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Fell By Leather: A Conversation Between Mark Kozelek and Anar Badalov

Two songwriters discuss boxing, poetry, life, and loss

Sun Kil Moon New Dog
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    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.

    –Dusty Henry
    Staff Writer

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    From: Mark Kozelek
    To: Anar Badalov

    Anar

    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?

    Mark

    From: Anar Badalov
    To: Mark Kozelek

    Hi Mark,

    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?

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    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.

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    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.”
                      That Christmas
    I found red boxing gloves under the tree.
    They each reminded me of a reindeer’s heart
    laced tightly around my skinny wrists.
    Half naked,
    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?

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    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.

    Anar

    From: Mark Kozelek
    To: Anar Badalov

    Hi Anar,

    You’ve mentioned a few of my favorites fighters here. Keith Thurman made it into a song of mine called “Livingstone Bramble” and Bernard Hopkins made it into one of my songs called “Tavoris Cloud”. But I have to admit that I made a little money betting against Hopkins on his last fight. I agree that may be his last fight — but what an inspiration he has been, carrying titles that late in his career and of course being part of Golden Boy Promotions. So many fighters have weaved in and out of my songs over the years — everyone from Duk Koo Kim to Pernell Whitaker. Pernell is maybe one of my favorites. I love defensive fighters like Mayweather. There is something about a guy who has gone against everyone, from Jose Luis Castillo to Shane Mosley to Manny Pacquiao who has never even been knocked down — that is very remarkable.

    I mentioned Paul Thorn, as he is a singer-songwriter who was also a pro boxer. I never knew of him but was given a promotional video tape of him, from a fan, in the mid 1990s. He actually fought Roberto Duran very late in Duran’s career. Duran bloodied Paul up very badly and I think it was that fight that made Paul realize he wanted to pursue music instead. I see his name around from time to time while I’m on tour, but don’t know how his career is doing. He was on a major label in the 1990s. I like this poem you sent here that mentioned Dempsey. I visited his home that is now a museum dedicated to him in Colorado. It’s a little log cabin.

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    It’s interesting that you mentioned Prague. I’ve been touring for 23 years and have never been there. Your excitement about touring reminds me of where I was when things first started clicking. During my band’s (Red House Painters) first tour of the USA, in 1992, I remember how happy we were to have fans in places as far away as New Mexico, or even on the East Coast. Those were back in the days where it was just such a trip to be supported by a label. Crossing oceans for the first time gave me a ton of anxiety, but at the same time, it was really exciting. I’d go so many nights with no sleep at all, hanging out all night. When I was 25, 26, 27, I could go two weeks without sleeping and somehow have the energy to sing every night. Now I’m 48 and I play my shows, take care of business at the venue, then get to my hotel ASAP. If I lose a night’s sleep it really fucks me up. But the early days were great. I didn’t have a lot of money, we didn’t have a ton of fans, but the music sustained me.

    I don’t know you, but I don’t like to hear you say that your career is non-existent. You have 2,000 rounds under your belt. Who else can say that? And I’m 48 and I’ve been all over the world and I’ve never been to the Czech Republic. You must be doing something right or Robert [Kozelek and Badalov’s mutual manager] wouldn’t have introduced us. You’ve been making records for 10 years, so that is really something. Keep following your instincts, working hard, and you’ll always be in a good place. I spent all day in the studio today and I can go to sleep knowing I’ve been productive and made beautiful music. I’m always most at peace, creating music.

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    Yes, I do look at my press to a certain point. When a record comes out, Robert usually sends me press he feels is worth posting at my website, but I skim the reviews as there are so many it’s overwhelming. On recording, I tend to move on quickly after a record is finished. Right now I’m working on a record with Justin Broadrick, which has been very inspiring. It’s great for me to just focus on vocals and not have to deal with the musical part and Justin is delivering music that I never would have come up with myself. I like collaborations as my workload is half as much, and it’s fun working with different rhythms and keys, getting out of my element.

    I like some of those singers you mentioned. I like the theme to “Tony Rome” written by Lee Hazlewood, sung by Nancy Sinatra. Frank Sinatra stars in the movie.

    Where do you live? Have you toured the States? Are you making a living from music, and if not, how are you making a living? Are you on a record label?  What is your age and what is the age range of your audience?

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    I’m super tired but will listen to this song you sent this week. I’m in the studio all day tomorrow and the next day and need to keep my head in these Justin/Mark songs over these next few days.

    Going to sleep here at 12:23 a.m. California time. Have a great day out there!

    From: Anar Badalov
    To: Mark Kozelek

    Mark,

    I have to find these songs. I like what I’ve heard of your stuff. It’s sincere. Ten years ago I remember stepping into an elevator and hearing about Red House Painters. It’s strange I remember that because my memory is otherwise shitty.

    So do you know Nicolino Locche? From what I’ve seen, he’s incredibly difficult to catch. I’m equally impressed with defensive fighters, and have taken on this style myself — it developed mostly out of fear when I was initially thrown in with much stronger fighters, but it’s since become strategy.

    I feel for anyone who has to step in with Duran. His second fight with Dejesus is unforgettable. Is he the one who once knocked out a horse?

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    Thanks for the encouraging words re: the career. It’s easy to lose perspective, and it’s difficult to find value in something you do if you’re not making money. In my case I’ve been losing it for years, but I sustain myself with a full time job at a university press. Weirdly, the reason I was hired for the job is in part because of my boxing background. The guy who hired me acquires art books for the press and used to be the boxing commissioner of Maine.

    Where do you live? Have you toured the states? Are you making a living from music, and if not, how are you making a living? Are you on a record label?  What is your age and what is the age range of your audience?

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    I live in Somerville, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. Ten years ago, when I was 18, my first band signed with Suicide Squeeze records and I toured the States a lot. I lost money and got discouraged, but the reason it ended is because on our first tour of Europe we shared a van with a band called Victory at Sea. I fell in love with the singer — her husband was on the tour with us! — and a week after we returned I moved to Boston to be with her. We made four records together under the Travels moniker, and then our relationship ended. But it was an eventful period of my life — she was diagnosed with cancer a month after I moved in, and went through cancer treatment, and two years later her mother passed away — so it aged me. Two years ago I started playing solo under the New Dog moniker. I self-released the first record (Lost Weekend), which was really just an experiment in working alone, a transitional record, and signed with Kill Rock Stars for the follow-up (Classic Ballroom Dances), which I’m touring now to support. I’m 28. My audience, when one exists, is usually older. I’ve always been surrounded by people older than me — the girlfriend whom I lived with was 16 years older, actually — so it seems fitting. I’m starting to think there’s something uncool about what I do, but I’m learning to embrace it and just follow my instincts. I think what I admire most about my favorite musicians is their sincerity, so I try to remember that. Based on what you say about skimming your reviews, that doesn’t sound like an issue for you.

    So I’ve rambled on again. Can I ask you a few things? Do you tour in Europe ever? In the songs I heard, your music is lyrical, even spoken at times, and I wonder if it gets lost in translation abroad. The words are obviously central. Do you prefer writing or touring? And do you enjoy collaborating in general, or do you have a special relationship with Justin Broadrick? Admittedly, I haven’t heard of him, but I’m adding him to my list of people to look up when I’m home. I’m on tour with a Justin myself, a great drummer and a great guy. But it’s hard to spend a lot of time with any one person. Do you tour alone in a car, or do you bring along a sound person or partner or driver? You say that you play, handle business, and get to your room. That sounds sustainable. Are you inspired when you return home? Or burned out?

    Hey, have you ever boxed yourself? And where do you live? Please don’t feel like you have to answer all of these questions. I’m tired myself, about to play for a room of about seven people in Bamberg, Germany, and completely understand. It’s emotionally draining, like recording all day.  But let me leave you with another poem I think you’re going to enjoy. I hope you had a good day in the studio.

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    “A Fighter Learns of Hands” by Charles Ghigna

    Hands were not made for hitting.
    Learn this and you will know much about hands.
    Trace the lines of life in your palm.
    Search beyond skin to the constellation of bone
    where the truth about hands is hidden.
    Take them outside for a walk
    and unglove them in the snow.
    Watch them shape the chill air as you
    reach to capture and hold your white breathing.
    Close your eyes and place their fingertips
    along the parting of your lips.
    Cup them gently against your ear like muffs
    and listen to their silence.
    You are learning the meaning of hands.

    But if in some heated future you forget
    and must use them instead for battle,
    must make them into fists and send them against another,
    learn first to fear the hands that hold no memory.
    Treat them with suspicion. Tape them tighter than a wound
    and hide them like a broken secret deep into the leather.
    Keep the left one near the corner of your eye.
    Cock the right one like a cobra at your chin.
    Let it strike above the ring. Let it paint the canvas red
    until the final bell lulls you to to sleep like a child
    dreaming of stars, until those stars are in your hands,
    until your hands are awake, and beating.

    –  Anar

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