Owen Ashworth, formerly of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone and currently of Advance Base interviews Mark Kozelek about the film Mark Kozelek: On Tour.
July 21, 2011

Owen: I first met you around 1997 or 1998 when I was working in the box office of the Lumiere Theatre in San Francisco. I was a big fan of Red House Painters & Id seen a few of your shows, so I was always happy to put you on the pass list whenever you came by to see a movie. We would chat a little at the theatre, but we didnt have a real conversation until I ran into you a few years ago in Katowice, Poland. We had played the same festival & we ended up with the same ride to the airport. I was really glad you remembered me from the Lumiere, and it was great to talk about San Francisco a little. I really miss that place. Have you seen anything at the Lumiere lately?

Mark: Actually, the first time we talked — after the Lumiere days — was in Spain at the Primavera Festival in 2004. I was walking off stage and you were plugging in your gear. I remember thinking, “Fuck, he made it!” It was awesome to see you in a different context other than at the box office at the Lumiere. The last movie I saw at the Lumiere was a Norwegian film called Troll Hunter. It must have been filmed in some locations along that long drive between Oslo and Bergen. Certain scenes looked they were filmed in places I’ve seen on that drive. Not a great movie, but the trolls were amazing.

Owen: The first line in ‘Ålesund’ is, No, this is not my guitar, I’m bringing it to a friend.” I related right away, because I’m pretty shy about telling strangers that I’m a musician, and I always find it embarrassing to lug a bunch of musical instruments around an airport or train station. I imagine the other passengers wondering if I’m any good or not. When asked, I’ve told strangers that my flight cases were full of photography equipment or even scientific instruments to avoid having to talk about my music. Have you used the “I’m bringing this guitar to a friend” line before? Does touring with just the nylon string classical guitar allow you to travel less conspicuously?

Mark: I used to check my guitar onto planes to avoid having those strained conversations, and also to avoid hurting people. I once pulled my guitar out from the upper level compartment area about 15 years ago and accidentally hit some poor girl in the head. It was terrible. I apologized several times, but she just looked at me like I was the hugest asshole in the world — and so did the other passengers. After that, I didn’t take take my guitar as a carry-on for years. But over the last 3 or 4 years, I’m back to carrying it on, to avoid the instrument getting damaged and to ensure that it arrives. But yeah, people ask me about my guitar all of the time. I just tell them it’s a gift for someone. I hate trying to explain my living to someone on a plane. It feels like the people around me are thinking, “yeah, right. if this guy is so popular, what’s he doing sitting back here in coach?”

Owen: I played a small part in a friend’s movie a few years ago and I was kind of surprised to find out that not only did I not enjoy acting, I also wasn’t very good at it. You’ve had small parts in Almost Famous, Shopgirl and Vanilla Sky. How do you like acting? How does acting in front of movie cameras compare to being the subject of your own documentary? Or to performing on stage, for that matter? Was it hard to get comfortable?

Mark: Almost Famous was nice because it was a long shoot and I eased into it over time and got to know everyone. But for Shopgirl, they didn’t give me my lines until 5 minutes before they shot my scenes, so I was nervous. But being filmed for the documentary was much more comfortable than being on a movie set. I was at ease because I had a friend filming, I was in familiar territory, doing what I’ve been doing for about 20 years now.

Owen: Did you edit On Tour yourself? Did you find it difficult to be objective as the subject of your own film? How did it compare to mixing your own music, for example? Did you use any other films, documentaries or otherwise, as reference points in the editing process?

Mark: Josh Stoddard and I edited. It was pretty uncomfortable at first, watching and listening to myself for 12 hours a day. But after awhile, I removed myself from that aspect of it, and that dopey-looking guy (me) just became some other guy. You just put yourself in the producer’s chair and try to find good performances and things that tie together and make sense. In a way, it is like editing a record — you’re looking for things that are working and weeding things out that aren’t. If anything, I used other documentaries as guidelines for what NOT to do. I don’t want to get specific about it, but most music documentaries are very formulaic.

Owen: In the film, you joke with a few fans and hecklers at American and Canadian concerts, but there isn’t much, if any, audience interaction in the European footage. Do you find European audiences to be less interactive? Or more respectful? Or more critical? I ask because I often find my humor to be misunderstood by European audiences, and I’ve even read some bad reviews that criticized my treatment of the audience when I was just trying to play around with folks. This never seems to happen at home. Do you feel that there are different expectations on you as a performer when you tour overseas?

Mark: I hear that a lot from other musicians who tour Europe. I tend not to talk much between songs in places like Spain, France, or Italy, because I’ve learned over the years that banter doesn’t work. It’s difficult to balance, because I want to entertain people, break the ice, ask how they are, but it tends to fall flat in certain places. I’ve gone back to my hotel room many times thinking, “What happened? Did they like me? Hate me?” There’s just that cultural barrier and sometimes it’s hard to know what’s going on. That’s part of the adventure of our work. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it’s awkward. You just never know how it’s going to turn out. I just try to perform as well as I can and try not to beat myself up too badly if I didn't connect.

Owen: When I saw you perform in Chicago recently, you played a song that you’d written about your afternoon in Chicago. It brought a really wonderful sort of intimacy and humor to the show. I was envious of your ability to write on the road. I’ll scribble down ideas, but I’m never able to form my thoughts fully until I’m back at home. I guess there’s a freedom that comes with touring with an acoustic guitar, as opposed to a mess of electronic things. Do you do a lot of writing on the road? Do you do a lot of those Chicago-style kinds of songs about your day?

Mark: Not at all. That was the first time I’d ever done that. I was goofing around because it was such an easy tour — two shows — Ottawa and Chicago. On a typical tour, I’m lucky if I even get time to re-string my guitar or remember a certain tuning. I don’t have a lot of electronics, but I usually travel alone, with a few guitars and merch. I’m like you, I get ideas here and there, but don’t have time to really sit down with them until I’m home.

Owen: In that song you wrote about Chicago, you sing about getting a manicure. There’s also a manicure scene in On Tour. Does being a guitar player make you extra careful about your nails, or is a manicure just a way of pampering yourself when you’re on the road? Personally, I like going to barbers when I’m on tour. A haircut kind of feels like a souvenir that way.

Mark: I also love haircuts on tour, buying socks, whatever. Anything to tune out and normalize for a minute. But keeping my nails in shape is crucial. If I crack a nail, I’m in trouble. You’d have to play classical guitar to fully understand it, but keeping your nails in shape is essential to being able to play the guitar in that style.

Owen: In the film, you talk about getting a feeling of doom whenever you go away on tour, what with being so far away from friends, pets and family. What you said really resonated with me. For me, there’s no worse feeling than being far away when I’m needed most. That feeling of doom is a fairly recent development for me. I just can’t handle the epic, multi-month tours that I did in my younger years. I get panicked that I’m missing out on important things in the lives of my loved ones, and I get to feeling disconnected and adrift. Is there a maximum amount of time that you’re willing to be away from home? Does it make you pickier about the kinds of places you’re willing to play?

Mark: I’ve had that feeling of doom since day one. It’s almost chemical, this feeling that comes over me when I commit to going overseas. I’d be happy to spend the rest of my life in California, New Orleans, and Ohio, and never cross an ocean again. But I play music, and the European market is how I make part of my living. I guess three weeks is my absolute maximum to be out, and that’s getting shorter. I want my girlfriend to still be here when I get back.

Owen: This isn’t a question, but I wanted to tell you again how honored I was by the inclusion of ‘Natural Light’ in the film. I re-watched the DVD in preparation for this interview, and as soon as my song was over, my arms shot up in victory. It’s a surreal and very validating feeling to watch one of my favorite musicians play a song that I wrote. It really means a lot. So, thanks.

Mark: Thank you, Owen. I have to say, if someone would have told me back in the 90’s that the guy who worked at the Lumiere was a lyrical genius — and that one day I would cover one of his songs — I would have been skeptical. It’s crazy. You are one of the very few artists I listen to at all. Thanks for your wonderful music, Owen, and thanks for taking the time to interview me for this film.