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.

CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER/MINDEN PICTURES
Show Hide image

Eyes on the peaks and a heart in the valley

During the summer months, the Swiss Alps offer one of nature’s most gorgeous spectacles.

Usually, whenever I arrive in Switzerland (where I am currently enjoying a brief summer respite), I cannot wait to ascend to the top of the nearest peak, whether on foot, or by some kind cable car, or a combination of the two. At this time of year, the flora seems more interesting the higher I go and, to my mind, few sights are as beautiful as a high Alpine meadow in full flower.

A possible comparison might be a desert at its most floriferous, but it is hard to predict when that occasional abundance will come. If you get to the mountains between June and late July, one of the most gorgeous spectacles in nature is close to guaranteed. Some years are better than others, but there is something about wandering an Alpine meadow, or crouching at the edge of a mountain chasm to peer down at a clutch of faintly scented mountain flowers, that renews the spirit.

The other great pleasure in being up, as opposed to down, is the view. Everyone appreciates that view, even if it is only from the visitors’ centre or the café terrace: the land laid out all around, its most intimate secrets revealed, sheep and people and houses like tiny specks on the valley slopes. The river is a ribbon of light, making its way through the lower meadows, past the cement works and the little Valais towns, each with its own shop and train station, its people polite and reserved, speaking a variety of German that most German-speakers barely understand. When people here meet, they say not “guten Tag” but “grüezi”. Goodbye is “Widerluege”. If you can remember how to pronounce it, there is a delicious, cheesecake-like dish called Chäschüechli. However, my favourite titbit of Swiss German is that, whereas Hochdeutsch has one term for walking uphill (“aufwärts gehen”), Swiss German has two: “uälaufe”, which means “to walk uphill” and “ufälaufe”, which means “to walk uphill and get to the top”. Or so my Swiss friends tell me – although, in matters of language, they do like to play games.

True or not, this is an important distinction, especially here in Valais. At the top are the Blüemlisalphorn (3,661 metres) and Weisshorn (4,506 metres) peaks, which are out of my range, but even the less demanding ones (the gorgeous Illhorn, for instance, which rises to 2,716 metres) can be a challenge for the occasional hillwalker that age, desk work and appetite have made me. It’s worth it, though, for the views and the flora. Or so I thought – but there are some who would agree to disagree.

Rainer Maria Rilke discovered the Valais region in 1919 and returned there to live a short time later. He was drawn by the beauty of the landscape, the flora, the simplicity of local life and the view of the mountains – but he rarely climbed to the top, preferring the valleys and the slopes to the peaks. A favourite place was the Forêt des Finges, on the floor of the valley. “Outside is a day of inexhaustible splendour,” he wrote to a friend in 1921. “This valley inhabited by hills – it provides ever-new twists and impulses, as if it were still the movement of creation that energised its changing aspects. We have discovered the forests – full of small lakes, blue, green, nearly black. What country delivers such detail, painted on such a large canvas? It is like the final movement of a Beethoven symphony.”

From Finges, one looks up and sees the mountains. It was looking up, rather than looking down, that seemed to give Rilke the power to renew his vision. It was here that he finally completed the Duino Elegies, among other works. His mind reached for the peaks but his home was in the valley. He asked to be buried in the village of Raron, where the church is perched on a rock above the river: a choice spot from which his soul might gaze upwards to the delectable hills.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt