>I thought it was about time I got around to celebrating the work of Mark Kozelek, a cult songwriter extraordinaire if ever there was one and what better opportunity to combine separate themes albeit somewhat tenuous considering the man’s actual acting career amounts to just three movies- Almost Famous (2000), Vanilla Sky (2001) and Shopgirl (2005)- the first two of which are directed by one of Kozelek’s most visible champions, Cameron Crowe.
But though his time on screen is fairly brief, his presence is significant enough to command attention and act as a form of entry ism to those unfamiliar with the work of this often shy, reticent fellow who pens songs of such delicate beauty & tender strength that even attempting to describe his work seems too glib and does an injustice to Kozelek’s haunting music.
Kozelek first emerged in the late Eighties with his band Red House Painters. Formed in San Francisco in 1989, Red House Painters were basically a vehicle for Kozelek’s songwriting with a regular line-up of drummer Anthony Koutsos, Gordon Mack on guitar and Jerry Vessel on Bass backing him up on stage and in the studio.
The band released a series of critically acclaimed albums throughout the Nineties including Down Colourful Hill, Red House Painters and Ocean Beach through the specialist UK indie label 4AD, home to other alternative acts such as Cocteau Twins and The Pixies.Songs such as “Grace Cathedral Park”, “Drop”, “Mistress” and “Summer Dress” were haunting elegies to lost innocence, broken love, childhood sentiments and faded memories with Kozelek’s yearning, emotionally wracked voice and unsettling lyrics at the fore backed with a stark, minimalist folk rock sound often played at an extremely slow tempo, enveloping the listener in it’s melancholy atmospherics and evoking the detailed reveries contained within of a personal diary or photo album.
Red House Painters- Summer Dress (1995)
Despite building up a loyal underground following in the UK and Europe, Kozelek became frustrated with the creative and budgetary constrictions that came with being on an independent and in 1996 signed to Island Records subsidiary Supreme Recordings who released their fifth album Songs For a Blue Guitar.The band also recorded a sublime version of The Cars track ‘All Mixed Up’ for the Alicia Silverstone/ Benicio Del Toro film Excess Baggage and seemed to be on the verge of a commercial breakthrough.
Red House Painters- All Mixed Up (1996)
However, despite an excellent response to the more expansive, electric guitar based sound featured on Songs, it got lost in the commercial shuffle due to internal record label politics at the time surrounding the Universal Music takeover of Island. Polygram in the late Nineties which effectively put a number of smaller bands in distribution limbo including Kozelek’s project.
His career with Red House Painters now stalled, Kozelek continued to perform and record as a solo artist, releasing the Rock n’ Roll Singer EP in 2000 and a full length album entitled What’s Next To The Moon in 2001, the latter an ambitious re-recording and re-arranging of AC/DC classics that’s up there with his best work.
With the final Red House Painters Old Ramon on the shelf and without a label , it was around this time that Kozelek was approached by longtime fan, Cameron Crowe to play bass player Larry Fellows in his semi-autobiographical valentine to rock music; Almost Famous.
This was Kozelek’s first acting role, playing the deadpan bass player in a fictional Led Zep style rock band called Stillwater and though he has few lines, his deadpan reactions effectively communicate the lived in weariness of the career musician and long suffering band member. And personally, it was just downright comforting to see an undervalued and supposed ‘cult’ figure as Kozelek being involved with something mainstream and getting some recognition at last.
Almost Famous (2000)
Kozelek’s working relationship with Crowe continued with Vanilla Sky, a 2001 remake of the Alejandro Amenabar’s Spanish thriller Abres Les Ojos. The film is already somewhat of a favourite of mine but was elevated by Kozelek’s presence. Well, presence is maybe too generous considering his actual acting part solely involves mocking the Tom Cruise’s characters facial disfigurement in a nightclub toilet.
It’ s a now you see him, now you don’t moment, walk on role. But, the singers presence is felt even more keenly on the film’s soundtrack with a heart-rending re-recording of “Have You Forgotten?“ from Red House Painters’ Songs For a Blue Guitar album. Let’s just say, a few manly tears have shed listening to this track.
2001 was an important breakthrough for Kozelek with Old Ramon finally being released through Sub Pop records and the Red House Painters name effectively being put to rest. In 2003, Kozelek emerged under a new band name, Sun Kil Moon with a line-up that included former RHP members, this was in effect the same band with a bigger, chunkier, Neil Young-esque guitar and a more upbeat outlook and feel which resulted in the superb Ghosts of The Great Highway album, released through an independent label.
With his career back on track, Kozelek set up his own label, Caldo Verde Records releasing the second Sun Kil Moon record Tiny Cities, an album of Modest Mouse cover versions in 2005. That year he was offered another acting role in a movie version of Steve Martin’s 2000 novella Shopgirl. The film’s director Annand Tucker was admirer of Kozelek’s music and wanted him to play the lead singer of a band called Hot Tears, whose touring amps are designed by on of the film’s main characters Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman).
Kozelek gets to perform two Sun Kil Moon numbers “Carry Me Ohio”, ” Parrots & Lillies” as well as a Red House Painters track “Make Like Paper”, again show off his easygoing, laidback rocker persona whilst exposing his music to a wider audience.
Kozelek has since released two further Sun Kil Moon albums, 2008’s April and 2010’s Admiral Fell Promise, further refinements of his acutely personal, melancholy reshaping of classic rock and roll forms. Both were warmly greeted by a now dedicated fanbase further cementing his reputation as one of America’s most gifted yet underappreciated singer/songwriters.
Sun Kil Moon -Heron Blue (2008)