In early 1998, Bernard Temple was facing two charges of murder in the first degree in San Francisco when the jury issued a verdict of not guilty on both accounts. Temple, who faced prosecution for murders committed in 1988 and 1991, was dubbed the “Soul Jacker” because, as a new article in the SF Weekly explained, “he believes that when he kills someone he acquires the soul of the victim and thereby makes himself stronger.” Around the same time, somewhere outside of Los Angeles, a thirty-four-year-old musician called Mark Oliver Everett admitted himself into a meditation retreat following the suicide of his sister in 1996 and the recent revelation that his mother was dying from lung cancer. Everett, known to his fans as E, the frontman of the acclaimed cult group Eels, had been writing material for what was to become their second album, Electro-Shock Blues, a record which documented both his sister’s death and his own mental and emotional collapse. But the experience was taking its toll on E and some time away from family, friends and the music industry was what he would need to come to terms with his life.
A friend of his at Warner Bros., whom he had briefly dated and had inspired the Eels tracks Susan’s House and Beautiful Freak, had suggested the retreat, where he was to spend ten days without communicating in any way. Although E has never specified where it was that he had visited in the early weeks of 1998, author Tim Grierson hints that it was most likely the California Vipassana Center, who describe their therapeutic process as being “for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation.” Despite not being able to talk or write, E had been told a story by Sean Coleman, a close friend who he had collaborated with on a track called Mass, taken from E’s second solo album, 1993’s Broken Toy Shop. While some of his details would be inaccurate, describing Temple as a “serial killer,” E became fascinated with the tale and, against the rules of the retreat, broke away from the group and hid in a bathroom, where he wrote the lyrics for what would eventually become Souljacker part II.
When E returned home from his meditation, he had begun to develop the concept for an album which, unlike Electro-Shock Blues, would not be told from the first-person perspective and instead portrayed a host of outrageous characters. Soon afterwards, Eels (then consisting of E, long-time drummer Butch and new bassist Adam Siegel) had reconvened in a studio for rehearsals in preparation for their upcoming Electro-Shock Blues tour, and it was during these sessions that another track, Souljacker part I, would begin to develop. The song told the story of a young couple, Johnny and Mary, who were in fact brother and sister and indulged in their incestious love affair in their “trailer park of broken hearts.” Eventually, E decided to change the name from Mary to Sally in order to avoid confusion with another track, Mother Mary, which would surface several years later on their sixth album, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. Souljacker part I was first previewed during the Electro-Shock tour and recorded during the sessions for their next album, Daisies of the Galaxy, the following spring.
In September 1998, Eels appeared on the British music show Top of the Pops to perform their latest single, which had been released almost two weeks earlier. Introduced by then-popular TV personality Jayne Middlemiss, Eels performed a stripped-down rendition of Last Stop: This Town, with their host later describing their appearance as “absolutely fantastic.” Behind the scenes, E was introduced to a young musician called John Parish, whose work with PJ Harvey had brought him some minor acclaim. Parish was a fan of the band but, despite their joint publisher’s suggestion that they should work together, neither E nor Parish had any interest in collaborating at that time.
Almost six weeks later they crossed paths again in Boston, Massachusetts. When Parish finished his set with Harvey he made his way to a nearby venue called Bill’s Bar & Lounge, where Eels were about to take to the stage. Following the show the two spoke once again and, while no concrete plans were set, they agreed that they would work together at some point in the near future. It would be a year before plans were set in motion, by which point E had completed work on Daisies of the Galaxy and was preparing to release its first single, Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues. Parish received a CD through the mail that featured cuts of Souljacker part I and Mother Mary, with a request from E that he visit him in Los Angeles to discuss their long-overdue collaboration. Taking a rough mix of music he had been working on, Parish flew from Bristol, England, to Los Feliz in California, where he presented E with his instrumental track. When he returned the following morning, Parish was surprised to discover that E had already written lyrics for the track, now titled Dog Faced Boy.
E took inspiration from a girl he once knew, who had suffered from excessive body hair as a child and had been dubbed “gorilla girl” by her class mates, causing her to plead with her mother to shave her. Changing the protagonist to a boy, the song began with E writing, “Coming home from the school today, crying all along the way. Ain’t no way for a boy to be, begging ma to shave me please.” Impressed with the result, Parish returned home to England to work on new ideas, and in January 2001 he arrived back in Los Angeles with several more tracks, which would eventually become What is This Note?, That’s Not Really Funny and World of Shit. Following on from the relatively upbeat Daisies of the Galaxy, E found that his new creative spurt saw him exploring all manner of bizarre and unpleasant subjects, often taking inspiration from those around him. Bus Stop Boxer was in reference to a tale he had been told by a studio engineer he had worked with, who as a child was dropped off at random bus stops and ordered by his father to beat up whatever kid was nearby. While Souljacker part I explored incest another song, Jungle Telegraph, told of a man who, after murdering someone following a deal-gone-wrong, escapes from the city and takes refuge in the wild.
With Siegel having performed bass on Souljacker part I, which had been recorded almost a year earlier, E and Butch had surrounded themselves with a new group of musicians. While Parish would perform several different instruments, including a melodica and stylophone, bass would be handled by Koool G Murder, a Los Angeles-based hip hop DJ and guitarist who would co-write the song Fresh Feeling with E. Joe Gore, an alumnus of UCLA, leant his guitar skills to two tracks, What is This Note? and Bus Stop Boxer. Programming on six of the twelve songs that would make their way onto the album were handled by Ryan Boesch, whose work as an engineer and mixer with the likes of Lit and Foo Fighters would come into practice on several songs.
One of the more pleasant tracks on the album was Fresh Feeling, which featured a sample of Selective Memory, an orchestral number from Daisies of the Galaxy. Its inclusion would earn composer Jim Lang a credit, despite having not worked on the record. Lang’s association with E went back to almost a decade earlier, when he played the accordion and keyboard on 1992’s A Man Called E. As noted in the inlay of Souljacker, Fresh Feeling was not the first Eels song to feature a sample of one of their earlier compositions, as Efils’ God – taken from Electro-Shock Blues – contained elements of a track of E’s from the late 1980s called Dog’s Life. Twelve tracks would be selected for the final cut of Souljacker, commencing with Dog Faced Boy and concluding forty minutes later with What is This Note?, with only one song running over four minutes in length. When the label requested that he record a bonus track he suggested an additional four, to be included as a bonus disc on the special edition. The label agreed and the additional CD, Rotten World Blues, featured previously unreleased material, while the British edition replaced the track Rotten World Blues with Mr. E’s Beautiful Remix.
Souljacker part I was released through DreamWorks on September 10th, 2001, one day before terrorist attacks in New York changed the world forever. Among the B-sides featured on the two-part single was a cover of the Elvis Presley classic Can’t Help Falling in Love, which had provided reggae group UB40 with a number one hit eight years earlier. The promotional video, directed by acclaimed German filmmaker Wim Wenders (perhaps best known for his 1987 classic Wings of Desire), introduced E’s new image; sporting a large, bushy beard and dark glasses. In an interview with LA Weekly the following year he explained some of the issues that his new facial hair caused in the post-9/11 climate; “After September 11, I got so much extra attention at the airport, and I got so tired of the cavity searches. But now it’s back to its full glory. I like life with the beard – it does change your life in some interesting, subtle ways, like when you go to the bank and the security guard flips the safety off of his gun.”
Reviews for Souljacker were mostly positive when it was released a few days later, with NME saying; “Souljacker’s songs rock harder than most of E’s nu-metal enemies. But what’s really terrifying is that E’s just warming up. The next album will be a killer – and probably feature one on backing vocals.” Drowned in Sound added; “This is by no means an essential album, if one could really exist. It is, however, a great addition to the Eels’ already strong back catalogue and an album you will surely come back to again and again whenever you forget the potency of a cocktail of childhood sweethearts, dog-faced boys and nasty guitars.”