Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek on the art of imitation
by Leslie Wylie
Inspiration is a finicky beast. When it comes, it comes in fits—unplanned, unannounced—and it can vanish with just as little warning. And sometimes, no amount of coaxing or coddling can convince it to reappear.
Mark Kozelek, frontman of Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters, has come to terms with his intermittent bouts of writer’s block. “Original stuff can only happen when it happens,” he says via a long-distance phone call from San Francisco. It’s midday there, and glaringly sunny, but his voice seems more in tune with the bleak mid-February weather we’re experiencing in Tennessee: metallic-gray skies adrift with chunky wet snow flurries, the kind that melt upon contact with the ground. All this glazed over with a pathos that calls to mind Sun Kil Moon’s latest album, Tiny Cities , a collection of Modest Mouse covers that Kozelek assembled during his last spell of absentee inspiration.
Baring little resemblance to their high-strung predecessors, Kozelek’s MM interpretations are wintry and atmospheric, burrowing through the original compositions to their sad, melancholy crux. “I like to stay busy, and at the time, I could’ve done a really bad, really uninspired original album that was about nothing or I could do an all-covers album that was pretty good,” he explains. “It wouldn’t have been my first choice, but at the time, for whatever reason, it wasn’t coming out of me.”
Being prolific, after all, can be taxing. Over the past 15 years, Kozelek has released six studio albums with Red House Painters, two albums with Sun Kil Moon, and three solo albums. Tiny Cities , released last November, isn’t Kozelek’s first attempt to reincarnate somebody else’s work. On various albums, he’s covered songs ranging from AC/DC to John Denver, Wil Oldam to Neil Diamond, each time boring into the lyrics and resurfacing with arrangements that are softer, looser and, whatever their original mood, unsettlingly beautiful. “[ Tiny Cities ] was the same sort of concept, the same sort of thing where I took these songs and gave them new meanings,” he says. “I just have this ability to hear things and hear just a completely different thing from what it already is.”
Kozelek’s decision to cover Modest Mouse arrived after seeing the band live, six months or so before its release of Good News For People Who Love Bad News in 2004. Something in MM frontman Isaac Brock’s presence resonated with Kozelek—his on-stage intensity, perhaps, or the opacity of his lyrics. “I tend to be a little OCD, and I was very intrigued with Modest Mouse and so I just immersed myself in that project. I just kind of went in the studio and started recording,” he says.
Whatever the critical response, the cover album was an important step toward rattling Kozelek’s own creative processes back into shape. He compares it to a musician sitting in with a band that’s not his own. It may not be a long-term pursuit, but the task of approaching music from a different perspective is a healthy exercise for anyone. “It’s good to stay busy, and even though it was Isaac Brock’s lyrics, I was still retaining my own melodies, my own music. I was just focusing on another songwriter,” he explains. “I think that just being present in making music—even though I was working with someone else’s music—is a good thing. It helps you connect the dots.”
It’s a difficult concept to get your head around, that inspiration is as much about ambition as it is about surrender. Kozelek, at least, seems to have a handle on both. “I hope to get back into songwriting, and I think that will happen,” he says, and the clouds part in his voice. “The most important thing is just living and, hopefully, with that some songs will come out of me.”
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