| Tony Visconti talks to Mark Kozelek about his new collaborative album Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White.
Interview took place August 5, 2017. The album will be released October 6.
Tony: I jumped in on Benji as recommended by David Bowie. That album had me weeping the first time I heard it and it still chokes me up. At my age I’ve lost almost everyone born around my time to the Grim Reaper. If you listen to your own work, how does this album make you feel? Sad? Weepy, like me? Or through the process of writing and recording does it help you clear the field of emotions around those subjects? Do you listen to your own albums?
Mark: The only listening I do to my own records is during rehearsals when the band is trying to learn a song. Someone will pull their phone out and say "no, this is the note" and then we try to figure out what the root note is for awhile and then we get back to the song. Now and then I get choked up during songs when I'm singing them live. It happens randomly and only from time to time. I'll find myself overwhelmed in a memory - add that to sleep deprivation and road loneliness, and it all collides into one place and I'm in tears in front of complete strangers. I'm aware of at least a few of your famous friends who have passed and I can tell you that I listen to their records more than I listen to mine. I listened to Shades of a Blue Orphanage on tour in June recently and I just listened to Bad Reputation yesterday. Benji makes you cry, and ‘Sarah’ by Thin Lizzy makes me cry. On David Bowie's Blackstar - the horns, alone, make me emotional.
(Tony Visconti with David Bowie, 2002 Carnegie Hall)
Tony: The first track on your new solo album is ‘House Cat’. There is a cat in about half the songs. Maybe you have a cat in your house but you’re the voice of the house cat saying ‘Trump’ more times than I need to hear it (around 20 to 40), but then you say, “I’m a house cat so I get to say fuck all you and fuck all that!” My sentiments exactly. But the narrative seems to be coming from the little house cat. Are you putting words in her mouth, is she getting a writing credit? All joking aside, all the palaver on TV about Trump and other crap news on TV doesn’t phase the house cat in the least. This is a very funny song. Anything you want to say about what inspired it?
Mark: During the course of the day I hear Trump’s name at least that many times. Either on the news or comedy shows or from friends hoping he gets impeached. The cat throughout the album is my girlfriend’s cat but the cat in this song is a generic cat in any American home. I was imagining myself as a cat, wondering what he thinks of all of the Trump-talk. Maybe the cat wonders what we’re complaining about and thinks we should be happy with our perverse amount of TV options, our big cozy couches, and our Double Chalupas. I’ve never eaten a Double Chalupa but they’ve been getting plugged a lot on TV.
Tony: ‘Topo Gigio’ is 14:42 and it is not even the longest song on the album. It has a lovely freeform narrative. The musicians are brilliant on this one. They are following you emotionally, changing tempo and tonal modes. It feels like I’m spending a laid back day with you. You are ruminating on what has been going on lately and then your mind takes us into the past. Suddenly you take us to Trieste where the smallest details of the time you were there have profound meaning to you. Then there’s your pet pig who met an untimely end. More incidents follow. After a long chaotic musical interlude (the opposite of the way the song opened) you say it’s time for you to start talking again. You describe the war in Syria and Afghanistan and make ghastly sounds in your throat saying ‘this is the sound of war’. The chaos increases to a climactic finale. So my question is this: What has all this got to do with that adorable animated mouse on The Ed Sullivan show, Topo Gigio?
Mark: Actually this was a case of me following them. Singing to the music that Jim and Ben and I were making was unlike anything I've been involved with. We were improvising and things went from very mellow to Bad Brains-like catharsis in a second and it was a lot of fun, putting a mic up later and following it around with my voice. Many of my songs start somewhere and end up taking turns. This one found me at Trieste listening to guys playing ‘Hotel California’ and my brain went off from there. The name of my pet pig was Topo Gigio, and yes, named after the mouse from The Ed Sullivan Show. Only he was a big stuffed animal - not an actual pig. I loved it more than anything but it was time for me to quit carrying him around. We went to my aunt and uncle's farm house one day and the stuffed animal disappeared. I was told a story on how it was disposed of and I was on the stoop of their house, sobbing. That's all I want to say on it. I don't hold anything against anyone! It was maybe 1971 and it was time for me to grow up and go to Kindergarten.
(Mark with Jim White. Hyde Street Studios, February 2017)
Tony: Fur Balls, the cat returns. Again, I love the sensitivity of the band changing tempo and grooves. I like the loose hip hop part; then all hell breaks loose as you proclaim, “We’re all just searching and we’re all full of shit,” repeated like at a protest rally (if only). Imagine 50,000 people marching and chanting that? Maybe politicians aren’t responsible for all of our problems? I really like it towards the end when you comment about how men feel they have to posture in front of other men and pretend that they don’t privately cry and have feelings of self-doubt. The cat coughed up a fur ball at the beginning of the song and went to sleep. That’s the last we hear of her. Can you comment on this song?
Mark: You summed it all up pretty good! But I'll add a little and say that, to me, politicians aren't responsible for all of our problems. I think people need to go deeper than thinking everything is someone else's fault, if we want change. But after I finished recording the song, I read a quote by Henry Miller: "We know so little. Any of us. About anything." and I guess I echoed that sentiment before I knew Henry Miller already said it. And yes men posture a lot. We're trained to not show insecurity. But I think it's healthy to express our weaknesses, to some extent or another.
Tony: Los Margaritos. I love your apology for your vibe-killing comments in a restaurant when someone took you out to dinner and you were in a foul mood. I’ve done that so many times to friends and loved ones. I’m glad you brought it up. I relate strongly to this song. The music, again, is great. It’s very calm and serene with a Mexican motif introduced towards the end.
Mark: Yes, it was one of those situations where you're out with a group of people, you're in a bad mood for whatever reason and you just can't hold it together. Then someone insists to pay for the dinner and you really feel like a jerk. Then, they all fly away and you miss them and you wish you could go out to dinner all over again. Relationships aren't easy. The closer you are to people, the more complicated it can all be.
Tony: Astronomy. This is another calmly stated introspective song. You include us in the intimacies of your personal life. What an insightful heartwarming story about your conversation with an 11-year old girl wanting to be an astronomer and then she asked you what you do. You said you write songs and travel around the world singing them - and you knew that from when you were very young. I had similar aspirations. When I was little I read my dad’s encyclopedia, The Book of Knowledge, and I wanted to be an astronomer too. A relative asked, “Why would you want to do that, there’s no money in it?” That actually worried me at 9. But at age 11 I wanted to be like Elvis, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly - write, sing and perform; there was potential money in that! But your song begins with that conversation, then you move on to examine what really occupies us for the rest of our lives apart from our profession. Relationships with people are complicated. Again, this is a very personal narrative. Thank you for glimpses of your life here.
Mark: This was the only pre-written song I showed up with. My childhood was a little different in that I'm pretty sure I was told I'd never make a dollar in music. So that in and of itself drove me to prove that I could. I'm lucky in that I knew what I wanted to be at such a young age. I wasn't coddled and other than high school I had no education, so music was my only chance. I have no idea where my life would have ended up without music. My early inspirations were David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Neil Young. That's what I wanted to do. I wanted to make interesting albums and tour. There were no other options.
Tony: Blood Test. Some people like…, some people are…some people believe…fill in the blanks and you give hundreds of instances. I love where you go with the Vicks VapoRub channeling an Adam Sandler SNL sketch. You also say something very funny about flunking a certain test about you…but I don’t want to give that away. You say in the song," ... some things I say are serious and some things I say in jest." Around seven minutes in the band changes gear suddenly to play a slow funk as you chant, “Let’s show each other love.” So, you get a blood test (you don’t mention the results), all the above happens then we’re suddenly back into your personal life again, the minutiae that has great importance to you (and us). Your song titles are not what your songs on this album are about. They are springboards into a deep pool of intimate and profound experiences. I love the journeys.
Mark: I love journeys too and obviously you've been on one hell of one. I saw something on the news recently where a young guy said that if you listen to the new Kendrick Lamar record "not on shuffle" there's a really good message there. I loved that. "Not on shuffle". By listening to the record not on shuffle, he went on a journey. In these streaming times, I was so moved, hearing this young man pay respect to the full album experience. The results of the blood test are in the Yellow Kitchen album. I'd tell you results but I want to take this opportunity to promote that album.
Tony: Ashes. Birth to Death. You bring up death a lot. Have you ever seen the Tibetan Wheel of Life? It’s pretty graphic. Death is a mindfuck, but we can’t really do anything about it. I love your sideways quote of a very famous Dylan song. You talk about how you viewed death in your, 20s, 30s and now in the beginning of your 50s you see it differently. It’s the curse of humans. Cats don’t discuss this. Maybe they think of birth and death when they see a kitten, but I doubt it.
Mark: I've not seen the Tibetan Wheel of Life. I just called my girlfriend and asked her if it was a movie and she laughed. I'll ask her more about it when I see her later tonight. But anyhow, based on everything I've seen up to this point, getting things in order by the time you're 50 is a pretty good idea. I could get more in depth about what I don't like about being middle-aged, but I'm not going to complain to a guy who is two decades my senior and who has seen all that you've seen. I was playing an event in New York last year, whining to Garland Jeffreys about turning 50 and he said "I'm 73!" He was the best singer that night.
Tony: February Rain. Beautiful music. This reminds me of Benji. It’s very sad. It’s certainly about an old lover. I don’t know if you care to tell us who this is. This is a side question. Have you read novels by Haruki Murakami? He’s one of my favorite modern writers. He weaves food and music graphically described into the plots. You do that in your songs. One can be very focused on a profound subject but is easily distracted by the dry cleaning receipt on the fridge, the light bulb that blew and the soiled kitchen counter. The whole gamut is in your songs.
Mark: The song is about an ex-girlfriend, then friend, who died in February of 2003 of cancer. She was 34. She inspired me during her life, and she continues to inspire me. I haven't read Haruki Murakami but I'm hearing more and more about modern writers. I'm getting compared to them, is why. For the most part all I'm hearing about are novelists and rappers. One modern writer I've recently read, is Joel Osteen – the televangelist who runs the biggest church in the United States. I'm not Christian but I find many subjects fascinating. In his book he mentions that the average person talks to themselves 30,000 times a day. I would say William Faulkner would have believed that, and I find it believable too. Those rapid fire thoughts coming at us are where many of these abrupt changes in my songs come from. I'm following what's around me and what's inside of me. We were recording with mobile gear in a hotel recently and I saw an avocado on a microwave and that was as good a place to start as any. It was such a lonely thing to look at. There's poetry in everything around us.
Tony: Black Butterfly. Exhaustion after a six-day recording schedule, making two projects at once. A vivid dream about Elliott Smith, a loving mention of him. Chinese fortune cookies. Although most of the song is about the lingering exhaustion of the sessions, you have kind friends who want to get you to go out with them for a day at a museum, but you politely tell them you really need to take a nap. They returned later and showed you lovely photos of what they had seen. That was nice of them. When listeners get to the end of the song they’ll understand that I immediately thought of another word that rhymes with uncle. Something I used to get on my face when I was an acned teen.
Mark: It would have been good form for me to go along to the museum that day, but I felt that I was weighing things down and decided to take a nap. It was really sweet, how they came back with photos for me. But yes this song begins with the details of a dream that I had about Elliott. In real life, we toured together for a few shows in 2000, and then last year I started doing some tours with Scott McPherson, who was Elliott's drummer at the time. I guess a lot of things triggered the dream, but those two things were probably the main things. My most profound memory of Elliott is opening for him in Malmo. The audience was talking through my set and the only thing that kept me going was Elliott beside the stage watching me. It breaks my heart, thinking of what happened to him. He was a genius and he was also a sweet person.
I've racked by brain for another word that rhymes with uncle! What is it? [Tony replies: carbuncle]
Tony: Robin Williams Tunnel. You’re not going to believe this but I actually forgot that Robin Williams had died. I asked myself why a tunnel was named after him. Yeah, too many great people died in the past two years and played a big part in our lives. We just lost David Bowie in January, 2016 and I also lost Marc Bolan and Phil Lynott years earlier. My three special Rockers. You made me smile with, “So much for my low carb diet,” out of nowhere, welcomed levity in such a somber song. Then you slayed me with three rhymes, Pyromania and nymphomania; Australia and genitalia. You also say, “I gotta tell you that Tasmania was more beautiful than Erie, Pennsylvania.” That also made me laugh because when I drove my mother around England and France on her vacation (she was born in Brooklyn, NY, and settled near Allentown, Pennsylvania) she always had to comment that, “Oh, we have trees like that in Pennsylvania.” She must’ve said that a hundred times. It deflated me. I love what you're playing on bass, and those harmonizing notes with the background harmonies. And your Scarface reference is wonderful. You nailed the accent (I don’t want to give too much away). A perfect end to this track is the advice you and your date got in your Chinese fortune cookies.
Mark: The reason I don't forget that Robin Williams died is because I can see the town he lived in across the bay, Tiburon, and I can also see the tunnel. The reason they named the tunnel after him is because that's the tunnel he drove through to get to San Francisco. I don't love the name but I'd like it less if they called it The Jerry Garcia Tunnel. But I gave the song that title as Chris Cornell had just died and it made me wonder about that tunnel. The suicide tunnel. How does one end up going through it and how does one stay clear of it. My guess is that you like the bass playing because it has that fat, Phil Lynott sound. Our influences make it into our sound, subliminally. When I record bass, I often double it with a harmony, as Thin Lizzy did with guitars. I'm not even aware of what I'm doing but when it's over and we're mixing, I can then pinpoint the influence. Even on Red House Painter's 'Old Ramon' the album is Thin Lizzy influenced, with all of the twin guitar leads.
Tony: This is a great album, Mark. I love the openness of the sound. I like how long the tracks are. You take your damn sweet time expressing yourself and in doing so you take us on a very genuine trip inside your life and somehow it relates to our lives too. Everything matters, from the profound effect of a personal relationship to what you read in your fortune cookie. I have to say that Ben Boye and Jim White are fantastic musicians, and you're playing the bass! Respect! We are brothers in bass. I don’t have any credits for your last three albums because I downloaded them from iTunes. But, given your preference for free form songs and recording do you actually work with a producer or are you self-produced? I think the latter. I love the production. Thanks for giving me an advanced listen. You’ve got a fan for life.
Mark: Tony, I'm a fan of yours for life, and have been since a trip to Los Angeles listening to the song Young Americans on repeat when I was in third grade. This has been more of an honor than I could ever explain. I'm self-produced, but it's you and all who have inspired me along the way who are in the studio with me, in spirit. Thank you for the many amazing records you produced that set the tone for who I would become, and sent me on this beautiful journey of music. And thank you for taking the time to listen to this record that I made with Ben and Jim.