Mark Kozelek recently released a new track from his forthcoming Sun Kil Moon album, Universal Themes, out June 2 on Caldo Verde. “Ali/Spinks 2” sounds nothing like the singer’s work with RHP. But the nearly seven-minute sonic monologue is pure Kozelek – if Kozelek made a guest appearance on a Pavement or a Sonic Youth album. (Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley actually plays drums on Universal Themes.) In the stream-of-consciousness song, Kozelek makes references to pop culture, name-checking True Detective, actor Keith Carradine, Rob Zombie flicks, and boxing matches from 1978, childhood memories, and factoids about his father.
From the Archives: Mark Kozelek talks about getting older, falling in love, being a tortured artist and getting shit from the indie crowd for doing a couple of movies and a Gap commercial way back when. (Note: this interview took place years ago.)
The singer plays Vancouver’s Venue on April 11, 2015.
How has the writing process changed over the years as you’ve gone from paying with RHP and other musicians?
That’s changed a lot over the years. On the tour we’re even gonna do some of the songs from my solo records. Early on I would say that I would probably have to occasionally sit down and tell the drummer what I was picturing. Or I’d sit down and write a bass line for the bass player. But we’ve been playing together for so long that I can just bring my songs into the rehearsal and start playing and automatically the guys in the band come up with pretty amazing ideas that kind of fit right in. I guess it’s like any kind of relationship. After a while things just mesh and your ideas and your taste mesh and you kind of become one with something. I guess that’s sort of happened with the band over the years.
Let’s talk about your first solo album Rock n’ Roll Singer. How was that different from doing a Red House Painters album?
With Red House Painters records there’s been, not a lot, but some pressure. We did a demo tape and overnight we got 80 grand to make a record we knew was gonna be released all over the world. So there was a lot of pressure. That got a little easier over time and I got used to that. But with recording the solo record there was really no pressure at all because I did it with a friend. He owned the studio. I didn’t have to pay for any of the time. And if I didn’t like the way the recording came out I never sweated it at all. I just came in another time and did it when I felt better. With the Red House Painters you can’t really work that way. We get a certain budget. We’re working in an expensive studio. I’ve got to think about what the other three guys in the band are going to think if I put them kind of low in the mix. There are so many factors to think about. With the solo record it was just me and a guitar sitting in my friend’s bedroom and recording without even discussing if the stuff was gonna be released or not. So it was all kind of done in an experimental way and it was just much more relaxing.
A lot has been written about your troubled childhood and for the most part your songs deal with pain and sadness. Some people say that for art to be deeper or more meaningful the artist must suffer. Do you think that’s true?
You know, I don’t know about that because I worked with a lot of different people, musicians, actors and I know some really creative people. Geniuses who didn’t have a lot of trouble in their past. They’re pretty healthy, stable people who just don’t have any signs of depression or anything like that. So I really think it kind of depends on the person. If my life growing up had been a lot different maybe somehow I wouldn’t be doing this and there’d be something else I’d be doing with my life. I had a part in that movie Vanilla Sky and there’s Tom Cruise. The guy is fucking amazing. Or in Magnolia the guy is amazing. But I don’t know. I don’t know anything about him. Did he have a tortured life? I don’t know. It just varies.
While some artist say that the lyrics are less important than the general feeling that the song brings, your songs seem to be more about something. How important is for you to have a clear message in a song?
To me it’s real important. On a real basic level to this day I’ve never relaxed about sound when we play. I always make sure that my vocal is the thing that is the loudest and the clearest. And for me storytelling is really important. It’s crucial. With me I sort of feel that my strength is not my singing. My strength is a lot more in my lyrics. And I really feel that the best shows that we have are the ones where I am coming through loud and clear. And any shows that we have where the audience can’t hear the vocals the response is just not that great. But when my vocals are being heard it just seems that there’s an impact that’s made that’s much stronger than just, “Yeah, good show.” To me it’s really important and I write and I rewrite and I never really record a vocal or present anything to the band until I feel that something’s really finished. It’s important to me that I get across what it is I want to get across.
You’ve done covers of Genesis, Neil Young, Yes… You seem to do a lot of covers.You also worked on a John Denver tribute album.
Yeah, and those were actually outtakes from Songs For A Blue Guitar. I don’t know why but I just enjoy interpreting and reinterpreting songs that people write. John Denver is somebody that I grew up listening to and he’s someone who never got any credit amongst anyone, really, that I’ve ever known in my life. No credit among the circles of people that I know. And I’ve always been compared to these guys like Nick Drake that I never grew up listening to and I still don’t listen to. People like John Denver and Cat Stevens and Neil Young are my influences. Even when John Denver died it was still kind of a joke. I really wanted people, at least the circle of people I know, to know that there was more to him. I knew that the record wasn’t gonna sell huge but I knew that people who bought records by my band would probably buy it. I guess I just wanted people to know that there was more to him than the couple of silly hits he had. And I just felt that by calling people I knew — like Will Oldham and Innocence Mission and some of these bands — that people might pay attention. And hopefully I’ve achieved that a little bit.
On What’s Next to the Moon you covered all AC/DC songs. Were you a fan of the band growing up?
Yeah, I like them. There are a lot of other bands I grew up listening to that I like a lot more than them. On tour in Spain a couple of years ago I was covering two songs and no one believed that they were AC/DC songs. I would say that they were and afterwards people would come up to me and say, “Oh, but that was a joke. Those have to be your songs!” And I would say, “No, really they’re AC/DC songs.” So after the tour and the response I got from doing those songs I thought, “Well, maybe I’m gonna go home and do an EP of AC/DC songs and I’ll try to figure out a couple more that work well.” And then I started to work on them. I realized that the simple structure of the lyrics is written for 3-chord songs so they end up breaking down really well into folk songs. I found that many of their songs worked so well so that’s how I ended up doing a whole record.
The cover you did of The Cars song, “All Mixed Up,” appeared in a Gap commercial. Did you get a lot of shit from people about selling out back then?
There were a couple of little jokes. People have told me that they saw stuff online of kids who were cutting us down but, you know, they’re kids. The best thing I can say about that is I remember years ago the bassist in the band and I were talking about Henry Rollins. In bus stops all over town there were pictures of Rollins with a t-shirt and it said Henry Rollins wears blah bah blah… The Gap. And [the bassist] and his girlfriend asked me if I would ever do something like that. And I said that I knew that Tanya Donelly from Belly did the same thing and got like 25 grand. I said, “Yeah, I’d do it!” and they were like, “Omigod. I can’t believe you’d do that.” Well, there we were and we got a song on a Gap commercial and my bass player is like, “Where’s my fucking money?” It just kind of shows you, you know. [Laughs.] When you’re in your 21 it’s easy to have these ideals. You know what I mean. These kids [online] are so sensitive and so opinionated and just so critical. I mean, I can’t even talk to girls after a fucking show without kids going on the internet and writing, “Omigod, after the show I saw Mark talking to this girl.” [Laughs.] Kids are so regimented in their ways… They create this image. You put out 5 or 6 records and they’ve got this best friend now and so everything that you do is so scrutinized. But anyhow, all these kids are, you know, kids!
The thing is, yeah, I’ve gotten a little shit for doing the movie. I’ve gotten a little shit for doing the Gap ad. But you know, my fucking back hurts, my teeth are all fucked up, and my knee’s fucked up. These little things I did were the best paydays I ever got. Way bigger than any paycheck I did for any show or royalties from records.
TOP 5 RECORDS
Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin / Decade, Neil Young / Animals, Pink Floyd / The Yes Album, Yes / Greatest Hits, Cat Stevens
Papiyon with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
I worked in shipping in a warehouse in Atlanta, Ga. It was just a really hard physical job of having to be there at 7am. I was about 18 and worked there maybe 6 months.
Doobie Brothers with my mom.