For many, the introduction to musician Mark Kozelek's artistry came in 1992 when after nearly a minute of whispering guitar, a pristine voice rose out, haunting and inhabiting the air it traveled. Greeting listeners with interlocking images of lost childhood and the depravity of aging, these initial seconds of "24 marked the entrance unto the romantic, reflective realm of Red House Painters Kozelek's first musical effort to find label support. With each deliberate note and every articulated word, a feeling hung, suspended in the memory of a talented songwriter who could, through an unshakable, natural devotion to lyrics and guitarsmanship, pull an audience into the very moment of his inspiration.
Underpinning these ruminations are lucid pictures of the past that recapture old relationships, formative places and tumultuous experiences. From his riverside youth of gleaning classic-guitar magic in Massillon, Ohio, to late-adolescent participation in local bands, Kozelek used music as a way to comprehend his life. On the cusp of adulthood, Kozelek, along with band mates in the trio God Forbid (an all-too-apt moniker that continues to grace his publishing efforts), headed to Atlanta. Over the next couple years, big-city life cast off the three members in different directions and Kozelek was left working odd jobs in a new location. Soon, a kindred spirit was found in drummer Anthony Koutsos and the kindling for Red House Painters was halfway there. With a connection to chords deepening and heightened awareness of Southern perspective, the pair plodded westward in 1988 to San Francisco, California, in pursuit of a more open-minded musical scene. Within a year of relocating, they united with bassist Jerry Vessel and guitarist Gorden Mack to form the first full incarnation of Red House Painters. As singer and guitarist, Kozelek would craft the melodies and lyrics, next entreating the band to fill in their own elements. Together, their Bay Area performances garnered the attention of Mark Eitzel, then figurehead of San Francisco-based American Music Club. His support spurred the Painters' six-track cassette across the pond into the sonic space of Ivo Watts-Russell, creator and owner of the luminary 4AD label. Enthralled by the undeniably beautiful music before him, Watts-Russell immediately signed the Painters and released the demo-turned-debut LP Down Colorful Hill in 1992, enchantingly setting the tone for what sounded ahead in Kozelek's musical career.
With nascent creative efforts still warming their new imprint, the band retreated to the studio to cut another 22 songs. 1993 was fortunate to see the split release of sister eponymous opuses, familiarly known to fans as the Rollercoaster and Bridge albums for the images that seal the sepia-spun covers. Tingling spines with rippling guitars, reverb-ebbing vocals and dizzying distortion, Rollercoaster thrilled the growing fan base. Where Down Colorful Hill was a less-than-an-hour glimpse, a window into the deep Painters' psyche, the half-hour-longer, 14-song (13 proper songs with two versions of "Mistress," evenly spaced at positions four and 11 in the track listing) Rollercoaster enhanced the entrancing songwriter's vision, illuminating tales of lost people and settings with unique reverence.
Rounding out that early burst of outputted material were eight songs, also released in 1993, which make up the christened-by-fans Bridge. Starting with a laugh, the long-playing album fittingly follows the same darkly introspective journey as the two previous albums before presenting new tricks in song selection as well as sonic experimentation. Their sequel to "New Jersey," a song from Rollercoaster, and covers of Paul Simon's "I Am a Rock" and United States' national anthem, "Star Spangled Banner," showed that the band were as willing to rework their own previously released songs as those of other artists. Already, Kozelek's live performances, solo or with accompaniment, frequently included covers ranging from down-tempo versions of Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" to drawling takes on Neil Young's "Albuquerque." Despite being characterized by uncomfortable, self-deprecatingly humored interviews and live performances, Red House Painters very quickly had fans mesmerized. In sync with the aching honesty of the band's music, Kozelek held back little in the limelight, often chiding acoustics and ex-girlfriends in the same breath. Not always pleasant between-song banter was often forgiven because fans knew that soon replacing it would be a pain-imbued music that resonated with beauty.
As if knowingly drifting away from the early Painters' sound, Bridge showcases a denouement of sorts in the fiercely poignant "Uncle Joe." An archetypal Kozelek masterpiece, replete with escalating desolation and elusive promise, the song goes so far as to weave the band's name into the crescendoing lyrics.
But, clearly, a directional change was imminent. It wasn't so much that the band needed to try something new as all three Red House Painters' efforts met with critical acclaim, but rather the artistry of the band members was growing and striving to encompass different sounds. The three-song Shock Me, issued in 1994, surprised fans and critics alike by cloaking Kiss' Ace Frehley tune into something entirely of their own design, exuding a marked confidence not felt on previous albums. A year later, this newfound assurance inspired the pared-down mellifluous, folksy acoustics of Ocean Beach, a transformation that brought Kozelek's once-buried vocals to the front of the mix. In addition, the inclusion of intra-Painters banter seemingly invites the listener into the studio, tearing down yet another barrier between artist and audience. In fact, Ocean Beach is the first Painters' album to include pertinent recording information, outside of mere song titles, in its liner notes. While arguably their most consistent, cohesive album to date, the nine songs of Ocean Beach signified a slight drifting away from the dream-distorted aesthetic of Watts-Russell's imprint. After just three years of being on the 4AD roster, tensions between Kozelek and Watts-Russell were coming to a head.
Between the recording and release of Ocean Beach, the last musical collection that the original band lineup would produce, the group's members grew divergent, choosing to pursue individual projects. Mack altogether left Red House Painters and would later be replaced by guitarist Phil Carney. Meanwhile, having already co-arranged songwriter Richard Buckner's Unreleased LP a year prior, Kozelek produced Demerol and River of Darkness, two musical ventures from neighboring songstress Hannah Marcus. In-studio time proved too much a temptation for the ever-prolific Kozelek and he soon crept, with nary a Painter, into a remote Northern Californian recording shop, ready to approach music-making differently.
Sparks of spontaneity shower Songs for a Blue Guitar, a wily, intimate bedroom reverie that fought off Kozelek's earlier tendencies toward careful recording and even-more-meticulous rerecording. Ennui at bay and artistic integrity unclouded, Songs revealed a looser Kozelek who was less bound by a newcomer's uncertainty than his nostalgia-clinging lyrics might suggest. Whether aglow with shimmering guitar solos or the crunching chords that electrify Cars' cover "All Mixed Up," the album glistens with new mystery one that self-knowingly harkens back to Down Colorful Hill (in the lyrics to "Priest Alley Song") while treading ahead to rockier, rawer textures. These moves were not met without obstacle, however, and ultimately severed the Painters' ties to 4AD. As the story goes, a lengthy solo at the heart of "Make Like Paper," an abstractly craggy aural epic that chimes in just over 12 minutes, was the main source of contention between Watts-Russell and Kozelek. And when no compromise seemed possible between the two artists, Kozelek found Supreme Recordings, a subsidiary imprint of Island that was owned by film director John Hughes. And so, by the time Songs for a Blue Guitar arrived in stores during the summer of 1996, all signs indicated that Kozelek was going solo.
But, any question marks left in the wake of Songs regarding the future of Red House Painters were quickly erased as the band (with strummer Carney) began recording Old Ramon in late 1997. By early 1998, studio needs were drawing to a close and the sixth full-length feature was slated to drop in the summer of that year. However, said plans were thrust into chaos when Supreme Recordings fell victim to the Polygram-Universal merger, leaving the rights to Old Ramon tied to a label that had no means to release it. As the album sat silently, enduring the throes of bureaucratic red tape, Kozelek kept himself busy.
While negotiating to buy back the rights to the band's music, the restless singer promoted himself extensively, contributing to compilations and benefit albums and even dabbling a bit in cinema. As good terms were reestablished between Kozelek and Watts-Russell, the two organized Retrospective, a double-disc set culling together 25 versions, including demos and live recordings, of 4AD-era Painters' songs, along with a couple of until-then-unreleased instrumentals thrown in for good measure. And though little new material surfaced, longtime fans were again enraptured by a familiarly chilling back catalogue and were all too eager to support the release of something bearing the Red House Painters' name.
In June of 1999, Painters' contributions appeared on Badman Recording Company's Shanti Project Collection, a charity album devoted to improving the lives of AIDS patients. The lesser-known Neil Young song "Midnight on the Bay" resurfaced, having already been recorded by the band for Milkshake, a compilation to benefit the San Francisco-based Harvey Milk Institute. Around this time, Kozelek also arranged, performed on and produced Take Me Home: A Tribute to John Denver, a talent-steeped, mood-summoning homage to the late folk rocker that had been fuzzily in the mental making since Denver's death in 1997. And if musical projects weren't enough to draw out Kozelek's artistry, film director Cameron Crowe enlisted the Painters' front man to act in Almost Famous, as the bassist of fictional 1970s band Stillwater. Some seven months were spent in the glitzy city of angels giving the songwriter a much-needed respite from financial stress. Cinematically wrapped economic boon had surprised Kozelek a few times prior, as "All Mixed Up" appeared on the Excess Baggage soundtrack and also found favor with television-programming producers. In addition, the songwriter ended up with a comedic cameo role in Crowe's Vanilla Sky, while also flavoring the film's score with a new acoustic version of Songs' opener "Have You Forgotten." Lest it be thought that Kozelek only supports mainstream Hollywood productions, he also scored Last Ball, an independent movie directed by Peter Callahan in 2001.
And while Old Ramon remained shelved, Kozelek gave fans a reason to scratch their collective heads, re-appropriating AC/DC lyrics on the Rock 'n' Roll Singer EP (2000) and What's Next to the Moon LP (2001). Viewing AC/DC singer Bon Scott's words as a malleable set of syllables, Kozelek breathed new life into them, causing the quotidian to quiver with meaning that is rarely realized elsewhere in music. With three metallic vapid songs from AC/DC, one country-pop track from John Denver and only three original compositions, Rock 'n' Roll Singer superficially seems nothing save a tremendous mistake, but Kozelek's artistic vision binds them into an unprecedented, yet coherent package. The deconstructive tendencies accelerated on What's Next to the Moon, culminating in the vinyl collectible If You Want Blood (2001), where it is more than evident that Scott's lyrics are merely the foundation for something entirely of Kozelek's own making.
Meanwhile, years of negotiations finally paid off for Red House Painters as Old Ramon was finally released in April 2001 on Sub Pop Records. The 70-plus minutes contained therein were a blend of acoustic and electric guitar, an expansive sound filled with new-instrumental fills but one that also largely drew on past releases. Titled after a Spanish-language childrens' book, Old Ramon evokes rainy-afternoon daydreaming while sustaining a notion of its own imaginative limitations. The slowly building confessionals of early-career Red House Painters are only hinted at; instead the album's momentum is put into motion by a teleological awareness in which all stories have a beginning, middle and end. In late 2001, Sub Pop offered another Kozelek-crafted album, White Christmas Live, a limited-to-5,000-pressings collection of live recordings culled from a millennial holiday tour through snow-blanketed Scandinavia. With three AC/DC covers, a cappella versions of midcareer Painters' songs and an unreleased track, there's sonic offering for each of the 12 days of Christmas (with a hidden unlisted track to boot).
Two years later, Kozelek confronted the world again with the release of Ghosts of the Great Highway, a full-length debut from Sun Kil Moon. The musical outfit is comprised of longtime Painters' drummer Koutsos, drummer Tim Mooney (of American Music Club fame) and bassist Geoff Stanfield (of Black Lab) as well as a string trio from the San Francisco Conservatory. Recorded between March 2002 and May 2003, Ghosts unfurled on Jetset Records in November 2003, reminding those who need it that music is meant to transcend the squalor of everyday living.
Amidst the phenomenal success of Ghosts, Kozelek was anything but a shadowy apparition on the roads of America, Europe and Australia. Whether performing solo or under the guise of Sun Kil Moon (though with a completely changed-up roster from the actual recording), Kozelek spent the greater part of 2004 touring. Ever the bustling bard, he also paid homage to Duluth-based trio Low with a cover of their early-career "Lazy" on the tribute We Could Live in Hope. Additionally, he lent accompanying vocals to a track on The Oblivion Seeker, Danny Pearson's (American Music Club bassist) solo debut. Colluding with cohorts in Hollywood as well, Kozelek wrote "Arrival," an instrumental, which went alongside "Song for a Blue Guitar" (1996), for the movie The Girl Next Door.
In January 2005, Kozelek quietly stole away into the famed Hyde Street Studios of San Francisco's Tenderloin district to begin recording Tiny Cities, a series of covers of Washington-based rock group Modest Mouse. For three months, Kozelek, along with various bandmates from both Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon, worked on this bewitching compact of an album, drawing out the moods and words of 11 Modest Mouse songs and transporting them from their visceral world of jittery beats and fervid shrieking to a purling-water plane of subtle melody that melts from pinched string to needing ear.
Tiny Cities made a large impact industrywide until Kozelek revealed that it was an album consisting exclusively of covers. Upon its completion, he sent it out relatively unmarked, simply soliciting it as his latest project. Interest was fierce at first, but once Kozelek intimated that the lyrics were not his own, he found himself essentially alone, marooned from those who only minutes before were showering him with chauffeured rides and roses. Though feeling the bitter prick of those thorns, he remained resolute. Kozelek soon created his own label, Caldo Verde, to release the album himself on November 1. Meanwhile, he has participated in a number of different artistic arenas.
From January onward, he performed many times. His on-stage appearances in 2005 have ranged from isolated shows across the United States and Europe to benefit events to a string of late-summer dates with longtime friend Alan Sparhawk's (of Low) newly incarnated Retribution Gospel Choir. Serving as a ridiculously magnificent dream come true for many fans, the band tapped into both bands' catalogues, in addition to introducing new collaborations (showcased in a four-song, tour-only EP).
As the busy year winds down for Kozelek, a luminous path lays ahead. In addition to playing his largest acting role to date as a rock star in the fictional band Hot Tears in the silver-screen adaptation of Steve Martin's best-selling novella Shopgirl, he has also covered Neil Diamond's "Kentucky Woman" on Songs from the Brown Hotel, a charity EP compiled by Cameron Crowe, to coincide with the director's latest film and companion soundtrack, Elizabethtown. In the coming months, we can expect to find Kozelek on Tract Records' I Am a Cold Rock, I Am Dull Grass: A Tribute to the Music of Will Oldham, reinterpreting the alt-country songwriter's "New Partner." Kozelek has also contributed an original song, "Leo and Luna," to a compilation for Canadian label Paper Bag Records, which is expected to be released in early 2006.
Having, after 15 years, affixed us to a world of both familiarity and surprise, there is no telling where Kozelek might lead us in the future, but we have monuments and milestones to cling to and a realm of mystery to simultaneously lay the course.
Biography by Rayna Khaitan
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