Pet Grief: Mark Kozelek, class act

Jeff Terich
Treble's editor airs his grievances

Mark Kozelek’s reputation precedes him. More accurately, his dual and seemingly contradictory reputations precede him. Since as far back as 1992, when Kozelek’s band The Red House Painters released their debut album Down Colorful Hill, Kozelek has been an iconic cult figure to a certain type of music fan. Often highly regarded for releasing some of the most important records in the mid-’90s slowcore movement, he’s a singer/songwriter synonymous with slow-moving, lengthy and often painfully honest songs, the likes of which he’s continued to craft under the name Sun Kil Moon. He’s revered by fans, and you don’t have to dig too deep on any given indie or alternative message board to find a community of people that hold Kozelek’s songs in impressively high esteem. But there’s an unfortunate flipside to his fame: Mark Kozelek’s reputation for being kind of an asshole.

I’ve never met the guy, so I can’t say with any certainty one way or another if he’s a decent guy or not. But there’s some pretty well-documented evidence of Kozelek’s irascibility, and of late, it’s only gotten a lot worse. He tends to be prickly during live shows, being confrontational with members of his audience, and even flat-out lamenting their very presence (in a fairly sexist way) as he did in his 2012 song “Sunshine In Chicago“: “My band played here a lot in the ’90s when we had/ Lots of female fans and fuck, they all were cute/ Now I just sign posters for guys in tennis shoes.” He’s an elusive interview subject, frequently turning down requests or, in the case of a recent Wondering Sound feature, deciding that he just wasn’t going to bother answering their questions. There’s also a story about him offering $50 to a guy with a mustache to move at a show, just so he wouldn’t have to look at him.

Amid the apocrypha and interview chicanery, however, Kozelek reached a new peak of cringeworthy behavior this year, starting at Hopscotch Fest, where he harangued some chatty audience members and called them “fucking hillbillies.” But it gets better; he then launched a still-going verbal assault on The War on Drugs when their sound at Ottawa Folk Festival drowned out his own band’s. This led to some cranky onstage banter (“I hate that beer commercial lead-guitar shit”), a smart-assed letter written to the band that compares them to every ’80s M.O.R. rock artist in the book (“It’s not a criticism. It’s an observation”), and eventually the release of a highly unflattering song about the band called “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock.” He invited the band to perform it with them, but that apparently didn’t work out. I can’t imagine why.

Mark Kozelek reputation

With all the facts on the table, I can only safely conclude one thing: Mark Kozelek is, indeed, an asshole. The mustache story is a little funny. The interview thing isn’t necessarily unique. And the crankiness at overly talkative fans? I get it, I do, though you can certainly handle it a lot better than how he chooses to. But by basically deciding he wants to make enemies with another band — a group of musicians that neither asked for this feud, nor deserve it — Kozelek has made one thing clear: He’s perfectly comfortable just being a villain now.

I can’t come away from this with any other conclusion than that. It’s one thing to get annoyed that you can’t hear your own set at a festival. But that’s not The War on Drugs’ fault, it’s that of whomever scheduled the set times. And for that matter, this can’t possibly be the first time one of Kozelek’s bands has encountered a louder band at a festival. By default, they’re going to be one of the quietest, and festivals, by nature, are loud. But it’s entirely another to continue to harass the band long after the fact, and even write a slanderous song about them. It’s the behavior of an obnoxious jerk at best, and a bully at worst.

What makes this whole absurd, unnecessary ordeal all the more frustrating is that Sun Kil Moon and The War on Drugs have released two of the best albums of the year, with Benji and Lost in the Dream, respectively. (I prefer the latter by a little bit, even if the former is a midlife crisis of staggering genius or whatever.) Not that Kozelek’s personality growing less tolerable by the day makes his album worse in any way, but it’s hard to want to put my support behind someone who seems to be challenging his own fans to see just how much of this behavior they’re willing to take. He’s using the attention he’s been getting from these ridiculous stunts as a means perpetuating a spike in publicity — negative or not. The War on Drugs, meanwhile, also made a great album, but they didn’t feel the need to tear anyone else down in the process.

Just last week, I got into a Twitter conversation about what kind of behavior we, as consumers, are willing to tolerate from artists we admire. It’s been the topic of features I’ve written and contributed to in the past, and it’s one that never has an easy answer. My general guideline is that truly heinous acts are dealbreakers, but simply being an asshole isn’t on its own enough to walk away. And that’s still true here — Mark Kozelek is being an asshole, plain and simple. But he’s also starting to test how much I’m actually willing to put up with as a listener, and while I’m not there yet, it’s frustrating and ugly, and frankly, not how adults should act. Oh, and Mark? It’s not an observation. It’s a criticism.

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View Comments (7)
  • While I do believe that Kozelek was genuinely annoyed at the War on Drugs for a moment during the festival, everything since then has pretty obviously been only a joke, i.e., making fun of the public’s perception of him as a curmudgeon and taking that to the most extreme place possible. As long as a significant number of people keep taking Kozelek’s petty teasing and turning it into some BIG SERIOUS ISSUE, he will keep up the “feud” because he finds dense, humorless people absurd. The joke is actually on the press/public and their compulsive need to sensationalize everything because Kozelek actually feels no animosity toward the War on Drugs. If you think that he does, you probably thought everything Andy Kaufman did was 100% genuine and real as well. N

    • Well, sure, it’s obviously a publicity stunt. But does that make it any less obnoxious? Just because he’s using his assholish behavior to get his name in more headlines doesn’t mean that makes him any less of an asshole, it just means he’s cashing in on being an asshole.

  • I think you’re still missing the point. He’s only an a-hole if anything beyond that one moment at the festival was genuine. Even that moment wasn’t such a big deal. So he was annoyed at a band. OH NO! How often are artists given passes for saying and doing way worse things than that? The only meaning his name being in headlines has is that a bunch of overly sensitive, humorless people decided to make crankiness a capital offense. Nothing Kozelek had said has any more meaning or thought behind it than your average “yo momma” joke. If Kozelek is able to boost his sales by making fun of the people who actually think a silly comment at a festival is worth getting upset about, them more power to him. I don’t think that was the primary aim of this media joke. The primary aim was for Kozelek to show just how ridiculous everyone who cares about this is being. I can’t believe all the thought and emotional energy that people have put into the initial incident and the circus that they, not Kozelek, created. Meanwhile, Bradford Cox and Gibby Haynes have engaged in onstage sex acts, but somehow that stuff never made as many headlines or sullied anyone’s opinion of those individuals.

  • Nice article.I understand your point of view. Let me say that I found the RHP discography, brilliant. Even the record that was nor accepted by 4AD, songs from a Blue guitar, is an amazing piece of heart. The cover from Pauk Macartney Silly love songs, is problably one of the best covers ever made. Sun Kill moon has nice albuns and him as solo as well. Several times i wondered why he did not had more recognition as RHP. And why Mistress or katy song, or summer dress, or so many great songs never had commercial and mainstream success. Now, Pitchfork, reble and other sites, and people from the hipter movement pay attention to him and that’s nice. What is sad is that prank stupid beahviour, that arrogance. And that’s simple to explain. He has several mental disorders. He’s bipolar and he has depression. That leads often to irritability and irracional beahaviour. It’s simple as that.

  • With so many amazing, friendly acts in the world who choose to take the high road and appreciate the blessing that anyone would want to pay them to experience their art, why bother to continue standing by an artist with such a comical amount of inflated self-importance? That just makes the fan all the more pathetic and sad. Enjoy your crotchetiness as you grow older and more irrelevant by the day, Mark; you ass clown.

  • I would be money that he is bipolar type 2. really. this combination of amazing talent and assholeness is a classic one. I’m not offering excuses, but this BIPOLAR 2 is very challenging to see if you don’t know much about it. He may be acting like an asshole. My guess is he can’t help it.

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