Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Mark Kozelek and Phil Carney of Desertshore Discuss Their New Album

This week, the Caldo Verde label released Mark Kozelek and Desertshore, a new 10-song collection co-written by guitarist Phil Carney (formerly of Red House Painters), pianist Chris Connolly, drummer Mike Stevens, and Sun Kil Moon vocalist Mark Kozelek.

While Kozelek guested as producer, vocalist, and bassist on Desertshore's previously released and critically acclaimed albums Drifting Your Majesty and Drawing Of Threes, Mark Kozelek and Desertshore finds the singer songwriter bringing his unique sensibility and delivery as lyricist and vocalist to each of the band's songs. 

Mark Kozelek and Desertshore is Kozelek's third release this year, and his second collaboration (the first of which was Perils From The Sea with The Album Leaf's Jimmy LaValle). I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mark Kozelek and Phil Carney about their new record and how it all came together.

Can you each describe how Mark's contribution to this project grew beyond the role of producer and studio musician and into that of vocalist and lyricist? 

Mark Kozelek: My only concern was that I hoped for a record with all vocals. I wanted something to set it apart from the last two Desertshore records. Chris and Phil recorded several pieces of music over the course of four days and I had an initial reaction to ten pieces. It made sense to do a full length with vocals throughout, this time around.

Phil Carney: Initially, the idea was that Mark would sing on about four or five songs and the rest of the album would be instrumentals. But as we got closer to the recording date, Mark thought we should make an album with every song having a vocal. In the end, that worked out for the best.

Can you each discuss your collaborative songwriting process? How did these songs come together?

Mark: I hadn't heard any of the music before meeting them in the studio for these sessions. I just reacted to what I heard. On a few pieces, like "Don't Ask About My Husband", I felt like the music was soft, so I wanted the vocals to counter that and to bring another dimension to the music, and provide some contrast.

Phil: Chris Connolly and I come in with the music and, basically, play it for Mark in the studio. From there, Mark starts in on arranging and getting vocal ideas. He'll also suggest adding another part to a song if he thinks it needs to be fleshed out a bit more.

Where do your individual perspectives meet, as well as pull apart?

Mark: Phil and I see eye to eye on most things but he's more into sonic aspects than I am. We both tend to agree a lot on what feels right and what doesn't. We both know when a drum take is good, or not,  and we're quick to support each other with each other's parts.

But we do tend to bicker post-tracking. I like to move on and Phil likes to hang with the project longer than I do. My spirit tends to leave a project pretty quickly after I'm done tracking.

Phil: We're all pretty much on the same page musically. But sometimes one of us will have to do something we normally wouldn't do on our own to try and accommodate another persons idea.

And there are places here and there concerning overdubs and mixes that we argue over. For example, Mark doesn't really like percussion overdubs or doubling guitar lines. Chris and I tend to like those things.

As collaborators, what draws you together? How do you believe that translates through the recording?

Mark: Phil and I have known each other a long time. It is just one of those things. We're connected musically. We could get together after not seeing each other for a year and we'd automatically make nice music together. We have musical chemistry, and it is instinctual. It is just what we do.

Phil: Well, Mark is a great singer and musician. He's able to put great vocals, seemingly, over anything put before him. He doesn't labor over vocal melodies or lyrics. They just flow through him very naturally. I'm not sure how many vocalists could do "You're Not Of My Blood", "Mariette", and "Brothers" to such great effect.

Phil, can you describe your experiences working with pianist Chris Connolly and drummer Mike Stevens? What would you say are their strongest attributes and contributions to the project?

Phil: Well, Chris and I create a lot of things just through improvising. We have fun sitting in a room, and starting from zero and seeing were it takes us. As for Mike, he's just a great drummer with an unbelievable feel for the groove. And he always seems to come up with the right beat for each song.

Was there a tune(s) that set the course for the album? Or was it more of a song-by-song accumulation?

Mark: I think "Mariette" was the first one I added vocals to. I don't know. On "Livingstone Bramble", I just put a mic up and told my day as it happened. I was in the moment. There was no plan on my end. I just followed my instincts and reacted to their music.

Phil: I would say it was a song-by-song accumulation.

Mark, lyrically on this album, you strike upon a balance of casual encounters, but also some deeply personal narratives, including those of loss (specifically, referencing Tim Mooney and Jason Molina).

Mark: Tim's death had been eating at me, and still eats at me. There's something about working with someone for a large amount of time, someone you have known and respected for 20 years, had countless dinners with, and then you get a call. They're dead. It just fucks you up. Everything becomes so clear after someone dies, memories of them.

The lines about Tim were something that cathartically came out of me in the sessions. Tim wasn't my best friend by any stretch, I hadn't seen him in 3 years. But he was a serious musician. No fucking around. He was a solid guy, and he was all about making music, then later, his family too.

I didn't know Jason well, but well enough. He was positive and uplifting. The last time I saw him he was opening for Son Volt, and I was with 4 people, and he invited all of us backstage. My friends were drinking his beer. Jason enjoyed the moment. A year before he passed, he sent me the nicest letter I've ever received in my life. Jason was a genuinely nice person and you don't see that a lot.

My girlfriend is a constant source of inspiration in my life. I could go on and on but it would be weird.

Mark, I just have to ask you about "Livingstone Bramble" and your references to Robert Fripp, Johnny Marr, Jay Farrar and Nels Cline. As someone who has enjoyed your musical references over the years in your songs, I'd like to ask you if you could describe your inspiration for the lyrics.

Mark: I pulled those lyrics out of my ass. A crack head was hassling me outside of the studio and I put a mic up and sang about it. I didn't have a chorus, so I started rattling names of guitarists, trying to get my part over with. I'd ask the guys "What rhymes with Johhny Marr?" and one of them would say "Jay Farrar". It just went like that until the punchline somehow ended up falling on Nels Cline. I don't hate the guy. It was just funny, so we kept it.

Throughout, you blur the lines between autobiographical content and the fictional. Where does this stuff come from and how does it come into your songs.

Mark: I have no idea. I just sing what happens and occasionally make shit up to tie something together. It is all about getting it over with and moving on. Sometimes a piece of music inspires a word, or a thought, and then I build from there. It is like boxing. You go toe to toe with what's in front of you and you do what it takes to move on and get onto the next round, or you fight.

Songs can be like little battles for me. I hear a piece of music and I want to beat the fuck out of it with my words and voice. It is catharsis. I hear something and I size it up and deal with it.

Phil, one of my favorite tunes on the record is "You Are Not Of My Blood". I think it is a great example of the musical and lyrical interplay between Desertshore's music and Mark's lyrics. Can you talk about your guitar work in that song?

Phil: That line came out of an improvisation with Chris one night. It was originally in an E modal tuning. But when we played it for Mark he suggested we tune down to C. He had a vocal in his head and knew dropping the key would work better with what he had in mind.

Mark, your recent Sun Kil Moon records have been primarily rooted in acoustic nylon guitar. How did working on this album (and Perils From The Sea with Jimmy LaValle of The Album Leaf), open things up for you?

Mark: I like to show up as just a singer. In this case, it was as a producer. With Desertshore I got involved with some editing, and to maybe help write a section of a song, but only if I feel it needs it. On "Katowice or Cologne", they did their thing, and I did my thing. It was easy work.

As your second collaborative effort this year, and your third with Desertshore overall, what do you find most rewarding from working with these artists?

Mark: I leave my guitar at home when I collaborate. Chris and Phil do their thing really well, and so does Jimmy. There is no reason for me to bring anything other than my voice when working with very talented writers and players. I occasional play bass, or a guitar part, but for the most part I just contribute vocals and some production ideas.

How do you see the new record (with a deeper participation by Mark) as an evolution of the Desertshore discography?

Phil: That is a question that I haven't considered as it has never really been a "planned" collaboration or evolution. It has been more of a natural sense of music making between friends, so each record is more reflective of a spontaneous collaboration.

What were you each listening to during the writing and recording of the record?

Mark: I wasn't really listening to anything. I watch TV when I come home from working in the studio. When I'm working on something, I don't listen to much other than maybe what's in the cab or what I hear at the convenient store or the coffee shop on breaks. I go into a zone. I watch movies at night to tune out. I don't work in the studio for 12 hours and come home and listen to music. you just don't do that.

What is coming up next for each of you?

Mark: I've just finished up a new album. It will be coming out in early next year.

Phil: Chris and I are finishing another Desertshore instrumental album.

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