September 14 — “Japanese to English” by Red House Painters

Red House Painters (circa 1994)

If you only listen to one song today, make it “Japanese to English” by Red House Painters (1992, from the album Down Colorful Hill). Red House Painters was a folk-rock/slowcore band from San Francisco. Although Low was the band who made slowcore sexy, Red House Painters practically invented the slowcore/sad bastard genre.
Mark Kozelek and friend Anthony Koutsos formed the band in 1989, and they spent the next few years playing shows in the Bay area and working on demo tapes. They were on pace to be just another local band. Until their friend Mark Eitzel from American Music Club got the demo tapes in the hands of 4AD label boss Ivo Watts-Russell.

As the legend goes, Ivo never even listened to anything beyond the first song on the tape, which was “24”. That one song was enough to convince him that he needed to sign this band. The demo tape was, according to the same legend, 90 MINUTES. That’s insanity. Who does that? It didn’t matter. Ivo loved “24” and signed the band.

That demo tape was culled down into what eventually became the six-track album Down Colorful Hill. If you really wanted to get super-technical about it, you could say that Down Colorful Hill isn’t a proper album, but that’s just silly.

It was released twenty years ago today in the UK and twenty years ago tomorrow in the US. I never have been able to figure out why new release day is Tuesday in North America while it’s Monday in the UK (and I think in Europe, too). I’ve heard theories that have to do with sales figures and how bank holidays and long weekends play into the need for Monday to be considered the last day of a sales week. All of this is another discussion for another day.

Between 1992 and 1996, RHP were a ridiculously prolific band. They released five albums, an EP, and a few singles. They also toured pretty extensively. I only got to see them one time, though. Unfortunately, by the end of that prolific run, they had fallen out of favour with Ivo. He was, and I presume still is, a very difficult person to work with. Even if he doesn’t own 4AD anymore. When he loves you, he really loves you. You’re the best thing since Froot Loops. Once that fire burns out, though, it’s a short walk off of a very short plank for you. You don’t go to Ivo’s doghouse. You don’t get “less than most favoured” treatment. You get dropped from the label just like that, and you get treated like you never existed. I still don’t know exactly what (apart from drugs) happened between this man and Cocteau Twins, but their split wasn’t amicable and he’s said retrospectively that he screwed that one up. I think he knows that he screwed this one up, too.

RHP were kicked off of 4AD while they were working on Songs For a Blue Guitar, but they quickly found someone (Island Records) to put it out. The next record, however, was a problem. I think there were some issues with the intellectual property rights, and some other legal stuff, but they had to shelve Old Ramon. It was ready to go in 1997, but it didn’t get released until 2001, when Sub Pop picked them up. Unfortunately, that was the last RHP record.

Mark Kozelek went on to put out a couple of proper solo records and a ton of solo EPs and special projects. He also formed a “different” band with drummer Anthony Koutsos called Sun Kil Moon. At times, Kozelek has said that Sun Kil Moon is Red House Painters, while at other times he has said that they are distinctly different. For the purposes of this blog, they are different.

A lot of RHP stuff is autobiographical for Kozelek. When the guy in the song is having a really rough go of it after a breakup, that really is Kozelek. By contrast, the SKM stuff isn’t all that autobiographical. The first Sun Kil Moon record — Ghosts of The Great Highway is almost entirely about boxers who lost their lives tragically. Kozelek is a well-known boxing enthusiast with encyclopedic knowledge of lesser-known fighters. Even the band name is a nod to boxing. It’s named after Korean lightweight boxer Sung-Kil Moon. I touched on all of this boxing stuff in my post about Sun Kil Moon, and you can read all about it there and by doing your own research. It’s actually pretty fascinating.

We’re not here to talk about boxing. Not today. Today, we’re here because of a brilliant song called “Japanese To English”. This is that song.

“Japanese to English” by Red House Painters

It’s a song about having a relationship with someone where there’s a big gap between the two of you. An age gap, a culture gap, a language gap. I’m not sure that this is one of the autobiographical ones. Nor am I sure that it’s about the need to literally translate Japanese to English and English to Japan-ese. It’s got some of my favorite lines, though:

It’s not that simple, this dictionary
It never has a word for the way I’m feeling
It’s nothing plain for me
Of a different god and moral

I cannot translate Japanese to English
or English to Japanese

It doesn’t get much better, though, than the opening lines:

I went as far as losing sleep
I went as far as messing up my life
Unloving still strike me different
A million miles from home
And fifteen from a pay phone

You’re ten years older
We translate Japanese to English
And English to Japanese

There’s always been something about that “a million miles from home and fifteen from a pay phone” line that’s struck me. It’s SO lonesome. It’s SO depressing. And that’s exactly the point.

It seems like it’s less about those literal things, and more about chasing a relationship that’s less than ideal. There’s a million reasons why it won’t work. Language barrier, age gap, distance, etc. Still, he messes up his life to try to make it work.

It’s heartbreaking, and it’s beautiful. It may or may not be autobiographically about literally having a relationship with a Japanese woman ten years his elder. It doesn’t matter, though. It’s still phenomenal.

Some people consider this to be the definitive RHP song. I love it a lot, but I’m not sure that it’s the ONE. It’s my second favorite RHP song, next to “Katy Song”. I know it’s a cliché, but “Katy Song” is not only my favourite RHP song, it’s among my favourite songs by anybody.

Down Colorful Hill is out of print, or at the very least, 4AD is holding the copies that exist. You can get used copies, though. Check amazon.

About dlee

North Carolina born and bred. I'm a restaurant guy who spends free time listening to music, watching hockey and playing Scrabble. I have a bachelor's degree in political science and I will most likely never put it to use. View all posts by dlee

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