In The Aristocrats, Penn Jillette notes that "in all of art, it's the singer, not the song." Fans of Mark Kozelek couldn't agree more. Though the San Francisco-based leader of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon is one of America's finest songwriters, he's also a magician with covers, turning Kiss and AC/DC rockers into haunting ballads, getting indie kids to swoon to John Denver, and taking all the cringe out of Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs."
When Kozelek released What's Next To The Moon, a 2001 ode to Bon Scott-era AC/DC, it seemed like he'd taken his cover-song fascination as far as it could go, but his latest album under the Sun Kil Moon moniker is even more ambitious, because he's tackled a wildly popular, still-active band. Tiny Cities—released on Kozelek's newly formed Caldo Verde imprint—is made up of 11 Modest Mouse songs, going as far back as "Four Fingered Fisherman" (taken from the band's delayed-release debut) and even hitting the Good News For People Who Love Bad News single "Ocean Breathes Salty." As usual, Kozelek hasn't just tackled another artist's songs, he's dismantled them and rebuilt them in his own image—to the point where labels that got early copies of the record thought it was composed of originals. Shortly before embarking on tour, Kozelek spoke to The A.V. Club.
The A.V. Club: You've always done cover songs, but it seems like over the past five or six years, you've released more covers than originals. Why?
Mark Kozelek: I'm just writing less of my own music lately—I go in and out of phases a lot. Sometimes there are these accidents that just sort of happen, that are kind of waiting around the corner. I guess Modest Mouse was one of them. I mean, five years ago, I didn't know who the band was. [Laughs.] And then by chance I saw them live, and something about it just kind of got into my system, and the next thing you know, I felt compelled to go make that album. Had I not seen them and had they not had that effect on me, it's hard to say where I'd be. I'm not really sure why it's been so many cover songs lately, but I think it's sort of like a director who writes and directs and produces his own films, and then all of a sudden—probably just like Cameron Crowe doing Vanilla Sky. I don't think that was in his plans a year before he made that film, but one thing led to another, and he found himself remaking a film, which isn't really typical of his style. I think that that's just sort of the life of an artist. I don't know what I'm going to be doing six months from now, or a year from now. Even with Ghosts Of The Great Highway, when I started recording that record, I only had a few songs, but it was like certain twists and turns evolved over the next year and a half—songs started coming out of me, things I wasn't expecting to happen in my life were happening, and songs were coming out of it. I'm sure that's going to happen again, but the nice thing about me having that ability to do cover songs, and to do them well, and to make them my own is, it's a nice way to stay busy, you know?
AVC: Would you say you're suffering from writer's block?
MK: No. Throughout my life, there's just periods when I write and periods when I don't. I don't feel like anything's really blocked. It's just not where things are at right now, and it's just a matter of time until there's something going on where I feel compelled to write. "Writer's block" sounds so dramatic and worrisome, and I don't worry about it. I know deep down that I'm a writer, and it's just a matter of time until it comes back, and when it does, it'll be good like it's always been. [Laughs.] If I had the choice of making a Modest Mouse or an AC/DC cover record, as opposed to making a bad all-original album of forced material—which people do all the time, just in the name of getting a record out—I don't want to do that.
AVC: What inspired you to write when you made Ghosts Of The Great Highway?
MK: I'm embarrassed to say it, but I think that there was some sort of post-September 11th things happening in my psyche and in my life. I had a tour scheduled in Europe, and some stuff in Florida and New York, right around Sept. 11, and I'd cancelled it when Sept. 11 happened, and I remember wanting to be around my girlfriend at the time, and just sort of wanting to be home. It wasn't until April 2002 that I got on an airplane. There's a real theme of death in Ghosts Of The Great Highway, and I think rather than confronting my fears of death or my thoughts of death through this typical Bruce Springsteen/Neil Young obvious way of using "Let's roll" or whatever, there's a theme throughout the record where there's probably 10 references to dead boxers. There's Salvador Sanchez, Pancho Villa, Benny Paret, Sonny Liston. There was a reference to a woman who I knew down the street who died. Rather than focusing in one area, I think it came in with other young people who lost their lives tragically in different ways. At the time, I thought, "This is just my tribute to boxers that lost their lives early," but looking back on it, it was more than that.
AVC: Are you worried that you're going to start getting pigeonholed as "the covers guy"?
MK: Well, you know, on my tombstone, I'd rather it said, "He was a great songwriter" than "He was a great song interpreter." [Laughs.] But I'm fine if people say that. There's a certain element of truth to it. Like many musicians, it's my roots in music, playing cover songs. Red House Painters were doing cover songs before our first record deal. I remember live shows where we did an AC/DC song; I think we did "Send In The Clowns" by Judy Collins. We did "The Star Spangled Banner," which came out on our third record. I've done probably a lot more covers than the average person who does what I do, but I'm very proud of it, and I do feel like I really bring a lot artistically to these covers. I mean, I sent this record out to a dozen labels, all of which didn't know that these songs were Modest Mouse covers.
AVC: In the past, you've covered older, usually more classic-rock material. What made you want to tackle an active band this time?
MK: They're a band that I'd heard about for a little while before I saw them; I sort of wrote them off as just another one of these buzz indie bands that come and go. Then I finally had an excuse to go see them, because a friend of mine invited me out to their show. They came out, and there's just something really, really extraordinary about Isaac Brock. I feel like the guy's writing is all his own—he's definitely in his own world. It was just the way things were coming out of this guy. You have a sense, I think, as an artist, when something is happening that's really real, and there was just this element of danger—the way the lyrics were just so all over the place and random. I told one journalist, it was like The Exorcist, you know? [Laughs.]
And the way the band was together—it struck me that they were sort of like maybe what The Smiths were in the '80s, or what Led Zeppelin was in the '70s. Within a week, I had all their records, and all their records had their own separate personalities. It's just like getting addicted to a TV series—I immersed myself into their music, and just found it all so colorful. We had done a couple of their songs on the Sun Kil Moon tours—you know, one day I just kind of went into the studio and recorded a few of them, and then recorded a few more. Whatever, now it's over with, and I got it out of my system, and I hope I didn't upset anybody too much or anything. But it's something I did—I have no idea. Why them compared to bands in the '70s? It's because I think there's something extraordinary about them. I think Isaac Brock is that good.
AVC: Has Modest Mouse heard the record?
MK: Not that I'm aware of. I know that he got it, 'cause I sent it to him—I sent him and the band and the manager a copy of the CD, but I've not heard any definitive response from anyone as to whether they like it. It could be because, you know, they don't like it, it could be because they're doing a million other projects. I know Isaac does A&R and produces bands, and he's got Modest Mouse. [Laughs.] Maybe it's just under his radar. Or he doesn't care. I don't know.
AVC: Looking back at all your covers, do you see a common thread?
MK: Not really, but like, right now, the Modest Mouse covers record, it's too close to me for me to know exactly why I've done it. A few years from now, I might be able to look back and say, "Okay, this is why." That's how everything is. It's like a bad relationship—you're like, "Why am I involved in this?" And then two years later, you're able to look back and go, "Oh man, you know, I was really insecure, and I was—." You know what I'm saying? I think that with the AC/DC record, looking back on that, that was my little opportunity to say, "Hey, I'm shallow, too." [Laughs.] I have depth to me, but I also have another side that is, you know, sexual, or there might be sides to me that the average person who doesn't know me, who has this illusion of me, isn't aware of. With the AC/DC record, I was able to sort of say some things that I felt like saying through Bon Scott. [Laughs.] It was just my way of singing some shallow songs about girls and one-night stands. It's like, "Hey, I want to sing about that shit, too!" [Laughs.]
AVC: You've recorded under three different names, but you've steered all three projects. At this point, how do you decide which name you'll use?
MK: Well, I don't know. It made sense when I had done the Ghosts Of The Great Highway record—I gave it a name as just sort of an idea. I wanted to put on a new coat, bring something different to it, and I think that it worked. Journalists that hadn't talked to me in five years, who were bored with Red House Painters, were all of a sudden asking me about this new band I was in. [Laughs.] It was actually a Red House Painters album with a different name—I mean, Jerry [Vessel] and Anthony [Koutsos] played on the record. I wanted to confuse people and sort of bring attention to the record from the press, and it worked—the record ended up selling way more than anyone was expecting it to. And because of that, it just made sense—again, on a purely business level—that I called the next album Sun Kil Moon, just to sort of keep the momentum. If I was 22 years old, I wouldn't give a shit, and I'd call it whatever, and I would purposely shoot myself in the foot, because I didn't care if I was living in somebody's closet. But now I'm in a place in my life where I'm thinking about my future and I'm thinking about what's best, so it's just the right business move for me to call it a Sun Kil Moon record.
AVC: So what's happening with Red House Painters?
MK: It's funny, because we're all better friends right now than we've ever been. I'm really close with those guys—Phil [Carney] from Red House Painters has been traveling with me for some tours, and Anthony from Red House Painters played on the last two Sun Kil Moon records. But basically, this band just never really got to the next level, where it needs to go in order to keep going. You see bands that have been around for a long time, and I think it's because a certain level of success is conducive to keeping them together. I mean, when Metallica was going to break up, they went out and spent $40,000 on the therapist to keep it together. Why? Because there's a lot of money to be made there, and there was a lot of interest in keeping that going. We were a poor band doing things on shoestring budgets, and traveling around in 16-passenger vans, and that's fucking awesome when you're 25 years old, but when you're pushing 40 and two of the guys in the band are now selling real estate, it's a hard grind to say, "Hey, you guys, let's go to Europe and not make any money, and travel around in a little van, and freeze to death in Helsinki." I'm not saying we're broken up, but the motivation to keep doing a thing that we already did several times, the interest starts to wane. There's no negative energy, there's no bitterness. We've never been a band that's been live, die, breathe, eat, think Red House Painters 24 hours a day. We all have different talents and abilities and other things that we think about besides Red House Painters. I wouldn't say we're never going to play together again. I'd just say we're probably on the longest break we've ever had.
AVC: But at this point it sounds like you're enjoying the freedom of being on your own.
MK: Yeah, I am. The truth of the matter is, though those guys have been there for the long haul, I think they would agree that Red House Painters has, overall, been the Mark Kozelek solo project. [Laughs.] It's always been my songs, it's always been my ideas, I've always had the final say of everything that happens with this band. Calling it Red House Painters was just a way of smoothing out the ego on my end. It would have made complete sense for me to call it the Mark Kozelek Band. I just didn't want to do that. [Laughs.] I think from the beginning, I've been kind of a loner, and I've always been pretty independent. I've always felt a certain amount of aloneness in what I do, from the beginning all the way up 'til now. And yeah, now that the other guys in Red House Painters are out doing different things, it's been nice being able to do the Sun Kil Moon records and bring in different musicians without the slightest bit of guilt. I enjoy not having a set list, and not having to worry about the accommodations for the other six guys, and not having to worry whether everybody's going to be there the next morning, or we have to track a guy down. You know, this is indie, this is independent, and it's not glamorous. [Laughs.] While I'm out there by myself, I don't have to worry about anybody but me. I don't have to split the money five ways, so I can get a nice hotel every night, and have a pretty comfortable ride doing it, you know? [Laughs.]
AVC: You've appeared in three films: Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky, and Shopgirl. Have you enjoyed acting?
MK: Well, I haven't done any acting. I've done the movie thing, but I haven't done any acting, you know? I would like to get into it more. I'm not really hungry to do it—I'm not going to move to L.A. and pursue it, get an agent and all that crap—but I would welcome more of this if it came, and if an opportunity came around again, I would like to really do some acting. I'd like to play a part rather than a guy that's playing guitar and saying, "Hey, let's go get mojitos," or whatever. I'd like to see if I really got it, you know? But so far, through knowing some directors who are fans of my music, I've just managed to get a few cameos.
AVC: Is it tough watching yourself on the big screen?
MK: Yeah, it is. Some people totally get it, and some people are like, "Really? Is it that hard?" And it's like, "You'd be surprised." I mean, everybody's different: Some people just love to get their picture taken, some people don't. I'm one of those that don't. And so it's kind of tough to see yourself up on the screen and see your body and the way you move, and your voice—it's horrifying. After seeing Shopgirl, I felt like shit for a day. [Laughs.] I mean, I thought the movie was good, but it was hard for me to see myself in it. But that's just my nature, you know?