More than a year ago, in his rundown on “top substances that have influenced music,” promoter-DJ Marco De La Vega said this: “I...raid my own medicine cabinet, take a couple Vicodin, and listen to a stack of records including [Girls],Tamaryn, King Dude , Chelsea Wolfe, and Zola Jesus.”
Already a fan of the others mentioned in that paragraph, I sought out King Dude (a.k.a T.J. Cowgill) and found that I'd already known his previous work, intimately. I'd seen his black metal band Teen Cthulhu in high school, and for many years had the band's sticker plastered on my black Nissan Maxima, later discovering his band that rose from the ashes of Teen Cthulhu: Book of Black Earth.
It was his turns as founder-creative director of his own clothing label, Actual Pain (Kanye has worn it , OK?), and solo “darkly spiritual acoustic-folk” singer-songwriter that have been the most surprising. Like previous King Dude releases, 2012's Burning Daylight (Dais) is a desolate affair, with subtle plucking and Cowgill's darkly raspy vocals meditating on death, murder, spirituality, and love – or as I wrote in this week's Tofu and Whiskey print music column (Jan. 9 issue), it sounds like “a gravelly demon inside, clawing to get out.”
Yet, behind that gloomy facade, Cowgill was friendly as hell during our phone call, even in the face of adversity. While his beloved dog was going through tests at the vet, he chatted about the occult, personal influences (John Lomax, prison songs, Death in June), his musical relationship with tour-mate Chelsea Wolfe (they arrive at the Great American Music Hall this Fri/11), the differences between his many bands, and deep-seated psychological fears:
San Francisco Bay Guardian Where are you right now?
T.J. Cowgill I'm at the vet with my dog, everything's OK. She's been dog aggressive a little lately, so we're just making sure. Dogs don't have a way to tell you when they're sick. My dog is really nice. She's a big black lab, and she's usually nice but she tried to bite a dog yesterday. She's seven, and hasn't been to the vet in a long time, but I'm about to leave on tour, so I want to make sure she's OK before I go.
SFBG What's her name?
Cowgill Her name's Pagan.
SFBG OK, so that leads into my first real question: where did you find this interest in the occult?
Cowgill It's just how I was raised. My dad and his wife were Born Again Christians – they got saved at this church in a small town in Oregon, and that was probably when I was six or seven. Before that they were basically atheists. My mom though has always been a neo-Pagan Witch, her own breed or religion. She would teach me how to meditate, she had healing crystals. So my mother taught me that stuff sometimes out of the year, and then my dad would be telling me that it's all devil worship. It was back and forth.
I just had to figure out why all these adults in my life were crazy. And I just had a profound interest in the history of religion in general, because of it. Where do these beliefs come from? How are people so fractured when it comes to spirituality?
SFBG Can you tell me about the process for 'Burning Daylight?' What was influencing you at the time you were making it?
Cowgill That record in particular, I was listening to a bunch of early field recordings, by like, John Lomax, a lot of prison songs, and a lot of early American country-blues. But it's across the board; some of it is influenced by country stars like Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. John Lee Hooker, a lot of his guitar playing influenced how I played guitar on that record. In all, I was just going for an early American, turn of the century vibe. An alternate score to maybe There Will Be Blood.
SFBG It does have a little bit of a darker feel to it...
Cowgill Totally, it's really dark. I thought when I recorded like, 'this isn't that dark.' But then I play it and some songs are the darkest, most depressing shit. When I was writing it, it didn't feel like that at all. Then of course you send it off to press, to the labels, and you don't think about it anymore, because you're sick [of hearing it]..I record, mix, and master everything that I release, or I have so far. And so it's like, I don't want to hear those fucking songs for a good amount of time. It was almost three months before I listened to it again, and I was like, 'Jesus Christ, this is the darkest fucking record.' Who wants to sit around and listen to this?
SFBG People are drawn to the darker stuff.
Cowgill Definitely. It represents a side of every single human being. The themes were like, love causing people to murder, the need to accomplish something, preventing your own death by any means necessary. And while working on the record, I was going to this incredibly dark place. My wife noticed, everybody noticed. I would get into arguments with people, or fistfights, I got arrested, you know? I'm like, how bad am I trying to get myself into trouble to understand this, or to get this narrative correct. I'm not normally like that.
SFBG Each song does feel like its own narrative, a vignette with a scene of specific characters, like in 'Barbara Ann,' there's a story of murdering for love, but is it really a love song?
Cowgill I think it's probably the best love song I've ever written. Just simply because it is this character, this young kid. It's from the perspective of this 12-year-old kid singing to another 12-year-old, this girl Barbara Anne. In my mind it takes place in a small town in the '40s and it's this kid who's wildly in love but doesn't really even know what love is.
He's more in love than anybody has been in love before, and is willing to do anything for Barbara Anne, who's not even a bad person but she has had some bad things happen to her in the town. So the kid is like: I'll kill everybody in the town for you, if that's alright with you. That's the most loving thing I think anybody can say for somebody else.
To get into a character, if you're trying to tell a story – and all my songs have a fairly strong narrative – it helps to give some life to the characters that you might not even talk about in the song.
SFBG How different is that from the way you'd write for your other bands like Teen Cthulhu and Book of Black Earth?
Cowgill Completely different. I have to take into consideration the feelings and religious or political stances of the people I'm in a band with. I don't feel, in the past, that I've ever been able to just write whatever I wanted; there was a bit of a filter – and it's not like they were asking me, don't write songs about this or censoring, but I was sort of self-censoring, to not associate them with something they didn't want to affiliate with.
SFBG Is this the first time then that you've really been able to write exactly how you wanted?
Cowgill Exactly. I realized early on the power of that for me, and how much I liked it. I love it. My creativity or output is much higher than it is in other bands. It's a far more difficult process with a band. I'm in another band called CROSS with Travis [Namamura] from Teen Cthulhu and my friend Larry [Perrigo], who was in Wormwood, and that's a collaborative band. It'll take us months to write a single song and with King Dude, I could do a song a day.
Granted, the songs are completely fucking different. My songs are blues and folk-influenced, so the framework's already there. In CROSS, it's inspired a lot by Finnish black metal, so it's a weirder process. Everybody in that band CROSS looks at it as a different band. I look at it as complete Bathory worship as a guitar player, the bass player [Perrigo] listens to Finnish Black Metal, and then [drummer Namamura] listens to hardcore and heavy metal.
SFBG So how did you choose folk and blues as the direction for your personal project?
Cowgill It just kind of came out that way, I think. I have a strange guitar tuning I use, it's just a little different than a normal tuning and it forces everything into a minor key, and it makes the song sound sadder, somber, with a sense of longing. When you strum an acoustic guitar with a C chord, it just sounds kind of folky.
Plus I was listening to like, a lot of British folk at the time when I started it. I listened to bands like Trees and Fairport Convention and even Krautrock too. Death in June obviously, and all the neofolk stuff was greatly influential on me.
Although, I didn't ever really consider myself part of that scene, I just knew a little bit about. I just started discovering it around that time. Actually, I started King Dude before I heard Death in June. My friend Mary – who is a lifelong goth [laughs] – heard the recording I did and said, 'This sounds like Current 93 and Death in June.' And I was like, 'what are those bands?' And just dived in and fell in love with both of those bands and it really influenced what I was writing.
SFBG How did you end up working with Chelsea Wolfe ? This is your first tour together, but you've also recorded together in the past?
Cowgill We recorded a split seven-inch, we wrote two songs together and performed on each other's material. My wife, Emily, played drums on both of the songs. And Ben Chisholm, her boyfriend who plays bass in the band, played on both songs. So it was very collaborative. That was a year and a half or two years ago. We've only done a couple of shows together in our lives. That's so weird, I've known them for so long.
SFBG How did you first meet?
Cowgill There's this guy Todd Pendu, Pendu Sound Recordings. He put out her early stuff. He also was a big King Dude fan. He thought I should met Chelsea and that we should do a split together. It was weird, meeting Chelsea with a pretense. It was that awkward moment when your friend is trying to set you up with someone.
I was like, I don't know if she's an asshole, I don't know if she's on heroin. I don't know anything about her. There's all kinds of things that would make me not want to work with someone. But as luck would have it, we got on like a house on fire. We're similar in a lot of aesthetics and things, and Tom was right.
SFBG For the record, she's not an asshole or a heroin addict...
Cowgill It's really good that's she's not. It's beyond just, 'oh she's cool.' We're friends. Ben wrote the intro for my last record, Love. We share music with each other before it comes out. It's a great friendship. We're really stoked [for the tour].
SFBG What else do you have planned for 2013?
Cowgill I have a record called Fear. It's a lot different than Burning Daylight. The songs are a lot more '60s pop rock, British Invasion type of stuff. But lyrically it's much much darker.
Burning Daylight is about death, an angry emotion, but Fear is about your deepest, darkest fears – the things that keep you awake at night; I'm exploring deep-seated psychological stuff. It's been enlightening. The lyrics are more personal, maybe not such fictional characters. So that's a huge step for me, I've never done that before. Lyrically and musically, I think it's the best stuff I've written.
I'm about to tour for two months, so it'll probably be a fall release. About a record a year is what I aim for.
SFBG And you're still doing the Actual Pain  [clothing line]?
Cowgill That's a full-time operation as well. Luckily, [Emily] helps so much. We're partners in the business as well as in life. And we have a couple of employees now. So it's a little easier for me to leave and tour. For the past couple of years, it's been too hard for me to leave for more than a week. Actual Pain is doing really well and growing a lot, and in that growth I experience a little more freedom.
King Dude 
With Chelsea Wolfe
Fri/11, 9pm, $15
Great American Music Hall
859 O'Farrell, SF