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A Quietus Guide To The Work Of Mark Kozelek
Scott McKeating , July 27th, 2011 07:34

Mark Kozelek is one of the acts playing the Quietus Village Mentality Stage at Field Day this year. Here, Scott McKeating explores notable moments from his career

Mark Kozelek has a reputation for being good company for misery. From his days in the now defunct Red House Painters to Sun Kil Moon, he's always been the main songwriter and primary focus of his bands. That's not to diminish the playing or instrumental input of other musicians and band members, but when someone talks about the work, songs or achievements of either band, they mean Mark Kozelek. And sometimes, it really was just him.

From his beginnings in 1989 with Red House Painters on the incurably cool 4AD with a raft of drug-slow folk rock ballads dipped in reverb, through his solo guitar and voice AC/DC cover/reinventions and to his upcoming tour documentary, Mark Kozelek has seemed like a man happy to wallow in the bleak. Like other artists who deal in songs about loss, regret and self-defeating emotions, he's been tarred as a one-man depression – the thing is, there really isn't a whole lot of humour and happy resolution in Kozelek's work. It's clear there's a disparity between Mark Kozelek the person offstage, even between songs, and the songwriter – an issue that Kozelek has been vocal about for a long time. But sometimes, sad music is really as bleak as it feels. Rarely is it as consistently exceptional as the work of Mark Kozelek, though...

4AD (record label for first four LPs)

In those early days, Red House Painters might have seemed like an ideal fit for the 4AD label: ether-dipped droning folk rock performed by a terminally shy frontman. The Mark Kozelek of those first few albums was a man whose music was in a state of transition. From their reverb-drenched vocal, ambient-fingerprints on the guitar and sometimes epic song lengths, Kozelek was at heart a less obtuse American rock writer. The band were not goths or poetry obsessed anal retentives and, much to the disappointment of fans, Kozelek was not a man whose personality resembled 'The Wreck of the Hesperus'. For all that was made of Kozelek's rock star reticence, a big part of that early mystique was fostered by 4AD - an independent British record label with an aesthetic so powerful that it pulled bands into its gravitational pull and coated them in something that became very hard to remove. It's possible that resident label art aesthete Vaughan Oliver could make a Melvins record feel like a soft brush of a sepia lily garland. As Kozelek and his writing evolved, 4AD didn't feel they could accommodate lengthy melodic guitar solos or covers of songs by Wings or Yes.

‘Shock Me'(bonus album track from Red House Painters aka Bridge)

A great cover version will shine a new light on a song; an amazing cover sounds like the song no longer belongs to the original artist, with the track's DNA having been so radically altered that it becomes something new altogether. Kiss' ‘Shock Me', as done by Red House Painters, is such a DNA reshuffle.

Released by Kiss on their fairly suggestively titled and adolescently saucy Love Gun LP back in 1977, the original is a piece of throwaway pop rock. Lyrically, it's a teenage boy's jockstrap of a song that's stuffed with innuendo, comparing sexual thrills with differing levels if electrocution. Red House Painter's take on the song shares the original's lyrics, but little else. Where Kiss' 26-year-old Ace Frehley sang with a complete po-face about orgasms (and continues to do so at 60), Kozelek managed to draw out shades of complex sedulity, insecurity and desire from the song. 'Shock Me' becomes an adult exploration/conversation (that's adult as in grown–ups, not the festering abusive/corrupt world of porn) of a sexual relationship that manages to be both about the potential adoption of S&M play and about desire/need in a sensitive way. Kozelek plays the dumber lines of the song as either heartfelt or with a nuance of hesitance or shy humour, it's a transformation. Red House Painters even managed to create a grand doom riff (heard throughout the song and at its beginning) for what's essentially a slowcore ballad that's more metal than pretty much everything else Kiss did. Strike one to shy boys.

'Down Through' (album track from Red House Painters aka Rollercoaster)

"I still feel the sting in my hand from when I hit you." Admissions of domestic violence in love songs, however steeped in regret, aren't that common. Not many couples have been announcing 'Down Through' as 'their' song, and it's certainly not going to be on any wedding DJ lists or blasted tearfully at funerals. This isn't to say that the song isn't a magnificently skeletal piece of downbeat and sinking folk, a beautifully simple three minutes of Kozelek's droning worn-out vocal and sharp guitar. While there is definitely a heavy sense of regret in the song's slow plummet, Kozelek isn't explicit about the ins and outs of what happened. The song is drenched in the imagery of loss, struggle and distant redemption, Kozelek only getting explicit about the incident again when mentioning the "the violence that runs in my blood" at the song's end. This sort of guarded confessional is Kozelek's forte, stripping himself to a hypersensitive core and shading the result in haziness. Along with ‘Katy Song' (also on the Rollercoaster album) it's probably the song that best represents Red House Painters' early 4AD days.

'Katy Song' (album track from Red House Painters aka Rollercoaster)

Eight minutes and twenty three seconds of near translucent, painkiller-speed, autobiographical music. Released back in 1993, it's probably still the holy grail of Mark Kozelek's music, and thankfully it's never become a spittoon of bitterness for a man who's released about twenty other albums since. On paper, the lyrics certainly describe a relationship that's basically unpleasant, or possibly one that's deteriorated - to the point where Kozelek throwing back past insults seem a lot more bitter than "a final sleep / no words from my cutting mouth to your ear / or taut wicked pinches from my fingers to your bitter face that I can't heal".

The beauty of the record is that it captures the bewildered gut-punch of the lonely and the dumped. The last 3:40 of 'Katy Song' could be callously summed up as an extraordinarily lengthy coda of la-la-ing while someone coaxes a rack of pedals; it's probably more 4AD than a lot of 4AD. Kozelek's vocals are slowly spiderwebbed and swallowed in reveries of reverb, singing like the last man alive on the oars of a ghost ship. With something as self-indulgently glorious as this, the only way to end it is to fade out, guitar and Kozelek going on past the record's end.

Selling Out? (Ads for Gap and Gears of War)

Back in the days when people seemed to enjoy a good snort of indignation at the idea of ‘selling out', Red House Painters did not give a fuck. Back in 2000, a time when letting your music be used in adverts was akin to suicide, blasphemy and career-holocaust all rolled into one, they had one of their cover versions used in a Gap ad. Their version of The Cars' 'All Mixed Up' is a swirl of martial drumming, soft strums and soaring wall of guitars; Kozelek's confused vocal underpinning swells and lulls.

More recently, Sun Kil Moon's 'Heron Blue' was used in a trailer for Gears of War 3. If we conveniently ignore all the horrors associated with the issue of Gap and child labour (a news story which I don't believe had broke at the time of this advert, although I may be wrong) and with the kind of damage playing Gears of War 3 can do to a young mind, Kozelek is unequivocal about his stance on selling out and ads.

"I don't think of it in those terms. Honestly, I just look at the zeros on the end of offers and decide from there. I need to eat and pay bills and taxes like everyone else. If along the way Gears of War helps me reach a wider audience, it beats mailing thousand of CDs to college radio stations that no one listens to anymore."

'Wop-a-Din-Din' (album track from Old Ramon)

Kozelek has written more than his fair share of love songs. He's written a few from other people's shares of love songs as well. 'Wop-a-Din-Din' is a subtly skewed kind of love song though, and it's always interesting to find out at what point a new listener clicks that the song is about his cat and not a special lady friend. For a Red House Painters opening track, it's an odd upbeat moment and fine twist on the desolation he often opens albums with. The sound of 'Wop-a-Din-Din' marks a mild departure for Kozelek too; it's a fuller sound that doesn't rely on the invisibility of FX or the mask of production. So he writes a gorgeous melody, pens lyrics about his cat, titles the aforementioned track after a ridiculously named drum machine and gets a ramshackle chorus sung in Spanish (y'know - just to seal the deal). Fortunately, he makes the whole thing sound heartswellingly sweet, a song with a coat of humorous self-awareness - something that might've been there previously in interviews and stage banter, but not on the albums.

Old Ramon (Red House Painters album)

After being let go/pushed out by 4AD, Red House Painters released Songs For A Blue Guitar in 1996 on a weird subsidiary of Island, Supreme Recordings. The band's record label problems continued, and the follow-up album Old Ramon was left languishing in a ridiculous record company limbo. If there was ever stark and irrefutable proof that some record company execs don't even like music, this was it. Kozelek, unhappy to see it in stasis and unwilling to let it become another fodder for yet another Q Magazine feature on lost LPs, bought it back. Released on Sub Pop in 2001, it's still the clearest and most easily accessible of all Kozelek's records. Informed by a love for classic rock, with lyrics that seemed a little less insular than his explicitly dark relationship autopsies, Old Ramon is a slow aching drive of a record. West Coast rock never sounded so human.

Mark at the Movies

While Kozelek has popped up in a few fairly high profile films, he's certainly not attempting to carve himself a job as an actor. While the roles have definitely been notable in a pop culture sense, Kozelek is not going to be troubling Daniel Day Lewis at auditions or appearing on the radar of the Oscars judging panel. It was his friendship with director Cameron Crowe has led to his first couple of roles, the most infamous of which was a blink and miss mouthful of abuse in a scene with a disfigured Tom Cruise in 2001's Vanilla Sky.

Crowe's earlier, semi-autobiographical Almost Famous saw Kozelek take a slightly larger role, the bassist of the movie's fictional amalgam of Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Eagles. In 2005 he once again played a musician, the lead singer and guitarist for the fictional Hot Tears, in Shopgirl. Written by Steve Martin, the film has a decent enough subplot led by Jason Schwartzman and Kozelek, but the whole shebang is marred by the fact that it's utterly impossible to believe Steve Martin would end up dating the decidedly younger Claire Danes.

Admiral Fell Promises (Sun Kil Moon album)

Released under the Sun Kil Moon name, Admiral Fell Promises is as close as a true solo studio LP as Mark Kozelek has gotten to date. With his main inspirations seemingly comprised of classical and flamenco, and with the shortest track coming in at just under five minutes, on paper Admiral Fell Promises reads like a hard pill to swallow. Ten tracks constructed out of only Kozelek's vocals and his nylon string guitar, it's sparse at times and as cold as its list of ingredients would suggest, but that's not to say that it doesn't manage to carry a sense of hypnotic twists and turns. Kozelek's picking style creates loops that slowly shift in and out of the song's structure, and in fact, it's the longer efforts like 'Half Moon Bay' and 'The Leaning Tree' that really give Kozelek a chance to stretch out and reconfigure the songs' DNA on the move. It's these near-improvisatory flows that stretch the album's best moments beyond its sparseness into something deceptively rich.

Mark Kozelek: On Tour

Watch a trailer for Kozelek's tour documentary here

The perception of Kozelek as a notoriously private individual has definitely softened in recent years; in interviews he seems to have accepted a certain level of obsession from fans. Back in the days of Red House Painters there were rumours of a potential short fuse when faced with after show über-nerds, nowadays he's apparently quite the accommodating gentleman. Being painted with a brush that sees you as urinating on your art every time you crack a smile must have been a pretty tiring image to keep knocking down. Mid-August sees Kozelek self-release a tour documentary/live bits DVD - and the trailer is both what you'd expect and a wrong footer. There are the typical moody tracking shots of a gas station and a glance of America's open plains, but it also features eight seconds of Kozelek in fits of laughter. Now that's got to be worth the price of entry.

Mark Kozelek plays the Quietus Village Mentality Stage at Field Day in Victoria Park, London on August 6th. Also on our stage are Faust, Anna Calvi, Gruff Rhys, About Group, The Sea & Cake, Konono N°1, and Omar Souleyman,. For more information and tickets, visit the Field Day website