Red House Painters’ Mark Kozelek: ‘There’s A Bad Feeling That Comes With Playing Solo Too Much’

With former Red House Painters guitarist Phil Carney recently granting the Bad Penny his first-ever interview (and an MP3 premiere), the time seems right to resurrect my long-lost conversation with Mark Kozelek. Conducted August 14, 2001, it is surfacing online for the first time. And, because interview with the indie demigod are hard to come by, the full piece is presented here – all 4,900-plus words, warts and all.

It took me a couple of times to reach Mark Kozelek, the heavy-hearted professor behind Red House Painters, over the telephone.

The first attempt was met with a very lengthy message that may or may not possess some greater meaning. I later learned from Kozelek the origin of the recording: It was an excerpt from “Body and Soul,” an obscure 1981 B-movie starring Leon Isaac Kennedy. A remake of the like-titled 1947 film with John Garfield, the movie concerns a boxer scrambling for money to pay for an operation his younger sister desperately needs.

The message (Kennedy’s voice) went like this: “Almost all of my life, all I can remember saying is, ‘Yes, mama. Yes, mama, I will try and do better. Yes, mama, I will try and do it your way. Yes, mama, if that’s the way you want it, then that’s the way I’ll do it. Yes, mama, I’ll try to get straight As. Yes, mama, do this. Yes, mama, do that. Yes MAMA, yes MAMA, yes MAMA, yes MAMA, yes MAMA.’ Mama please, why don’t you let me off all of this? I go through all that I’ve been through. And now I got money, I got myself, and I am somebody.”

OK …

Kozelek picked up the next time I called him. He had just returned from touring Europe with his fellow Painters – drummer Anthony Koutsos, bassist Jerry Vessel and guitarist Phil Carney – brushing off what was more or less a three-year reunion. No, the band had never officially broken up, but for many forlorn fans, it had seemed a brief eternity since the San Francisco gang had waddled into the studio or out on the road. Intense label disputes with Island tossed their sixth effort, the 1997-recorded Old Ramon, into the major-label abyss of lost recordings and abandoned albums.

But the Painters – and Kozelek – were far from dead. In the 1997-2001 interim, the Koz churned out two solo records: Rock ‘N’ Roll Singer, a Badman-released EP featuring a mix of AC/DC and John Denver covers, plus original cuts; and, giving the Aussies their full due, What’s Next to the Moon, an early ’01 full-length of Kozelek-style AC/DC renditions.

Not to be overlooked is Kozelek’s credit as producer of Take Me Home: A Tribute to John Denver, his score for the upcoming indie flick “Last Ball” and, most visibly, his role as bassist of Stillwater in Cameron Crowe’s coming-of-age rock film, “Almost Famous.”

At long last, the Painters recently saw the release of the 71-minute Old Ramon on Sub Pop. But as if they hadn’t been spanked hard enough by bad luck, Kozelek and Koutsos were diagnosed with salmonella poisoning at the end of their summer European tour. No shows were canceled, but as Kozelek says, it was one hell of a trip back home.

Red House Painters' Old Ramon

I heard about the salmonella poisoning. How’re you feeling now?

It’s all right. We had kind of a rough little trip. We played in Spain, and it was a lot of flying in a short amount of time. We just went out to play one show, and me and the drummer started feeling sick to our stomachs. We’re feeling that now. I misplaced my prescription, so I’m trying to call my doctor and get it refilled. But I’ll be all right. … It’s pretty hard. The worst stomach pain I’ve ever had. It’s pretty bad.

How long has it lasted for?

This is probably the eighth or ninth day.

Did that cut things short in Spain?

No, we didn’t start feeling sick till right when we left.

Must’ve been an awful plane ride home.

Yeah, the plane ride home … the thing is, you get dehydrated anyhow, that’s what this thing does to you. And you’re taking stuff like Pepto Bismol, which dehydrates you, too. On top of that, you get on an airplane. … My mouth is really numb and dry. But I’m just really glad to be home now.

Yeah. How’s it going up in San Francisco these days?

It’s fine, everything’s great. Taking it easy. I’ve been gone a lot … I was home for a little bit, then we took off again. But now I’m pretty much home for the rest of the year, there’s really nothing scheduled, which is a great feeling. Usually there’s something scheduled, so when I’m home, I can’t relax completely, because I know there’s something coming up. But it’s a great feeling. … Right now, I don’t have plans for the rest of the year and really don’t have to do anything for the rest of the year if I don’t want. I imagine I’ll probably play a few shows and I might get started on another record, not anything anytime soon, but it’s just nice not having anything scheduled, not having to do something.

Do you have any non-music endeavors in the works?

I’d love to, but I don’t really know how to do it. I’d love to get another part in a movie again, but it’s a lot of work. Number one, I don’t drive. I’d have to get down to Los Angeles. … I mean, the two Cameron Crowe bit things that I’ve had have come easily, because he’s a fan of my music. I think he knows that I can’t act, but he thinks I’m interesting, so he’s putting me in these movies. But to get other parts in movies aren’t going to come that easy for me. It’s going to mean a lot of work. … I don’t think I have the confidence to pull something like that off. I’m not an actor, I’m not trained, I’ve never taken acting classes, don’t know anything about it, it’s not really any world that I’ve ever been passionate about being involved in. For me to go down to L.A. and start doing that, it’s like … I dunno, it’s just beyond anything that I can really conceive of myself doing. So I’ll just wait around for Cameron to call me, or for Cameron to recommend me to somebody. I’d like to do it. … Other than that, I don’t know what I would do.

What sort of commitments are involved in being in those movies, time-wise or location-wise?

Well, “Almost Famous” was a big commitment. That was six or seven months. In the Tom Cruise movie (“Vanilla Sky”), I’ve only got one line – like a cameo – so I was in L.A. for about a week. That didn’t affect anything. But “Almost Famous,” same thing: That really didn’t affect anything, either, because there was really nothing happening at the time. The time I got hired for that, my record that I had done with Island was put on a shelf and wasn’t going to see the light of day for three years. I had all the time in the world to do solo records, the movie, the John Denver tribute and whatever else came along.

During that time you were waiting for Old Ramon to be released, did you have any concept at all about when it would come out?

Not really. It was from month to month, from week to week, from day to day, it was all a different story. There might be some news that I had received from my lawyer that would make me believe that it could be three or four months away. But then a week later I’d get some news that it would be a year. It was so complicated, because all the people we’d worked with at Island, they weren’t there anymore. So I personally wasn’t dealing with people, and they weren’t being very responsive about getting back with us. Because why should they? It wasn’t a situation where we were some band that they could just make huge amounts of money from. We were a band they were trying to get rid of. So the whole thing was really complicated, and from day to day I just never knew which way it was going.

Did dealing with all that bureaucracy cramp you artistically, either in the long-term or the short-term?

I guess one of the things I’ve learned from being in this business is that things are just the way they are, and it wasn’t the first time I went through it. Once this becomes a business … this used to just be writing songs for me, and I used to work a regular day job, and I’d come home and I’d work on songs and play Wednesday night at little bar with my band. But then once it becomes a business, it’s like you’re pretty much surrendering a lot of things. You’re giving a lot of things to being a part of this – being part of a label, touring and making records. It becomes a whole different world. And you don’t really know sometimes which way things are going to go. You can make a record and be ready for it to come out. But it might not even be a big problem. …

It’s just like putting a movie out. They might think, “Well, we really want to get the movie out in December.” But then they find out that “Titanic” and “Braveheart” or whatever are going to come out at that time. So they push it back. It’s the same thing with records. The labels sometimes have ideas about when things should come out. It kind of just becomes the way it is. And for me, I kind of look at it like having those three years off where Old Ramon didn’t come out, a lot of good things came out of it. I did a couple solo records that I was really proud of, and I got to know Cameron Crowe and got to be part of that whole Hollywood scene, which was something I’d never even dreamed of. Here I was hanging around with these actors who had been in all these movies. I wouldn’t take that experience away to put Old Ramon out a little bit earlier. It may affect me bad in some ways, but in other ways it put me ahead, because it kind of opened up my world a little bit to other things. I got to make a good living. When Cameron Crowe called me and hired me for that movie, I was broke. Music was not paying my rent at all. So there were good things that came out of it.

Take Me Home: A Tribute to John Denver album cover

With your frequent covers, the John Denver tribute and even “Almost Famous,” there seems to be a certain romance associated with rock music in the past 20 or 30 years ago that isn’t here anymore.

Well, there might be a little bit of that. That’s my vocabulary with music. It’s interesting, because growing up, I had these records, these vinyl albums. It was easy to get attached to the whole package and to know the names of all the songs. There just wasn’t a lot of bands. You’d have a band like Led Zeppelin, and there was no other band like Led Zeppelin. Or like the Doors … who else was like the Doors? Now, whatever band you have, you’ve got 50 other bands that sound like ‘em, too.

And the thing of it is, too, now I don’t even know the names of songs of any modern-day band that I like. I don’t like looking at the CD packages, because they’re so small. They hurt my eyes. Everything’s written so small and so obscurely … I just can’t fall in love with that type of art. So if I take these CDs on the road with me, I just take the CD, I don’t take the art.

I dunno if it’s because when you’re young, everything’s new to you and you’re discovering all these new things. But it was a lot easier for me to fall in love with things at that time than it is now. Those are my references. It’s just natural for me to cover a Led Zeppelin or an AC/DC song than a Stereolab song … I just need to do it. So “Almost Famous” was a coincidence, that I kind of ended up in that.

It was a very cool experience. … When that kid is looking through that little stack of vinyl that his sister gives him, looking at those records, those are my roots. It was the same thing – not so much with my sisters – but with friends of my older brothers and sisters. I remember going to their house and looking up in their bedroom at their posters. That was how I discovered this whole thing. So as far as covering the songs goes, it’s not about paying tribute to that time. I really like rearranging things and making things my own and making things unrecognizable. I would do it with modern-day bands, but I’m more inside the older music. So it’s easier for me to take Bon Scott’s lyrics or an Ace Frehley song or a John Denver song. … For some reason, I’m much more inside it. So, therefore, I’m able to take it apart a little easier and make it into something, more than I could, I think, with more modern music.

On that note, is it difficult to place your music, or Red House Painters’ music, within the realm of contemporary music? Can you locate where you fit among other bands of today?

I think we fit in today pretty well. It’s kind of funny, because all these things I’m telling you right now, if I was telling a fan that – I don’t know if you’re a fan or not, but someone who’s a fan that’s not a journalist – they’d be grossed out by everything that I’m saying. They don’t really relate. It’s funny, because the older I get, the more I go around, the younger and younger the people are that I meet. I meet people that are fans that are 20, 21, 22, and they have no knowledge of this older music at all. So for me to even talk about it is, like, “Whoa, it’s so old,” they can’t relate to it. So obviously we’re making a connection with people that are younger that don’t have those bands as a reference. And how that is that we fit in with that, I don’t know. The music that we are associated with, it’s not those old bands that I listen to. It’s Magnetic Fields or Low or these other bands that are around now.

You’ve also said that, in regards to covers, that you like to do “unlikely things.” Does that carry over to your music as a whole?

I’d say somewhat. We’ve never really paid attention to the rules as far as standard indie-rock things to do. And I think especially that early on in the ‘90s, when our first record [Down Colorful Hill] came out, we were definitely breaking the rules. Our first album was a full-length album that was six songs; nobody was doing that at the time. And at that time, when our record came out, there was no one around that was really like us at all. There were no bands that were playing slow with the exception of Codeine, a band we found out about later. But when our record came out in the Bay area, there was this big punk-rock movement – Primus and Psychefunkapus. When we were making this type of music, Nirvana was big or whatever. When we were making this music before the record came out, Jane’s Addiction was the big thing. I think we didn’t pay attention to any of that. We just did what we wanted to do and I did what I wanted to do.

And now, I guess you could say, it’s kind of a standard section of indie-rock now. There’s a lot of bands now that play music slow, and it’s not something anybody needs to warn anybody about anymore. When we were doing it early on, people would have to warn people, like, “Well, you can go see them, but they’re really slow. I don’t know if you’re going to like it.” There was nothing else like what we were doing. And now, it’s like, you don’t really need to warn people. There’s a dozen bands you’ve heard of that play music really slowly. So I don’t know now if what we’re doing is that unusual.

Something else you’ve said is that it’s important for you to get across what you want to get across. Are you worried about people misinterpreting what you’re getting across?

I’m not so worried about it, no.

And do you feel like you’ve succeeded getting across what you want to get across with Old Ramon?

I don’t really know. I feel like Old Ramon is a good record. But I think the problem with it coming out so late is that it got hyped so much. If it had come out when it was supposed to come out … it was a cool record, and [people said,] “What are you guys going to do next?” It just got billed as something bigger than it was. There was this mystique built around it just because it took so long to come out. People would be like, “Wow, what is this? What’s it going to be about?”

I think it’s a good record, but now it came out. I don’t think it was the big, life-changing album that maybe people were hoping that it was going to be. Not that it’s been criticized badly, but it was just an album. It was just music, it came out and it’s kind of over now. We’ve done the tours to support it, and we’re thinking about what we’re going to do next.

Do you listen to Old Ramon much?

No, I don’t listen to it, mainly because there was this stigma that clung to everything about that album from the get-go. There were so many things politically … there was so much ugliness, with being at war with the label, with having to pay lawyers a lot of money to get it back. So many complications and so many people that would ask me what was going on with it that it became more than just an album. Because of that, it made it very difficult for me to want anything to do with the album. I think it’s a good record, I enjoy playing songs from it on the tour, and I’m sure that years from now, I’ll still enjoy playing some of those songs. But to sit and listen to it, I really don’t do that with any of the records anyhow.

The title of Old Ramon is based off a Spanish children’s book. Where did you find that book and what is it about?

I don’t even know. When I was working on the record in Austin, I was in a café and came across the book. I just saw a book and thought the cover was interesting and the name was interesting. I looked through it and sensed that it was maybe along the lines of “The Old Man and the Sea” or a Hemingway book. But it was Spanish, and something about the name … I just thought it had a certain classic-ness about it or something. There was no other title, and I just came up with that.

You wrote and recorded the song “Golden” in one day. Isn’t that pretty unusual for you?

Yeah. It happens sometimes. “Have You Forgotten” from Songs for a Blue Guitar was written the same way. It happens occasionally. I wish that sort of thing would happen more often. I usually work really hard on songs. I’ll come up with a good idea and have a good foundation, but then I’ll spend some time editing and trying to figure out different ways of playing it in the music. The lyrics aren’t quite right. … That’s usually how I go about it, but occasionally something just unfolds and there it is. That was one of them.

“The Mission” turned out to be a 20-minute song – that also just sort of happened. Why was it left off the album?

It was just too long. I didn’t like it. We have a live version of it that’s really good, but we recorded it and it sounded sort of lifeless and like it had been labored over too much. If it was amazing, it would’ve been on the album. But it just wasn’t.

Do you feel drained by recording, or are you able to feel relaxed during the process?

It must be exhaustion, because I want to eventually start working on another record, but I don’t want to do it in a recording studio proper. I have this bizarre neurosis about it now, or some phobia about it. I think I’ve spent a lot of time in studios, and even though it’s been years since I was in a formal studio proper, I just don’t want to do it again. I don’t want to sit behind one of those huge boards with those big tape decks, I just don’t want to do it. And it’s expensive. Every day you’re sitting in that studio, it’s 1,500 bucks. Before you know it, your budget’s eaten up, and you’re calling your label telling them you need more time and more money. It’s just stress.

I’m definitely passionate about it when I’m in there, and I like to get good work done, and I care a lot about what I’m doing – but it’s stressful. I don’t know. Maybe a few years from now … I may end up in a studio. I may have to. But I want to just buy some equipment, get a friend of mine who knows how to engineer and just do it in my apartment, do it at somebody’s house, do it in a hotel. … Anything but going into the studio.

So that’s what you’re going to push for with your next recording?

I think so. I think I want to try to keep it simple somehow and just figure out a different way of doing it besides being in the studio.

What brought you to Mexico, where you wrote “Between Days” and “Wop-a-Din-Din”?

I went down there to play a show with the band. It was just a one-off show. Then I just ended up staying for a while. I met a girl and stayed for a couple months.

Going along with what you were saying about an over-proliferation of bands, that seems to be the case with labels these days, too. Why did you choose Sub Pop?

We were about to sign with someone else, but we were kind of in a problematic situation for a while. We had incurred this debt with Island and there was nobody that could really afford to buy the record back. And then we got into a situation where we got the record back cheap enough where people could afford it but couldn’t really do anything on top of it. They couldn’t commit [to] the tour support, they couldn’t really give us an advance.

Sub Pop did two things: One, they offered us the best financial deal, better than anyone else offered us; and, two, they expressed a lot of enthusiasm. They were calling, and they really, really wanted the record. The label we were going to sign to – I won’t mention [them] – they acted like they were doing us a favor by putting the record out for us. They treated us like we were these old washed-up guys that have this album that, “Yeah, they could sell a few copies of it, let’s do these poor old guys a favor.” Sub Pop didn’t treat us that way at all. So they put out the record.

How’s the “Last Ball” soundtrack compare with your other recordings, and how was the recording process?

I’d really like to do something like that again, too. That was kind of an unusual situation, because they had hired someone else to do the score. Just about a week before they needed to have the movie turned into somebody for some festival, they ditched the score and hired me to do it. I needed to have it in, like, within a week. I was in Baltimore at the time and took a train up to New York, where these guys were, and I sat in a hotel room with, like, three or four guys sitting in a room with me – the producer and this guy and that guy – and came up with music for these little cues.

I think it came out good, I saw the screening they did of it in L.A. I’m really proud of the music, but I could’ve made it a lot better given different circumstances where I could’ve worked on it from the beginning and really had time. It was a really high-pressure situation. I mean, the people I worked with were really cool and relaxed but at the time put a lot of pressure on me. I wish I could’ve been able to do more with it. It just ended up being something simple, and I think it works well with the movie.

How does it feel playing with the band again? Did you get sick of playing alone before? Does it feel good to be playing with other guys again?

It feels good. It’s hard to explain, really, but when you’re a songwriter in a band, there’s a certain bad feeling that comes with playing by yourself solo too much. It’s OK to go around the country and do it once in a while, but when you’ve done it once, then twice, then you go to Europe and tell people, “Oh, I have this record coming out. Next time, I’ll be here with my band,” and then a year later you show up by yourself again, you just start to feel like a loser. You start to feel like you’re taking advantage of your fans. You start to feel like a liar, like there’s no one else that believes in you, so you’re out there by yourself. There’s just not a great feeling that comes along with it. So, for me, it felt good after this many years to go out and show people, “See, I still do have a band.”

There were so many rumors that we’d broken up. That doesn’t make you feel good, either, to know that there’s people who think, “Did these guys quit on me or something?” So there we were as a band, and it felt good to be doing that. But there’s good and bad to come with both. I still like playing solo acoustic, and there’s a certain connection, and I feel like there’s a certain connection I make a lot [when I play] solo acoustic that somehow I don’t feel like I can ever make with the band. I think it’s that with the band there’s a certain regiment, you have to follow a set list because you’ve got these three other guys up there, you’ve kind of rehearsed to do this one thing. But by yourself, I don’t know, you can be more spontaneous. I kind of like both.

But considering the fact that you’ve been touring by yourself for a few years now, does that spontaneity carry over to the Red House Painters?

It does a little bit. It’s hard, because we have these open tunings with the guitar. We have a guitar tech that hands us these guitars, so once that guitar’s in your hand, that’s really the only song you can play, the one that’s there on the list. But with solo acoustic, if I decide in the moment to change something, I can maybe bullshit a little bit onstage, change the tuning and make it happen. With the band, it’s like if I do that, then the rest of the guys are kind of lost. It’s not really the way it’s supposed to be when we play live. It just kind of can’t be that way.

But there’s still a great feeling that I get when I play with the band that I can’t get by myself, either. When we’re playing the endings of songs and I’m feeling really connected with the band, and we’re improvising and creating things right then, that is a really great feeling, and that one I really don’t get that much by myself. But I guess that’s the reason why Bob Dylan and Neil Young, they’ve done it so many different ways over the years. I like to do it the same way, but on a much smaller level. For me, it keeps it fresh and interesting to do both. Now, when I go back out, I want to go out by myself.

I just did a couple months as a band, and it got to where it wasn’t as interesting to me by the end of it. So I think it’ll be interesting to go play these shows by myself.

Originally published as “Red House Painters’ Mark Kozelek: Back In Red” in The Big Takeover, late 2001.

Other interviews you might enjoy:

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Nick Cave: Saint Nicholas And The Nocturnal Muse
Getting To Know Mark Lanegan
• Mark Linkous, Forever Sparkling

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