Mark Kozelek is not a rock star. Hes a front man for an indie rock band, but that doesnt equal rock stardom. Its not that he doesnt have the talent or the band; he has both. And for the past twelve years, he and his bandsRed House Painterssomber and wistful songs have enjoyed a small but consistent fan base of art school/avant twenty-somethings. But, at thirty-four, Kozelek is tired of "being a cult indie rock guy." Hes busy trying to transition into a rock guy who can make enough money to move out of his one-bedroom San Francisco apartment into a house.
In the past six months, he has released three albums. Two are solo efforts, an EP, Rock n Roll Singer, and an LP of AC/DC covers, Whats Next to the Moon. The third, Old Ramon, is the Red House Painters first album in three years. I recently spoke with Kozelek via telephone, while he rested between the Red House Painters European and United States tours, about finding himself in a half-achieved dream, Bon Scott versus Brian Johnson, and the type of groupies Red House Painters attract.
Were you an AC/DC fan as a kid in high school?
I liked them, but I didnt have a great appreciation for them. I was more into progressive rock; I liked the super groups like Led Zeppelin and Yes. I had a lot more respect for guitarists like Steve Howard and Jimmy Page than someone like Angus Young.
Was it Bon Scotts lyrics that brought you to appreciate them?
I think Bon Scott was a great singer, but I never paid attention to his lyrics until I started to cover their music. Hes way better than Brian Johnson. Hes soulful, and when he screams he sounds comfortable. Hes much easier on my ears than Brian Johnson.
When you cover a song, are you trying to capture your own emotion or the original songs emotion?
I wasnt trying to capture the emotion. You take a song like "You Aint Got a Hold on Me," which was about a blow job, and I play it live and people are like, that song, its so beautiful; its so sad. Its a different interpretation. You could take a song and give it to 15 different songwriters like Bob Dylan or Natalie Imbruglia or whoever, and everyone is going to come up with a different interpretation. Thats all I did; its my interpretation of AC/DC.
How do the fans perceive "Whats Next to the Moon"?
When I was in Spain [playing these songs], people came up to me and said (in a Spanish accent), ah, this is not AC/DC, this is your own song. And I said, no. And they said, but this cannot be AC/DC. Yeah, but it is. And then, at KCOW in Los Angeles, the music supervisor thought "Whats Next to the Moon" was a Leonard Cohen song.
Do they perceive it as tongue-in-cheek?
I definitely didnt make the record with any intention of having people giggle or laugh. I dont think Im delivering the songs in that kind of way at all. I just took Bon Scotts lyrics and sat down with an acoustic guitar and blocked out what was there before, blocked out AC/DC, any melodies or mood I associated with the lyrics and tried to make it sound like a Red House Painters song.
Do you think of yourself as a folk singer? I know that your music is lyric driven, so is that something you take into account when you write a song or when you approach a song to cover?
No, not really. I guess I dont think about that really.
You dont think about the lyrics?
Youre asking me if I think of myself as a folk singer, and I dont really know. I know what Im capable of. I know Im capable of picking up a guitar and hopefully making nice music, or hopefully I can get something acrossa story I want to tell in music.
How do you approach writing your own songs?
Its something Ive never been able to describe very well; its something Ive never been able to understand very well myself, and Im envious of people who can. Im so inside myself its really hard for me to step away and analyze whats going on. Even talking about it, I feel like an idiot. So many of my songs have been written in different ways, so many different things have inspired me to write. Theres really not any format or system that I have for writing music.
Are you a nostalgic person?
Do you try to capture memory in your songs? It feels like a lot of your music has a lot of memory in it.
I dont know if I try to capture it, or not. Something that happens can take me back to a certain place, and I can enjoy that moment or not enjoy that moment. And sometimes that happens, and for whatever reason theres a feeling that overwhelms me where I need to have a catharsis with it. And I need to sit down, and I need to write.
The songs on Old Ramon were written four, five years ago?
The album was on the shelf for a little while, wasnt it?
Then Sub Pop picked you up?
When it was shelved, did you think about throwing in the towel and going solo?
Well, I did.
Yeah, I know you did a solo tour.
I made Songs for a Blue Guitar with 4AD and we took it to Island, and it took a long time to do that. With this record [Old Ramon], I thought Im not going to stress myself out; karma is on my side. I made the best record I felt I could make. I turned it in; I did everything I was supposed to do, and all of a sudden all these bad things started happening. I was contractually obligated to certain people; there was nothing I could doI was in a really bad place, but I went out and played. I did a solo acoustic tour. I helped produce a record for a woman. I got a call from Cameron Crowe; I did Almost Famous. I finished the John Denver Tribute Album that Id started while I was working on Old Ramon. I just kept busy and put it in the hands of a lawyer.
How did you like acting?
Well, I didnt really act. I just had a couple lines and hung out on the set, made friends and got paid really well to do that. (Kozelek played Stillwaters bassist in Almost Famous.)
You just got called back for Cameron Crowes latest film, didnt you?
I had a real small part in his new one, but who knows if it will be in it or not.
Would you like to pursue acting in the future?
Id have to learn to drive; I dont know how to drive. Id have to move down to LA. It would be a lot of workI dont know if I have what it takes to move to LA. Its just not who I am. Ill do it every time if it comes as easy as these two havethis is just Cameron calling and saying come on down, I got something for you.
You dont drive?
I find that interesting. In the lyrics to a lot of your songs, you spend a lot of time driving in cars.
Yeah. I never thought about that. I guess youre right.
Do you enjoy the experience of riding in cars?
It just depends on the context. I didnt enjoy driving around in Europe [on tour]; I hated it. If Im going down the coast to get away for the weekend and Im with someone who I like, yeah, its a nice drive. But if Im driving to the fucking airport to get on an eleven and a half-hour plane ride, then Im not digging the ride too much.
Where does the line in the song "Void," "Driving down the freeway in her truck/I watch the river flowing" come from? Im from the Midwest and have sat in trucks, watching rivers flowing so many times. Every time I hear that line, it takes me back there.
Thats nice. Thanks.
So, where did that come from for you?
Thats someplace in Missouri. Either near Columbia or Lees Summit. I cant remember.
Whats the process like for the band? Do you come to the band with the song and they put music to it?
Yeah. I just have the chords and the melody, and I bring it to them and they come up with parts.
Which do you enjoy more, doing your own thing or the band?
I love traveling around with the band, and I love playing by myself. The difference is that when playing solo acoustic, I know it sounds superficial, but at the end of the night a guy comes and hands [me] an envelope full of money and [I] get to keep it all. (Laughs) And with the band it gets handed to a tour manager and [I] dont see any of it.
Has this been a goal of yours, to make a living as a musician?
Yeah, Ive never been very good at anything. I was a remedial student in high school; Ive never been to college. I have no skills. (Laughs) I would skip school a lot in my teens, in high school, and just play guitar. Sure, I daydreamed. Its funny, as a teenager, you can have really big dreams. Ive sort of ended up in this middle ground. A lot of people had the same kind of dreams, and theyve completely given up and are working some computer job somewhere.
Are you comfortable with the middle ground?
I have been, but now Im in a place and everyone else in the band is in a place where were going. This has been fun and everything, but what now, what do we do now? Ive been living the same way since I was eighteen years old. Im thirty-four now, and what if I wanted to have a family? I wouldnt be able to afford it. I cant afford to move out of my one-bedroom apartment and buy a house. And there is my band, these poor guys who have been working for me and working with me for twelve years who are still working as bartenders and delivering packages for messenger services and driving taxis. For the last ten years, Ive sacrificed. I feel completely useless in any other way except for playing two, three hundred capacity rooms. What am I going to do, do this when Im fifty? Thats sort of where I am at in my life right nowwondering like, Ok, this is what Ive dedicated my last ten years of my life to doing, so how do I use that now? How can I build off that to sustain the next fifteen years of my life?
Is there anything to say for persistence? Does it breed success? If you stick with it and do what you are doing now, will you eventually get noticed for what you are?
Well, that is what I hope for. As much as Im bitching right now, Ive had an incredible amount of luck in my life. As long as youre doing something that is productive some way or another, I feel like little things can come out of it. My band just went to Europe for three weeks, and we didnt make any money; it actually cost me money to do that tour. But at the same time, at the end of last year, The Gap used a song of ours and I got paid, I got a really nice pay check from that, and that was from exposure. Some guy that directed that commercial was a fan of my band, and he wouldnt have been a fan of my band had I not done a couple of tours where I didnt get paid. Theres kind of like a big picture, and thats what I hope for.
Can your band relate to the band Stillwater?
(Laughing) We get a different kind of groupie than Stillwater. We wish we could live like Stillwater. First of all, my band has never been on a tour bus, ever; at least Stillwater had a tour bus. Lots of girls approach us and want us to listen to their boyfriends demos because their boyfriend wants to open for us; we have girls who give us their poetry books or some photos because theyre photographers. (Laughs) We dont get girls throwing themselves at us sexually, which was what Stillwater was all about. We talk about that kind of stuff a lot in my band, and were envious of these guys. We watch these VH-1 specials and these guys like Poison and all these bands. Were like, fuck, man; we took a wrong turn. (Laughs) Were playing in this band where when were up on stage theyre [girls] staring at our feet, and with these other guys the girls are just lining up. Its just funny; its really funny.
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