Listening to Help Wanted, one might think Eric Avery is a man ruled by his moods. His first formal solo project is dark and deep – dark in its intimations of disillusionment, isolation and alienation, deep in its layered electronic textures and sometimes-unsettling effects. Even on cuts like “Walk Through Walls (The Man Who Can Fly Pt. 5),” which has a droll, swaggering rhythm reminiscent of Kurt Weill, Avery conjures a dangerous, deluded figure who declares: “I can walk through walls and I can fly and that’s not all/ I’ve drunk the oceans dry and that’s left me all-powerful/ But that’s no help at all/ When you can’t see/ You won’t see me.”
The fact is, however, that Avery prizes rationality and intellectual rigor; his friends will tell you he’s a science-and-technology nut and perhaps even a bit of an egghead. The deep darkness he so vividly summons on the hypnotically atmospheric Help Wanted (due in April 2008 on Dangerbird Records) is the sound of an artist – in this case, a staunch proponent of reasoned discourse – in despair. One cannot help but detect desolation at an Orwellian present where those in charge have nothing but contempt for science and doublespeak pulls the wool over so many eyes. In the incantatory “Revolution,” he decries, “the lack of a real voice of dissent and how the debate – if you can call it that – seems so one-sided.”
The song “Maybe” – lovely, dark and deep, due partly to the lilting contribution of singer Shirley Manson – limns a period of depression during which Avery felt unable to connect with those he was closest to. “We’re still alive/ I hear your kind words, and it’s some kind of miracle,” he sings, confessing, “It all sounds sort of hollow/ All that’s better left unsaid/ Won’t ever make it across our bed.” He credits Manson with kicking him in the ass to make sure he finished Help Wanted. The album’s title alludes to his need for a boot to the butt as well as the larger needs of the nation. (Among the other notables lending a hand were Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, who played trumpet.) Another highlight of Help is the closing track, “Sun’s Gone,” in which Avery sings in his unstudied baritone, “Just when I think that it’s too late/ Like some final hour, the earth rolls over, and brings light to new ground.” “This album feels like a re-emergence from being underground,” he attests.
Amid the anguish both personal and political, the artist somehow remains hopeful. Help Wanted is something of a reawakening for Avery, who’s known to countless rock fans as the bassist for Jane’s Addiction, which he co-founded at 20 with Perry Farrell in his hometown of Los Angeles. Being a key creative force in Jane’s, one of the most important – and arguably one of the most artistic – bands of the alternative-rock generation, yet he quit at their pinnacle, walked away.
After collaborating with Jane’s guitarist Dave Navarro on the groundbreaking Deconstruction album, he fronted the adventurous outfit Polar Bear. Thereafter, however, he retreated to the role of journeyman musician, playing in other people’s bands. He contributed to projects by Peter Murphy (to whom he’s sometimes been compared), Alanis Morissette, Garbage and Smashing Pumpkins, among others, content to remain a passenger on his musical odyssey. He lost his edge and impetus as an artist.
He made his way back to being an artist by writing; each song he wrote was another step in the path back. His journey, which recalls that of Joseph Campbell’s archetypal hero, coincided with the birth of Help Wanted, though, at the time, Avery wasn’t really aware of just what was gestating. He was, however, cognizant that his voice (which he’s always viewed as a rather humble instrument) had a new role to play, as did his tentative explorations on piano. Moreover, most of the album was written on guitar, which he played as a child but did not return to until recently. The result is a sort of avant-garde primitivism that brings to mind the Velvet Underground and Joy Division.
“I’m not a great singer,” he insists, “but my voice works with these songs. I think if someone else sang these dramatic lyrics, it would sound really hokey.” He says his duet with Manson is a beauty-and-beast pairing akin to the 1969 Serge Gainsbourg phenomenon “Je taime … moi non plus,” originally recorded with Brigitte Bardot.
Furthermore, Avery calls his piano skills those of a “rank amateur.” The piano arrived in his home in the fall of 2006, and he says playing it reminds him of the earliest years of his creative life, when he was just learning how to make music. “Keeping myself naïve is a goal of mine as an artist,” he confides. “Playing piano on this level has allowed me to write with a certain energy; I still have that feeling of discovery.”
He remembers fondly the time in his life, at 10 or 11, when he blithely enjoyed music by KISS, Styx, and Elton John and Kiki Dee at the same time he was falling in love with David Bowie, without recognizing any distinction among them in terms of artistic merit. It was all just something he liked the sound of. (In a telling footnote, Avery was turned on to Bowie by Gábor Szabó, the Hungarian jazz guitarist known for his experiments with feedback, who happened to be his best friend’s father.)
It’s not surprising that Avery, who spent his summers backstage as his own father, an actor, performed the lead in various musical-theater productions, taught himself to play guitar. “There was a guitar in the house that my father didn’t know how to play, and we had a songbook of this folk singer, Burl Ives,” he recollects. “It had those little charts that show you where to put your fingers on the fretboard.” He picked up the bass in junior high to play in a band with the three sons of early-’60s pop sensation Bobby Vee, who were arrayed on vocals, guitar and drums. He played with them into his “cursory tour of four high schools in three years,” which “culminated with early departure from secondary education.”
A passing question from an artist friend as to whether he’d seen Perry Farrell’s band Psi-com ultimately led to he and Farrell forming Jane’s Addiction, with whom he recorded and toured from 1987 through 1991. He thereafter crafted Deconstruction (1994) with Navarro. Underappreciated at the time of its delayed release, eight years later the disc was lovingly called, “a shimmering blitzkrieg” and “15 telephonic reverberations that will seethe through your spinal column and melt the core of your collective consciousness” (www.IGN.com
From 1995 to 2000 Avery fronted Polar Bear, which released the EP Chewing Gum in 1997 and the full-length Why Something Instead of Nothing? in 1999. Polar Bear was an experiment in complicated noise-making distinguished by the early integration of a laptop into its live shows. It found Avery dismantling song structure and pushing the envelope of recording technology.
“I’ve always been more concerned with creating music that has vibe or mood than in crafting catchy pop songs. I believe there is generally an inverse relationship between pop knowledge and creative instinct. They aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but there is a danger in the restlessness that comes with the basic medium of songwriting. I have no aspiration to progress to jazz or math metal,” he deadpans. Likewise, his rudimentary piano work expressed the idea that by looking back he could look forward. This notion moved beyond mere theory with his acclaimed scoring work on the Leonardo DiCaprio-narrated 2007 documentary “The 11th Hour,” which Variety termed “a ruminative essay on what it means to be human in a scarce world.”
And though he did record a few sessions for the self-produced Help Wanted at the former A&M Studios, Avery relishes the fact that most of it was created under very modest circumstances, working on a shoestring with engineer/programmer Billy Bush (Garbage, Korn, Beck). Flea’s evocative horn work was laid down at the Chili Pepper’s home when it was brand new and sparsely appointed. “Flea just got on his knees with the trumpet pointed down toward a mike that was laying on the floor,” Avery reports. The result can be heard on “Song in the Silence (The Man Who Can Fly, Pt. 7).”
The “Man Who Can Fly” songs (the third is “Chicken Bone [The Man Who Can Fly Pt. 2]”) are pieces of a narrative that presented itself to Avery once the album started to coalesce. He envisions the character as the anti-hero of a film – Help Wanted is nothing if not cinematic – whose story is told in snatches of imagery and dialogue. The incomplete sequence of the “parts” indicates that a few reels have gone missing. “The character is full of hubris, but he remains ambiguous,” Avery ventures. “It’s unclear if he’s someone to fear or to pity.” Either way, his presence is unnerving. In “Song in the Silence,” “he moves through the amber light of his hotel room/ He slides the window up high above the unnoticing crowd/ ‘I can fly,’ he says, ‘I am invincible, I make my enemies afraid/ See them run and hide.’”
In this way, Avery’s efforts recall the so-called Lost Generation of American artists living in Europe immediately following World War I, who were uniformly disillusioned by the large number of casualties suffered in the conflict. Their quintessentially modern work is permeated by uncertainty, suspicion and anxiety. They’d seen a conflagration unfold on a previously unimaginable scale. Nothing would ever be the same, just as nothing has been the same since September 11th.
For all his despairing reason, Avery understands that reckless leaders rise but also fall in the cyclical history of peoples and regimes. “It’s one of my core beliefs that the most effective and consistent way to help the world is to ask people to look at their lives through art. And I guess there’s a fundamental optimism buried in here,” he concedes. “Because I also must believe that people, in general, are good. When we make rational decisions, without the intrusion of fear, we tend to make basically decent decisions. So how do we operate from that reasonable place? “I think through art we can sometimes enlighten ourselves and each other.”