When we first met in 1992, how did you expect to spend the next 22 years? What were your expectations then?
I didn’t think that far ahead. I remember Ivo [Watts-Russell, founder of 4AD] telling me he was 38 and I thought that sounded old, but here I am, at 47. The only thing I felt pretty confident about, at that time, was that I knew I’d make a living playing music for the rest of my life. I had a sense of it somehow.
You must feel very proud about how you’ve stuck with your art for over two decades?
Yes but it’s not been the easiest road. There were several label switches, and the industry has changed so much. But I’m my own boss now: I work at my own pace.
By most people’s standards, you work at an incredibly fast pace.
Every artist has different priorities. Some artists I know don’t make as much music as they used to, because social media has taken over their lives. I work at what I feel is a very normal pace and things keep clicking. It’s rewarding. Sun Kil Moon had a beautiful show in LA last night, and I felt so much love from the crowd.
What needs to happen for you to pick up that love?
There are many elements that have to come together for a show to come off. Sometimes I’m playing indoors, sometimes I’m playing outdoor festivals at 6pm, trying to play “Carissa” with some other band’s music bleeding into my set. Sometimes sound and crew know what they’re doing, sometimes not as much. Sometimes a crowd is seated and respectful. Sometimes they’ve had too much to drink.
Have you been surprised by the reaction to Benji?
I never worry about how records will be received, but I felt confident that Benji would be received poorly, that people would find it to be middle-aged ramblings about dead relatives. But something about it resonated with people. I’m sure a lot of people love their mothers and fathers, or had a friend who died way too young.
Has 2014 been your most successful year?
My most successful album happened back in the mid-‘90s, pre-internet times, with Songs For A Blue Guitar. We were supported by Island Records, we toured a lot, songs were licensed to TV commercials and movies. The second most successful was Sun Kil Moon’s Ghosts Of The Great Highway. Benji, despite all of the hype, has sold about half of what Tiny Cities did. But considering the times we’re in, selling 20,000 records in the USA, in a world where music is free, is pretty good.
Do you feel staying in the public eye, with things like the War On Drugs business, will help?
I’m not doing anything intentionally to stay in the public eye. I’m staying true to my art, like I always have. The press, for whatever reason, decided to zone in on what is very common banter for me. It got worked out through song – the same way I work everything out.
Do you think your songwriting style changed from Among The Leaves onwards?
I wrote “Sunshine In Chicago” just before I went onstage in Chicago and played it that night, and it worked. I followed that same flow throughout the rest of Among The Leaves: stream of consciousness. I’d just write, record, write, record. I was responding to whatever I was feeling and firing the songs off, one after another. I’ve gotten to a place where I don’t <>work<> at writing. I get things out of my system quickly and move on.
I had a look back at my interview from 1992, and a couple of your quotes stood out: “If my girlfriend fucks somebody else, or if I fuck somebody else, or we’re not getting along, it’s always my reaction to write about things. I’m not afraid to examine myself. I take my life very seriously, that’s all. I don’t wanna think too much about ‘This is weird, Mark; you’re solitary, you write about hating people, so why are you on the stage singing?'”
And “I just sing about shit that’s directly involved with me.” Those quotes suggest you’ve stayed remarkably constant throughout your career?
The quotes read awkwardly to me. But the sentence that basically remains true is that I’m still writing about what I’m passionate about.
Does it surprise you to be still portrayed as a misanthropist and bad-tempered, when so many of your songs are so empathetic and humane ?
I don’t know where all of that comes from, the misanthropy. I’ve played everywhere from Moscow to Jeju Island, Korea to Newtown, Connecticut, and I put my heart into every concert I play. I sign every autograph I’m asked to sign. People embed a piece of information into their brain and go with it, because it’s easier. I’m playful with my audiences, I tease them from time to time. I make people laugh. But there is always going to be someone who pretends to be offended by it, because they’re bored or alarmist or dramatic and have a phone in their hand. I show up to every concert making a mental note to remember every person in the staff’s name. I’m respectful.
I have a friend who is sick and she doesn’t have the physical strength to come see my shows, but I send her my live records because she said her favourite parts are my banter, they make her laugh. Anyone who thinks I’m ‘bad tempered’ is being lead around by the nose. Sometimes you’re only as good as the environment around you and, even in those not so great circumstances, I get through it with humour.
You had to be there in Ottawa that night. Playing Benji effectively wasn’t an option, so I turned on the comedy. If people think I’m a prick because I don’t have a Facebook page and I don’t play Red House Painters songs any more, it’s their issue, not mine.
What do you feel is so bad about Facebook and Twitter?
It soaks up too much of people’s time. I knew people, who were once great artists, who turned into internet junkies and now they don’t get anything done. So while they’re posting photos of their new amps sitting in their garage, I’ll actually be on tour. I’m moving forward, always.