According to the founder of legendary UK label 4AD, Ivo-Watts Russell: "Journalist Martin Aston passed on a tape that Mark Eitzel (of American Music Club) had given to him. Every morning and evening, driving to and from work, I would start at the beginning, '24' (I know, I know, what more do you need to hear, right? What a song.), but only get about half way through that and whatever the second song on the tape was before arriving home/at 4AD. When I finally did listen to the full 90 minutes I called young Mark K. and left him a message. I learned later he was sitting in the bath listening to me talk. It was a perfect time for me to hear that brilliant band."
Mark Kozelek, along with drummer Anthony Koutsos, guitarist Gordon Mack and bassist Jeremy Vessel signed up to 4AD at the end of the 80s, and released three albums with them before parting ways. The band struggled on, with their final album Old Ramon not released until 2001, on the Sub Pop label, despite having been recorded a couple of years before. Following the recording of Old Ramon, Kozelek released a solo EP, followed by a solo album, What's Next To The Moon, exclusively made up of cover versions of AC/DC songs…
In 2003, Kozelek formed Sun Kil Moon, in what was essentially a continuation of Red House Painters. At the time he decided to change the name as a way of pricking up music journalists ears again, as interest in Red House Painters, and the increasing gaps between new music, had deflated enthusiasm. The ruse seemed to work, as Ghosts of the Great Highway outsold all previous Red House Painters albums…
Fast forward to 2012 and the release of Among the Leaves marked a turning point for Kozelek. As he has said: "With this record, I wanted to give my first instincts a chance without shooting them down immediately, which I sometimes do. Songs like 'Song For Richard Collopy' and 'Not Much Rhymes With Everything's Awesome All the Time' were very impulsive. Even my engineers were looking at me like, 'What in the fuck are you doing'? And that's exactly the reaction I wanted. I didn't want to put myself, or anyone else, asleep with another quintessential Mark Kozelek album."
Last years's Benji, Sun Kil Moon's sixth album, took Kozelek to another level altogether, his stock at an all-time high. A highly acclaimed work, it's sense of general calm and contemplation, married to this new writing style that told diary like short-stories and narratives about matter-of-facts things in his life – about death, illness, boxing, music, friendship, love, sex, more boxing, and more death – struck a deep chord with fans old and new, a process that had actually started with the previous album. Much of Benji (named after the smash-hit family film of the 70s) contained tributes to those who didn’t make it, either through drugs or accidents (Kozelek himself went into rehab at the tender age of 14), and people like Ivo Watts-Russell. Like all good stories, there contained within the deceptively simple narratives, stories about and depictions of the human spirit; fighting and survivalist by nature, but also fragile and fleeting, as well as vignettes about such things as watching and describing Led Zep's The Song Remains the Same (Indeed, the clue was in the title of the song: 'I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same'), and the situation where he watched said film, eventually going off on a tangent to describe friends and fellow students; his and their lives, often wrapped up in intense emotions and memories. In a way, Benji brilliantly usurped traditional notions of what a singer-songwriter did or could do. In effect, Kozelek just set up a mic, got his guitar out (he is a majestic player; rhythmic, fluid and unfussy), and started to 'paint' his songs, with vibrant, earth-bound, non-metaphorical imagery, that came out of his mouth as stories, ground in the everyday and observational. On Benji, and this year's follow up, Universal Themes, each song features sheathes of diary-like stories, and confessionals that make for riveting reading, and listening (Kozelek has kindly included all the words for the Universal Themes CD)
Truly a slow-burn phenomenon, Mark Kozelek, aka Sun Kil-Moon, is not only enjoying something of a musical renaissance, but he's also enjoying plenty of 'other' press, that cannot help but also look at the controversy that he has wittingly or unwittingly sparked, such as his one-way feud with War on Drugs Adam Ganduciel, and his public humiliation of journalist Laura Snapes, of The Guardian (she, of course, could retort, in print…). Whether it's something to do with approaching 50, or finding a new found creative lease of life, or devising another clever tactic at increasing attention, or displaying a misanthropic streak that he cannot control, or is simply coincidence; or indeed is the result of legitimate gripes against the aforementioned, Kozelek's reputation for speaking his mind – in public – has added immeasurable column inches for this cult, and important artist.
Rather bewilderingly, he seemed to have decided to start a mini-war with War on Drugs, the catalyst being a festival in Canada where both were playing at the same time, on different stages. Sun Kil Moon's music was apparently being drowned out by WoD, much to Kozelek's chagrin. "I hate that beer commercial lead-guitar shit," he said after being told where the noise was coming from. Then, he introduced his next song by saying: "This next song is called 'The War on Drugs Can Suck My Fucking Dick'. Indeed… But, it didn't end there; even though Kozelek subsequently apologised, he soon changed his mind and aimed another low blow at WoD lead singer and guitarist Adam Ganduciel, by writing and posting a song, called, wait for it… 'War on Drugs Can Suck My Dick'. He went even further and wrote Adam Granofsky Blues, Kozelek reading and laughing at the War on Drugs frontman’s bewildered comments about the affair, with a basic blues lick for accompaniment. You can easily find it on the net, and it makes for uneasy listening, Kozelek reverting to some kind of infantilism that is at odds with the worldly and often thoughtful lyrics of his music that mostly embraces friends and family with a big heart. Also, lest we forget, he even released a Christmas album last year, Mark Kozelek Sings Christmas Carols…
Notoriously reticent to talk to journalists nowadays, claiming that 'so that I don't get quoted words like, 'dunno'', Kozelek is fine with email Q&A's. So, deep breath, and here we go…
Why did you name the 'band' Sun Kil Moon (after the South Korean world amateur boxing champion of 1986, and world professional champion at both bantamweight and super flyweight divisions)?
I always liked his name. It's like a soft little poem with an edge to it
Boxing is an inherently violent sport, what is the attraction?
Sure, there are a lot of tragedies in the sport, and in life in general. I like the chess match of boxing – my favourites aren't necessarily the KO artists – I like many of the defensive fighters, Pernell Whitaker, as an example. I love elusive fighters. (Floyd) Mayweather is exceptional in that he's been against everyone from Shane Mosley to Oscar De La Hoya and has never been knocked down. So, how violent is that? (rhetorical question). The richest boxer in the sport is known for his craftiness, not his KO record. I don't like what happened to Jimmy Garcia, or Kim Duk-koo (both fighters died as a result of world title bouts), but these are rare exceptions in the grand scheme of boxing.
Did you really spend 17k on tickets for Pacquiao vs Mayweather, the 'Fight of the Century? Was it worth it?
Yes, I did. And yes, it was worth it. I don't go out much, I haven't spent money on a concert in many, many years; I get in on guest lists. So, it was a once-in-a-lifetime fight. Everyone seemed so disappointed, but it was a good fight and a sound decision. I had a good 2014, treated myself.
What have been your favourite fights, that you saw live?
Oh man! The list is long. Andre Ward comes to mind. I saw his last two fights… At the Oracle (Oakland), where he won by TKO in the later rounds. I was ringside for both fights.
There are also loads of musical references sprinkled throughout Benji and Universal Themes, many references to albums and songs you listened to when growing up, maybe? What are you into nowadays? Does new music hold the same thrill for you that it did when you were growing up?
I'm into boxing and movies now. I listen to music only in the car with my girlfriend and occasionally I'll put on a classical record or a friend's record, if they have one out. I spend so much time making music that I rarely put music on during my time off.
Tell me about Steve Shelley's (drummer with Sonic Youth, and drummer on Sun Kil Moon's last two albums) involvement and how you got to know the man?
I met him at a music festival on the East Coast, maybe three or four years ago. We immediately clicked. We don't sweat stuff. We've both been making records a long time. We just do what we do. He's a great drummer, and has become a great friend. We make records and play shows and don't even talk about it. We talk about food. We're both food junkies.
Tell me how you went about making this record. Do you have a method, or is it a case of having a collection of songs, and wanting to record them?
This one was cut out of improvisation, that Steve Shelley and I did in July last year. The writing was really in the editing process, and adding the vocals as I went along. I just chipped away at it until I had a finished record.
It sounds 'live' in the studio. Is this how it was done?
90% of the music was cut out of improvisation. Steve and I had some time off and we played for three days in the studio. The music was cut out of two of the days.
And being in the producers chair, would you now ever entrust this job to another?
No, I don't really see the point. Producers are for people who don't know what they want. I'm not 'trained'. I'm happy with my records and how I make them. I enjoy the process.
You have changed your writing style recently, from that of metaphors, allusions etc to a more narrative/diary style. Can you comment on how this development came about?
I think the stem was planted when I saw Modest Mouse in around 2003, 2004. I realised there were no rules to singing. If you've got a lot of words, why abbreviate them? Thrown them all in there. It's more interesting, and metaphors get old and boring after a while.
Is there a stream of consciousness element to your work? Do you lyrically improvise in the studio? Or are your lyrics written down in advance?
90% are written on the spot. My engineer shows up and we put the mic up and I write as we go along. I don't need to have a song written to go into the studio. We just put the mic up and the song is done when it's done. That's my style now. It works for me.
There's quite a lot of illness and death on Universal Themes, as well as on Benji – lots of people you know – and I think this must be playing a part in your current outlook, a kind of 'be grateful' and 'keep fighting' outlook. Is that fair, and how do you confront or deal with the idea of death or incapacitation?
This is the way life works. I'm on a plane and I get to Heathrow to start this tour, and we get in the cab, and my guitarist tells me Nick Cave's son died. I met Nick and his kids at the Kwest Hotel in London, about three years ago. He was staying across the hall from me. So, that's real life crisis heaviness for Nick. But his son dying is not just a headline to me. We're playing The Weeping Song (from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' The Good Son album) in honour of his family. I've seen people bury their kids, and that's no fucking joke. That puts life into perspective.
I'm in Italy and I just played four in a row, and I'm tired… But no calls about the passing of family members today. I just got off the phone with my girlfriend. Life is good. I just said goodbye to Steve Shelley and Neil Halstead as they have to leave the tour for Slowdive and Thurston (Moore) obligations. Our health is good, and we just played a wonderful show.
What are you reading at the moment?
I am reading John Connolly's 'A Song of Shadows' at the moment. I have a stack of books at home that I've read half of; Ray Mancini's 'The Good Son', a Neil Young book. People send me books, and I get five chapters in, then someone sends me another. I'm also reading John Lydon's biography. And I still haven't finished the Ravel book…
If I may, could you cast your mind back to the early days as Red House Painters. Is it true that a demo found its way to 4AD? It's bewildering to many younger folk how these things happened back in the day… A physical product, somehow finding its way to the right person via post or meeting someone…
Ah, fuck it! I don't want to explain how the world worked 20 years ago. OK, here we go… Things were done by mail and landlines and a fax machine, now and then. We made music and we worked hard. That's how we got a deal. And that's how I've earned a living as a musician for half my life. I work hard. I play music and I record. I travel.
I understand you went into rehab at a very early age… how did you get into that, and how do you feel about that period in your life nowadays.
I'm just glad I got cleaned up and didn't end up dead or in prison. I love my Dad (Kozelek even wrote a song called 'I Love My Dad', which can be found on 2014's Benji album), and my Mom, and I'm glad they got me into rehab. It was a difficult time and I'm tired and don't feel like going to that place at the moment. Sorry.
I understand you'll be releasing a spoken word album, with an Argentine actor Nicolas Pauls. Can you tell me about this project, and how it came about?
Nicolas reached out to me about making the poems into songs, but they are much more powerful as spoken word. These poems are heartbreaking. One is written by a homeless girl who lost her sister. It's hard stuff, and Nicolas and I are going to raise money for those kids and put their names on an album. Their voices need to be heard.
And a collaboration with Rachel Goswell (of Slowdive) coming out soon?
We sang a duet together for a record she's doing with members of the Editors and Mogwai. She's also singing on one track of the Jesu/Sun Kil Moon album which I believe will be out in February (a collaboration between Kozelek and Godflesh frontman Justin K. Broadrick). My friendship with Rachel goes way back. We've got a beautiful, deep friendship and I've got an enormous amount of respect for her.
Regarding the front cover image, is there anything to be read in that, or do you just like the image? Reminds me a bit of William Eggleston. You seem to like photography. Why?
I'm obsessed with payphones, but I'm to tired to explain it. I'm working on a phonebook that is meant to capture the decline of the payphone. I've been working on it for awhile; payphones from all over the world.
This is all I have. very tired here in Vasto, Italy. I send my love to Nick, his family and we will honour him in Brighton that night (1 August, 2015)
|Among The Leaves|| |
Ghosts Of The Great Highway