Seeing Red

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

From that point on, Kozelek was depicted as a flower too delicate for this world, even though his next several albums implied that this reputation was no longer deserved. Red House Painters, which appeared in 1993, is at times reminiscent of the Smiths at a low emotional ebb, but the music behind tracks like "Mistress" and "Strawberry Hill" is sturdier and edgier than before. Another self-titled CD from 1993 plays even more overtly with listeners' preconceptions. The first sound heard during "Evil," the initial track, is a Kozelek chuckle; later he renders "Star-Spangled Banner" so elegiacally that it would have been the perfect coda for Independence Day--had the aliens won, that is.

Clearly, Kozelek has no interest in spending a career fulfilling stereotypes, and he proved it in 1994, when he made a rendition of the KISS cut "Shock Me" the centerpiece of a Europe-only EP. He wanted to go even further in this direction with his next album, working up versions of Yes's "Long Distance Runaround," the Cars' "All Mixed Up" and, of all things, Paul McCartney's dreadful "Silly Love Songs." Unfortunately, neither these selections nor the electric-guitar solos Kozelek placed on them amused 4AD boss Watts-Russell. He demanded changes, Kozelek reports, "and I said, 'Absolutely like no fucking way. This is the record I want to make, and if you don't want it, I'm selling it to another label.' Which I did."

The disagreement between Watts-Russell and Kozelek has formed the centerpiece of most recent press about Red House Painters, to Kozelek's chagrin. He confesses to being upset by the situation but adds, "I don't really want to dis 4AD. They put out all my records, and when I wanted to leave, they let me. They could have totally deadlocked this record and made it so that I couldn't have put it out with anyone else, and they didn't. I appreciate that. But I guess I didn't enjoy being a smaller part of a larger art project--and that's the way I felt there a lot of the time."

Right now, Kozelek is happy to be with Supreme, a spinoff of Island Records. And while he feels a bit frustrated that some of the gentler numbers on Songs for a Blue Guitar are being overlooked in favor of his reworkings of familiar ditties by other artists, he's justifiably proud of the disc's left-field entries.

"I always hated 'Silly Love Songs,'" he reveals. "Always. But I decided to do it anyway, for the same reasons I've done all my cover songs. Maybe I'm in a record shop or a thrift store, and I buy a Wings or a Cars album for a quarter. And I take them home and listen to them--and if I'm bored, I'll get out my guitar and do something new to them.

"It's a lot more creative to take something completely off the wall like that and make it your own instead of doing exactly what everybody else wants you to do. People will tell me, 'Why don't you guys do a Nick Drake song?' and I'm like, 'Oooh, that's really inventive. That's really original.' But doing something like 'Silly Love Songs' actually is rewarding, because people don't even recognize it when I do it my way. It totally feels like my song now." He concludes, "I guess I'm turned off doing things that make too much sense."

Which explains, in a way, why the current publicity photo for Red House Painters finds the musicians facing away from the camera. "We really wanted a good picture, but we couldn't get it," Kozelek insists, laughing. "We're getting older--we don't look that good anymore. Believe me--we spent four days taking pictures, but when we'd find one that three of us liked, the drummer would go, 'Man, I hate the way I look in that one.' So it made sense to go with the one where nobody could really see us."

Of course, what seems to Kozelek like an example of cheeky humor might strike other observers as an indication of his painful shyness and inability to face the rigors of daily life. "That's why it's really important to me to communicate better than I used to and let people know what I'm like now," he says. "So that in three years, when people tell me that they looked up this article on the Internet, I'm not going to feel sick about it."

John Cale, with Red House Painters. 9 p.m. Sunday, October 13, Boulder Theater, 2034 13th Street, $15, 786-7030.

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