As tortured artists go, San Francisco resident Mark Kozelek’s résumé couldn’t be stronger. For nearly a decade, he publicly aired his complicated romantic frustrations as front man of Red House Painters, an early progenitor of what ultimately became known as slowcore: dumpy indie dudes strumming guitars as lethargically as a paying audience would allow, mumbling into their shirt collars about whatever wouldn’t disrupt the dilatory flow of elongated whole notes. But unlike many of his obscurantist peers, Kozelek just put it right out there; though I can think of few albums more sullenly beautiful than the Painters’ 1995 Ocean Beach, I’ve gotta be in the mood to hear him moan, “I’d like to come home to see you and embrace your illness under soft light/But then you’d know how much I really need you.”
And extramusically, Kozelek has a bumpy history of record-biz shenanigans behind him, including an infamous account of getting booted from England’s ultrahip 4AD label after refusing to excise his Neil Young–ian solos from ’96’s Songs for a Blue Guitar, and a several-year search for a label to release 2001’s Old Ramon, which the late-’90s Universal Music Group mix-up swallowed for a time. So it’s surprising to hear Kozelek describe his life as a musician the way he does when I call him up at home a few days before Christmas.
“I’ve really never worked that hard,” he says with a little sigh that backs him up. “At anything, really. I really feel like most of my life is spent going to the store and getting cat litter and going to the coffee shop or whatever. My band, honestly, we all have other interests and other things; we’re not a band that’s like, ‘We live and breathe and die our band.’”
Ghosts of the Great Highway, a fine new album from Kozelek’s sort-of-new group called Sun Kil Moon, reflects that easygoing reality more than the Painters ever did. “Some like K.K. Downing more than Glenn Tipton,” he sings over a pacific acoustic strum, remembering the two Judas Priest guitarists like old pals. “Some like Jim Nabors, some Bobby Vinton/I like them all.” They’re not the only ones: Boxers Cassius Clay, Sonny Liston, Salvador Sanchez, Ray Mancini and Duk Koo Kim all get name-checked on Ghosts, and Kozelek’s childhood home gets a shout-out in “Carry Me Ohio.” It’s tempting to consider the trivial pursuit a deflection of interest in Kozelek’s dramatized personal life — especially in concert with the disc’s modest shift away from the Painters’ taste for dirge — but Kozelek can’t resist throwing in an accent of his old, weird self: “I buried my first victim when I was 19,” he admits after admiring Clark Gable movies on late-night cable with his feet up on the coffee table. “Went through her bedroom and the pockets of her jeans/And found her letters that said so many things that really hurt me bad.”
Mark Kozelek plays at the Troubadour, Saturday, January 17.