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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage