Mark Kozelek – Rocky Mountain Highway To Hell
Red House Painters did return to the record racks in 1999, with a two-disc collection on 4AD titled Retrospective covering the band’s early years. As such projects go, it’s more interesting than most, with the first disc featuring highlights from the group’s four 4AD releases and the second disc gathering fourteen outtakes and live demos that help fill out the bigger picture.
The 4AD collection, the Crowe movie, the Denver tribute and the solo EP basically helped keep Kozelek active during the industry-imposed down time. “I did some solo touring in the beginning of last year, and I got hired for that movie, and I thought, well, this [the Island deal] will be taken care of by the end of the movie,” he says. “But by the end of the movie, we still weren’t out of our deal. So Dylan [Magierek, owner of Badman Records] called me when I was in L.A. and said, ‘Do you wanna do a little solo thing?’ So I said sure. It was something to do to stay busy, and to give people something until this record comes out.”
The Denver tribute and the AC/DC-oriented EP aside, Kozelek is eager to have a record of new Red House Painters material in the racks, and to get back on the road with his band (which includes bassist Jerry Vessel, drummer Anthony Koutsos and guitarist Phil Carney). In effect, it’s purely circumstantial that his current projects focus on his strengths as an interpreter.
“I would like to be known as a songwriter, but I can see how that could be a perception right now,” he says. “But hopefully Old Ramon will come out, that’s got eleven original songs, and it’ll remind people that I write my own songs. But that’s just how it is. I mean, you put out a ten-song record, like Songs For A Blue Guitar, with three cover songs, and people will talk about those cover songs.”
Looking past the remarkable reworkings of Yes, Wings and the Cars, Songs For A Blue Guitar was indeed equally noteworthy for its original material, containing the best writing of Kozelek’s career. “Have You Forgotten” is a classic opening track, its simple acoustic guitar strums and Bruce Kaphan’s tender pedal steel touches framing Kozelek’s achingly nostalgic recollections of childhood memories: “When we were kids, we hated things our sisters did/Backyard summer pools, and Christmases were beautiful/And the sentiment of color-mirrored ornaments/And the open drapes look out on frozen farmhouse landscapes.”
The haunting harmony vocals of Stephanie Finch (best-known for her work with her husband, Chuck Prophet) highlighted the title track, while the 12-minute opus “Make Like Paper” found Kozelek stepping to the forefront on guitar as never before. At the time he was just emerging from the shadow of the Red House Painters’ original lead guitarist, Gorden Mack, who had quit the band prior to the making of the album.
In fact, the entire band had quit, which is why Blue Guitar was recorded with veteran musicians Davey Faragher (bass) and Michael Urbano (drums), best-known for their work with Cracker and John Hiatt, plus pianist Dan Barbee. But the original RHP rhythm section rejoined to tour behind the album, and Carney was added on guitar, though Kozelek has taken on most of the lead-playing duties himself now.
“For the most part, that record was done pretty spontaneously,” Kozelek says, explaining that some of the songs were cut within a few days of when they were written. “It’s really important that sometimes you get an opportunity to do that. Sometimes you write a song and it’s ready. And I’m walking around all day and I’m singing it in my head, and I’m ready to record it now. And that’s when the stuff comes out good.
“I try not to make demos anymore because I always feel like I capture a certain magic in demos that’s really hard to redo when you go into the studio,” he continues. “Sometimes you overthink it — like, ‘How did I do that right the first time?’ But I think that that’s how it works: You record a song, you capture that essence, but sometimes you have to find a new way to do it later. Because that essence gets burned out, by playing it the same way too many times.”
ND co-editor Peter Blackstock doesn’t think the world has had enough of silly love songs, as long as those who play them are willing to thoroughly fuck shit up.