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.

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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