“I just couldn’t possibly bear the idea of having every record I make sound the same,” says Mark Oliver Everett, a.k.a. “E,” the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist behind eclectic alterna-rockers Eels. With six studio albums that explore pop, folk, blues, country, grunge, and even metal, E has relished being a thorn in the side of record label marketeers. The group’s latest release, Eels With Strings Live at Town Hall [Vagrant], takes things in yet another new direction by situating E’s songs in a chamber-rock setting.

“It’s really exhilarating to change things around,” says E. “For instance, ‘Dirty Girl’ was originally a garage-rock song. For the live album, we played it with just acoustic guitar backed by a string quartet, and it gave me goose bumps. I realized there was a really pretty tune underneath all the electric-guitar noise of the earlier version.”

When creating arrangements for any Eels incarnation, E prefers a succinct and direct approach designed to serve the song, rather than decorate it. “E isn’t into having a bunch of wanking guitar solos all over everything, and neither am I,” says Chet Lyster, Eels’ lead guitarist and fellow multi-instrumentalist.

“My goal is to find little rhythmic pockets in the higher positions, and use chord inversions that play off E’s vocals, keyboards, and guitar parts. For instance, if he’s playing an open G on the third fret, I might be playing different forms of the chord on the seventh fret. I’m here to support the melody and chord structures and help the songs chug along.”

E helps propel his prolific output by ensuring he can capture inspiration at a moment’s notice. “My house is filled with cheap, portable cassette recorders, and I’m always recording little snippets of ideas as I go through my day,” he says. “I always keep a little notebook in my pocket to write lyric ideas down. In addition, my basement is set up with tons of instruments all plugged in and ready to go—which helps prevent me from going for the obvious thing. For instance, when I think, ‘I want to write a guitar song,’ I might force myself to go over to the organ or the autoharp. Also, I never pick up my guitar when I’m not working, because it’s good to have some distance. That way, when I do pick it up, it feels exciting and fresh, because my hands don’t immediately go where they feel comfortable.”