||An Interview with Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon
by Rob O’Connor | April 2010
Q: First, Mark, why have you decided to cut down on the interviews that you are doing to promote this new record?
A: There are too many magazines now with the Internet. We get requests from so many websites, some in countries I've never heard of. The summer is coming and I don't want to spend all day on the phone trying to explain the difference between 'Sun Kil Moon' and 'Red House Painters' or why I tour solo and other times with a band. It's just not a good use of my time.
Q: How have you seen the music business evolve or devolve since the beginning of your career?
A: It’s just different. The overspending of record labels is over. Record companies aren't throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars around anymore, paying huge advances. Musicians are on their own now, as far as making records and touring. Artists are mostly cashing in now on licensing. I meet bands when I'm on tour, artists you've never heard of, and they make their living on licensing songs to European TV commercials, Australia, wherever. But in many ways, things are the same. I know of a few labels that have two or three bands that you've heard of and several that you haven't. That's how it was in '92.
Q: You have just recently had the song “Heron Blue” featured in the video game Gears of War III. What are your thoughts on licensing your music? It seems as if these unusual opportunities are a better way to reach new audiences than the traditional means of touring, press (which is vanishing as we speak) and whatever radio you can find. Is this true?
A: I don't think of it in those terms. Honestly, I just look at the zeros on the end of offers and decide from there. I need to eat and pay bills and taxes like everyone else. If along the way Gears of War helps me reach a wider audience, it beats mailing thousand of CDs to college radio stations that no one listens to anymore.
Q: Have you ever been able to crack onto radio? What do you figure has been the biggest reason for your success, in terms of reaching people?
A: There were some early radio pushes by 4AD and Island, but it never caught on. My only focus has been to make beautiful music, that's it. I've toured, made my albums. That's all I can account for why I can fill a room or get a call from the Gap. I stopped with radio mailings about 4 years ago. Statistically, it doesn't help sales at my level. It’s a waste of money.
Q: Artistically speaking, what are your requirements for a new song or a new album? Is there an innate sense of what meets your standards? Or do you write many things and later wonder how some ideas seemed plausible at the time? Any funny outtakes?
A: On this record, there is one outtake: an extra version of “Third and Seneca.” When I wrote a few songs over the past year, my friend Aaron would fly down and record them. We did that off and on from April of last year until April of this year. If you record a song while it’s fresh, the odds of you being happy with it are stronger. It’s when you've played a song a million times that you find yourself struggling to find the spark that made it good the first time. The only funny outtake I can think of is a version of “Glenn Tipton” that no one will ever hear. It was too fast. I was dating this girl who was very, uh, blunt about everything. I played it for her and she said, "Oohh…zippy!!" She was right. It was too zippy.
Q: What inspired this album and why did you choose to work alone?
A: I was interested in classical guitar when I was younger, but got away from it. A few years ago, I picked up a Segovia 5-CD set in New Zealand. Then came home, bought some classical records - by Liona Boyd, Ana Vidovic, Julian Bream. But I really fell in love with this record by Segovia. It's just called Segovia, composed by Tansman, Federico Mompou, and Maria Esteban de Valera. It was then that I decided, for my next record, that I wanted to play guitar and sing as beautifully as I could. With the classical guitar, the whole range of sounds is covered. Bass and drums would have swamped up the sound of this record. I wanted it to have the feel of those old classical guitar records.
Q: What are some of your favorite guitars and how do they influence what you write?
A: Some of my favorites I haven't taken out of the cases in years. Your favorites change. My fingers haven't touched a steel string acoustic in over a year now. Sometimes a new guitar can inspire you. It’s new, so you're playing it more, getting used to it. The more you play, the more you're creating. My favorite steel string is a custom Gibson J-160 I got in ‘95. My favorite electric is probably a 90s Gibson L4 hollow body and a 1960 Melody Maker. My current nylon string is an old 60s Silvertone I got for $60 in an antique shop.
Q: OK, let’s get a few out of way so you can stop answering these questions. By issuing an album as ‘Sun Kil Moon,’ what does that represent?
A: Honestly, more sales. I'll sell 1/3 or 1/4 the amount if I call it 'Mark Kozelek.' There's momentum with the ‘Sun Kil Moon’ moniker that my own name doesn't have.
Q: One more, how is ‘Sun Kil Moon’ different from ‘Red House Painters’?
A: This is the same answer I've given to everyone over the last 6 years: not much different. Anthony (Koutsos) from Red House Painters is on drums every time (on the recordings anyhow) and it's always me singing and playing guitar. When Sun Kil Moon plays live, it’s Jerry (Vessel) and Phil (Carney) from Red House Painters playing guitar and bass. Admiral Fell is an exception, as I'm the only player on the record. But none of the above played on Red House Painters’ Songs for a Blue Guitar. That was John Hiatt's band backing me up at the time. So go figure.
Q: Once you begin piecing together an album, does the way the album is coming together influence the writing of the later songs in the process?
A: Not usually. That's why there are songs like “Have You Forgotten” and “Long Distance Runaround” on the same album. I was never thinking about the album, just the songs. But with this record, I had a vision in mind. I wanted to make something that was very personal, that had a theme and a flow, musically. I just didn't want to make a record that was all over the place – a quiet, acoustic song followed by a distorted band jam.
Q: What is it that attracts you to other people’s music? Do you ever consciously try to emulate certain things, like, perhaps the way Led Zeppelin used album art or obscure song titles?
A: Not consciously. But it occurs to you later. Like the ‘Rollercoaster’ record sort of has the same look as Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti and it's also epic length. The stuff you loved as a kid is going to come through. It'll show on your album covers, in the length of your songs, the way you use melodies. It occurred to me after i recorded it, how much a riff in “Half Moon Bay” sounds like a riff in either “Dogs” or “Pigs” by Pink Floyd.
Q: As you get older, what has changed? What are your priorities now vs. when you began?
A: To enjoy the moment. I'm 43 now and have seen people pass away from natural causes that aren't much older than me, and some even younger than me. It's a reality check. I try to take advantage of the day more, to do things that make me feel good, spend time with people I care about. I get up, do the email and phone stuff, go to the post office, run errands, and then walk 4 or 5 miles. No matter what I have to do, I find time to walk and enjoy my surroundings. I just try not to take my time for granted. Other than that, I'm the same as I was 15 years ago, just plugging away at my career.
Q: Has touring gotten any easier?
A: Yes, because I do less of it, pace myself more. I know it's something that many people fantasize about, and they're quick to take offense if you say that touring doesn't make you happy, but touring is stressful. You spend all of your time in vans or airports, rushing around, checking in and out of hotels. I saw a Russian promoter and his wife recently when they were visiting San Francisco. His wife said, "My god, you look 10 years younger!" I'm just happier at home. I love to play live, but I'm not going run myself into the ground over it. It’s just abnormal to travel everyday and it throws your life out of whack, going out of town all of the time. A few weeks at a time is my maximum to be out.
Q: Could you speak about some of the songs such as “Alesund,” “Sam Wong Hotel” or “Third and Seneca”?
A: On “Alesund,” the opening lyric was inspired by years of people asking me about my guitars at airports. You get tired of sitting on planes, listening to some computer guy talking your ear off about how he used to play guitar, or how his cousin makes dobros. Finally, I just said “No, it’s not my guitar, I'm carrying it for a friend.” You figure these things out over the years, how to preserve your energy, your voice, how to get some peace and quiet when you can get it. It’s a job like any other. You do what you have to do to get through the day.
“Sam Wong Hotel” is basically a day in the life of living in San Francisco. “Third and Seneca” was written in a hotel in Seattle.
Q: What about this recording of “Admiral Fell Promises”? Is there a full band version available or in the vaults?
A: No. We tried that one at rehearsals years ago, but it never took off.
Q: What led you to form Caldo Verde? And why does the vinyl come out on Cameron Crowe’s Vinyl Films label? Is he active with his label?
A: Just an accumulation of unpleasant experiences with labels. It was just time to create my own business, take responsibility. With Vinyl Films, Cameron oversees everything, it’s his investment. but I work mostly with Andy Fischer, who works with Cameron.
Q: What other artists are on Caldo Verde? And what is your criteria? How much time does it take out of your week? Do you have a staff?
A: I'm putting out the next Jesu full length, and just put a record out for Kath Bloom. I have a publicist, a graphics guy, an accountant, a lawyer, a licensing guy, and other people I hire for various things. There are always things to do when you have a label, especially when you're on your own label. It just depends on what's going on. Some days I have a few hours of things to do, and sometimes there's not enough time in the day to do the things I need to do. Sometimes there are just a few emails and mailings, and sometimes I'm spending all week trying to get a work permit for some country.
Q: Do you have free time? What are your other interests? Do they affect the music or are they activities that give you a break from it?
A: You never get a break from songwriting. One thing connects to the next. The term “Bay of Skulls” is a term I read in the book The Night Stalker about Richard Ramirez. The song has nothing to do with the night stalker, but the line struck me, and a whole song unfolded. If you're a poet, then you're living, noticing, listening, picking things up. And inspiration never turns up in obvious places.
Q: San Francisco inspires your music. Do you see yourself living there forever or do you daydream about other places?
A: Yeah, I'll be here for a long time. My favorite place to visit is New Orleans.
Q: Is there anyone you would ever want to collaborate with?
A: I'm not a collaborator. I've shared the stage with a few people, sang a few songs. It's fun, but nothing I care to devote a lot of time to.
Q: Does it get lonely doing much of the work by yourself?
A: It's just in my nature to be a solo artist. I like playing music with people from time to time, but spiritually, fundamentally, I'm a solo artist. Sure, it gets lonely, traveling around by yourself. But sitting in a van all day full of guys staring at their iPhones is lonely, too.
Q: Are you at a comfortable place in your life? Are you prone to worrying about the future? Is there anything else you could see yourself doing?
A: Is there anything else i could see myself doing? Not really. A few years ago, a girl in Ireland asked me. "Mark, what is your dream?" I just told her I was living it. It’s true. I'm basically living a very close version of what I was always working towards, so I can't complain.