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King Dude Speaks To Terrorizer
After cutting his teeth with blackened death metallers Book Of Black Earth and experimental hardcore act Teen Cthulu, TJ Cowgill has gone on to explore the realms of dark folk (and collaborate with Chelsea Wolf) under the name King Dude. Joy Shannon delved into his mysterious world to discuss field recordings, religion and his latest album ‘Fear’…
The symbol for dark folk artist King Dude is the rune for N or “nauthiz” which, in its many layers of interpretation, can mean transformation, sometimes through fire or trial to a higher spiritual existence. This rune is also interpreted as “need”, or the dynamic force of resistance in the process of creation. Upon speaking with King Dude himself, AKA TJ Cowgill, it became clear that the process of music creation was a dynamic constant in his life.
Cowgill connected to the symbol because he describes his music as “constantly evolving and changing and… not about where we’re going but… about the journey on the way.” Cowgill calls his musical journey his spiritual “path towards enlightenment”, and when one listens to his discography, one is taken on a journey through, at times, both the ecstasies of heavenly emotional experiences and the depths of hellish despairs. If King Dude’s music is driven by the goal of spiritual transformation, it feels like a transformation truly through fire.
Cowgill began his journey in the Satanic blackened death metal band Book Of Black Earth around 2003, but by 2006, he found himself drawn to creating music in the folk tradition. With both bands he had maintained a complete aesthetic, designing everything from their album covers to T-shirt designs and founding his own clothing company, Actual Pain, around 2006 as well. To further maintain his complete aesthetic, Cowgill created his own record company, Not Just Religious Music, in order to release King Dude’s music. Since then, he has expanded to release other bands like the Satanic gospel blues band Dreadlords, a project by the black/noise band T.O.M.B.
King Dude has toured consistently, with bands including Ghost and Earth, in support of his most recent album ‘Fear’. ‘Fear’ is a fascinating concept album which sees Cowgill using his looming folk to explore the depths of human fear. Combining influences from Americana, country, blues, traditional hymns and metal with field recordings he collects in his travels, Cowgill creates richly layered and deeply resonant music. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing King Dude perform live twice – once in a more typical rock club and once in the Freemason Temple of Hollywood Forever Cemetery and truly, King Dude’s performances are arresting. Hearing these songs, that come across as dark gospel, performed in a temple felt fitting and added to their stark beauty, yet there is a gritty strength and deep courage behind the music that makes it work just about anywhere.
Speaking with Cowgill, I found he was as richly layered as his music and as multi-faceted as the interpretations of the ancient rune symbol for his band. Truly his music and his life are a compelling example of something that our fast-paced consumer culture does not value enough at the moment, but should. Pop musicians all too often create one-hit albums and then seem to disappear, and we never know what their life’s journey may be through their music. After speaking with Cowgill, it became clear to me that he has set out to create music that mirrors the spiritual and philosophical journey of his life and he will constantly keep creating, no matter what. Creating his own label has allowed him to maintain his own freedom and control over his music, which is extremely admirable to observe. His journey is a fascinating one worth following for his lifetime, to see what spiritual transformations each new album he creates will reveal along the way.
WORDS: Joy Shannon
When did you officially start King Dude as a project?
“I think I started in 2006 but I’m not exactly sure because it was sort of “an adventure in recording” project at first, so it wasn’t really a monumental event in my life when I started it. It wasn’t like I was going to do this thing and go play some shows. I didn’t even expect much from it.”
Because you were playing in your metal band at the time, correct?
“Yeah, I was playing Book Of Black Earth then. We were touring- not as frequently as King Dude has been touring, but every few months we would do a West Coast tour.”
Have you found European audiences to be more open to King Dude than American audiences?
“Americans sometimes take a little longer to come over to some things they are not accustomed to or they need approval from Europeans first. When I first started playing acoustic, metal heads would not come to my shows. These were my friends and they were like “it’s too weird.” So yeah, I didn’t expect the European bands to like me but they did almost right away. So maybe they are more accustomed to things that are in the folk tradition.”
Do you still work with Book Of Black Earth anymore?
“No, actually the drummer and main collaborator of that band Joe Axler does a couple of other bands like Samothrace that are really quite good. You know, when an idea comes to fruition, it was just time to wrap it up. We decided to just hang it up.
“We had contracts with Prosthetic Records and I’m not sure if we still are on them. We probably still are on there and they are probably going to read this and say we owe them a record or two. The records didn’t sell as well and there were other artists on the label so that for them, it wasn’t worth their time or attention. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a band like that but you have a van and a trailer to tour and you need a lot of space to rehearse because you’re playing full stacks and lots of amps and a lot of drums. It’s an expensive venture… There’s no money in metal, really, in the first place. It makes it harder to haul all these fucking amps and all this gear to make it sound right and everybody’s struggling to get by to do it. It breaks my heart. I hear about a lot of bands that aren’t doing well that are really good underground bands. I don’t know what to tell them. You can’t really complain about it. It’s just a fact of the kind of music… It doesn’t have as wide of a scope and it can’t reach as many people. That’s one of the best things about it, but if you want to do it as a job – it’s your biggest obstacle.”
Were these experiences your inspirations for creating your own label Not Just Religious Music?
“Yeah in a way. I didn’t really see the need to have a record label. I had this record ‘Fear’ and it was getting wrapped up. We had a version to send out… I had a manager at the time who was sending it to labels and we were getting really odd feedback. Nobody was really into it. From a label’s point of view, I can understand why. It’s a really eclectic record. It’s not really sign-able. It’s hard to put that record and this band into a quantifiable reason why people like it, which is something I never try to do. I just make it and whatever people think is fine.
“We were trying to figure out what label to put it out on and I didn’t really like any of the labels that he was taking me to anyway. They were indie-rock labels or giant labels. I didn’t want to do anything like that. So why don’t I just do it myself? It’s going to be a nightmare to work with someone else who is controlling my art and music, so it made the most sense to do it myself.”
I can totally relate. My band has never been signed to a label until our last album and we were briefly signed to a German label. But we got dropped in part because they had financial issues and also because we didn’t sell enough.
“That’s the thing… you can’t kick yourself off your own label. For me it’s an issue of control. I’m really particular about how everything comes out. and handing it over to other people, mistakes can happen even if they don’t intend them to. If you’re the one person that’s in charge of the way the product or the record comes out, then at the end of the day, it’s your fault if something’s wrong about it. That I’m much more comfortable with then having to bring that burden to somebody else.”
I think why I was drawn to your work was because it’s a complete aesthetic, from the design to the music. You seem to be a visual artist as well as a musician.
“Yeah I am. And thank you by the way. I own a clothing company. I’ve owned it since around the same time (as King Dude started in 2006). It’s called Actual Pain. Before that I was designing all the shirts and record covers for Book of Black Earth. I’ve always been drawn to art since I was young. (I was) not really (drawn to) music until I was a teenager – not until I figured out that was the only way girls would ever talk to me. I didn’t even think you could be in a band when I was young. When I was twelve I thought you had to be from LA or New York to be in a band. I thought those were the only places you could be in a band until Nirvana came out and my brother told me that they were from Seattle and I was like “how are they on television and stuff?” and he said “bands can be from anywhere”. So then I became interested in guitar.”
Are you originally from Seattle?
“I am. I was born and raised here. Well, I was born in Kennewick, Washington state, but I lived here since I was five so it feels like forever.”
Do you feel like the location that you’ve grown up in has shaped your music?
“It’s hard to say but probably. I wasn’t raised anywhere else.”
But you’ve travelled a lot.
“I’ve travelled a lot. I’ve toured since before I was 21 in my first band. I don’t really know what influenced me. May be the isolation of the place. When we started our first band, we liked the records we liked. We liked bands like Emperor. There wasn’t a big community of metal heads so we were kind of like outsiders in a way. Being from the suburbs, there were no rules.”
What made you chose the rune N / nauthiz for transformation as a symbol for your band?
“It’s two fold really – it’s what the rune represents in its original context. It represents the journey of the transformation and not the aspiration toward the end goal, in my interpretation of it. It’s sort of understanding the process of becoming. It’s more aligned with that to me than the actual transformation itself. Which I found incredible, because King Dude is constantly evolving and changing and it’s not about where we’re going but it’s about the journey on the way to me. It’s used in a spiritual context as well, so it’s a journey on the path towards enlightenment, becoming enlightened through music, so my music is spiritual to me. Aesthetically, it’s beautiful and it reminds me of a Christian cross and that’s also a great symbol and I thought it was a perfect match. I think fits with the project. I don’t tend to over think things, it’s more of a spiritual process.”
Do you feel that symbols reveal their meaning over time to you?
“That’s exactly right. If you makes decisions in art based on intuition, you’ll find the symbolism that your gut is telling you to you, will reveal itself to you. I don’t believe that it’s accidental. I think that there is a higher purpose in these types of things.”
I completely agree. That’s been my journey of music as well. That brings me to what I want to ask you about with your album ‘Fear’. It’s been a while since it first came out and it’s definitely a concept album where you’re delving into the darker parts of being a human. Now that you have a little time since the album has been released, do you feel that you accomplished your original intention?
“I have mixed emotions about it. I love it, but whenever you make a project it takes on a life of its own. It’s not in mind what I pictured it would be. But it’s still beautiful to me and I love it. I think ultimately there are some things that worked out differently, it’s not major. I’m a control freak so like (with) even the recording, I went back and recorded a ton of stuff. The entire record had been demoed before we went into the studio. It takes a lot of intensity to do something like that. Now that it’s done – the second when we finished mixing it – I felt elated. I was probably the happiest I’ve ever been without being drunk. I was completely sober bouncing off the walls. It was two years of my life trying to get it done. It was really a labour of love and I learned so much. I became so much better at recording after I did it, that whole process of working with Bill Rieflin (Ministry, Swans, Pigface, etc). I learned more in that week in the studio than I had ever learned recording before. I’ve taken that to other projects I’ve been recording myself like the Chelsea Wolfe split that I recorded. It wouldn’t have sounded that good if I hadn’t have done ‘Fear’.
“In a way, it’s taught me a lot of valuable lessons about the things that I fear the most. In the past year, my life has been transformed with what it’s forced me to do and confront. It’s directly thanks to that record that I have less fear in my life.”
I was going to ask that, because in some other interviews you said that you rarely write from a first-person point of view but with ‘Fear’ it seems so personal…
“I think what I was doing was giving the listener a little more insight into my life than those characters. But still it’s not literally me as any of the characters, but there are parts of me in those characters- which is something I’d never say before- but I am willing to say that now. I still would never write a song about something that exactly happened to me, but this record has more stories from my life than anything else I’ve ever done.”
I can relate to that with my own music, I like to use ancient mythology and find stories I can emotionally relate to to write songs about.
“Yeah, what I do is base a lot of these characters on emotions that everybody has. Archetypes and mythology are great sources of inspiration because it’s universal… it’s like the universal language, like symbology. That’s why its so important because it tells a story of what happened to people before from an emotional point of view, not a history textbook point of view. It connects with people on a deeper level… or can.”
It can. I think that’s why music is so important. We’re so lucky to live in a time in history where we can record, because I think about all the music in history that people like us would have been making that may have been lost.
“Yeah. You know John Lomax? We were obsessed with (his) field recordings and recordings of the folk traditions of America – going to prisons and going to labour yards and going to people’s homes and bringing his reel tape machine with him and recording their songs. I don’t collect it on vinyl or anything. Some people do collect those crazy old records that are super expensive. But I can relate to that feeling of having the need to capture that moment. But back then before we recorded, there wasn’t a chance for anybody to become a “star” of music. Music wasn’t like that. Everybody participated in it. If you didn’t have a radio and you wanted to hear a song, you’d have to sing it. That is something that we’ve lost. Now there’s this defined character that you have to become in order to become a musician, but in my opinion everyone is a musician by their nature. Now, I just wish people realized there shouldn’t be rules around it and you can do whatever you want and there is no right way. There’s not the exact drum you need… you might not even need drums, you know? You don’t have to follow the status quo of what other people are putting out to make music. Music is everywhere. It’s all around us. It’s constant.”
I know that you’ve done some field recordings yourself… Are there some on ‘Fear’?
“Yeah, there’s a lot of field recordings on ‘Fear’. I usually collect them when I’m on tour because I feel like it’s sort of an ouroboros – like the serpent that swallowed its own tail – walking around on tour, recording sounds that I will use on the next record. So basically I collected all the sounds I used on ‘Fear’ over a two year period while I was getting ready to record it. It’s crazy, sometimes the sounds make the song. Like on ‘Bloody Mirror’, there’s a field recording I made when I was in Switzerland of like a hundred cows walking through a cow pasture and they all had cow bells on. It just sounded incredible and it was echoing over the valley. I ran the sample over the back of the entire song and it dictated how the song sounded to me. It’s not always just the beginning to the song, sometimes it can be the song or the inspiration for the song.”
So, are you doing the field recordings even before you have written the songs?
“Sometimes and then other times I need a sound. Like there’s a song I’m working on for the next record and I know the sound that needs to happen in it and it’s not an instrument so I have to find it. I can hear the sound in my head and the song won’t be done until the sound is on it. The sound that’s in my head… you can’t make it with an instrument. It’s the sound of fire. How do you make the sound of fire with an instrument? I don’t think you can. I mean, you can make something that might sound like a fire but I think the best way to get it is to actually record it. It needs to be a house on fire, so I have to somehow be in the right place at the right time.”
Wow, yeah I know what you’re taking about. The sound of an inferno?
“Yeah. Fires are loud. Infernos are very loud.”
I know what you mean, because of where I lived in California I’ve witnessed several wildfires. You obviously can smell them but what surprised me was their sound.
“Yeah, you sense it. Your body senses it. The sound is equally important to that sense. Yeah I love that because sound directly correlates to oscillations of the spirit. A beautiful sound can put you in a good mood, an awful sound can make you feel sick. It’s pretty incredible.”
It’s very primal.
“It is very primal. The only earthquake I had been in a long time ago in Seattle was in 2000 I think. I remember that (the sound) was the scariest thing about it. I ran outside of the building I worked in – I had some office job – and you could hear the sound of the earth moving… all the concrete and telephone poles. I remember that being the most terrifying part of it… just hearing the earth moving. It’s a very low frequency. I wish that you could make music that could make you feel like that as well… make you feel the fire of a burning building. You can only get as close as you can. I like that kind of idea of making people get as close to something as they can, that is why with ‘Fear’… I don’t know if you have the LP, but you have to hold it to a mirror because all the lyrics are printed backwards.”
I heard that your father was a folk musician as well?
“Yeah, well he didn’t do any recordings or anything. He played country bluegrass style picking, like a John Fahey… mostly instrumental. He never sang in front of me. He always said he sounded like a dog being put down. He didn’t think of himself as a good singer. My mom tells me I sound just like him. It’s ok, though. The worst thing in music you could ever do is seek your parents’ approval. It’s pointless. You just got to make it. They’ll come around if they do, and if they don’t it doesn’t matter at some point.
“Growing up, I’d like to say (my father’s music) was a bigger influence on me but it wasn’t until much later in life. Maybe just hearing it around the house made me more open to the sounds, so as I got older I appreciated it. (My dad) taught me the first song I ever learned… (he) taught me how to play ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ by the Animals… which pretty much influences me still to this day. Nowadays (my dad and I) play together and it’s fun. He’s a great player. He’s retired now. He plays in his church’s band… like gospel blues kind of stuff. But he lives down in Vegas, so I’ve never seen his band play.
“I’ve always kind of appreciated folk music, you know. I’ve worked in record stores since I was 19 years old on. I listened to Rich and Linda Thompson stuff, that’s not like what kids were listening to. It’s nice to put on a record like that when you get to work. You got a whole day of listening to records, when you work in a record store, so you got to pace yourself. It can’t be Slayer all day. For some people it can be, but there’s just not enough records in the world to just listen to one thing to me. You got to listen to everything.”
My mom and dad were in a folk band in the 70s, so I can sort of relate to your family’s musical past. Ironically they were in a Christian folk band, so what I do now is very different from what they did.
“An inversion of it. I always say, if you want to have good kids, raise them the opposite of whatever you want them to believe. They’ll probably turn out perfect. My parents were very conflicted. My mother- she subscribes to different religions, some of those are pagan traditions, some of those are modern witch traditions. But also she was raised Christian. My dad was an evangelical Christian, so I was getting two completely opposite sides of what people believe in. They were divorced. So I had to spend all my summer vacations and my breaks with my father in the country in Oregon and go to church which is terrible. I mean, you can’t think of a worse thing to do when you’re a kid, then go to the desert and then go to church where people speak in tongues and are crazy. And then go home and have a mother who is like “oh you’re not feeling well? Let me do some Reiki on you or use a power crystal”. I’m surprised I’m as normal as I am.
“The evangelical Christian side was way more dire like “you have to accept Jesus Christ as your savior… you have to let his blood wash over you…” You tell that to a 7 year-old, it’s kind of not really the best- especially a 7 year-old who’s already been indoctrinated into some other traditions- it’s kind of like “no, thank you. I don’t really believe in that.” It never really came from a place of love. It was more of a place of fear where you’re afraid my eternal soul is not going to be able to be in the same place as yours when we die. It’s not a very constructive view of the text, I would say. It’s not a very close examination of the text.
“For a long time, I just hated it. I hated Christianity. But now, I see plenty of beauty in it as well. It’s just been so mangled and molested by so many people over a long period of time that, of course, it’s going to be terrible now. But just because everybody doesn’t get the beauty of something, doesn’t mean you have to not get it yourself.”
I appreciate how in your music, you boldly confront a lot of that.
“With Book of Black Earth, I believed there could be this massive change. I believed in a sort of Satanic future. Now I don’t believe in that. I was young. In trying to find reasons to hate Christianity, Judaism and the Muslim faiths, I actually found that there is some truth to all of it. It kind of back fired, in a way. But I still don’t worship and it’s still not exactly what I believe in. I think the defining moment was when I learned about the Cathars. I was reading about Medieval Dualism and this other type of, basically, Gnostic Christianity. This was interesting, this was not what I was raised in at all. They believed in two gods: a good god and an evil god, because you could see that in the world and you could see that in people. It brought me back to spirituality, in a sense, and even though it wasn’t exactly Christian, it was different… it was the Cathars, it was Gnostic, but I got to tip the hat to Christianity.”
I guess I like to think about the early days of Christianity and more of what the mystic monks were thinking about – not the homogenized version that was fed to the masses – but the intricate, different sects that were arguing all these different concepts.
“There were some sects of Christianity that believed that it should remain an entirely oral tradition, that writing it down would a great shame, I suppose. You got to remember it’s all based on the old testament, which is based in Judaism… this concept of one god, which doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t really believe in that. I can’t believe in that and function. I consider myself spiritual so I got to find something that works.”
I really appreciate that you’re on a journey in which you are exploring these spiritual concepts through your music and are open to your own evolution from Book of Black Earth to King Dude.
“It’s the journey we’re all on in life. What I believe now may not be exactly what I believe when I’m old. I might grow more wise. But at least I can see that now, because I’ve done that already. I’ve seen the errors of my philosophical Satanic point of view. I saw how much destruction and chaos it brought into my life. Ultimately, I don’t necessarily believe anything is right or wrong, in that respect too. It opened up my eyes to how everyone is on their path, so whatever they believe in at that time may be exactly where they need to be.”
‘Fear’ is out now on Not Just Religious Music
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