Justin Broadrick of Jesu, Godflesh and Napalm Death interviews Mark Kozelek about touring, 20 years in the
music business, and the new Sun Kil Moon release,
Among The Leaves
Interview took place May 15, 2012
Justin: As a 42 year old musician, living off my work for 22 years now, done nothing but music, useless at anything but, this is an album, thematically/lyrically, I can completely relate to, since mostly you're covering life on the road, and all that comes with it. What's so charming for me is your ability to laugh at it all, would you say this comes with age? As in, during the initial Red House Painters years, I certainly didn't perceive any reflection on touring, I guess it was all new then...
Mark: Early on there were no road experiences to write of. When I started touring and it eventually became my way of life, the road, and the effects of the road, started to make its way into my songwriting. Traveling as a musician, your world broadens, things open up, relationships end and new ones begin. I think there were probably hints of how touring was affecting my life as early as Ocean Beach with a songs like ‘Brockwell Park’ and ‘Over My Head’ but the travel theme started to appear more on Old Ramon, with songs like ‘Michigan’, ‘Between Days’, ‘Cruiser’ and ‘Kavita.’ Music took me away from San Francisco and introduced me to many who inspired me, shaped me, made me happy, and hurt me. But yeah, years have passed since then, and as a writer I’ve grown tired of telling the story the same way over and over. I opened up on this record, made a few cracks about whatever I felt like griping about - the food in England, picking up an infection, whatever. It was time to vent and have a few laughs at the same time. That’s the best part about being an artist, being able to express yourself however the fuck you feel like expressing yourself.
Justin: Myself, I was, before I started 'real' touring, completely deluded that touring would be just fantastic 24/7! Initially maybe it was, for like a couple of weeks, after that, besides even being surrounded by my best friends, found it one of the loneliest experiences of my life...the same for you, maybe?
Mark: I’ve always disliked travel, and still dread it. I’ll never forget some of those drives in the early days, like Seattle to Minneapolis, bottles of piss rolling around in the van. I’ve never been a hangin' with the pack kind of guy, so I was always a loner out there, even with the band. After the shows, the guys in the band gather up the alcohol from the backstage area and take it back it to their hotel rooms, and I’d find a girl to hang out with. It’s lonely out there, so people do what they have to do to get through it. I try to keep my tours short, to maintain stability in my life, but it’s still tough. You book a short tour, and suddenly other offers come in that are hard to pass up. The economy is what it is and I can’t pass certain financial opportunities up.
Justin: This album, for me, is more diverse, instrumentally, than the previous LP Admiral Fell Promises, nice to hear a band, and even some electric guitar again on ‘King Fish’, that's one of my favourite songs too, along with ‘The Winery’ and ‘Lonely Mountain’, at the moment. You’ve left the old electric behind mostly, the last few years, any real reason?
Mark: It’s because it’s so much easier to record alone. When I write a song, I want to record it in the moment and not overwork it. It’s a pain sometimes, to go wrangle up a drummer, a bass player, book a session and go over the song with them. I’ve grown tired of that process and have faith that the song will carry itself, with or without a band. I brought drums and electric in, on a few songs, since I knew the album would be long and would need some variety. But overall, I’m loving the nylon string. The sound of the guitar alone is capturing the mood of what I'm going for very well.
Justin: There’s a story in ‘Sunshine in Chicago’ about your dad being, I think, sent there to live for 3 months when he was young, what happened there?
Mark: ‘Sunshine in Chicago’ is pretty much a perfect song in the sense that it was written quickly and 100% true. My dad’s getting older so I’ve been taking more time to ask him about his life. He was a depression era kid, born in 1933, so he had a pretty rough life growing up, 9 siblings including himself and one passed very young. But yes my dad’s parents would send him to Chicago in the summer, and based on everything I’ve gathered, it was to have one less mouth to feed.
Justin: I find, sadly, that the stories of my parents and their lives become more resonant the older, and arguably, more mature I get, sad since I never felt I listened as a kid, but do now, any similar feelings?
Mark: Completely. I wasn’t interested in aspects my parents lives until I got a little older. I didn’t think at all about how hard my dad worked to keep me and my sisters fed and the mortgage paid and all of that. My dad travelled a lot for work and would come home grumpy sometimes and I didn’t get it. There is so much I understand about him now. Parents are human and have their limitations. You gotta find forgiveness and move on.
Justin: You and I have often previously discussed family and kids, and since I had my first (and last), it’s impacted me unlike anything imaginable, specifically my lifestyle; the musician lifestyle. For you, are kids not a choice, and if so, is that due to our paths as musicians, or....?
Mark: Kids and marriage are something I never dreamed about or thought about. You’re one of my many musician friends who have kids now, and I don’t know how you do it. My life is complicated and I wouldn’t know how to equate a child into it. I worry about the getting older part, you know, who will take care of me when I’m my dad's age? I’ve seen people pass over the years, and they all had their kids in the room with them when they left. It’s a beautiful thing. I’m pretty good to my nieces. Maybe they’ll bring me iced tea from Starbucks someday when I can’t do it for myself anymore. But yeah, being 45 and not having kids, and not being married, is definitely becoming a theme that’s showing up in my music. I travel a lot, and not having a family at 45 is totally weird and unacceptable in some cultures. I tell people I don’t have a wife and kids in some countries and suddenly they’re avoiding eye contact with me. So I’ve got to ask you, how has your life changed, in regards to touring? How exactly has being a father effected your career at this point?
Justin: Luckily, I was already indifferent about touring, and had decided a few years ago, for my own sanity, and to avoid drinking myself into oblivion, that my days of touring are gone. Ironically, it's the best way for us musicians to survive these days. I’m fortunate to be able to do ‘one-offs’, which is much more preferable, and now, with Benjamin, I’m really glad I made that decision. But even the one-offs are hard, it makes me wonder how there are those out there that have a child, or children, and then go touring for months, missing all of their development, and importantly, that bond.
I didn’t have the greatest upbringing, barely had a father figure, and didn’t meet my father in any real context until I was 20. All of this has wanted me to desperately provide what I didn’t get, knowing how much that affected me. It’s really affected me creatively; I’m forced to be concise now, can’t be as self indulgent, which was somewhat disconcerting initially, as I consider self-indulgence to be central to creativity. But I’m more aware of my time, and there’s little time to ponder. Now, I just do what needs to be done. I love my work, love my family, but balance is tough. I guess in some respects, I’m fortunate, fatherhood has come so late; I’m more responsible now, I’ve learned a lot, but I learn so much more, every day, through my son, and see my own childhood clearly again, through him, which is inspiring in and of itself. I don’t think one can ever be prepared for parenthood! But, back to your record...
I think maybe you have just come to terms with what we essentially are as musicians - loners, there’s something ultimately lonely about creation of songs, writing lyrics, sitting in a studio attempting to perfect a vision; I’d often, and still do, slave at this shit all day, at the expense of everyone and everything, only to be left at the end of the night on my own, once again with my own thoughts, and my own crap, I find it’s a really lonely path, again though, if you don’t do this for a living, it can be perceived as totally glamorous, like the touring thing too, I digress, but do you basically feel the same?
Mark: Without a doubt. There’s a line in the song ‘Lonely Mountain’ that expresses this: “oh lonely session, down here at Ellis and Hyde, my elbows at the desk, I listen and scrutinize.” There’s also the line about arriving in Spain to begin a tour and feeling jetlagged and depressed. The song is about the cycle of writing, recording, touring, coming home, and repeating the cycle. That cycle has been a theme in my music for a long time, ‘Tonight In Bilbao’ ‘Third and Seneca’ being two of many examples. I’m not trying to take away the fact that life and work is hard for everyone, but the musician life is a complicated juggle between two different realities, home life and road life. It’s hard on relationships, hard physically, and it’s a hard subject to discuss with most people because they don’t get it. It’s a dynamic life – one minute your on stage feeling pretty good about yourself, the next minute you’re at customs in Heathrow being scrutinized like a drug dealer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful, especially after 20 years, to still have a career, but there’s a price you pay, signing up for this. I’m thankful to have people like you who I can vent and discuss with.
Justin: You just come back from Israel, how did you find that? I’ve been offered it in the past, ironically for Godflesh, which has a distinct attack on the claustrophobia of religion, Hence we declined, haha! Do you find, as a touring/travelling musician, that culture shock is thrilling, I feel there’s something life affirming about being an alien sometimes, and seeing your music impact upon people you just would have never considered as receiving it, you get a similar feeling maybe?
Mark: That was the nicest part of the Israel trip, the reaction from the audience. I started to play ‘Half Moon Bay’ and people immediately responded. I can’t even get that kind of response in my home town. I’d heard about artists cancelling a lot in Israel, due to threats, but I got in and out of there fine. As far as the county, being an outsider, I never felt threatened, but the presence of religion and military was in the air. The most surprising thing I saw was teenage girls in military clothes. It was an interesting trip and I had some good food and was treated well. These journeys are painful sometimes, the fast pace of them, but they are eye-opening at times, for sure. When you have to pass through a couple of kids with Uzis on your way out of Jerusalem, you don’t forget those images. Getting out of your comfort zone is healthy. It’s one thing to hear about how things work in other countries, but it’s another thing to be there. When your plane lands in Asian countries and you hear that announcement about capital punishment, it’s pretty startling. You don’t hear those announcements flying into Winnipeg.
Justin: We were discussing our lengthy careers in the music industry recently, twenty years plus for both of us, we’ve seen a lot of changes, it’s been twenty years since Down Colorful Hill was released, does that feel like another life time and how different do you feel?
Mark: Yes it feels like another lifetime. I was interviewed recently for a book on the history of 4AD, and mentally, I had to go back to that place, the beginning of my career. In some ways, my life is the same, I live 3 blocks from where I first met Robin Hurley from 4AD, but everything else has changed. When I first signed to 4AD, they had an office in London, a New York office, and then an LA office. But I can’t remember the last time I stepped into a record label office. The industry has changed completely and I’ve also changed. 20 years ago, I was a nervous kid who didn’t know what to make of anything, and now I’m my own boss. Making my first record, doing my first tours, there was a lot of excitement, but a lot of tension and confusion. You’re tested with thoughts of “am I strong enough to do this?” and “can I survive in this business?” I’ve parted ways with several labels over the years, and have gotten through a lot of obstacles. I’m stronger now, I’m still learning, but I have principles that I live by and I’m confident in my business skills and the decisions I make.
Justin: The rest of Red House Painters have also spread their wings, you’ve released some of their projects on Caldo Verde, it’s great to see you still believing in, and supporting what essentially was your band, for some reading who are not aware of some of these projects, care to indulge?
Mark: Phil, Anthony and Jerry are three of my best friends. We never split up over anything dramatic. It was just hard making a living. I don’t spend time with musicians who can’t keep up, and all of them, in my opinion, are genius level players. There’s no drummer with the feel that Anthony has, Phil dedicates every waking hour to playing guitar, and Jerry was, secretly, a mega-talented person all along. Have you heard his solo record? ‘Heirlooms of August’ isn’t a run of the mill solo project. Jerry can play, sing and write. If I could turn the clock back, I could make a lot of money off of him, but we’re in digital times now, and it’s hard to give the right push to a new artist with a small label.
Justin: I so agree with Anthony, his drumming is technically amazing, but he’s so minimal; he underplays it perfectly, it’s all in the restraint... and yeah, you sent me Jerry's ‘Heirlooms Of August’ CD, and it’s great, and like you say, he plays great bass, and then you’ve got this project where he’s doing as much as any of us on the entire record, you can never underestimate anyone...I also adore the Desertshore CDs, the latest one ‘Drawing Of Threes’, where you guest, is my favourite so far, the collaborative aspect seemed really exciting - you literally were producing the record, and in the studio, just started laying vocals and some guitars on top of the odd tune? Did that feel liberating, not being tied to just your own concepts and just playing on top of others songs?
Mark: Singing with them was fun. I had no intentions of doing that, but like any singer, you hear a piece of music and it’s natural to hear a melody and picture your voice in the mix. I put a mic up and said I had an idea and they said go for it. As it was their record, I did the vocals right there in the room with them so they could be 100% involved. I literally wrote the lyrics on the spot, or on our lunch breaks at a Vietnamese restaurant we like to eat at.
Justin: In the same conversation, we were also discussing the closure of ‘real’ record shops all around us, most shops I’d hang around in as a kid, in the city, are now disappearing or gone already, it’s nostalgic, but I miss those days of hanging around in these shops, finding new records, discussing music with other buyers and the shop owners, the online experience of this is lonely, and one that I know you are not enamoured with either, you were saying even stores you'd frequent in SF are now gone?
Mark: At one point there were 6 stores in my neighborhood and yes they’re all closed. There’s a record store in the Haight, but I rarely go over there. I don’t even know how to begin with the online experience. Online magazines are like one of those Jewish deli menus that’s 20 pages long except it changes every 5 minutes. There’s no shelf life anymore. I’m sure there’s some great music out there, but I don’t know how to follow it. Going into a record store used to be a daily thing for me, now I just check email, go to coffee shop, come home and play guitar.
Justin: There’s a bonus disc with ‘Among The Leaves’ - ‘Live At Lincoln Hall’, in Chicago, what captured you about this show and wanting to release it?
Mark: I have so many live recordings, the engineer grabbed one out of the bag and the first one was this one from Chicago. We put it in, it had a good sound, plus it had my first ever live performance of ‘Sunshine In Chicago’ and ‘Young Love’. It felt like an appropriate performance to accompany the new album for the fan mailings. Songs from recent shows in Boston, Portland and Seattle made the bonus disc of ‘Among The Leaves’.
Justin: Any more covers coming our way soon, all your AC/DC covers, for me, are amongst some of my favourite work of yours, especially being a fan of Bon Scott era DC, you added perspective that captured the sadness in the guys spirit, not just the dark rock ‘n’ roll glory that the DC originals have; there’s a uniqueness to your covers, when I see that you’ve got a cover on something, I can’t wait to hear it. Anything up your sleeve?
Mark: Thanks for saying that. I love doing covers, it’s great to get away from myself and get inside of someone else’s world. Bon Scott was an amazing singer, but could he really write. I didn't really know the extent of that until I got in there and explored. Same with Isaac Brock. Everytime I sing one of his songs, following it up with an original feels dull. There’s nothing up my sleeve at the moment. I’m just too busy coordinating tour dates and trying to run this label, but something will present itself again. It always does.