Almost happy

After years of hassles, Mark Kozelek has his band and his career back on track.

MARK KOZELEK LOVES boxing. (“I follow all the different weight classes. There’s like 17,” he says.) He has regular hobbies. (“I collect antiques; I go fishing. I take little trips up and down the coast. I like to go out to eat with friends and see a lot of movies.”) And he rents a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. (“I live by myself. It’s nice.”) This doesn’t sound like the same guy who once recorded a wrenching, 11-minute grunge version of “Silly Love Songs.”

Mark Kozelek

Crocodile Caf鬠Thursday, February 22

But lately, Kozelek’s full of surprises. Last year, he landed his debut film role, playing bassist Larry Fellows in Almost Famous; meanwhile, his band’s version of Ric Ocasek’s “All Mixed Up” became a TV fixture as the soundtrack to a Gap commercial. Early in 2001, Kozelek released an entire album of reconstructed AC/DC songs, What’s Next to the Moon; and in April, Old Ramon—recorded with his group the Red House Painters—will finally be released (on Sub Pop) after three years of legal wrangling with former labels Island and Supreme.

Strangely though, with so much going on, Kozelek says he doesn’t feel more active than usual. “These have been things that people who are already my fans recognize or my friends call me,” he says. “But it’s not anything that has brought me more attention. I don’t think I have a lot more fans right now than I did five years ago.”

FIVE YEARS AGO, Kozelek was poised to cash in on the alternative-rock wave of the mid-’90s. His Red House Painters signed to a major-label deal, and Island/Supreme released the band’s fifth full-length, Songs for a Blue Guitar. Though a critical success, the record sold modestly, didn’t yield a hit, and apparently opened wounds between artist and label. When the band recorded a follow-up, Island sat on it. Then things got worse. Kozelek’s story sounds like a cautionary tale about the music industry.

“What was really complicated was getting out of the deal with Island,” he explains. “We’d accumulated a pretty big debt. We’d spent maybe $170,000 making the records. We spent about eight months making [Old Ramon], and then Island spent about a year deciding whether they were gonna drop us. They put it on the shelf and said, ‘Well, we have legal rights to hold on to this band, but we’re not sure.’ They were in the middle of a shuffle where they dropped a lot of subsidiary labels and they’d dropped a lot of bands, and we were one of the bands they weren’t sure what to do with.

“They ended up dropping Supreme, the subsidiary we were on, and the subsidiary tried to hold on to us for a really long time. This was a big, big problem. Then once these two labels finally surrendered and said, ‘OK, we give up,’ the next thing was they wouldn’t let the record go for less than we had spent on it.” In other words, Kozelek had to come up with $170,000 to buy Old Ramon back. Eventually, a lawyer wrenched the recording free for $25,000, and Kozelek signed a deal with Sub Pop to release the disc; it’s scheduled to hit stores April 17.

WHEN KOZELEK wasn’t occupied with lawsuits and trying to rescue his band from oblivion, he engaged himself in several solo projects. He organized a tribute album to John Denver, enlisting like-minded artists such as Will Oldham, Low, and the Innocence Mission; Take Me Home was released in early 2000. Later in the year, Kozelek issued his first solo disc, Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer. Then in January, he unveiled a collection of 10 AC/DC covers drastically reworked into his own restrained, mostly acoustic style.

Part of Kozelek’s style is to record covers that few would recognize. He says that Almost Famous director Cameron Crowe once complimented him on some of his new songs, which turned out to be old AC/DC hits.

“I feel like these songs are my songs,” says Kozelek. He adds that What’s Next to the Moon—which includes “Love at First Feel,” “Bad Boy Boogie,” “Riff Raff,” and other songs written by Bon Scott, Angus Young, and Malcolm Young—is nearer to his heart than the forthcoming Old Ramon, an album of originals.

“It’s something that I’ve done within the last year that’s really fresh,” he says of Moon. “There’s no legal hassles. It was very easy to do. I recorded a record and it came out. In a lot of ways, I’ve got a better taste in my mouth with that record than I do with Old Ramon. I mean, now, finally I can look at the cover of Old Ramon and feel happy about that record. But over the last couple of years, that record made me miserable—the thought of everything that’s surrounded this record and the legal problems. You can start to hate people when you’ve created something that people won’t let out and it can’t be heard. You can start hating people that are involved in making those decisions. There’s been a lot of ugliness. As far as the AC/DC songs, I’ve rearranged them so much and made them into some pretty nice songs. I play them live, and in the set, they feel just like if I did original songs.”

Which is probably what they’ll sound like when he plays them, solo, in Seattle this week, on his way back to a smoother path.