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.
"Salvador Sanchez was killed in a car accident in Mexico when he was 23," Kozelek says of the long-forgotten Latin featherweight. "Benny Paret had a pretty big televised fight in the '60s with a guy named Emile Griffith, and the head injuries he received caused him to die. The same thing with Duk Koo Kim in the early '80s, against Ray Mancini. In the fourteenth round, Duk Koo Kim fell unconscious, and he died a few weeks later. Big tragedy: His mom ended up killing herself. The referee at the fight ended up killing himself. It was probably a year later that fights went from fifteen rounds to twelve rounds.
"I mean, in the late 1800s, early 1900s, fights were sometimes 35, 45 rounds!" he adds, laughing. "Another guy I mentioned is Pancho Villa. He was named after the Mexican bandit guy, but he was actually a Filipino fighter. He died in the '20s in Oakland -- had some teeth knocked out, and the blood poisoning killed him."
Before Kozelek gets to Mike Tyson throwing couches out the window, he takes a deep breath and considers the why of his ongoing ringside obsession.
"Something just got into my system," he says. "I don't know what it was. I remember being a kid and arguing over which guitarist in Judas Priest was better: Glenn Tipton or K.K. Downing, you know? So that's sort of a boxing reference, too. Or Jim Nabors versus Bobby Vinton. But I guess I'm just paying tribute to some guys who lost their lives really young."
Kozelek certainly knows the dangers of youthful indiscretion firsthand. A drug and booze addict by age eleven, the crooner found himself in rehab before his voice even started to change.
"People don't normally get into drugs that young," Kozelek says. "But it happens. I was sitting around in meetings with guys who were forty years old when I was fifteen. It's one of those things I wish I wouldn't have talked about, because, like anything, it can become your identity. It's been this stigma that's followed me around for years. I talked about it with the English press when I was first signed. I was such a dumbass. I thought I had to answer everything they asked me, you know? I even asked the guy not to write about this -- and he fuckin' wrote about it. And it was such a long time ago that I don't know how relevant it is to things now. In some ways, I'm glad that it happened. A friend of mine says I've got the whole VH1 story in reverse."
Clean and sober for over two decades, Kozelek seems surprised and humbled by his own success. "I just sort of paved my own way up to where I am now from the time I was a kid," he says. "I mean, I never learned to drive a car like everybody else did. We're talking about a kid that was in remedial reading for four years and never went to college and never used a computer.
"I'm in a place where it's a little bit scary," Kozelek says, "'cause all I know how to do is sing and play guitar and write songs."
And act. In 2000, Kozelek distinguished himself as Stillwater's bassist in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous.
"All you can do is hope -- hope that people like Cameron Crowe will call and say,' C'mon down and be in my movie.' I'm not a Hollywood personality, but it pays the bills and keeps the health insurance going."
With an amusing cameo in Vanilla Sky under his belt and an upcoming bit in a screen adaptation of Steve Martin's novel Shop Girl, Kozelek has plenty on his plate besides music. But songwriting comes first, whether it's turning his own psychic pain into poetry or just reinterpreting someone else's.
In the meantime, cue the clowns.
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