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Cat-lover Mark Kozelek lands at the Flying Anvil

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Last time Mark Kozelek played Greensboro, my roommate engaged him in conversation as they faced each other over a booth at New York Pizza. She placed her elbows on the wobbling table, elevating both her drink and cigarette to face level, leaned in and asked him about his cat.

For most rock stars, it would have been an odd conversational approach. But my friend, an avowed cat lover, was referring to the song ‘“Wop-a-Din-Din’” off the last album by Kozelek’s former band, the Red House Painters. The song is a charming tribute to Kozelek’s pet, an ode that affected my friend so deeply she felt compelled to raise the subject with the singer.

The anecdote illustrates a fact of life for Kozelek, the singer/guitarist for Sun Kil Moon. His songs usually read like diary entries and listeners often imagine a deep connection to the songwriter. From a cell phone somewhere in northern California Kozelek sheds a little light on this brand of fame.

‘“It’s a little different when you write the kind of songs I do,’” he says. ‘“The fans can be really intense. There are certain guys that get that.’”

Kozelek earned his cult status over a decade and a half of songwriting that has produced a body of work notable for its deeply personal nature and bracing honesty. Place, history and relationships all figure prominently in his tunes, which dispense with delicately wrought metaphors in favor of straightforward storytelling. Tales of romantic involvement dominate the early discography, with meditations on mortality peppering the most recent collection of Sun Kil Moon originals. These are songs not only bearing an artist’s stamp, but also stamped from his very being.

Then there are the cover albums. A couple of them, in fact. Last year’s Tiny Cities, a collection of Modest Mouse covers, and 2001’s What’s Next to the Moon, which spotlights AC/DC, divided fans into two camps. While most appreciated the tender renditions of Bon Scott-era AC/DC and Modest Mouse, others expressed betrayal at what they saw as novelty projects. Although hardly undertaken as larks, both projects functioned in part as distractions from the songwriter’s notorious introspection.

‘“Sometimes I just need to take a break from myself,’” Kozelek says. ‘“I can’t deal with people listening to me talk about myself all the time. [The cover albums] are a good way to get the attention off me for a while.’”

Recently, Sun Kil Moon toured in support of Tiny Cities. Although he filtered the band’s angular guitar rock through his own acoustic finger-picking and velvet baritone, the album left a few critics scratching their heads. It is not often, after all, that a songwriter with a successful career undertakes the task of covering contemporaries riding a juggernaut of indie rock acclaim.

‘“I have received a certain amount of criticism,’” he said. ‘“But I’ve never really been one to pay attention to the rules as given to me by Pitchfork [an indie rock website]. The fact is that it is just too outside the box for a lot of people to appreciate.’”

He released What’s Next to the Moon during interminable label wrangling over the Red House Painters’ final album. That project was, in its way, as personal as Kozelek’s originals.

‘“With the AC/DC songs, what made me want to explore that was the sexual element in their music,’” Kozelek says. ‘“At that point in my life, I needed to go to that place.’”

Modest Mouse inspired him to undertake another covers project. Kozelek attended one of their shows ‘— at the height of their indie stardom but before they signed to a major label ‘— and left star struck.

‘“I think that the band just had a profound impact on me,’” he says. ‘“It’s something that really hasn’t happened to me in a long time. I saw them live and within a week I had all their records. In some ways they’re kind of like the Smiths for a different generation.’”

Despite his admiration, Kozelek did not plan to record another cover album.

‘“When I went into the studio it was kind of like I was on a drug,’” he says. ‘“I knew there was going to be something when I was done, but I didn’t know what it would be.’”

Unlike the AC/DC album, Kozelek doesn’t know as yet what prompted him to record Modest Mouse. Insight into his state of mind often comes years after albums go to press.

That pattern matches the arc of his vocation, a songwriting career born more of instinct than strategy. He picked up the guitar in high school, and started writing songs shortly thereafter to purge some of the demons of his early adolescence. Those included a trip through drug rehab and years in recovery.

‘“At a really young age I went through some rough things,’” he says. ‘“I just had this feeling that things were happening to me that weren’t happening to other kids. I felt the need to say things. For me it just got to the point where playing guitar wasn’t enough.’”

Aside from the deeply personal, Kozelek’s work sometimes seemingly contains nuggets of information about less serious interests. His band Sun Kil Moon’s debut album Ghosts of the Great Highway contains several references to boxers: Sonny Liston, Duk Koo Kim, Moon Sung-Kil and Salvador Sanchez. Boxing is an interest, he says, but the references also point to something deeper.

‘“Some of my boxing knowledge did come out in that album,’” he said, ‘“but there was also a real big theme of death. All the boxers I’m singing about died young and died tragically. That album was in part a tribute to all those guys.’”

One thing he doesn’t necessarily follow, but does joke about, is music.

‘“I like things being easy and for me following music today is a f*cking full-time job,’” he says. ‘“You got MP3s, iPods. All those things sound like hand grenades to me.’”

To comment on this article, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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