Mark Kozelek knew weeks before the release of Tiny Cities—the new album by his band Sun Kil Moon that’s completely composed of Modest Mouse covers—that it was getting an unusual reception. “It’s somehow acceptable for a guy like me to cover people who are dead or legendary,” says the former Red House Painter, who’s retooled songs from artists as diverse as John Denver and the Bon Scott-led AC/DC. “But when you cover a guy who’s maybe ten years younger than you, who hasn’t been making records as long as you have, there’s a different feeling about it.”
The “guy” in question is Isaac Brock, Modest Mouse’s singer and songwriter, known for his staccato vocals and mad-as-hell delivery. Kozelek, on the other hand, is recognized for a soulful voice and intricate acoustic-guitar work—hence the surprise. “I feel like I’ve been on the defensive,” says Kozelek, who kept the album secret until its completion. “People love the record, but they still keep asking, ‘Why?’”
It began with a 2003 Modest Mouse show at The Fillmore in San Francisco. Kozelek was immediately taken aback. “You know, I see a lot of shows, and I’m not often blown away,” he says. “But there was just this intensity and sort of danger element going on up there that was really incredible.”
He started working a few Modest Mouse songs into Sun Kil Moon shows, and considered
recording some of them for an EP—but instead kept going until he had 11 covers of mostly older, lesser-known songs.
Hints of the original Modest Mouse melodies exist in some of these tracks, but others seem like completely different tunes with only the lyrics intact. Kozelek says he didn’t plan to radically alter the songs, but simply put his own touches on them as he would any music he plays. For example, Modest Mouse’s “Exit Does Not Exist,” full of thumping drums and Brock’s screams, is “just a different universe” from Kozelek’s style, he says. So, in the Sun Kil Moon version, the drums are replaced by quiet guitar, Brock’s exploding anger by Kozelek’s melancholy intonation.
This forces listeners to not only rethink the songs, but also to focus on Brock’s lyrics, which are amazing, Kozelek says. “People already into Modest Mouse are probably aware [Brock] is gifted and he’s a great writer. But for people who aren’t… hopefully this record will bring attention to the fact that this guy is really good.”
And what does he think Brock will say about the album? Kozelek sent the band a copy, but hasn’t heard anything yet. (Paste’s request for a comment was politely declined.) “I don’t know how he’ll feel about it, just like I don’t know how I would feel about it if an artist did 10 or 11 Red House Painters covers.” He laughs. “It might freak me out.”