On the phone from Los Angeles, Red House Painters frontman Mark Kozelek speaks the way he sings. There's a hint of pent-up anger in his voice, but he's not the sort of person who screams; like one of his songs, Kozelek unloads his feelings wearily, subtly, slowly, over time. Ask him when his band's new record is coming out, and his answers -- or lack thereof -- come out like sighs. But talk to him about the movie in which he's acting, and he's in a pretty good mood.
About a month ago, Kozelek abandoned his Nob Hill home -- temporarily -- to move into a Marina Del Rey apartment and prepare for a speaking role in the next film by Cameron Crowe, director of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Singles, and Jerry Maguire. The movie doesn't have a title yet. But through September, Kozelek will be playing the bassist in a band called Stillwater, whose music, he says, "resembles Free a lot, and maybe early Bad Company." Peter Frampton and Heart's Nancy Wilson (who's also Crowe's wife) are working as music consultants; co-stars include Billy Crudup, Jason Lee, Anna Paquin, and Frances McDormand.
It's Kozelek's first acting role; set in 1973, the movie is about "a 15-year-old journalist who goes on the road with a rock band, and his job is to get a cover story for Rolling Stone." In other words, it's the story of Crowe himself, who at the ripe old age of 15 was writing feature stories on the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, and Fleetwood Mac for that same magazine. Crowe balks at the idea that the film is autobiographical, insisting it's just "about music and the music world of 1973."
Crowe was first introduced to Kozelek's music on the set of Jerry Maguire, when his assistant played a Red House Painters album for him. "I love his voice and I love his songwriting," says Crowe. "[His music] became a part of our world around here. So when we had some parts open, we had to bring him in and try him out."
Crowe faxed lines to Kozelek, which the singer simply ignored; he improvised his audition and got the part. "He's a great musician and a great actor," Crowe says. "He must never, never take acting lessons. Lessons would be of no help to him." The film recently ended pre-production and has begun actual filming. For Kozelek, it's a nice little break from the mess of his music career.
Old Ramon, which will be Red House Painters' sixth album if it's ever released, has been finished for over a year now. Its 11 songs were recorded by Kozelek and the rest of the band (drummer Anthony Koutsos, guitarist Phil Carney, and bassist Jerry Vessel) over eight months in Mendocino, Austin, San Francisco, and Cotati, at a recording expense of $150,000. But the band's label, Supreme Recordings, hasn't been able to settle on a release date. The CD was originally slated to come out in January; its release was later pushed back to March. Now, according to Supreme President Jeff Jacquin, the record will come out "September-ish, maybe August."
Supreme Recordings -- and by extension Kozelek -- is a victim of circumstance, caught in the chaos of the record industry's recent turmoil. Founded in 1995 by Jacquin and movie director John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller's Day Off), Supreme was a subsidiary of Island Records; the Painters' previous album, 1996's Songs for a Blue Guitar, was one of its more high-profile releases. But with Seagram Co.'s Universal Music Group's absorption of PolyGram last December, the label's status was called into question. Employees were fired, bands were dropped wholesale, and labels consolidated -- including Island, which was folded into Mercury Records in January.
Supreme survived, however, though it functions with a three-person staff and just one other band on its imprint besides Red House Painters. Regardless, Jacquin is confident that Old Ramon will come out soon. He notes that Island's recent hiring of a new director of artists and repertoire will help Supreme "lock in a date."
At this point, Kozelek isn't convinced.
Talking about Old Ramon gets him stammering. "The thing about it is ... there's ... it's so hard to ... it's crazy." He points out the revolving-door status of Island Records presidents, the fact that all the supporters of the band at the label have left or been fired, and says that every week he gets a different story about the album's status.
"I've been extremely patient with these people," he says. "Every time I talk to them, I feel like they're buying a little more time with me. They've said, 'Let's give it a few weeks, we're gonna talk to this person or that person.' Basically I've been so patient, and if maybe by the middle of June ... if there isn't a release date scheduled for sure by that time, I'm just gonna get my lawyer and try to get out of this deal because I need to find somebody that can put this record out. It's just been too long."
Old Ramon is a fine extension of Kozelek's tinkering with electric guitars and moody acoustic ballads, a path he began drifting down -- everything about Kozelek's music drifts -- 10 years ago. In the late '80s he began playing San Francisco clubs and coffeehouses. Blessed with a rich tenor and a willingness to metaphorically slash his wrists in public, Kozelek caught the attention of Mark Eitzel, which helped him land a contract with Britain's 4AD, whose moody folk and rock acts release albums with elegant, sepia-toned cover art.
Critically acclaimed but modest-selling albums followed, the finest of which remains 1995's Ocean Beach, a collection of gorgeous acoustic madrigals, clarion-call electric guitar hooks, and one mordant 13-minute song, "Drop," that's the best Kozelek's ever written. A deathbed meditation along the lines of Van Morrison's "TB Sheets," it lays out all of Kozelek's passive-aggressive tendencies: He's in love, sure, but as he tells the woman lying there (lover? sister? mother?), "My hate for you makes my feelings altogether drop."
Kozelek's main talent is his ability to write a confessional love song without coming off like a whiner or a wimp. Once upon a time, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Richard Thompson, and Neil Young were all masters of that trick, but Kozelek's best moments have proved you can still twist the knife in the '90s with an acoustic guitar. "The attention I need is much more serious/ A kind of weight you couldn't lift," he croons on "Mistress," and then the kicker: "Even if your cheap career depended on it."
Yet he's capable of making a joke: "I picked up my brush-painted blue guitar/ And I ripped off the chords from 'Bron Y Aur,' " he once sang. And he has funny taste in cover songs: On record, he's made Kiss' "Shock Me" and "The Star Spangled Banner" sound like some of the greatest love songs you've ever heard, and recovered Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs" as a lyric worth hearing. "I hate that song," Kozelek says. "I absolutely hate that song, [but] there's redeeming qualities in lyrics that you don't see because of the stupid production and the stupid musical arrangements and the stupid melody that goes with it."
By comparison the songs on Old Ramon are simply pretty; the stakes don't seem quite so high for Kozelek, and the songs aren't quite so desperate. The opening "Wop a Din-Din" is about Kozelek's cat, a subject he uses to tinker with the language of abusive relationships, to wit: "If I roll and kick around/ I might knock her to the ground/ But she'll come back anyhow." Elsewhere, he romanticizes driving in Los Angeles ("Cruiser"), John Denver ("Golden"), the Midwest ("Michigan"). What's most engaging about Old Ramon is its textures: the gracefully massaged feedback, the backup vocals that chime in, the way a song like "River" waits longer than five minutes to unfurl its wash of guitars.
If it's not Kozelek's masterpiece, it's still a record of which he can be proud, and worth releasing for reasons beyond simply trying to recover a six-figure recording debt. In the meantime, he'll have to settle for knowing that at least two records of his work have actual release dates this summer. On July 20, 4AD releases Red House Painters' two-CD Retrospective, which includes one disc of songs culled from the group's four albums for that label, and a second devoted to previously unreleased songs, live tracks, and demos. And on June 8, local label Badman Recording Company releases Shanti Project Collection, which includes four Red House Painters songs -- a portion of the profits from the sales will go to the Castro's AIDS support organization Shanti Project. The album also includes tracks from like-minded sleepy rock groups Low, Idaho, Hayden, and Misc (fronted by Badman owner, album compiler, and friend-of-Kozelek Dylan Magierek). In addition to "Find Me, Ruben Olivares" and a demo version of Old Ramon's "Smokey," two of Kozelek's contributions are covers, more unlikely suspects from pop history: Genesis' "Follow You, Follow Me," and Neil Young's "Midnight on the Bay."
Mostly, though, it's all Hollywood for Kozelek, at least for the time being. "I hate to even talk about these things," he groans. "I'm really, really glad that I got this part in this movie. I'm having fun, it's great. But I wish my record would come out, and that my band could be out doing what we do.