Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Artist Focus: Nine Things about Mark Kozelek/Sun Kil Moon

As part of my actual job in my actual life, I write profiles and do interviews of musical artists. I usually don't have a choice as to whom I write about; it's done for my clients, who are the companies who make the instruments and sound gear that the artists use. I've decided to create some profiles on artists and bands that I personally find super interesting, and whom I feel deserve more attention and recognition for what they do. This is one of those.

I don't make many promises about my musical performances; I hate the idea of setting someone up for disappointment. For my typical live show, I mention two things: a) that I'll be performing songs from my solo career and my band They Stole My Crayon, and b) I'll perform interesting covers that people generally don't hear elsewhere. I try and live up to those things. On Sunday May 28, I was doing a show at Templemore in Second Life, a terrific virtual world venue with a crowd of open-minded people. My set included a song called "Carry Me Ohio", one of the better-known tracks by a lesser-known band called Sun Kil Moon. While I played, I was surprised to see an audience member shout out in all-caps text that he loved this band. The next day, when I posted about the show on Facebook, the same person (his name is Garrett, by the way) made a point of commenting, "Mad respect for covering Sun Kil Moon." I don't cover Sun Kil Moon often because I simply can't, and the reasons might become clear as you listen to some examples below.

1. Mark Kozelek = Sun Kil Moon
As is the case for a number of artists, Mark Kozelek records and performs under various names. I'm not sure how he differentiates between what qualifies as a solo album versus one done under the Sun Kil Moon name. Some albums, like 2010's Admiral Fell Promises, have Mark doing all of the singing, songwriting, and instrumental performances, while other albums employ the work of a full band. Apart from Mark, the members of Sun Kil Moon fluctuate between various people with whom he records and/or tours. Mark tends to write all of the band's music and lyrics, unless it's a special project (like when he did his second album Tiny Cities, which only included reinterpretations of Modest Mouse songs for some unknown reason). The band's name, by the way, was inspired by the Korean boxer Sung-kil Moon. Boxing is one of the themes that Mark returns to often.

"Ålesund" from Admiral Fell Promises (2010)

"Carry Me Ohio" from Ghosts of the Great Highway (2003)

2. Mark Doesn't Make It Easy to Be a Fan
Most musical artists/bands these days have things like Facebook pages, or Twitter or Instagram accounts, or some way of allowing fans to quickly and easily feel connected to the band, or share their news, concert dates, photos, or whatever. Mark doesn't seem to use any of that shit. In a way, I find this to be really admirable. All of that image/personality stuff does is take away from the music, and I get the idea that the music is really important to him. In any case, like a number of serious artists, Mark seems to struggle between the necessity of self-promotion to allow his music to generate income versus the desire to remain somewhat anonymous and be allowed to create his art without the trappings of fame.

Another note in this regard: much like Neil Young, it doesn't seem like you know which Mark Kozelek you're going to get when he releases a new recording or you go to see him live. His musical styles of choice are varied, and he often does live versions of songs that are very different compared to his studio recordings. Speaking of live shows, Mark sometimes seems overtly antagonistic to his audiences... another quality he shares with Old Neil.

""I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same"" from Benji (2014)

"Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes" from Benji (2014), live at Pitchfork Music Festival 2014

3. Mark Is From Ohio and Is Around My Age
I didn't have to do much research to know Mark was from Ohio. Ohio gets mentioned in a ton of his songs, in titles and lyrics. Like Mark, I was born in the late 1960s in Ohio. Unlike Mark, I never really lived there past early childhood. That's not this story, though.

"God Bless Ohio" from Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood (2017)

4. Sun Kil Moon Grew from Red House Painters
Mark's first widespread recognition as a musician happened starting in the late 1980s, when his band Red House Painters was playing around the San Francisco area, eventually getting signed to 4AD Records in 1992. Red House Painters almost immediately became a critical success. A number of their albums and songs were noted in a number of "best of" lists. Due to a bunch of label mergers and other factors, Red House Painters found themselves without a record deal, which was probably a tough time for a band that seemed to have all the markings for big success. In 2002, Mark put together the first incarnation of Sun Kil Moon along with his former RHP bandmate Anthony Koutsos and others.

"Katy Song" from Red House Painters' self-titled album (1993)

5. Mark's Songs are Intimate and Story-Like and can be Depressing as Fuck
Some lyricists prefer to invoke nebulous concepts in their songs, allowing the listener to derive their own visions and meanings. Mark doesn't do that, though he's certainly no less poetic than the most analogy-fueled writer. No, Mark tells stories, very specific stories. Listening to one of his songs is often more like watching a movie. You stroll along with Mark through some event in his life, which sounds way too precise and defined to be a fictional invention. Like any writer, Mark explores ranges of emotion in his lyrical content, but overall, his stuff leans into the melancholy more than any other direction. The mood is often deeply introspective, with expressions of guilt and reflections of remorse being common themes.

It's not for everyone, this music. And even for those of us for whom it is, it isn't for all the time. Apart from the lyrics, Mark's intricate yet hypnotically repetitive music compositions are often punctuated by interesting classically-oriented interruptions and segues. Another musical observation: Mark has also -- purposefully, I believe -- altered his approach to singing over the years. He's shown himself to be capably melodic and clear-voiced at times, especially on earlier material; on other songs and albums, his voice is more close to a spoken-word rasp. I like both approaches, and they seem to always fit the feel of the music.

"That Bird Has A Broken Wing" from Among the Leaves (2012)

6. Mark Is An Incredibly Great Guitar Player
I've been playing guitar since I was seven, over 40 years ago, and attended some of the best music schools in the country, and have spent a career peripheral to the music industry. I know very quickly what a highly-trained, highly-practiced player sounds like. Mark Kozelek, as I was completely unsurprised to find out later after becoming familiar with his music, is a well-studied classical guitarist. His instrument of choice is almost always the nylon-string classical guitar. You hear Marks classical background all the time, in small flourishes, in the way he voices chords and intervals... this is not some typical pop/rock guitarist. It also is one of the elements that makes it exceedingly difficult to cover many of his songs. While I have some background in classical guitar, a) I'm really out of practice in the style, b) I don't currently own a performance-worthy nylon-string guitar, and c) I don't even have any fucking nails on my right hand that I could use to approximate his style. Three strikes, and I'm out of being able to play most Sun Kil Moon songs at my live shows. It's probably better that way, frankly. Most of Mark's material is so complex and deeply personal that I have a difficult time doing it justice.

"Half Moon Bay" from Admiral Fell Promises (2010)

7. Mark Releases Music Under His Own Label
In addition to releasing Sun Kil Moon music, Mark's Caldo Verde Records puts out recordings for Mark's solo material (alone and collaborative) as well as artists like Jesu, Kath Bloom, Heirlooms of August, Corrina Repp, and others.

"Hey You Bastards I'm Still Here" from Mark Kozelek & Desertshore (2013)

8. Mark Acts and Seems Really Busy To Me
Mark appears in films occasionally. He was a band member in the 2000 Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous, playing the bassist for the fictional band Stillwater. He was also in the films Vanilla Sky and Shopgirl, and played himself in a 2015 film called Youth. I also get the idea that Mark is one of those people who is constantly working, usually on multiple projects at once, and tours (and therefore travels) a lot. I believe his home base for many years is San Francisco, but he always seems to be on the move.

Mark (left) in a scene from Almost Famous (2000), in which he plays Larry Fellows, bassist for Stillwater.

9. I Can't Think Of Any Music Like His
I can definitely pick out some precursor musicians whose songwriting and performance styles are reminiscent of Mark's. As a classical guitarist, he's expressed a love for Andrés Segovia, and my familiarity with that master allows me to hear elements of his style in Mark's playing. When I think about acoustic-centric indie-folk artists whose vibe imbues melancholy, I have to think of people like Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, and Leonard Cohen. I have no idea if Mark was actually influenced by any of these musicians; I certainly was, and have since been influenced by Mark as well. That's the way it goes.

But Mark's music, with its melange of vibes and instrumentation and arrangements, is not directly like any other artist I can think of offhand. Perhaps that's one reason it has such a high level of appeal to me. When I hear something that doesn't make me immediately think of something else, that's usually the first thing that draws me in.

"Birds of Film" from Universal Themes (2015), possibly my favorite song of Mark's

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