Mark Kozelek talks about the new Sun Kil Moon album Benji with Jaan Uhelszki.
January 31, 2014
Benji is the sixth full length Sun Kil Moon release. I did this interview over Thanksgiving weekend, 2013, because Mark Kozelek mentioned that his spirit leaves an album soon after he finishes a record. This is my attempt to capture that fleeing spirit by grilling him about love, gratitude, death and the what his friends say about him.
— Jaan Uhelszki
Benji is your seventh release since 2012, including live recording and collaborations. Is there some urgency to get all this material out? Is this different from when you first began your career? What’s driving this productivity?
It seems like a lot of work, but it’s been a relatively easy few years. Two of the records were collaborations. With Perils From The Sea, I was only responsible for the vocals. And with Mark Kozelek and Desertshore, my main responsibility was singing, as well. Like Rats was easy because I didn’t write any of the songs. I like to stay busy, to react to my impulses as they happen. It’s not the ’90s anymore, so I don’t have to wait around for funding by labels. I pay for my own records; I work at my own pace. Right now, I’m working on a Christmas album.
In the lyrics on Benji, I hear references and concerns with health and mortality. Is that something that’s been worrying you?
It’s not a daily worry, but death has been around a lot in recent years. My second cousin passing at 35 years old this summer brought a lot of sadness to my family. There was also the death of my ex-girlfriend’s mother, who passed from cancer at 60. I was there when that happened, and spent the day with another friend’s mom, the day before she passed, at 59. And, of course, Tim Mooney and Jason Molina died recently.
Do your albums build on each other? Should they? Is there a connection? Is there some thread the ties things together from the beginning of your career to Benji?
Something about Benji brought me full circle back to my childhood. I suppose it’s being middle-aged and reflecting. I hear about kids that I remember from my old neighborhood. One had a heart attack and died in his 40s. And the day before I played The Jimmy Fallon Show in 2012, a kid from my old neighborhood was mauled by K-9s, trying to outrun the cops in a cornfield. He was sent to jail for the third time. I wonder how that all happens, how we end up on such different paths. Things don’t just blow by me.
You’ve said that your spirit leaves an album soon after you’re done with it. Tell me about that. And you’ve been recording so much, so fast, how do you know when it’s time to make another album?
You just sort of feel it, the way you feel it when a relationship is over. I just get this stagnant feeling when I’m hanging around a record too long. Other ideas come to me and I need to get to them. It’s not that I’m in hurry, it’s just time to move on.
How do songs come in? Do they usually show up almost complete, or do you ever struggle and write them word-by-word?
They come in different ways. Sometimes I get these lyric attacks in the middle of the night. A verse comes, and then another, and then I either fall asleep or I get up and write them down. I get a lot of lyrics on airplanes. My graphics guy thinks I have too many shots of airplanes in my artwork, but that’s really where I get a lot of ideas, sitting around at airports. I take a Moleskin journal and I write.
How much does place weigh on what you write and how you sound? You so often reference specific names and specific places. Vocally, and with your guitar, you seem to lock into a sound, and you repeat it over and over, like the “blue crab cakes” in “Ben’s My Friend.” It seems like something takes hold of you and takes over. What happens to you when that occurs?
Sometimes the repetitiveness comes from a lack of anything else to tie things together. Or I repeat phrases to capture the mundane, the redundancy, or the humor of a situation. Like how I wrote ‘UK Blues’ and then ‘UK Blues 2’. Musically, the guitar on ‘Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes’ is perfect because it’s so menacing and relentless. You can’t sing a song about Richard Ramirez that has pretty parts. The repetition, it just fell together. Place is important. What I’m surrounded by is a good place to start in any song.
How do you know when you’ve written a good song? You write so much, how much of it doesn’t show up on records? What makes the cut?
Ninety percent of my ideas never come to fruition because I don’t complete them. I get an idea in transit, but then I have a show and I don’t care about the idea anymore. I’ve moved on. I know a song is good when it’s complete and when it’s recorded. If I’ve gotten that far with it, it will see the light of day.
Who is Benji? Why and how did he become the center of this record?
It’s named after the film Benji, a movie I saw in 1974 in a Los Angeles movie theatre when I was visiting my grandmother. It’s just this nice childhood memory I have. The record is filled with so much darkness, I wanted to bring some light, some contrast.
Can you talk about the association of the title Benji, a children’s film, your friend Ben, who is an electrician in “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” and Ben Gibbard, from the Postal Service, who you immortalized in “Ben’s My Friend”?
The friend who is an electrician -- his name is not actually Ben. That’s just what I named him in the song. ‘Ben’s My Friend’ was the last song written for the album, inspired by a meltdown I had after seeing my friend Ben Gibbard’s band, The Postal Service. And Benji, the movie, is referenced in ‘Micheline’.
How did Benji start? Was there an event that triggered it? Did you have an organizing principle in mind when you began?
The very first song written and recorded for the album was ‘Truck Driver’. ‘I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love’ followed. Like all records, the pieces just fell together over time.
Much of this record is about your family and growing up in Ohio. Did you expect to be led back there to find the answers to who you are? The clues to some of your behaviors? Do you feel you understand more now that you made the album?
In the middle of writing this Ohio-themed record, my cousin died. So I went back to Ohio and found myself in the same places I was singing about. But, yeah, many things tie back to my youth. Even though I’ve been away so long, I’m still very “Ohio.” I see the way my friends raise their kids out here and it’s confusing. I have some friends -- it took them a year to find the right dog. I’m not lying to you -- they interviewed dogs for a year before finding the right one. In Ohio, you just go get a dog. Where I grew up, we went to public schools, and we didn’t have housekeepers, and the word “organic” wasn’t in our vocabulary. I read the book House Of Secrets by Lowell Cauffiel. Those people in the book were my neighbors. I could ramble on, but, yes, my behaviors are definitely tied into my upbringing. There is simplicity to my life, a basicness with how I view things. I don’t care if anything is “green,” and I’m a technophobe, just like my father. I don’t have Facebook or any of that.
Two songs loom large on this record: “Carissa” and “Truck Driver.” Tell me about those two and how they are connected.
I wrote the song ‘Truck Driver’ in March of this year. It’s about my uncle who was in critical condition from a fire accident and eventually died, about five or six years ago.. I was playing the song at concerts in May. A month later, in June, my mom called me and told me that my second cousin Carissa just died the exact same way -- from an aerosol can explosion. Carissa died the same way as my uncle, who was her grandfather. People out here didn’t know what I was talking about when I told them what happened. But anyone who grew up in the Midwest knows what I’m talking about. If you live in the country, you burn trash, and occasionally accidents happens. In my uncle’s case, it was a gas can, in Carissa’s, it was aerosol. She was a really sweet girl who worked as an RN in Wadsworth, Ohio; had a husband and two kids.
Why was it important for you to find meaning in the tragedy of your cousin? Your uncle? Jim Wise, your father’s friend who killed his wife out of love, and failed to kill himself? Is there always meaning in death?
My dad’s friend just got sentenced. I visited him this summer, the song is exactly as it all went down. He was sitting there on house arrest, and he told me he would get sent to prison. Sure enough, they sentenced him. How am I not going to write about this? This was a guy my dad met at Panera Bread three times a week. How am I not going to write a song for Carissa? I don’t know what the meaning is but I’m compelled to write about these people, to pay tribute to them.
Family seems to be occupying a lot of your attention. A longing for things to be the way they were when you were a child?
I go back there a lot, mentally. I don’t know why. In 7th grade, I had a friend named Chris. I sing about him in ‘I Watched the Film The Song Remains The Same’. I have this funny memory of him. We went fishing, and we must have smoked some dusted weed or something, but we came back to this guy’s house, and this guy started swinging a baseball bat at us. Chris and I were laughing, hysterically. Anyhow Chris dropped his fishing tackle off at my house, and the next day, he got bumped off his moped and died. I didn’t touch his tackle box or fishing pole for about a year after he died. I have these happy, sunny memories, and Chris and me laughing is one of them.
Can you talk a little bit about a sense of destiny about what you would become in “Truck Driver,” where you sing about being five and falling into a trance when people are gathered playing guitars, “and [you] knew one day I’d do the same thing,” then fast-forward almost 40 years, where you are the guitar player after your uncle’s funeral, and “they fell into a trance” when you picked up a guitar.
Things didn’t happen exactly like that. What actually happened was, after my uncle’s funeral, my mother and I were in a car accident, and an ambulance was called. The car was totaled, but we were okay. That’s the beauty of songwriting. I was able to replace that memory with a better one; the memory of me playing guitar for my cousins on a separate occasion. But the way I chose to wrap the song up captures the feeling of me returning to Ohio as a professional musician. What are the odds of a kid watching someone playing an acoustic guitar on a lawn in Navarre, Ohio, and having the thought, "this is what I want to do," and then it actually becoming their way of life?
There’s also a really profound passage in “Dogs,” where you talk about the things that you imprint on. “Our early life shapes the types who we’re drawn to. It’s a complicated place, this planet we’re on.” Can you talk about this, and when that occurred to you?
Things that live inside my father, live inside of me. He traveled a lot when I was growing up, now I travel a lot.
Certain things that annoyed my father, those things now annoy me. Like noise. My dad — when he came home from those work trips -- he hated noise. The sound of anything broke his concentration.
Well, I’m that guy now, requesting quiet rooms in hotels. And when I’m at work — meaning, playing my guitar on stage — I don’t want to hear any noise. It messes with my concentration. I ask venues to turn light racks off, air conditioners, whatever is causing buzzing sounds near the stage. There are other things that live inside my father, that live inside me, in regards to how we are in our relationships. He’s divorced. He tries his best, I try my best.
Death seems to be very present on this record. Was that intentional? Do things seem to have more meaning for you when death enters the equation? While you don’t really romanticize it, it does figure in most of the songs on Benji.
I’m aware that there is a lot of death on this one, which is probably why I’m now working on a Christmas album now, to get a break from it all. But I have some new lyrics referencing Lou Reed’s death. I met him, in Vancouver, and my memory of that is now more profound. I don’t intentionally write about death, it’s just where I’m at.
Are you afraid of dying at this point in your life, or just afraid of losing those who you love?
I’m afraid of losing my mother and father. I dread that. I’m not afraid of dying, myself. I remember being really scared, way back, whenever there was airplane turbulence. Now I just feel like, if this plane crashes, that means I don’t have to get on another airplane ever again. I mean, I don’t want to do anything risky. I have more records to make and more Thankgivings to spend with my girlfriend. But I feel like, if it’s my time, I can’t complain. I’ve made tons of albums, traveled the world, and I look at the Golden Gate Bridge almost every waking day. But I do like being here for people, I’ve made some great friends along the way, and have a wonderful girlfriend. If I die next to her, then don’t feel bad for me.
This album seems like an elaborate thank you note, to your parents, to the girls who initiated you into sex, to the man who signed you. Were you feeling particularly grateful when you wrote this album?
For sure. My dad is 80. You know those people who hold grudges against their parents their whole lives? I’m not one of them. When I weigh it all out, my dad did a lot of good for me. We had a few hard times. But I had it coming. My dad was gone a lot, and he’d come home to a kid who was expelled from school, or whatever. I’m 46 years old and I understand him now. My mother, I put her through hell for a few years. She had her hands full with three kids. So yeah, this album is a thank you to my mom and dad, and, yes, to Ivo Watts-Russell. He signed Red House Painters when we couldn’t draw 20 people. This record is also a tribute to some friends who didn’t make it.
There are events that occurred years ago, for instance in “I Love My Dad,” or “Micheline.” How long does it take for something that happened to filter through your subconscious to transmute into a song?
Things happen when they happen. It wasn’t until four years after an ex-girlfiend died that I was able to really sing about her death. Things unfold when the time is right. Like in “1936,” the song about me stealing a family heirloom, I didn’t know I’d ever write about that. Jimmy LaValle sent me a piece of music, and the words spilled out of me.
In “ I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same,” you talk about seeing Led Zeppelin’s movie of their 1975 tour in a Canton, Ohio, mall, and you say that the same things that spoke to you then, speak to you now — your own personal song remains the same. What are those things?
Like I say in the song, when I watch the film now as an adult, the same parts resonate that did back then. So I guess in some ways I’m the same person I was then. I loved Led Zeppelin back then, and still do. My favorite movies are still The Shining and Papillon. I fished back then, I still do.
You confess that you were a melancholy kid, and you’ve “discovered I cannot shake melancholy for 46 years now.” Does it surprise you that so much of what you would become was already fixed when you were a child?
Not really. My parents are both Depression-era kids. They both grew up with a lot of hardship. I don’t want to be specific, but I’ve always sensed melancholy in my parents. I mean, my dad, he’s really funny, and my mom, she’s really comforting to be around, but they both carry a certain weight that I believe stems from their childhood. There’s a spirit there that was passed onto me. It’s not a bad thing, melancholy. I can get up in the morning and check my emails and all of that. It’s just, I’m not perky. I never was.
Your songs seem tremendously autobiographical. Do you think your best work requires that element of autobiography? Why is that important for you to reveal so much?
I don’t know if it’s the autobiographical part or what, but when I write lyrics, something real comes out of me. I don’t know any other way to do it.
On “Dogs”, you move through all your early sexual experiences with great detail and with candor. Do you ever worry that people you write about will feel exposed? Do you ever have second thoughts from revealing something so personal? About yourself or others? Has anyone in your life taken you to task for it?
On “Dogs,” I didn’t use anyone’s real names. The last thing I would want to do is embarrass anyone. But for one reason or another, these experiences came out of me. The beauty of poetry is being able to express, and to alter, where it feels appropriate. But I never want to hurt anyone. I write about real things, but I’m respectful, I protect. I don’t recall anyone taking me to task, but I do recall a few girls asking if “The Moderately Talented Young Woman” was about them.
Given that, how would your friends describe you?
The only common denominator is that they might say I’m generous. I don’t know what it is. If I go out to eat with anyone, I’m buying dinner. Other than that, I don’t know what they’d say. Some might say I’m a good storyteller, or that I’m funny, or that I’m awkward. I have different chemistry with different friends. Another denominator, people spill their guts to me, I don’t know what it is. People trust me. When I’m your friend, I have your back.
You have said that isolation sparks creativity. Do you sacrifice some of that in the collaborations you’ve done recently? How does that change the way you write? What have you learned about yourself in working with someone else?
I don’t think I sacrifice anything. As an example, Chris and Phil of Desertshore are longtime friends. We put the mic up, and I just react to whatever is happening. That’s my job. They hired me to write and sing. I gain a lot from collaborations, because I’m making way more music than I would be if I was working alone.
Can you talk a little about working with Steve Shelley? Where do you two connect?
We connected at a festival in Peterborough, New Hampshire, this year. RHP played at least one festival with Sonic Youth years ago, but Steve and I never met or played together until this year. There is something mellow about Steve that I connect with, and I love the way he plays drums.
What do you have against Nels Cline? This is the second time you’ve brought him up in one of your albums. Has he tried to retaliate? Do you secretly like him?
Honestly, I don’t know anything about him. I saw Wilco live only once, in New Orleans, and on TV once. I decided to name off a bunch of guitarists I liked, in the chorus of “Bramble,” but then thought it would be more dynamic if I named a few I hated. The thing is, I don’t hate anybody. His name just rhymed with whatever came before it, and people laughed. So on Benji, I did it again. I do things twice, sometimes, like how I did “UK Blues” and “UK Blues 2.”
“Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” seems to be tied up with your own sense of safety and well-being, as a child and an adult. Do you feel that the same things scare you now as they did then?
Different things scare me now. Like I said, the thought of losing my parents, or, like, my heart hurts sometimes. Not emotionally, but physically, that side of my chest. I worry about losing people. And I still have some basic fears from back then — like sharks or whatever. Jaws ruined me for going into the ocean.
In “Ben’s My Friend,” you talk about going to a Postal Service show and how it had a great effect on you. Ben Gibbard is your friend, yet his career has gone far more mainstream than yours has. Do you ever crave that mass acceptance? What does success look like to you?
I never craved the acceptance, but I go through “why do they have it and I don’t?” The first time I saw Death Cab was on a Sunday afternoon at Bottom Of The Hill in San Francisco. So it was remarkable to cut to 13 years later and not be able to find a parking space at Ben’s concert. I was happy for Ben, but I was also in a state of feeling inferior, wondering why I’m having trouble selling 500 tickets, and Ben is selling 17,000. Ben is my friend; I have deep respect for him and his talent. But there is a “thing” that artists go through. We’re forbidden to speak of it, it’s viewed as petty, competitive, bitter. But it’s there. I’ve traveled with many a venting musician and I wanted to write about that feeling, to share something human.
Is it difficult to be friends with other artists and not be competitive? Are you motivated by other people’s success?
I know a lot of artists, we travel in the same circles, but we just look at each other and go, “I get it.” There’s really not much to talk about.