Alan Sparhawk (Low) Interviews Mark Kozelek About His Collaboration with Petra Haden

The interview took place on October 7, 2019. The album, Joey Always Smiled is out today, October 11, on Caldo Verde Records.

Alan Sparhawk:  Many of your recent releases have been collaborations. How did this particular project come to be with Petra Haden?

Mark Kozelek: I’ve been friends with two of Petra’s siblings for many years. Her brother Josh plays with the band Spain who shared some bills with Red House Painters in the early 1990s and also some solo shows of mine over the years. He also played bass with me in 2017. I can’t remember when I met her sister Rachel but she took me to see Elliott Smith once at Amoeba Records in San Francisco back in the 1990s. I’d met Petra briefly at a that dog. show at the Bottom of the Hill back at that time — the same place where I met you — and didn’t meet her again until 2017. She had a night off from her tour with Bill Frisell in Australia and they came to see Sun Kil Moon play in Melbourne. I asked for a random guest to duet with us on a song called “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” and I looked down and saw Petra. I helped her onto the stage and she blew the roof off the place. She didn’t copy my melody. She closed her eyes, listened, responded, and I’d never heard anything like it. I knew in that moment that we’d make a record together. The guys in my band said that we needed to make a record together. And we did.

Petra Haden and Bill Frisell with Mark Kozelek — June 1, 2017 Melbourne.

Alan: Describe the collaborative process with her on this project — you’re each playing almost glaringly different roles in the final result. Were there defined roles? How much direction did you give each other, if any?

Mark: This record was recorded all over the place so it’s blurry as to how the process went. Some songs were written and recorded on the road. Some were cut together out of improvisation sessions with various musicians including Steve Shelley and members of Donny McCaslin’s band or various members of Sun Kil Moon. I’d give the music to Petra, not expecting her to sing along to the words as the songs are so narrative and didn’t call for harmonies. Petra is a singer who loves challenges. She thinks outside of the box. She filled the space with layers of beautiful vocals not unlike what you’d hear from string or horn sections. A few of the tracks didn’t have my vocals when I sent them to her so some of my singing is playing off what she sent back to me. I don’t recall a time on this record where either of us told the other what to do. There was nothing but support for each other’s work all throughout.

Alan: The arrangements on these recordings seem like the process was “music first, then words” but then there is intentional timing and tension and there are moments of synchronicity. Tell me a little about how you put it together. What was first? What inspired what?

Mark: Again it’s a little blurry as the record was done over a period of about a year in various locations with different engineers. On some songs the time signature changes came from cutting from improvisation. One that comes to mind is “Spanish Hotels are Echoey” which I recorded with Steve in Hoboken with engineer Ted Young. Steve and I would play a little and stop. Then we’d eat Thai food, play a little more and stop. We did this on and off all day and I remember Ted having this look on his face like, “What in the fuck is going on?” I was later told by Kurt Vile that Ted said he’d never seen a recording process like that before; pulling things out of thin air and cutting them together. But I think Ted had fun. Steve and I made music this way before and knew it would be fine.

Mark with Steve Shelley — Hoboken May 5, 2018.

Alan: One of the memories from growing up in Ohio you bring up on this record is that of being an “outcast” with the “stoners” and rockers in the “1983 MTV” jock-centric Midwest American high-school culture and how even just hearing that music brings back bad memories and feelings. How did this influence you and the creative choices you made when you moved to San Francisco and started Red House Painters? Were you being contrary and/or were you trying to amplify things you always wanted to hear in music? 

Mark: I grew up liking music of many genres. I saw Iron Maiden and Judas Priest many times. I loved Punk Rock. Hüsker Dü and Bad Brains.  But at my core, at my roots, my earliest memories of falling in love with music were with bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd,  and Yes. I loved them before In Through The Out Door, The Wall, and 90125.  But I cannot emphasize enough the negative effect that bands like Steely Dan and Dire Straits had on me. That was AM radio crap that some of us referred to as “housewife music.” MTV was for rich kids and I only remember one girl having it. Well there were actually two and it was a hike to get to their houses and we definitely didn’t go to over there see Men Without Hats or Madonna videos. I never understood MTV or the appeal of music videos.  Michael Jackson, Don Henley, Robert Palmer was jock-rock. One band from the ‘80s that I loved was Missing Persons. I saw them live and Dale and Terry Bozzio were something to behold. This year a fan asked me why I sang about things I don’t like. I told him that what we don’t like defines who we are as much as much as what we do like. He kept hassling me about it and I told him to start his own band, write his own songs, and do it his way. That’s what I get for playing places like City Winery.

Alan: Were you in choir in high school or did you have any other vocal training as a youth? 

Mark: No choir. As a kid I used to get on all fours and bang my head against the pillow end of my bed and make all of these crazy sounds with my voice until my mom or dad would come stop me. I’d do it so much that my forehead would bleed. I didn’t do it in an angsty way. It’s just how I expressed myself. I imagine that’s what kids would do today if you took their phones away. Bash their heads into things. But anyhow, that was the only vocal training I had other than singing along to albums. I also took two singing lessons in San Francisco from a lady in the avenues. I took two lessons and didn’t get past a few breathing techniques. It’s all I could afford at the time.

Alan: Do you feel like you have been influenced by hip-hop or do you feel like you have just naturally evolved into some of its signature elements?

Mark: There are a few exceptions but hip-hop is pretty much the only music I currently love, though I can’t name many of the rappers. Every time I get in a cab in New Orleans there’s some rap song about having sex on a counter-top or whatever and these very seductive beats and I always ask the driver “Who is this?” and they say some artist I never heard of before. Then I end up in bed and open a book or watch a movie. Books and movies are how I tune out. I make so much music that it’s hard for me to dive into another artist’s music. I’ve got tinnitus in my right ear. I was in the studio all day today and my right ear is ringing. A high pitched ring. You and I have traveled the same roads and shared many bills and I even produced the first Retribution Gospel Choir album so I’m sure you have tinnitus too. I remember we both cracked our ribs the same year. You were skiing and I was on a film set. I feel like you and I live in symbiosis sometimes.

Low with Mark Kozelek — Fillmore SF, July 13, 2017.

Alan: Many of the songs you’ve written of late have this very natural, narrative/conversational, sometimes stream-of-consciousness linear flow that I know is a lot more sophisticated and difficult to do than it at first may seem. It is very different from typical song structure, which you have and still use. Were you intentional and conscious of this emerging as you grew and evolved as a writer or did it just arrive as a bit of a surprise?

Mark: My guess is that it arrived naturally around the time I turned 40. I’d been holding back up to that point, trying to sculpt and perfect metaphors. Finishing unfinished songs. I’d say the dam broke around Among The Leaves when I was 38 or around there. I reached a point where I knew that telling a story and twisting and turning it wherever my impulses took me was the only way I could write. And you’re right that it’s more complicated than it appears. I’ve just started work on a spoken world album. For anybody who thinks spoken word is easy, think again. You gotta have content, timing, tone, delivery—all if it. Then you gotta have a room full of people who actually give a shit about what you’re saying. And it’s easy to flub words. I know people who engineer for audio books and the readers flub a lot. I flub too. We often cut between takes.

Alan: I’ve heard you sing about writing on an airplane before. Do you write more when you travel or when you are at home? Either way, do you know why you are that way? 

Mark: I write a lot when I travel as a way of burning energy going from one place to another. Memories flood me when I tour. When you’ve traveled as much as people like you and I, everywhere is home. We develop relationships with these places and with the back roads in between them. I’ve got more memories with places like Stockholm and London than I do with Berkeley. At first all of these places were story-book like places. The romance of those early tours. Then all of the sudden you’re standing in some spot in the world thinking this is where I last spoke to Elliott Smith or the drummer from Lush. All of that history builds and it kind of tortures me and perplexes me and scares me. I was in Australia and New Zealand this year thinking how many more times will I do this? I’m 52. My right knee used to be messed up and now it’s my left. My right shoulder hurts. Guys our age are dropping like flies. It’s scary. I’m inspired at home, too. If I walk around the block I’ll see something new or I’ll be reminded of something.

Alan Sparhawk and Mark Kozelek — Duluth. November 2014.

Alan: Give me the ratio: How many songs do you write compared to how many you record and release? 

Mark: I release most of what I add vocals to. With all albums I record — my own records or collaborations — there are outtakes; pieces that I don’t add words to because for one reason or another I can’t respond to them vocally. Those pieces sit idle but are occasionally used for compilations and things like that.

Alan: Do you feel compelled to write about people and places you’ve known or do they just appear? Is it memory you are trying to capture and preserve or is it something you just can’t escape?

Mark: Sometimes it’s a place or a person that didn’t mean much to me at one time and then suddenly that place or person appears and I’m compelled to work them into a song. I do what my artistic impulses tell me to do. The spoken word album that I’m working on isn’t something I planned. It’s where life leads me. It’s what I want to be doing. They called me a genius for the Rollercoaster album. They called me a genius for Songs For A Blue Guitar. They called me a genius for Ghosts of The Great Highway.  They called me a genius with Benji, an album about eating at Red Lobster and being scared of an albino kid at school.  I don’t know why I just said all of that but I don’t recall trying to capture anything with any album I ever made other than showing up and going to work and knowing when it was time to move on.

Singer/Songwriter Mark Kozelek has released albums as Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon, and under his own name, as well as collaborations with Justin Broadrick (Godflesh) and drummer Jim White (Dirty Three). His latest, I Also Want To Die In New Orleans comes out digitally March 1 and on CD April 12 on Caldo Verde Records.