Mark Kozelek didn’t much feel like talking, it seems. There was nothing personal in it; Kozelek hadn’t consented to an in-person interview in years. However, one onerous side effect of producing a towering masterpiece like Sun Kil Moon’s Benji is that, inevitably, people are going to ask you stuff about it. And so it was that the former frontman of Red House Painters and solo artist grumblingly agreed, at least initially, to a handful of email interviews, including mine.
Or at least that was how it began. Below is how is ended. As you can see, Kozelek seemed to object to the questions the more they went on. Small inside-baseball moment: This interview was conducted shortly after Kozelek responded to a set of questions at Pitchfork, which he answered in detail. However, even there, you could sense his aggravation leaking into frame: “Right now, here is what’s on my mind: my ankle hurts like hell, I need a new mattress, I’m missing an adapter for a Roland keyboard, I’m hungry, my girlfriend was supposed to be here an hour ago, I can’t wait to see the new episode of True Detective tonight, and sadly, I just learned I’ll be in Helsinki during the Pacquiao/Bradley rematch.”
That is the sound of someone mere seconds from announcing “Fuck this” and walking away from his computer. Aaand that’s when we arrived on the scene. There is a resounding eloquence to the questions he chose not to answer, by the way; you should really savor the pauses, as you would a Pinter play or a good Miles Davis record. His unedited responses are below.
You have a tremendous catalog, with a lot of high points. Does Benji feel different, or special to you, within your life’s work?
Benji is a special record, i just hope people listen to it in the right way. i feel like many people are honing in on whether certain events are factual or not, and its not the right way to listen to music. cousins and aunts and uncles die, and this is a record about those things.
I’ve heard that you initially resolved not to talk about this album at all, before agreeing to a few interviews. You’ve now have talked about it in a few different places, including your piece in the NY Times. What made you decide at first you wouldn’t discuss it, and what made you change your mind?
I didn’t want to talk about this one, because after 20 plus years of doing interviews, I’ve burned out on it. Plus i feel these song are autobiographical and I don’t have a lot to add. Anyhow, I’ve agreed to do a few.
I also understand you haven’t done an in-person interview in years. Is there a specific reason you decided to stop doing those? Do you find them uncomfortable?
The conversational, stream-of-consciousness form of your lyrics on Benji and Among the Leaves feels offhanded, but once you start paying attention to the corners of the lines you notice that they all line up neatly. How much time and sweat do you spend fine-tuning the rhythm, cadence, and sound of these lines?
On these records, very little, if any. “Sunshine In Chicago” was written backstage before a show. These songs all sort of found me, I didn’t have to dig. I wrote inside the moment of whatever I was grappling with at the time.
You name a lot of names in the songs, and I wonder about the kid you apologized to in “I Watched The Film ‘The Song Remains The Same.’” Do you remember his name? Did you leave his name out in particular on purpose?
Why were the kids egging you on to punch this kid in particular?
Do you have any vivid memories of being bullied as a child?
Why did you have braces on your legs when you were five? An incidental detail from “Dogs” that jumped out at me.
(Are the sort of questions above the reasons you weren’t initially interested in interviews?)
How soon after the tragedy at Newtown did you write the song? Did you deliberate at all? Did you just take a breath and do it?
I don’t remember how long – 4 or 5 months. It was really me thinking about the James Huberty incident that got the song rolling. I’m 47 years old and that was the event that shook me most, of all of the mass murders. James Huberty was from my hometown.