Novelist John Connolly and songwriter Mark Kozelek in conversation, plus listen to the new album by Jesu/Sun Kil Moon, 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth.
The interview took place March 31 and April 2, 2017
John: As someone who doesn’t collaborate easily, I suppose I’m fascinated by the process of creating an album like 30 Seconds. How does the division of labor even begin, especially given how personal some of the lyrics are – or appear to be?
Mark: I find collaborations much easier than an entire album being my responsibility. Half of the work is in the hands of someone else so I just have to respond to what they present. With Justin, he delivers the majority of the music, so all I need to do is listen, have an engineer do some editing, and add words. When I hear a piece of music, I find it pretty easy to adapt and find my footing, especially when it's as good as what Justin sends. Now and then a piece of music is sent to me that I'm unable to connect with, but Justin and I have never had that problem.
John: This is your second collaboration with Jesu in a little over a year. Is there a particular point of connection between you and Justin, and if so, how did it initially come about?
Mark: Justin and I were introduced by Zak Sally, formerly of Low. I went to see Justin play with Jesu in 2005, loved the show and released two Jesu records on my label. We met soon after in Manchester and became friends. We can play on stage together for three hours and talk all day on the way to the next show. I think it has a lot to do with us being the same age and having been in the business for 25 years, plus.
John: For me as a listener, it feels like a less dense record than the most recent Sun Kil Moon release, Common As Light… There are long pieces on it – "Wheat Bread," for example, which clocks in at an undeniably epic 17 minutes – but there’s a spaciousness to it, and a lightness, which I think makes it more approachable - And I speak as someone who admires Common As Light... a lot! Were you conscious of that as you were constructing it, or is this a case of the artist’s/ artists’ intentions differing, perhaps, from the listener’s response?
Mark: It's really just a case of listening and going with my initial instincts. The vocals for 30 Seconds were recorded during 2016, during some of the same sessions as Common as Light, so there are some road songs in there, with mentions of Brexit, the build up to the USA election, Michael Jackson, and other things very topical to 2016. Why some of these songs may have a lighter feel or seem more spacious, may have to do with the electronic aspect of Justin's music. 2016 was a roller coaster of emotions and experiences, probably the busiest tour year of my life, so a lot of that got captured in both the Sun Kil Moon, and the Jesu/Sun Kil Moon albums.
Jesu/Sun Kil Moon - November 2016, Los Angeles - Mark Kozelek, Justin Broadrick, Ben Boye, Nick Zubeck, Scott McPherson
John: That’s really interesting. I suppose I associate albums with being distinct entities, and I tend to listen to them in that way. I probably assumed that an artist goes into the studio to record a certain album, does that, then moves on to the next project. It had never struck me that two separate projects might overlap in that way. For me it would be like working on two novels simultaneously, and finding one bleeding into the other. To what extent, then, do you enter the studio with a clear idea of what you want to achieve, or does it differ from record to record, year to year?
Mark: For the most part, with me, everything is overlapping and bleeding into the other. Even Red House Painters 1 (Rollercoaster) and 2 (Bridge) was compiled from the same nine months of recording sessions. Ghosts of the Great Highway was the first record where I had no plan at all as I went into making the album. I was recording songs as I wrote them. Today is an example of where I'm going into the studio and working on one album or the other. Which project my words fall into, I won't know until I get there. In my mind, novels require more discipline as far as continuity. You're writing 500 page novels where everything has to tie together and make sense in the end. But with music, things can fall all over the place. I think of Led Zeppelin albums, like Houses of the Holy or Physical Graffiti, where the personality of the songs varies a lot, from track to track.
Mark mixing during the Rollercoaster/Bridge recording sessions with engineer Billy Anderson, 1992. San Francisco
John: “You Are Me and I Am You” is about your father, and is, I think, hugely moving in its tenderness and generosity. My father died when I was in my very early twenties, and before we’d really managed to get to know each other properly. He was in his forties when I was born, and we were very different people. I was still angry at him when he passed away, for no particularly good reason that I can see, looking back. Now, when I catch myself on TV, or hear myself speak, I can pick up my use of some of his gestures, and the cadences of his language. The song felt like an accommodation that I never managed – or was given the opportunity – to reach. It came across to me as a song born out of a certain amount of age and wisdom, or is that just me projecting? If it’s the latter, then no bad thing, I suppose. After all, isn’t that what we do as listeners, upon encountering music that resonates with us?
Mark: I was talking with a friend recently about how we all have very different relationships with our parents and relatives. Family relationships are so idiosyncratic and complex. My father and I had some difficult times when I was young. But then I moved to the other side of the country, and with distance, he's become one of my closest friends. I went on to do what I dreamed of doing, so there's no reason to dwell on the rough times. And as time has passed, I realized that many things my father brought to the table are what lead me to being the hard worker that I am. And yes, I see so much of myself in him, and the song gets into some of those details.
John: “Needles Disney” is another song that appears to touch on a personal relationship, and manages the not inconsiderable feat of managing to sound weary, understanding and forgiving of years of involvement with its subject, all in fewer than seven minutes. If these are real people in your songs – or versions thereof (and this is something that leads on to a later question) – do you feel a certain responsibility in how you approach them, and your relationship with them?
Mark: Yes, I do feel a certain responsibility. With my songs that are specific to my relationships, they're all handled differently. This one is delicate - a song about a friend who is recovering from an addiction, had a child, and moved on to a much brighter future than I ever imagined. It's a song about love and recovery, and I think very relatable for anyone who has had the experience of worrying about someone who has battled a very dangerous addiction, and who is pulling through.
There were the needles spilling on the pavement at an amusement park, that made the title, but it’s the many years that have passed since then, that made the song.
John: In a similar vein, I did have to go and look up Johnny Saint-Lethal – the inspiration for “Twenty Something’ – in part because I wasn’t entirely certain that someone would voluntarily burden themselves with the weight of that kind of name, or not with a straight face. It’s a song to which I’ve returned a couple of times, possibly because I’m still trying to figure out how I’d feel about it if I were Johnny. I suspect he probably had to listen to it a few times as well, although the end, with an audience in Austin singing a message to him, never fails to put a smile on my face, for all the best reasons. On one level, it is an older artist offering advice to a younger one, but not without a certain edge. What do you have in mind when you write something like that? I think that when it comes to “Twenty Something,” I feel a certain kinship with Johnny – and I never imagined I’d see myself writing those words about someone with an adopted surname like his. After all, we met when I gave you a copy of The Black Angel in Dublin many years ago, after you’d kindly allowed me to use “Summer Dress” on the CD that came with it. I found in the lyrics and tone of that song a direct connection with elements of my own writing. In your own work, you appear hugely open to inspiration from so many quarters: sport, cinema, books. You don’t seem to operate as a closed system at all. How conscious are you of doing that?
Mark: Based on the brief interactions that I had with Johnny at the show in Philadelphia, he's not lacking in the self-love department. If I had to think of the one thing that struck me the most about Johnny, his name of course caused me to take a step back, but it was his determination to be noticed. As a 49 year old man, in that moment, I couldn't help but to think of all of the 20-something artists I knew with that same amount of self-confidence, who ended up living very different lives than they dreamed of. They wanted to be rock stars, but then life happened. And I mean that in the best way. Many of them just aren't making a living in their first choice of career. When Johnny handed me the book and I saw his name, and the title, I couldn't help but think, where is this guy's life going? Either way, we had a new song by the next day's soundcheck and Johnny's book got a promotion.
As far as me not being a closed system, it's really the only way I know how to work. It's not really a conscious thing. Life is different from minute to minute. Yesterday, I was having lunch with my mother, who is visiting from Ohio. 15 minutes later, a taxi driver and I were talking about early 1990s San Francisco, and then I was sitting there with my accountant for a tax appointment. Needless to say, I went through a range of experiences yesterday and that's where I get inspiration.
John: It may be a novelist’s fascination (because all good fiction starts with character) but to what extent is the Mark Kozelek of your songs a manufactured creation? I don’t mean that in any cynical sense, but much of your work – particularly your most recent work – appears intent on blurring that distinction (as W.B. Yeats put it, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”) or of exploring the possibilities of autobiographical themes. There’s a lovely moment on your version of “Christmas Time Is Here” where the famous declaration from A Charlie Brown Christmas is changed to “Of all the Mark Kozeleks in the world, you’re the Mark Kozelekiest.” I guess I’m asking: how true is that of all your work?
Mark: I leave all of that to the listener and don't label myself as any particular type of songwriter. If people want to debate on whether or not I grew up on Velveeta cheese, it's ok. It's up to the listener to make their own connections. Did I really meet a girl at an airport in Newcastle who was on her way to a Michael Jackson dance production? I'm pretty sure. Did I fly from Bergen to Trondheim last year? I guess what I'm trying to say is, nothing I'm singing about is that extraordinary, but at the same time, I don't feel the need to commit to what is fact or fiction, because it's not what songwriting is about, to me. Whether or not Neil Young was really lying in a burned out basement makes no difference as to how "After the Gold Rush" affects me. Whether the songwriter is in the song or not, is irrelevant to me.
John: But you are playing with that tension between what is real and imagined. I understand what you’re saying about Neil Young. I know, for example, that he wasn’t on the riverbank for “Powderfinger,” but when he sings of “a town in north Ontario” in “Helpless,” the distance between the personal and the objective is less clear. Perhaps that question of the existence of a character named “Mark Kozelek” has just become more relevant as you’ve begun to explore these longer song forms, with more emphasis on the spoken word. To the listener, they feel much closer to confessionals than a more conventional song might. What do you get out of writing in this way?
Mark: What I get out of spoken word is that I'm cutting out all the rhymes, making my point true to the moment and direct. Spoken word is edgy and intense, and can also be very awkward and funny. Any show that we play, where the band gets soft, and I'm speaking, the crowd becomes more quiet and still. It's great to have a balance of both singing and spoken word. "Beautiful You," from the first Jesu/Sun Kil Moon album, is an example, for me, of an intimate song with lots of detail and spoken word that that always goes over well.
John: In a similar vein, I sometimes get asked how much of me is in Parker, the detective in my novels, or in David, the boy at the heart of The Book of Lost Things. The way I answer is to compare creating characters in books to dreaming. They say that everyone in our dreams represents some aspect of ourselves, and when I write then – sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously – I put a little - or a lot - of myself into every character, the good and the bad. It’s the only way I can give them life. I get the sense that it may be different for songwriters, though. Is that the case?
Mark: I can't really speak on behalf of other songwriters because I don't really ask them about their songs. Songwriters tend to cancel each other out that way. Every songwriter I know tells me of some new TV series they're watching, and the same with me, back to them. I guess I just assume that most songwriters are singing about things that they've lived, to some extent or another.
John: As I said earlier, in recent years, you have moved from the song-based structures of your early and mid-period albums to something much closer to a kind of prose poetry. It’s a significant, quite dramatic transition in your work, and has also led to a marked increase in your productivity. Are the two things related, and what led you to these long-form narratives?
Mark: It all started with the album Among the Leaves, which as you know, is titled after three words that jumped out at me from one of your novels. That is the point where neighborhood cats and bottled water from 7-11 made it into my songs. I think a lot of things came into play that triggered the change. My confidence as a writer, turning 40, running my own label, and embracing the inspiration that is around at all times. If a flight attendant’s name tag catches my attention - a song can unravel from there. The main thing is to enjoy what you do and I've never enjoyed songwriting as much as I do now.
John: As a writer, I can rarely see further than one book down the road, or maybe two. But I do know that each book I write feeds into the next, and I can look back and trace a kind of path through my work. This, then, is a two-part question: where do you see your own path taking you in the year or two to come?
Mark: Songwriting is a never ending cycle for me. There are no breaks. And yes, who knows what we'll be writing two years from now. Why this question is so interesting to me now, as opposed to if you had asked me this ten years ago, is because I'm physically not as up for touring as I was in past years. Touring at the pace that I did the last three years is no longer a reality for me. So in the coming years, I guess I see myself finding more music in the things nearby and less of it at airports.
John: It’s very similar for me. When I was younger, I didn’t mind getting on and off planes, and hauling my bag from one town to another. Now I find that I just don’t have the same energy. Outside that, I just want to spend as much time as I can with Jennie, the kids, the dogs. And I want to write more while I have the energy, and my health, and ideas. We’ve both become more productive at roughly the same time in our lives. I wonder is that a product of the same realisation; life is short, and creatively and personally, there are good ways to spend it, and ways that are less beneficial?
Mark: That's exactly it. When you're 50 - and I know you're not far behind me in age - you no longer live with that feeling of having time to waste, or putting something off for another year. I used to stick around in other countries at the end of tours just to hang out, but now I have to get back home. I don't think I'll ever lose the desire to get out and play, but the travel is getting harder and the destinations become more routine. As far as being more productive, I think it took me a bit of time to realize that when I'm writing is when I'm most at peace. And as I get older, there's much more to write about. Perspective gets broader, like the situation I explained in the song "Needles". There's no point of letting a day pass without being creative. It'll be a much more rewarding day if I make music.
John: What you say about the creative process also chimes with me. I find that there are different stages to what I do. The physical writing of a book is one, but while that’s going on I can sense the seed of the next idea beginning to germinate, and by now I’d worry if I didn’t. I don’t go thinking too hard about the new idea, though. I kind of leave it alone to let it develop. Then editing a book, or fine-tuning it, is a different stage again, and one that I enjoy more than the act of writing the first draft. Are there particular stages in your own creative process that you enjoy more than others, or that are more difficult for you?
Mark: I'm the same way. If I go to sleep with a song and don't wake up with it, it's OK. I know another is around the corner. And yes I'd be worried too if that wasn't happening. The best part for me is hearing a piece of music and making an immediate connection, seeing a melody or a few words take root and watching the song come to its fruition. It's all of it - seeing how the song twists and turns and where it ends up. Performing the song is a really key part, too. When you're up there in front of people, making a connection, it's amazing. If you're making music with no plans to get out and play it live, then you're not taking it to the next level where it's all very real and vulnerable and happening before people's eyes.
John: I’ve found also that the more I write, the more I write, if you see what I mean. By working harder, and spending more time writing, it’s almost as if I’ve altered the way my creative muscles work. It's like going to the gym. It’s a discipline, and if you take too much time off from it, it becomes difficult to pick up that routine again. Does that make any sense?
Mark: Yes I totally get that. The more music that I'm working on, the less daunting it is to record a song or an album. With too much time off in between albums, it would be very heavy lifting, to get back into it, I would think.
John: This next question might seem contentious, as I can kind of hear your answer already. Your relationship with your own back catalog sometimes seems to me to be slightly ambivalent, in the sense that you’re generally reluctant to delve into that catalog for live performance, or not for very long. Why is that? And, yes, it’s a fan question but – hey – I wouldn’t be here otherwise.
Mark: And I'm a fan of yours, which is also why you're here. Your short story in Nocturnes Volume 2, 'A Dream of Winter', inspired the last song on 30 Seconds. But the answer to this is easy. My heart doesn't want to sing those old songs anymore and my fingers don't want to play those same guitar chords anymore.
John: I wonder if that’s a stage in the creative process, too? Artists who lead long, productive careers sometimes seem to me to reach a point where the weight of their legacy becomes a burden to them. I look at Bob Dylan in the eighties, who - at his most extreme – treated his back catalog with a kind of carelessness that verged on contempt for his own work. I think he just got tired of singing “Tangled up in Blue” and “Blowin in the Wind”, perhaps – or, to look at it more charitably, he was engaged in a process of deconstructing those songs in an effort to make them relevant to himself again.
But that’s difficult for the listeners, for whom the artist’s work is part of a continuum. They’re always keen to hear new material, but it doesn’t make them love the old material any less, and those older songs (because of the passage of time, and the very personal connection the listener will have with particular songs, often because they’re associated with pivotal moments in the listener’s own life) have a power and a resonance that a lot of the newer songs simply can’t have. Just as I asked earlier about the responsibility you feel toward the individuals you put in your songs, what responsibility does the artist have to the audience? Is it just to produce the best new work possible, or is there also an element of accepting one’s own legacy?
Mark: For me, I'll go with "producing the best new work possible" as far as me being true to myself and to my audience. As I say in "Seventies TV Show Theme Song," 'If you like those steel string guitar sounds and those old slow beats, they're available at the Amazon store.' I find everyone very different, and for myself, I like to immerse myself in the moment. I think it's down to the individual. Some artists are reuniting and playing old albums, some are doing a balancing of both old and new, but I've got to follow my heart and do what's right for me.
John: And I guess it’s not the worst dilemma with which to deal, right? To have created over three decades, as you have, a body of work that stands comparison with that of any of your peers. I remember reading an interview with Colin Larkin, the editor of The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, in which he said that certain artists would never be excluded from it, that they were with the gods now: he mentioned Paul Simon, I recall, and Dylan, I think. And you. I, for one, wouldn’t contest that. Thanks, Mark, for all those songs, and for the ones to come...
Mark: Yes, there are bigger dilemmas than set lists, for sure. That's nice to hear, on Colin, and nice of you to say. But I'm just a person who gets up and goes to work. Thanks for this interview John, and thanks for all of the great books!