Mark Kozelek‘s work has felt important since he began recording with Red House Painters in the early 90s. I have clear memories of discussing my favorite "sad songs" with my friends during that period, and focusing on a few lines from Rollercoaster‘s "Katy Song": "I know tomorrow/ You will be somewhere in London, living with someone/ You’ve got some kind of family there to turn to/ And that’s more than I could ever give you." But while he wrote songs that felt deeply personal and resonant, Kozelek was still a shadowy figure—I knew very little about someone whose music I knew very well.
Years of listening to his music and learning about his background didn’t prepare me for Benji, Kozelek’s self-produced sixth album as Sun Kil Moon. From the opening notes and words of the record’s spare entryway, "Carissa", you know this is new territory; the song is about his second cousin—a mother of two—dying when she takes out the trash. Benji is filled with material that finds Kozelek stripping away metaphor, painting vivid pictures of family members dead and living, innocent children killed in school shootings and serial killers who die of natural causes. As easily as he can shock with gruesome subject matter, he understands nuance, and you end up feeling like you, too, know each person who shows up in these songs.
In the end, it’s all about Kozelek and how he got to where he is today, but he gazes everywhere except his own navel—characters and details show up in different places, and from different angles. He’ll examine the effect of re-watching an old favorite movie or the feeling of seeing a younger friend’s band perform. He creates a patchwork of references from far and wide, alluding to boxing, childhood playground fights, Led Zeppelin, the Postal Service, Edgar Winter, mercy killings, cancer, old friends and their scars, David Bowie, and Panera Bread. The lyrics are unadorned and carefully wrought, as is the music, which is mostly Kozelek with his guitar or xylophone. (He gets some vocal help from Will Oldham, Jen Wood, and Keta Bill, while Steve Shelley and a few others add some guest instrumentation.) The production’s crystalline; you feel like you’re in the same room with the players as they construct a world around you.
Benji is such an emotionally raw record that I was surprised Kozelek was willing to answer questions about it. I pooled the below questions from various members of Pitchfork’s staff—it felt like the Kozelekian thing to do. He responded via email.
"Yes, a few of my relatives died from aerosol can explosions. Strange things happen within families, in small towns… For the most part, this record is as real as a bad car accident."
Pitchfork: You’ve written personal songs in the past, but Benji takes things deeper. The music is stripped down; the lyrics feel like diaristic reportage. What took you in this direction?
Mark Kozelek: I suppose I’ve run out of metaphors, and when you get older, you’re bothered, or inspired, by other things in life than a girl breaking up with you. Things get heavier as you get older. At 47, I can’t write from the perspective of a 25-year-old anymore. My life has just changed too much and my environment around me.
Pitchfork: I suppose people are curious if all of this really happened. My sense is that it did. How much is real, and how much is fiction or embellishment?
MK: I can see how some of these incidents would sound odd, to say, a British journalist, or someone who is very young, or sheltered, but yes, a few of my relatives died from aerosol can explosions. Strange things happen within families, in small towns. I fudge a few facts here and there in the name of getting a song out of the way, or to protect the living, but for the most part this record is as real as a bad car accident.
Pitchfork: Did you change the names of people involved? Do you worry about people trying to Google Jim Wise and Katy Curland and Billy Brislin and what being mentioned by name could mean for them?
MK: Katy Curland is not an actual name—nor is Jim Wise. Jim Wise is a very real person who is close with my dad, only his name’s not Jim. But Billy Brislin was my dad’s best friend—a boxing enthusiast and a wonderful man. He passed away, and this song seemed like a nice place to pay tribute to him.
People are grieving and they’ll hear my music when they are good and ready, if they want to. I don’t check in on that. It’s not a priority for me. I make music to process—because I have to, not for praise or accolades or reactions.
Pitchfork: Do you hope that the kid you beat up in "Song Remains The Same" reaches out?
MK: No, I’ve processed that. 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.
Pitchfork: With all the references on the album, why did you name it after the movie Benji, which is mentioned in passing?
MK: I have this light, nice memory of going to see the movie Benji, at a Los Angeles movie theatre when I was a little kid, visiting my grandparents. This record is filled with so much darkness, I wanted to give it a light title, for contrast. Benji is a great movie, one of my favorites.
Pitchfork: Which of the songs did you write first? How did the idea for the interconnected songs come to pass?
MK: "Truck Driver" was written first. I offered it to Desertshore for [collaborative side project] MK and Desertshore but they passed on it. It was soon after that my second cousin passed away. I wrote a song for her, and I guess that spiraled and one song led to another.
Pitchfork: Each song could get the extended treatment you gave "I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same" in the piece you recently wrote for the New York Times. You also wrote a couple of other similar pieces. How much do you want to decode for the listener?
MK: I don’t enjoy talking about my songs, but at the same time, I’ll do it in the right context.
Peter Catapano, an editor at the Times, talked me into the first piece. I was reluctant to do it, but my dad was so touched by that piece about him and his brothers (the song "Brothers" from MK and Desertshore) that I found it rewarding and wanted to do a little more. Overall though, I’m a fan of letting the listener make their own connections. I’m a fan of making music, more than talking about it.
Pitchfork: What were your parents’ reactions to hearing "their" songs on Benji?
MK: The Times piece on "I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love" came out on my mom’s birthday. She told me it was the nicest gift she ever got. My dad still hasn’t heard "I Love My Dad" and I’m sure he’ll say something like, "It’s good, but I love your version of ‘Little Drummer Boy’!" My dad loves my live albums—he’s obsessed with the live version of "Little Drummer Boy", for some reason.
Sun Kil Moon: "Ben’s My Friend"
Pitchfork: The personal details on the album are offset by some bigger, more historical subject matter like the Newtown school shooting or Richard Ramirez’ death. How do those songs function in connection with the others?
MK: You have to remember, I was a kid in a basement watching TV when the Jonestown Massacre happened, or when Dan White used the Twinkie defense. But this song ["Pray for Newtown"] was triggered out of letter I got from a fan in Newtown, after that incident happened. It brought me back to all of these places where I was when these shootings happened. James Huberty is from my hometown—he’s the guy who killed all of those people at a McDonald’s in Southern California, so it tied in.
Pitchfork: The closing track, "Ben’s My Friend" feels like an epilogue—it’s a more upbeat track that brings us into the present. It feels like you coming out from this intense experience and living to see another day. Is that how it’s supposed to function?
MK: It really wasn’t that thought out. I just felt like the album needed another track, so I scribbled down some stuff, vented a little about The Postal Service concert or whatever was on my mind that day. I presented it to Steve Shelley in two different ways, a slow version and a fast version. He liked the faster one and we went with it.
Sun Kil Moon: "Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes"
Pitchfork: What’s it like playing these songs in a live setting?
MK: Audiences react differently, depending on venue, how much they’ve had to drink, or depending on whether English is their first or second language. Most Americans I play for are clueless as to who Richard Ramirez was, so you can imagine how audiences in Portugal react. I’m not saying they don’t enjoy the music, I’m just saying they’re a little lost on some references. Some audiences bust up with laughter at "I Love My Dad" and some take it very seriously. It depends on venue, and other elements.
Pitchfork: The album is self-produced and sounds great. Have you ever considered getting out of songwriting and into production?
MK: I appreciate you saying that. I feel like when the songwriting slows, I’d love to help others with their records. If it’s something I really believe in, it’s worth the effort.
Pitchfork: Are you working on new material? You’ve always been prolific, but it’s hard to imagine you following this up.
MK: Right now I’m working on my taxes and accounting for last year, but ideas are coming. The next record will blow your fucking mind—trust me.