"I GET ON STAGE for two and a half hours and sing what I'm passionate about singing. Everybody seems pretty happy—they clap and laugh and cry and I get encored, and afterward, they tell me they've seen me play 15 times and that they have sex to my music; that's really all I can tell you."
This is how Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon (and formerly of the Red House Painters) chooses to conclude our hilariously curt interview, but it's not exactly the most self-aware projection. Anyone who has seen Kozelek play even once—and especially those who have seen him upward of 15 times—can likely attest to accounts of Kozelek half-seriously disparaging his audience, being almost comically crass, and refusing to play requests (of which there are plenty). It's hardly the sort of behavior you'd expect from the harebrained, BBQ-craving bassist our surly hero portrayed in Almost Famous.
Disproportionate egos aside, Kozelek has fine-tuned a brand of songwriting in recent years that is principally his own, probably best exemplified on "Ben's My Friend," the closing track off Sun Kil Moon's latest record, Benji. It's a poignant characterization of an artist in the throes of a mid-life crisis, as illustrated through an autobiographical scenario in which Kozelek attends a Postal Service concert at the Greek Theatre but feels alienated from the group's young and drunken fanbase. (And, perhaps, slightly resentful of Ben Gibbard himself. "I thought of Ben when I met him in 2000, at a festival in Spain/He was on a small stage then and I didn't know his name," Kozelek sings.) The twist arrives at the ending, where in an act of inspired if uncharacteristic magnanimity, Kozelek gives his backstage passes to "two cute Asian girls" and leaves the show feeling dejected, but mostly proud of his friend's success. ("Though while we pretend that there's a temperature competitiveness/Ben's my friend, and I know he gets it.")
It's a touching and extremely personal narrative reminiscent of early solo Paul Simon, and it's a far cry from the meandering, impressionist lyrical style Kozelek employed in the early days of the Painters. "I remember trying to explain to a friend about the meltdown I had after the Postal Service concert, and they were completely clueless as to what I was talking about," Kozelek says of the potentially esoteric nature of his songs.
But we've all felt simultaneously proud and jealous of a friend—even if his name isn't Ben Gibbard. Like all great artists, Kozelek is able to convert the deeply individual experience into something eminently relatable.