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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."

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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