From the hazy rock 'n' roll of the Red House Painters to the more mature intr0spection of Sun Kil Moon, Mark Kozelek is an enduring figure in American underground music.
The last indie hero?
In 1991, after two years of playing for little more than their girlfriends in small San Francisco clubs, the Red House Painters finally caught a break. The quartet's lead-singer and guitarist - a tall, north-east Ohio-native with a mellow, languid tenor named Mark Kozelek - befriended the local musician Mark Eitzel, the frontman for the band American Music Club. Eitzel, who had just returned from a UK tour, told his new friend about an English journalist he had bumped into who had taken a shine to the Painters' gauzy rock 'n' roll. "Send him your demo," Eitzel told Kozelek. "He loves your stuff." Great, Kozelek thought.
But there was one hitch. "I had literally never sent a package overseas in my life." Kozelek says. "I didn't even know how it worked." So he grabbed a brown lunch bag and stuffed a C90 cassette tape of the Painters' demo inside. He folded the bag shut, fastened it with Scotch tape, and slapped several stamps on the corner. Then Kozelek walked across the street from his one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco's Nob Hill neighbourhood and dropped the package in the mailbox.
Then he waited? and waited. Six months passed. Kozelek forgot about even mailing the thing. And then his phone rang. It was Ivo Watts-Russell, the founder and head of London's 4AD Records. "To this day, it's all just crazy to me," Kozelek says, on the phone from his apartment just a few blocks away from that charmed mailbox. "Three months after that we were on a plane flying to England, meeting with these English people at 4AD, doing a lot of interviews with English journalists, and playing for English audiences."
After the release of the band's debut, Down Colorful Hill, in the autumn of 1992, the Painters soon established themselves at the forefront of what came to be called slow-core (or sadcore): a heady mix of emotional lyrics, hazy guitar figures and dreamy tempos. British, and later, American audiences fell for it. With his ability to "nail complex emotions or fears in just a couple of lines", the 25-year-old Kozelek reminded Watts-Russell of Jackson Browne. As Watts-Russel recalls: "While most UK bands were hiding beautiful melodies, delivered by less than beautiful voices, beneath a wall of cascading guitars, Red House Painters hit one square in the face?"
The Painters' rise from the San Francisco underground to the headlines of the British music press may have been unlikely. But it is certainly no more implausible than Kozelek's continued relevance in an indie-rock world that - except for the occasional bout of teenage nostalgia - too-often leaves its Nineties heroes for dead. Yet at 42, a decade after the Painters' disintegration, Kozelek is going stronger than ever, retaining his old fans and gathering up new ones only dimly aware of the Painters' legacy. With Caldo Verde, the record label he founded in 2005, Kozelek has released a steady clip of records -both under Sun Kil Moon, the band he founded in 2003, and his own name. The most recent Sun Kil Moon release, last year's April, a 74-minute epic of monochrome folk and Neil Young-esque classic rock, landed on a number of year-end best-of lists. This year saw the release of the odds-and-ends collection The Finally LP, and, recorded live in Spain, Find Me, Ruben Olivares - both under his own name.
Now comes Lost Verses Live, another collection of live material culled from the singer's recent American and European solo tours. Except for the lone Painters tune Katy Song, Lost Verses is a tidy summation of Kozelek's oeuvre since the release if Sun Kil Moon's 2003 debut, Ghosts of the Great Highway. There is, of course, that unmistakable voice: Kozelek's breathy, haunted tenor -a lament for days gone by and a plea for better days still to come. There is the meditative acoustic guitar, sometimes inflected with a Spanish lilt, other-times coloured by open-chord tunings reminiscent of John Fahey or Nick Drake. There is Kozelek's masochistic affinity for cover songs, often by artists with whom he shares strikingly little. Kozelek has produced entire LPs dedicated to AC/DC and the iconic American indie-rock band, Modest Mouse. Here, Kozelek's take on the latter's Four Fingered Fisherman and Tiny Cities have much more to do with Simon & Garfunkel than the excitable jangle preferred by Modest Mouse's singer Isaac Brook.
Most dramatically, though, Lost Verses is, like so much of Kozelek's work this decade, pregnant with memory and nostalgia. In Kozelek's musical mis-en-scene, the past hangs as thick and heavy as the fog rolling through his hometown. Months in Spain busking for "crowds of passing faces", a misspent summer stranded on Florida beaches "poor as a joke", an ex-girlfriend with fingernails painted the colour of saltwater taffy from the Jersey shore, Kozelek's recollections tickle his throat, keep him awake, won't let him be. "I have all these memories/ I don't know what for? Some overflow and spill out like waves/Some I will harbour for all of my days," he sings on April's Like A River.
Kozelek is one of the very few American singer-songwriters about whom it's conceivable to imagine now-20-year-old fans will continue to listen to with unceasing admiration long past their 40th birthdays. If Kozelek doesn't make growing up seem cool, he at least makes it mysterious, almost edgy. You envy the wealth of his experiences, but you also yearn, impossibly, for the vantage point of middle age from which it's possible to make sense of them.
Paradoxically, Kozelek's justification for his music's wistfulness, and its love of place (in Moorestown, he recalls a former lover living on North Church Street in an "attic space overgrown" and painted "Mediterranean blue") has less do with melancholic disposition. It's about his hectic tour schedule, about being a working musician, about finding yourself in a strange hotel in the south of Spain at 3am. "You're getting bounced around so much," Kozelek says, "that sometimes you're not really able to reflect on something until a few years, a few relationships down the road, when you're able to look back at this thing and finally get some perspective on it."
Despite the eerie resemblance between his singing and speaking voices, Kozelek is not the brooder his music makes him out to be. On the phone, he is casual and unpretentious, almost chipper. (He laughs about not owning an iPod and the fact that his "prehistoric cellphone" doesn't have a camera.) And he's perfectly straightforward about what he has to do to maintain his career. Sun Kil Moon rarely plays outside the West Coast. Instead, Kozelek prefers to tour as a solo act in order to take home a larger cut of the proceeds. "It's just what I have to do to make a living," he says.
In fact, the creation of Sun Kil Moon was, to a large extent, a marketing ploy. After a series of label disputes - first with 4AD, then with Island Records - significantly delayed the release of the last two Red House Painters records (1996's Songs for a Blue Guitar and 2001's Old Ramon), a fact which led to the band's disintegration in 2001, Kozelek decided he needed a new name to generate some momentum. "It really felt right to come up with a new name to get some fresh attention to what I was doing," he says. Hence Sun Kil Moon, a name taken from the Korean bantamweight, Sung-Kil Moon. (Kozelek is a huge boxing fan.) Yet precisely like the Painters, his latest project is essentially a Kozelek solo act with a catchier name.
Even in the decade's early years, after the Painters' break-up but before Sun Kil Moon's emergence, when his musical career faltered, he found a way to maintain his public profile with few small film roles. A fan, the director Cameron Crowe got Kozelek a role as the bassist in the fictional band Stillwater for his 2000 film Almost Famous. A year later, Kozelek made an appearance in another Crowe project, Vanilla Sky.
Surely, part of what makes Kozelek so appealing is the dichotomy between the profound melancholy of his music and the pragmatism that has ensured its relevance long past the Painters' demise, between the obsessions that flit violently in and out of his art and the sense of world-weariness that pervades it all, between, to put it simply, childhood and adulthood. As a boy growing up in Massillon, Ohio, Kozelek didn't relate much to his classmates. It was to their older brothers and sisters, metal-heads all, that he was drawn - a social habit that landed him in rehab before his 15th birthday. And yet today, sober for 27 years, Kozelek lives like a man half his age: alone in a one-bedroom apartment in a hip San Francisco neighbourhood. He has no children. Four years is the longest relationship he's ever been in.
He is, of course, not immune to the pleasures of settling down. Many of his old touring buddies have kids, some even have real-estate licenses, and Kozelek readily admits to envying their "stability" and the quiet pace of private life. But Kozelek is long past worrying over the choices he has made. "I remember the last two or three hours before I turned 40. I was freaking out," he says. "But then the nice thing about it is you've just become what you are and you're OK: 'I guess this was what I was supposed to do with my life.' There's something calming and peaceful about that."