Nikki Sudden: Ten Years After His Death… an 8-year old interview emerges

2-1-3

Nikki Sudden says he was born ten years too late. After his post-punk outfit, Swell Maps called it quits, Nikki worked his way through the underground and watched as much of the world turned their focus to the miserable mainstream of the 1980’s. Through various side-projects, solo endeavors and his work in the Jacobites (a band he co-founded with his brother, the now deceased Epic Soundtracks) Sudden has been making music continuously since he began. Though he’s earned the respect of his heroes and influenced many present day underground success stories, his music still remains under-the-radar to much of the listening world. With a series of reissues released brought on first by Secretly Canadian and Sudden’s a self-proclaimed masterpiece on its way at the time of our interview, we thought all this would change.

Two years later, on March 26, 2006, Nikki Sudden died while writing in his journal. Luckily, Easy Action in the UK has put out a 3-album compilation and some LP rarities, while the Numero Group has recently released Sudden’s Jacobites records and some of his best solo work in a beautifully packaged boxed set.

I caught up with Sudden back in 2004 over the phone as he enjoyed a day off in the UK and readied for one of his last tours to America. I remember watching Scout Niblett play the Middle East that night. Back then she was his labelmate and fellow countrywoman. Mid-set the soundman told the crowd Nikki Sudden had died. It was a sad moment for all of us informed enough to care. Ironically enough, he died of a heart that was too big. Below is the interview from 2004.

2-1-2

I heard you broke a rib. What’s that all about?

I haven’t broken my rib; I thought I had. I only bruised it. I fell off the top bunk three times in one night on a sleeper car from Moscow to the Ukraine. I kept climbing back up and then I’d fall back down ten minutes later. The guy I shared the compartment with said ‘I think you should sleep in the bottom bunk’. I was drunk, but I wasn’t that drunk. There were two mattresses on top of each other, but there was no friction. They just kept sliding off. Russian sleeping carriages don’t have any safety rails. My bass player says I’m lucky to be alive. I’m always lucky.

I’m writing from the States and for us most of our Nikki Sudden access is through the Secretly Canadian reissues. How did this come to fruition? Were you searching for labels or did they find you?

Chris Swanson, the guy who runs the company kept calling me and I never called him back. One time he rang me and I actually answered it and we got to talking. He seemed like a nice guy and I figured anybody with that much perseverance was worth doing something with. Usually when people write to me I tell them that I don’t need another label. I don’t know why I thought that.

Were you in total control of choosing what records were chosen?

Everything was totally up to me. I compiled all the reissues, remastered the tracks, did the sleevenotes and the layout. The only thing they insisted on was the back cover of the tray, which I think looks pretty bad.

 You’ve been recording for over 20 years, but have only toured the states a couple times. How many times? Why is this?

I’ve been on four or five American tours. Every time I come to the States I play a bunch of shows. I’ve driven across the whole country, which is more than most Americans can say. I first played there in 1985.

Would you say you’re more popular in Europe than in America?

In LA, San Francisco, New York people always come see me, as much as any German city anyway. It’s the small towns you never know what’s going to happen. I’d say America’s my second biggest market. Germany seems to be my biggest which is why I live in Berlin. I’ve got to leave Berlin soon. I’ve been here for six or seven years and that’s too long. The problem is I don’t know where to go. I fell in love with this city in the Ukraine the other day called Ternopil. It’s a beautiful place. It’s like the 1950’s. There are hardly any cars, most of them are totally fucked up wrecks falling to pieces. There are big potholes everywhere, never a traffic jam and you can walk down the middle of the street in the middle of the day. I think this is the kind of place I can live. I was asked yesterday by these Italian publishers if I could write a book. I was like ‘I have nothing to do in June’, so I could go there in June and do it. Then I found out that my new album is being released in June and I won’t have a chance to do it in June. A whole book in one month—10,000 words a day. It shouldn’t be a problem.

2-1-4

What’s it on?

It’s kind of my journal mixed with my autobiography—a diary with flashbacks to the Jacobites and various friends of mine like Johnny Thunders. That’s what the publisher suggested to me. I don’t think that would be hard to write, but I’ve tried to write a novel– 130,000 words and I haven’t even looked at it in three years. Then there’s this book I’m writing on Ronnie Wood. He knows I’m writing it cause I’ve told him several times, but I haven’t even gotten an interview with him yet.

 Why Ronnie Wood

I was always fascinated by his first solo album and no one had ever written about him. I thought I should do it. Now I wish I hadn’t even started. I’ve got 120,000 words and I still haven’t interviewed Ronnie yet.

Would it be correct in saying you’ve been making music non-stop since you began? Have there been downtimes, hiatuses?

Only when I can’t get gigs. If I’m not playing gigs I’m not making money. I wrote in my diary a couple days ago: all I ever do is make money to pay for a flat I’m never in and pay phone bills for a phone I never use. I think if you’re a musician you should either be playing gigs, writing songs or in the studio. I wish I could play 200-300 gigs a year and spend a couple months in the studio. That’s the ideal life I think. Being on tour is a totally surreal experience. You never have to think about anything. You just have to get on a bus and hope you get something to eat. You do a soundcheck, do a show and talk to some girls. Then what happens, happens; what doesn’t, doesn’t.

How do you account for the fact that after playing music for the past 20+ years you are still somewhat under-the-radar?

Bad luck basically. I’m sure if I’d been born 10 years before we’d be as big as Dylan, the Stones and people like that. But we’re not. That’s the trouble. I can never explain why. I still don’t understand why I’m more popular. It doesn’t make any sense at all. You just see all these useless bands come along like the Strokes. They get so much press and you hear them and they’re so average. And there’s the White Stripes. I’ve heard Led Zeppelin III, I don’t need to hear the White Stripes. Something is going wrong.

 In your mind what is the best record you’ve ever made?

I know musicians always say this, but my favorite album ever is my new one, Treasure Island. I’ve heard it about 500,000 times now and it still sounds great. Everyone’s been telling me this is the best album I’ve ever made.

Will you be performing solo this time?

Yeah, I can’t afford to bring the band over. Basically I want to release this new album in America. When you play solo it’s different thing than with the band because the band doesn’t know all the songs. Solo I can play whatever I want.

Obviously the Stones are one of your favorite bands, do you enjoy what they’re doing now? Is there ever a time when bands need to stop?

I think as long as you’re playing from the heart and soul you can do it until you die. The Stones are still doing it from the heart and soul. There’s no way they’re doing it for the money because they don’t need the money. I don’t think they ever need to stop. The only reason people say that is because they’re jealous of them. I saw them 22 times on their last tour. I think they’re the best band ever and that ever will be. I just wish they’d get some of the background people out there.

 Another of your favorites, the New York Dolls, are reuniting? How do you feel about that?

My take on it is this, if Johnny and Joey will be there, I’ll be there. Chrissy Hines is gonna take Johnny Thunders’ place. She plays nothing like Johnny. It should either be Steve Jones or Kevin Key. Kevin is a total Johnny wannabe and he does it quite well. Steve Jones basically saw all of Johnny’s leaks and he could do it quite well.

Are there any new bands out there that you find intriguing?

That’s the question I always hate because I don’t like any new bands. I like Primal Scream, but they’ve been around for 20 years.

You’ve worked with members of several American bands, some of whose music you do not like (like Sonic Youth). How did you end up working with people from bands you don’t like?

That’s a good question. I like them as people. I get on fine with Thurston, Steve, with Lee and Kim. I think Steve is a really good Epic Soundtracks inspired drummer and I think Steve would agree with that. I didn’t say I didn’t like their music. I just said you can’t blame me for Sonic Youth being influenced by us. I wouldn’t say I dislike them. I just don’t go for what they do, but they do it well.

Anything else?

Just make sure you use a cool photo.

2-1

 

Sun Kil Moon: Mark Kozelek Tells it Like it Is

photo025

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