Sun Kil Moon: Mark Kozelek Tells it Like it Is

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Mark Kozelek has been making solid records since the mid-90’s– and his recording career has been anything but by the book. From his early work in the Red House Painters to bouncing back and forth between the Sun Kil Moon moniker to a solo project under his given name, his hushed voice has always defined his sound and the quietude of his instrumentation has become even more delicate since he moved on to a nylon string guitar. He’s even made whole records of cover songs, one of AC/DC deep cuts, and another of quality Modest Mouse gems.

Despite his prolific past and the continued greatness of his rapidly growing discography, it’s only recently that the “taste makers” in the music press mafia given him his due credit. And it’s come at what may seem like the strangest of times. Recently Kozelek has become exceedingly honest, almost uncomfortably so. His lyrics have begun to read like journal entries, delivered with a nonchalance, void of typical phrasing, rhyme scheme and verse-chorus-verse formula.

On his latest record Benji, Kozelek writes about two relatives that died from exploding aerosol cans (… yes, two), watching “The Song Remains the Same”, listening to Pink Floyd’s “Dogs”, his first sexual encounters, sucker-punching a kid in grade school, his reaction to Newtown, and even going to see Postal Service and realizing that he’s going through a midlife crisis while watching his old friend play in a new band. In a way he seems as though he’s letting it all out there, to anyone who cares to listen. And in ways it seems like he played the biggest joke on his listeners and he unexpectedly succeeded. Mark Kozelek has always surprised and delighted. He’s always kept us guessing. And it’s great to see that the world is finally following along. Below is the brief Q-and-A email that Kozelek graciously answered mid-tour in August. Since then he’s gone on to offend much of North Carolina by calling them hillbillies, and wrote a really interesting song with an even more intriguing song title and chorus, “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock”. You can listen to it for free on Kozelek’s website, www.sunkilmoon.com . Get ready for a Kozelek Christmas record set for November, and in the meantime enjoy the interview.

NG: How often do you play with a band vs solo nowadays? And do you prefer one over the other?

MK: I’m currently in Malmo with a very much-needed night off on a band tour. I like both solo, and band. Solo is nice because it’s logistically less headache. Band stuff is complicated… all of the organizing that comes with it… but when you’re onstage with a band and everything is clicking, it’s pretty uplifting and worth all of the bullshit. Solo is also very nice – it’s more of a 1-on-1 experience. At my roots, I’m a solo artist and overall prefer playing solo.

The last time I saw you, you played in complete darkness with very few candles as your only light, is that a situation you prefer?

Yeah, I don’t like too much light. My shows are usually 2- to 2 and 1/2 hours long, and the heat from the light dehydrates me, make me sweaty and uncomfortable. I also don’t like movement in the light because nylon string guitar is a temperamental instrument. The lights changing cause temperature changes and mess with the guitar tuning.

In this day of reunions, do you ever get offers to reunite the Red House Painters? Do you ever consider? It seems some people have the “if the price is right mentality?”

We have never received 1 offer, and I wouldn’t take it if we did. SKM is doing just fine. That’s where my heart is, and I’m doing A-OK financially.

Were you surprised at the way Benji was received? Was it weird that people say you’ve found your voice or hit your stride after all these years of solid records?

I think if Pitchfork would have gave it a 5.1 and said it was middle-aged ramblings about dead uncles, people would have jumped on that boat and agreed. People have no minds of their own these days and believe whatever the internet tells them to believe. A 25-year- old girl recently told me, “you finally made a masterpiece”. I said, “baby, I’ve been making masterpieces long before Pitchfork existed.” For some people, music history started 5 years ago.

How do you decide on a performance setlist? Is there a mood you feel? Does it remain the same or similar? Are some songs off limits? Is there an art to the order or do you just wing it?

I play whatever I’m inspired to play. Currently it’s material from 2012 onwards.

How do you view the results of starting your own label? Has the freedom made you release more? You seem like your more prolific than ever? Are the ideas flowing that fast or are you releasing as much as possible because you’re not at the mercy of a label’s schedule?

It’s a combination of a lot of things. Yes, labels held me back to some extent, but I also took my time, with songwriting, recording. But it’s like a guy who works in construction– when you first start, you pay attention to all the details– after a while, you just build fucking houses. I make records. That’s just what I do. Some people do this, some do that, I live and breathe music. I go to bed with music in my head.

Why Caldo Verde?

My favorite soup.

You’ve done a bunch of live records? What makes a live show good enough to release? Do you record all your shows? Do you know going into a show that you’re going to release it or does that come later?

I record live shows from time to time. I release many of them for free, as incentive for fans to buy music directly. It’s easy to record solo performances. If the elements come together– the EQ, no digital distortion, performance is good, it might get released.

Do you have a good memory? It seems like a lot of these topics happened a long time ago? Does something trigger the memories to put them into song? Something that made you say, ‘oh I have all these memories why hide behind metaphor, let’s lay it all out there?’

Ah, hard to explain. When you get older, you just start realizing there is no guarantee you have another 20, or even 10 years left. You think about the things that shaped you. I felt the need to pay respect to my roots in this record… to tell both my mother and my father that I loved them, in song.

Now that you’ve gone the autobiographical route, is it hard to consider writing a song that is just pure fiction or covered in a veil of verbiage?

I just write. I don’t think about it. I just respond to my surroundings and my feelings and I write.

I’ve always meant to ask you… you’ve written many songs about others, and Mojave 3 wrote “Krazy Koz” about you. What do you think about that song?

It’s catchy.

How do you differentiate between Sun Kil Moon and Mark Kozelek? 

Ughh… Dude I’m in Malmo on a day off.  I’m really tired…

You seem to lay it all out there? Why do you want people to know your life and does that make it awkward at all? Do people tend to identify with you through your tales, or less so now? Did you in any way think people were ready for truth or was it just something that changed in your songwriting.

Ughh… Man, I’m getting sleepy….

I saw you played Newtown, what was that like? Have you ever played shows where it went from just playing songs to having to play a show to people that you wrote a song to that was so serious?

Newtown is in September. I won’t be playing ‘Newtown’ when I’m in Newtown, just like I don’t play Alesund in Alesund. That would be cliché.

Thank for your time. I’m in the middle of a tour and this is the best I can give you.

all of my best to you,

mark