Friday night at Krannert Center, one of the more underrated, and genuinely prolific songwriters of the past few decades, will take a seat on the stage of the Tryon Festival Theatre, performing songs that have elevated him to a different state in 2014. That man is Mark Kozelek, and though he’s been producing and releasing material for a few decades now under various monikers — namely Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon, and his own name — there are several storylines to tell here. The slow burn of what Sun Kil Moon provides is an interesting one, as though the emergence of the stunningly beautiful Benji caused him to appear out of thin air to most.
Ironically enough, as Kozelek appears to many, those that inspired Benji aren’t around anymore. Death is completely plastered all over this record: His second cousin, Carissa, who was killed after a freak accident with an exploding aerosol can; his friend, Brett, who died because of nerve damage from how he plays the guitar; the victims of the Newtown disaster; his own goddamn grandmother; even James Gandolfini, “the Sopranos guy” as he refers to him.
Honestly, this could take up the entire column.
As of late, the only reason you might’ve listened to or acknowledged the existence of Mark Kozelek was because he called a bunch of the patrons at his show “fuckin’ hillbillies” — because, well, they weren’t exactly being respectful of Kozelek on stage. I can’t necessarily blame him for shouting at those attending the festival, though he probably could have handled it in a different manner. Hell, Kozelek started selling shirts that said the same thing, which is pretty great way to laugh at the situation. This even makes some lyrics in “I Love My Dad” even more relevant:
“When I was young, my dad told me to pay gossip no mind. When people talk bad on you, you gotta flick it off your shoulder like a fly.”
I’m not so sure about how his trash talk towards The War On Drugs was necessarily warranted, as that was simply an issue of poor scheduling by the festival producers. Kozelek hilariously mentioned The War on Drugs when I asked him about what people that are new to Benji should pay attention to the most:
It sounds best when War on Drugs isn’t drowning it out with beer commerical lead guitar, and it doesn’t go over well in a bar full of drunk hillbillies.
I wish I was making that response up, but it’s true. And really funny.
Luckily, if you have the opportunity to see Sun Kil Moon in Krannert Center’s Tryon Festival Theater on Friday night, this scheduling won’t be an issue for you. The room is one of the best, and surely, will provide an incredible backdrop for Kozelek.
Enough about that situation, though. Although the material he writes and puts to tape is very serious at times, and discusses all types of life experiences — love and death, dreams and friendships, and even casual encounters with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie and the Postal Service — some stage banter that I’ve heard through live videos and recordings are refreshingly playful and funny. Rest assured, Kozelek has a sense of humor. He’s a middle-aged man on the road as a touring musician from time to time, but he doesn’t seem to get caught up in the lifestyle that could become his. He’s just a guy named Mark. Simple enough.
2014 has to have been a crazy year for this particular Mark. Though Kozelek’s discography is flush — I’m choosing to focus mostly on Benji because of the relevance it has in this particular year we’re living in. Needless to say, releases like the brilliant Ghosts of the Great Highway, which features one of the first Sun Kil Moon tracks I ever heard, “Glenn Tipton”, or the pedestrian subjects covered in the first Red House Painters self-titled records, are quite significant. They most definitely are meaningful within the structure of Kozelek’s career, and it is a shame when Kozelek is compared to artists like “Jose Gonzalez or Bon Iver” from time to time because of, on the most basic level, how much older he is than either of those fellas. Even though that interview is a few years old at this point in time, it is almost more relevant in 2014 — where most might be unfamiliar with what has happened for Kozelek to make it to this point in his career, where he’s arguably more “popular” than he’s ever been. (Although, you can’t even purchase Benji on vinyl unless it is via eBay, as it was limited to 4000 copies. Tragic.) I asked Kozelek about the decision to only provide a certain amount of LPs for sale, and he said:
Dealing with vinyl is a pain in the ass. It is actually a very limited demographic of people who buy vinyl, and in my opinion, 75% of people who buy it don’t actually listen to it. Its extremely expensive to ship, and to carry around on tour. There are logistical headaches involved with vinyl that the average person has no concept of.
The reason Benji is such a gripping record is how vividly you can stare straight into the life of Kozelek (or the lives of people within his life). From the most awkwardly intimate moments throughout “Dogs” — as he reminisces about some of his first sexual encounters growing up, or another couple “I Love My Dad” and “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” — Kozelek makes himself more human than ever, which is a charished element. Hell, he even discusses how his dad brought him home a guitar from Sears, and he took lessons from a teacher, and “in no time at all, I was gettin’ better”, but now, he doesn’t manage to practice “as much as Nels Cline”. It is very simplistic, while maintaining an element of autobiography and storytelling. Though these times feel good, there’s always something to draw back to the loss he’s experienced, and how “I’ll go to my grave with my melancholy” as he sings on “I Watched The Song That Remained The Same”. Crash landing back to Earth. Life ends at a certain point — and as we learn through Benji, it is earlier for some than others.
I could continue about the thematic structure of Benji, and how things are mixed within one another to form a brilliantly painted picture that reflects all sorts of experiences within Kozelek’s life. But perhaps that is the relatable portion of the record that provides listening a little more intimacy as the listener. Truly, this is record you listen to and learn from. That’s the most important part of it. Plus, he is a listener as well, as he discussed a memorable part of his tour, where this encounter with a fan was particularly memorable. Kozelek said the most memorable was:
Getting a hug from a guy named Mike, who was in a wheelchair in Portland, Maine. He wouldn’t let go. I told him, “you made my day”, and he said, “Mark, you made my life.” I’ll take that one to my grave.
He’s a listener. It’s important in connecting with what he’s providing.
Though I can’t relate to his personal experiences, we’ve all dealt with the day-to-day, and everything that happens within a lifespan — regardless of whether it is one that ends young or old. We all know what some of these emotions and tribulations feel like. What being taken advantage of feels like. What experiencing a death in the family feels like. What getting older feels like. What love and the desire to feel love feels like. These stories scatter throughout Benji, which is the beauty of such a record.
Regardless of where you’ve picked up Kozelek throughout his illustrious career as a musician, there are plenty of ways to relate to what he’s discussing on stage through his music. Lyrical genius or simply a good storyteller — via Sun Kil Moon, he’s found a soft spot in all of us. That’s tough to grab a hold of more times than not. I’m no storyteller or musician, but I know how to listen from time to time. Hopefully you have the opportunity to listen on Friday night at Krannert Center. I know I will be.
Sun Kil Moon will be performing alongside Panda Bear on Friday night at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Guarantee your spot at the show through a festival pass, as single show tickets are sold out for this performance. There will be a very limited number of tickets available at the door.