When Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon leader Mark Kozelek gets into a band, he really gets into a band. And if said band is lucky, Kozelek might even get inspired enough to record an entire album of their tunes, albeit in versions which bear little or no resemblance to the originals.
Having already released an album and an EP worth of Bon Scott-era AC/DC covers, Kozelek’s latest muse is Modest Mouse, which exploded into the mainstream in 2004 after reigning for several years as one of indie rock’s consistently best bands. Under the Sun Kil Moon moniker, Kozelek’s trademark gentle acoustic takes on the Isaac Brock-led group’s music can be found on “Tiny Cities,” due Nov. 1 as the first release on his own Caldo Verde label.
In a scenario that underscores Kozelek’s let’s-just-see-what-happens attitude, he went to see a Shins/Modest Mouse bill in San Francisco a couple years ago but was a neophyte to the latter act’s music. Within a few minutes of Modest Mouse taking the stage, he was hooked.
“With Isaac, it was an unraveling of these abstract, disjointed, strange lyrics,” Kozelek recalls. “It caught me off guard. A lot of writers, myself included, go for storytelling from point A to point B that comes together and makes sense. But his lyrics come up from all over the place. It was like ‘The Exorcist’ or something. It was f***ing awesome.”
Kozelek quickly purchased the band’s whole catalog and began incorporating snippets of a few songs into his solo performances. A few months later, he knew how to play enough of them that he opted to start recording his versions, with no predetermined commercial expectations.
“It was very similar to the AC/DC record, where I thought, I’ll go in and record,” he recalls. “Why not? People were responding really well and I enjoy playing them. I could do three or four as an EP and see how it turns out.”
It turned out so well that Kozelek had 11 songs on tape in no time, and the results will delight longtime listeners. Clearly intrigued by severing Brock’s unique storytelling from its source music, Kozelek transforms “Four Fingered Fisherman” from a loose, lo-fi exercise into a haunting, finger-picked solo guitar piece, while MM’s modern rock hit “Ocean Breathes Salty” is melted down to its inherent bittersweet reflections on past and present.
Sunny Latin strumming summons a John Denver vibe on “Grey Ice Water,” while the stellar “Trucker’s Atlas” floods the brain with thoughts of epic road trips where anything seems possible. On the heels of Sun Kil Moon’s critically lavished debut, “Ghosts of the Great Highway,” Kozelek is not ashamed to admit how happy he is with “Tiny Cities.”
“I don’t know who else could have done 11 Modest Mouse covers and have it turn out like this, you know what I’m saying?,” he says. “Everybody does their ‘covers’ albums and it is always acceptable when someone does their ‘favorite 12 songs.’ I took it in a different direction with the AC/DC one and this one. Why not cover a band?”
One thing Kozelek won’t be doing is tailoring his live performances to the “Tiny Cities” material, acknowledging, “a full production Modest Mouse tour would be ridiculous. I’m going to Europe at the end of November, and I’ll probably play a few shows here at the beginning of the year. There’s nothing definitive on whether it will be a band or by myself.”
And while he is loathe to revisit past glories (he previously told Billboard he almost never listens to his old records), Kozelek will play an exclusively Red House Painters solo set Nov. 25 in London at the 25th anniversary concert for 4AD Records, which issued that band’s first four albums.
“Being back there and being around those people will conjure up a lot of emotions about the first time I went over there and the first time I ever got an advance from a record company,” he says. “All those things where my world was opening up. Twelve or 13 years later, I’m still here.”