Gia Margaret interviews Mark Kozelek
about his most recent release,
Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2.
Interview took place January 25th, 2020
Listen to the full album HERE. »
Release date February 7, 2020, Caldo Verde Records
Order the album here »
Gia: 'Walking in Auckland' paints a pretty good picture of what life and the downtime in between shows looks like when you’re on tour. How do you stay grounded as someone who has toured for so long? You mentioned photography and shadowboxing but what are some other things you like to do for yourself while you’re away for long stretches of time? Owen Ashworth mentioned that sometimes you send him “very thoughtful” emails when you’re on the road. (I think I might adopt this ritual). This seems like a sweet and genuine way to stay connected to people you care about while you're off on your own tour island.
Mark: I like to write the road. In hotels, on airplanes. I keep tour diaries and now and then some of my entries become songs. This one was a spoken word piece I wrote and performed during a show in New Zealand last year. I later worked the words into a melody that fit this piece of music. I get nice, thoughtful emails from Owen when he's on the road, as well. It's comforting keeping in touch with friends who understand road life and its ups and downs. So much of my time is spent in hotels, wide awake at odd hours, so it's not hard to stay in touch with people back home.
(Mark Kozelek with Owen Ashworth and David Bazan, Swedish American Hall. San Francisco. 2016)
Gia: In 'LaGuardia' you talk about the late Jeff Buckley expressing his support to you at the height of his career. You also express regretting not returning his call and that years later you realized that there was a possibility he needed some guidance from someone he looked up to. I love the line “From where I was standing I thought you thought you had it all. It didn’t occur to me, like all of us, you also had insecurities.” I guess at the end of the day we all have a different pressure we’re overcoming and we carry our own unique sadness around. If you could get advice from or talk to any musician, living or dead, who would it be?
Mark: The one guy I was fortunate enough to meet and get advice from is Tony Visconti. When I was 50, I asked him how he made it from 50 to 72 (I think that was his age at the time). He had a lot to say. Mostly in regard to health, diet, meditation. I've walked the streets of NYC with him and he walks faster than me. I'm intrigued with the survivors, the lifers. There's enough about musicians and artists who take their own lives at young ages. My feeling is that many of these deaths are rooted in them saying Yes to a lot of things they should have said No to. If someone were to ask me this question when I was 25, I don't know what the answer would be. But now, I'm interested in hearing from those - in any walk of life - who are going strong past 50. When I get a chance to talk to someone who has a few decades on me, I take time to ask them how they got there.
(Tony Visconti with Mark Kozelek - NYC. 2017)
Gia: In 'The Artist' you mention having a nice conversation with a cab driver (something that doesn't happen as much these days with most people looking down at their phones..) What are your thoughts about technology and social media and the general decline of face to face interaction? What's your relationship to it these days and how does that affect your work?
Mark: My main concern is people not knowing how to navigate any aspect of their lives without a phone. I have friends who have lived in San Francisco for 25 years who can't get to The Fillmore without their phone navigating the way. It's concerning because people will trust what their phone says more than a person sitting beside them. Wherever you are, people are living in two worlds; the world in front of them and the world on their phone. I don't mind a little of it - but when people can't do their jobs right because they're so distracted by what's going on in their phone, I don't see the upside. For myself, I don't sign up to any of it. Life's too short. I'm here to make art.
Gia: I consider you to be one of my biggest influences as a guitarist. I really enjoy your classical guitar playing throughout the record. The finger-style on some of these songs is very reminiscent of my favorite Sun Kil Moon record, Admiral Fell Promises. Can you tell me a little about what initially led you to that style of playing? Can you give me guitar lessons?
Mark: I'd give you a guitar lesson but I'd feel like a fraud. I'm a steel string guitarist who listened to a lot of Segovia records so his style sort of rubbed off on me. I never learned true classical guitar technique. I was playing guitar at a classical guitar store maybe 12 years ago thinking I was blowing people's minds. But then a guy said to me "You're a steel string guitarist - not a classical guitarist." He was right. I know just enough classical guitar technique to fool some people into thinking I'm better than I am. I like your piano playing, a lot. Rather than me giving you a lesson on how to play fake classical guitar, I'd rather get a genuine piano lesson from you. I've listened to your album about 10 times. How did you learn to play piano like that? Owen told me you played piano on his song "Christmas in Nightmare City." I sing that song in my head at one time or another pretty much every day.
Gia: The funny thing is, I don't really know that much about the piano. I started lessons when I was about six but I was a terrible student. When it came to sight reading I had a really hard time. I would memorize pretty complicated pieces of classical music by ear and by watching my instructor's hands. Looking back now, I think was pretty impressive for a child. I think I developed my own technique by playing for the love of it. When I should have been practicing, I'd make up my own songs. Even after I stopped formal lessons at 15, I was still pretty connected to the instrument and played it pretty often. I think if you love something enough, you can fake your way to sounding like you know what you're doing. Whether it's an illusion or fact, you're a classical guitarist to me.
How did you meet your collaborators Jim White and Ben Boye? You all obviously have a close bond being this is your second release together. Can you tell me a little more about them?
Mark: Faking people into thinking we're classically trained musicians is pretty funny to me. We should make a DVD: The Mark Kozelek and Gia Margaret Guide on How to Fake People into Thinking You're a Classically Trained Musician.
Jim and Ben are A-level players. Go see any band they're in and chances are they'll be the best musician on stage. I first saw Jim with The Dirty Three in 1995 and honestly all I can remember is Jim's drumming. Both guys think outside of the box. When you're on stage with a player who is not only great, but thinks outside of the box - then you're soaring. We played a show together in Australia and those guys were so good that I got confused and had to turn around and tell them to stop. They were so good I lost track of my lyrics. I met Jim in 2016 at the Lincoln Center in New York where we played a Lou Reed tribute. I met Ben in Holland in 2014 at a music festival. Besides Ben, Jim has an equal in George Xylouris - a Greek singer who plays lute. If you get a chance to see Xylouris/White, live, you'll see two players who have a chemistry that is so genuine, so telepathic, that people walk out stunned, speechless.
(Jim White, Mark Kozelek, Ben Boye - Melbourne Australia, 2019)
Gia: Throughout the record you often sing about food: a beautifully and carefully crafted sandwich, enchiladas, lobster and some other delicious things I'm probably forgetting. Preparing food can be such an artistic expression. I feel a similar satisfaction when I cook and work on music. Do you enjoy cooking? If so, what's a signature Mark Kozelek dish?
Mark: The only thing I cook well is spaghetti aglio e olio. My girlfriend asks me to make it at least once a week. It's about not over cooking the spaghetti and making sure the garlic is almost burned but not quite. And the spaghetti has to be dry - not drenched in olive oil.
Gia: 'My Brother Loves Seagulls' made me think about the challenges I'm starting to face as I get older. You write "There's so much about being younger that I took for granted." I'm in my 30s. What would you tell your 30 something year old self not to take for granted?
Mark: That I wasn't going to be 30 for the rest of my life. A lot of doors were opening for me at 30 that I took for granted. I got a part in a movie. I had this label or that label bidding for me. But then I turned 40 and saw doors being opened for the new 20-somethings and 30-somethings and I'd be a liar if I said it didn't hurt. I could have wallowed in that hurt but I somehow had the sense to step on the pedal a little harder to go into my next decade. The youth pass is officially over at 40. My dad worked until he physically couldn't work anymore. That's what I saw growing up. My dad going to work. I give all credit to him for my work ethic.
Gia: This isn't exactly record related but one of my favorite lyrics - perhaps of all time - in a song is: "I can't go with my heart if I can't feel what's in it." Could you tell me a little about your songwriting process in regards to lyrics?
Mark: What song are you referring to? My process has changed a lot over the years. It used to be sitting in a room by myself and sweating bullets over a third verse to a song; trying to get to that 9th or 10th song to have a complete record. That approach fulfilled me for a while. It was all I knew. But it stopped making sense. Why add a third verse to a song I know longer felt or believed in? I got bored with verse/bridge/chorus song structure and started getting into more complex musical arrangements to stay awake on stage. Once I was into my 40s, fear was setting in. Fear of death. Fear of losing my parents. Fear of being diagnosed with this or that. Fear of crossing oceans. I started to write as a reaction, to cope. With age I mellowed a little; I walk a little slower. But I became more cathartic - vocally, lyrically.
Gia: I'm referring to “Katy Song” (Red House Painters). Do you ever sing your old songs? I also think the lyrics are "I can't go with my heart *when* I can't feel what's in it." It's too good.
Mark: I had no idea, just by that line. I've not sung that song in a long, long time. Now and then I'll play an old song - maybe once a year - if someone is in a wheelchair up front and making a request. For “Katy Song,” everything in the room needs to be right. My mood needs to be right. A lot of elements need to come together. If I heard a beer bottle drop or heard someone sneeze during that song, I'd probably walk off stage. I believe in the song, every word of it is true, but it's heavy. I didn't know how heavy it would eventually be. One day you're singing a song about a person and 10 years later that song may be about a spirit.
Gia: What was your plan of action when you recorded this album? Did you go into the studio with the songs heavily prepared or did you have a different approach? I ask because there's a very free jazz/ improvisational quality to some of them. I think there is always something really special about the first variation of a song. I've always wondered about changing my own approach because some of my favorite recordings are those first voice memos on my phone.
Mark: With the first record I made with Ben and Jim, the plan was let's meet up and see what happens. With the second record, it was the same plan except I was interested in us sticking with three instruments for a mellower, cohesive sound. Ben played the piano, Jim played drums, and I played nylon string guitar. That's really all there was to the plan. And yes it was all improvised. I agree with what you're saying: There's magic in those first recordings. That's how we approached this album. All improvisation. No pre-written songs.
(Mark Kozelek, Jim White, Ben Boye - Hyde Street Studios, San Francisco, 2019)
Gia: Lastly, I was cracking up when you were singing about the bassoon. I won't give too much away because people should listen for themselves, but I'm wondering if you have ever wanted to play another instrument or if you were ever discouraged from learning something? When I was a kid I desperately wanted to play the harp but my parents told me it was impractical (they lovingly got me a piano instead, for which I'm grateful..) but I still wish I could play the harp!
Mark: Do you mean those big harps? But then you'd have to lug it around the world and tune all of those strings and pay 500 Euro to get it on a plane, day after day. I'm sorry to say this but I agree with your parents. Whatever they did, they did something right. Your record is the most beautiful thing Owen ever sent me.
(Gia Margaret, There’s Always Glimmer)
Gia: Haha, I do mean the big harps, yes. My friend Mikaela Davis plays a pretty big one and has explained how difficult that is. You and my parents are right... but it's still my favorite instrument. Also, if someone were to tell me that someday you'd like my record as much as you do, I'd have laughed at them. I appreciate that so much. Your music means so much to me and has carried me through many seasons of my life.