“Our True Love Finds Us When it is Time”: An Interview with Mark Kozelek

Mark Kozelek

Having impacted the music scene in two consecutive
decades, at the helm of both Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon,
Mark Kozelek is a rare specimen. Further, his musical presence has
extended to film (most memorably, his acting turn in Almost Famous), and his own label, Caldo Verde Records, on which the latest Sun Kil Moon album, April, was released this month.
Luckily for us, Kozelek's newfound autonomy has put him in the position
to make available his archives of unreleased material, and reprint
his lyrics in a hardcover book (Nights of Passed Over).
With a dozen albums under his belt, April lives up to the
beauty and longing that one can expect from Kozelek, enhanced further
by the contributions of guest artists like Will Oldham and Ben Gibbard.

Your voice is a pretty undeniable instrument. I am curious
if you have always considered yourself a singer, who then learned
music to accompany it. Or if you started out as a songwriter or
guitarist, and then learned you had this voice?

I started out as a guitarist. It wasn't until my late teens that
I decided to sing. I wanted to express myself in a broader way than
the guitar could allow me to.

So, speaking of the new album, April: I smiled
when your voice quivers in the very first sentence of the album,
which also happens on the very opening track on Ghosts of the
Great Highway
... It's like you're warming up for the album
or something... was this intentional in any way?

I guess I'm not aware that the voice is wavering so much.
I meant for it too sound more confident than it comes off. But I'm
glad you smiled.

I love when Will Oldham's voice joins yours in the choruses
of "Unlit Hallway"--one of several harmonies on the album.
Has his music been an influence on you? How did you select which
songs would be collaborations with other vocalists?

I just hear things as I go along, like a painter changes colors,
or a screenwriter gets an idea and changes directions. People think
that when an artist makes a record, there's a set plan, or
direction they're on. But accidents happen in the studio,
you get ideas, things unravel and start to shape in ways you had
no idea were going to happen. I had no plan for Will to be on the
record, but I just heard his voice in the chorus of "Unlit
Hallway" at some point, and knew it would be right.

There is a strong sense of place on this album. The names
of streets, cities, rivers, specific rooms, and general places like
the sky. Do you feel that 'place' was a conscious muse for this
album?

Yes, especially here. San Francisco has been a lot of inspiration
for me, for the last 20 years. There are a lot of memories here.
I've been through a lot, seen a lot in this city. But yes, overall--environment
inspires me. It's the background of a lot of my songs.

I am curious if you have a different attitude when working
with your own material, compared to the covers albums you have released.
Do you feel more reverence for the material one way or the other,
are you more of a perfectionist, etc.?

I feel connected to both covers and originals. My friend said to
me the other day, "I didn't realize 'All Mixed Up' was a cover."
I forget sometimes, too. When I'm singing a cover, it's not on my
mind that it's someone else's song. Especially songs like that,
ones I've been playing for years.

Can you talk a little about the music that you grew up
listening to? And what current music you're into at the moment?

I'm pretty shut off to music these days. I wasn't before
it became my way of living. But somehow, this decade, I'm
not tuned into music anymore. I'm not seeking it out or going
to see bands much. Maybe it's because of my age. You tend
to lose interest in standing around bars when you're 41. But
there is just so much music going on now that it all cancels itself
out for me. Or maybe it's just that 90% of what I hear doesn't
sound good to me anymore. I don't know. I think I'm
just too far removed from how things work now. I see bands when
I'm on tour, listen to music when I'm in someone's
car, or on the stereo now and then, have signed a few bands I like.
But overall, I'm disconnected. The last thing I heard that I liked
is the Eddie Vedder soundtrack for Into the Wild. Beautiful.

As far as what I listened to as a kid--Neil Young, Led Zeppelin,
Yes. There were about five bands to like then. There was rock (Black
Sabbath), and soft rock (James Taylor). You heard Carly Simon on
TV commercials, not The Shins or Magnetic Fields.

Do you feel that there have been significant shifts in
popular music and the music business in the last 2 decades that
served as a more supportive environment for the art you're making--either
for Red House Painters in the '90s, or currently for Sun Kil Moon?

Well, the environment is vastly different. In 1992, when Down Colorful Hill came out, you have to remember, there was no
email, no websites, no cell phones, no internet, nothing. You played
guitar or drums, and that's what you did. But slowly since then,
record stores have closed, and the clusterfuck of the digital age
and internet have arisen, so you're forced to deal with the homework
that comes with that, to some extent or another. I've found a balance
that works for me, have people who help me with it. But I prefer
the way things worked back then. Your record being released had
a suspense to it, and that is severely diminished. Now people hear
it a month ahead of schedule, while they're bored at work. Another
download, some more text to scroll past on the iPod. It's just not
interesting times for music. There are more sides to how I feel
about it--the pros and cons of now and then--but we'd have to dedicate
an entire interview to it.

mark kozelek of sun kil moon in black and white

I am interested in your philosophy behind starting a project
(Sun Kil Moon) without the crutch of either of the names that had
come to bring you recognition and popularity (Red House Painters
and Mark Kozelek). Can you talk a little about the benefits and
the setbacks of this choice?

No setbacks. What I go back to, always, is that I started with
nothing--no fans, no records, no fame, nothing. So it's not a big
deal for me to potentially set myself back a few steps by taking
a risk. Most things I do, there's someone saying: "Are you
sure you want to release a Modest Mouse covers album?" "Are
you sure you want to start your own label?" "Are you
sure you want to leave 4AD?" "Are you sure you want
to license a song to Walmart?" "Are you sure the guitar
solos aren't too long?" "Are you sure you want to call
it Sun Kil Moon?" There's always some voice of concern from
someone, but I ignore it, and trust my instincts. Using the SKM
moniker was risky, but I knew it would catch on. It was beneficial,
without a doubt.

In regards to your experiences acting in films, you have
said in past interviews that you are eager to take on a role less
like your real persona, the artist with a guitar around his neck.
I am curious, in regards to songwriting, do you ever feel that you
have stepped far out of your own experience? Do the majority of
your songs tell the story of your own life? Do you ever write from
the perspective of, say, a literary character or someone entirely
fictional?

Not really. Sometimes I write in the voice of someone who I believe
is trying to get through to me, sometimes. But I never really understood
that Nick Cave style of "I am a murderer on this album"
kind of thing. It's just not me. I'd rather just cover
someone else's song.

There has been a particular aesthetic and palette that
has been featured on the majority of your album artwork, from Red
House to Sun Kil Moon... (primarily the work of Nyree Watts). I
am curious about the visual artists who inspire you, and if you
are a painter or photographer yourself?

No, I don't own a camera. I had a few disposable ones in
the past.

As far as visual artists, I like Nyree's stuff, but don't
follow photography or visual artists much. I like what I see, when
I see it, but don't know much about names, etc.

The album closer, "Blue Orchids," is deceptively
sweet, but it's heartbreaking to listen to. It has the nostalgic
power of Red House Painters songs like "Summer Dress"
and "Katy Song." You are able to sum up a person and a
time with one image that carries all this weight ("She comes
by every morning, brings back pink and pale blue orchids").
I want to say "return to form" or something, but that
sounds negative in a way... when I'm trying to say that you're a
genius... Do you feel that you recaptured or revisited any themes
or philosophies on this album?

I'm not sure, really. I'm drawing a blank. It's
late. But you definitely have been listening to the record. Thank
you! And thank you for the genius comment! It made my night.

Visit Sun Kil Moon on MySpace.

Identity Theory's recommended listening: "Blue Orchids" and "Carry Me Ohio" by Sun Kil Moon, and "Katy Song" by Red House Painters

Images courtesy of Nyree Watts

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