EL-P of Run The Jewels Interview With Mark Kozelek
Interview took place March 14, 2015
one of the things i love about the way you write is that at first it almost feels like a collection of mundane details… a sort of living diary style of story telling… and in that jumble of images and seemingly regular life shit something poignant and raw rises up from it. a lot of writers tend to go straight for the obvious drama of life but you don't seem to ever go for the low hanging fruit. it feels like you see beauty in the margins. like the collective interactions between you and everyone in your life are telling a bigger story, in this case about the honorable death of a possum. i find that one of the hardest things for me can be remembering the details of the smaller moments in my life. it seems like you remember everything. how important to your music is your memory?
Mark: That's interesting. I was watching a Nick Cave movie and he was talking about how his biggest fear is losing his memory. I suppose its important, but this song captured a day in my life, Easter Sunday of last year, where all of these things fell together - watching a possum dying, then hanging out with Justin of Godflesh in San Francisco later that night. I believe there are poetic things happening in all of our lives, every day, every moment. Maybe not everyone stops to contemplate them or absorb them or make poetry of them, I don't know. But I see poetic things every day of my life and I'm compelled to write and I suppose memory is important. One idea triggers another. Like, with The Possum, who knew that Gator Rogowski or Davey Moore would turn up in the song? But those are the turns that the song took.
re—birds of flims
your hang with cipriana felt really familiar to me. you met while away from your home and your friends and your girlfriend and you felt something but you made an internal decision to leave it at that. when you got home and reconnected with your friends and loved ones the memory of the place you’ve just been and the sounds of the birds there faded away and you seemed relieved. almost like the confusion and thrill of being out on your own and detached briefly from your roots, although fun, was not ultimately where you wanted to be for who you are now. i feel like growing up has a lot to do with how you handle those types of interactions. listening to you it feels like you’ve ultimately made your choice about who you love and how you honor them. that “unconditional love rules over everything”. you liken life to a fight. is remembering that a big part of that fight? what else?
Mark: "Flims" unfolded out of a surreal, awkward 6 weeks I spent on a movie set in May/June of last year. It's a difficult thing to explain to a person who might have a fantasy that being on a movie set is the greatest experience in the world. A lot of the film was shot in the Swiss Alps and English was the second language of 90% of the people I interacted with, so I was a fish out of water. I appreciated the experience, the opportunity, the people, all of it, but the days were becoming longer and longer out there. When my feet finally landed back in the USA, I felt this sense of relief and all of this tension had left me. I met up with my girlfriend and some friends at a restaurant in Ohio and I felt this uplift, because I was home. But at the same time, I was then facing the realities of some conflicts happening in my life, that the road, and movie sets, are an escape from. Life is complicated when your job is getting up in the morning and going to work and not coming home for a month. But yes, spending the rest of my life with the person I'm currently with is my biggest priority in life. She's everything to me. I don't miss the sound of those birds, but I'm happy I got to hear them and find poetry, and humor, in the experience.
re—with a sort of grace i walked to the bathroom and cried
i’ve watched friends get sick and ultimately pass away. this song hit home for me. the feeling of everything you and your friend wanted out of life when you were young rushing back to your conscious memory and living right next to who you are now.. fighting for space in your head. the helplessness and conflict of wanting to be strong and loving for someone in pain and having to only allow yourself brief, private moments of despair. like walking in to a bathroom to do your crying. i guess my question is: is your friend ok? if she is, have you played her this song? would you, or is this song for you? a moment to admit the fear and pain you couldn't in her presence?
Mark: I wish that circumstances didn't lead me to write songs like, say, "Carissa" but she died a few years ago and a spirit took over and the song wrote itself. I don't have any control over it. I write because it's what I have to do to survive and make sense of things. With "Grace," the friend I'm singing about is ok. She has an auto immune disorder and has better days than others. She is brave and is doing what is asked of her by the doctors. The song is really about the realities of middle-age and how things start to happen to people around us. I saw her last year and it was difficult. But I saw her this year and she was better. I hope the song expresses not only my sorrow and concern about her circumstances but also how much she means to me, how much I love her and that's she's one of my closest friends, and that I need her in this world.
re—cry me a river williamsburg sleeve tatoo blues
this song feels like a huge fuck you to anyone who tries to manufacture pain in music without having really felt it or to those that think its romantic to feel loss and suffering. is it possible to write well about pain without having felt it or witnessed it? is the attempt disrespectful to those who actually have?
Mark: This is a reality check song for those who get seriously bent out of shape about not being able to use phones at concerts or that a limited run of vinyl is out of print. "Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues" isn't a love song for people who complain about not having a place to sit at concerts, it's a love song for the handicapped who have no choice but to sit.
The theme of death and affirmation of life are heavy on this record. its clear that the loss of people you’ve loved has landed you squarely in a place of being grateful to be alive. in my experience i’ve often felt that intensely for a period of time after someone i love passed and then it faded a bit. sometimes it requires energy to remind myself of the things that seem really clear in the aftermath of death. the “holy shit I'm alive and thats great” feeling can slip away. is it with you all the time or does the writing help you remember and preserve it?
Mark: I'm human like everyone else so sure and I can find myself dwelling on the woes that come with being 48, but I tend to snap out of it pretty quickly and appreciate what I have. I still live in an apartment that I shared with someone for 3 years, someone who eventually died at 34 years old. So, sitting in this very place I am, where this interview is taking place, is a daily reminder of her and what she would have given to live another year. There is a great Muhammad Ali quote: "If you're 50 and you think the same way that you did when you were 20, then you have lost 30 years of your life." Well, I'm pushing 50, basically - am 48 year old - and I've seen things happen in the last 30 years that have given me the perspective that I now have. I'm not walking around in a delusional bubble thinking that me and everyone else I know is guaranteed another 20 years, or even 10. "Curveballs", as my friend Jude said. Jude is the widow of drummer Tim Mooney. He died at 53.
re—garden of lavender
how long does it take on the road before you miss your home?
Mark: I miss home before I even leave. I leave May 22 for Europe and there is a bit of this pre-tour depression that takes over when I'm crossing oceans and getting on planes. When I'm gone, I want to come home and for everything to be the same. I want my mom and dad to still be alive, I want my girlfriend to still be here and for her to have that same glow she always has when I see her. I love my work, I love to sing and to play and to entertain, but home is where I'm most at peace. I take walks every day and those walks energize me and give me inspiration. Last night my girlfriend and I fell asleep watching Apocalypse Now, and it was heaven.
you write about the certainty of who you are in this. that despite all of the things you could imagine having been you are a song writer and thats who you are until you die. how long have you known that and was there ever a time when that might have changed? have you ever boxed?
Mark: I had a part In Almost Famous in 1999 and Steven Spielberg had seen me in the dailies and had me come in to meet his agent for a part the movie Minority Report. The only thing I knew for sure at that time was that movies paid more than indie rock and the lifestyle was 200% easier. You're on location at the same place everyday and no daily grinds of airports. So yeah, I had this fantasy that maybe life would be easier to just hang around on movie sets and read lines. But the movie was delayed a year and I went on with indie rock and never heard another word about the movie. When I finally saw it, there was a Swedish guy in the movie who looked like me and it made sense. I'm here to sing and he's here to play parts. But anyhow, it's my opinion that when you turn 40, you are who you are. Life takes you where it takes you and pushes you in a certain direction. I'm an OK actor but it's not really my calling. On boxing, I never boxed, but wrestled for a short time as a kid. Then I got pinned and realized I wasn't athletic. I'm a songwriter. I'll take a role in a film now and then if it comes my way and it feels right, but I don't chase after acting parts.
re—this is my first day and im an indian and i work at a gas station
this feels like the summation of everything you’ve experienced on this album. what does the indian in the gas station mean to you? do you relate to him?
Mark: Yes I relate to him. I was the nervous first day employee on that movie set and I was the nervous first day employee when Ben asked me to play guitar with him that night. Though I've been playing guitar since I could walk, I was given the set list the night before and the thought of hitting a bad chord while Ben was singing was nerve wracking. I know what it means to be up there, and how important it is that the band has your back when you're up there singing. If a guy plays a bad chord, it reflects on the singer. We all get nervous at times, we all feel out of place at times.
bonus question: we communicated right when you were on your way to the mayweather fight. you mentioned something about the tickets costing more than a house in Iowa, if i remember correctly. who were you rooting for and was it worth the price of admission?
Mark: The funny thing about that fight is that the press said everyone waited 5 years to see it happen, but I've been wanting to see that fight for the last 15 years. I saw both of them fight at Bill Graham in San Francisco, 15 years ago on the same card and knew they would make a great fight. It would have been interesting to see how Mayweather would have handled a loss, but I wasn't rooting for either guy, and I think the decision was clean, fair and right. Mayweather was better than Pacquaio that night. It's done, so people can stop talking about it now. I predicted that if there was a stoppage, it would be Manny stopping Mayweather with a left uppercut or hook, but that didn't happen, not even close.