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An Exchange Of Words With TJ Cowgill of King Dude & Actual Pain

I’m not sure what to say here.

Every article, interview, or album review featuring King Dude contains all the same elements: The words “dark” and “occult” will appear; An inevitable mention of Death In June (usually paired with a “meets Johnny Cash”) will occur; Something about him being in a metal band will undoubtedly be said. Yet here we are and, fuck, all of those elements fell into the following interview, whether I intended it or not.

So, how do I preface this in an non-regurgitated way? I suppose the only route is personal professed admiration.

I’ve become fixated on King Dude’s music. His writing is as sharp as it is obscured. His voice fights along side such oft-named, gravel voiced unsingers who need not be named again and again. Sonically, he is of the rare variety that sends a rising warmth traveling up your spine with every note, leaving the empty space as a palpable weight sinking behind your breastplate.

The man gets better with every release; Love was, in one writer’s humble opinion, an absolute masterpiece— a very real attempt at creating a “perfect” record. So what does that make Burning Daylight?

What is your song writing process like? What element comes first? Last?

Usually I write the guitar part first, and usually that’s done really quickly without much intention. Sometimes there is a vague intention behind the songs for example on Burning Daylight each song had to have a desperate quality to it but that’s really just more about a feeling. It’s better to get my head completely empty before I try and come up with the guitar parts. Once the song has a bit of a skeleton with the guitar then I sit down and commit to some lyrics. Lyrics can take a few minutes or several months depending on how I feel about the song. You know what, now that I think about it  each song is almost a completely different process from one another. I haven’t really figured out the perfect formula for writing songs but I think that’s why it’s still fun.

How does your writing as King Dude differ from your work within Book of Black Earth? (Also, is BoBE finished? Can we expect to hear you on any non-King Dude records anytime soon?)

Well King Dude is all me, no one helps me write the music and I have final say in everything from lyrical content, to song writing. Even down to the artwork, It’s very much my own project. I’d say that’s the major difference, that and Book’s obviously a lot louder. In regards to Book being done for good I don’t really like to say. You never know with these things. The only reason we hung up our hats was our bass player moved to Mississippi and we didn’t want to start again with another member. I suppose if he moved back we might play again but I don’t really see that happening anytime soon.

I still enjoy heavy metal and play in a little known band here in Seattle called Cross. It’s pretty strange sounding, not quite as straightforward as BoBE. I don’t think of it as experimental or anything, but that band has the tendency to be very “non-musical” at times if you know what I mean. We released a demo tape last year and a split 12” with Whitehorse from Australia on Blind Date Records from Germany. In that band I sing and play guitar but the three of us collectively write the songs, with each part being scrutinized over and over again until we all like it. It’s a harrowing process.

I’ve just started another project with Demian Johnston here in Seattle too but that’s a recording project only. It’s called Candle Holder. I think it will end up sounding a bit more on the soundscape/experimental/drone side of things. I sing, play guitar and play some hand drums in that project. Expect a 12” record of it out on Handmade Birds someday.

There is a definite step forward, in terms of sounds used and the way they’re presented on the You Can Break My Heart 7” and Burning Daylight. How, in your mind, has the project progressed in the making of Burning Daylight? How have you, as King Dude, evolved since My Beloved Ghost?

I think the most major step I’ve made is in recording. For Burning Daylight I shelled out $175 for a ribbon mic that I used on the whole record. My Beloved Ghost was recorded straight into the computer with the built in microphone that comes with it. MBG also contains some of the first songs I had ever written in that style and was heavily influenced by Death in June and the Kinks. Since then I’ve expanded my influences with a lot of early Country Blues, Doo-Wop, and Rock and Roll. It’s mostly stuff I’ve already heard of and knew that I liked but I began to really listen to how it was written and recorded and applied a lot of what I learned to the songs on Burning Daylight.

Did you imagine Burning Daylight as a whole, or is it moreso a collection of songs written separately?

Burning Daylight came about as a whole for sure. I had the title last summer already and knew that I wanted to write a record with the running theme of desperation. And at the time I was so deeply inspired by American history around the turn of the century and knew that I wanted to make a record about it or moreover with elements of it. America in that era was a time and place where there was a feeling that anything was possible and that people were measured by the strength of their will - That’s a concept that is a great place to get your head into when writing songs with a lot of different characters that are doing a lot of bad things to survive. Conversely, when those same characters happen to do something out of love or act selflessly in some way it strikes me as far more powerful than anything that happens in a modern setting.

Was the album recorded using digital or analog equipment (or both)? Why?

I recorded with all digital equipment. I used Garageband to track everything and a midi interface to run the mics into the computer. For the electric guitars I used a 74 Fender Twin with a Gretsch G5120 Elecromatic Hollowbody guitar. For the acoustic guitar songs I used my wife’s Takamine which sounds beautiful. The drums were all really cheap pawn shop things I just picked up here and there to fuck around with. I think the most expensive drum I used was this red sunburst 16” floor tom for $100. I would just tune it to wherever I thought sounded best but really have no idea how to play drums. I also would record the drums last after everything else which was mostly a pain in my ass but that’s how the process went down. Most everything was either mic’d with an Apex ribbon mic, the one I bought for $175. I actually really like the way the record sounds.

Did you record it alone, or did you have contributions from other artists?

I always have my wife Emily sing on my records. She’s great. She sang back ups on You Can Break My Heart and the whole vocal part on My Mother Was The Moon. In the past I’ve worked with some other folks too, one in particular is Ben Chisolm from Chelsea Wolfe’s band. He wrote and recorded the intro song on Love which in my opinion was absolutely perfect. He’s really a great musician and totally easy to work with.

Can you tell me about the upcoming split with Chelsea Wolfe? How did that come about? Will you be appearing on eachother’s tracks?

Yeah well, we were introduced to one another through my friend Todd Pendu who at the time was putting out Chelsea’s records. I think he felt like we both were doing something interesting and wanted us to do a split together so he could put out the record. It was a really funny sort of awkward moment when he introduced us. We had literally just met and were about to play an in-store together at Vacation Vinyl when Todd sort of suddenly said, “Hey you guys should do a split together” which is sort of like, rushing it I suppose. I didn’t even know if I wanted to spend five minutes in the same room with Chelsea yet let alone record and release a record with her! I’m sure she felt the same way.

We got along great though and shortly there after Emily and I took a trip to LA to record a couple songs with Chelsea and Ben. We became fast friends actually, I am really thankful that Todd introduced us.

I sang on Cheslea’s song she wrote for her side and she sings on the song I wrote for my side. Ben played bass and some other instruments on both songs and Emily played drums on both our songs. Ben recorded the drum tracks in their practice studio in LA and then we finished guitars and vocals at their house. It was a totally rewarding and fun process.

On the cover of the You Can Break My Heart 7” (as well as on the record itself) is the phrase “NOT JUST RE-LI-GIOUS MUSIC”. What is the significance of this phrase within the King Dude project?

Believe it or not, I saw something similar on an old record from the 30s or something. It’s such an awesome thing to proclaim. I also like the idea of saying what the music isn’t and is at the same time. “Not Just Re-li-gious Music” implies that it is and is not at the same time.

Also, that 7” came with a poster. Where did that black and white image come from?

I can’t remember. I think it was a screen shot of some house fires I was watching on the internet. If you’re ever bored, look up raw footage of house fires on the internet. Boredom cured.

I really enjoy checking out the album art that you compose— to me it’s as much a part of a record as the the sound itself. What tools/mediums do you use to create images? Do you compose imagery for King Dude differently than you would for Actual Pain?

I use Photoshop to do just about everything these days. I rarely do any work by hand anymore at all. When it comes down to creating it, it’s usually a fast process mostly because I am too busy with a million other things. Also I don’t like to spend too much time composing the imagery anyways and besides, it should be fairly natural looking to the eye and direct.

I think that I probably spend more time on Actual Pain artwork because it has the potential to keep my lights on and stomach full. But the process are the same more or less.

Any insight into the image on the cover of Burning Daylight?

Yeah that’s the Denny Regrade that happened here in Seattle in 1910 or so I think. They carved out thousands of tons of earth from Denny hill and moved it down towards the Puget Sound to do two things, level the steep hill and fill in the marshlands to build structures on it. That’s a picture of my neighborhood basically when shit was real intense.

How did Actual Pain start, and how much of the art is composed by you?

I started it out of my bedroom in 2006 and now we have a warehouse and office! It’s still crazy when I think about sometimes. I just knew I was going to get fired from every job I ever had in life unless I thought of something else to do with my life and quick. I was driving a forklift at a warehouse at the time. I wonder what they thought when I quit to start my own clothing company.

I make 99% of the artwork these days. In the past I would occasionally have some friends contribute artwork but it’s just so much easier to do it myself. Basically, I am a control freak and no one makes art the way I want it to look.

It recently came up that Awake Snowboards (I refuse to say “allegedly”) ripped off one of your designs. How do you feel about inspiration v.s. theft, or rather, how do you respond to Picasso saying “Bad artists imitate, great artists steal”? Also, anything you’d like to say to John Sommers [Founder of Awake]?

That guy wrote us back and was really apologetic then he took the shirt off his site. He says he didn’t know about our brand but whatever really, I’m just glad it’s down. I don’t think it’s so hard to have an original thought but most people are lazy and just look at what other people are doing and decide to imitate it or worse outright steal it. I am influenced by all kinds of things all the time, none of which are ever other clothing companies. Basically I don’t pay attention to anyone else’s brand unless I have to.

Buy Burning Daylight. Listen to his entire discography.

— Z. Saint James