Mark Kozelek

Coming from the same guy who sings that he’s “left with nothing more than my own soul” and “sleeps in rooms where people leave,” it’s surprising how easy it is to make Mark Kozelek laugh. As the supremely melancholy frontman of San Francisco bands Sun Kil Moon and the Red House Painters, Kozelek’s produced some of the most devastating and lovely songs to come out of the ’90s, but today, with his feet propped on a coffee table at his San Francisco home, he’s the picture of contentment.

“I’m just kind of relaxing back into my life, and I’m playing guitar a little bit every day,” Kozelek says. “The most recent guitar that I got that I love is an old ’30s L-00. I’m playing that so much right now.”

Ever since the perturbing stretch of writer’s block that followed Kozelek after Ghosts of the Great Highway—Sun Kil Moon’s 2003 release—he tries to play guitar every day, drawing from his extensive collection of acoustic and electric Gibsons.

“Last year there was a lot going on for me personally, but nothing really conducive to writing,” Kozelek says. “A whole year might go by without my writing anything. In my mid-20s songs were just coming out of me, and that was just uncontrollable and happening all the time. But I just turned 40 in January, and now songwriting is something I have to put time aside for like anything else. When you get older you lose your hair or your sex drive—you start changing, and I think that when you’re young, you’re creatively on fire. That’s slowing down for me a little bit, and maybe I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it’s just part of life.”

Kozelek’s first album with Sun Kil Moon—the band he formed after a ten-year stretch with the Red House Painters—is filled with the stuff he’s known for: sleepless nights, gray landscapes, and women whose love he can’t bring himself to requite. Adding brawn to his resonant poetry, Kozelek interchanges acoustic odes with aggressive electric solos—the same compelling formula he first used to push the Red House Painters into the spotlight in ’92.

Kozelek was 25 when the first Red House Painters album was released. “Back then it was really something to have a CD in the store. It was a really, really nice time for me,” he says.

Mark Kozelek

After several well-received albums, the Red House Painters became engaged in a frustrating label battle that delayed the release of their final album Old Ramon for three years, and led to the band’s break up. “We’re not 24 years old anymore,” Kozelek says with a laugh. “Things have just changed. The drummer in the band, he was kind of the glue that held it all together, and he’s doing really well in real estate now. I try to take him out to eat now and then to talk about music, and I can’t get him to shut up about all the deals he’s closing.”

After Red House Painters dissolved, Kozelek carried on with some inventive solo work—an album of vastly reworked AC/DC songs—and cameo roles in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky, but Kozelek soon realized the press had stopped taking notice of his work. To reinvigorate interest, in 2003 he gave his solo project a faux band name, Sun Kil Moon, and pretended to begin again. The experiment worked; the haunting Ghosts of the Great Highway won Kozelek the best reviews and album sales of his career thus far.

Of Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek says, “Some people thought it was a really bad idea, but I wanted to see if there might be some new interest in what I was doing, and it really worked. By giving it a new name, there was a lot of intrigue that wasn’t there before.”

In 2005, to cope with the aforementioned writer’s block, Kozelek made an album of tenderly re-worked and completely unrecognizable Modest Mouse songs.

“I got a certain amount of criticism for the Modest Mouse covers record [Tiny Cities],” Kozelek says. “But it came down to a choice between making a great covers record or a really shitty original record because I didn’t have any songs at that point.”

After fifteen years in the music industry, Kozelek says he’s stopped paying attention to the press like he did when he was younger. “I know my self worth,” he says firmly. “I like the Tiny Cities record, and there’s nothing anyone can say or do to make me feel bad about making the record.

“The most important thing for me is to stay busy, even if it’s doing an all covers album or going over to England for one show or helping a friend out with their record or a couple movie parts—I like making music. I like being around it.”

Carry Me Ohio by Mark Kozelek

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