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Right now, the song stuck in my head is 'Send in the Clowns' -- the Judy Collins version," says Mark Kozelek from a hotel phone in New Orleans, where he's scouting for real estate. "I heard that in an antique shop yesterday down on Magazine Street, and everything just kind of froze. There's those songs you hear where everything just kind of stops, you know? I've always been attracted to melancholy, and it's a very melancholy song."
No kidding. As the prolific songwriting force behind the Red House Painters and, most recently, Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek has maintained his impressive twelve-year career by penning songs of misery and loss. From early Painters' sketches on Down Colorful Hill to songs by his new band, the 37-year-old native of Massillon, Ohio, finds inspiration in just about anything, from old Clark Gable movies to broken-down roller coasters, from brown eyes to dragonflies. A man for most seasons -- especially a sepia-toned autumn -- Kozelek can deliver an amusingly offhand line like "It was unintentional when I spit in your beer" and somehow make it sound poignant. He's also earned a reputation as a uniquely gifted cover artist. In fact, he'll rework damn near anything: the entire catalogue of John Denver and AC/DC; select cuts by Kiss, Yes and the Cars; Paul McCartney's atrocious "Silly Love Songs," which he fashioned into an eleven-minute scorcher on par with Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer"; and even a baffling version of the "Star-Spangled Banner."
"I tend to sort of rearrange those things and make 'em my own," Kozelek says. "It's something that I've just naturally gravitated to for a long time."
Sucked into the beauty of the acoustic guitar as a teen, Kozelek got his start with a homespun trio called God Forbid (also the name of his publishing company). Years later, after meeting drummer Anthony Koutsos in Atlanta, the earliest incarnation of the Painters headed West, enlisted Bay Area bassist Jerry Vessel and guitarist Gordon Mack, and soon caught the attention of the American Music Club's Mark Eitzel. Sharing Eitzel's enthusiasm for the band's confessional troubadour, London-based Ivo Watts-Russell issued the Painters' unvarnished demos on 4AD, plus back-to-back eponymous full-lengths. The fourth release ushered in a seemingly endless cycle of label-hopping.
"Ocean Beach was the final recording we did on 4AD," Kozelek says. "I really feel like that was the first record where I was coming into my voice and just beginning to get comfortable with who I was as a songwriter. It was the first one where we'd recorded the songs just after I'd written them, so there was a freshness to it."
Beach's 1996 followup, Songs for a Blue Guitar, launched Kozelek and company onto Island/Supreme, a subsidiary imprint owned by film director John Hughes. Guitar -- which gained exposure in TV commercials and the stinky Alicia Silverstone vehicle Excess Baggage -- remains the one Painters release that Kozelek considers his most accessible. But with his band in disarray at that time, the singer's marriage to a major label quickly dissolved.
"The record where we really got stuck was Old Ramon,which was recorded for Island. Then we were dropped, and that didn't come out for about three years," Kozelek recalls. "We've always had trouble with labels."
Fortunately, Sub Pop released Ramon in 2001, while Kozelek was recording an entire elegy for Badman Records in honor of Aspen's late golden boy, Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. Take Me Home: A Tribute to John Denver features contributions from Low, Mojave 3 and Bonnie Prince Billy, among others. In a flurry of activity, Kozelek also produced a pair of Shanti Project benefit compilations for the Bay Area imprint, both designed to improve the lives of AIDS patients. As a head-scratching encore, the frontman-turned-solo-artist reworked ten Bon Scott-era rockers into acoustic strum-alongs, turning the likes of "Riff Raff" and the blow-job anthem "You Ain't Got a Hold on Me" into warm folk chestnuts. Not as conceptually cockeyed as it sounds, What's Next to the Moon surpassed novelty while hitting the sweet, pastoral side of Australia's reigning misogynists.
"I feel the need to surprise people from time to time," Kozelek says. "I think people took to it pretty well. I think even now they don't realize that some of those songs are AC/DC songs."
And yes, metal mavens, Angus and company have heard it. "Three years ago in London, there was a documentary being shot about bands who were somehow influenced by AD/DC," Kozelek recalls. "It actually has them talking about the record and how when they'd first gotten it, they'd brought it onto the bus and listened to it. And they seemed, like, really impressed, you know? So that was pretty cool.
"No one I ever have covered has contacted me," he adds.
With the recent unveiling of Sun Kil Moon's Ghosts of the Great Highway, Kozelek consults his own muse exclusively. Ten original numbers cover the emotional gamut from bittersweet to gut-wrenching, trading Crazy Horse-styled guitar rumble ("Salvador Sanchez") with gorgeous chamber-enhanced instrumentals ("Si Paloma"). A string trio on loan from the San Francisco Conservatory combines with the exotic tones of the Portuguese guitar to give the album a swelling Mediterranean feel. But its central theme is far from breezy: In discussing the album's overarching pugilistic obsession, Kozelek rattles off boxing-related trivia like a morbid sports buff.