| Conor Oberst interviews Mark Kozelek about the new Sun Kil Moon album Common As Light and Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood.
The interview took place January 15th, 2017.
Conor: The first track ‘God Bless Ohio’ is great. I was wondering if, after all your years living in California, you still identify as a Midwesterner or if there was some point when you crossed over and that changed. I know for me, even though I lived in New York City for 13 years, as much as I loved it, I always kind of felt like a tourist/transplant there. Wondering how that dynamic is for you?
Mark: I’m pretty rooted in San Francisco after living here for 30 years and I wouldn’t give up my view or what I’ve accomplished here for anything. But now and then I can get annoyed with my West Coast friends who don’t seem to understand the realities that exist between coasts. I’m turned off by elitist attitudes and there’s a lot of that in San Francisco. People are down to earth in Ohio and I’m proud of where I’m from. Though I’ve been to Italy many times, the best Italian restaurant in the world, to me, is Sylvester’s in North Canton, and I like Luigi’s in Akron a lot, too.
Conor: The song structures on this album are so interesting and unusual. I was curious how the recording process went. What instrument was laid down first? Was it done to a click with an initial instrument or laid down live with Steve Shelley? Did you later edit in the little spoken word parts and drastic breaks or were those sections always written into the songs from the beginning?
Mark: Most of the songs were cut out of improv sessions where Steve played drums and I played instruments that don’t come naturally to me - like synthesizer and bass guitar and even a baritone uke. With Nathan, my engineer, we are able to find the interesting parts and build off of them. That’s the same way we did Universal Themes—everything cut from improv. The vocals were added as we edited along.
Conor: Speaking of Steve Shelley, he is a fantastic drummer and a nice guy as you say. I have had the good fortune of playing with him a couple times and it was awesome. How and why did you connect with him for this record? What did he bring to the table that you specifically were after?
Mark: Steve and I first played together on the Benji album. We just go into the studio and make music and eat Mexican food. He finds a good feel very quickly and doesn’t overthink. It’s always a relaxed vibe with Steve.
Conor: Sounds like you have a good bit of interest in true crime stories and unsolved mysteries. I wasn’t familiar and had to look up references to the Elisa Lam case. I was interested in what in particular drew you to that case?
Mark: You weren’t familiar with it because that story is a prank in my opinion. I was intrigued as Richard Ramirez stayed at the same hotel where this alleged person named Elisa Lam supposedly stayed. So during a trip to L.A. this past May, I spent the night at the hotel to get a vibe for the place. My feelings about the alleged case are captured in the album. After going down a little rabbit hole I’ve come to the conclusion that nobody died in the water tank. There’s no way to identify the girl on the elevator, as her face is pixelated. If I’m wrong and a girl named Elisa Lam died up there, it’s very sad and my heart goes out to her and her family.
Conor: Your writing style seems to be extremely autobiographical. Almost some kind of hyper-realism. But I often get annoyed when listeners jump to that conclusion about my songs when they actually all aren’t. So I guess at the risk of annoying you I’ll ask if you feel that is a fair characterization?
Mark: If I say I took a jog around the block in Dublin, chances are I did. But now and then, I twist something and black is now blue and Tracy is now Marsha or a mundane conversation with a cop is now a more interesting conversation that I overheard somewhere else. But yeah there’s a lot of truth in my songs and I wish that there wasn’t. I’d prefer that my second cousin Carissa was still alive and I wish all of those kids in Newtown were still alive.
Conor: Gun Control issues come up several times on the record. I couldn’t agree more that gun violence is an epidemic that will only be solved if gun laws are drastically changed in this country.
Mark: I agree. 2015 and 2016 were completely out of control and it appears that it’s continuing that way. Like the recent shooting at the Fort Lauderdale airport. When I was 8 years old, if 5 people got gunned down in a Florida airport it would have been on the news everyday for months. Like when James Huberty shot up the McDonald’s or Dan White’s Twinkie defense. Now people hear about a mass shooting and it’s news for 5 seconds and then they bounce back to Shark Tank.
Conor: I hear a big Hip Hop influence on the record. I was wondering who your favorite rappers are? Past or present.
Mark: Rap music is appealing to me. I enjoy it in a car or in film or at a music festival, but I don’t seek out rap or know much about it. I heard A Tribe Called Quest in a car yesterday and it sounded good, especially the live snare drum sound. But I couldn’t name 10 rap albums right now to save my life. The last rap album I bought was a Kendrick Lamar album because a session player told me that my new record reminded him of it. The album is To Pimp a Butterfly and it’s a great album.
Conor: You mention specific people by name often in your songs. I was curious if anyone you have mentioned in past songs has contacted you afterward? And, if so, are they typically stoked or bummed? I’m thinking specifically about the letter you read from the promoter Max in ‘Sarah Lawrence College Song’.
Mark: Stoked or bummed would fall under how the person was referenced and how seriously that person takes themselves or if it even falls under their radar. But Max is a 19 year old student who we had to contact for publishing rights. He’s happy to be part of the song, but not in a gloating way. I’ve met him a few times and he’s a good person. No ego trip. He and the students at Sarah Lawrence College renewed my faith in millennials.
Conor: You’re a boxing enthusiast. Putting Muhammad Ali to the side for a second, who would be your top three fighters, pound for pound, of all time?
Mark: That a difficult one, but the 3 most compelling fighters to me would maybe be Sonny Liston, Angel Manfredy and Jack Johnson. The 3 best fighters would probably be Sugar Ray Robinson, Pernell Whitaker, and Julio Cesar Chavez.
Conor: I was wondering if the track ‘Lone Star’ was written before Trump’s victory? If so, damn, you had your finger on the pulse! Nate Silver eat your heart out! I agree with everything you are singing about in that song but I’m wondering going forward what your strategy is for surviving the Trump era? Both personally and as a society.
Mark: Yeah the whole album was finished a few months before the election. I had slight doubts about him winning, late in the game, thanks to my well off white friends who think they know everything because they went to college and worship facebook. But the thing about me, and my guess, about you—is that we travel from state to state and get a sense of reality between coasts. I saw some things in Ohio last year that my West Coast friends would be convulsing over. Trump signs in every yard, for starters. I don’t know what I’m going to do, because as far as I can tell, we’re living in the same fucked up country that existed since I was born in 1967. My earliest TV memories are of Vietnam and Watergate, Bush was in charge during ‘Shock and Awe’, the other Bush was in charge during 9/11, and Obama has been in charge during the highest recorded mass shootings as well as the highest prison populations ever in USA history. I guess my plan is to keep writing songs, be productive and try to bring as much positivity into this world as I can.
Conor: Along those lines, a lot of liberal leaning folks are threatening to move out of the country. Would you ever entertain that idea? Judging by ‘I Love Portugal’, would Porto be your first choice? By the way, I love Portugal too. My good friends in New York, who are Portuguese, just opened a new restaurant called Taberna 97, you should check it out next time you are in NYC!
Mark: That was an in the moment song, written on the road when we had a cancelled show in Bern, Switzerland, due to some violence at the venue there, and there was all of this news about cops shooting people and cops getting shot back in the USA. Yeah I find Portugal to be a peaceful place and I’ve got a lot of positive associations with the country. But I’m going to stay here in the states and be here for those closest to me. Your friend’s restaurant sounds good! I love Portuguese food. It’s my favorite next to Cajun and Korean.
Conor: Along those lines, would you consider yourself a foodie? Any recommendations for a fellow traveller? Favorite spots around the world?
Mark: Off the top of my head, I like Pelikan in Stockholm, The Standard in Copenhagen, Mandoo Bar in New York, The Montage in Portland, and Halepi in London. I’ve been traveling for so long that I have my comfort zones in each city. Restaurants where I feel as at home as I can possibly feel when I’m not at home.
Conor: I know, besides drums, you played all the instruments on the record. I particularly love the bass playing. What was your first instrument and which do you currently enjoy playing the most?
Mark: I played everything on the album except for bass on a few songs and sax on another. That’s pretty much how it went with the last 3 or 4 Sun Kil Moon albums. But yeah my first instrument is the guitar. I can’t play a keyboard to save my life and I’m no Jaco Pastorius on bass. But I’ve found that when you put an instrument in someone’s hands that they aren’t used to playing, interesting things happen. Like I play single note stuff on a keyboard due to my limitations, where a real pianist will lay all of their fingers on the keys. Lately I play whatever instrument happens to be lying around the studio. Fresh sounds come from that.
Conor: You clearly have disdain for the Internet age we are living in and technology’s detrimental effect on human interactions. I’m right there with you. Do you foresee any way for society to course-correct itself or are you resigned to the fact that you will always wish you lived in another time?
Mark: The thing is, is that I did live in another time. I grew up as a kid in the 1970s. It’s difficult for me to talk about the positive side of pre-internet days, with say, someone who is in their mid-20s, as they have no concept of how the world was then and they don’t care. They could care less what coffee shop used to be a record store. People are addicted to the internet like that green sludge in the movie Idiocracy. They buy into everything Silicon Valley sells them without question. But I’m meeting more people who are weening themselves off, as aspects of the internet aren’t bringing them any uplift or progress. On the other hand Trump is now Twitter’s number 1 poster boy so it’s hard to say where it’s all going.
Conor: You sing often of growing older and the death of loved ones. Do you believe in an afterlife? Or is this it?
Mark: I’ll be 50 years old soon and there’s been no wake-up call like this birthday approaching. Maybe there’s an afterlife, but I’m not counting on it. I live my days to the fullest and count my blessings. It doesn’t matter how young your friends tell you that you look. When your 50th rolls around, you get a notice from your healthcare provider informing you that your health insurance just went up as you’re now at higher health risk than ever before. I’m a realist and I don’t take life for granted. Thank you for these nice questions, Conor. You’re an inspiration! Have a great tour in Europe!
Conor: All right Mark. Thanks again for asking me to do this. I sincerely love the record and I hope I get to see you again sometime soon! Lots of love.