The InsiderOne Daily Report

  Thursday, March 1, 2001

Donut Shop

InsiderOne's Michael Goldberg writes: Mark Kozelek likes to meet journalists at a well-worn donut shop located down the San Francisco hill from the apartment he's lived in for the past eight years, an apartment he shares with his cat. At the donut shop, you get your own coffee and drink it from a Styrofoam cup. We met there in 1992, when I interviewed Mark for a Rolling Stone piece on his band, the Red House Painters. When I called him the other day, that's where he suggested we meet. I know he's met lots of journalists there, 'cause on the phone he joked about finding reporters at a diner down the block — its name resembles the donut shop's. I got there about ten minutes before we were supposed to meet, got some coffee and took a seat at a table so small that there was just room for two people to sit at it, each with a cup of coffee and a donut. Sitting at the counter behind me, a couple of old guys in no hurry were discussing the difference between socialism and communism. Explained one, "With communism, you can't own anything." The first time Mark and I met here for an interview, 4AD was about to launch the Red House Painters' debut, an EP titled Down Colorful Hill, in the U.S. It was an exciting time for the Red House Painters — from literally nowhere, they had been chosen by the coolest label in the world, home to such artists as the Pixies and the Cocteau Twins. Just to be signed to 4AD gave the band a stamp of hipness; taking it still further, the label brought them to London to perform. 4AD had done its job; the critics that mattered turned out for the performance, then raved about this mysterious band from San Francisco, making favorable comparisons to such legends as Nick Drake, Tim Buckley and Leonard Cohen. My first interview with Mark occurred around this time. What I remember most about it was that he didn't want to discuss anything having to do with his personal life or his youth. He just wanted to talk about the band, so we did. There's a certain moment, when a band is still mostly unrealized potential, when its dreams of success suddenly seem within reach, when the world seems like a wonderful place — it seemed to be like that for the Red House Painters in 1992, on the eve of the release of their first recordings. The ensuing few years saw some amazing music. At 4AD, championed by label owner Ivo Watts Russell, the group was allowed to pursue an idiosyncratic vision in direct contrast to the then-popular grunge-rock mainstream. Eventually, they parted ways with 4AD, probably because they didn't sell many albums, and also because Mark wanted to experiment with the group's sound, adding a bit of Neil Young-style rock guitar. One album, Songs For A Blue Guitar, which showed off the new direction, was released on an Island Records subsidiary. Next, the Red House Painters recorded Old Ramon, an album filled with many songs about an intense romance. They spent months working on it in a variety of recording studios in different parts of the country. And when Old Ramon was completed — even the cover art was done — two corporate giants agreed to merge, causing a delay in the album's release. Then the new company wasn't sure if it was going to keep working with the band — for about a year, according to Mark — and then the Red House Painters were dropped. Then the Island Records subsidiary, which was also dropped, spent about a year trying to find a new home for the album. Meanwhile, the Red House Painters were left standing by the side of the road. Bills have to be paid, so some of the guys took day jobs. Mark put together a John Denver tribute album and spent nine months as an actor on the set of "Almost Famous" (he played the bassist in the fake '70s group Stillwater); he toured the world playing solo shows and recorded a solo EP and a solo album, both containing AC/DC songs. All that solo activity made it seem like the Red House Painters had disbanded, but they hadn't. They were in hibernation. Last year they made a deal with Sub Pop Records, the label that discovered Nirvana and was ground zero for grunge; Old Ramon would be released. And so the Red House Painters woke up; they began gearing up the way bands do when they have a new record deal, an album coming out and a tour set to begin in April. And that's about where things were when Mark and I agreed to meet, once again, at the donut shop down colorful hill. The conversation behind me had shifted from communism to capitalism. "Raymond Burr once owned an island in the South Pacific," said one of the guys. "But can you own a country?" asked the other.

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Michael Goldberg is the president of He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.

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