By Tom Lynch
Mark Kozelek may be the most underrated songwriter in music today. Not that all the songs are his, of course.
The San Francisco-based songwriter and former front man of the indie-folk, cult-followed Red House Painters moved on to solo records at the turn of this century, releasing his own, singer-songwriter, acoustic-driven material as well as a complete album of AC/DC covers, or more accurately, interpretations, since the songs, offered all acoustically with Kozelek’s somber vocals, are unrecognizable. In 2003 Kozelek formed Sun Kil Moon and released “Ghosts of the Great Highway,” a phenomenal record that recalled Red House Painters’ “Songs for a Blue Guitar” in the sheer beauty of each song, their diversity and the growing confidence in Kozelek’s smooth, deep vocals and breathtaking guitar work. Last year Sun Kil Moon released “Twin Cities,” an entire record of Modest Mouse interpretations, and though he had already made waves with his AC/DC work, this record caught some off-guard. While striking at times—his versions of “Grey Ice Water” and “Neverending Math Equation” come to mind—the record’s overall effect was only lukewarm, which makes one wonder why the songwriter wouldn’t stick with his own songs.
“They go in and out of my system,” says Kozelek of his cover records. “The truth is if I didn’t record the AC/DC covers, or the Modest Mouse covers, I would’ve recorded bad, all-original albums. I take a lot of pride in that I feel I’ve highly personalized these covers. I enjoy them—they serve a meaningful purpose in my life.”
He says the desire to record an all-covers album is like being bitten by a bug. “It’s not that I was doing original stuff and it wasn’t making me happy or any of that,” he says. “It’s just that something came over me that said, ‘I gotta do a Modest Mouse covers record.’ It’s like when you have to have a 1967 Fender Jag, and you just gotta have it. You might not have even thought of it two days ago, but all of a sudden, you’ll do anything to get that guitar. It was something I got in my system, just like obsessing on a girl. You get a big crush, and then one day it’s just gone. I don’t have it in my system anymore. The AC/DC, the Modest Mouse, it all came in and out like a crush. Like a super-crush. Then it went away.”
Kozelek’s dedicated following dates all the way back to his Red House Painters years. The bittersweet songs, the overwhelming nostalgia and lyrics of missed opportunities and regret spark a hidden, deep flame among his fans. When Red House Painters broke, it was the grunge era. While now it’s so common it’s boring, the personal songwriting Kozelek offered back then was unheard of. (“Now you can’t throw a rock without hitting a sensitive singer-songwriter who isn’t pouring his or her heart out,” he says.) Kozelek busted through the mold in that way, an under-appreciated influence in the singer-songwriter realm.
He says he’s still attached to some of the older material. “There are certain songs that still have a lot of meaning to me,” he says. “Some have longevity—I can rearrange them, come up with new ways to play them. A lot of times they take on different meanings. A lot of songs are written about relationships with people. Over the years they change and then they take on different meanings for me.”
Kozelek says he’ll get back to writing original songs, but he’s in no hurry. “I definitely write less now then I did [when I was younger],” he says. ‘It’s just really about aging. Not that I’m that old—I’m 39—but when we were in our twenties and late teens, that stuff was just coming out of us. You can’t help it. It’s just like anything else. You start losing your hair, and your creativity is similar. I’m not saying I’m not creative anymore; I just don’t have the desire to be Mark Kozelek of Red House Painters twenty-four hours a day. I couldn’t live without it when I was 25—it was every waking minute of everything I did. I don’t feel as driven or compelled as I did when I was younger. But that’s alright, it doesn’t bother me. I’m sure I’ll continue on this path and maybe I’ll go through a period where I’m writing a lot again. I just don’t want to force bad records out, that’s what I don’t want to do.”
So what does he do with his spare time? “Well, I got a girlfriend,” he says. “I got a cat. Cable TV. I like fishing. I read. I just signed an artist [Corrina Repp, to his new record label, Caldo Verde. She opens for him on this tour]. I go camping, antique shopping. I collect guitars. Just things. Just livin’, man.”
Mark Kozelek plays October 5 at The Black Orchid, 230 West North, (312)944-2200, at 8pm. $20.