Mark Kozelek: "I yelled at Tom Cruise about 20 times"

The Sun Kil Moon frontman talks to Yo Zushi about two decades on the road, his new album and why he finds Britain "very depressing".

Where’s home at the moment?
San Francisco.
 
You often use place names in your lyrics, from Grace Cathedral Park in San Francisco to Big Sur, California. What makes that kind of detail so powerful?
They are real references – places I had powerful experiences in.
 
Some time in the mid-1990s, I took a bus to Lambeth with a friend of mine after hearing your song “Brockwell Park”. Looking around, I thought you’d captured something that few British songwriters would have noticed – how the park could be desolate and “lonesome” and pretty all at the same time. Do you think an outsider’s sense of dislocation is an advantage for artists?
Yes. On tour, you often spend just a day in a place, so your connection is exclusive to that particular experience. If you're in Melbourne during some Australian holiday and it's raining the whole time and the whole city is shut down, then that's what Melbourne is to you. My perspective on any city or country is from the perspective of someone passing through very quickly.
 
On your latest album, Among the Leaves, you’re less romantic about the places you mention. In “UK Blues”, you sing about watching last year’s riots on TV while on tour in London (“As if this city isn’t depressing enough . . .”) and invoke pretty bleak stereotypes about Bristol (“People missing teeth/Is this really what people eat?”). What’s changed?
Not much. I described London as lonely then and I still do. My last trip there happened to coincide with the riots, so that was memorable. I just find the country very depressing, the food challenging. Most people I know who grew up there have moved to California, so I know I'm not alone in my feelings about the place.
 
Much of the record is about your experiences on the road and your day-to-day routine as a songwriter. How has your life changed over the 20 years since the release of your first album, Down Colorful Hill?
The first thing that comes to mind is that I'm not broke any more and the second thing is that I put my own records out – I don't release them through other labels. The third thing is I don't have "a band" any more, [which is] part of the reason I'm not broke.
 
Do you enjoy touring?
Sometimes, sometimes not. Touring isn't one thing, it's a lot of things. I go to a lot of places. Each day has its amount of joys and complications.
 
You’ve written a song about Richard Collopy, a San Francisco guitar repair man who died in 2009. How did that lyric come about?
When someone who fixed your guitars kills himself, you tend to make a note of that.
 
There are 17 songs on Among the Leaves. Did you set out to make a long album?
Yes, I was making a statement with that. Tired of people handing me records with ten songs.
 
In "Elaine", you mention getting rid of your record collection. Do you listen to much new music?
I try. I got a good record in Korea recently. A guy named Kim Doo Soo. A good singer, guitarist.
 
Your album art has been pretty aesthetically consistent since Down Colorful Hill: bleached (found?) photography, minimal text and so on. With Among the Leaves, you’ve gone for a pale blue design and you’ve included lyrics, too. Was it a conscious decision to move away from the old style?
I still like the old look but wanted a change for this record.
 
Since Ghosts of the Great Highway (2003), boxing has figured prominently in your work, from a song named after Salvador Sánchez to a reference to a Carlos Santos-Wilfred Benitez fight in “The Winery”. What draws you to the sport as a subject?
Everything: the history, the characters, the darkness that surrounds the sport. I just finished the book Rebel Sojourner, about Jack Johnson. It's fun to get caught up, to find out where the series began. I like the old fighters and the new. Newer fighters I like right now are Adrien Broner and Keith Thurman.
 
You’ve had a long working relationship with the film-maker Cameron Crowe – you appeared in Almost Famous and had a cameo in Vanilla Sky; Crowe recently interviewed you about your new tour movie. Did you ever think you’d be hurling abuse at Tom Cruise in a Hollywood movie?
That was fun. I yelled at him about 20 times. Tom was great. I arrived the day the news went out about him and Nicole. I was worried he'd be in a bad mood but it was just another day at the office for Tom.
 
What’s next?
Time off here in SF with my girlfriend, then more touring in September.
 
Sun Kil Moon's latest album, "Among the Leaves", is out now on Calvo Verde Records (£9.99). See the official video for "Black Kite" below:
 

 
Yo Zushi's most recent album of songs, "Notes for 'Holy Larceny'", was released by Pointy Records (£9.99). His new song "Careless Love" can be downloaded for free here.

 

Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon and the Red House Painters. Credit: Gabriel Shepard

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

PETER MACDIARMID/REX
Show Hide image

Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories