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.
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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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.