A review of Sun Kil Moon at London Barbican, 1/6/15

At what point do you stop being able to make excuses for Mark Kozelek? When he calls a chattering audience in North Carolina “rednecks”? When he responds to criticism from one of that audience by calling her a “spoiled bitch, rich kid, blogger brat”? When he engages in a one-man hate campaign on The War On Drugs, inspired by some dodgy sound levels at a festival?

Kozelek, it has seemed this past year or so, is a man with a shortish temper who has learned to channel his irritations into prolonged – and sometimes very funny – trolling campaigns; campaigns that have raised his profile at a time when his music – chiefly last year’s superb “Benji” – is doing a pretty good job of raising that profile by itself. His language is not often mediated in the same way mine might be; I guess suggesting strangers “suck my cock” might be standard banter for Kozelek in the locker room with Ben Gibbard and Justin Broadrick or whoever?

But anyhow, when Kozelek and the latest version of Sun Kil Moon roll up at the Barbican in London last night, the singer mostly seems in a more equable mood than usual. He talks about being happy to be in London, about what a nice audience we are, about how great the lighting is; not subjects about which he is usually magnanimous. In two and a half hours, there is not a single mention of the War On Drugs, and most of the jokes come at his own expense. There is a digression on how his jacket and drumming style remind him of Planet Of The Apes, which ends with the thought, “What would be more boring? Watching all the episodes of Planet Of The Apes or listening to all six CDs of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes?” Neil Halstead, from Slowdive, is on the tour as guest guitarist, and Kozelek tells us how much he loves him. But “one thing I hate about him is how he’s not gained a pound in 20 years and I’ve turned into fucking Los Lobos.”

Kozelek’s music is also, relatively speaking, unusually focused. Unlike his last London show – a messy, volatile, compelling epic in Hackney at the end of last year – the long, mostly beautiful songs that he has written in the last couple of years are given tranquil treatments by the band (two electric guitars, a drummer, Kozelek adding either third guitar or additional drums), even though tonight there’s not a single sighting of an acoustic guitar. The bellicose punk roar that Kozelek has added to his vocal arsenal – and which dominates stretches of the new “Universal Themes” – adds dynamic punctuation to these serpentine pieces, giving further heft to a song like “Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes”.

“Richard Ramirez…” is one of a clutch of songs from “Benji” that continue to dominate the set, with “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same” handled with great subtlety. I could grouch about him only playing songs from the past few albums, about how he doesn’t even play my favourite songs from those albums. “Universal Themes”, for instance, is a complex and divisive work that is unlikely to be one of the most played albums in his generally magnificent catalogue, but I’m very happy that he’s experimenting with songform, that he’s radicalising and subverting what it means to be a confessional singer-songwriter. It does, though, contain two songs that feel like big additions to his store of great songs, “Birds Of Flim” and “Garden Of Lavender”, neither of which he plays here, preferring relatively coherent versions of scrappier pieces – “The Possum”, “Ali/Spinks 2”, “Little Rascals” (a song whose lyrics suggest it was written at precisely the same time as he was completing this interview), an excellent “This Is My First Day And I’m Indian And I Work At A Gas Station”: “I’m not used to spoken word stuff, but I’m gonna get better at it better at it, over time,” he proclaims, as the song winds movingly to a close.

Performed with a grace that isn’t always present in the recorded versions, it’s easier here to see this latest musical gear-shift as closer in tone to what has gone before: even the needling improvised skree passages of “Ali/Spinks 2” don’t feel out of place alongside lovely versions of “Ceiling Gazing” and “He Always Felt Like Dancing”, the latter performed by Kozelek stood on a chair, “so I can stay awake”.

Before “He Always Felt Like Dancing”, though, there is a glimpse of what tonight’s moody running joke will be. Spotting a few empty seats in the front rows, Kozelek whimsically decides that these have been allotted to absent journalists; “The fucking press. What a bunch of fucking weirdos.” The fucking press, he speculates, will decide that “Universal Themes” is not as good as “Benji”; with each album, British journalists apparently decide that he’s good, and then he’s bad. It’s a rueful and rather wearying take on the old ‘build ’em up/knock ’em down’ myth – I write this clearly as someone who’s been building Kozelek up fairly remorselessly for over 20 years – but not anything particularly toxic.

Two hours into the show, however, as Kozelek lurches back onstage for the encore, the theme takes a substantially nastier turn. First he names a British journalist who has, for reasons that are not entirely clear, annoyed him (full disclosure: that journalist is a friend and fellow Uncut writer. I would hope that my disgust at what Kozelek says is not materially affected by this, though he will doubtless beg to differ). Then he begins a spontaneous song about the writer – a woman – about how she “totally wants to fuck me” and how she should “get in line, bitch.”

So this, for me, is the tipping point: the exact moment when borderline dubious ragging becomes straight-up offensive misogyny. Kozelek would inevitably excuse it as his much-vaunted “great sense of humour” and indeed once he’s finished the next songs – “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” and “Caroline”, about probably the two most important women in his life, ironically enough – he returns to the subject. He calls the writer “nice”, “sweet”, “cute”, as if that would make things better, and claims he was “just kidding”. He then sings the song again.

Maybe he was just kidding, but that doesn’t really seem relevant; the language remains vile, whatever the motivation. Journalists need to be able to deal with the repercussions of what they dish out – that’s fair enough – but this feels like something quite different. So now we’re on the cusp of yet another Kozelek firestorm, one that he’ll probably seize upon as evidence of some nebulous media plot against him, that he’ll use as supposedly droll self-justification, as a means of manipulating his increasingly lucrative infamy. This time, though, I won’t be laughing along. I don’t want to be too melodramatic here, but Kozelek’s music has sustained me in myriad different ways for a very long time. This morning, I don’t want to hear any of it.

  • Johnson

    There is no Mark Kozelek problem. Grow up!

  • Jezzer

    Why are people even still talking about him? His music sucks, his apologist fans are idiots, and he’s a complete douchebag. Let him sink completely into the musical footnote he’s created for himself.

  • Chris Ruth

    How do you know the story has two sides? Is that some kind of law of nature or something?

  • Ryan Klavans

    It’s kind of funny to see people flipping out over Mark Kozelek acting the same way he has acted for the last 2 and a half decades… there is no “new” Kozelek, there are just more journalists and bloggers in 2015 than viable stories in the world to report on. It’s not even like he’s alone, there are dozens if not hundreds of popular musicians infamous for being pissy with audiences, other bands, and especially the media. I can’t defend Kozelek, nor do I feel the need to. He’s a bored old man who has devoted his life to making music for a fan base just large enough to fill some dingy alleyway club or church in each city he visits. He has paid his dues, and the journalist in question was wrong to bother people around him for information when he has specifically asked people not to do this. I think the level of shaming and calling her out by name that he took it to was over the line and he owes her an apology. I’ve followed Kozelek for a long time, and I think there is a pretty good chance the remarks were half in annoyance and half in jest; not at all in malevolence. Duh, it’s not appropriate to make sexual jokes to some woman you have never even met in person, but to be honest I have heard Kozelek say/sing some far more inappropriate and shocking improv lines at shows. Not sure what the point of this was, I think I am mainly just amused that all these people who had never heard of him and who have probably never listened to him are suddenly all up in arms about his total lack of filter, willingness to say and do things knowing they cast him in terrible light just because he feels like it, etc. The only thing it speaks to is the ways in which the media and our sense of consequences for offensive speech have evolved since he started taking pot shots at audience members like an insult comic 25 years ago.

    BTW Kozelek has also done some really good, kind, amazing things with his life, so before you decide to publicly try him in pc court, maybe reflect back on those people in your life who you defend and love for their goodness even though they can be real bastards sometimes. We’re all human and everyone is cruel to others in this way sometimes, even the wronged reporter.

  • robert fripp

    The work is not the man, but if you cannot grasp this then there are an awful lot of artists you going to have to stop listening to, because (and maybe you’re not aware of this…) some of the people behind often beautiful music can be petty nasty insecure vindictive individuals. By the way are you the same John Mulvey who in no uncertain terms told me that Uncut don’t review concerts ? Well I very much enjoyed your ‘non-review’. Gig of the year so far along with Nick Cave at the RAH.

  • David Lee

    Correction. He didn’t call us “rednecks”. He called us “fucking hillbillies”. It might seem like a case of semantics, but there’s a big difference. And it wasn’t just that, but the persistent whining and prima donna showboating during the first three songs of that set. I was there, and the mood in the room was really sour. I couldn’t make it past the fifth song. Apparently, it got better after that.
    I didn’t like Benji to begin with (I know I’m alone on that), and I don’t really like the new one either. I still love the whole RHP catalog and the first two SKM records, but everything after that left me unimpressed. Now that he’s going around being an asshat everywhere he goes, it’s easy to dislike the guy.
    There’s a part of me that thinks Kozelek keeps doing this dumb stuff simply because he knows it’ll generate press. Bad press is still press. It’s like he’s taking notes from Kanye.

  • Cleanthes

    Anyone who invests too much trust in the moods or the character of an obviously unstable pop artist like Kozelek is seeking to repose his energies in the wrong place.

    What I don’t get about critics is this: why not notice when the disagreeable personality does seep into and compromise the music? I’ve loved Kozelek’s music since Down Colorful Hill but I’ve still yet to see one cogent account for why a tuneless, worthless, masturbatory mess like Benji is some great work of genius. If there’s a clearer display of thoughtless critical herd behavior than the reception of this album, I’ve yet to see it.

    Come on now, how can a person with a brain not see the connection between the kind of behavior described in the review above and a character who would produce a song like “dogs”?

  • _buchu

    Why can’t people just conform to our idolized versions of themselves?

  • James Madison

    But if someone said that to your wife or daughter you’d attempt to bash their face in. I’m the flipside of your amazingly brilliant, one-word opinion. Celebrities and pseudo-celebrities are, most of the time, lower than the media.

  • Saying vile things about a female critic? Terrible stuff, but on a lighter note John, glad you and the Uncut office have been enjoying the latest Courtney Love album.

  • John Mulvey

    In case you haven’t seen this on The Guardian site, Laura Snapes has written about her interview with Kozelek, and about her response to the subsequent abuse: it’s a great piece. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/jun/04/i-interviewed-mark-kozelek-he-called-me-a-bitch-on-stage

  • Duke of Monmouth

    Now before I start I am a fan and having watched Kozelek for over 20 years or so most fans will know that these outbursts, jibes, songs call it watch you want are very common and for most part that what attracted me to him in the early years, obviously this is a two way street if he got a bad review he would react, I remember Caitlin Moran giving him a terrible review about Ocean Beach, telling him to “cheer the fuck up” or words to that effect so subsequent shows after he would bitch about this magazine and that writer so these outbursts come with the territory, now that’s not to say its right but would you now knowing what MK is like expect any different.
    His style of songwriting now incorporate these kind of outbursts, his autobiographical songs seem to run hand in hand with the persona.
    We all know that there’s certain lines that cant be crossed, but if you wanna go watch a man musically on the top of his game he is it! just dont expect Richard Digence.

  • Help

    Benji was a weak point, but Universal Themes, Admiral Fell Promises, Perils of the Sea and Mark Kozelek & Desertshore are all amazing.

  • Magnus Gallie

    Really good, John. Some of the new stuff worked well, while some was harder (maybe because it was newer?), but his Benji tracks were 8-9/10, especially the song about not living without his mother’s love – sublimbe! He got Justin Broadrick from Godflesh/Napalm Death fame on stage for a song, also, which was decent. He was on good form, perhaps making passing reference to the article by over-stating he was a ‘good guy’, especially when he was with the lady from the audience, but -as he stated – I think he was just after some affection and he’s not always ‘on the perve’; but that’s probably me being too kind. No carry me Ohio, or other Ghosts tracks (unfortunately), although we had an encore, nice sound and I think the appreciated the audience not being too lary, which perhaps was the case in London?

  • John Mulvey

    Hey Magnus, how did the rest of the show pan out?

  • jaemae2 .

    If the definition of “best music” has changed to “the lamest and most predictably awful writing and boring ass music” then yes “Benji” is some of the “best”

  • GodwinsLawyer

    not in the last few years.

  • Help

    Big ego, small dick… and some of the best music in recent memory. Kozelek in a nutshell.

  • Magnus Gallie

    Someone tell the bartenders in the Irish Centre to pipe down!…ruining the gig, dudes…amd Mr K has been the perfect gentleman so far, even duetted sonny and cher with a young lady (could have gone bad!). Excellent work!

  • jaemae2 .

    keep thinking that.

  • GodwinsLawyer

    big ego.. small dick. kozelek in a nutshell.

  • I’ve had my own Kozelek encounter as a music journalist during the Songs for a Blue Guitar Tour. I was working for a national pub in the U.S. I drove up from Miami to follow their tour from St. Petersburg to Orlando, in Florida. I had a nice soundcheck chat with openers His Name is Alive in St. Pete. During the show that night Kozelek was giving out his room number on stage to entice the ladies to come over and give him a lay. The next day, in Orlando, I was supposed to have an interview at soundcheck with Kozelek. He was alone by the stage when I entered the venue. I had my girlfriend with me as we approached. I told him about the interview the PR company had set up. He said he didn’t know about an interview. I told him names and everything. He just shrugged and then just turned to my girlfriend and took her hand and introduced himself to her and asked her name. I said, this my girlfriend, and we left. I still like some of his music, though, but I have no interest in meeting the guy again.

  • David

    I don’t understand your specific problem with this being the moment he has crossed the line for some people, including myself. I think it’s clear from the article that the writer does not think the previous belligerence is ‘genius’, just that it was not aggressively misogynistic bullying as was the case here. Which he then tried to soften with some objectification. I felt like the other recent remarks that got him press time were boorish, tiresome and stretched thin, but they did nothing to my love for his songs. This is different to me and I think it is fair enough that people who had not yet been alienated by some aspect of his persona make their choices now. I also don’t think that knowing the person to which this was directed has that much to do with the reaction here.

  • Help

    I think you exaggerated it a bit, I was at the concert at the stalls, it was a dumb joke really but it was about 30 seconds of banter. As you mentioned the rest of the show was great.

  • Help

    No, SKM is very very good. Ghosts of the Great Highway and April are superb albums.

  • jaemae2 .

    I like Kozelek’s work, he’s written about 5 of the prettiest songs I’ve ever heard (none of them are on Benji which is utter s— outside of 1 song, and some of the laziest writing he’s EVER done), yet after the beginning of his “jokes” I stopped listening to him as his mental incompetence was extreme. However if THIS is the thing that makes you realize he’s a tool, that’s really quite spectacular.

  • jaemae2 .

    so it’s ok he does this to other people, but the line is crossed when it’s someone you know? So before he’s still a genius and it’s comedy, but now it’s abhorrent. You are clearly the most intelligent.

  • leann

    So if he had a personal beef with her, would that make it okay to make misogynistic comments about her in a public forum? That seems to be what you and the original poster are implying.

    Also, SKM sucks.

  • Ambush_Bug

    Boofuckinghoo.

  • Roger

    Great job at completely dodging the question. You’re a journalist, your job is to present both sides of the story, not just latch on to one side.

    Never mind the obvious conflict of interest you have with this topic. It’s a shame Uncut actually allows articles like this to be published.

    By the way, not that it matters, but I’ve never enjoyed Sun Kil Moon. Not my taste. This is just a terribly written, horrendously biased piece.

  • John Mulvey

    1) I’m not clear what his issues are with her.
    2) I think it’s her prerogative to address that question herself, if she chooses.
    3) I don’t actually think the substance of the problem he has is relevant; it’s the specific language he used to address it.
    4) I’m not personally a fan of speculating on the mental health of people I don’t know (or of people I do know, come to that), but I do think it’s valid to call them out for misogynistic language.

  • Kenneth Clark Loggins

    So what’s his particular beef with this “journalist”? You’ve got a lot to say on the topic of how terrible this guy is but zero to contribute on why she’s even relevant to him. Was she awful to him in a review or an article? I’m trying to figure out, from the tonal and methodical shift in Kozelek’s music, if maybe he’s just sick to fucking death of “the press” or if he’s unstable.