FOREWORD: Melancholy San Francisco-based singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek achieved a modicum of underground fame fronting the illuminating Red House Painters from ’92 to ’01. His revelatory autobiographical anecdotes also endeared a few solo projects as well as ‘03s Ghosts Of The Great Highway, a highly ambitious boxing saga credited to Sun Kil Moon (an appellation taken from a Korean bantamweight fighter). Kozelek has made appearances in a few films, including Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, and Steve Martin comedy, Shopgirl. His ’08 Sun Kil Moon undertaking, April, featured vocals by contemporaries Will Oldham and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie). This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Mark Kozelek’s distinguished acoustic-based meditations took hold when American Music Club’s like-minded Mark Eitzel discovered the lone Ohio-bred troubadour grappling to find acceptance. As Red House Painters’ mastermind, Kozelek began developing a reputation for writing protracted minimalist abstractions reflecting the misery, insecurity, and anguish of misspent youth. But don’t shed a tear for this laid-back singer-songwriter yet. A dreary low key hopefulness and compelling spirituality underline nearly every moody introspection he’s composed since ‘92s unvarnished Down Colorful Hill demos.
Living in mentor Eitzel’s hometown of San Francisco for more than a decade now, Kozelek sidestepped his band after ‘97s Old Ramon was reluctantly put on the backburner. In the meantime, he did a half-covers/ half-original solo EP, Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer, and used leftover AC/DC re-interpretations on the surprisingly heartfelt, What’s Next to the Moon.
“I enjoy surprising people by doing metal covers that make people cry,” Kozelek explains. “They say, ‘It’s such a sad song.’ I’m like, ‘Bon Scott wrote it.’ I’m not about wearing influences on my sleeve. I’d rather take a Kiss song, re-arrange it, and make it my own.”
Aided by new comrades, Kozelek’s latest endeavor, Sun Kil Moon, delivers the loosely thematic Ghosts Of The Great Highway, a grandiose dreamscape chock full of abstruse metaphoric allegories and unexpected boxing imagery mirroring true life experiences. His expressive monotone baritone drone effortlessly saddens haunted pastoral vistas, as he drowsily moans through the hypnotizing apologetic escapism of the pondering “Carry Me Ohio” and the relaxed six-string serendipity of the calm orchestral “Floating.” He slips into an elegantly mumbled falsetto whine on the tidy string-laden Spaghetti Western “Last Tide” and adapts Neil Young’s narcotic warble for the sleepy twin guitar sonic inducement “Lily And Parrots.”
Longtime Kozelek admirers won’t be disappointed by the melancholic longing hedging Sun Kil Moon’s solemn retreats. Just as Red House Painters’ brooding eponymous ’93 sets (the sprawling 75-minute rollercoaster-covered long-player and its less enthralling footbridge-cloaked follow-up) recalled deceased folk-rocker Tim Buckley – especially the graceful melodic seduction “Katy Song” and the pining lullaby “New Jersey” – the restrained nasal lyricism and lumbering atmospheric pace remain Kozelek’s trademark.
Moreover, ‘95s Ocean Beach flaunted naked blissful resolve while the subsequent pedal steel-adorned Songs For A Blue Guitar found our desolate hero going-it-alone on less expansive terrain such as the wispy “Have You Forgotten,” the distant title cut, and unanticipated slo-mo covers of Yes, Wings, and the Cars. Though delayed three years, the eloquent Old Ramon topped predecessors with its lithe tension, peaking on the arresting choral caress “Void” and the mellifluent guitar-ensconced shimmer “Between Days.”
Like the antique artwork and rustic home furnishings decorating his humble abode, wise sage Kozelek continually gains charm value.
Was it difficult making sullen songs sink in during the height of ‘90s grunge hype?
MARK: Before the Red House Painters records came out, I had difficulty developing an audience. I opened for Mark Eitzel’s acoustic band. But we were really slow so we had a major disadvantage when big bands were Primus, Jane’s Addiction, and Nirvana. I’d thought about working with producers, but they’d say, ‘What’s going on here?’ Interestingly, ten years later, incredible bands like Sigur Ros, Cat Power, and Low are doing extremely well. If they came out in ’92, they might’ve gone through the same struggle. But as an artist, I didn’t wanna do fast songs.
Is Neil Young an influence?
I definitely love Neil Young. I was introduced to music by neighborhood kids’ older siblings. My parents weren’t hip. They may have Bing Crosby records, but not Nick Drake or Pink Floyd. Bands like Led Zeppelin I got into at a young age.
While Red House Painters covered prog-rockers Yes, Sun Kil Moon’s opening track references Judas Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton.
There’s also references to Cassius Clay, Sonny Liston. “Glenn Tipton” was the scratch title. That came from being a kid arguing who the best guitarists were. You pick out the Scorpions, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest. Any band with two guitarists, you’d pick who’s better.
Many boxing allusions consume Sun Kil Moon. “Duk Koo Kim” was a Korean fighter accidentally killed by Boom Boom Mancini, leading to his mothers’ suicide.
The referee killed himself first, then the mom. I’m getting closer to knowing what that song is about. Partially, I wrote it on tour in South Korea. It’s more about things I was going through at the time. “Duk” is a metaphor for what I was worrying about in my personal life. Somehow deep down it made sense to use images of that fight.
You go South of the Border thrice. There’s “Salvador Sanchez.”
He was a fighter who died at 23 in a Mexico City car accident. His biggest fight was his last against Guyana’s Azuma Nelson. Sanchez had 42 wins, 1 loss, lived fast, died young.
Tell me about “Pancho Villa”?
The bizarre thing is there was a Mexican bandit, Pancho Villa, and also a Philippine boxer in the ‘20s named after him. He died in Oakland, 1925, from blood poisoning after getting teeth knocked out. After “Duk,” I heard Nina Simone’s “Four Women” and thought for the fuck of it I’d write a song about four men – four boxers – who died early, including Benny Parrett and Battling Shekee, who was shot to death in Hell’s Kitchen. All of them had hard, fast lives deserving tribute.
So that explains the title, Ghosts Of The Great Highway. Who, then, is Sun Kil Moon?
He was a Korean boxer who’s still alive. He was an ‘80s banterweight champ. Only in the last ten years did I get into boxing. You start watching as a series like The Sopranos. You get addicted. I’d wait for my girlfriend to get home from work to watch on cable.
Then, there’s the instrumental mariachi “St. Paloma.”
It’s just a folky acoustic song I recorded with Portuguese guitars. It’s like the Gypsy Kings. But that’s not how I expected it to turn out.
You played Almost Famous bassist Larry Fellows in the band Stillwater. Did director Cameron Crowe take their name from the ‘70s band that had a minor hit with “Mindbender”?
As far as I know, Cameron based it mostly, at least aesthetically and for the way Jason Leigh looked, on the band Free. The stuff in the movie happened to him (as a Rolling Stone reporter) with Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, and the Allman Brothers. We studied Free videos during rehearsals.
How’d the movie songs come about?
They were written by Cameron, Nance Wilson (Heart), and Peter Frampton. There were half a dozen with different people recording them. By the time I got down from San Francisco, they’d pieced it all together. They were going for authenticity and perfection. It didn’t take long to learn the bass parts.
You had a cameo in Vanilla Sky.
Now I’ve got a part in a Steve Martin movie. I hope I don’t get cut.
You served as producer for the John Denver tribute, Take Me Home.
Growing up, I didn’t listen to his stuff more than I did James Taylor, Cat Stevens, or Jim Croce. I felt when he died he deserved respect. It bummed me out no one acknowledged my borrowings from him. “Glenn Tipton” is a complete rip-off of his cover, “Darcy Farrell.” Consciously I didn’t steal it. But if you AB that with “Tipton,” it’s very similar. But he’s never been given credit as an influence. It’s always someone I don’t listen to. No one took him seriously so hopefully I showed people he wrote great songs by having Will Oldham, Innocence Mission, Rachel Haden, Tarnation, and Low cover him. Probably only a few thousand people bought the record, but now they know some new amazing songs.
You also seem inspired by your physical surroundings and nature – much like John Denver.
There are always references in my music, whether it’s parks, trails, ponds, lakes. As an artist you can’t help but be inspired by stuff around you.