Boxing has long been showing up in Mark Kozelek’s music. His Sun Kil Moon moniker is even an homage to the late Korean fighter Sung-Kil Moon. Songs like “Salvador Sanchez” and “Duk Koo Kim” eulogize some of his favorite boxers, while others like “Ali/Spinks 2” use famous fights to contextualize a moment or a thought. Despite the fandom, Kozelek’s never actually boxed himself. His years on the road with Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon have made him a fighter in a different sense — a veteran, heavyweight songwriter constantly adjusting his approach in an effort to better process and translate his life experiences.
Twenty-eight-year-old songwriter Anar Badalov, who performs as New Dog, finds himself in a career not too dissimilar to Kozelek’s 20 years ago. Earlier this year, he released New Dog’s sophomore record, Classic Ballroom Dances, through Kill Rock Stars and is currently touring through Europe. Much like Kozelek did with his early years in Red House Painters, Badalov is working on finding an audience and reveling in whatever reception he gets. Badalov does have a one-up on Kozelek, though — he’s also an amateur boxer who has competed in the famous Golden Gloves competition.
The two have never met in person, but agreed to discuss their craft and boxing via email. The conversation plays out like one of Kozelek’s recent songs on Universal Themes. The seemingly meandering details help paint the scope of a larger, beautiful image of the two men. In between the discussions of their favorite rising boxing stars comes poetry, intimate recollections of loss, and a glimpse into what success looks like on both sides of a songwriter’s career.
From: Mark Kozelek
To: Anar Badalov
I hope you are well. Robert tells me you’re in Europe on tour. I don’t know much about you. I had a friend look you up and she said that you like sad music and poetry, and that you’re an amateur boxer. That’s a beautiful combination of things.
I’m just back from the Andre Ward fight at the Oracle, in Oakland. I saw him there against Chad Dawson, three years ago, before his legal battles with Goosen. He won the same way this time — technical KO in the later rounds. He had pretty easy work with an overweight Paul Smith, but I’m really impressed with how accurate his punches are, his combinations, his work to both the body and the head. There was a 10-year-old girl who sang the National Anthem before the fight, and it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Who is your favorite singer? Who is your favorite current fighter? My favorite poet is James Kavanaugh. Who is yours? The thing I’m most interested in is: Where are you in your musical career vs. your boxing career? What is your amateur record? How are things going with music? Between the two, which is your biggest priority? And, have you heard of Paul Thorn?
From: Anar Badalov
To: Mark Kozelek
Good to meet you.
Yes, your friend is right on all counts. I’ve been drawn to minor-key music for as long as I can remember. Today on the drive to Prague I listened to this song on repeat for nearly an hour:
I have a few favorite singers, it’s tough to choose one. Most of them are dead now: Townes Van Zandt, Jason Molina, Mark Linkous (of Sparklehorse), Karen Dalton, Lee Hazlewood. They all had special voices and something to say. In Mark’s case, I think he had something to say but never quite got it out. I’ve never heard of Paul Thorn. Is he a friend? Are you a fan?
I have a lot of respect for Andre Ward. He’s an incredibly smart fighter and articulate outside of the ring. My favorite fighters right now are for the most part welterweights. I like Lamont Peterson in particular, even though I recognize he might not be the best in his class. He lost his last fight to Danny Garcia but deserved the win. He fought beautifully, intelligently, hard. He knew Garcia would press him, and he frustrated him those first few rounds, was a perfectly moving target. Then he would plant and deliver a hard combination. By the end of the fight he was standing in there with Garcia and trading shots, beating Garcia at his own game. It was like an epic song — he was working toward that ending from the very first seconds. A great fight nonetheless. Plus I only gain more respect for a fighter when he loses and steps back into the ring. Other favorites are Keith Thurman, Bernard Hopkins — although I guess he’s done after that Kovalev fight? — and of course Gennadiy Golovkin, knocking out opponents with both hands. There is talk about him and Ward fighting; I’d like to see that.
My amateur career is basically nonexistent. I began fighting about seven years ago, lost my first fight at Golden Gloves in New England, got discouraged and stopped for about a year, then went back to the gym and got hooked again. I spar on a weekly basis, with unknown professionals and amateurs at all levels, but for the most part avoid competing in official bouts because I don’t have the discipline to make weight, and the anxiety is just too much for me anyway. Officially I’m 4-1, but I’ve probably boxed 2,000 rounds at this point.
The poet I am obsessing over at the moment is Frank Stanford. Otherwise, Frank O’Hara is at the top of my list.
Here is one you might like from Jack Driscoll:
“Boxing Towards My Birth” by Jack Driscoll
My mother wanted to name me after an Irish thinker:
James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, William Butler Yeats.
But my father thought better of Jack Dempsey,
the “Manassa Mauler.” I grew up
shadowboxing with the famous dead.
In the kitchen
my mother read me sad poems that dance for pages
while my father drank himself into the Friday night fights.
Between rounds he stumbled in for bottles of beer,
threw jabs so close to my face
I could feel my first teeth beginning to bleed.
At five I knew words like “knockout,” low blow,” straight right.”
I found red boxing gloves under the tree.
They each reminded me of a reindeer’s heart
laced tightly around my skinny wrists.
I stood in front of the full length mirror.
My father, smiling, made the sound of a bell
and pushed me closer to the thick glass,
towards the anger of that first punch
I aimed so willingly at myself.
Where are you in your musical career vs. your boxing career? What is your amateur record? How are things going with music? Between the two, which is your biggest priority?
Both careers are nonexistent, really. I’ve been making records for about 10 years, but only began working solo two years ago. I’m only now starting to find my voice. But I work hard at it, at least a couple of hours most nights after I’m home from my day job. My expectations are low. I’ll be satisfied if I can continue releasing one record every year or two. Perhaps if I had the opportunity to just write music I would take it, but I have absolutely no expectations of this. I’m happy with the record I’ve just finished, and at first was a little disappointed when I realized it wouldn’t get much exposure. Then I played seven shows in the Czech Republic, where I feel like family. The promoters, the bands, the fans — this is all enough, this is more than enough. It’s real and I love these people. I became friends with a band called Leto, a husband and wife duo from the poorest part of Moravia, from absolutely nothing. And they write amazing songs, the translations of the lyrics are incredible. Last night we stayed up until 3 a.m. in the countryside, drank white wine, smoked chesterfields, hugged all night. Having the support and interest from these guys and the promoters who plan for months so I can play for 25 people in a small village is more important than the attention I thought I wanted. So music is my biggest priority, I’d say. But I go through phases and have some buried dream of redeeming myself at Golden Gloves in the next year or two.
When you release a record, do you just move on to the next? Do you ever stop to reflect on it? Do reviews mean anything to you? I’m not sure what if anything will come of this exchange. Honestly, if it ends in our inboxes after a good “conversation,” I’d be happy with that. Good night.