Watch Steve Perry Perform Journey's 'Lights' with Eels
Perry carried the creative high that he felt being around E and the members of the group back into the studio, where he was working on his own songs.
“I think that I was already writing music, but I just liked his simplicity and the emotional honesty. He still continues to be that way," Perry says. “One of the main things, I think, is that no matter where he is or what he’s going through, it looks like that is what’s going to be his record.”
The songwriter was really impressed by how the Eels frontman was able to lay things out so bare and open in that way. “I think that’s exactly what he contributed to me. What I was going through when I was writing, that’s what Traces became,” he says. “To be truthful to what emotion shows up is, is ballsy. It takes guts to think [beyond the idea of] ‘Well, I don’t know, maybe I should write a happy song, just to balance the record out or whatever.’ No, you know, whatever he’s going through, he taught me it was okay to be deeper in the conviction to your inner truth on that stuff.”
“I think that’s how I stayed more convicted to the Traces record and how I’m staying even more so convicted to my heart’s truth on the Alternate Versions and Sketches release,” Perry concludes. “It’s how I’ve stayed true to this new project, because when you strip this stuff down, even more, to make it even more exposed, [that’s] the truth and the emotion that was showing up at that time.”
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