“I guess the movie was something a lot of people could put their finger on,” says Mark Kozelek, his voice a dispassionate Midwestern drawl.
It’s hard to blame his lack of enthusiasm. He’s only been asked the same question in practically every interview he’s done since 1999.
Forget that Kozelek is the founder of iconic mope-rockers the Red House Painters (and, more recently, Sun Kil Moon), or that he’s released a variety of recordings that include both a tribute to John Denver and folk reinterpretations of AC/DC. Who cares about that stuff? After all, Kozelek was in Almost Famous (he played the bassist in the fictional band Stillwater).
But it’s not just interviewers who’ve latched onto this trivia. It’s Kozelek’s own family and friends, too.
“They saw it as my arrival, because they could actually see the movie in Canton, Ohio, in the mall,” says Kozelek, his tone twisting with wryness. “They could see me on the screen, even though all I did throughout the movie was nod. It was a much bigger deal for them than seeing me play for 50 or 60 people.”
Of course, it’s been five years since Famous. While he’s had a handful of other movie parts, most of Kozelek’s time has been spent playing his more established role. To his fans, he’s known as the somber musician with a knack for writing hauntingly bittersweet music that occasionally manages, often in spite of itself, to rock. It’s the sort of stuff that makes critics gush, while the mainstream merely blinks. Maybe that’s why Kozelek’s groups have always been treated like the bastard children of the indie movement.
“We’ve definitely had our share of bad luck with label switches — those things kind of set you back for a year or two,” he reflects. During his Red House Painters days, Kozelek saw his band dropped by both Island Records and artiste-friendly label 4AD. In fact, the last Red House Painters album, Old Ramon, was held in label limbo for more than four years until finally being released by Sub Pop in 2001.
Though it was largely liked by both critics and the indie rock press, Old Ramon was viewed by much of the music media as being “just another” Red House Painters album, and not exactly worth the half-decade wait. Almost Famous aside, the mainstream rags, never all that crazy about the band to begin with, seemed even more apathetic to Kozelek’s projects.
“I think the press was getting pretty bored with the Red House Painters,” explains Kozelek. “I … wanted to give the music a new identity, and to generate some excitement. Calling the band Sun Kil Moon was a way of attracting more attention.” And it worked. After changing the band’s name in 2003 and releasing Ghosts of the Great Highway (Jetset), Kozelek generated a buzz on-par with his best years with the Painters: “All of a sudden, journalists who hadn’t talked to me in six or seven years were calling me.”
Of course, buzz doesn’t pay bills. After nearly a decade of being shoved around by labels, Kozelek has recently taken a more DIY approach. “Most of the tours I do these days are solo acoustic,” he says. “For me, it’s much easier to just go out by myself. I tend to draw the same amount of people by myself, sometimes more. I wish I could afford to take the band out more, but being on the indie ghetto circuit, it just makes sense to do it by myself.”
And it’s a good thing he does. Though he’s still the victim of relative obscurity, Kozelek’s tuneful melancholia speaks to surprisingly devoted clusters of fans. “I think there is something that I do that connects with this core of people,” says the singer. “It’s not that big; it’s a small handful of people throughout the world. I hope the reason they like my music is because what I do is special and original, and I hope that it’s because this music is something they can’t really get anywhere else.”
So, has it been worth it? Has it paid off for Kozelek to cope with all the inane questions from reporters who want to know more about his bit part in a Cameron Crowe film than about his music? Has Almost Famous actually helped his career?
“It’s hard to say,” says Kozelek. “I don’t think it helped tremendously, but it didn’t hurt.”
Mark Kozelek plays the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) on Tuesday, July 19. Warren Gently opens. 9:30 p.m. $10. 232-5800.