Director Cameron Crowe interviews Mark Kozelek
about the film Mark Kozelek: On Tour
July 3, 2011
Cameron: You’ve always been very selective about the live recordings and even the photos of yourself that you’ve released . . . how did you decide to make your first documentary now?
Mark: Filming just never felt right in the past. I’ve been approached by various filmmakers over the years who wanted to follow my tours, but I didn’t know them well enough and found the whole idea awkward. This film really came about through timing. I hired my friend Josh (Stoddard) to help me out during a six date run I had in Scandinavia last year (2010), so I asked him to film in addition to other jobs. It just struck me that I was getting older and it was time to archive a tour. We didn’t get much usable footage on that tour, so I brought him along on the next tour in February and March of this year, and that's where most of the footage came from.
Cameron: The film is intoxicating, similar in tone to your songs, how did you achieve that?
Mark: That’s nice of you to say. But I don’t know. I played guitar, Josh filmed, and then we just sat down together and tried to make the best film out of what we had. So much of what you see is travel footage, things just blowing by as we’re racing to the next town. So maybe that's where some of that exhilarating feel comes from. Nylon string trills work well against travel footage.
Cameron: Did you give Josh full reign when filming, or were there things that were off limits?
Mark: Nothing was off limits, but it was understood that in the editing process, if there was anything that I didn’t like, we wouldn’t use it. Obviously, when you're looking at hours and hours of film on yourself, it goes without saying that you’re going to see things that you’re not in love with. It usually had to do with my extra chin, my guitar being out of tune, whatever. But that’s pretty normal. Any level-headed person looking at tons of footage on themselves is going to cringe at least a few times.
Cameron: The film has a very intimate fly-on-the-wall feel . . . were you ever tempted to do a purely performance film? Were there other music films that influenced this one?
Mark: I might consider a regular concert film at some point if the timing and venue are right, but I can’t think of a tour documentary that influenced this film. I don’t recall seeing a tour documentary about a solo performer on an indie level. Most of the tour documentaries I’ve seen are about bands or maybe solo artists with entourages. I wanted some highlights, but wanted to capture the less glamorous angles of touring as well: sound checks, airports, language barriers. I wanted to keep it balanced.
Cameron: What was your first reaction when you saw it?
Mark: Relief. By the time the project was over, I was over it. I was like, “OK. Looks good. Sounds good. Everything is in sync. DONE.” There’s something about watching and listening to yourself over and over and over that is very unsettling. I had a lot of fun, experimenting, seeing what worked, but it just became insanely time consuming after awhile. Authoring the film for DVD took a month. It was just getting silly.
Cameron: Do you feel your best work is the most personal?
Mark: Some people request ‘Katy Song’ which is very personal and some request ‘Salvador Sanchez’ which isn’ t personal at all. I really have no perspective on it. To me my best work is always the latest thing I’m working on, or what’s working in the moment when I’m playing live.
Cameron: Kris Kristofferson once said, “I write a sad song when I’m happy, because generally when I’m sad, I’m too sad to write a good song.” Where do you stand on the subject?
Mark: I’m the opposite. When I’m happy, the last thing that I want to do is shut myself away in a room and write. I generally write when I’m feeling down in an attempt to find some peace and contentment.
Cameron: Thanks for including the Almost Famous signing shot. I think I signed for the same person, who said “All I’m missing is Mark Kozelek, I got everybody else!!”
Mark: That guy was the first person I saw when I got to the Bowery Ballroom that day. I was like “Josh, get the camera!” I love it when those kinds of things happen. He was on a mission. He just got my signature and got the hell out of there. For me, its always nice meeting an Almost Famous fan as opposed to a ‘Mark’ fan. Its a refreshing and very welcoming change when I’m on tour, and also a reminder of an amazing year in my life. 1999. I’ll never forget it. Thank you, Cameron.
Cameron: No, thank you! You chose to film in black-and-white — what was the attraction to that?
Mark: That was Josh’s idea. We are both fans of black and white, and it helped a lot on the technical end of things.
Cameron: Admiral Fell Promises feels like a new chapter for you — you talk a bit about your rediscovery of classical guitar in the film, but what was the defining moment that drove you in that direction? Was it just picking up those records, and listening to Segovia?
Mark: The moment was when I locked myself away in a hotel room one weekend and wrote ‘Half Moon Bay’. It was the first song written for Admiral Fell Promises. When I recorded that song, I knew that my steel string guitars would spend the next several years in their cases.
Cameron: Are you finding that your older material feels fresh to you again when playing it in a classical style?
Mark: Yes. Nylon strings feel good on my fingers and sound better to my ears, so it makes me want to play the guitar longer and better. But yeah, something like ‘Katy Song’ or ‘Like The River’, I love playing them in the more formal, nylon string style.
Cameron: How do you go about selecting set lists for your shows? Does it depend on the city? The venue? How certain songs are feeling for you that day? Do the set lists change much from show to show, or do you have a similar set for most of a tour?
Mark: What usually happens is that I get on stage with a list of maybe thirty songs to choose from. But as the tour goes along, I add or subtract songs, depending on what I feel is working or not. Some songs are easy to remember, like ‘Carry Me Ohio’, but others, I have to sit down at sound check or in my hotel and re-learn. On one of those tours with Josh, that’s how we got the ‘Lucky Man’ hotel performance. I had completely forgotten it and was re-learning it in my hotel room one day. But seated and standing rooms are different. Sometimes I gauge my sets a little differently depending on the vibe of the crowd, and sometimes I tune my guitar a little lower if my voice is tired.
Cameron: What was the process like for you scoring your own film?
Mark: I really enjoyed that part of it. That was a nice part of the process for me, seeing how certain pieces of music worked in scenes. It was funny at times, how effective music can be, and even how manipulative it can be. Play any piece of music I’ve written to a scene with a man and woman sitting in a room together, and they are automatically in love, even if that’s not what you're going for.
Cameron: Were there any difficulties along the way that you hadn’t anticipated?
Mark: As far as scoring goes, not really. I covered Glenn Danzig’s ‘13’ for one scene and was totally married to it, but I couldn’t get the rights. Other than that, scoring fell together pretty easily. I ruled out drums, electric guitars, and source music (from other artists ) from the very beginning, so it made putting the soundtrack together much easier. It just made sense.
Cameron: Now that you’ve let cameras into your touring world, do you ever see a time where you’d allow the same access for the writing and recording process?
Mark : Probably not. I just don’t think it would make very exciting footage. Recording and writing is very private to me. Red House Painters tried it once, for a day, but we played too fast and just weren’t focused. It was too distracting having someone hanging around with a camera.
Cameron: What would you like the viewer to take away from the film?
Mark: I just wanted to give people a little snapshot of what it is that I do for a living. Now, when my nieces are older, they’ll have an idea as to what their uncle’s job was.
Cameron: Did you enjoy editing the film? Was it a bit like songwriting for you to craft a story out of the footage?
Mark: It was fun to play around with, to start with a segment and build on it it. When things fell together, it was great. But it could be frustrating at times. The rendering business of film editing is a real momentum killer. I guess the editing process is like songwriting, in the way that sometimes you scramble to make sense of something, and sometimes things just fall into place.
Cameron: The film makes me want to join you on tour. There’s so much down time, I think you need at least one more person to fit in the car too. Should it be me or Andy Fischer, or your girlfriend? Or should we get another car to follow you so you can be alone when you need to be?
Mark: That's interesting, because you’ve just mentioned the only three people in the world who I’d give the extra seat to. But between me and my guitars and seven boxes of merch, you probably wouldn’t be very comfortable. So we’ll get you guys another car. And please bring John Toll! I miss that guy.
Cameron: At times in the film it seems like the tour was such a lonely existence – is it good for writing songs? Can you write on the road?
Mark: Touring is lonely and self-confrontational for sure. Sitting around airports and closing the hotel room door behind you every night. But that type of isolation sparks creativity without a doubt.‘Tonight in Bilbao’, ‘Third and Seneca’, ‘Lucky Man’, those songs come from a pretty lonely place. I do get seed ideas on tour, like the opening chords of a song, and a verse maybe, but I never have time to bring them to fruition until I’m back. There is just so much going on, on tour. Too many hassles to have the space that you need to really write.
Cameron: When do you miss the band experience most?
Mark: The only thing I miss about playing with a band is having a guitar tech — a guy that hands me my guitars between songs and is responsible for tuning them. That’s really all I miss. Happiness to me is to not have to listen to a drummer going WHACK WHACK WHACK on his snare drum for a half hour at sound check.
Cameron: How would you describe the difference between Red House Painters, Mark Kozelek, and Sun Kil Moon?
Mark: The answer to this question would require many footnotes, one of them being that Red House Painter’s Songs For A Blue Guitar was me with John Hiatt’s backing band. I guess I would just sum it up by saying that all three monikers are either me alone, or me with some combination of friends and very talented people. Anthony (Koutsos), Phil (Carney) and Jerry (Vessel) stand out, in my mind, as the most relevant of them all. They weren’t the guys who played on the Blue Guitar album, but they played the hell out of those songs on several tours. As to why I’ve given the albums different names, some of it was calculated, and some of it whimsical.
Cameron: After Sun Kil Moon’s Ghosts of the Great Highway, you started Caldo Verde Records, your own label. What has that freedom meant to you? Has it changed the way you record? Or write?
Mark: Not so much in the way that I write, but it’s great being my own boss. It’s great to write and record things at my own pace without pressures or restrictions. Having my own label has broadened my life in many ways. I felt like a child when I was on labels, asking for permission, asking for extra time or money. I feel more like an adult now, having my own label.
Cameron: Do you ever see a time when you’ll revisit Red House Painters?
Mark: I see those guys all of the time. We’re good friends and I like being involved with their various projects, but
those reunion deals aren’t my thing. I like moving forward.
Cameron: Last question. What advice would you give to audience members who wish to converse with you while you’re on stage? The one who attempts to do this in the film does not fare well. For any of us who just can’t wait until after the show to talk with you . . . what should we do, Mark?
Mark: Ha! Song requests are one thing, but there’s a time and place for more involved questions! There are just some attention needy people out there and I just deal with them in the moment. You’re referring to the guy in that Toronto crowd. To me, audiences are like dates. There are good ones, bad ones, and drunk ones.
Cameron: Okay, last last question . . . are you ever going to act in another one of our movies? All our work was in the last century. Can we do some modern dramatic acting sometime soon?
Mark: Yes! I would love to. Give me a role and I’ll knock it out of the park. I promise.