Phoebe: I don’t think anyone’s songwriting is quite as autobiographical as yours. Was this album’s form influenced by its lyrical content or vice versa—ie did you go for that musical style first or was it something that seemed right because of what you were writing? Do you think you’re inventing a genre? If so, what’s it called?
Mark: For this record I booked myself into hotel rooms and brought an engineer and a mic and a few guitars and we started recording. A lot of it started with looping guitar parts and layering. Some lyrics were written and recorded during those hotel sessions, inspired by things going on in the moment and some were written later. The main thing for me is to not have anything pre-written and just show up. It took me years to get to a place where I'm relaxed enough to not have anything prepared. If I've invented a genre I don't know what it would be called but if I lived in Canada it would be called: Non-Canadian Government Funded Music.
Phoebe: ‘I Cried During Wall Street’ lyric some will call this a song, some will call this a rant. You’ve never pulled any punches in your songs, are you feeling even less inhibited or guarded now?
Mark: There are people who describe a song with anything more than a standard verse/chorus lyrical structure as a rant. When I hear a song like ‘Street Hassle’ by Lou Reed, I don't call it a rant and I doubt it was described that way when the album was released. But times have changed and a lot of people want info given to them in a very basic and condensed way. I don't believe any of my songs are rants but I know they'll be generalized that way, by some, while others can appreciate them.
Phoebe: Listening to this record was an education. I kept looking things up, like videos of Riddick Bowe’s fights and photos Steve Howe’s Gibson. I wonder how the internet and the rapid access to information has changed your songwriting, if it has at all?
Mark: I know Riddick Bowe's career as I follow boxing and I grew up on the music of Yes and any guitar player who loves Yes knows the story on Steve Howe's guitar just like a Willie Nelson fan would know the history of his guitar. Boxing and the music of Yes is something that I've got a lot of knowledge of due to my enthusiasm for the sport and my love of 70's music. I've never used the internet to fact check my lyrics but did text at least five people to make sure I had the pronunciation of "Levy Pants" correct - a reference in the book A Confederacy of Dunces. Four out of five said that it's pronounced "Levee".
Phoebe: You write about wanting people to talk to you if they recognize you on the street (I call it getting rockegnized), which was super surprising to me. What’s the worst interaction you’ve ever had with a fan? What’s the best?
Mark: That's a good one: Rockegnized! I don't mind getting recognized as it happens to me about four times a year. The worst is when someone is sitting at a table next to me in a restaurant and doesn't let me know they are a fan until they get up and leave. That happens and then I'm wondering what was I talking about the whole time. Eavesdropping, I think it's called.
The nicest memory was literally scratching my head after using the ATM, years ago, wondering what I was going to do with my day, and then meeting a woman there on the corner who recognized me. We ended having a beautiful relationship that lasted a little while. It wasn't long lived, but I have nice memories of my time with her.
Phoebe: I love food. There are songs on this record and the last few that make me hungry. What are your favorite places to eat in San Francisco? It’s easy to get fucked on tour when it comes to good food, any advice for a traveling food lover?
Mark: Swan's Oyster Depot is maybe my favorite in San Francisco. A friend of mine refers to it as my office. My favorite Italian restaurant in San Francisco is Tommaso's. My favorite Vietnamese place is Cordon Bleu. For Mexican, Taqueria Cancun. On tour it's hard to find find healthy food and I gotta watch my diet due to my age, so I try to put things on my rider like 'good quality sardines' and avocados so I'm not pigging out on falafel or pizza at 2:00 a.m. My favorite country for food is Korea. I don't know if you've been there, but you gotta go if you get a chance.
(Mark in Jeju Island, Korea. 2012)
(Mark with Phoebe at Piccino, San Francisco, April 2018)
Phoebe: I have to ask about ‘You Missed My Heart’. When I heard you play it at a show in Koreatown in 2013, it completely floored me. I immediately wished I had written it. How did you come to write it? How long did it take you?
Mark: The first part of the song was literally taken from a nightmare that I had in a hotel room in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. In reality, I was frustrated with a repair man and then dreamed that I pulled a knife out of a drawer and stabbed him and that he turned to me and said “you missed my heart”. The song was written in that moment. I don't recall how much time I spent writing it, but not long. I really love that church in Koreatown.
Phoebe joining Sun Kil Moon. The Regent, Los Angeles. 1/14/2016
Phoebe: Speaking of covers, when you cover a song, it usually ends up being my favorite version. You’ve chosen a really wide array of covers (AC/DC, John Denver, Stephen Sondheim, Sonny and Cher). Your ‘Never Ending Math Equation’ definitely changed the way I feel about Modest Mouse. How do you, as a songwriter, approach covers? What makes a good cover?
Mark: That's nice of you to say. I'm glad to hear that about Modest Mouse. A show of theirs at The Fillmore in 2002-ish changed my life. It was then that I realized that lyrics can be anything. From that point on, I started to free myself of rigid guidelines I made for myself with the metaphors and stiff phrasing that I got from probably listening to too many John Denver albums. Even with a lot of punk rock, the phrasing can be boring and predictable. I'm not trying to stroke your ego but your cover of ‘You Missed My Heart’ is a great cover. It's good because when you sing it, I forget that the words are mine. Then it's over and I think maybe I'm pretty good at what I do. Isaac Brock said something similar to me a few years ago. He told me that my Modest Mouse covers album was the first time he realized that his songs meant something to people, or something like that. But anyhow I think a good cover is a song that another songwriter takes ownership of. I always tell people, when they cover a song, to mean it, and own it - and that's what you did with me and Jimmy Lavalle's song.
Phoebe: I like the Ariel Pink plug. I recently hung out with Ben Gibbard who told me he had no idea about ‘Ben’s My Friend’ until he saw it online. Does Ariel know? Have you ever told someone they were in a song before releasing it?
Mark: I've not mentioned it to Ariel but I'm sure he'll be fine with it. Ben sent me an email about two seconds after the song was released, telling me how pleased he was. It was nice to know that Ben liked it, and satisfying to know I could express something that I knew others felt - not in regards to Ben specifically - but in regards to the opener who eclipsed your career and how that can kinda hurt. Several musicians contacted me and thanked me for expressing something they'd never be able to express. But no I never mention to anyone that they are referenced in a song. I've got a lot of respect for both Ben and Ariel.
(Mark with Ariel Pink - Primavera Portugal, 2015)
(Mark with Ben Gibbard - San Francisco, 2015)
Phoebe: I used to think ‘UK Blues’ was only vaguely based in reality, and mostly satirical. After touring there a couple times now I find the song profoundly sad and truthful. Is there anything redeemable to you about touring in the UK?
Mark: It's funny how travel brings it all together with something we may have not understood until we travel. If you would have toured there in 1992, 1993, it was even more dismal. Heathrow airport now, compared to then, is a refreshing experience. Back then it was the smell of powdered eggs and ash treys. I'm finding the food better there and I've found a few cities, like Brighton, for example, to be charming. I've made peace with the UK, is the best way I can put it. I still don't love it, but accept it as a place to work and I don't discriminate. I play anywhere that I'm invited. The most redeemable quality of London for me is great audiences and a great restaurant called Halepi over by Hyde Park. I've also made some nice friends in the UK over the years.
Phoebe: Surface level question: is there anything you wish you knew when you started making records and touring?
Mark: To me that’s not a surface level question. It’s actually very deep. Last year, I asked producer Tony Visconti how he made it from 50 to 73 years old in this business, because that's the thing I'm looking to ask about to navigate the next decade, or two, of my life. I needed to ask him; “Tony, is there anything at 73 that I'm going to wish I knew, at 50?” One thing that I wish I knew was that Elliot Smith was going to die, so I could have given him a hug in Stockholm the last time I saw him. I wish I knew my ex-girlfriend Katy was going to die of cancer at 34. There are things that I still wish for. I wish my mother and father both live to be 100. And I wish you a long and successful career in music. You made a wonderful debut album and I look forward to your next one! Your cover of me and Jimmy’s song really moved me. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me and I look forward to your show on the 27th!