“The whitest band I’ve ever heard is War On Drugs,” Mark Kozelek utters over and over again in his new beef track, “War On Drugs: Suck My Cock.” With lines like this, it’s difficult to take the song too seriously; by similar standards of “whiteness” — meaning indie rock perceived as music for white music listeners — Kozelek’s Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters aren’t far off. And Kozelek, for all his shit-slinging, must know this.
Coming from a guy who released one of the year’s most empathetic and emotionally draining albums, Benji, jokes seem perhaps crucial at this moment. Kozelek’s a candid songwriter and live performer who routinely mocks his audience (calling them “fuckin’ hillbillies,” for one). Lines like the one in the letter in his website about War On Drugs about how the bridge and tunnel crowd are “gonna rock out … to some beer-commercial lead guitar” at War On Drugs’ show tonight at the Fillmore in San Francisco feel like an extension of that. Still, Kozelek apparently wanted to appear at the Fillmore show tonight himself, alongside War On Drugs, to play his “hilarious” new song, “War On Drugs: Suck My Cock/Sun Kil Moon: Go Fuck Yourself.” War On Drugs weren’t so interested, apparently — they haven’t responded as yet.
How did we get here? And what did we do to deserve the most hilarious of the indie-rock beefs in recent years? (Does it make me a monster to enjoy this feud among stars of an overly sincere genre, even if I know it’s sort of mean?) To quote South Park, blame Canada. At last month’s Ottawa Folk Fest, the sound bleed between these two acts was so intense that Sun Kil Moon’s drummer “said that it would have been easier for him to play along to [War On Drugs’] set” than his own.
“It could have been any band’s music blaring from over the hill, and I still would have made jokes,” Kozelek explained in a statement (note: not an apology, he vehemently clarified) on his website, adding that he’d “never heard of” War On Drugs prior to Ottawa Folk Fest. The jokes in question, of course, are the same ones Kozelek repeats in “War On Drugs: Suck My Cock.” He does indeed have a point about War On Drugs’ penchant for repurposing classic rock, though I find WoD more Springsteen-esque than Fleetwood Mac or Mellencamp disciples, as Kozelek suggests in his song.
In hearing and reading reactions to Kozelek’s recent behavior — which includes printing official t-shirts to cheekily commemorate the “fuckin’ hillbillies” comment at Raleigh’s Hopscotch Festival last month — it’s clear that some people have perceived this horseplay as damaging to the musical legacies of both Kozelek and the War On Drugs. Now, I have little personal stock in either of these acts, outside of the stunning, intimate albums released by both in 2014, so I can’t speak as a fan with personal concern. The most I can offer up is that Kozelek grew up in the same depressed blue-collar pocket of Northeast Ohio as I did; I think that kind of small-town existence makes you keenly aware of doing what you must to escape it.
Kozelek has released a lot of great music through the years that didn’t get the attention it deserved, which would make many people a little bitter after 25 years. He’s probably just having a little fun embracing his recent moment in the spotlight — egging it on while constantly clarifying his message in order to not be misunderstood as a vindictive bully who personally despises War On Drugs. To suggest that Kozelek and War On Drugs could not use more publicity to help cement or even bring light to their legacies (particularly the latter) is a bit self-important as far as indie culture is concerned. This is a joke — not a particularly good one — but it is continually getting Kozelek and WoD on Pitchfork, Stereogum, and other music sites, more than six months after both released their albums. Beef will, in fact, lengthen your record cycle.
“If there weren’t reports of Mark Kozelek being caustic in the past, I would think this whole thing was a stunt,” says Judy Miller Silverman, the founder of Motormouthmedia, the indie PR firm that reps Animal Collective, The Breeders, and Flying Lotus. “Regardless, it’s generating tons of publicity for both artists, and whether you think it’s good or bad it has you talking about them.”
This approach has worked time and time again for Morrissey, whose unrelenting Moz-isms have made him both more revered and more loathed amidst his transformation into musical legend. (I find that many Morrissey obsessives, myself included, ignore his thirst for haterade.) But Kozelek may not have bargained for all this. “There is an epidemic of people being ‘offended’ by things as some kind of hobby,” he wrote in his second explanation letter. And he is not wrong.