Red House Painters
Red House Painters
During the 1990s, the Red House Painters, along with the American Music Club, created what journalists often called “new miserablism.” The band’s songs—minimalist, elegant, and beautifully disturbing—consistently won favor from music critics. The Red House Painters was largely the creative vehicle for singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek, an artist not afraid to reveal his autobiographical stories of pain, loss, and despair on record. His work is often compared to that of the American Music Club’s Mark Eitzel and Nick Drake, songwriters also highly regarded for their poetic stories about desperation.
Kozelek, however, took his songs a step further. Facing life head on instead of relying on metaphor and other literary devices for personal safety, he displayed an unparalled willingness to remain vulnerable and honest. For instance, his words about failed relationships combined with a confessional, conversational delivery often reach listeners with embarrassment, almost as if they identify all too well with Kozelek’s revelations. “I’ve seen it,” Kozelek said in a rare interview with Rolling Stone contributor Michael Goldberg. “I’ve looked out into the audience, looked at somebody and seen them look away real fast or get up and leave.”
Members include Anthony Koutsos , drums; Mark Kozelek , vocals, guitar; Gorden Mack , guitar; Jerry Vessel , bass.
Group formed in San Francisco, CA, 1989; signed with 4AD Records, released Down Colourful Hill, 1992; released two albums entitled The Red House Painters, 1993; released Ocean Blue, 1995; left 4AD, signed with Supreme/Island, released Songs for a Blue Guitar, 1996; released Old Ramon on Sub Pop Records, 2001.
Besides through song, Kozelek prefers not to discuss his personal life with the press. Born and raised in the Midwest, he became addicted to drugs by the age of ten. Clinging to music throughout those difficult years, during which time he entered into a rehabilitation program, Kozelek formed his first group, God Forbid, as a teenager. Eventually, he relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, and met drummer Anthony Koutsos. This friendship resulted in an early incarnation of the Red House Painters. Kozelek and Koutsos then moved to San Francisco, completing the band in 1989 with the addition of guitarist Gorden Mack and bassist Jerry Vessel.
The Red House Painters performed at local coffee-houses and small clubs. The quartet soon came to the attention of Mark Eitzel, who helped them land a record deal by sending demo tapes recorded in 1989 and 1990 to the 4AD label’s London offices. Although known for supporting more ethereal-sounding groups such as the Cocteau Twins, 4AD Records, recognizing the group’s melodic and atmospheric quality, signed the Red House Painters in 1992. The band’s eight-song debut album, entitled Down Colourful Hill, was produced using the original demos. Acoustic, sparse, melancholic, and performed in minor key, the acclaimed set featured such tracks as the haunting “Medicine Bottle” and the memorable “Japanese to English.”
The following year, the group emerged from the studio with more new songs than necessary for a single release. Thus, the Red House Painters issued two self-titled albums back-to-back in 1993. The first Red House Painters, a double-album set, contained 14 tracks balancing majestic melodies with disquieting personal laments. One of the most affecting was “Katy Song,” a somber account of the final moments of a relationship. Other standouts included the 13-minute “Mother,” “Grace Cathedral Park,” “Rollercoaster,” and “New Jersey.” The second album featured shorter, more accessible songs, including an impassioned cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock,” as well as an almost unrecognizable version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
After a tour of Great Britain with labelmate Heidi Berry, the Red House Painters took a two-year break. During this time off, nonetheless, the band released an EP called Shock Me, a set built around a dramatic rereading of a Kiss song. Then, in 1995, the Red House Painters returned with a collection of luminous songs entitled Ocean Beach. Initially, 4AD, concerned about the band’s history of poor record sales, did not want to release the record, but reluctantly gave in.
Although it, too, failed to appeal to the mainstream, Ocean Beach continued to generate critical accolades for the Red House Painters. “With a lone piano, muted strings or abstract jazz guitar,” wrote Paul Evans for Rolling Stone, “the San Franciscans achieve a beauty rare, disturbing and resonant… Chief painter Mark Kozelek is, without embarrassment, a poet—he phrases his words with care and ingenuity—and he’s capable both of the indelible image (‘The wetness of your eyes/ Against the sun that clouds blind’) and the startling truth (‘All the love in an instant makes my life stop/But then my hate for you makes my feelings/Altogether/ Drop’).”
By now, the Red House Painters’ relationship with 4AD had become strained, and the band, consequently, left the label in 1996. Thereafter, the group signed with filmmaker John Hughes’s new Supreme Recordings. The label, a joint venture between Hughes (creator of the popular films Home Alone, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink, among others), company president Jeff Jacquin, and Island Records, promised the Red House Painters artistic freedom. “The fact that he made Home Alone has nothing to do with the kinds of records that will be on his label,” Kozelek said to Billboard magazine’s Craig Rosen. “The main point in the conversations that I have had with him is that he really believes in creative control. He writes, produces, and directs movies, and he has had trouble in the past with other people trying to be hands-on.”
For the new label, the Red House Painters released Songs for a Blue Guitar— named after the 1937 Wallace Stevens poem “The Man With the Blue Guitar”—in the summer of 1996. Although more or less a solo album for Kozelek, the band’s moniker was used in hopes of sustaining public interest. The album contained covers of such songs as Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs,” yet only Kozelek could transform such lyrics as “How can I tell you about my loved one?,” from a breezy statement to one of anguish. Originals from the set include the folkish rocker “I Feel the Rain Fall” and the distorted guitar number “Make Like Paper.”
In 1998, the members of the Red House Painters completed songs for a forthcoming album. However, because of the well-documented mergers of the decade, the band, like so many others, found themselves without a label and their new record in limbo. In the meantime, Kozelek kept busy with outside projects, including accepting a role in the Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous, which premiered in 2000; producing a 1999 John Denver tribute album entitled Take Me Home: A Tribute to John Denver; and releasing in 2000 on the Badman label a solo album, Rock & Roll Singer. This was followed by another solo release in 2001, What’s Next to the Moon, a collection of reworked AC/DC songs. He also bought back the rights to the Red House Painters’ unreleased record, while 4AD issued a “best of” album called Retrospective in 1999.
Finally, in the spring of 2001, Sub Pop Records released Old Ramon, nearly four years after its original recording date. Among several noteworthy tracks stood the album opener, the surprisingly upbeat “Wop-A-Din-Din,” a heartfelt, at times even humorous ode to Kozelek’s beloved cat, and “River,” an eleven-minute plea to a vanished lover. According to the music press and patient fans, the Red House Painters had lost nothing through the prolonged absence. “Old Ramon sounds contemporary and fresh, a welcome relief to the overstated hyper-macho sound we’re all confronted with all too often these days,” concluded Pop-Matters music critic Devin Robinson. “Some adages are true; good things do come to those who wait and Old Ramon and Mark Kozelek’s time to shine has come.”
Down Colourful Hill, 4AD, 1992.
Red House Painters (I), 4AD, 1993.
Red House Painters (II), 4AD, 1993.
Shock Me (EP), 4AD, 1994.
Ocean Beach 4AD, 1995.
Songs for a Blue Guitar, Island, 1996.
Retrospective, 4AD, 1999.
Old Ramon, Sub Pop, 2001.
Buckley, Jonathan, et al., editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
Billboard, August 10, 1996; April 28, 2001; December 22, 2001.
Fortune, September 3, 2001.
Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1992; October 4, 1993; January 18, 1996.
Rolling Stone, September 16, 1993; November 25, 1993; May 18, 1995; August 22, 1996.
Village Voice, June 26, 2001.
Washington Post, June 22, 2001; June 25, 2001.
“Red House Painters,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (October 11, 2002).
“Red House Painters,” All MusicGuide, http://www.subpop.com (October 11, 2002).
“Red House Painters: Old Ramon” PopMaatters http://popmaatters.com (October 11, 2002).
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