Ben Gibbard Talks To Mark Kozelek
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Mark Kozelek (Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon) and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie, The Postal Service) are terrific songwriters who are also friends. That's why The A.V. Club figured it would be fun to have the have the latter phone the former and interview him about the new releases on his Caldo Verde imprint: April, Kozelek's first album of original material since 2003's Ghosts Of The Great Highway, and Nights Of Passed Over, a recently updated lyric book accompanied by a disc featuring alternate and live takes of songs like "Carry Me Ohio" and "Wop-A-Din-Din." Gibbard can be heard singing on April—Kozelek's third full-length as Sun Kil Moon, the moniker he adopted after retiring the Red House Painters name, following 2001's Old Ramon. The album finds Kozelek in his usual reflective mood, with a particular emphasis on his ex-girlfriend and muse Katy, who died several years ago from cancer. Their conversation eventually turns to Gibbard and Narrow Stairs—Death Cab's new album, which is due out May 13—as well as their forays into acting, including Kozelek's memorable turn as Stillwater bassist Larry Fellows in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, and Gibbard's appearance in John Krasinski's forthcoming adaptation of David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.
Ben Gibbard: I'm really enjoying your new record. As I was trying to think of stuff to ask you, I was realizing that this has the potential to be either the most awkward interview ever, or—
Mark Kozelek: That's kind of why I wanted to do it through e-mail. But it could be all right.
BG: It's difficult to know what to ask somebody who you're friends with, when you're trying to provide information that other people may be excited about.
MK: This whole plan struck me as odd. And when it came up, I was like, "I don't think he's gonna want to do it." But then they said you would, and I thought, "Well, it could be interesting." It could be a little awkward.
BG: I figure we can just fuckin' talk it out, and if it turns out to be a complete disaster, we can just acknowledge that, and have a real journalist talk to you.
MK: Yeah. Gotcha, gotcha.
BG: When you said you were going to send me [Nights Of Passed Over], I didn't realize that it was a hardbound, properly released book. Most interesting to me were the forewords—both to the 2002 version, and then you writing about some of the new songs. One thing I've always loved about your music is that you have a very honest approach to writing lyrics, but I've always gotten the impression that you're reluctant to talk about the specific subject matter. So I was really struck with some of that: You talk about making the first proper album, which is the "roller coaster" record, and you mention how obsessive you got in the studio. Do you still have an obsessive nature when you make records, or are you able to let some of that go?
MK: As far as making records, it's definitely gotten so much easier since that time. That was just a time that I'll never forget, because I literally went from working front desk at the Chelsea Motor Inn to a week later, a record company in England wiring money to my bank account, saying "Make an album." I felt a lot of pressure. I didn't want to do things in sort of a tossed-off demo style like we'd done the other stuff. We finally had money. I wanted to experiment and do overdubs. We were just really going all-out.
I think that I've gotten a lot more relaxed, and I know how to go about getting a sound now. I know what to do to get the vibe right. As an example, when I'm doing vocals, I don't have six guys sitting out there in the control room, messing around, making faces. I know what to do now to get a production right, and that was just something that came in time. As far as the songs, and the prefaces, it's one of those things where—when you're putting a book together, you can do it however you want. You can talk about certain songs and you can not talk about certain songs. I think that's what I did in both the prefaces. I decided, "These are the songs I feel comfortable talking about, where I was when I wrote them, what was going on." And other ones, I keep to myself, because I'm just more comfortable with that.
BG: On the first handful of records, with a lot of the people taken from your life, this mythology started building around them, like Katy or Michael. Even today, there are fans of yours who want to know who these people are, and how they relate to you. Do you see a level of responsibility in how you relate to these people?
MK: For me, it's really a moment-to-moment, person-to-person experience. If a fan approaches me and I feel like they have some kind of agenda, I'm probably gonna get real closed-off and not talk to them. But if I feel a connection with someone, or if I feel a certain trust with somebody, I feel like, "You know what, I can open up to this person and tell them about an experience." It's like that with shows. I play shows sometimes, and if everything's connecting, I start blabbing to the audience about anything. Between songs, talking about things in my personal life, or whatever. But there are other situations where I feel a little closed-off. It's really kind of a day-to-day thing. It depends on the person and the situation. Sometimes I open up and sometimes not.
BG: There seems to be a real warmth and tenderness to a lot of the lyrics as you relate to what I would assume is your girlfriend, or the woman who's a central character in these songs. You never want to assume that when somebody writes songs like these, that they're the "happy" songs. But there is something refreshing and kind of reassuring about them. Do you feel like a lot of these songs are coming from a more comfortable place?
MK: I do. The songs on this record span a little time. It's not like all the songs were written within the same couple of months. But I think the reason that there is a peacefulness about the lyrics, or quietness There are songs that have nothing to do with this, but a lot of the record is my attempt at—not so much putting what happened with Katy to bed, but what happened with Katy actually happened right at the very end of making Ghosts Of The Great Highway. It was just the last couple of months that I was working on that record, this crazy thing happened. And I think after she passed, for me to have written about it at that time, or for me to have dealt with it in a creative way at that time, it would have been very cathartic. I don't think it would have been beautiful. I think I needed some years to pass, and some time to pass, before I could handle it all, to write about it and sing about it in a gentle way, where I was actually sort of paying tribute to someone, rather than just moaning about someone being gone.
And that's really the main theme in the album for me, just getting to a place where I—I don't know. I'm more at peace with it than I was years ago. When someone important to you, someone that's played a big role in your life, when they're gone When you write about them or pay tribute to them, you want to do it in a way that's thoughtful. I think I just felt that way with this record. Songs that I wrote about her in the past—"Katy Song," "Summer Dress," "San Geronimo"—some really beautiful things And I think I wanted to continue that, where I want beautiful songs to be written about this person. I think that if I had tried to write this record three or four years ago, it would have just been a horrible mess. But I think that I got to a place where I was able to put it together the way I did. So maybe that's why it has sort of a peaceful, kind of serene feeling.
BG: There's something about a handful of the songs that feels very much like the calm of a weekend morning. And I think that's a far more relatable place to be, when you think back on somebody you were really close to, who isn't with you any more. Writing about those moments years after the fact removes a lot of the context that could give them a negative connotation, and allows them to exist in their own time and place.
MK: Right! That's exactly right. At the time it's all happening, you're not rational. You're not saying it all. For me, it just wasn't a time to be really vocal about it. And it's something that I've sort of kept a secret all these years, too. I didn't really talk about it in any interviews when I was promoting Ghosts. I didn't want it to be something that was viewed as some vehicle for promotion. Because I've seen that with other bands. Someone's grandmother died, and it becomes a source of attracting press or whatever. I didn't want to use it. I didn't want it to be any kind of angle that I was getting any kind of attention with. But then I think after a while, it gets to the point where it's like, "Well, this is something real. It is something that happened in my life. It is something I'm writing about."
BG:Would you categorize Katy as the great muse of your life?
MK: Absolutely. To this day, it's the longest relationship I've ever had. We were together for four years. I know it's probably an odd thing to hear from a guy that's 41.
BG: It's not an odd thing to hear from somebody who's 41 who's spent his life playing music.
MK: That's right. She was someone I was with for four years, and we shared a lot of things. A lot of the early records have her in them. And Songs For A Blue Guitar, I dedicated that album to her. Even though we were broken up when all this happened to her When you've had that kind of connection with somebody, and it's somebody that you've made love to a thousand times, and then that person is taken away It doesn't matter if it was something that was five years ago, you remember every place you went, every street you walked down, every trip up to Seattle for a gig, or down to L.A. You remember it all. But yeah, I would say you put that right. She's the great muse and will probably continue to be for some time.
BG: You obviously don't have to answer this if you don't feel comfortable, but how does that play in your personal life?
MK: You mean how does my current girlfriend like it? [Laughs.]
BG: Well, not specifically, but just in general. Has that been a point of contention?
MK: It could be, depending on the person that I had in my life. It has been. But I'm with somebody now who's just incredibly understanding. And also, my girlfriend's mother passed away a couple of summers ago, so I think that there's a part of her that's more understanding about this, and has dealt with her own loss, and is just very, very mature about these things. So I think I've got a pretty extraordinary girlfriend in that way. I have had situations where others weren't quite as understanding of me having things in the past that I'm still attached to.
BG: In the book, you mention the song "24," and it seems like maybe you're a little self-conscious about the sentiment at this point. I'm 31, and I have a number of songs that were written around that same age, early 20s, where I was just scared to death about what the next phase of my life was going to be. We still play those songs, and I still sing them all the time, but there are moments where I cringe—I can't believe that I talked about, even at 25, getting gray hairs. And now I'm starting to get them. And it's humorous to me that that was something I wanted to write about at a young age. So now that you're 41, how do you relate to those sentiments? Do you play those songs? And if you do, what's going through your head?
MK: Some of them, I do. It's probably the same with you, where there's just certain songs from back then that have some longevity. I don't know what it is, but there's some I still love singing. And I can always find a way to make them sound fresh. I wrote about that in the foreword, I think I said something like, "It's odd, whining about the hardships of old age then." But I think it's all just context. When I was 18, I dated a girl who was 24, and she seemed old to me! [Laughs.] And when I was 23 or 24, my band was opening for American Music Club; at that time, their guitarist was 40. And we heard that and we all just took a step back and went, "Oh my God. That guy's old." And now I'm dating a girl who's 27, her friends are 25, and I go out to eat with them, I feel like they're looking at me like, "Whoa. This guy's old." [Laughs.]
It's all context. At that time, when you're 24, you're supposed to have direction. You should probably be out of college and have your career started. And I think at that time, I hadn't been to college, I was working down at the hotel, just wondering, "What is going to happen to my life?" So I had that fear. Now, when I'm around people who are 15 years younger than me, that fear you're talking about, I can see it in them. They're questioning where they're at. And I think I was just sort of going through that stuff. I occasionally whine about being 41, and my gray hairs, and my protruding gut, my right knee that doesn't work like it used to or whatever. But I think it's going to be one of those things where one day I'll be 60 thinking, "Damn! I wish I was still 40. It wasn't so bad." But I still feel very attached to those older songs, and in some kind of fundamental way, I feel like they're still who I am now, and I still have some of that same stuff going on inside of me.
BG: When I was in my early 20s, I saw people in their 30s or 40s very differently than I do now. There's a level of confusion that is never really quelled as you get older.
MK: I hear what you're saying about the confusion of it all. A part of you feels like you haven't grown up as much as you should at this age. I'm really in a strange position, where I'm 41, still don't know how to drive a car, I'm not married, I don't have kids. When I go back to Ohio, that's where it really kicks in. Everyone around there is dealing with their mortgages and their kids and all these things. That's where I really feel the confusion, and I really feel like the odd man out. There, nobody really cares about my record deals or my little bit parts in movies or these little blurbs I get in magazines. Everything's more like, "If you don't have kids, and you don't have religion, and you don't go to church, and you don't drive a car, and you don't own a home, and you're not married, you just don't have shit." [Laughs.]
BG: It's exacerbated by the fact that you're from Ohio and you live in San Francisco. That alone is enough to probably isolate you from the majority of the people you grew up with. Then you compound that with the fact that you are a musician by trade, and like 99.999 percent of people earning a living playing music, you're not The Rolling Stones. Until you pop up on the cover of a magazine in their local supermarket, or you're on prime-time TV, it's hard for most people to have any kind of understanding of what you do for a living. When we had our first couple of records out, I was dating this woman whose parents never really cared for me. And at the time, we were making a living at this, but it was so meager it could barely be called a living. And we went to this music-business museum, the EMP, and there was a little 30-second movie running of our band and a handful of other bands that were popular at the time, that were up-and-coming Northwest bands. And when they saw that, in the context of a "museum," that's what it took for them to change their perspective.
MK: My example of that is my part in Almost Famous. I play in little bars in Cleveland, and it's hard for my family or relatives to put their finger on what exactly I'm doing. To this day, my dad still asks me, "Now, what are you doing in Europe?" It's still completely abstract. If my dad sees a TV commercial and I have a song on it, it's just a completely abstract idea to him that I've actually been paid for something like that. But I think for people back home, the common denominator was Almost Famous. Because you could actually go to a movie theater, pay the ticket, be surrounded by people who are like you, and then there I was. Even though I only had six lines and just kind of nodded a little through the movie, for them, it was a huge, huge deal. It was something where they could tell the neighbors and relatives, "Go to the movie theater, I swear to God, if you go, you'll look up and you'll see Mark in this movie." And that blew everybody's minds. So there are those little things that happen. I had a great time making Almost Famous, and I made some nice friends, but I don't put it in the same level of accomplishment as I do this album that I've just released.
BG: I'm still really fascinated with the fact that you don't do demos. Does that mean you just sit and write a song down on paper, and go into a recording studio and record it?
MK: Yeah. It's been years, maybe since Ocean Beach, since I've done any kind of demos where I sat down with a four-track. I would record a song or the initial idea to some little four-track or cassette player and take it into the studio, and we'd sit around the tape recorder and listen to it, and we'd try to put a click track against it to remember how fast I played it, or whether I had a capo on the third fret or whatever. It was always about trying to recapture these magical things that I did on these demo tapes. And I think that at some point, I just realized, "I'm just gonna write something, and I'm gonna go in and record it."
And that's what I've been doing for a long time. All of Ghosts, even Tiny Cities, which I didn't write, but I arranged. And this last one, literally, I just get the piece of music together and I go down to the studio. That works to capture the stuff when it's fresh. My home is just kind of my home. I've got my TV and my couch and my bed. I've never wanted to be the home-studio guy who has the recording room that I go into and spend—it feels like an office thing, where recording becomes like an office process. I've always been wary of that. I want my home to be a home, and I want the recording studio to be where I go and do that part of my life.
BG: Do you play every day? Do you work on songs every day?
MK: I pick up the guitar every day and play around with whatever tuning the guitar is in. But I don't actively sit down for certain periods of time every day and think, "Okay, I'm working on a song today," or anything like that. I do something musical every day, where I pick up the guitar, play a little bit. Sometimes things just hit me, it just comes out of nowhere. So many songs have been written like that. "Lucky Man" was written like that. "Have You Forgotten" is one I remember where man, there was just nothing happening, and then boom! This thing started unloading and unfolding. I wait for it to happen, but I don't dig for anything. The best stuff happens when I'm just not expecting it.
BG: [My girlfriend] and I moved into a loft up on Capitol Hill a little over a year ago. There are sliding doors that mark off part of the place, and it's kind of like her art space and my music space, and I've got my little ProTools rig. And I totally hear what you're saying, 'cause I'm looking at all this recording equipment that hasn't been turned on in six months, because we've been finishing an album and mixing, and it hasn't been a time when I've been actively working on songs. So I have this stuff taking up space. It's very beneficial when I'm using it, but it's more just cluttering part of the house. I do kind of fantasize about a setup like you have, which is no setup. You have a couple guitars and you sit down and write a song. I'm a little envious of your ability to do that.
MK: In a way, though, I'm also envious of what you're talking about. Because there are times where I think it would really be great to have a room where I can keep my guitars. I don't even know how many I own, but a lot of them are loaned out. I've got a friend that probably has five or six of my guitars, because I just can't store them all. But as far as the studio part of it, I feel like what you're talking about, if I had a room that was all set up as a studio, it just probably wouldn't get much use, because I just don't work in that context.
BG: I'm curious how your experience has been running your own label so far, and exactly what that means for you. I can't see you packing mail-order boxes and running the website. I'm curious what your involvement in it is.
MK: It's slightly more work than when I was on record labels. I mean, it's all the same. I'm booking tours—just like with you, you've got a booking agent, but you're still approving the dates before they go down. I approve my artwork. I have a lawyer that does my contract. It's all the same things that I did before. There might be a few extra trips to the post office. But it's like any label. Any label you go to, whoever you're talking to, they're probably not the person that's doing the mailings, they're not the person who's doing the website. I've got a guy in Maine who does my website. My distributor's in North Carolina. My lawyer's down in Los Angeles. I've got some friends who are kind of broke and I have 500 CDs shipped to them and give them two or three hundred dollars and they're happy to stuff the envelopes and mail them for me. So it's just like any other label, it's just not all happening right here, in-house. I just oversee it all. But the difference for me is like, rather than the profits being soaked up by whatever these other labels are doing, with all their employees and the millions of bands they're signing, I make the profits myself. It's just kind of this no-brainer thing, like, "Why wasn't I doing this 10 years ago?" I pretty much sell the same amount of records no matter what. And I just had my highest first-week SoundScan ever.
BG: Oh, congratulations!
MK: Yeah, I'm not one to gloat. But it's kind of remarkable that it's like, "Whoa, my buddies are doing my mailings, and I'm just kind of doing what I've always done." And finally I've had this big SoundScan that came out of nowhere. It's been a really nice source of pride. Twelve years ago, I needed to borrow money from a label to be able to pay my rent or make a record. But I think over the years, with being able to license some songs to commercials and take some movie parts, I feel more like an adult. I'm in a place where I don't need to borrow money from anybody to make anything happen. That's the main difference now—instead of somebody paying for my record and then I'm obligated to them for however many years, I'm paying for it myself.
BG: It must be kind of nice that that you were able to utilize label resources to establish who you are and what you do, and then at the apex, basically take control of the ship. It's really interesting at that point where we all realize that there is an economic aspect to making music or art. And I think the earlier you take some responsibility for that, it will benefit you in the long run. I think it's awesome that it's working for you.
MK: It has been for the last couple years. I did an interview recently with Billboard where they contacted me, like, "How did this happen?" And I explained that it's been years. Ten, 12 years ago, I might have had a difficult time coming up with the money to make a record. I feel grateful that I've gotten to this place where I'm at with it now.
BG: I do think there's something about this record, it's just a really comfortable record to put on. And I'm just really proud of you, man. And I'm hoping our paths cross this week in Seattle.
MK: That would be good. And if you ever decide to do a Ben Gibbard solo record or something, let me know, cause I'd love to be involved in something like that. [Laughs.]
BG: I think that's what we're thinking of doing. Get to work and brush the dust off this $10,000 worth of recording equipment that's sitting in my loft. I guess we'll see what the future holds.
MK: So what's happening with you guys?
BG: This record that we just finished, I don't think it's so crazy or such a departure that people who have been following the band for the last handful of years won't find some thing to really enjoy about it. The last record just went platinum, which is pretty wild. So many people are familiar with that record more than anything else, and that's also the quietest, most introspective record that we have. And this new record has a lot of big rock moments, some more expansive elements that I really like.
But I guess I'm really the most excited just seeing where everything levels out for us. Because I think there's been a little bit of early press about this being either the record that destroys our career, or "This is going to be the biggest thing they've ever done!" I really don't think that either of those things is true. Maybe there'll be some people, the newer fans, who really dislike it. We may lose a couple fans, but I think we'll definitely regain some old ones, and some new fans who probably weren't excited about the band before.
MK: Hey, one thing I wanted to ask you—the movie part that you had, with the guy from The Office—is that out?
BG: I don't really know where it is at this point. I filmed this part in December of 2006—it's a film adaptation of David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. I was in the montage of friends the same way you were in the band in Almost Famous, where I had quips, and it was the group of people around the main character, to kind of humanize her. And in talking to John Krasinski, who adapted it and directed it, the scenes had to be cut out of the edit because they weren't working, but he recast me doing one of these monologues. It was really weird. After I did that first part—these ensemble scenes where it's like me and six other people, and everyone's kind of jumping on each other and riffing, it was really fun. I was like, "Oh, this is what acting is like. This is really kind of easy and fun." And I was obviously getting a little cocky about it.
Then I went back to do this monologue, and it was really uncomfortable. I instantaneously knew that I was in way over my head. It was funny, because I did the monologue and I did a bunch of takes, and John was coaching me through it. And I felt really vulnerable and uncomfortable. And then I finished, and he was like, "That's great, man, we got it. It's gonna be awesome." I'm like, "Really? Is it good? I can't tell." And then my friend Joey got up, and he's like, a professional actor, and he got up there and just killed it, just did an amazing job. And as soon as he got off the set, he was like, "Is it okay? I can't tell. Was it good?" And I was like, "This is insane! You people are all insane!" And then I got some texts from friends of mine who are actors, and they were asking how it went, and I was just saying how vulnerable and uncomfortable it felt. And they were like, "Oh, yeah. That's what it's like, acting." I was even thinking about you. I was like, "Yeah, Mark hops in on these kind of things. Maybe this will be something that I'll be asked to do more often. Maybe it will turn out well." And as soon as I got off that set after that second run of stuff, I was like, "Man." I learned a very important lesson. We'll see.
Is that something you've enjoyed? I mean, you've been in three or four movies.
MK: Yeah. But you know, Almost Famous, that was a long time. I was hanging out in L.A. for seven or eight months while that was being shot.
BG: Whoa! Are you serious?
MK: I flew down there late March of '99 and didn't come home until October. Cause Cameron [Crowe], he shoots everything from every angle, he does close-ups on everything that's happening. He goes all-out. A lot of money was spent on that. But Shopgirl was shot in 40 days. Vanilla Sky, I was down there for a week on that, but I had one line. So besides Almost Famous, my parts in the other ones were very fleeting, and I didn't spend much time. You know, I can't say with any of those experiences that I loved or enjoyed it, and had to get back down there. But that type of lifestyle is kind of fun. It's nice to fly first class once in a while, and the catering, and the money you make in the movies. It's kind of a treat to be able to go down there and hang out for a week. I would do it again if someone called me, and that's how it's always happened. We'll see. It's definitely nothing that I'm pursuing.
BG: So you don't have an agent?
MK: Not at all. Both of those were just—the guy that did Shopgirl was a fan, and Cameron was a fan. So maybe something like that will happen again. We'll see.