Sun Kil Moon

Posted: December 30th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Feature story | Tags: , , | No Comments »

Heavy-Weight Dreams

Not since Bob Dylan’s “vomitific” lyrics on 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited has there been a stranger cast of characters assembled on one album. Sun Kil Moon’s Ghosts Of The Great Highway (Jetset) features heavy-weight champs and heavy-metal heroes, Hollywood legend Clark Gable and comic genius Jim Nabors, a donut shop owner and a stalker’s first victim. And that’s only the first track.

What are these people doing in singer Mark Kozelek’s head, much less his songs? At the end of “Glenn Tipton” (named after Judas Priest’s spandex-clad guitarist), Kozelek–in the role of the stalker–flatly states, “I never heard her calls again. But I like to dream.” Sung in his distinctive plaint over a finger-strummed acoustic, the words are simultaneously creepy and achingly sentimental. It’s enough to confuse even your goosebumps.

“I like to dream,” however, is perhaps the best explanation we’ll get from the singer about such lyrics. Seemingly roused from sleep by the phone in his San Francisco apartment, an admittedly groggy Kozelek considers the query. Pauses. Then murmurs, “That’s a good question.” Pause. “I don’t know.” He laughs, gathers his thoughts, then attempts to explain himself–literally and literarily.

“As a writer, there are certain things that just come out of me, and sometimes I don’t know why. But a few years later, I can look back and know exactly why I wrote something. ‘Glenn Tipton’ started off as a joke. I made up the first part live on the spot ['Cassius Clay was hit more than Sonny Liston. Some like K.K. Downing more than Glenn Tipton'], and it was funny. And I don’t write many funny songs.”

For over a decade, the Ohio-bred singer-songwriter had fronted the relentlessly downcast Red House Painters. Critics dubbed his music “mope-core.” Kozelek, in turn, toyed with the image of the fragile folk singer, dramatically reinterpreting bawdy hard-rock classics. It’s a testament to his mood-altering style–and his often overlooked sense of humor–that some pundits mistook his cover of AC/DC’s tender “Love At First Feel” for a rarity by the tragic troubadour Nick Drake.

Kozelek further confounds expectations with his latest disc. For starters, he’s released the album under a new “band” name, even though he’s once again the project’s prime mover and he’s abetted by a familiar group of backing musicians, including Red House Painters drummer Anthony Koutsos. The name change has as much to do with marketing and it does routine boredom.

“I didn’t think anything really dramatic would happen by changing the name,” he explains. “But I’ve been putting out Red House Painters albums for ten years, and I’ve done three albums under my own name. And when you do that, and you’ve only reached a certain amount of success, you just kinda know–and everybody knows–what’s going to happen: how many records it will sell; where I’ll end up playing.

“Sometimes people get excited by new things. I thought that, by giving this project a new band name, maybe there’ll be some good luck. Maybe people who don’t like Red House Painters might think, ‘Well, this is a new thing he’s doing’ or ‘Mark is just a guy in this band, we’ll give this a chance.’ I just wanted to open doors, try things differently and see if it might change things a bit.”

It will certainly strike another blow to the perception of Kozelek as a fragile artiste. The new moniker is a variation on the name of Korean boxing champ Sung-Kil Moon. Pugilists also haunt the songs on Ghosts Of The Highway–Salvador Sanchez, Duk Koo Kim and other fighters who, in Kozelek’s words, “struggled when they were young, lived fast, then died.” Like Paul Simon before him, Kozelek sees a connection between the so-called sweet science and professional songwriting.

“I’m a boxing fan,” he says. “I’m not athletic–but boxing, to me, is very artistic. If you look at punch stats, it’s pretty remarkable that a guy can have 200 punches thrown at him and not get hit. There’s things about boxing that I apply to my life, especially being in the music business. In some ways you’re fighting every day.”

His home state also represents one of the album’s titular ghosts–or, more precisely, an angel of sorts. On the bittersweet “Carry Me Ohio,” Kozelek writes a torn love letter to his “halo” Ohio, as well as to those he left behind in Massillon when he moved to San Francisco. “Sorry that I could never love you back,” he sings in the opening lines. Still, the place has never escaped his mind.

“Ohio has followed me around in my life,” he says. “I go back there, and there’s a lot of things I really appreciate that are totally the opposite of San Francisco. You can really breathe there. People are just kind of living. Nobody’s competing with each other. We all think of things that happened when we were younger and how they affect us now. Ohio is always going to be part of my life.”

The song’s catalyst was a series of emails Kozelek received after making his acting debut as Stillwater bassist Larry Fellows in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.

“When I got the part, there were a dozen people who suddenly were trying to get hold of me to say, ‘Hey, remember me? We were in horticulture together….’ And as the years have gone by, more and more people from Ohio–who I just would not have even thought of–I’m now in touch with.”

He’ll likely receive more calls after his next non-musical venture–a part in a new Steve Martin vehicle. “I’m thrilled about it and nervous–wondering if I’ll be able to deliver and do what they want,” he admits. But he clearly loves a good challenge. And among those challenges, music still offers the best perks.

“Playing music is really the only thing I know how to do,” he says, defending his true love. “I worked shitty jobs until I was 25 years old, and I was never told I was wonderful at anything else. Music has brought me so many things. I’m very grateful that I’m in a position where I can make records when I want. Most of my friends have ordinary jobs and have to get up and be at work every morning. I sleep in pretty much every day.”


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