“As time goes on I think I become more and more oblique about describing what songs are about,” says Mark Kozelek, leader of Sun Kil Moon, sometime Red House Painter and guy who told Tom Cruise to “fix his face” in Vanilla Sky. “We got an e-mail a few months ago from a girl who wrote, ‘I’m pissed off. I need to know what “Carry Me Ohio” is about. This is driving me crazy. I’ve done a Google search. I can’t figure out anything about it.’ We just ignored it because it doesn’t matter. It’s what it’s about to you.”
That embrace of personal interpretation lies at the heart of the latest Sun Kil Moon album, Tiny Cities, which retools 11 Modest Mouse tracks. Isaac Brock’s buckshot poetry gets a melancholy makeover, and the Mouse’s frantic beauty is given a cooling bath, which lets the words stand out in a way the blessed crosstalk of instruments and Brock’s odd bark didn’t allow on the originals. On Kozelek’s tongue the songs unfold as dreams—ash slowly falling into ashtrays; old photographs; salty oceans. It is strangely tender, shimmering music filled with beautifully turned variations that sometimes better the Modest Mouse versions.
“I know there’s a reason why I was in the studio focusing all my attention on his lyrics and putting all my energy into creating new melodies and music. But I’m not really sure yet why I was doing it,” remarks Kozelek. “Maybe at that time I needed a distraction. I needed to go into a different place and get away from myself. I could have gone into the studio and made a really bad all-original album, but I didn’t have any songs! I wasn’t going to sit down and force some songs out just for the sake of doing an album. I wanted to be in the studio and stay busy. I wanted to play music, and if it couldn’t be mine then I wanted to play somebody else’s. At that time he was the guy I wanted to be covering.”
Kozelek has long turned his quiet eye on some unpredictable places, including a wistful remake of the Cars’ “All Mixed Up” that was used in a Gap ad a few years back. If one doesn’t pay attention, his music can slip by like a warm breeze. Delve a bit deeper and multiple layers wait there to be peeled back. Still, it came as a surprise to some when he released What’s Next to the Moon, his first single-artist covers set focused on Bon Scott-era AC/DC. Kozelek cut down to the blues vein running beneath the band’s trademark stomp and in the process revealed both the hidden poetry in Scott’s lyrics and a few things about himself.
“When you’ve been doing this for a while, you sort of get pigeonholed. At the time I wanted to shed the coat of what I’d done, that thing that’d been following me around for years,” says Kozelek. By tapping into AC/DC’s innate carnality he was able to shed some of the brainy wispiness of his “Red House Painters guy” persona. AC/DC’s world is very physical. “And so is mine,” enthuses Kozelek. “I’m out there in the world. I’ve been on more airplanes in the past year than the average person will be on in two lifetimes. I’m out there and I’m breathing. I’m going to Greece and Australia and traveling around the country. There’s a lot of nature out there and I’m out there in it. I think that’s the part of the Bon Scott thing that I needed to say. It was a statement I needed to make at that time. And I did it in my own clandestine, indirect way. It wasn’t so obvious.”
Perhaps Kozelek’s sideline career as an actor has offered him another route out of the pigeonhole. Aside from Vanilla Sky he’s appeared in Cameron Crowe’s beloved band-on-the-run picture, Almost Famous and Anand Tucker’s Shopgirl, based on Steve Martin’s best selling novel. “I haven’t done any acting,” Kozelek avers. “I’ve shown up and read some lines, met some good people, and there’s been a camera on me when I say things like ‘Let’s go get some ribs.’ I’ve done a lot of nodding and standing by and hanging out in the trailer, but I haven’t done any acting.” Not that he wouldn’t like to: “I got to do a little bit in Shopgirl, where I had some back-and-forth lines. I’d like to really play a character and not just a guy with a bass guitar strapped around my neck. I’m very grateful. I’ve been involved in three classy movies—I’m grateful I met Cameron Crowe and Anand Tucker and I’m very blown away that they invited me to be part of their films—but I’d like to do something where I stretch out and put the guitar down. Just to see if I can do it.”
Kozelek also composed the score for the hyper-indie The Last Call in 2001. The cinematic qualities of his songwriting suggest he’d be a natural at it. “It’s a good life. You’re treated well. You get a nice paycheck. You get paid on time. It’s a whole different thing than the indie-rock business,” he says.
Speaking of that business, some critics have suggested an all-covers collection for a single, active artist was a peculiar choice for Sun Kil Moon’s sophomore release. “My roots in playing music, like everyone else, are playing cover songs,” Kozelek says. “If you took the usual suspects—Postal Service and Iron & Wine—and made a various-artists compilation, it’d be great and people could handle that because it happens all the time. But one artist doing 10 or 11 songs is pretty unacceptable, unless it’s Woody Guthrie, Elvis Presley or someone who died. When you’re covering a guy from a modern band, it’s a funny thing. Everybody thinks it’s so strange. But if Isaac Brock suddenly wasn’t around, like Elliott Smith, then they’d say this guy was a great writer and people should be covering his music.”
Kozelek began making his richly textured, emotionally detailed slow rock in the late 1980s with San Francisco’s Red House Painters. Their four-album run on legendary UK indie label 4AD broke ground for contemporary acts like Cat Power and Sigur Ros. While often compared to Neil Young, there’s a more orchestral sweep to Kozelek’s big-sky rock. While there’s plenty of distortion and guitar pyrotechnics, a pervasive stillness permeates much of his work that creates a contemplative space in an increasingly chaotic world.
“I’ve always been attracted to quiet music since I was a kid,” he says. “I started playing guitar because of John Denver”—another artist Kozelek has covered. “I was at a relative’s house, and there was a girl on the lawn playing a John Denver song on acoustic guitar. That was my earliest memory of knowing that I wanted to play guitar and write songs for people.”
He’s comfortable with the artist he’s most often likened to. “Neil Young makes sense,” says Kozelek. “I grew up listening to a lot of Neil Young. I still do. He’s still my favorite artist, always has been since I was a kid. Live Rust and Decade were the first albums I had. I’ve loved his music more than anyone’s.” However, one soft rocker often mentioned as an influence is off the mark in his opinion. “Nick Drake is not an influence,” he says. “I get it. He sings softly. He uses open guitar tunings. There’s a similarity in our sounds, but that one is a fluke. He was not an influence growing up. I didn’t know who he was until I made my first album and got compared to him.”
Kozelek respects the power of classic rock acts to entertain in a way most modern groups don’t. “I saw Rush at the Shoreline eight or nine years ago and it just ruined me for new music,” he says. “I love Magnetic Fields and lot of current bands, but you go see a fuckin’ rock concert like Rush and you get out of there and everything else sucks. They’re such masters—these old guys, it’s second nature to them. And they’re out there blowing everybody’s fucking mind in the fucking place. And afterward you see Stephen Merritt of the Magnetic Fields and it sucks. You go see some of those bands that were amazing in the 1970s and they’re still amazing now. I saw Heart in 1999 when I was working on a movie and those girls were fucking amazing!”
His own experiences touring only enhance his respect for such performers. The road occasionally takes a toll. “It’s hard to be out there—all the travel and it’s lonely,” he says. “I’ve been in Berlin in December in a hotel room by myself. People don’t think about that. There’s a lot of lonely, middle-of-the-night hours, eating weird meals, thinking of friends back in California. Most people who don’t do it don’t relate to it at all.
“I’ve had friends for years, and every time I go out on a tour, they say (his voice rising to a comic falsetto), ‘Are you excited about it? Aren’t you excited you’re going to the East Coast?’ I’ve been to fucking England more times than I’ve been to Oakland. I’m playing on the East Coast in May and I’ve been doing it every year for 13 years. There’s things I enjoy about it. I’ll be in Florida in May. That’s a nice time to be in Florida. There’s friends along the way I’ll see. But people don’t always get it.
“It’s how I make my living,” he continues. “When you have a great show and everything is connecting and perfect and the audience is great and the sound is great it’s the best thing in the world. This is why I’ve been on this lonely, strange path through my life. I’m here in this moment and it feels great. I’m always in search of that.”