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Mark Kozelek, Genghis Blues, Raisha Simmons lives

Wednesday, Mar 8 2000
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Back in Bleak Mark Kozelek's in a good mood these days -- surprising news for a fellow whose perkiest song is titled "Lord, Kill the Pain." Around this time last year, the Red House Painters frontman's career was in chaos: Music industry restructuring had thrown Old Ramon, the group's most recent album, into limbo as the Painters' label, Island Records subsidiary Supreme Recordings, was in the process of closing up shop. That album, the band's first since 1996's Songs for a Blue Guitar, still doesn't have a release date, but at least now Kozelek can see the light at the end of the tunnel -- the group recently bought the record back from Island/ Supreme, which allows it to start looking for a new label.

"We're going to wait for about two months and look at the offers," says Kozelek. "We're not disregarding money, but we want to see who has the best plan. It's easy for some people to come up with the money, but we want to see what the best deal is in terms of releasing the album, tour support. We'll know by May or June. We could even put it out ourselves, if we wanted."

The Red House Painters have been on hiatus for well over a year, but Kozelek says this year the band will start touring the European festival circuit, though except for a gig at Western Washington University next month, Kozelek says he's done with solo shows in San Francisco or elsewhere. "I kind of feel like people are sick of me doing solo shows, and I'm sick of it myself," he says. "It's time for Red House Painters to get out there and play."

Kozelek spent time in Los Angeles last fall acting in Cameron Crowe's latest movie, tentatively titled Stillwater, in which he played the role of a bassist in a fictional '70s rock band of the same name. The film finished shooting in October; to the best of Kozelek's knowledge, it will be released in the fall. During Kozelek's L.A. stint, the Red House Painters' old label, 4AD, put out a two-CD best-of of the band's work, Retrospective, and reissued the band's back catalog as well. The group has always been popular overseas and within San Francisco city limits, but its caustic, slow-moving folk rock never garnered more than a cult audience in the U.S. That did change slightly with the reissues, though. "I've gotten some royalties," says Kozelek, with a hint of surprise in his voice. "What's interesting, as far as 4AD goes, is that our records have always done better in Europe than here. With these reissues and the Retrospective record, they sold better here than in Europe."

Kozelek also has a pair of projects planned for the upcoming months. On June 13, local label Badman Recording Company will release Rock n' Roll Singer, a Mark Kozelek solo EP whose seven songs feature the previously released "Find Me, Ruben Olivares" and three AC/DC covers: "Rock n' Roll Singer," "You Ain't Got a Hold on Me," and "Bad Boy Boogie," which -- in typical Kozelek style -- are irreverent toward the songs' tempos and melodies but make the lyrics sound like genuine poetry. On April 18, Badman will also release the long-awaited John Denver tribute album Kozelek spearheaded, Take Me Home, which he'd been trying to put together since almost immediately after Denver's death in a plane crash in October 1997. Kozelek knew that Denver would be a tough sell as a musician worth paying tribute to, and he notes that a few of the artists he asked -- including Pearl Jam, R.E.M., and Dead Can Dance's Brendan Perry -- declined to participate for precisely that reason.

But if Take Me Home doesn't present Denver as any sort of folk-pop genius, it at least shows there's room for interpretation: The album includes loving and non-soppy reworkings of the Denver oeuvre from Bonnie Prince Billy (aka Will Oldham), Rachel Haden, and Low, as well as locals Tarnation, Granfaloon Bus, Hannah Marcus, and RHP themselves, plus a Kozelek duet with Mojave 3 singer Rachel Goswell. "[Denver is] somebody I listened to all my life, just as I listened to James Taylor and Cat Stevens," says Kozelek. "Not that I like John Denver any more than James Taylor or Cat Stevens or even Neil Young, but he didn't get respected the same way. ... He had a lot of great songs that were overshadowed by some of the silly decisions he made, like going on The Muppet Show and songs like 'Thank God I'm a Country Boy.' I kind of wanted to make people aware that there was more to him than that."

More information about the albums is available at www.badmanrecordingco.com.

Blues Note When Roko Belic talks about the Oscar nomination for the documentary he and his brother Adrian made, Genghis Blues, he says he's happy just to have been nominated, of course -- but he actually sounds like he means it. "It's surreal," he says. "When we started making this movie, I thought that maybe we'd be able to show it in a theater somewhere, or get it at the Castro on a Sunday afternoon."

But Genghis Blues became much bigger than that. The film, which showcases the life story of local bluesman and Tuvan throat singer Paul Pena -- who most famously wrote "Jet Airliner" for the Steve Miller Band -- spent two weeks at the Castro, got a national release, rave reviews, and finally scored that Oscar nomination; now, if the Belics are very lucky, it'll beat out Buena Vista Social Club for Best Documentary. More immediately, Roko is worried about who gets to fill the four seats he's been allotted for the awards show in L.A. on March 26; right now he, Adrian, their mother, and Pena will be going, though he's trying to find a way to get the film's "co-star," Kongor-Ol Ondar, to come down as well. Pena was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer shortly before the film screened at last spring's San Francisco Film Festival, and Roko says he's doing fairly well these days; donations to the Paul Pena Fund are helping him meet his heavy medical expenses, which, however, do continue to accrue.

There has been talk of plans to reissue Paul Pena's records -- a well-received 1973 album that's been out of print for decades, and a follow-up album including the original "Jet Airliner" that's never been released. "We're still working on it," says Roko. "We're getting closer with a couple of possibilities. What's been great about all the e-mails and calls we've been getting in support of Paul and the movie is an interest in his music." There are also plans for a new edition of the Genghis Blues soundtrack with more songs featured in the movie. Updates and information about donating to the Paul Pena Fund is available at www.genghisblues.com.

Oops David Cook's story about saxophonist Sonny Simmons ("Re-Illuminated," Music, March 1) erroneously stated that Simmons' daughter Raisha recently passed away. One of Simmons' daughters did die recently, but not Raisha, who is alive and well and living in Washington. We apologize for the error.

Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to Mark.Athitakis@sfweekly.com, or mail them to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.

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Mark Athitakis

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