Christmas with Kozelek

The creator of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon makes an entire album of carols, because he can

Mark Kozelek

Bill Ellison

For a casual Mark Kozelek fan, the last two months of his lengthy career have been a bit inexplicable: first, there was the Hopscotch Music Festival incident (he called a noisy crowd “fucking hillbillies” and told them “to shut the fuck up,” later making t-shirts with the quote to commemorate the standoff). Then came the invented beef with Philadelphia band War on Drugs, which culminated in the highly controversial songs “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock” and “Adam Granofsky Blues.” 

But for Kozelek - the founder of the now-defunct Red House Painters and still-very-excellent Sun Kil Moon - such shenanigans aren’t at all anomalous. Just think: Sun Kil Moon’s haunting track “Heron Blue” was once used to score a Gears of War 3 trailer. He also accosted Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky, yelling “Dude, fix your fucking face!” Nothing about his persona makes a ton of sense. 

Now he’s about to release a Christmas album. Why not, right? 

“I love Christmas music, and always wanted to record a Christmas record, and never had time,” Kozelek says in a brief email interview. “Red House Painters played a show at Noe Valley Ministry in San Francisco, in the mid-‘90s, and I told the audience, ‘Some day I’m going to record an album called Mark Kozelek Sings Christmas Carols’ and everyone laughed. It always stuck with me, that title.”

For some ridiculous reason, the album totally works. But that’s another Kozelek-trademarked feature. For example, Benji, Sun Kil Moon’s latest project, definitely shouldn’t have worked; it featured just over an hour of hyper-literal ruminations of family, sex and mostly death. It sounds like a direct reading from a journal. Which it could be. Every song somehow ties back to someone in his life passing. Somehow, it’s one of the best albums of 2014.

But it’s that sort of way-out-there shit that’s helped keep him relevant. Kozelek became semi-famous outside of the Red House Painters fan base for his covers: 2000’s What’s Next to the Moon featured 10 interpretations of AC/DC songs, while 2005’s Tiny Cities consisted of exclusively Modest Mouse covers. Kozelek notes that he’s often based his renditions off lyrics alone.

“There are songs I’ve covered that I’ve still never heard the music for,” he says. “I look at the words, and make my own music and melodies from them.”

Chances are that Kozelek was a touch more familiar with carols than songs he’s previously covered. While there aren’t any mind blowing deviations from the source materials - save for a perfectly weird exchange borrowed from A Charlie Brown Christmas on “Christmas Time is Here,” in which a friend concludes that “of all the Mark Kozeleks in the world, you’re the Mark Kozelekiest” - it’s a remarkably solid and odd album. Let’s give up trying to explain why it exists.

“I’ll be spending Christmas in New Orleans with my girlfriend,” Kozelek says about his own plans for the season. “I’d like to spend time in the studio, writing and recording.”

Published in Volume 69, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 5, 2014)

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