Seeing Red

Red House Painter Mark Kozelek wants you to know that he isn't suicidal.

Midway through a telephone interview, Mark Kozelek, the artisan behind Red House Painters, says, "If I haven't been articulate, maybe you could edit me a little. I sound like a retard when I blab. So try to make me sound like I know what I'm talking about."

Actually, there's no need to tinker with Kozelek's quotes; he's exceedingly well-spoken and confident-sounding--a fact that's apt to startle anyone who's read Painters profiles over the years. Almost since the beginning, Kozelek has been portrayed as a halting, skittish wreck whose recordings constitute tortured cries for help. Scribes have consistently described him as a loner so depressed that suicide wasn't simply a possibility, it was a near certainty.

Of course, these depictions are not entirely without foundation. Kozelek wouldn't claim to be Little Mary Sunshine; after all, his moodiness dominates the Painters' five ravishingly gorgeous full-lengths (including this year's Songs for a Blue Guitar, on Supreme/Island Records). But neither does Kozelek spend his spare time rubbing knife blades across his wrists--and it bothers him that so many people believe that he does.

"Let me tell you something," he says. "Every time anybody mentions to me that they went onto the Internet and found old articles about me, I get the grossest feeling in the pit of my stomach. Because they don't represent who I am anymore. It's the equivalent of having somebody walking around showing everybody some dorky old picture of you, only multiplied by a thousand."

These pieces from the recent past have tended to focus on Kozelek's childhood in Massillon, Ohio--a period that's echoed in tantalizing numbers such as the current disc's vivid, deeply personal opener, "Have You Forgotten." Young Mark was a troubled lad who wound up in rehabilitation for a drug and booze habit at the startlingly early age of eleven. Three years of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings later, he was cured of his taste for addictive substances, but he found himself so alienated from the rest of society that he crawled into a shell from which he hardly emerged until he was seventeen.

Music helped Kozelek decide to rejoin the human race. While still living in Massillon, he formed a band called God Forbid, a phrase that lives on as the name of his publishing company. He subsequently moved to Atlanta, where he formed the Painters with drummer Anthony Koutsos. When the two relocated to San Francisco, they brought the group's moniker with them. Along with Koutsos, bassist Jerry Vessel and guitarist Gordon Mack (recently replaced by Phil Carney), Kozelek soon began to win over Bay Area clubgoers with his exquisite confessionals. Among those wowed was Mark Eitzel, leader of the American Music Club, who agreed to shop some Painters demos to industry types. The cassettes eventually wound up in the hands of Ivo Watts-Russell, the owner of 4AD Records, who offered to put them out on his label pretty much as was.

The resultant disc, 1992's Down Colorful Hill, struck a nerve with pessimists everywhere. Musically, it's deliberate, gentle and evocative--in short, the perfect setting for Kozelek's pensive ruminations. While his romantic allusions are overwhelmingly downbeat--in "Medicine Bottle," he intones, "Giving into love/And sharing my time/Letting someone into my misery"--his philosophical musings make such gripes seem chipper by comparison. Throughout "24," for instance, Kozelek (who was around that age when Hill rolled into stores) sounds as resigned and weary as an elderly man on his deathbed.

Themes like these spurred reporters to probe Kozelek about his background, and the singer responded by revealing every lousy thing that had ever happened to him. When asked about these bits of biography today, Kozelek doesn't dispute their verity; instead, he focuses on his regrets over having shared them so willingly with members of the British media, who promptly circulated them to the far corners of the globe. "I was so naive," he notes. "I just figured that I had this record company that was sending people over from England and putting them up in a hotel, so I should go over there and answer every question they put to me. And man, that was really a mistake. I talked about a lot of things I shouldn't have talked about.

"I definitely had a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety and a lot of problems in my life at that time. I was in a state of shock. I was living this average-Joe existence one day, and the next day, I was in these two-page spreads in NME and Melody Maker that were comparing me to Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed. On top of that, I wasn't comfortable performing, and yet the record company was flying us over to London for one-off shows where there were 150 journalists on the guest list. The whole thing just made me really distraught, and so I'd do these interviews where I'd be like, 'I hate my record company,' or 'My girlfriend doesn't love me,' or 'When I was little, my dad did this or that.' I was just talking about all this shit. It was like I couldn't shut up."

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