By Kyle Lemmon; photo by Gabriel Shepard on June 11, 2012
One of the most attractive inscrutabilities of music is that songs about sorrow and isolation can make us feel less sad and alone. For over 20 years, San Franciscan Mark Kozelek has provided an outlet for dark thoughts with his brooding and elegiac folk music. He was the subdued frontman for the curiously labeled “slowcore” band Red House Painters during a nearly 12-year stint before putting that project to rest in 2001. Since, Kozelek has chartered a furtive solo career for himself under the name Sun Kil Moon.
Stirred by his namesake, the former South Korean two-division world champion boxer Sung-Kil Moon, Kozelek admits to changing his stage name to arouse the notice of critics who stopped paying attention to Red House Painters. But there’s also a deeper meaning behind the moniker, stemming from the singer-songwriter’s passion for professional boxing. “I guess what clicked with me is that it’s a loner sport,” says Kozelek. “Fighters have their corner men, but it’s [the boxer’s] neck on the line when it comes down to it. Most of my motivation and philosophies I live by are things I’ve picked up from boxers and trainers, guys like Teddy Atlas, Freddie Roach, Cus D’Amato, even Floyd Mayweather has some good advice now and then.”
Out of that encouraging cadre of pugilists and mentors, Roach jumps out to Kozelek as a particular inspiration. “He gets up every day with Parkinson’s disease, travels all over the world, trains fighters large and small. I think about that stuff when I’m at airports, tired, going from one place to the other, and it gives me strength. You read books on musicians, like Anthony Kiedis or whoever, guys that hole up in hotels doing drugs. You read about boxers, and you read about disciplined guys with solid work ethics.”
Kozelek’s connection of boxing’s world-weariness to music-making nicely dovetails into his latest venture. His fifth Sun Kil Moon full-length, Among the Leaves, centers on the general theme of transience. It’s an often dire, comical and insightful observation of the nature of staring down those slithering yellow lines on the pavement. Thankfully, Among the Leaves rarely resorts to the tired myopia that distorts and plagues so many “road albums.”
The song suite continues Kozelek’s love for the warm immediacy of the nylon-string guitar heard on 2010’s Admiral Fell Promises; this minimal recording setup has worked to revitalize the veteran musician. “For Among the Leaves, the set up was a Ramirez classical guitar and occasionally a Yamaha Flamenco guitar, a vocal mic and a guitar mic,” says Kozelek. “I’ve simplified over the years. We mostly record straight into Pro Tools, but for the band stuff on Among the Leaves we used two-inch tape. I’ve grown tired of traditional recording sessions, booking a studio and tracking down musicians.”
Among the Leaves’ analog intimacy and Spanish guitar instrumentation is also reflected in its haunting lyrics, a detail of his songcraft that Kozelek is sometimes reticent in divulging to the press. Despite this, the songs paint a dramatic rendering of a forlorn man trapped between memories of his Bay Area home and flashes of brilliance while playing for his devoted fanbase. On the finger-picked doctor’s visit tale “The Bird Has a Broken Wing,” Kozelek sings, “I’m half man, half alley cat.” It’s both a stentorian declaration and a dead-eyed death sentence.
Elsewhere, the luminescent “Sunshine of Chicago” follows Kozelek as he pampers himself with manicures and pedicures before a show. He sloshes around memories of ’90s groupies, itchy STDs and his late father over a melody that resembles light shimmering off the surface of a calm river. There’s a razor-sharp touch of gallows humor shot into this record that is wholly entrancing. Kozelek is at his funniest on the crestfallen lullaby “UK Blues,” his comments on Denmark (“Everyone rides bikes, everybody’s white”) and London (“It’s all the rage if your favorite color’s beige”) curt in a manner that is beguiling if not slightly mean.
Kozelek isn’t one to suffer fools or fret over people’s assessments of his dour songs—and that’s part of his cantankerous allure. Stories here center on heckling fans, fellow musicians dying young and his own homesickness. His lyrics on many albums are filled with macabre observations and droll turns of phrase that resemble well-worn jokes told in the midst of a funeral. In fact, Among the Leaves’ “Song for Richard Collopy” centers on death in a concrete way. The beautifully cascading tune is a poignant tribute to Kozelek’s late friend and San Francisco guitar repairman. Kozelek remembers him in a candid way. “Working with [Richard] was pulling teeth, really. He really took his time. But he was a nice guy and my best memory was picking up my Gibson L-00 from him. He brought it back to life. It took him forever, but it was the best work I’ve ever had done.”
The road can be a tough place for a guitar player in 2012, but Kozelek knows that touring, T-shirt sales and licensing are the primary ways to make money in a world of torrents and filesharing. “CDs will likely be over by 2014, so some of us will have to get used to that,” he says. “I’m just trying to get used to the idea that people, for the most part, don’t buy music anymore and I keep my fingers crossed that I’ll continue to do well with touring and licensing my music to film and television.”
The weary troubadour takes all this one day at a time and returns, just as his fans do, to his longtime inspirations for motivation to keep going. “I remember Cus D’Amato training Mike Tyson and saying, ‘You’re a professional. You get out there and adapt and make the best of the situation whether you feel like shit or not!’ Tyson started to derail after awhile, but I’ll never forget that quote. Believe me, sometimes I’m playing under some shitty circumstances, playing a poorly organized festival and everything is going wrong and I want to walk offstage, but I think of those words and it gets me through a show.” F
Mark Kozelek Picks 3 of his albums you should already own:
RED HOUSE PAINTERS
Old Ramon (2001)
It was recorded all over the place—Austin, Mendocino, San Francisco—and took forever to be released due to label hassles, but there are some great, laidback recordings on this one: “River,” “Cruiser,” “Void.”
White Christmas Live (2001)
This would have been a better, longer record, but some fan stole a recording from one of the Göteborg shows when the sound guy turned his back. This is my favorite of the live records. I don’t think you’ll hear another version of “White Christmas” with the singer telling someone to fuck off.
Nights LP (2008)
There are some good rarities found here. A rockin’ version of “Carry Me Ohio” with Tim Mooney on drums and a nice solo version of “Wop-A-Din-Din” recorded in Portugal.
This article is from FILTER Issue 48