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Don't Call It a Comeback 

He's been here for years, but few expected singer/songwriter Mark Kozelek to deliver such a rousing new album

Wednesday, Jan 21 2004
It starts with a quiet, distant guitar line, so you turn your stereo up, trying to find the music. There's a little smudge of cymbal, a tiny note or two from the bass -- still, it's awfully quiet. So you turn it up a little more. That's when his voice arrives, mixed way above the instruments, echoing like it was recorded in St. Paul's Cathedral. "So it's not bloated stadiums or ballparks/ And we're not kids on swing sets on the blacktop/ And I thought at 15 that I'd have it down by 16/ And 24 keeps breathing in my face, like a mad whore/ And 24 keeps pounding at my door/ Like a friend you don't want to see."

That's Mark Kozelek 13 years ago, at age 23, singing the first song off the first album by the Red House Painters, his band at the time. The record is Down Colorful Hill, the song "24." Together they introduced Kozelek and company as a group that -- amid a San Francisco music scene abuzz over acts like Primus and Faith No More -- played slow, languid music. Music that ached. Songs that hurt. Kozelek wrote reflective, confessional songs that kept you up at night, somnambulant songs about being "a million miles away from home," that asked, "Lord, kill the pain." He wrote songs about growing old, about wondering if you were ever going to be fulfilled.

It was heavy, overwrought stuff, to be sure. But there was clearly a need for it, and people listened. One of those people was American Music Club's Mark Eitzel, who played the Painters' early demos for a journalist friend of his, who in turn played them for some music executives. And when those executives heard Kozelek's pain, they sympathized, or empathized, or just imagined large piles of cash. In any case, they quickly reached for their contracts, and before you could say "multialbum deal," the Painters had one, and soon became pretty famous. They toured the world, released a bunch of records -- a few of them classics -- and came to be known as one of the defining San Francisco bands of the '90s.

Now, this is the part where we come back from commercial and reveal that drugs and drink ruined everything, right? Wrong. Kozelek had kicked that habit years before. Still, the demise of the Red House Painters is clichéd: The label fucked them over. Sort of. The bottom line is that as the sun set on the decade, so it did on the career of the Painters. The band played its last San Francisco show in July 2001. And Kozelek -- who as a solo artist had yet to release much in the way of original material (although his album of AC/DC covers was pretty damn original) -- hasn't taken a local stage since April '02. But that's about to change

Kozelek's new "band," Sun Kil Moon, released its debut last November, titled Ghosts of the Great Highway. While the album features guest musicians, Sun Kil Moon is essentially a solo vehicle for the songwriter (who is "not really comfortable with the marketing aspects of my name") -- and its music is stunning.

After scores of fans watched the Painters disintegrate and then read the shit reviews of Kozelek's solo efforts, many lost hope. By the time Ghosts arrived last year, a lot of us were just happy the guy could still get work. But then the buzz began to build, and people started buying the record. Why? It's simple: This is an amazing album, on a par with the best of the Red House Painters' output, but different, evolved, mature -- in short, delightful. At 36, Mark Kozelek has delivered one of his best works, which isn't bad for a guy who, at 23, could barely stomach the passing of another year.

Bob's Doughnuts on Polk and Sacramento is one of those quotidian nooks you find in cities from here to Cleveland to Tampa Bay. The shop is garage-size, its countertops Burger King yellow, its coffee burnt and watery. An older Asian lady runs the counter as gray-haired clients in yesterday's sweaters mutter to themselves. Jeopardy plays on a tiny television. It's the kind of place that, one imagines, hasn't changed in years. But it has.

"I knew a woman ran a doughnut shop/ She worked late serving cops/ But then one morning, baby, her heart stopped/ Place ain't the same no more/ Place ain't the same no more/ Not without my friend/ Man how things change" are lines from "Glenn Tipton," the tune that leads off Ghosts.

Kozelek, who has lived up the block for a dozen years now, used to come into Bob's late at night, when the former proprietress usually worked. Today it's midafternoon when he shows up, and the first thing I notice about him is that he's bigger than I expected. Not big like a linebacker, but not slight and wiry, as his music suggests he might be. Further contrary to his sort of depressing oeuvre is that he's just a real nice guy. He insists on buying me a buttermilk bar, and we sit at the counter, chatting over small things for a while -- homeownership, Portland. Kozelek is friendly and engaging, drawing out his words and thoughts, slowing the conversation to a manageable stroll. Eventually I get around to asking him about Ghosts of the Great Highway.

"This record -- everything that's going on with it -- just feels really good to me," he says. "And to finish it in the summer and have it come out in the winter -- it makes sense. It's like the first time. With Songs for a Blue Guitar [the Painters' fifth album] there were problems; it came out way later. Old Ramon [their sixth]: There were problems."

What he's talking about is the Red House Painters' constant struggle, during the late '90s, to get their records released. All speculation about the band's interpersonal conflicts and Kozelek's go-it-alone attitude aside (because there's simply too much to add up, and besides, a former Painter, drummer Anthony Koutsos, joins Kozelek on Ghosts, so it can't be all piss and vinegar), what's clear is that sometime around 1995, after four albums for 4AD -- whose CEO, Ivo Watts-Russell, signed the band in '92 after hearing the Colorful Hill demos -- things were not going smoothly for the group.

Written, recorded, and performed almost entirely by Kozelek, Songs for a Blue Guitar, released in 1996, confirmed the hearsay that band and label were no longer hitting it off. To let the rumors tell it, Watts-Russell took issue with an (admittedly self-indulgent) guitar solo in the middle of track three, "Make Like Paper," which pushed it past the 12-minute mark. The extra-long song wasn't unprecedented -- Down Colorful Hill's title track ran nearly 11 minutes, and every RHP album had one, as does Ghosts -- but the dispute over this particular opus resulted in the Painters' splitting from 4AD. The group found a home for Blue Guitar at Supreme Recordings -- a subsidiary of Island Records, itself a subsidiary of Polygram (don't ya just love major labels?) -- which finally put out the record in the summer of '96.

But that delay was nothing compared to the problems with Old Ramon, Blue Guitar's follow-up, which didn't hit shelves till the spring of 2001, despite its completion in early '98. That debacle was the result of Universal's acquisition of Polygram and the subsequent reorganization. Kozelek ultimately had to buy back the rights to his songs so that Sub Pop could release them.

By that point, what was left of the Painters' momentum was gone. Throughout it all, Kozelek was working on and releasing new material -- his album of AC/DC covers (What's Next to the Moon), for example, as well as contributions to various tributes and compilations. He even snagged a role as the bass player for the fictional band Stillwater in Cameron Crowe's movie Almost Famous. (My favorite line of his: "Hey, Russell, check it out: high school cheerleaders. Pull over!") But while that work might have paid the bills and kept him busy, it was starting to seem like the floundering of an artist who didn't know what to do next.

When I ask Kozelek if this new record could be considered his comeback, at first he says no. But then he thinks about it.

"There was such a buildup to [Old Ramon]," he says, "that by the time people got it they were like, 'Well, that was OK.' It didn't get a big response. Then, with the AC/DC record, it was just me playing solo acoustic, doing cover songs. ... I haven't done an interview with SF Weekly since 1999, back when I had this little part in Almost Famous and they interviewed me about that, and in fact they ripped apart the AC/DC solo record, too." (Unjustly, in my opinion; it's amazing to hear Kozelek render that band's dirty swagger as plaintive ballads.) "So all of the sudden," he continues, "people are asking me questions again, when they haven't for five years. So there is a feeling of come- back or a feeling that something new is happening."

But Kozelek is being modest: Ghosts of the Great Highway is currently No. 2 on CMJ's College Radio chart, and has been for almost a month. It has also received rave reviews in magazines around the world -- the vaunted hipster bible called it "the triumphant sound of an industry underdog finally making good on his past potential." What makes Ghosts such an achievement is that, for the first time in a long, long while -- arguably since the Red House Painters' pair of self-titled LPs from 1993 -- Kozelek is not only doing what he does best, i.e., playing sincere, earthy folk-rock, but also doing it better than he's ever done it before, pushing it further, taking it in new directions.

Where Painters albums like Blue Guitar and Ocean Beach tended to ramble, Ghosts is focused, its songs sequenced carefully and artfully. Enticed by the meditative, solo-acoustic opener "Glenn Tipton," you follow Kozelek through the crunchy rock of "Salvador Sanchez"; the 14-minute opus "Duk Koo Kim"; and the whimsical, Van Morrison-esque instrumental "Si Paloma"; arriving finally at a gentler, send-you-on-your-way version of "Salvador Sanchez," retitled "Pancho Villa."

A master arranger (the AC/DC makeovers were an exercise in perfecting that art), Kozelek shades his ruminations eloquently, adding a touch of xylophone here ("Carry Me Ohio"), a mandolin riff there ("Glenn Tipton"), and even warm, evocative swatches of strings ("Last Tide," "Gentle Moon"). These hues are used sparingly, though, with most of the album based around acoustic guitars, brushed drums, and Kozelek's vocals, which have reached their zenith, having evolved from the desperate, almost Robert Smith-like cries of Colorful Hill to the rich, leathery tenor we find here.

But the lyrics are where we see Kozelek's biggest strides. Unlike the earnest but sentimental diary entries from songs past, the lines on Ghosts paint a more impressionistic picture, hinting at themes of nostalgia and the passing of time with a heretofore nonexistent composure. Compare the anxious, distraught lines of "24" above to those of "Glenn Tipton": "I put my feet up on the coffee table/ I stay up late, watching cable/ I like old movies with Clark Gable/ Just like my dad does/ Just like my dad did when he was home/ Staying up late/ Staying up alone/ Just like my dad did when he was thinking,/ 'How fast the years go by.'"

As Kozelek is quick to point out, the common thread is honesty -- an uncompromising desire to present his own, oftentimes excruciatingly personal, truth.

"Even though '24' is really embarrassing to listen to now," he says, "it was who I was then. That was my life: I was working at a hotel, at the front desk, and I was tripping out about my fucking future, 'cause I didn't go to college like everyone else. What if things didn't happen to me and this dream I had with music?"

Luckily, things did happen -- and they're happening again.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps


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