By Dennis Cook
The general consensus is someone who is incredibly beautiful is not also incredibly intelligent or deep. In a culture that fixates on surfaces, this stands to reason. To be lovely is enough, why imagine more? Like all generalizations, it covers a great many, but the ones it misses are often wonderful in ways that shatter easy summations. Mark Kozelek is one of these exceptions. With indie rock faves Red House Painters, in his new band Sun Kil Moon, or as a solo artist, Kozelek has crafted some of the densest, most melodically sumptuous rock in the last decade. His exceedingly pretty tunes are always paired with a fierce, grappling, poetic hand, reaching wide for meaning and some sense in the things we do to each other. But don't ask Kozelek how he does it. He doesn't know.
"It's always been the most difficult thing for me to talk about. I don't know why. When the creative process comes up, a part of me freezes," says Kozelek. "I've been asked to be on singer-songwriter panels like [South By] Southwest, but I don't know what I'd say. I really don't fully understand what happens. It's a moment that sort of takes over. You sit down, and you're compelled to let what's inside of you come out somehow. Yeah, sometimes I get into the craft of it, but overall, I'm trying to create a great piece of art somehow. When I think I've written something good, the payoff is amazing. You just feel so complete when that happens. I just want to make the most perfect, or even imperfect, thing I can."
I kept quiet so you'd think my heart was tough
I never showed you if I loved you enough
The dreams I had yeah I kept but I wouldn't dare
Share with you for fear of things still living in me
The first time I saw the Red House Painters was a CMJ showcase in the mid-90s. Playing to a hometown San Francisco crowd, the club was attentive in a way you don't see much outside of Europe - that is except for a visibly drunk hipster behind me who kept whispering "Horse With No Name" under his breath. Over and over this guy repeated the title of America's infamous heroin-themed '70s radio hit. Kozelek's music taps that warm populist vein, but with a flair for circumventing expectations. Pop songs don't usually have such emotionally arresting electric guitar or extended denouements full of shivering feeling. He cranks it up as well as anybody, but it's his knack for delicacy that put him on the map. The Red House Painters and Kozelek's subsequent work paved the way for today's successful slow rockers like Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), Cat Power, and Sigur Ros. Kozelek gets how music goes together, flirting with classicism while inverting it as the spirit moves him. The result is a quiet space in a world mad with chatter and enveloping noise.
Red House Painters by Carol Irvine
"Growing up I loved John Denver, James Taylor, Neil Young, Cat Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel. I grew up with a lot of these '70s singer-songwriters. These were guys that went out and toured. They brought a couple guys on stage, and they played soft, acoustic music for the most part," recalls Kozelek. "On the other side, I grew up with a lot of the super groups like Pink Floyd and Yes. I think that's where a lot of my more intricate influences came from. I think it all sort of merged together into this thing I do. From a really early age, it's something I was attracted to. I don't know if it has anything to do with the world, but I've always been looking for that quiet place."
The ocean breathes salty, won't you carry it in?
In your head, in your mouth, in your soul
The more we move ahead, the more we're stuck in rewind
Well I don't mind. I don't mind. How the hell could I mind?
His latest project is Tiny Cities, a loving reworking of Modest Mouse compositions. It is the second release under the Sun Kil Moon banner, a band name Kozelek says is "just a Korean guy's name with the spelling changed a bit. I like the way the words sound together." He's done interesting cover tunes throughout his career, including the boffo versions of Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs" and Yes' "Long Distance Runaround" on the Red House Painters' 1996 album Songs For A Blue Guitar. However, a song or two is one thing, but nearly a dozen Isaac Brock tunes is another matter.