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 they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism