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INTERVIEW

KARMA IS ON MY SIDE
AN INTERVIEW WITH MARK KOZELEK
By Ryan Bartelmay


Mark Kozelek is not a rock star. He’s a front man for an indie rock band, but that doesn’t equal rock stardom. It’s not that he doesn’t have the talent or the band; he has both. And for the past twelve years, he and his band’s—Red House Painters—somber 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." He’s 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, What’s 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 didn’t 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 Scott’s 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. He’s way better than Brian Johnson. He’s soulful, and when he screams he sounds comfortable. He’s much easier on my ears than Brian Johnson.

When you cover a song, are you trying to capture your own emotion or the original song’s emotion?

I wasn’t trying to capture the emotion. You take a song like "You Ain’t Got a Hold on Me," which was about a blow job, and I play it live and people are like, that song, it’s so beautiful; it’s so sad. It’s 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. That’s all I did; it’s my interpretation of AC/DC.

How do the fans perceive "What’s 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 "What’s Next to the Moon" was a Leonard Cohen song.

Do they perceive it as tongue-in-cheek?

I definitely didn’t make the record with any intention of having people giggle or laugh. I don’t think I’m delivering the songs in that kind of way at all. I just took Bon Scott’s 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 don’t think about that really.

You don’t think about the lyrics?

You’re asking me if I think of myself as a folk singer, and I don’t really know. I know what I’m capable of. I know I’m cable of picking up a guitar and hopefully making nice music, or hopefully I can get something across—a story I want to tell in music.

How do you approach writing your own songs?

It’s something I’ve never been able to describe very well; it’s something I’ve never been able to understand very well myself, and I’m envious of people who can. I’m so inside myself it’s really hard for me to step away and analyze what’s 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. There’s really not any format or system that I have for writing music.

Are you a nostalgic person?

Yeah.

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 don’t 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 there’s 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?

Yeah.

The album was on the shelf for a little while, wasn’t it?

Three years.

Then Sub Pop picked you up?

Yeah.

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 I’m 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 do—I 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 I’d 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 didn’t 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 Stillwater’s bassist in Almost Famous.)

You just got called back for Cameron Crowe’s latest film, didn’t 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?

I’d have to learn to drive; I don’t know how to drive. I’d have to move down to LA. It would be a lot of work—I don’t know if I have what it takes to move to LA. It’s just not who I am. I’ll do it every time if it comes as easy as these two have—this is just Cameron calling and saying come on down, I got something for you.

You don’t drive?

No.

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 you’re right.

Do you enjoy the experience of riding in cars?

It just depends on the context. I didn’t enjoy driving around in Europe [on tour]; I hated it. If I’m going down the coast to get away for the weekend and I’m with someone who I like, yeah, it’s a nice drive. But if I’m driving to the fucking airport to get on an eleven and a half-hour plane ride, then I’m 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? I’m 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.

That’s nice. Thanks.

So, where did that come from for you?

That’s someplace in Missouri. Either near Columbia or Lee’s Summit. I can’t remember.

What’s 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] don’t see any of it.

Has this been a goal of yours, to make a living as a musician?

Yeah, I’ve never been very good at anything. I was a remedial student in high school; I’ve 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. It’s funny, as a teenager, you can have really big dreams. I’ve sort of ended up in this middle ground. A lot of people had the same kind of dreams, and they’ve completely given up and are working some computer job somewhere.

Are you comfortable with the middle ground?

I have been, but now I’m in a place and everyone else in the band is in a place where we’re going. This has been fun and everything, but what now, what do we do now? I’ve been living the same way since I was eighteen years old. I’m thirty-four now, and what if I wanted to have a family? I wouldn’t be able to afford it. I can’t 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, I’ve 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 I’m fifty? That’s sort of where I am at in my life right now—wondering like, Ok, this is what I’ve 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 I’m bitching right now, I’ve had an incredible amount of luck in my life. As long as you’re 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 didn’t 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 wouldn’t have been a fan of my band had I not done a couple of tours where I didn’t get paid. There’s kind of like a big picture, and that’s 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 boyfriend’s demos because their boyfriend wants to open for us; we have girls who give us their poetry books or some photos because they’re photographers. (Laughs) We don’t 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 we’re envious of these guys. We watch these VH-1 specials and these guys like Poison and all these bands. We’re like, fuck, man; we took a wrong turn. (Laughs) We’re playing in this band where when we’re up on stage they’re [girls] staring at our feet, and with these other guys the girls are just lining up. It’s just funny; it’s really funny.

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