The first words Mark Kozelek sings on the new Sun Kil Moon album, Benji, are "Carissa, when I first saw you, you were a lovely child. And the last time I saw you, you were 15 and pregnant and running wild." His voice is meek and graceful, downcast and bare, within a verdant basin of guitar sounds. The song, like the album, continues to unveil in Kozelek's semiautobiographical stream of melanchonsciousness. Carissa, it turns out, is Kozelek's second cousin. In the 20 years since he's seen her, she settled in their native Ohio as a nurse, a wife, and a mother of two. Kozelek is on his way to her funeral. She died from an aerosol can exploding while she was burning trash. Two songs later, "Truck Driver" is about Kozelek's uncle, who died in a similar way. It's odd, and sad, but he honors it, singing, "Third-degree burns, a charred up shovel near his hand. My uncle died a respected man." Benji is simple and magnificent. Kozelek has become an American Nick Drake. The album is like that shoebox full of Polaroids you find under someone's bed. Someone who's not here anymore. You sit there for hours, planted in the images, in the blurred, awkward expressions and lifelines. They're perfectly imperfect. You look out the window. Branches of an elm wave slightly in the breeze. You call someone you love. You are here –> X. Kozelek spoke from his home in San Francisco.
Why the title Benji?
I have a light or happy sort of memory of seeing the movie Benji at a Los Angeles movie theater when I was visiting my grandparents as a little kid. The album has a lot of darkness, so I wanted to give it a lighter title for contrast. Benji is a great movie.
You seem to be able to let songs present themselves. Simply, with no big put-on. You've put out, what, 40 albums? You sound better than ever.
Thank you for saying that. I like letting the listener make their own connections. I'm a fan of making music more than talking about it.
Your song "Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes" is about the serial murderer. What a sick dude he was. Which came first there, the music or the lyrics? Great name for a song.
My girlfriend sent me a text that said, "Richard Ramirez died today of natural causes," and the song spiraled out of that. I don't know which came first, the lyrics or the music. I don't really document that kind of stuff. Songs just sort of unravel. I remember the news on him in the '80s, the connection with the AC/DC cap, and that there was a lot of fear in Southern California. He left an AC/DC hat at one of the crime scenes.
Remind me again, how did he kill and terrorize?
Read The Night Stalker if you're interested.
He worshiped Satan?
I think you need to read The Night Stalker by Philip Carlo.
I love your picking on that song, too, your cycle. What key is that?
I really don't know what key. The strings are tuned very low, though. The guitar fits because it's relentless and menacing. I don't think you can sing a song about Richard Ramirez with prettiness. The cycle, the repetition, they just fell together.
You've got Steve Shelley from Sonic Youth drumming on that one?
Yeah, we met in New Hampshire at a festival. I've always liked his drumming and decided to give it a try.
I believe you're a boxing fan. Who is your favorite boxer these days?
I like Floyd Mayweather. He's a great fighter, he knows how to market, and beneath all of the antics, he says very philosophical things. Watch the Showtime 24/7 buildups to his fights—you'll see what I mean.
About your song "I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same." If you were to have your own fantasy sequence, like in the film, what would it be? Would you be boxing? Who would you box in your Zeppelin fantasy sequence?
Maybe. I'd probably be boxing Roberto Duran. He had the scariest stare downs, other than Mike Tyson.
And "Ben's My Friend." Mr. Ben Gibbard, I presume? I take it this isn't a dis track. How have you gotten to know Ben over the years?
A little bit. I first met him in Spain about 13 or 14 years ago. We get along great, but we both travel a lot and are pretty busy. I really see him only occasionally, but he's a great guy, a great talent.
AC/DC was in a documentary that I was part of that came out on TV in Holland 12 years ago or so. I saw that they liked my covers, and that was very flattering. I've never heard from Modest Mouse.
I know you said you don't like to talk about your music. So let's talk about your music! How do songs happen for you?
They happen in multiple ways. Lyrics will hit me in the middle of the night. I'll fall asleep or get up and write them down. Often, I'll think of things on airplanes. I have a Moleskine journal that I take with me.
Lots of Benji is about growing up in Ohio and your family. Did you mean for those to be themes? Or did they arise on their own?
In the middle of writing, my cousin died. And I went back there, and then I realized I was in the same places I was writing about. I still consider myself Ohio inside.
You report on family mishaps in "Carissa" and "Truck Driver."
My uncle was in critical condition from an accident with a gas can in a fire. He eventually died. It was five or six years ago. A month later, my second cousin Carissa died from an aerosol can explosion in a fire, almost the exact same way. My uncle was her grandfather. People from the Midwest who live in the country burn their trash. Sometimes there are accidents. Carissa was a sweet woman. She was an RN in Wadsworth, Ohio. I wanted to honor them. They were good people.